As reluctant as I am to offer off an opinion on a debate that has been bantered about by scholars much more learned and experienced than I in comparative religion and scholars familiar with the source texts in Bengali, most notably the Kathamrita by Ramakrishna’s (householder) disciple known simply as M., I find that there are a few notable points, one in particular, that seems to be missing from the heart of the debate that I would like to offer up as a potential source of not only the heart of the debate but as a potential bridge for gap between the two seemingly diametrically opposed, and for now at least vehemently argumentative, sides of the debate.
For those of you not familiar with the book Kali’s Child or the subsequent controversy surrounding the publishing of the book, I would point you to the Wikipedia entry on the subject here which describes among other things how the book, authored by Jeffrey Kripal, a Professor of Comparative Religion at Rice University whose web site can be found here, which won the American Academy of Religion’s History of Religions Prize for the Best First Book of 1995 and then was subject to a broad ranging set of criticisms by “insiders”, i.e. those part of or schooled in the tradition of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and their students and disciples as reflected in the teachings of the Ramakrishna Order and its sister organization the Ramakrishna Mission, as well as “outsiders”, i.e. those who have not been immersed in the teachings of the life and times of Ramakrishna and his disciples by those who carry the torch of the tradition in the Ramakrishna Order, with of course its many supporters who laud the work for its originality, mostly from the Western academic community. [Note that this distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders” is drawn and taken from, and in my view is an accurate delineation of the two sides of the debate, the book by Swami Tyagananda (an esteemed monk of the Ramakrishna Order who presides over the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston and is a Hindu chaplain to MIT and Harvard) and Pravrajika Vrajaprana published in 2010 entitled Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, a work that covers the history of the source texts on Ramakrishna in the last 100 years and change along with a through criticism and attack not only on Kripal’s thesis in Kali’s Child, but also on the quality of his scholarship in general].
Kripal’s argument is basically that it is the repressed homoerotic desires of Ramakrishna, as well as the sexual abuses that he supposedly had as a child and as a young adult (of which his evidence is circumstantial at best), that drove and were the source of what can be best be described from Kripal’s point of view as his catatonic and pathological states of mind, which although he refers to (correctly) as samadhi clearly approaches the validity of these states of mind with what can be best described as a healthy degree of skepticism, hence his thesis . I am paraphrasing here but that’s basically what he sets out to prove, that it is not only Ramakrishna’s (repressed and/or sexually traumatically induced) homoerotic desires/experiences which were the source of his “ecstasy”. The interesting thing about this thesis, based on shaky ground or not, is what remains truly hidden, entirely implied and yet never stated explicitly, is that effectively the reason why Kripal’s thesis is rendered merit at any level, again leaving aside whether or not he provides any sufficient evidence to support this thesis aside, is that he assumes that the only way that these experiences can be explained are through Freud’s model of sexual repression and/or unexpressed or unmanifest sexual desire. What Kripal either fails to realize, or realizes and completely ignores, is that this premise in and of itself denies the reality of the entire religious and theological tradition from which Ramakrishna lived and experienced his life within, namely Hinduism and in its philosophical and theological terms Vedanta, which lives on even today in various forms and flavors – Tantra being one of them.
The other side of the argument however, the one promoted by and backed by insiders – and again this assumption is not made totally clear in the response to Kali’s Child by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana in their work Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, assumes that these higher states of consciousness can and do in fact exist, do not require any sort of trauma or sexual (or other types) of repression in order to be induced, and in fact are more “real” than the day to day experiential and materialistic existence of Western man. Interpreting Ramakrishna describes 19th century Bengal, Hindu sadhana practices (spiritual practices), citing various perspectives of those who encountered Ramakrishna directly (via men and women disciple and 1st hand accounts, the latter of which are completely absent in Kripal’s analysis which is a glaring failure in the work), expounding on the nature of Tantra and its relationship to Vedanta, and in general do their best to try and explain the nature of Ramakrishna’s nearly constant experience of divine bliss through the lens of a 19th century Bengali socio-cultural yogic context, which is the only way to understand who he was, what he represented or in any way shape or form try and understand his behavior.
As a counter example, leaving aside whether or not it would even be possible for a Ramakrishna like figure to exist in modern times in the West (and I would argue it would not be for the very reason that Kripal cites that was one of the factors that led to his being perceived as an “avatar”, or an incarnation of God by 19th century Bengalis, i.e. that it was not just Ramakrishna’s belief in the divinity of what he referred to as “this”, i.e. himself, but also the belief of his followers and disciples which were a product of the very same culture that he was brought up in, with a Western bent for the most part given the Westernization of Bengal that was occurring in the 19th century when Ramakrishna lived, where British culture was being super-imposed onto Hindu and Indian culture in a fairly oppressive and arrogant way as has been the case throughout the last four centuries of Western civilization development – WWII and the Jews, the complete destruction of Native American culture by the Americans (and French and Spanish of course), the destruction of the Aboriginal culture by the Australians, the destruction and subjugation of Native African cultures by the colonizing forces in Africa which still goes son today, and in general a wholesale arrogance in Western culture’s belief that their views are better, more accurate and more complete than anyone else’s viewpoint on the nature of reality or the meaning and purpose of life, much less a culture’s religious beliefs which were for the most part – in all the references just cited – were looked down upon as backwards, ancient and outdated, and fundamentally flawed and archaic.
Unfortunately, Kripal’s work in Kali’s Child fits right squarely into this category of work. By taking Freudian psychology as a more accurate and telling vantage point of Ramakrishna’s life and teachings, he is placing this very same Western paradigm of arrogance and self-importance to Western modes of thought as pre-eminent and more trustworthy than specifically in his case the Eastern philosophical tradition from which Ramakrishna himself emerged, which is entirely based upon Hinduism and Vedanta – of which Tantra is a descendant and complementary system, not a wholesale different and unique system. This latter point is not only critical in understanding Ramakrishna’s sadhana, but also in pointing out that Kripal’s laser like focus on Ramakrishna’s Tantric sadhana over his “Vedic” teachings or practices, represents his ignorance of the theological and religious tradition that he is studying. As a Comparative Religious scholar from a respected Western University this is not only shameful and derogatory, this is quite simply poor scholarship. Here he is trying to interpret Ramakrishna’s life, who is the penultimate expression of Hindu and Vedic faith in the last two hundred and fifty years, and he has drawn a hard and fast line between Vedanta, which literally means the end of the Vedas and which Kripal focuses on the “non-dual” interpretation of Vedanta to which Tota Puri, Ramakrishna’s Vedic and monastic teacher represents harkening back to the non-dualistic Vedantic teachings of the 8th century from which Tota Puri’s heritage is linked from what I understand, and Tantra, whose philosophical underpinnings are as interwoven into the Vedic tradition from which it emerged from as are the non-dual teachings of Vedanta that stem from the same, slightly different and nuanced, interpretations of the same texts – the Vedas, the Gita, the Puranas, and the Brahma Sutras making up their core.
Not only do you ignore Vivekananda’s teachings about Ramakrishna’s life, you also ignore Swami Saradananda’s, who wrote the most thorough and comprehensive autobiography of Ramakrishna that exists down to us, but you also ignored Sarada’s (aka Holy Mother, Ramakrishna’s spouse) who was his wife and his partner in his work. What’s worse, is that not only do you ignore their interpretation of Ramakrishna’s life and work, you attack the verity of their work itself as a “cover up” of Ramakrishna’s story and life, that there was some “secret” that they covered up – which again was essentially a homosexual who had no sexual outlet given the culture he lived in, was fascinated and obsessed with “little boys” and it was this repression that was the source of his “ecstatic” experiences which you effectively explain away as a pathological reaction to his sexual abuses as a child and as an adult, abuses which you provide zero evidence for essentially and there is no evidence for in the historical record at all despite the dozens of first-hand accounts that survive down to us about Ramakrishna, the bulk of which you completely ignore in your analysis and study.
A word on Vedanta, of which Tantra is clearly a close cousin if not a direct descendant, both embroiled in a pot of mythology and metaphysics/philosophy that goes back some three thousand years, arguably the oldest practicing religious system in the world if you want to look at the tradition from which Ramakrishna emerges from a purely theological context. Ramakrishna is an embodiment, a full realization of the mythological and metaphysical system of Vedanta, and Hinduism, with an integral Christian and Islamic symbology to go right along with it, as he is said to have realized the truths of these faiths as well. And he took a wife, who was a significant part of his work which you somehow found a way to leave out despite claiming to offer a full psychological read of his visions and the source of his samadhi, or experience of divine bliss. Sarada, aka Holy Mother, is a big part of the story, particularly if you want to look at him through an “erotic” lens you cannot ignore the deep heterosexual aspects of his behavior, a whole complementary set of symbology that you completely leave out because you only want to look at his male-male relationships.
But the philosophical system under which Tantra rests is based upon Purusha and Prakriti, Siva and Sakti. Kripal looks at Kali’s symbology, and Siva’s too independently, but leaves out the heterosexual and erotic coupling of Siva and Sakti themselves, most notably characterized by the image which Kripal spends so much time dissecting namely Kali atop of Siva which is one of the most impressing and profound images of the male/female aspects of creation out of Hindu symbology, pointing to the symbiotic nature of Siva and Sakti and their divine union from which the universe draws its source – this male/female union from which the universe itself emerges, evolves and subsequently devolves, is one of the essential aspects of Hindu mythology to which Tantra, and Vedanta, ultimately rest. This union is the source of existence and represents the penultimate, dualistic properties or universal essentials, the ultimate Forms of the Platonic tradition which merge into Plotinus’s Intellect as it were, just as the yin and yang do in Taoism. You can’t focus on the dualistic philosophical elements alone, particular only one dimension of them (i.e. Ramakrishna’s homoerotic/male-male relationships) and expect to come away with a complete picture of his personality. His personality is deep and wide ranging and has been studied and contemplated by hundreds if not thousands of people since he lived, and his personality emerged from a deep and long social and cultural heritage of the Hindu/Vedic way of life, with its myth and theology as laid out in the Upanishads, the Gita, the Puranas, etc.
Just because the rituals and symbolism of Tantra is more focused on the chakras, kundalini, and the relationship between the core male and female principles of the universe – namely Purusha and Prakriti – doesn’t mean the core teachings, the core philosophy is not more aligned with Vedic proper than it is not. The method, particularly as espoused by Tota Puri and Bhairavi Brahmani his Vedic and Tantric gurus respectively, was no doubt drastically juxtaposed – one teaching the denial of the physical universe and its constituents as the path to ultimate realization, i.e. what Ramakrishna called neti neti or “not this”, “not this” as opposed to the Tantric teachings which are focused on embracing the reality of the world of opposites, the shameful and shameless, the male and the female, to ultimately experience the reality of the experience of consciousness that exists beyond this world of opposites – but that does not mean that the two teachings do not fundamentally agree with each other and complement each other. In fact, this is what Ramakrishna’s spiritual practices ultimately tells us, that the two paths ultimately lead to the same place. How in the world could you spend ten plus years studying the life of Ramakrishna and miss this? This is the underlying message of Vivekananda really, a Westernization and synthesis of the teachings of Vedanta, Tantra included, for the West as he understood it not only through his own experiences but through his own direct (and extremely intimate of course) understanding of Ramakrishna the person, Ramakrishna the Paramhamsa, Ramakrishna the embodiment of the Vedas (Tantra included) in this age.
One of Kripal’s insights which I think is poignant, and relevant and hard for “insiders” to see sometimes or at least sometimes gloss over, is that Ramakrishna and what he became, the avatar of the modern era, an incarnation of God, great sage, whatever you’d like to refer to him as was a product not only of his personality, but also the culture and society within which he grew up and lived in, namely 19th century Bengal. Ramakrishna was an illiterate temple priest who interacted with some of the most well educated and highest (and lowest) class society of Calcutta, in a time and place where West met East in a radical and somewhat oppressive merging of cultures, the so called “Orientalism” in action where the indigenous Hindu and Indian culture was subsumed by the leading Western and British aristocracy. And with Ramakrishna’s pure and raw language, speaking in the same tongue that Jesus spoke essentially – in song and in analogy and metaphor, using parables and stories that the common folk could understand and remember quite easily – his message clearly resonated with a lot of people, many of whom who traveled long and far to come and spend time with him, to touch his feet as the custom of the Hindus as a sign of respect to holy people.
And yet even with the prevalence of Western modes of thought and scientific reason which was the benchmark of truth even in 19th century Calcutta, his personality had to be understood and had to be reckoned with, and understood and comprehended within the context of the Western cynical mindset. The Hindu, Western trained elite of 19th century Bengali culture could not ignore the strength and purity and power of Ramakrishna’s personality, this much is evident, and is most certainly reflected by his long-lasting and world affecting message that lives on and continues to gain strength in the East and West to this day – through the workings of the institutions which bear his name, the Ramakrishna Order and Ramakrishna Mission who among other things have taken great pains to protect and nurture the direct and subsequent interpretations of his life, works which Kripal directly attacks and denigrates in Kali’s Child. Let’s not forget that Ramakrishna picked Naren (Vivekananda) as his messenger and as the “official” interpreter of Ramakrishna’s life and, along with Sarada his wife and partner, was handpicked to carry on his “work”. The three in fact – Ramakrishna, Sarada and Vivekananda – are worshipped as a triad in the Vedanta centers in the East and West, it is not just Ramakrishna, but his relationship to those two individuals and their expression of his message which are all needed to fully understand who he was and what he truly embodied. This much Kripal would know if he had taken the time to really delve into the very culture that Ramakrishna started and Vivekananda carried forward.
A bit of background about myself here is probably necessary so that folks now where I sit relative to the insider vs outsider lines that have been drawn in the debate – the insiders again being those of the Ramakrishna Order who are arguably the closest, most well informed, and most learned in the tradition of the life and teachings of Ramakrishna and his disciples given that they have devoted their lives not only to the study of such material but also to the embodiment of what they feel is their teachings as reflected in the institutions that were set up by Vivekananda of which they are a part, and the outsiders being those (primarily) in Western academia that are either not exposed to the traditions or practices and teachings of the Ramakrishna Order or choose to take their teachings and interpretations of the life of Ramakrishna with a grain of salt so to speak, namely in this case Professor Kripal the author of Kali’s Child.
I am a simply a curious scholar with a BA in Ancient Studies from a well accredited undergraduate institution with a Masters in Computer Science whose career has been spent helping build technology companies or the technology infrastructure of consulting companies. Although not a monastic or religious person by any stretch of the imagination, I did spend many years studying with some of the monks of the Ramakrishna Order in NYC, and have been a student of Eastern Philosophy, and a practitioner of meditation, for some 20 years now. Eventually even the dullest of students picks up a thing or two after 20 years of study and I’d like to think that there are at least a few people in this world that are duller than I.
My interests in Eastern Philosophy, the development of theology and monotheism, and comparative religion in general is evident in some of the other pieces I have authored that are present on this blog. I also have a deep interest in science, particularly the advancements of the twentieth century with respect to Relativity and Quantum Theory, and their impact on our overall worldview in the West, in particular with respect to the implications of the role of the “observer” in science itself which now is part of the picture like it or not – i.e. the role of mind in our perspective on the nature of reality and worldview in general cannot really be ignored if Quantum Theory is to be accepted, hence a need from my perspective to relook at some of the Eastern philosophical traditions which uphold the mind as the direct conduit to the divine, Vedanta and Buddhism probably being the best examples of this. I have a book coming out in a few weeks which encapsulates and expands upon some of the work in this blog as well which explores these ideas, and others, in detail but for now you can refer to my blog here for more detail on my thoughts and ideas on these subjects.
So a word on how I encountered the materials at the heart of this debate and how I came to conclude that I, as a humble layperson relative to the other scholars and academics who have weighed in already on this long standing controversy (Kali’s Child was published as an extension to Kripal’s PHD thesis in comparative religious studies in 1995, with a follow on second edition in 1998 and Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana the bulk of which is an attack on Kripal’s theses as well his knowledge of the Vedas and Bengali which is the source language of the Kathamrita was published in 2010), might have something to say that is unique and might shed light on what may be the path that bridges the two sides, or at least identify the essential two seemingly unbridgeable sides of the debate, looks like.
I ran across Kripal’s article Visions of the Impossible a few weeks ago and was struck by the insight Professor Kripal had on the views of some of the ancient philosophies/philosophers that I have been studying and their relevance in theological and comparative religious studies in general even today, very much in line with my views on the topic and rare in the sense that not many in today’s academic circles given these ancient schools of philosophy – particularly Plato and Aristotle of course – their due in forming the basis from which our fields of knowledge, theological or scientific or otherwise, have evolved or been framed even to present day. Again, this is the topic of some of my blog posts and of great interest to me so I immediately felt a connection with Kripal’s perspective on theology and philosophy and wanted to learn more about him and his work.
I subsequently looked him up, saw that he had wrote a book on Ramakrishna with whom I have been fascinated with for many years, as well as Ramakrishna’s Tantric practices in particular of which I am also fascinated by – particularly in Tantra’s focus on the recognition of the reality of the world and its field of opposites, in particular the male and female energies that drive creation (Purusha and Prakriti), and the leverage of the recognition of their reality to lead one to realization of the divine, cosmic consciousness, or whatever one would like to call it. Many of the Vedanta traditions, particularly the variant taught by Vivekananda, emphasize some of the more non-dual aspects of Vedanta and although extremely interesting and extraordinarily rich and profound (and to be fair Vivekananda emphasizes Bhakti or Love & Devotion as a path to the divine as well although it does this in a very non-Tantric way so to speak), can sometimes be difficult for an individual aspirant to grasp and/or realize and practice in the materialistic and capitalistic culture of New York of which I have the great pleasure of residing square in the middle of (an element of sarcasm here, this town is for the insane of which I am clearly a part nowadays, sort of like the ship mates of the famed Flying Dutchman in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie where eventually they simply become merged into parts of the ship).
So I read Kali’s Child, and subsequently read Professor Kripal’s response to the critics of his work (can be found here, and then picked up and read the complete rebuttal of Kripal’s thesis by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana (Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited. Both fascinating and compelling works in their own right and both worthwhile reads for anyone looking to understand the life of Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali saint whose life and its meaning are at the center of both works. Although I would certainly recommend Swami Saradananda’s work, the Great Master (in English), as an introduction first before embarking on the adventure of Kripal’s study which in my view at least – siding with many of the academics and scholars who have weighed in on the debate, from inside and outside the Ramakrishna Order – is fundamentally flawed despite what I think are the best of intentions (I’m giving Professor Kripal the benefit of the doubt here, many scholars and academics have not).
So in essence although you could call me a devotee of Ramakrishna, in the sense that I see him as the greatest embodiment of the divine in the last few hundred years of recorded history, unique not only in his purity and the extent of his renunciation but also in the wealth of first hand materials regarding his life and his behavior, but in essence I am Western trained academic who is a householder – i.e. I’ve got kids and their expensive, enshrouded in Ramakrishna’s “maya” – and who is not part of academia per se but a the the same time is very well schooled in Comparative Religion, Eastern Philosophy, and the teachings and lives of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, and the teachings of the Ramakrishna Order which are the lasting gift of Ramakrishna in my view. Certainly I was moved enough to read and write an awful lot about the topic at least, and moved enough to write this post to clarify not only my own position but also try and talk some sense into Professor Kripal, in as respectful a manner as possible. Perhaps it is hubris of me to think that I could have any influence on the debate on this topic but from my standpoint my position is unique – I am not an insider or an outsider really – and perhaps can shed some light here on something that I think has been missed by everyone who has voiced so far on the topic – and that is quite simply do we believe that the state of samadhi (or nirvikalpa samadhi in Ramakrishna’s case), the direct experience of God, or the Satchitananda of the Vedas, is indeed possible.
This is what strikes me as the essence of the divide between the two sides of this debate – one represented by Kripal who would have us believe that Ramakrishna’s divine states were the result of unquenched or repressed homoerotic desires (I’m paraphrasing her but that’s the gist of his argument) and the other side of the debate which basically holds that not only is Kripal’s translation/transliteration of some of the source texts off, Kripal is fundamentally missing the socio-cultural context within which Ramakrishna lived and taught and therefore is coming to not only some very erroneous conclusions, but some very disturbing conclusions for anyone who is a devotee of Ramakrishna – is a belief in whether or not the state of what Vedanta (and Ramakrishna) calls samadhi, what Swami Tyagananda attempts to water down and put in some sort of Western psychoanalytical context by referring to it as a “superconsciousness” state (I believe that is the term he uses) actually exists and is possible to experience or realize as an individual human being.
What samadhi is from a Hindu/Vedanta philosophical standpoint covered in some of my other blog posts so I don’t want to recover that ground here but suffice it to say that it is the direct experience of the ultimate grounding of reality where any level of distinction or division that rests at the heart of our perception of physical reality completely and utterly disappears and one merges into “an ocean of consciousness”. I use samadhi here in the Patanjali sense, which in my view is the Yoga 101 manual that should be used as a reference guide. Not the Yogas as put forth by Vivekananda or even the teachings of Ramakrishna and his disciples because as true and enlightening as I believe them to be, by their very nature and source they are discounted by Kripal and his supporters as one sided and self serving views on Vedanta philosophy – a fact I don’t agree with but lets put them aside for now and just deal with Patanjali’s eight limbs. Again, this is Yoga 101.
Kripal’s argument is basically that it is the repressed homoerotic desires of Ramakrishna, as well as the sexual abuses that he supposedly had as a child and as a young adult (of which his evidence is circumstantial at best), that drove and were the source of what can be best be described from Kripal’s point of view as his catatonic and pathological states of mind. Again I am paraphrasing here but that’s basically what he sets out to prove. The other side of the argument however, assumes that these states of “higher” consciousness can and do exist and do not require any sort of trauma or repression in order to be induced. This is done in an altogether roundabout way by describing 19th century Bengal, describing Hindu sadhana practices (spiritual practices), citing various perspectives of those who encountered Ramakrishna directly , etc – and do this very effectively and thoroughly mind you, leaving no doubt in my mind at least that Kripal’s theses in Kali’s Child are way off base and have close to zero grounding in any sort of factual evidence. His only evidence really is Freudian, and I’ll get to him in a moment.
Like it or not, this is the East West divide essentially right now which arguably characterizes not only this debate in my view, but also our current state of civilization – at least from a spiritual perspective. We fall right squarely into the Western atheist, empiricist and deterministic view of reality of the West (of which academia represents to a large degree) versus the holistic and energy based view – we’re all connected – view of the East. The latter view of which is represented certainly by those representatives who sit on the other (insider) side of the debate, i.e. that Ramakrishna’s states of consciousness were in fact real and had no grounding in “sexual repression” or “sexually abusive” behavior towards Ramakrishna by those close to him. The Ramakrishna Order and Mission arguably rests on this very principle, that we are all connected and the relief of the suffering of man, the love of the divine, the practice of meditation and the study of philosophy and metaphysics (Vedanta) all lead to this realization, to this state of mind – i.e. samadhi or what we would call in the Western theological terms, “salvation”.
Kripal never states this specifically, that he doubts that these states are achievable without some sort of trauma that sits behind them, but this seems altogether very evident to me after reading his text, that it is in fact his disbelief in the reality of these higher states of consciousness (again samadhi as outlined by Patanjali, samadhi being the eighth limb and pinnacle of his system of Yoga) that force him into a different intellectual paradigm in order to explain Ramakrishna’s behavior. Enter our friend Sigmund Freud here. But here’s the problem, and Swami Tyagananda in his Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited covers this at some length, Freud does not recognize anything other than the conscious or the unconscious mind. He doesn’t recognize, nor provide any intellectual framework for describing anything that resembles the states of mind that the East consider extraordinarily relevant and “real”. And yet this is the entire world that Ramakrishna lived in from a child from the “insider’s” view of Interpreting Ramakrishna.
To make a case in point here, and I am very surprised that Kripal doesn’t touch on this at all, is that as I understand it this very denial of existence of anything beyond one’s individual conscious or unconscious mind is one of the core differences in opinion which drove the break between Freud and Jung. Jung, extending Freud’s psychoanalytic model, referred to this phenomenon (which Freud rejected) as the collective unconscious, alluding to this shared symbology across individuals. He even used it specifically in his practice to heal his patients (a process which he called individuation where lo and behold he used symbology, personal mandalas for example, which are prevalent in Tantric practices among other Eastern traditions, as tools to guide this healing process).
But if you deny the existence of this collective unconscious – lets stick with some form of psychoanalytic framework here – of which samadhi is no other than a complete merging into, you must lean on some of other psychoanalytic model to explain Ramakrishna’s states of mind and behavior. And here again Kripal brings in Freud who as far as I can gather was as sexually obsessed as any other intellectual in the last two hundred and fifty years. My preference would not be to return to the womb thank you very much, and as far as I can gather I am not driven by some Oedipal complex to eat my mother and my guess is that the majority of society is not either. However, if you want to look through that lens I am sure you can categorize a whole plethora of people’s behavior, Ramakrishna’s included, and the therapeutic models that Freud created I am sure have been and continue to be very helpful to many many people in the West. That however doesn’t make it the right model to try and understand the behavior of a saint who spent virtually his entire adult life merged in states of consciousness which sat completely outside of an independent of Freud’s consciousness or unconsciousness. Ramakrishna refused to recognize the very existence of his physical form, he called it “this body” constantly. He had no identification with his body and it doesn’t take more than a cursory reading of any of the direct source materials about Ramakrishna to come to this conclusion. And yet you want to base your psychoanalytic conclusions about his “secret” on a psychoanalytical system which is fundamental and intrinsically based upon not only the reality of, but the basic supremacy of, the physical form and the understanding of its primary animal instincts and behaviors as the sole driving force of mankind. This is like trying to understanding Quantum Mechanics by using a ruler, a compass, and protractor. You’ve got the wrong tools. Good luck.
My guess is – and this is a guess mind you and I could be wrong – is that Professor Kripal has never practiced meditation (again Patanjali here, Yoga 101), nor has any of his wealth of academic training and studying provided him with any sort of intellectual ground to frame the existence of a man who lives constantly in a state of what David Bohm would call, “undivided wholeness” and what Swami Saradananda described as bhavamukha. I could be wrong here but that’s my guess, and without the ability to directly correspond with him (his email address is nowhere available and considering that he has gotten some death threats after publishing Kali’s Child I can understand that) I would have no way to tell.
I have nothing to add to Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s rebuttal of Kripal’s work, they like many other academics and scholars have done a very thorough job of explaining not only the flaws in Kripal’s argument, but also the flaws in his basic scholarship and understanding of Bengali and Vedanta which as it turns out can be pointed to as the ultimate source of his confusion and incorrect theses and interpretation of Ramakrishna – and this is not a black or white issue here, his these are quite simply wrong, on many levels and how it was published as PHD thesis without the proper level of scrutiny by Hindu/Vedanta scholars is beyond my level of comprehension and speaks to the failure of the academic institutions through which the work originated and came to fruition ultimately as the book Kali’s Child, but the crux of the matter remains in my point of view, and this I believe is why the debate has sparked so much controversy on both sides, is whether or not these states of mind that Ramakrishna supposedly achieved, realized, lived in, experienced or whatever other word you want to choose, actually exist, and are real independent of any sort of psychological defect or pathology as Freud would have us believe (which again Jung staunchly disagreed with him on).
Ramakrishna, as well as his disciples and his disciples’ disciples, as well as thousands of sages throughout the years across a myriad of religious traditions would have us believe that this state, this undivided state of merging in cosmic consciousness (a term unfortunately that Deepak Chopra has coined and made cliché at this point or even a mockery by some atheists – see Jerry Coyne’s work, the evolutionary biologist who is a starch atheist and critic of the term) is actually our more natural state, our true state of being. And that this individual embodiment, this thing we call “I” is an illusion. The West however, and I know this is a broad generalization but Kripal seems to fit squarely in this category, would have us believe that these states of mind can only be explained phenomena though standard psychotherapeutic models, models which (at least the Freudian one that he chose) doesn’t even believe that anything outside the individual mind and its own psychosis has any existence at all.
It’s this core belief, and it is a question of faith after all – no one is going to prove samadhi exists no matter how many yogis or sages experience it over the years – that separates the two sides of this debate as far as I can gather. And as far as I can gather, this very core tenet and thesis of each side, and the broad implications of which side you sit on, has not been brought up by anyone that I have seen voice their opinion on the debate.
If you don’t believe in Jung’s collective unconscious, and you don’t believe that as Ramakrishna taught his disciples that “God can be seen with these very eyes”, or Jesus for that matter that “the kingdom of God is within you”, that is your prerogative. But if you want to study the life of a man whose entire existence lay in this boundary beyond the conscious or the unconscious mind, then you need a paradigm to explain Ramakrishna’s behavior where he could believe such things, teach such things, and make extraordinary, outrageous efforts to achieve such states of realization, enter Freud’s model for Kripal which is again wholly inadequate for trying to interpret or understands Ramakrishna – metaphysically, intellectually and culturally. If you do believe these higher states of consciousness exists and that we can tap into them ourselves, which was the core teaching of not only Ramakrishna by the way but also his disciple Vivekananda, Jesus and Buddha as well, then Freud’s model of the psyche becomes wholly inadequate as an explanatory tool. It doesn’t even have a word to explain the whole paradigm within which these experiences happen or occur, if they can be said to happen or occur at all. At least Jung gave it a word – the collective unconscious – providing a metaphysical framework from within which these experiences could be viewed.
Its like quite frankly trying to build a model of the universe where the Earth is the center – it kind of makes sense but it doesn’t really map to reality, where the earth revolves around the sun and the sun exists in a great galaxy of stars. Freud would have us believe that the world revolves around us, our small minds and egos, our individual selves and our cravings and desires, and this is the explanation of all of our behavior and it is through this lens that Kripal views Ramakrishna and it is through this lens in fact that he views Tantra, or at least Ramakrishna’s practice of Tantra, and it is for this reason that not only are his conclusions are wrong, but the tools that he has chosen from within which to view Ramakrishna are not even valid. And yes, I am stating unequivocally that the belief that every mind on the planet is governed by Freudian like psychology and behavior is also false and I am sure many many people would disagree with me on this but irrespective of whether or not you believe in Freudian psychology no one has put forth an argument that would indicate that this is a lens that is appropriate at any level for viewing the behavior of Ramakrishna, or any Indian/Eastern sage or saint for that matter. What conclusions would you come to if you tried to view the Dalai Lama though a Freudian lens? What pathology would you point to for explaining his behavior of dedicating his life to reliving the sufferings of all mankind and promoting harmony throughout the world? Or Buddha for that matter?
But the other side here, a divide which can only be crossed by personal experience yourself. And if you want a scientific approach for this again, I suggest Yoga 101, our old friend Patanjali. It’s been around a while and lots of people have tried it and the effects are pretty well documented at this point, physiological, mental and otherwise. And from this practice you can decide for yourself whether or not to believe that there is a level of interconnectedness of the all beings, sentient and non-sentient, which can be experienced directly, which most devotees of Ramakrishna not only believe he experienced but that he actually lived in constantly.
To quote a relevant passage from virtually the end of Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, a very apt quotation which defines at least some basic criteria required in order to come to at least some sort of understanding of who Ramakrishna was and what he represents outside of being a complete madman which to any untrained eye he would most certainly appear as such (emphasis is authors):
First and most importantly, a respectful acceptance of the possibility, crucial to understanding Hindu religious figures, that the reality behind the universe and the reality behind an individual – known respectively as Brahman and Atman – may be interrelated, even identical, and are essentially divine in nature. Secondly, Ramakrishna studies should include the possibility that the external reality as we experience it may not be the only, or even the most important, reality. Thirdly, this expanded paradigm would consider the limitations of human reason and the possibility of a different kind of knowledge that transcends (but does not contradict) reason. Fourthly, the expanded paradigm would include the possibility that human beings could fully realize and manifest their innate divinity by overcoming the identification with the body and mind to which gender and sexuality are tied.
So for Professor Kripal specifically then, I would ask a simple question as a Comparative Religious scholar and Professor of some repute, would you not require your advanced students to be properly schooled in the philosophy and teachings of the religious traditions which they are studying? Would you have them write PHD thesis on Islam or Christianity by simply reading the Qur’an or the Bible? Or would you ask them to go in the field, worship as the objects of their studies worship to greater understand their faith – not just the words that sit on a page, and from there try to come up with an original thesis about their religion and how it sits relative to other world religions which have and continue to have a profound effect on the people in today’s world and the people in the history of mankind. Essentially as a Professor I would think you would prod your students to do their homework first, just as you prod your critics to do many of whom you state haven’t read your book and just as I have been prodded by some of my Professors and teachers over the years.
Well I read it, every last word, and where I land for whatever my humble opinion is worth If you want to judge or interpret the life of a yogi, practice yoga for a good while or at least sit at the feet of someone who has for a good while. Just as if I wanted to judge the mind or thought process of a world renowned professional tennis player, architect, or artisan of any kind, or to have really anything at all intelligent to say on the matter, one needs to have spent an awful lot of time studying, practicing and literally “getting into the mind of” the object of study first before making any assumptions on what they might have thought, or how they might have thought, or what could have propelled them to greatness. And if that individual were no longer with us, one would think that in order to understand them and best as possible one would read ALL of the first-hand accounts about that person, and then try and get a better understanding of who they were or what drove their creative spirit which so profoundly left its mark on the world. For Ramakrishna if nothing else was a yogi, and to try and look him, or Tantra even, through the lens of psychoanalysis which is a field entirely designed to treat medically ill people (and I have plenty of experience with psychoanalysis both directly and indirectly here so please for all you detractors do not hinge on the “power” of Freudian psychology), you are not only barking up the wrong tree, you’re invariably going to come to all sorts of erroneous conclusions.
Given Kripal’s work in the paranormal now, as evidenced from the initial article I read, my guess is eventually you will come to some of these conclusions yourself if you have not already. But until then, until you can sit quietly for an hour on a regular basis and focus your attention on something, anything at all – a mandala, a mantra, a picture, anything – and do it for a few years, I would advise you to keep your opinions about the life of a sage who spent six months in direct contemplation of the divine completely uninterrupted, or those who have dedicated their lives to the practice of meditation and serving others as the monks of the Ramakrishna Order have, whose teachings and scholarship you have directly attached and called into question, to yourself.
Furthermore, I would ask you if one of your students published Kali’s Child and whose scholarship was subsequently taken apart as forcefully, completely and thoroughly as yours has done by later scholars (speaking specifically about Swami Tyagananda’s and Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s work criticizing the thesis and underlying scholarship of Kali’s Child) I would ask you what you would advise your student to do? Continue to defend a thesis which is altogether entirely indefensible (which if you haven’t come to this conclusion yourself by now I truly feel sorry for your students of Comparative Religion) or perhaps get a third edition of the book to press, correct the myriad of linguistic and philosophical inconsistencies and misunderstandings that plague the work itself, as well as issue a letter of apology to the Ramakrishna Order for calling into question their scholarship from top to bottom, while at the same time hiding behind some sort of perverse (excuse the pun) reverse racism or accusations of homophobia rather than simply defending your argument.
We all make mistakes, one’s character is defined by how we manage through them and what corrections and modifications we make to not only ourselves, but also the work which we produce as well as the people that we hurt along the way. None of us are exceptions to this basic human philosophy – be we a Ramakrishna “insider”, a Western academic “outsider”, an Easterner holistic philosopher or practice of yoga, or a Western rational deterministic empirical realist.
 Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana, 2010. Pg 397.