The Meaning of a Saint
By Francis X. Clooney, S.J.
Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited is a thoughtful and forthright book, insightful regarding the nineteenth-century Hindu saint Ramakrishna (1836–1886) and the 125 years of scholarship about him. It came about during the decade-long debate about Jeffrey Kripal’s Kali’s Child (1995, 1998), a controversial study of Ramakrishna at odds with the traditional ways of speaking of the saint, particularly in positing that his complicated and troubling sexuality was key to his mystical identity.
Interpreting Ramakrishna takes up the debate with a candor and force rarely seen in academic exchanges, as Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana challenge the notion that Ramakrishna was homosexual, a possibility the authors reject not on moralistic grounds, but because the evidence offers no certainty in this regard. They also reject the idea that the saint was at the borderline of impropriety in his relationship to the young men gathered around him. Interpreting Ramakrishna also aims to clear the record regarding the Ramakrishna Order’s fidelity and transparency in transmitting the story of Ramakrishna, and, through arguing the details of translation and contextual interpretation, it offers insights into how insiders and outsiders to the tradition have read the sources about Ramakrishna.
Kali’s Child is subjected to a careful yet stern reading in Interpreting Ramakrishna, a book which exemplifies a careful philological and historical analysis grounded in details of interpretation while at the same time opening up important questions. For instance, Tyagananda and Vrajaprana question how sexual a meaning to ascribe to vyakulatva, “anxious desire.” Kripal tends to read the term as connoting “homoerotic desire,” while Tyagananda and Vrajaprana think that this longing—however stressed and tumultuous—need not be layered with such added and, in their view, tendentious meanings. Both positions have some merit: we need to avoid reducing every passion to the sexual, but we need also to avoid neat separations of the spiritual from the sexual. Our deepest desires have sexual dimensions, and the sexual opens into still deeper and bolder forms of yearning for God. I will return later to why a word like vyakulatva turns out to matter.
I admire Interpreting Ramakrishna, since it is deeply invested in Kali’s Child, takes it seriously, and criticizes it by details, not generalities. As such it is thankfully quite different from general criticisms of Western scholars hurled forth by critics who don’t read the books involved. The book sorts out Indian and Western views of Ramakrishna, without glorifying one to the exclusion of the other, and without sensationalizing the privilege of the insider. It defends but does not romanticize the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, which has for over a century tended the memory and meaning of the saint.
In proffering such praise, I do not speak as a neutral observer. I am a friend of the authors. I read parts of the manuscript as they were putting the book together, and I have a comment on the back cover. I called it “a substantial and conscientious work of scholarly and religious reflection,” and a book that “charts a path for fruitful reflection on Ramakrishna for the 21st century.” And it is also true that for two decades and more I have been happy to be a friend of Jeffrey Kripal. I believe that, even now, Kali’s Child itself is an important book, rich in insights into Ramakrishna’s life and times, and it serves as a useful if imperfect and unnecessarily controversial instigation for an important debate.
Those of us who have read both works have learned much from Kali’s Child as well as from Interpreting Ramakrishna‘s fair critique of it. I will not add my opinions to the debate, since I am not in a position to get involved in an expert way—I do not read Bengali, for instance, and am not a historian. But neither do I wish to appear neutral. I trust the authors of Interpreting Ramakrishna on the critical details and find their readings persuasive, both in the small points and the overall picture. I can see how it happened that Kripal came to write the dissertation he did, and the book that came from it. But I largely agree with Tyagananda and Vrajaprana that the book could and should have been more careful, written with a lighter touch, less dramatic, and more measured in its claims about Ramakrishna’s sexuality. No one should read Kali’s Child without also reading Interpreting Ramakrishna.
Yet the reverse turns out to be true as well. When I finished rereading Interpreting Ramakrishna, I realized there is more to be said if we are to know the saint. Perhaps my cover comment should have said that this book “begins to chart a path.” Clarifications and corrections are crucial, but they don’t go quite far enough in setting Ramakrishna studies on a sure footing. We need to know who Ramakrishna is, and why we should care. Depending on where his meaning is grounded, we may reach a deeper understanding of him, or be led astray, burdened with a long line of interpretations that may contribute to the study of religion, or get bogged down in debates about India and the West that in the end fall short of substance. On this basis, I suggest that the work of “interpreting Ramakrishna” has to go deeper, and Interpreting Ramakrishna has not brought us as far as we need to go.
It is not that Tyagananda and Vrajaprana lack conviction regarding Ramakrishna. They are clear in their commitments. Near the end of the book, they offer a short creed that may be taken to guide their work:
Our reading of Ramakrishna is based upon our worldview. We believe that it is not only possible but necessary to transcend the physical and psychological limitation imposed by the body and mind, in order for a human being to become spiritually enlightened. We see Ramakrishna as one who had attained such a state. Such was the purity of his life that many of his followers have found it difficult to determine whether he was a human being who rose up to attain divine perfection or whether he was a divine being who came down to show the way to others. It is precisely at the meeting point of the human and the divine where the avatar resides. (351)
And yet they tell us not to worry too much about the definitions: “Whether Ramakrishna is labeled an avatar or a saint is not, in our opinion, particularly important” (351).
Even if one were to put aside the belief that Ramakrishna is a divine descent (avatara), in whom the divine and human meet, he is undeniably an unusual and unforgettable character. Yet today the unusual chemistry of his identity as saint, ecstatic, and teacher may be obscured by generalizations and layers of theory. Hence the value of going back and reading the original sources. Tyagananda and Vrajaprana agree with Kripal on the need to return to those sources, even if they criticize his readings of specific texts and contexts. But even for the best readers, the sources can also be puzzling, raising aggravating questions about Ramakrishna.
Tyagananda and Vrajaprana are clear about where they think Ramakrishna’s true meaning lies:
What is important are his teachings on personal integrity, the sanctity of all existence, and leading a God-centered life. The seemingly abstract principles of Vedanta, we believe, become tangible through Ramakrishna’s life and teachings. (351)
Ramakrishna embodies the truths of Vedanta theology, in particular the nonduality of reality. He is an exemplar, living a life in which the divine and human, the real and the unreal, the permanent and the impermanent, are intensely one, never separate. In stressing that the teachings of Vedanta become tangible in Ramakrishna’s life, the authors ground his significance in certain ideas, in practice placing the teaching and not the person in the foreground. If knowing Ramakrishna is a matter of knowing through him the wisdom he exemplifies, it makes sense when they add, after pages and pages of careful criticisms, “We do not claim to be any more ‘objective’ than any of those interpreters we have discussed” (351). They candidly admit that they read in accord with their own tradition and with their own biases, and are hardly likely to achieve the perfect reading; interpretations are always partial, and neither scholars nor devotees are ever done with reading.
The intensity of Ramakrishna’s bodily and spiritual experience of the goddess Kali is where his vitality as a person most properly lies.
In retrospect, then, it is unsurprising that early on in Interpreting Ramakrishna the authors had already conceded, “No one would seriously suggest that an outsider Ramakrishna scholar regard Ramakrishna as an avatar or assume that he was divinely inspired” (72). Perhaps this is a tautology: anyone who does think that Ramakrishna is divinely inspired is by definition an insider. But it begins to sound as if outsiders cannot really understand this extraordinary figure as he truly is and should keep to the safer topics accessible to them.
In highlighting the teachings, the authors may be heading in a different direction than Swami Bhajanananda, a contemporary scholar (and member of the Ramakrishna Order) who, as Tyagananda and Vrajaprana approvingly quote, claimed that Ramakrishna himself was his greatest gift to the world:
Ramakrishna’s greatest contribution to the world, Bhajanananda asserts, “is he himself. By the very birth of such a person . . . humanity has enriched itself and has its dignity raised to the highest level. He may be adored as an avatar. . . . But more than that, he is the embodiment of love. . . . For many people life would be unthinkable or insupportable without him.” (71–72)
This is a language of intense love for the individual person, though not necessarily contrary to advaita (nonduality).
Unexpectedly, at this point Kripal seems closer in spirit to Bhajanananda. For Kali’s Child reminds us why we would care about Ramakrishna, this particular embodied being. Errant theorizing aside, Kripal’s work is energized by its zeal for the flesh-and-blood Ramakrishna. Kripal is candid about his outsider status and pleads no special devotion to Ramakrishna; he is not a Hindu and Ramakrishna is not his guru. And yet he puts Ramakrishna, body and soul, rather than his teaching, right at the center of things. This is why Kripal’s book is not entirely superseded by Interpreting Ramakrishna: it returns us to the concreteness of the man. (Perhaps this is what one might expect of an author with a Christian upbringing, disposed by long tradition to look to the person of Jesus. While in Christian tradition there has always been a tension between the message of Jesus and his person, the latter is central for most Christians. Here, too, scholars have had to tread lightly when deciding what that person means, in flesh-and-blood reality, and have tended to skirt the issue of Jesus’ sexuality.)
If Ramakrishna’s personhood and experience are read mainly as illustrative of the teachings connected with him, it is easier to conclude that peering into his inner life is inappropriate and unnecessary. But once the person of Ramakrishna comes back into focus, the interest Kali’s Child takes in the saint’s sexuality makes more sense. Sexual identity reaches right into the core of a flesh-and-blood individual. If today we care about Ramakrishna as a person, his sexuality is almost inevitably a matter of interest, even when the texts are read soberly, speculations weeded out, and innuendos excluded. If we are interested in the person of Ramakrishna—that particular “meeting point” of heaven and earth—then asking about where spirit and flesh meet in his sexual identity is a way in. Thus, it matters that “anxious desire” (vyakulatva)—noted earlier—cuts both ways, since being on edge spiritually is not entirely unlike being sexually on the brink.
Kripal explains: “I would argue, then, that the saint’s experiences were ‘coming from’ the ontological ground of his Tantric world, and that this ‘coming’ was as much a realization of a divine eros as it was a sublimation of sexual energies.”1 This credits the sexual without ruling out the divine element—and without reducing everything to the sexual. I do not think that Tyagananda and Vrajaprana disagree with this general idea, since their major concern is getting right what we can say about that sexuality, ruling out innuendos that are not grounded in the sources. Though we know far more about Ramakrishna than we do about Jesus, for instance, we still do not have a real hold on him. The real question, then, has to do with what further clues we have, in his flesh-and-blood reality, that can disclose more of his identity to us.
Kripal deserves credit also for making sense of Ramakrishna’s sexuality without closing the door on spiritual meanings. Methods are always open to question, but Kripal may be heading in the right direction even when he uses psychoanalytic terms to explore the relationship of the spiritual and the erotic, asking whether it is possible that both the spiritual and the erotic belong to the divine as well as the human.
But, if we are interested in this flesh-and-blood person, as well as his role as the exemplar of Vedanta’s truth, we need to take one more step: Ramakrishna is Kali’s child, and to preserve for him a significance that makes him more than an exemplar of teachings, we need a theological—or thealogical—perspective that puts on center stage his relationship to the goddess Kali.2 It is well known that Ramakrishna was a devout worshiper of Kali; his passionate devotion to her is the defining feature of his identity. Tyagananda and Vrajaprana agree; Interpreting Ramakrishna often refers to Kali, though most often when questioning arguments proposed by Kripal.
More needs to be said about how devotion to Kali gets us to the heart of Ramakrishna as an actual person. Though Kripal’s suggestion that the Ramakrishna Order concealed elements of Ramakrishna’s story is not fully persuasive, neither is he entirely off base: in its public persona, the Order does seem much more comfortable and forthright in talking about Vedanta, presumably as the wisdom to be communicated to the wider world. June McDaniel, in a recent review of Interpreting Ramakrishna, confirms the point, noting that the works of the Vedanta Society tend to move Kali, if not offstage, then at least into the background. The flesh-and-blood person—not (just) the avatara, but the flesh-and-blood child of Kali—matters less.3
The intensity of Ramakrishna’s bodily and spiritual experience of the goddess is where his vitality as a person most properly lies, the core of his personal human experience as well as his wisdom. Consider just one famous passage from early in Swami Saradananda’s Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, when Ramakrishna dives deep into Kali:
We heard from the Master that one day at that time he was singing to the Divine Mother and praying and crying bitterly. He implored piteously: “Mother, I have been praying to You so long! Why don’t You listen to me? . . . Why won’t you show yourself to me?” The Master described what happened then: “I began to think I should never see the Mother. I was dying of despair. . . . Suddenly my eyes fell on the sword that hangs in the Mother’s shrine. I decided to end my life then and there. Like a madman I ran to the sword and seized it. Then I had a marvelous vision of the Mother and fell down unconscious. Afterwards what happened in the external world, or how that day and the next passed, I don’t know. But within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss that I had never before experienced, and I felt the immediate presence of the Divine Mother.”4
Passages like this by no means undercut interest in nondualist Vedanta; Ramakrishna’s union with Kali is after all a kind of nonduality. But if the saint’s identity as Kali’s child is not highlighted, the flesh and blood of his faith drain away. The person of Ramakrishna gets lost in the meaning of Ramakrishna and in the impenetrable thickets of interpretation surrounding the texts about him. The duty of “interpreting Ramakrishna” rightly must ever defer to the fact of “Kali’s child.” (But perhaps this, too, is what one might expect a Western reviewer to say: it is commonplace for Christian theologians to suggest that even Christological considerations eventually cede ground to a more contemplative apprehension of Jesus as the son of God.)
We are not done yet with the story of this ecstatic saint, exemplar of reality’s unity, son of the goddess. Interpreting Ramakrishna leads us still deeper into an unexpectedly vital religious space: Ramakrishna, his soul and body, flesh, blood, spirit; his relation to his mother; a century of attempts by insiders and outsiders to figure out what all this means; Kripal’s difficult questions; and the necessary remedial work of Vrajaprana and Tyagananda. Point and counterpoint in the process of challenging Kali’s Child, and the further questions that reach beyond Interpreting Ramakrishna, are all alive here. As a corrective to Kali’s Child, the book instigates but does not finish with the deeper questions regarding his identity and universal significance. Someone who belongs to the tradition should take the lead in pursuing such questions, but such questions keep forcing all of us, beginning with Jeffrey Kripal, to think more deeply about what Ramakrishna, so very human and so very much Kali’s child, means today.
- Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1998), 326–327.
- Here again we can be grateful to Kripal who, with Rachel Fell McDermott, edited Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West (University of California Press, 2003).
- In her review, June McDaniel contrasts the current philosophical approach of the Ramakrishna Mission to Ramakrishna’s mystical devotion: “Even the head of the Ramakrishna Mission stated that dependence on the goddess was childish and immature, and that Ramakrishna was beyond that. This is indeed marginalizing Kali, and I think that Kripal’s claim about this is correct; the authors of Interpreting Ramakrishna should not be ‘astounded’ at [Kripal’s] claim”; Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, 24, no. 1 (2011): 53–55.
- Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play (Ramakrishna Lila Prasanga), trans. Swami Chetanananda (Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 2003), 212.
Francis X. Clooney, S.J., is Parkman Professor of Divinity and director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His current book project, “His Hiding Place Is Darkness,” centers on a double reading of the theme of divine absence and longing for God in the Hindu Tiruvaymoli and the biblical Song of Songs, read with their medieval interpreters.