Sarah Caldwell - Reinterpreting Hindu Goddess as a symbol of sex and violence-chapter 4

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Sarah Caldwell, another member of RISA, won the prestigious Robert Stoller Award for her scholarship on the Hindu Goddess. Below is a long excerpt from her research paper, ‘The Bloodthirsty Tongue and the Self-Feeding Breast: Homosexual Fellatio Fantasy in a South Indian Ritual Tradition’, for which she was given an award by her largely Western peers.

This essay demonstrates that in Kerala, symbolism of the fierce goddess [Kali] does not represent abreactions of the primal scene fantasies of a Kleinian ‘phallic mother’ or introjection of the father’s penis; rather, we will show that themes of eroticism and aggression in the mythology are male transsexual fantasies reflecting intense preoedipal fixation on the mother’s body and expressing conflicts over primary feminine identity.

The essential rituals of the Bhagavati cult all point to the aggressive and fatal erotic drinking of the male by the female, the infamous orgy of blood sacrifice of male ‘cocks’ at the Kodungallur Bhagavati temple; the male veliccappatu’s cutting of his head in a symbolic act of self castration . . . [Kali] is herself, first of all, a phallic being, the mother with a penis . . . she is the bloodied image of the castrating and menstruating (thus castrating) female . . . In this type of analysis the phallic abilities of the goddess disguise castration anxieties ultimately directed toward the father as well as homosexual desire for the father’s penis. Following Freud, such analyses stress the father-son polarity of the oedipal conflict as the central trauma seeking expression.

As Alter and O’Flaherty amply demonstrate, milk and breastfeeding are also symbolically transformed in the male imagination into semen and phallus . . . The ascetic male who retains the semen becomes like a pregnant female with breasts and swollen belly; the
semen rises like cream to his head and produces extraordinary psychic powers . . . Not only are the fluids of milk and semen, symbolic equivalents, but the act of ‘milking’ or breastfeeding becomes a symbolic equivalent to the draining of semen from the phallus in intercourse. [Emphasis added]

Caldwell uses the English word ‘cock’ for the rooster, so as to link the ritual with the phallus. Since the Keralites were not mentally imagining this English word with its double meaning for both rooster and penis during their ritual, this translation by Caldwell is a clear example of how her psychological predispositions enter into a supposedly ‘scholarly’ interpretation. She goes so far as to put quotation marks around the word ‘cock’ in order to emphasize the double meaning that she is aware of, but not the Keralites. In other words this is a projection of the scholar.

In the example cited above, the Goddess becomes shorn of all her numerous, traditionally accepted meanings and a new primary meaning is authoritatively adduced by the privileged Western scholar. Thus Kali becomes, without argument, “first of all, a phallic being, the mother
with a penis . . . she is the bloodied image of the castrating and menstruating (thus castrating) female.” [Emphasis added] This genre of essentializing, which precludes all other meanings, is a symptom of Wendy’s Child Syndrome as explained in a later chapter.

Fortunately, criticisms from within the scholarly community of the methods used by scholars such as Caldwell are not entirely lacking. But they do not go far enough in uncovering the problems that lie within these free-floating kinds of analyses. In 1999, Caldwell published another book, Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Mother Kali.79 In her review of the book, Cynthia Humes wrote,

Caldwell documents numerous themes of sexuality, abuse, and vengeance in Keralite religion and culture. She concludes, ‘Mutiyettu actors who are particularly talented at playing the role of Kali might be traumatized individuals whose particular psychological propensities and histories compel them towards this form of performance’ I find this unconvincing. As she herself notes, Caldwell did not conduct a detailed study of or even collect the life histories of the individual Mutiyettu actors playing the role of Kali; so there is no direct evidence of even one individual fitting this typology. The implications she sees, while tantalizing and truly fascinating, are based on extended digging into and assembling a dispersed array of sensationalist and homoerotic mythological themes, combined with rumored sexual activity. The unlikelihood of the thesis is underscored by the fact that the role of Kali is only open to a handful of individuals, who must wait until the age of over fifty to even assume this coveted starring role, and further, they would need to evidence ‘particular talent’.

But how seriously does Caldwell have to take such criticism? Is such criticism serious enough to question the quality of the scholar’s work so as to insist that such work be simply disregarded? Or, in the absence of that, should at least some safeguards be put in place to ensure more rigorous quality control over work like this in the future? Unfortunately, Humes is not willing to go that far. In spite of her acknowledging the lack of evidence in Caldwell’s sweeping claims, Humes is still able to imagine how Keralite society is indeed highly charged with homosexuality, sexual trauma, and abuse, without citing any credible scholarship. In fact, later in her review, Humes agrees with certain aspects of Caldwell’s sexual interpretation of the ritual. She superimposes an entirely different sexual psychosis on the Keralites than does Caldwell, and thus the peer-review becomes merely an argument between different kinds of pathologies of Keralite Hindus.

It certainly gives the impression that criticism by RISA insiders is encouraged to remain within certain boundaries, in order to give this kind of lackluster analysis the appearance of peer reviewed integrity. On the other hand, as we shall see in later chapters, when Indians talk in a similar fashion about White scholars and their culture, they are denounced by the academic establishment as ‘attackers’. The right to criticize is a carefully protected privilege.

Autobiography as Scholarship

Cynthia Humes mentions that Caldwell’s work (like Kripal’s) is largely autobiographical in nature. In the end, they may only amount to creative psychodramas that expose personal pathologies, often hidden deep beneath wounds of past trauma. Humes writes,

I do not doubt the sincerity of Caldwell’s belief that the goddess was somehow ‘running my show’ or that her personal tragedies had ‘meaning and significance beyond my personal lusts, fears, neuroses, and confusions.’ Abundant examples of Caldwell’s lingering resentment are given free reign, deservedly in some ways toward her now ex-husband but less so toward her disapproving academic guide. This guide (despite his assistance in interviews, and arrangements to have one of his students aid her in settling in, and provision of some obviously helpful advice) she grills for his attempt to influence her research program. She further suspects him of avariciousness toward her grant and, ironically, belittles his suspicion of her possible infidelity (a suspicion that turns out to be justified). These become examples of Obeyesekere’s theories of ‘progressive orientation’, underscoring how Caldwell’s personal confession authorizes her broad psychoanalytic theories about a remarkably similar projected rage and resentment in the person of Bhadrakali. In so doing, Caldwell preserves and in important ways, I believe, even enlarges the power differential between author and reader that authorizes her participant-observer projections onto her subjects. [Emphasis added]

No single form of the Goddess represents all of her forms, and any view of the Goddess is incomplete if it is not seen as a part of a wider and more comprehensive portrayal of her. Therefore, the Westernized over-emphasis on her sensational, sexual and violent aspects is reductionism of the worst kind.

Scholars often contend that their works are meant exclusively for fellow residents of the Ivory Tower and therefore have few real-world implications for ‘outsiders’. However, such works filter into school textbooks, popular culture, media and journalism, thus becoming the accepted lenses through which many aspects of Indian culture are viewed.

Many of these scholars have an interesting love-hate relationship with India. They appropriate the practices, symbols, vocabulary and awareness that may make them seem distinct in their own culture. The enhancement of the scholar’s status is often done at the devastating expense of India’s native culture, which nurtured them and gave them dignified lives in their own vulnerable years. This raises ethical and moral questions about whether the scholars provide full disclosure to, and obtain informed consent from, their Indian subjects and collaborators about the potential negative stereotyping of their cultures in America.

Psychoanalyzing Popular Hindu Culture

Scholars build upon each other’s work, and often expand the intended scope of such works. Thus, Caldwell supported Kripal’s work on Sri Ramakrishna, and adds another intriguing dimension. She interprets all complaints from Hindus about Kripal as signs of psychological disorders within the Hindu community, and she strongly recommends psychoanalyzing Hindu society to find out its pathologies. (For more on this, please read page 46 and 47, chapter 4)

The kind of theorizing described on pages 46 and 47 has deeply troubling implications. Academic exercises to psychoanalyze a public culture could serve as a cover for ‘ethnic profiling’ of the Indian-American diaspora, and be used to foster campaigns of hatred against Indians.

One has to note that Caldwell in the theorizing separates out the ‘personal domain as is common in Europe and America,’ and offers Euro-Americans individuality and agency; whereas, on the other hand, she denies Indians, and especially Hindus, that same individual agency. In contrast to her approach towards the ‘good white people’, whom she grants a personal domain, in the case of Indians she suggests psychoanalyzing their culture to expose the ‘distorted masculinity’ of Hindus, and the ‘confused sexuality’ of the Hindu male, as symptoms of abusive social orientations and dangerous nationalism. She culminates with a warning regarding today’s Indian/Hindu male threat—invoking tragedy, trauma and fear of the ‘other’.

By reversing the gaze, one can look at the source of this genre of scholarship as emanating from individuals who are in psychological need of a ‘Hindu Other’. Malhotra surmises that their inner-directed psychological and cultural conditioning drives them to the following allegations:

1. Sexual ‘madness’ in Hindu saints and in the Goddess is common and expected.

2. To hide this pathology from the West, Vivekananda (who was Ramakrishna’s ‘passive homosexual object’) had to repackage Hinduism into a ‘presentable’ masculine image.

3. The alleged sexual deviance and hyper-masculinity applies not only to particular Hindu individuals but also to the social culture of Hinduism in general.

4. Hence, there is urgency to study contemporary Hindu culture in a sexually explicit, psychopathological fashion. This approach is particularly ‘timely and essential’ because it enables US foreign policy the option to intervene against such ‘human rights abuses’ inherent in the ‘other’. This ties in well to the demented religious paranoia calls for fundamentalist Christian thought to drive US International Relations.

Hindus sometimes find the conclusions of psychoanalysis . . . offensive to their own self-perceptions and cultural understandings; given the psychoanalytical attempt to crack the codes of the social and intra-psychic censors and its explicit desire to reveal secrets and uncover hidden truths, it would be very surprising indeed if they reacted in any other way. In short, psychoanalysis is a method that expects to be rejected. Psychoanalysis, then, goes well beyond the anthropologist’s field study and the Sanskritist’s text and the historian of religions’ phenomenological study to answer questions that no interview, text, or phenomenological study is willing to ask, much less answer.

Thus Kripal paints his critics as being emotionally and intellectually incapable of self-reflection, thereby evading the real issues that they have raised. The primary reason Hindu intellectuals question psychoanalysis is not because they fear the codes it may crack, but because the basic building blocks and suppositions of psychoanalysis are incongruent with the foundational concepts of dharma. Aurobindo isn’t the only Indian intellectual who found psychoanalysis to be infantile. In The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism, Sudhir Kakar reflected on the inapplicability of psychoanalysis in interpreting Hindu ethos, writing about ‘the existence of a deep gulf between psychoanalysis and the Indian mystical tradition’. (For more on what Sudhir Kakar states and how this explains Kripal’s statements, please read pages 49 and 50, chapter 4)

(Please read the poignant comic strips on pages 51 and 52, chapter 4)

Read the entire chapter from page 42 to 52

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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