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Targeting Sri Ramakrishna
This chapter and the ones that immediately follow, quote directly and explicitly from the writings of the scholars under review, and give equally direct rejoinders. Many readers who are not used to academic writings about Indian culture and religion find such language shocking. They have suggested that we should avoid being so explicit, and that such an analysis might even be in bad taste. However, we offer the following reasons for this open style:
1. Our children have to face such educational materials, so we should be courageous to deal with it, in order to ensure more authentic portrayals.
2. Without explicitly citing exact quotes and examples, such scholarship seems unbelievable to many lay persons. When a milder and indirect approach has been applied to critiquing such work, many readers have regarded it as our opinions not based on fact. They have rightfully demanded hard evidence, which is why we have adopted the direct approach.
3. Just about every facet of Hindu sacredness is under direct and systematic attacks by these scholars. Hindu deities (including Ganesha, Devi, Shiva, etc.), Hindu pre-eminent gurus and Hindu society itself are depicted as pathological and dangerous. Therefore, it is essential to be equally direct in documenting this bias.
4. The freedom to analyze and understand the ‘other’ psychologically must go both ways. Just as the academic scholars have their intellectual freedom to depict our sacredness through their lenses, their critics have similar rights.
Under the guidance of Wendy Doniger at the University of Chicago, Jeffrey Kripal did his PhD dissertation on the eighteenth-century Hindu mystic, Sri Ramakrishna. During his research, Kripal visited the Ramakrishna Mission in West Bengal. Several people at the Ramakrishna Mission recall enthusiastically helping him during his research. One of the sisters of the Mission said, “He seemed to be such a nice and endearing young man that anybody would trust his intentions.”
Consequently, many at the Mission helped him with his work. However, contrary to what most people would consider to be academic ethics and common decency, Kripal did not afford anyone in the Mission an opportunity to make sure that there were no factual or linguistic inaccuracies in the dissertation he was preparing. Later, Kripal himself acknowledged that the well-known American scholar of Religious Studies, Gerald Larson, had admonished him for not vetting the manuscript with the Ramakrishna Mission before publishing it.
The scholars at the Ramakrishna Mission learned about Kripal’s rather sensational conclusions only years later, after Kripal’s book had come out and had won great acclaim. The book, Kali’s Child, was based on his PhD dissertation. It won the First Book Award from the American Academy of Religion, an organization in which Doniger and her colleagues hold powerful positions. Kripal soon landed a job at Harvard, which was followed by a prestigious academic chair at Rice University at a very early stage in his career. The popular and prestigious reference source, Encyclopedia Britannica, listed Kripal’s book as its top choice for learning about Ramakrishna—indicating the immense impact such factually questionable portrayals can have. This goes to show that even a shoddily researched and hastily peer-reviewed work, if accepted and promoted by the academic establishment, can swiftly become authoritative. This is dangerous, especially when the readership consists largely of persons who are ignorant about the tradition, and, worse still, when the readers have Biblical or race-based stereotypes passed on through mythic images of folkloric ‘others.’
Kripal’s work hinges on his translations of old Bengali texts along with the application of Freudian psychology. It has been shown that much of his thesis was based on mistranslations of Bengali writings about the life of Ramakrishna and sweepingly ignorant misinterpretations of Bengali culture. This was independently established by several Bengali language experts. It was reported that the sole Bengali language expert on Kripal’s thesis committee was absent when the dissertation was accepted. Significantly, none of the scholars on the AAR committee who glorified this book by awarding it the prestigious First Book Award, were fluent speakers of Bengali. Yet, accuracy of translation was considered to be a defining aspect of this particular ‘prize-worthy’ product. The exotic ‘other’ was up for grabs and not entitled to the same agency or voice that the scholars would have afforded to a similarly important Western icon.
Different Standards for Different Religions
It is difficult to imagine that such a PhD dissertation, if it were based on sources in Aramaic or Hebrew, would emerge full-blown in the field of Biblical Studies or early Christianity without an independent and thorough cross-checking of sources. The standards that prevail in writing about Judeo-Christian culture are more rigorous and demand a greater burden of proof before a scholar can overthrow long-established views with his/her convoluted interpretations. The issue is thus not with any particular conclusion which a scholar might reach, but about the processes employed, and the lack of rigorous quality control.
Neither Kripal nor Doniger are trained as psychologists. Numerous experts in psychology have raised serious issues about Kripal’s understanding and application of psychological theory. Would an equivalent dissertation in Biblical Studies, based on amateur Freudian psychoanalysis, be supported and valorized to a similar extent in the mainstream academy, if, for instance, its core thesis was to prove incest in the Bible or a lesbian Mary? The RISA Lila-1 article deliberately provoked controversy by asking, “Is this fashionable hermeneutics of eroticization of Indian spirituality simply another form of Eurocentrism being projected upon the ‘other’?”
It is especially troubling that forthright challenges from within academia are discouraged for political reasons. Another disingenuous tactic used to discourage criticism is to pose the scholar as the victim of violent and obscurantist forces.
Eventually one of Ramakrishna Mission’s scholarly monks, Swami Tyagananda, began addressing the matter seriously when Kripal’s thesis began to tarnish Ramakrishna’s reputation in mainstream society, including American universities. This inspired Swami Tyagananda to write a 130-page rebuttal to Kali’s Child that moves point-by-point through a list of many serious errors in Kripal’s work. Kripal turned down suggestions to include a summary of Tyagananda’s rebuttal at the end of the new edition of his book, in spite of the fact that such a move would have restored some semblance of objectivity to it.
The Making of a Best-Seller
The section below gives just a brief summary of some of Kripal’s glaring errors of scholarship, followed by an explanation of why this sort of scholarship is dangerous on many different levels, especially since it gets legitimized and popularized by the politics in the academy.
1. Lack of required language skills: (For more on this please read page 30 and 31, chapter 3)
2. Misinterpreting Tantra: (For more on this please read page 31, chapter 3)
3. Superimposing psychological pathologies upon Ramakrishna, without basis: (For more on this please read page 31 and 32, chapter 3)
4. Mistranslating lap as genitals, and later calling it a ‘defiled sexual space’: (For more on this please read page 32 and 33, chapter 3)
5. Mistranslating ‘touching softly’ as sodomy: (For more on this please read page 33, chapter 3)
6. Mistranslating tribhanga as cocked hips: (For more on this, please read page 33, chapter 3)
7. Mistranslating vyakulata to give it a sexual spin: (For more on this, please read page 33 and 34, chapter 3)
8. Mistranslating uddipana to give it erotic meaning: (For more on this, please read page 34, chapter 3)
9. Kripal lets his imagination runs wild: (For more on this, please read page 34, chapter 3)
10. Special effects thrown in: (For more on this, please read page 34 and 35, chapter 3)
11. Suppressing the facts: (For more on this, please read page 35, chapter 3)
12. The Kangaroo Court Trial of Sri Ramakrishna: (For more on this, please read page 35 and 36, chapter 3)
13. Evasive dismissal of criticism by psychoanalyzing the critics: (For more on this please refer page 36 and 37, chapter 3)
Psychological Profile of the Scholar
RISA Lila-1 employs an innovative device that reverses the gaze upon the scholars. It applies the same psychological techniques on scholars that they use to analyze ‘others’. For instance, it utilizes ‘psychoanalysis’ in the reverse direction, as an American minority gazing at the dominant white culture, and in Kripal’s case gazing at the fascinating process by which non-whites assume whiteness to gain upward mobility [and] social capital. This exercise may make some of the objects of this reverse psychoanalysis angry even though my case is well backed by the evidence cited, whereas Kripal used a postmodern approach that eschews responsibility.
One may use the data provided by the scholars themselves to accomplish this. At the 2000 AAR conference, Kripal mentioned that his father was a dark-complexioned man whose family was of Roma (‘Gypsy’) extraction and had lived in Central Europe for many generations. (Roma are the target of racial bias in much of Europe to this day.) His father had married a woman of Germanic descent.
Malhotra wonders whether a thorough psychoanalysis of Kripal’s Oedipal struggle to distance himself from his father, and to be White, might illuminate Kripal’s compulsion to prove his alienation from Indic traditions.
Prof. Sil also interprets Kripal’s psychosexual psychology:
We learn that prior to joining graduate school at Chicago, Jeffrey was training to be a monk or a minister at a Catholic seminary, where he was ‘forced to explore the interfaces between sexuality and spirituality’ and he felt ‘more than tortured by [his] own psychosexual pathologies.’ By ‘psychosexual pathology’ Kripal means, as he put parenthetically, anorexia nervosa. This means, as is well known, a pathological condition in which the patient cannot retain any food (or feces, if we choose to go by a Kripal like psychoanalytic symbolism which he applied to Ramakrishna) in the body. He also writes that he felt his readings in Christian bridal mysticism somewhat unholy because of its apparent homoeroticism. However, upon further cogitations (or perhaps, meditations) on the subject Kripal ‘came to a rather surprising conclusion in regard to [his] own mystico-erotic tradition: heterosexuality is heretical.’ He then tells readers that his ‘religious life was quite literally killing [him]’—his ‘body weight had sunk well below the normal’. It was at this juncture that the future biographer of Ramakrishna turned his attention to stuff Hindu and chanced upon the Bengali priest of Dakshineswar.
RISA Lila-1 identified areas of Kripal’s personal psychology that may be relevant in interpreting his work, including:
(i) his self-acknowledged homophobia generated by his apprehension of homoeroticism, resulting in his fear or confusion over his own trans-gendered repulsions and tendencies, and
(ii) his complex about being half Roma, and perhaps a subconscious push to prove his separation from the Indian part of his roots, in order to claim a full-fledged white American pedigree.
This raises a very important issue about objectivity and reflexivity in the representation of Hindu themes in the academy.
RISA Lila-1 raises the issue of how many in this scholarly cult allow their personal psychoses to color their scholarship: “It is quite common for Western scholars to play out their private lives through their scholarship about ‘others’, in ways that create both positive and negative results and, when misused, can be self-serving, insensitive and quite low-brow”. Indeed, an examination of additional examples provided by the article does strongly suggest that for many RISA academics, objectivity and scholarly rigor are easily sacrificed
Conclusions Concerning Kripal’s Craft
Besides the numerous serious errors in translation that the academy failed to investigate, three methodological problems have become evident with the award-winning book, Kali’s Child:
1. Scholars in psychology departments do not rely upon Freudian methods to dish out serious allegations against a person. Such applications, by religion scholars who are untrained in psychology,
to targets that are far removed from their familiar American culture, run the risk of the blind leading the blind.
2. Freud himself seems to have questioned the propriety of applying his methods to third parties via native informants or posthumously. The analyst was required to directly engage the subject of inquiry.
3. Freud never had access to non-Western patients, so he never established the validity of his theories in other cultures. This is a point emphasized by Alan Roland, who has researched and published extensively to show that Freudian approaches are not applicable to study Asian cultures.
To illustrate that Kripal’s work is not an isolated case, but rather the dominant variety of scholarship, one may examine Doniger’s psychopathological interpretation of the Mahabharata.
For instance, she wrote:
A sage named Mandavya is wrongly supposed to have participated in a robbery and is impaled on a stake. We may see masked homosexual symbolism in the impalement (a homosexual violation) and the cutting off of the long stake (a castration), though we should also notice what the Indian tradition makes of this episode: In a kind of reverse castration, Mandavya feels that he has gained something, has been given a stake that, however shortened, he still seems to regard as an extension of himself, a useful superpenis, as it were. The childhood guilt that inspired the episode of anal intercourse gives way to the fantasy of the large penis of the grown man.
As both Edward Said and Ronald Inden have elaborated, the West’s ‘other’ and ‘self’ are co-constructed intellectually; the construction of one being used to construct the other. Ironically, perhaps, this is why it pains RISA-related academicians to have their pet theories about India refuted—because their self-images rest on neo-Orientalist constructions belying their bellicose claims of having already deconstructed all those nineteenth-century Orientalists.
This awareness of scholars’ self projection on to the ‘other’ has solid academic precedence.
Anthropologists have long been aware that scholars’ private lives get unintentionally superimposed on to their work. As an introductory Anthropology textbook explains, In the 1930s some American anthropologists even went so far as to undergo psychoanalysis before fieldwork in an attempt to ‘calibrate’ the instrument of data collection, a practice quickly abandoned.
Doniger’s followers bring too much of their personal baggage with them. Their private psychological predilections are let loose by their privilege to imagine Hindu religious texts and traditions as they please. The resulting interpretations are often less a product of the text than a window into the exoticized mind of the writer/researcher.
Scholars are drawn to the field of anthropology, as with other related disciplines such as South Asian Studies and Indology, often by powerful philosophical movements that color their worldviews and interpretations. Ultimately, as many critics have pointed out, Kali’s Child offers more insights into the psychoanalytical elements of Wendy’s Children than any legitimate insights into the life and work of Ramakrishna.
The self-criticism of contemporary anthropologists about their discipline provides a model of humility, as noted by Monaghan and Just:
[S]ome anthropologists have argued that ‘objectivity’ is a false issue. Our bias—that is, our social and historical situation—is what gives us a point of view, and hence constitutes a resource we should openly draw upon in our interpretations. Others contend that any form of representation is an exercise in power and control […] All the same, isn’t it an act of extraordinary hubris for someone to propose to present a definitive account of another people, even when it is based on long-term ‘participant observation’? And isn’t it problematic that the vast majority of ethnographers are Westerners when the vast majority of their subjects have been non-Western? [Emphasis added]
Scholars of Religious Studies are trained to use a system of tools and methods known as hermeneutics. These are methods that enable new interpretations from a body of knowledge or a text, with the intention of expanding insights about the materials beyond what the practitioners of the given faith have traditionally maintained. But how does one prevent hermeneutics from becoming an arbitrary and ad hoc methodology driven and shaped by a scholar’s own psychosis?
Read the entire chapter from page 27 to 41
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