Yvette Rosser - Kripal on the couch in Calcutta - chapter 15

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This chapter examines an essay written by Prof. Somnath Bhattacharyya called ‘Kali’s Child: Psychological And Hermeneutical Problems’, Bhattacharyya is emeritus professor and former head of the Psychology Department at Calcutta University. He has also been a practising psychoanalyst in Calcutta for over 30 years. He is uniquely qualified to present a substantial critical analysis of Jeffrey Kripal’s book, Kali’s Child, on at least four grounds: He is (i) personally familiar with the primary sources cited in the text, (ii) a long time student of Indian religion and philosophy, (iii) a professional psychotherapist, and (iv) fluent in Bengali.

While examining Kali’s Child from this vantage, Bhattacharyya was “struck by the numerous irregular and insinuating translations, factual misrepresentations and speculative innuendo”. After reading Vishnu on Freud’s Desk and Kali’s Child, he was asked to write a rejoinder that was published in the subsequent issue of the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin.

In the 12,000-word article that appeared on Sulekha, Bhattacharyya hones in on succinct examples of what he calls Kripal’s ‘catachrestic’ use of words and phrases selectively chosen to substantiate his overriding obsession with Ramakrishna’s hypothetical homosexuality. His detailed critique closely examines and contests several of Kripal’s translations. “The curious twists of translation, the typos, the ‘honest mistakes’ and unconscious errors that litter the text of Kali’s Child would literally force Freud to sit up in his grave and take notice”.

Bhattacharyya cites two examples that ‘clearly don’t require a gloss’. First, in one of Ramakrishna’s parables, a housewife tries to dissuade her husband from taking to the life of an itinerant begging monk saying: “Why should you wander about? If you don’t have to knock at ten doors for your stomach’s sake, go”, Kripal translates the passage as: “Why sleep in seven beds when you can sleep in one”?

Another example is from a line in ‘A song to the Divine Mother’: “Mother hold me to your bosom, covering me with the aanchal of your love”. Here is Kripal’s translation: “Hold me to your breasts. With affectionate love, hide me under your skirt, O Ma”! Bhattacharyya adds parenthetically: “The Western reader may note that aanchal refers to the end of the Indian sari covering the head, shoulders, and upper trunk”. He points out that Kripal’s hermeneutical style perpetuates, “the very patterns of textual misrepresentation and misinterpretation that he wishes to refute”.

Bhattacharyya interrogates the methodologies and motivations guiding Kripal’s radical reinterpretations of the life of Ramakrishna, providing examples of violations of scholarly discretion that have resulted in simplistic, culturally disconnected definitions and overly interpretive, free-association translations—fiction, if you will, but not history or ethnography. His article brings to the fore two essential components of the debate:

First, he identifies several psychoanalytical pathologies at work within the methods Kripal uses to defend himself. For instance, he notes that Kripal continues to brand Ramakrishna a pedophile even as he denies ever having consciously done so.

Kripal explicitly writes about Ramakrishna’s ‘obvious pedophilia’ and then, when things get hot [he] becomes amnesic. How does one explain that? Clearly deeper and more complex unconscious psychological forces are at work here, and any attempt to identify them in this short paper would be too inadequate to be regarded as meaningful.

Second, he demonstrates how Kripal’s understanding of a mystic such as Ramakrishna is not only a mishmash of psychoanalytic apples and oranges, but how Ramakrishna’s messages and symbols are exponentially more evolved—light years beyond Kripal’s cluttered Freudian slips and lower chakra titillations. The two realms hardly intersect. The directions of the gazes are fundamentally and irrevocably opposed. This renders Kripal’s obsessive and exclusive focus on Ramakrishna from the lower chakras irrelevant. It would be amusing if it hadn’t sadly caused so much sorrow and defamation.

Queer Hermeneutics a.k.a. Queermeneutics?

Like many others, Bhattacharyya asks, “Why this bizarre interpretation?” Certainly, it is naïve to solely blame “the author’s homosexual inclinations or gay agenda”. However, when “one puts Kripal’s obsession for ‘sexual abuse’ themes and deviant sexuality . . . alongside the recent spate of pedophilic scandals involving the clergy in the USA [One worries] what Kripal’s experiences at the Seminary were actually like.” In ‘Secret Talk: Sexual Identity and Politics of Scholarship”, Kripal frankly admits: “that his work proceeded from his personal experiences at a Benedictine Seminary and from his personal desire to heterosexually engage a female divinity”. Bhattacharyya notes that even the Projection Defense Mechanism: “with all its complexities, cannot adequately explain . . . the present controversy”.

It is disingenuous on the part of Kripal to issue public disclaimers on his gay or non-gay status in order to divert attention from the basic problems of his approach. This turns the issue of responsibility on its head by accusing the critics of homophobia—a classic case of aufgestellte
Mausdrek—a mouse-turd standing up on end. Consequently, there is a buildup of ‘sinister negative transferences’ on the ‘clean slate that is Jeffery Kripal’. Bhattacharyya’s trained eye saw signs of the reaction formation defense mechanism wherein the opposite impulse or behavior is taken up to hide true feelings by behaving in an exact opposite way.

Discussing the manner in which Kripal contradicts himself and appears to be in denial, Bhattacharyya writes:

The real key to this issue lies in what psychoanalysts call ‘selfanalysis’—a discipline that one has to rigorously undergo before one can start psychoanalyzing others. This practice was initiated by Freud himself and remains a desideratum for all analysts to this day.

Erik Erickson, in many ways the father of psychohistory, himself warns about the dangers of projections to which the psycho-historian is always prone. He pointed out that any psycho-historian projects on the men and the times he studies some unlived portions and often
the unrealized selves of his own life.’ [Emphasis added]

Bhattacharyya suggests that the way out of this dilemma is through honest self-analysis. Bhattacharyya quotes from Roland’s critique of Kali’s Child:

Kripal [has a] penchant for facile speculative decoding and turning these into adamant conviction. He thus persists in insisting that Ramakrishna 1. ‘was very likely sexually abused by any number of actors who had power over him’, that his trance states were related to such abuse, that the direction of  2. the ‘saint’s desire [was] always directed towards males (deities or male disciples)’, [and] 3. ‘when a text uses sexual language it often, if not always, reflects real physiological and psychological analogues’ and that the materials of his thesis are 4. ‘by their very nature offensive.

Bhattacharyya examines the psychoanalytic considerations of several issues found in Kripal’s analysis, including sexual abuse, feminine identity, homoeroticism and misogyny. Under the subtitle Sexual Abuse, he writes:

Kripal insists that village people must have abused Ramakrishna presumably because he had states of absorption right from his childhood. But Ramakrishna’s own descriptions of his childhood suggest quite the contrary, e.g. ‘During my younger days the men and women of Kamarpukur were equally fond of me. No one distrusted me. Everybody took me in as one of the family.’

Under the subtitle, Feminine Identity? several loopholes in Kripal are pointed out:

It is easy to talk loosely with Masson about Ramakrishna’s transvestite activities, but dressing up in a feminine dress as a part of a legitimate and culturally accepted sadhana for a short period
of time does not amount to transvestism. Ramakrishna after all also dressed like a Shakta and a Vaishnava during his Shakti and Vaishnava sadhana days and like a Muslim during his Islam
sadhanaand these were male attires—only to try and make his identification with these cults complete. Moreover, contrary to Kripal’s thesis, most transvestites are heterosexual. [Emphasis

He further suggests that Kripal’s claims about Ramakrishna’s ‘secondary trans-sexuality’ are also all too facile. He explains:

The American Psychiatric Association (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV) defines trans-sexuality as strong and persistent crossgender identification, and not merely a desire for any perceived cultural advantages of being the other sex. It is a disorder always involving distress to the person, with a feeling of estrangement from the body and a felt need to alter the appearance of the body. If Ramakrishna sometimes talked about his femininity he was also clear about what he meant by it—‘Formerly I too used to see many visions, but now in my ecstatic state I don’t see so many. I am gradually getting over my feminine nature; I feel nowadays more like a man. Therefore I control my emotions; I don’t manifest it outwardly so much’. (For more on this, please read page 156 and 157, chapter 15)

To carry through his thesis of Ramakrishna’s feminine identification, Kripal resorts to erroneous documentation. Thus a whole section is devoted to bhagavatir tanu or goddess body that Ramakrishna is supposed to have possessed. The actual Kathamrita term however is bhaagavati tanu, which simply means divine body, and has no engendered connotation. (The term is actually a Sanskrit term, and grammatical and physiological genders don’t always go together in Sanskrit. E.g., the term daara, meaning wife, is masculine) Bhagavatir and Bhaagavati are two different words, and a person who reads the one for the other only reveals his lack of knowledge for that language. To assign a physical or even psychological sex to this category [Bhaagavati tanu which is identified as causal body by Ramakrishna] then is a reductive strategy, which robs the analyst of the possibility of deeper insight into human nature and its possibilities. Similarly, Ramakrishna’s wearing silken clothes (garader kapar) during puja is taken to mean feminine dress simply because Kripal doesn’t know that male priests in Bengal routinely wear silken clothes.

Bhattacharyya’s footnote is telling of Kripal’s cultural biases:

“And why should [Kripal] not know? Don’t the Roman Catholic clergy use silken apparel during mass”? He refutes Kripal’s conclusions that tenderness between father and son is homoerotic, citing Bengali and Indian cultural nuances. He also shows numerous other records of Ramakrishna’s interactions with his women disciples of all ages and classes. These records were all studiously ignored by Kripal. (For more on this, please read page 157 and 158, chapter 15)

From the perspective of an elder scholar, he [Prof. Bhattacharyya] cautions Kripal that
he “would also do well to remember that the female is not a castrated male.”[Emphasis added]. As a trained professional, he finds Kripal’s amateurish speculations laughable: “Equally comical are [Kripal’s] attempts to weave in anal themes”. He observes: “Unfortunately, [Kripal] claims to be a historian of religion . . . not a novelist. If he got angry responses he surely has invited them”.

Bhattacharyya analyzes the manner in which Kripal selected the passages from the Kathamrita and concluded that Kripal’s critical selectivity “amply illustrates the basic problem in his handling of texts. Virtually any selected portion of his book is not just a matter of a few
dozen, easily correctable translation errors neither is it simply a question of textual relativism based on multivalent use of language.” [Emphasis added]

Some Empirical Issues

Bhattacharyya offers many arguments that refute Kripal’s thesis. The first study area that he investigates is the psychological impact of meditation and mystical experiences:

In Kripal’s own backyard, sociologist Andrew Greely of University of Chicago’s National Opinions Research Council (NORC) tested people who had profoundly mystical experiences, such as being bathed in white light. When these persons were subjected to standard tests measuring psychological well-being, the mystics scored at the top. University of Chicago psychologist Norman Bradburn, who developed the test, said that no other factor had ever been found to correlate so highly with psychological balance, as did mystical experience. (For more on this, please read page 159, chapter 15)

Bhattacharyya adds:

Ramakrishna’s samadhi states were accompanied by very profound inward withdrawal of consciousness, and remarkable physiological changes, consistent with the highest stages of meditative absorption as documented in Hindu Tantra and Yoga as well as Buddhist literature. Thus the famous physician Mahendarlal Sarkar himself examined and found Ramakrishna without heartbeat and corneal reflexes during samadhi. These physiological changes (clinically
taken as signs of death) . . . were not metaphorical changes [and] are not known to occur in a dissociative trance. Medard Boss—an influential Swiss existential psychotherapist had this to say
about the holy men he met on his lecture-visit to India:

[T]here were the exalted figures of the sages and holy men themselves, each one of them a living example of the possibility of human growth and maturity and of the attainment of an imperturbable inner peace, a joyous freedom from guilt, and a purified, selfless goodness and calmness.... No matter how carefully I observe the waking lives of the holy men, no matter how ready they were to tell me about their dreams, I could not detect in the best of them a trace of a selfish action or any kind of a repressed or consciously concealed shadow life. (Boss 187–88)

Bhattacharyya discusses the dharmic perspectives of sex. He writes: “It is worth noting that although we commonly speak of a sex drive, sex does not fit the usual conception of drive, as a felt need that gets stronger and stronger, until it is satisfied”. He explains, referring to Masters and Johnson: “Indeed, sexual abstinence probably decreases sexual motivation over the long run. There is no evidence, despite myths to the contrary, [that] abstinence from sexual activity is detrimental to a person’s health”.

Hyper-Textual Sexualization

Bhattacharyya carefully investigates several instances where Kripal has homo-eroticized the heterosexual, hyper-sexualized the child, and ‘masculated’ the genderless. Through this methodology, she becomes he, and all signs point to penis envy or some equally loaded jargon.
Indeed, the female is not a castrated male.

Kripal often feels that a passage is ‘hyper-sexualized’ and demands a sexual reading. ‘Hypersexualization’ is not a term that is found in the standard corpus of psychoanalytic literature [unlike] ‘sexualization’, which is defined as “endowing an object or function with a sexual significance that it did not previously have . . . in order to ward-off anxieties associated with prohibited impulses”. Bhattacharyya examines several of Kripal’s writings and also looks at the articles written by Kripal’s critics, such as Tyagananda. As a result, he writes lucidly across numerous theoretical subheadings. (For more on this, please read page 161 and 162, chapter 15)

Kripal and Bhattacharyya are culturally miles apart regarding the manner in which each of them viewed Ramakrishna’s use of the terms yoni and lingam. Bhattacharyya observed that Kripal is troubled by the use of yoni and lingam and, perhaps, because of shame or shock, he sexualizes, sensationalizes, eroticizes. In contrast, Bhattacharyya sees worshipping a lingam or yoni as a cosmic symbol. Ramakrishna said they are symbols of fatherhood and motherhood so that one may not be born into the world again. Bhattacharyya advises: “If Kripal is bothered about the moral implications of such worship then he clearly needs to associate with the traditions that place a high moral value on this ritual”. Kripal takes the easy road—first by discovering a new twist on the exotic Other, then asserting absolute authority to theoretically describe that entity. Bhattacharyya is a bit dismayed:

Incidentally, when citing texts and arguments in support of his own claims, Kripal insists that things are ‘crystal clear’, while the other texts are all ambiguous (‘simultaneously concealing and revealing’). Well! This is hermeneutics of convenience for sure!

Catachresis and the Hermeneutics of Convenience

Kripal’s textual mishandling is particularly grave because his primary claim is that he is a historian of religions. Professionally, Bhattacharyya cautioned: “Large scale distortions of source material in an ill attempted effort at establishing a thesis, is certainly not academically acceptable”. He compared this tactic to what is known in scientific research as ‘the sharp-shooter’s fallacy’—analogous to the way a gunslinger might empty his six-shooter into the side of a barn and then draw the bull’s eye around the bullet holes. He warned: “Citing fringe works and material of equally dubious value doesn’t help in salvaging the case”.

Throughout this debate, Kripal has tried to place his critics in the Hindu obscurantist camp, and he is keen on playing identity politics as well. Bhattacharyya reminds him:

[C]ritics of his methodology include noted academics like Huston Smith, Alan Roland and Gerald Larson among others; and they are neither Hindus nor Indians.

Since Kripal states that his ‘hermeneutical’ strategy is inspired by Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work Truth and Method, Bhattacharyya quotes from the noted Indologist Fritz Staal whose lengthy analysis of Gadamer’s internally contradictory methodology, explained that, ultimately:

Either one disagrees with what Gadamer says, in which case one must agree with what he means; or one agrees with what he says by disagreeing with its meaning. One must in all cases agree and
disagree, and Gadamer’s originality lies in this combination. He has adopted from the positivist-empiricist tradition its most monumental error—the caricature of the scientific method—and
failed to heed its most valuable contribution—the critique of meaninglessness. (For more on this and Bhattacharyya’s critique of Kripal’s methodology of advanced historio-critical studies, please read page 163 and 164, chapter 15)

Bhattacharyya points out that Kripal also violates rules of Bengali grammar, by confusing the gender structure of character, and linguistic genders with sexual function. Agreeing with Tyagananda, Bhattacharyya writes:

The vocabulary of Kripal’s desire is also very problematic [because] Kripal wishes to have his readers believe that anxious longing (vyakulata), charismatic attraction (tana), and associative reminder (uddipana) among other terms, and also of course Ramakrishna’s love for his male disciples, all carry sexual meanings, the contextual structure not withstanding. Now, besides the textual problems documented by Tyagananda, some very real psychological issues are also at stake here . . . Freud’s conception of love as ‘aim-inhibited sex’ stands repudiated at present on empirical grounds. Love and sex are not synonymous. There can be love without sex and vice versa . . . Thus, when Kripal summarily characterizes all these different shades of love as erotic he commits what may be termed a ‘category error’. (For more on this and Kripal’s tendency to sexualize the sacred, please read page 165 and 166, chapter 15)

Bhattacharyya sees Kripal’s manuscript as irreparably tainted by predetermined motivations: “His invariable need to distort texts is proof enough against his agenda”.

‘State of the Child’ and the ‘Psychology of Being’

While defending his controversial thesis, Kripal has shown a certain proprietorship—claiming that: “psychoanalytic paradigms are his cultural inheritance”. Sudhir Kakar has said that, “Psychoanalysis occupies an ill-defined zone between the arts and the objective sciences.”

Bhattacharyya further explains, “Kripal claims his work to be in line with the writings of Sudhir Kakkar [whose own work on Ramakrishna] though avowedly Freudian and reductionist in nature, is much more sophisticated. Kakkar is careful to suggest that the feminine identification of mystics is best interpreted as circumvention of drives and instincts, or in other words as an ‘experience of being’.” (For more on this, please read page 166 and 167, chapter 15)

Bhattacharyya explains:

Ramakrishna’s characterization of this ‘state of the child’ remarkably anticipates the findings of the classic studies on ‘peak experiences’ (which included mystic experiences) of ‘self actualizing’ people by Abraham Maslow, nearly four decades ago. Maslow noted selfactualizing
subjects, picked because they were very mature, were at the same time, also childish. [He] called it ‘healthy childishness’, a ‘second naiveté’. He considered a god-like gaiety (humor, fun, foolishness, silliness, play, laughter) to be one of the highest . . . values of the state of Being . . . i.e. ‘being one’s real Self’.

Bhattacharyya notes that it is specifically Ramakrishna’s ‘state of the child’ (matribhava, antanabhava), which is the very psychological state that Kripal studiously avoids or distorts into amorphous or polymorphous sexuality. Bhattacharyya finds this especially ironical because this book bears the title Kali’s Child. He laments:

If only Kripal had not ignored this central theme of Ramakrishna’s personality—‘the state of the child’—he could have made much better sense of Ramakrishna’s samadhi, his uninhibited dealings with his devotees, his love and concern for his disciples and their reciprocation of the same . . .

The practices of Tantras are informed by deep psychological insights into the workings of the human nature. Bhattacharyya notes:

If these basic psychological principles underlying the tantric practices are not ignored it becomes much easier to make sense of Ramakrishna’s own eminently successful tantric practices and experiences, his criticism of some of the tantric sects and their practices, as well as his open-hearted espousal of many tantric techniques . . . without having to pigeon-hole the tantras into the ‘sexy, seedy and strange’, and paint a conflicted, ambivalent Ramakrishna through extended skewed and speculative glosses.

To Bhattacharyya, Kripal’s iconography of Kali bears a striking resemblance to the New Age and feminist appropriations of Hindu goddesses in the USA. This is in stark contrast to Ramakrishna’s own perceptions of Kali. Bhattacharyya sees Kripal as an ingénue, who catches a phrase or two, then based on erroneous knowledge of India and Hinduism creates a static essentialized icon of goddess worship. Bhattacharyya concludes, “This says more about the fertile and wounded imagination of its Western authors than it does about deity veneration
in India.”

Read entire chapter 15 from page 152 to 168

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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