"Devoted to the Goddess" by Malcolm McLean

McLean, Malcolm; Devoted to the Goddess -- the Life and Work of Ramprasad; State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1998. 192 pages.
ISBN 0-7914-3690-X

Review by Colin Robinson

Do Ramprasad’s songs about Kali
represent bhakti, tantra or both?

Sri Ramprasad, the eighteenth century poet, composed songs about Goddess Kali not in Sanskrit (the language of India’s scriptures) but in the everyday language of Bengal. Accessible to uneducated people as well as scholars, the songs proved very popular, and later Bengali poets took them as models. Without Ramprasad and his songs, the culture of worship associated with Kali’s name would not be what it is today.

The book Devoted to the Goddess, by Malcolm McLean of the University of Otago, New Zealand, is welcome as a source of historical information, and as a contribution to discussion about the significance of Ramprasad’s songs. But its overall argument is questionable.

A valuable appendix to the book is a new 19-page English translation of the first written account of Ramprasad’s life. This life of Ramprasad is by Isvarachandra Gupta, and was first published in 1853. McLean also offers a critical assessment of Gupta’s life of Ramprasad. He accepts it as an accurate record of an oral tradition, but is concerned that Gupta only began to study this oral tradition some fifty years after Ramprasad died.

McLean suggests that memories of Ramprasad were influenced by stories about other Hindu saints, especially the sixteenth century reformer Sri Caitanya. He does however point to independent evidence confirming that a person called Ramprasad lived and worked at roughly the place and time stated by Gupta, and that he received a grant of land from Maharaja Krishnachandra, a local ruler who favoured the worship of Kali.

McLean notes the possibility that not all the songs traditionally attributed to Ramprasad were written by this person. The songs indicate their author with phrases like “Ramprasad says...”; but other poet-devotees who admired him may also have used phrases like that when working in his style. McLean sees no satisfactory way of settling this question. So he accepts the traditional canon of songs as the voice of the only Ramprasad we have, and tries to interpret this voice in a larger historical context.

Readers may find themselves in broad agreement with the project, yet disagree with the way McLean carries it out. His title “Devoted to the Goddess” sums up nicely what Ramprasad’s songs actually say. Yet he argues that the songs do not really mean what they say.

Dualism versus Tantrism

McLean presents Bengal’s religious history as a rivalry between two major traditions, one personified by Caitanya, the other by Ramprasad. Caitanya’s school are vaishnavas -- their God is Krishna, who is identified with Vishnu. Their position is described as “conventional dualistic bhakti”.(page 89) The word “dualistic” means that the tradition regards its God as a person distinct from his human worshippers.

McLean says that, by contrast, Ramprasad is essentially tantric. McLean says that Tantrism is not dualist but monist. It does not regard deities as ultimately real: “In all Tantric sects or those influenced by Tantrism it must be remembered that deities are present more for what they represent than for what they are.” (p 89; emphasis added.)

Ramprasad’s Goddess is therefore “not personal in the same sense as Krishna is for Caitanya Vaisnavas” (p 122). She is a “complex symbol” (p 122), comparable to “a character in a novel, or a film, which we can discuss ‘as if’ they were real...And such a fictional character may actually contribute to a transformation in our lives.” (p 185)

Towards the end of the book, he compares Ramprasad’s outlook to the humanistic interpretation of religion offered by the nineteenth century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach in a book called The Essence of Christianity. The tantric/Feuerbachian position is contrasted to dualist belief in “some Wholly Other Being out there”. (p125)


McLean is right about one thing: the Goddess of Ramprasad’s songs is certainly not a “Wholly Other Being”. As he points out, a number of the songs speak openly of her presence in the kundalini centres.

She is also present in human relationships: according to one song she is “bhairava in a bhairavi’s company, a girl in a boy’s company...Mother, daughter, wife, sister, and other relations.” 1

And there is nothing new in the idea that Ramprasad is a tantrika. The nineteenth century shakta scholar Siva Candra portrays him as one 2, and so does Swami Budhananda of the Ramakrishna Mission 3. However, neither draws quite the same conclusions as McLean.

The first problem with McLean’s argument is that he never presents the vaishnava point of view in a careful, systematic way. He seems to take it for granted that everyone already knows what these Krishna people are like. But Caitanya’s teaching is subtler than McLean supposes. An entry in Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion describes it as follows:
Human beings are minute emanations, paradoxically different and yet not different (acintya-bhedabheda) from their divine source. 4

"Tantrism": a single belief system?

The second problem is the presumption that all forms of “Tantrism” can be lumped together, treated as sharing the same essential beliefs -- the presumption that they truly constitute an “ism”. (It should be remembered that the word “Tantrism” was invented by western writers. It is a label they have given to the range of religious traditions associated with the great body of Sanskrit writings known as Tantra-s.)

McLean’s thesis depends on this lumping together. His argument can be expressed as follows...All tantric people see deities as representations rather than realities. Ramprasad is tantric. Therefore, Ramprasad sees deities, including Kali, as representations rather than realities.

It is a classic piece of logic. If we accept both the premises, we have to accept the conclusion. However, the argument fails if the first premise is not quite right. If only some tantric people see deities as representations, then no conclusions can logically be drawn about Ramprasad.

McLean seems unaware that there are passages in tantric literature which praise the Goddess and her God, duality in unity, not as a stage in the path, but as the supreme realization itself. According to the Nirvana Tantra (not the same work as the Mahanirvana Tantra), the divine couple is more real than the experience of Brahman as pure unity:
To an ordinary observer, making his observation from outside the shell, a grain of gram seems to contain only one thing, but he who can see through the shell finds within that grain two halves facing and inseparably attached to one another. Similarly, he who judges Brahma-tattva [the character of the Spirit] through maya finds Brahman to be but one. To the eyes, however, of an adept in such knowledge... there are manifested both His aspects of Siva and Shakti, all full of supreme love. 5
The Nirvana Tantra goes on to describe human personalities as emanations of the divine:
As sparks shoot from a burning fire, so Jivas [personalities], forming parts of Her body, shoot from the limbs of the luminous Devi [Goddess] into infinite millions of Brahmandas [worlds]. 6
Ramprasad is within this current of tantric spirituality when he affirms that bhakti, the relationship between the worshipper and the worshipped, is a deeper thing than mukti, spiritual liberation. Mukti has often been considered the great goal of life, yet Ramprasad says:

sakaler mul bhakti, mukti hay (man) tar dasi  7
Bhakti is the root of everything, mukti is her maidservant.

These words are from the famous song in which the devotee says that he wants to taste sugar, not to become sugar.

McLean clearly likes Ramprasad’s songs. It is significant that he sees that their portrayal of the Goddess may contribute to a transformation of our lives. But his treatment of theological issues is simplistic: he caricatures the positions both of Ramprasad’s spiritual family and of Caitanya’s. Both schools have been able to conceive of the divine as both immanent and personal -- at once the source of our selfhood and the ultimate You.

1 Sinha, J. (trans); Rama Prasada’s Devotional Songs; Sinha Publishing, Calcutta, 1966; Song 10.
2 Woodroffe, J. (ed); Principles of Tantra [English translation of the Tantra-tattva of Siva Candra]; Vol 2; Ganesh and Co, Madras, 1986; chapter XVII, especially pages 359 - 360.
3 Budhananda, Swami; Ramprasad the Melodious Mystic; Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi, 1982.
4 O’Connell, Joseph T.; “Caitanya”; in Eliade, Mircea (ed); Encyclopedia of Religion; Macmillan Publishing, NY, 1987.
5 Woodroffe, J. (ed); Principles of Tantra; Vol 1; Ganesh, Madras, 1986; p 379.
6 Woodroffe, J. (ed); Principles of Tantra; Vol 1; Ganesh, Madras, 1986; p 379.
7 Amarendranath Ray (ed); Shakta Padavali; Calcutta University Press, 1989; p 222.

Review first published October 1998 in the journal Ferment
Revised for the Web.
Review © Colin Robinson 1998.
Artwork © Colin Robinson 1999, 2007.

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