"Kali's Child" by Jeffrey J. Kripal

Kripal, Jeffrey J.; Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna; University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995; 386 pages.
ISBN 0-226-45376-6

Review by Colin Robinson

Freudian theories about Sri Ramakrishna

The book Kali’s Child is an attempt to bring together the spiritual and the earthy. The will for such a synthesis is a deep and important current in the human psyche; but it can be expressed in a graceful or graceless way.

Graceful expressions of the will to integrate the earthy and the spiritual can be found in many images associated with the Tantras, including images of Goddess Kali. An example of a graceless attempt to bring together the earthy and the spiritual might be a bunch of immature people leaving the carcass of an animal at the entrance to a cathedral.

Kali’s Child is not as graceless as that. But it does have some flaws which I want people interested in Kali to be aware of.

The book is a Freudian interpetation of the nineteenth century mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, based on study of books published in the Bengali language by his followers. Its author, Jeffrey Kripal, is an American academic with a Roman Catholic background. Ramakrishna saw the divine in many forms, but especially as Goddess Kali. Many Hindus regard this great mystic himself as an incarnation of divinity, just as Sri Rama and Sri Krishna are said to have incarnated the divine in past ages.

Kali’s Child has something of the character of an exposé. It seems to be a law of human nature that attempts are made to expose alleged weaknesses of much-admired people. One thinks of the exposés of Jung, Mother Teresa, the British royal family... Even Jesus Christ has been the target of exposés.1

So, how does Kripal expose Ramakrishna? He points to differences between the major Bengali text about Ramakrishna, the Ramakrishna Kathamrita, and its English translation, the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Apparently the English version excluded some material which might have suggested impurity. Some of the excluded material has to do with signs of affection between males. (The translator, Swami Nikhilananda, did note that he had left out “a few pages of no particular interest to English-speaking readers.” 2 )

Kripal uses the words “secret” and “secrecy” repeatedly. Yet the texts he exposes have been readily available to anyone who can read Bengali since 1932, when the final volume of the Ramakrishna Kathamrita was published. Kripal gets his material from the thirty-first edition of the Kathamrita, published by the Kathamrita Bhaban in 1987. It’s a funny kind of secrecy.

Bowdlerization and freudianization

Kripal criticizes Nikhilananda for bowdlerizing his translation of the Kathamrita. This criticism may be well-founded. However, Kripal himself is to be criticized for the opposite form of distortion -- he presents texts so as to make them more outrageous than they really are. Perhaps this can be thought of as freudianization.

On the second page of his book he refers to a statement in Bengali that, while in a state of trance, the mystic would sometimes place his foot “ ‘in the lap’ (kole) -- that is, on the genitals -- of a young boy disciple”. A few pages later he asks “What are we to make of Ramakrishna’s foot, so provocatively placed in the genitals of a young boy?” (p41) Now, the Bengali kole is the locative case of the word kol. The dictionary meaning of kol is simply “the fold of the body of a person sitting, the lap”.3 It seems neither accurate nor fair to treat this word as if it were interchangeable with “genitals”.

Kripal also sometimes writes in an “admittedly speculative” (p301) way of sexual incidents which are not mentioned in Kathamrita, nor in any other known source of historical information -- events which would fit his theories if they actually happened. There hypothetical incidents are perhaps best termed fantasies: Jeffrey Kripal’s fantasies. It might be an interesting exercise in Freudian psychology to think about what such fantasies reveal about Kripal’s unconscious.

Yet Kripal’s attitude to Ramakrishna is ambivalent. While at times he seems desperate to pathologize the Bengali saint, at other times he writes as if he genuinely admires him. He ends his book with the delightful admission that Ramakrishna would probably have laughed at it!

"A shady lot"

What of the author’s attitude to the people around Ramakrishna: his gurus, disciples, and fellow worshippers? Here it is difficult to find anything but contempt. Kripal suspects these men and women of sexual abuses, castigates them as hypocrites, or patronizes them as victims. He doesn’t address the question of how such characters managed to lay the foundations for a thriving religious community.

Kripal’s contempt extends beyond Ramakrishna’s circle. Tantric sadhakas in general are called “a shady lot” (p 31), and Kripal is quite one-sided in what he says about tantric paths. Sir John Woodroffe, the great English scholar of the Tantras, is charged with “profound philosophical, scientific, and moral biases”. (p 28) The charge is not backed up with any specific references to Woodroffe’s writings.

Jeffrey Kripal will be able to contribute more to the historical study of Kali worship if and when his present inconsistent respect for Sri Ramakrishna matures into a consistent respect for men and women of religion.

What value does "Kali’s Child" have?

Kali’s Child, then, has some serious flaws. Does it, nonetheless, have value? It seems to me that it does. There is value in everything in the universe: in all Kali’s children.

Firstly, every book about Goddess Kali and her devotees plays some role in the global rediscovery of the Goddess. Every one can help people to work through their thoughts and feelings about her. This even applies to the horror films and novels about Kali.

Secondly, Freudian interpretations of mystical experience, distorted as they may be, do at least link it to the body, to the lived human condition. By doing this, they remind us that even the greatest of mystics is an entirely human person.

Thirdly, Jeffrey Kripal does have the grace to acknowledge that there is a side of Ramakrishna, and of other people acclaimed as saints, which Freudian theories do not explain.

One of the more interesting elements of Kali’s Child is its interpretation of Kali herself; especially, its exploration of the erotic dimensions of her image. For instance, while Kali’s protruding tongue is regularly interpreted today as an expression of embarrassment, Kripal argues that it once represented shameless passion.

Kali’s sexuality is not exactly hidden: there is a whole class of images in which she is shown in intercourse with Lord Shiva. But many writers have glossed over this aspect of Kali’s character. Modern Hindus tend to be more interested in her maternal aspect, while the influential western academic, David Kinsley, puts more emphasis on her association with death.

Kali’s association with embarrassment is not as purely modern as Kripal supposes. In the most famous hymn of the Devi-Mahatmya, lajja or “modesty” is listed as a form of the Goddess.4 This hymn stands at the beginning of an episode where the Goddess manifests as Kali to consume a group of demons.

But there is a wild side of Kali. It is part of her paradox that her image can represent both expression and inhibition, passion and modesty, spontaneity and self-control.

Agehananda Bharati on the followers of Ramakrishna

A thoughtful and balanced assessment of the Ramakrishna Order (followers of Sri Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda) is found in The Ochre Robe by Agehananda Bharati, published in 1961. Bharati was born in Austria but spent most of his life in India, engaged in scholarship and sadhana, initially as a member of the Ramakrishna Order. He felt that the Order didn’t fully understand the value of the intellect, and he was dismayed to find that one of its leaders had bowdlerized the translation of a classical Sanskrit work.5 But he also wrote:
...there is nothing to be said against this famous Order in any banal moral or moralizing fashion... It has founded schools, colleges and other educational institutions; it runs excellent hospitals, maternity homes and crêches, and in times of trouble, such as floods and famine, it is always on the spot to succour the victims... Its monasteries are clean and well-run, and its discipline is exemplary. All these things are beyond dispute; its members are never accused directly or indirectly, of misusing the ochre robe as a cloak for gluttony or sensuality... 6

1 For instance, the Toledoth Jeshua or Toledot Yeshu, an early Jewish response to Christianity. It is mentioned in Eliade, Mircea (ed); Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol 11; Macmillan, MY, 1987; p 389. Also in Ashe, Geoffrey; The Virgin; Paladin, 1977; p 56.
2 from the translator’s preface to Gupta, Mahendranath; The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna; translated by Nikhilananda, Swami; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras; Eighth Edition, 1985; p vii. Kripal mentions this statement on page 4 of his book.
3 Biswas, S.; Samsad Bengali-English Dictionary; Sahitya Samsad, Calcutta; Second edition, 1982.
4 Jagadiswarananda, Swami (trans); Devi Mahatmyam [parallel Sanskrit and English]; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1953; chapter 5 verses 44 - 46.
5 Bharati, Agehananda; The Ochre Robe; Allen and Unwin, London, 1961; pp 136 to 137.
6 Bharati, Agehananda; The Ochre Robe; p 94.

Review first published October 1997 in the journal Ferment
Revised for the Web 2007.
Review © Colin Robinson 1997, 2007.
Artwork © Colin Robinson 1999, 2007.

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