"I believe with all my heart heart that civilization has produced nothing finer than a man or woman who thinks and practices true tolerance. Some one has said that most of us don't think, we just occasionally rearrange our prejudices. And I suspect that even today, with all the progress we have made in liberal thought, the quality of true tolerance is as rare as the quality of mercy. That men of all creeds have fundamental common objectives is a fact one must learn by the process of education. How to work jointly towards these objectives must be learned by experience". - Frank Knox









PRABUDDHA BHARATARamakrishna Vedanta in the West: New Interfaces and Challenges  





             Ramakrishna Vedanta in the West:

             New Interfaces and Challenges




               Dr. M. Sivaramkrishna




               (Continued from the previous issue)




     Obviously, Western explorations of Ramakrishna’s sadhana as a tantric pose a real challenge in at least three interconnected facets: the according of primacy to the varied phases of Ramakrishna’s sadhana, the role of canonization in hagiography and the nature of language in scriptural texts.




     Tantra as the Primary Mode of Perception




     Ever since Lex Hixon suggested the crucial significance of Tantra in Ramakrishna’s sadhana, (1) several studies took the clue and elaborated the implications. In fact, the assigning of primary significance to Advaita in the hierarchy of Ramakrishna’s sadhana and teachings, these studies contend, is arbitrary and contrary to ‘facts’. This is merely institutionally supported canonization and not factually warranted interpretation. Walter G Neevel’s essay (2) is a trendsetter in this regard but there is a possibility of the most extreme psychoanalytical and often irrational extension of the implicit issues. Though some studies are based on texts in original Bengali, they are nevertheless highly polemical, if not, at many places, pathological, ‘torturing’ texts for meaning, with the ‘erotic’ as the only semantic referent. And it shows a colossal ignorance of the functioning of linguistic frames in Indian hermeneutic traditions.




     Radical Academic ‘Assault’




     However, one important issue that really poses a challenge is this: how far - or how long - can one regard Ramakrishna as impervious to further, more radical appropriations in the light and context of more and more serious involvement of the scholarly, academic world. The academic world will bring all the scholarly apparatus with it: establishing authenticity of texts, the problem of allegedly ‘intentional’ omissions of passages in translated texts, the new historical perspective of religion as one of the discourses of signification among many, and so on. Above all, scholars these days are notoriously deconstructive, ferreting out small details ignored (or ‘wilfully suppressed’) earlier.


     These perspectives are strengthened by another trend: many Western scholars of Ramakrishna Vedanta are today attempting to get to the originals in Bengali without reliance on any ‘mediated’ text. (Mediated texts are generally ‘meditated’ texts!) Thus, at least one complete translation of the Kathamrita claimed as the only unexpurgated one with explanatory notes is now available as doctoral work. (3) Exposure to variations between the ‘canonized’ texts and the originals is, to say the least, intriguing to the Western mind, which is now arriving at notions of texts strongly at variance with the Hindu hermeneutic traditions.




     Language: The Key




     The central question here seems to me not a question of translation but the entire problem of hermeneutics or the religious implications of language. As Ernst Fuchs has put it elaborating his hermeneutical doctrine, ‘language is not the abbreviation of thinking, but thinking is an abbreviation of language.’ (4) This is especially true of religious thought.


     Language in religious contexts, though drawing from a common denotational, linguistic pool, has connotative implications which purely secular decoding can almost never interpret properly. For instance, words used in Bengali (which, one should note, is heavily Sanskritized) such as ramana, krida, uddipana, prema, dharana, bija are certainly tractable to varied de-coding. But that particular register has, in the context of Ramakrishna’s use, no pathological erotic implications unless in an extremely irrational deconstructive myopia one is incapable of distinguishing the two entirely different realms of eroticism and spirituality. As Charles Malamoud suggests in a recent study, ‘the image we have of the limpid beginnings of the immortals’ Sanskrit language is one that we may deduce from the great pains taken to obscure it’, and ‘through scrambling of phonemes’ suggest this obscurity (5) (and Bengali is heavily Sanskritized).


     Interpretations of Ramakrishna’s emotive language and imagery are therefore, to use his own telling image, absorbing the ucchishta, the tainted, the defiled. Thus to deconstruct (or, rather, dismember) is a tribute to one’s ingenious interpretive skills but hardly defensible. Even the so-called excesses of vamachara will, perhaps, recoil at this absurd reduction of Tantra sadhana to eroticism, imbuing it with all pervasive permutations and combinations of ‘abbreviated’ Freudian assumptions. In short, ferreting out the gupta - the insight for the initiated alone - need not be regarded as unearthing the ‘grotesquely’ erotic; or rather, the secret need not be equated with the sordid. But once the equation is drawn, then the simplistic bracketing of samadhi to eroticism becomes a predictable phenomenon. This is just the culmination of a process described so accurately by William Irwin Thomson talking about the ‘reductionist thinking’ of sociobiology - ‘the new landslide of the detritus of nineteenth-century materialism’ - he says that ‘it reduces a psychological or cultural complex to a gene, and then it conceptualizes a gene as a hunk of matter rather than a crystal of sacred geometry and frozen music.’ (6) In short, so far as Ramakrishna as a tantric is concerned, ‘the camouflaged passion and murky reasoning’ of Freudians are certainly negligible for the devotee but challenging to the scholar. And most scholars Ramakrishna saw as vultures, a species proliferating in academic skies - though it is uncharitable to put it that way.


     In short, the ‘awakening of kundalini, knows quite a different relationship … between language and sexuality.’ (22) One certainly needs to keep the entire matrix of the sphota theory for de-coding Ramakrishna’s language. Here is a necessity for caution between what Heidegger called the evil of ‘provocative disclosure’ instead of ‘procreative disclosure’. The provocative disclosure is ‘only out to rob that which is to be discovered, of all that might be of some use; in contrast to this exploiting, grabbing disclosure stands the procreative one, in which that which is to be discovered or revealed is to be brought with all possible care, into its own true and full being.’ (7)








     Along with Tantra, ‘madness’ is seen by a few Western academic enthusiasts as one of the ‘central hermeneutic’ principles to reckon with Ramakrishna. Interpretations range from seeing even his nirvikalpa samadhi as ‘parental loss’ consequent to Totapuri’s (the submerged parental figure) departure from Dakshineswar, to those that continue to see it as an epileptic fit. For instance, Timothy Jensen interprets Ramakrishna’s ‘insanity’ ‘as not incidental either to his period of intensive meditational practices or his teaching, for in his understanding it was precisely through “madness” that God is realized, and it is through madmen that God speaks.’ (8)


     This suggests, in fact, a distinction, argues Jensen, (‘a dichotomy’) ’repeatedly seen between the one who has realized God and the conventional, even though pious, householder’. In short, while all madmen cannot be ‘said to have realized God’, madness is ‘the closest human analogue to Ramakrishna’s realization of the divine, in his own eyes and perhaps in those of his disciples as well.’


     But far more significant frames are suggested by Carl Olson. (9) Placing Ramakrishna alongside saints such as St Francis of Assisi, Olson sees madness as a negation of ‘reasoning or rational argument based on scripture’ that prevents one from ‘direct realization’. As in the case of ‘other ascetics and saints before him’, Ramakrishna’s ‘madness’ ‘functions as a symbol of the holy person, the divine-intoxicated one, the realizer of ultimate reality, or the liberated one’. In addition to ‘demonstrating wide mood swings’, such a state of mind - ‘insanity’ - ‘is an indication that the life represents one’s final birth. The mad individual is no longer subject to the cycle of time.’ In this sense, Ramakrishna’s madness, concludes Olson, ‘is a celebration of his freedom and a manifestation of it’. The sanity of divine madness unhinges the insanity of the ordinary. As Thomas Merton put it, ‘The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless.’


     Thus Ramakrishna’s ‘madness’ is a challenge to cognitive maps extant in the West. Controversion of common notions of rationality, emphasis on ‘direct perception, the transcending of time and the cycles of birth - and an extraordinary range of ‘mood swings’ without a trace of abnormality - all these features suggest that the theories of cognition need radical updating. If updated in all its implications, we get in Ramakrishna an extremely effective prescription of the world and the incarnation who ‘sports’ in that as, cognitively, the world of lila and nitya as its alternate currents.




     The Incarnation




     ‘Ramakrishna’s mystical experience with Jesus in 1874,’ says Daniel Bassuk, ‘is highly significant as it marks the beginning of the assimilation of Jesus Christ into the Hindu religion on par with the Hindu Avatars. From this time forward, the Hindu Godmen have a spiritual brother in Sri Isha, another Avatar to contend with, and a Western one at that.’ (10)


     ‘Contend with’ are important words for, as Beatrice Bruteau says, this is a ‘challenge in the Eastern attitude toward the divine incarnation’. Quoting Ramakrishna’s words that ‘when an incarnation comes, a tidal wave of spirituality breaks upon the world,’ Bruteau spells out the Hindu point of view: ‘… for one religion to claim that its hero alone is the only incarnation is small-minded in several ways: bigoted, ignorant of world history, unaware of the largeness of God, spiritually undeveloped, immature, and leads to hostility rather than harmony.’ She says, this is ‘a severe challenge but one that has to be faced in a world that is truly global now, in which we are all drawing closer together, sharing our lives more and more intimately’.


     These are insights largely shared by many students of the religious situation today. Dialogue on inclusive pluralism is increasingly heard. As Rev Kenneth Cracknell, conceding that ‘there are indeed some black spots, places where challenge has gone unheeded’, says, ‘taken as a whole, the picture gives us grounds for hope: men and women all over … have set out on the way of dialogue, and dialogue will lead to discovery and the discovery will be of God greater than our feeble thought had deemed possible.’ (11) Finally, Diana L Eck points out that ‘plurality of religions is not interpreted as a ‘problem’ to overcome. It is a fact of our world. And it is one we must encounter creatively if we are to make sense of the world.’ (12)


     Seen against this background, for the Ramakrishna Vedanta movement this could mean the challenge of interfaith dialogue as ‘assimilation’ of a ‘faceless’ nature. Thus Ramakrishna ceases to retain his ‘uniqueness’ as incarnate divinity. Of course, to ‘Hinduize’ Ramakrishna is improper, but more than this, to ‘universalize’ him as on a par with global marketing strategies is, again, to make him an anonymous non-entity.


     In this respect the equating of Ramakrishna and Christ has to be achieved with sensitivity and experiential spirituality. For instance, Hans Torwesten’s insight could as well be an effective frame: ‘What makes [Ramakrishna] so Christ-like that we can speak of an “unknown Christ in Hinduism”, with a slight and yet momentous shift in meaning which the Indian theologian Panikkar gave to the title of his book, not a Christ hidden in Hindu philosophy, but a Christ who lived a hundred years ago and is still unknown to most Christians?’ (13)




     Lila as a Comprehensive Cognitive Map




     The ‘momentous’ shift in meaning is actually the challenge of redefining the new model of the universe as conforming to and confirming the Great Master’s central perception of the universe as lila, the playful enactment of the fun-loving Mother, the placing of ‘Goddessliness’ and its femininity at the centre of things. So if things fall apart, we have a second coming.


     Lila as a concept has evoked tremendous interest. Apart from Bettina Baumer’s pioneering work (and the seminal essay by Ananda K Coomaraswamy), the very idea is now regarded as constituting a crucial hermeneutic tool for interpretation across boundaries. The idea of lila, as William S Sax says in a recent volume on the subject, ‘appears to mark a delightful difference between European and South Asian traditions, embodying a ludic dimension in Indian religious life that is muted or even absent in the dominant religions of the West.’ Noting that ‘though there may be examples of “playfulness” in Judaism, Christianity or Islam, still it seems fair to say that Hinduism had developed the doctrine of play more than any of the other so-called world religions, and that this idea has supported, particularly, in the most recent religious history of the subcontinent a pervasive attitude of joy and delight in God’s lila.’ (14)


     The centrality of lila in Ramakrishna can hardly be exaggerated. As Malcolm McLean in a recent essay on the subject of lila has put it, Ramakrishna ‘is fond of stressing the wilfulness of the Mother, her right to do with us and the world whatever she chooses.’ But his lila - ‘a constant theme that manifests itself through [Ramakrishna’s] life’ (15) - constitutes several challenges: wilfulness, unpredictability, the assumption of several aspects including madness, are certainly challenges to neat mechanistic models of the universe. In other words, if all these negative aspects are put in the metaphors of Advaita, it is to allow the illusion of rope and snake to resolve itself not in terms of reality but of play. As Arthur C Danto has observed, ‘When the snake gives way to the rope, the principles worked out for coping with snakes are not invalidated as such, but merely put out of play.’ (16)


     Ramakrishna would still say that putting something out of play is not ceasing to be part of the play but to catch the Mother, as children do in the game of hide and seek. Then one becomes a passive participant, a sakshi. If bad things happen to good people, good people play along and do not feel inclined to be bad since lila requires both for dramatic continuity.


     Thus lila and our participation in it is an effective analogue for the meditative practice itself in which ‘you are the actor, you are the one who is plowing’ or, one can add, ‘playing’. Lila predicates a balanced picture (stemming from bhavamukha) of the order emerging out of chaos. This is a challenging paradigm which resolves several anomalies without dissolving them - a fact evident in Ramakrishna’s life itself.








     In his study of the contemporary ‘quest for wisdom’ in the US, Tony Schwarz says, ‘The flowering of more comprehensive approaches to wisdom, uniting the best of the East and the West represents a historic first. Never before have we had access to so many technologies of transformation or to so much knowledge about the full spectrum of human possibility. … these comprehensive approaches, perhaps, never before have been so desperately needed.’ (17)


     Achieving ‘comprehensive’ spirituality is a challenge Ramakrishna Vedanta both poses and receives. It has to receive, specially, the nearly imperative need to interpret Ramakrishna Vedanta shruti in the light of Western smritis - without privileging either. Entering polemics is no answer; intensifying inner resources - perennial in their originating purity - is.









     1. Lex Hixon, Coming Home: The Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 42-57.

     2. Walter G Neevel Jr, ‘The Transformation of Ramakrishna’ in Hinduism: New Essays in the History of Religions, ed. Bardwell L Smith (Leiden: E J Brill, 1976), 53-97.

     3. Malcolm McLean, ‘A Translation of the Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita’ (PhD dissertation; Otsgo, 1983).

     4. Quoted in Robert W Funk, Language, Hermeneutics and the Word of God (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 65.

     5. Charles Malamoud, Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), 197.

     6. William Irwin Thomson, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light (London: Rider Hutchinson, 1981), 61.

     7. Erna M Hoch, Sources and Resources: A Western Psychiatrist’s Search for Meaning in the Ancient Indian Scriptures (Delhi: Book Faith India, 1993), 313.

     8. Timothy A Jensen, ‘Madness, Yearning and Play’ (doctoral dissertation; Chicago,1978), 218.

     9. Carl Olson, The Mysterious Play of Kali: An Interpretive Study (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 66.

     10. Daniel Bassuk, Incarnation in Hinduism and Christianity: The Myth of the God-Man (Basingstroke: Macmillan, 1987), 66.

     11. Rev Kenneth Cracknell, ‘The Meeting of People of Different Faiths in Britain Today’, Appendix to John Hick, God Has Many Names: Britain’s New Religious Pluralism (London: Mac­millan, 1990).

     12. Diana L Eck, Encountering God (New Delhi: Penguin, 1995), 152.

     13. Hans Torwesten, Ramakrishna and Christ (Kolkata: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1999), 82.

     14. William S Sax, The Gods at Play (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 3-4. For a recent discussion on the significance of lila, see Eliot Deutsch, ‘An Outline of Advaita Vedantic Aesthetics’ in Relativism, Suffering and Beyond: Essays in Memory of Bimal K Matilal, eds. P Bilimoria and J N Mohanty (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), 336-47.

     15. Malcolm McLean, ‘At the Whim of the Goddess: The Lila of the Goddess in Bengal Saktism’ in The Gods at Play.

     16. Arthur C Danto, Mysticism and Morality: Oriental Thought and Moral Philosophy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 30.

     17. Tony Schwarz, What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America (New York: Bantam, 1996), 432.




     1. Edward C Dimmock, The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaishnava Sahajiya Cult of Bengal (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989).

     2. Jeffrey J Kripal, Kali’s Child (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995).

     3. Narasingha P Sil, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: A Psychological Profile (Leiden: E J Brill, 1991)

Mooladhara chakra
Mooladhara chakra








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