Vedanta in the West:
Interfaces and Challenges
Dr. M. Sivaramkrishna
from the previous issue)
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.
as the Primary Mode of Perception
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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)
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)
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.’
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.’
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.
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)
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’.
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)
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.
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)
as a Comprehensive Cognitive Map
‘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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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
‘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.
Lex Hixon, Coming Home: The Experience of Enlightenment in
Sacred Traditions (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 42-57.
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.
Malcolm McLean, ‘A Translation of the Sri Sri Ramakrishna
Kathamrita’ (PhD dissertation; Otsgo, 1983).
Quoted in Robert W Funk, Language, Hermeneutics and the
Word of God (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 65.
Charles Malamoud, Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought
in Ancient India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press,
William Irwin Thomson, The Time Falling Bodies Take to
Light (London: Rider Hutchinson, 1981), 61.
Erna M Hoch, Sources and Resources: A Western Psychiatrist’s
Search for Meaning in the Ancient Indian Scriptures (Delhi:
Book Faith India, 1993), 313.
Timothy A Jensen, ‘Madness, Yearning and Play’ (doctoral dissertation;
Carl Olson, The Mysterious Play of Kali: An Interpretive
Study (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 66.
Daniel Bassuk, Incarnation in Hinduism and Christianity: The
Myth of the God-Man (Basingstroke: Macmillan, 1987), 66.
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:
Diana L Eck, Encountering God (New Delhi: Penguin,
Hans Torwesten, Ramakrishna and Christ (Kolkata: Ramakrishna
Mission Institute of Culture, 1999), 82.
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.
Malcolm McLean, ‘At the Whim of the Goddess: The Lila of the
Goddess in Bengal Saktism’ in The Gods at Play.
Arthur C Danto, Mysticism and Morality: Oriental Thought and
Moral Philosophy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 30.
Tony Schwarz, What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in
America (New York: Bantam, 1996), 432.
Edward C Dimmock, The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism
in the Vaishnava Sahajiya Cult of Bengal (Chicago: University
of Chicago, 1989).
Jeffrey J Kripal, Kali’s Child (Chicago: University
of Chicago, 1995).
Narasingha P Sil, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: A Psychological
Profile (Leiden: E J Brill, 1991)