Kali’s Child – A Search for An Autobiographical Ramakrishna

Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, Jeffrey J. Kripal, University of Chicago Press, 1995 ; Full review available at Humanities Commons

The following is only some excerpts from the review published at the above web address:

Image of Kali – An iconographic masterpiece or a simple depiction of a Tantric Goddess?

Prof Kripal structured his ‘proof’ of the fundamental hypothesis about the homoerotic nature of Ramakrishna’s ascent to prominence around the stone image of passively reclining Siva and fearsome Kali, naked except for a garland of human heads and a waistband of severed hands, standing with her right foot on Siva’s chest (the plate facing the page 1 of his book). As long as I did not look for the details of the Dakshineshwar temple I only had Prof. Kripal’s depiction of the sexualised image of a naked Kali as a reference point. I was of the impression that this was the image Ramakrishna had in front of him when he was at the shrine of Kali. In the page describing the Kali’s image at Dakshineshwar, the authour somehow omits the details of the Benares saree covering the image described in the passage of Kathamrita that he quotes on page 15. On the same page he paints a picture of a Siva reclining with an erect penis from somewhere else to probably give an unwarranted  impression. The Dakshineshwar temple image only had a very passive Siva[1] to whose image the learned authour attaches an erotic significance arising from Tantric philosophy[2].

The philosophical ideas behind the Kali’s image is far more beautiful that the sexualised image that Prof. Kripal intentionally or unintentionally portrayed. This reminded me on a point made by Prof. Vilayanur Ramachandran in his book “The Emerging Mind” about Chola Bronze of Siva’s cosmic dance[3]. Far beyond its literal meaning the image is a multilayered metaphor that the art critics in Victorian times failed to appreciate. Prof. Kripal even though far more culturally sensitive and appreciative of the Indian philosophy, failed to appreciate the deeper meaning of the image to Ramakrishna.

This masterpiece of an image is wrought with far deeper philosophical idea than a simple Tantric depiction of an erotic play between Siva and Kali. It is disheartening to see ignoring the fact that the Ramakrishna might also have dwelt more on the deeper meaning than the sexualised Tantric idea. According to the verse LIX of Samkya Karika, like a dancing girl, Prkrti exhibits her dance only when Purusha is looking. As soon as Purusha stopped looking, she stops dancing for him. She may still dance for others who are still watching[4].  This metaphor makes Purusha both Brahman, the Absolute and Atman, the individual Self looking on. In Kathopanishad, Purusha is the ultimate cause and the end beyond all ends that merges with Avyakta[5] (Mulaprkrti) to become Para-Brahman. In light of this view, Prkriti is Mulaprkriti after manifestation (Vyakta). Prkrti in union with Purusha forms the ‘creation’ that to be real, should be perceived by the knower[6] via the intellect as differentiated identities. The perceiver to know, together with sense organs, mind, five elements, legs, hands etc, there also should be Purusha in the form of Atman. Prkriti, the Existence as a combined entity embodying both Purusha and Prakriti, becomes manifest to Purusha in the form of Atman co-existing with Prakriti, the knower. Samkya Karika in the verse LII says that Bhavakaya (a creation of intellect) and Lingakaya (a creation of matter) co-exist and are interdependent. Purusha has to suffer the body of matter until the body ceases to function. Prkirti suffers bondage, migrates and is finally released. Purusha is not under bondage, does not migrate nor is emancipated (verse LXII). The above references seem to hint at the physical body and the Self or Atman. The reference to potter’s wheel that still moves even after the body departs indicates the persistence of Self. The Brahman has a duality in Purusha and Prkrti that must act in unison. The duality becomes multitude and the multitude is, in the deeper analysis, still the ultimate truth,  Brahman. In this view, the ‘Prkrti’ is not manifest until perceived by the knower who embodies Purusha. What exists emerges through the interplay among the perceiver, the perceived and the knower. As Kenopanishad says the mind and organs are only evident through the power of Atman, that is same as Brahman [7]. The philosophical view discussed above is anthropocentric[8], recursively layered and rather complex to decipher due to various loosely connected authorships. Continued…..


[1] Fig.10, Harding E.U., Kali: The black goddess of Dakshineshwar, Nicholas-Hays, 1993

[2] ‘.. Tantric image in the Kali temple… is a naked goddess standing on top of the god” p. 22 Kripal J.J, “Kali’s Child”. This is at best a misleading description as the image was not of a naked goddess.

[3] p.67, Ramachandran V., “The Emerging Brain”, Profile Books, 2003

[4] See the interpretation by F. Max Muller in the chapter on Samkya Philosophy in “The six systems of Indian Philosophy”

[5] Avyakta is treated as a seed with the potentiality of a tree inside. But I here interpret it as objects in the dark that becomes visible in the light of perception.

[6] This is my take on Ahamkara

[7] Sivananda, Swami, Essence of Principal Upanishads, The Divine Life Society, 1980

[8] Kathopanishad says that the soul of an ant is same as the soul of an elephant; the soul of all being is identical.

After reading the book I did not feel that the good professor ended up proving what he set out to do. With a lot of assumed connections, he concluded what he wanted. That does not mean the evidence he showed had merit that could go unchallenged. As we discussed he painted for us an image of Kali from a Tantric “textbook” rather than what Ramakrishna paid his homage to at the Kali temple. Furthermore, he ignored the message repeated by Ramakrishna that he assumed the form of child, not a ‘hero’ who followed the vamachara Tantra and thus, never followed Tantra with its full sexual connotations. He yet followed  philosophical underpinnings of Tantra around Kali worship. Ramakrishna dissuaded his followers including Naren from looking at women as sex objects and encouraged them to see the universal mother in the woman. He also clearly stated that following Radhatantra was like entering a house through the latrine. It is strange how Pro. Kripal, ignoring these well-documented discussions in Kathamrita, claimed that Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences were erotic. Was it not good science if one accepted what another person asked his followers to do rather than inventing artificial constructs through means like interpretation of his dreams and visions, that were not as obvious?

Secondly, Prof. Kripal willingly or unwillingly ignored Ramakrishna’s genius that he could have misused to fulfil his hidden erotic wishes in devious ways if gratification of desires was his sole drive. I believe Ramakrishna’s genius is a key to his success as a guru and the drive to become who he was. He shaped by the tantric disregard for the entrenched caste system could extend his reach to many people from diverse backgrounds. Because of his Vedantic views of non-duality he saw oneness of everything including the opposites such as good-bad, socially accepted-unaccepted etc. By living as a family man among his devotees he could meet many people that an ascetic could not have encountered.

Lastly, as I listed in the previous section,  there had been several other possibilities to understand Ramakrishna that Prof. Kripal overlooked to prove his hypothesis. By doing so, Prof. Kripal substantially undermined the value of his work as a rational study of his subject, an uncut gem of many facets. This also might have tarnished the image of a genuine mystic whose only wish was to help people partake the mystical experiences he enjoyed. Assumed content around various incidents mentioned by various biographers or claiming that the devotees and disciples were not forthcoming with all the truth about Ramakrishna’s life could not be a part of an evidence-based proof. Thus, I believe that “Kali’s child” fell well short of a proof that Sri Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences were actually “profoundly, provocatively, scandalously erotic”.  To reconstruct the autobiographical Ramakrishna from the historical Ramakrishna may well be a task logically impossible.

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The website aims to show the possible origin of religion through a ‘uniquely’ human process which has links to the seclusion of girls at puberty. It also advocates the view that the Paleolithic Venus figurines are related to these puberty rites and hence, the prehistoric Venus figurines may carry a much larger meaning. Thus, Religion is something more than a throwback from our animal past.
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