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American Academy of Religion

Mystical Homoeroticism, Reductionism, and the Reality of Censorship: A Response to Gerald


James Larson
Author(s): Jeffrey J. Kripal
Source: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 627635
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1466137
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Journal of the AmericanAcademy of Religion66/3

RESPONSES

AND REJOINDERS

MysticalHomoeroticism,Reductionism,andthe Realityof
Censorship:A Responseto GeraldJamesLarson
PSYCHOANALYTICALLY
INCLINEDhistoriansof mysticismfollow
a specificmethodological"path"(meta-hodos)
on a questto understand
some of the most excessivethemesin the studyof religion:eroticism,
asceticism,antinomianism,esotericism,apophaticism,and visionary
imaginalia,amongothers.Preciselybecausesuchphenomenatransform,
transcend,and transgressnormalphysiological,psychological,ethical,
epistemological,social,and ontologicalboundaries,the mysticalmust
often becomewhatits own etymologysuggests:"thesecret"(mustikos),
thehidden,theconcealed,andsubsequently,
thecensored,eventhepersemethodsoftenmirrorthesemystical
cuted.Provocatively,
psychoanalytic
traditionsin theirowntransgressive
stylesandtheir(in)famouspenchant
forfocusingon otherwiseforbiddentopics.Not surprisingly,
then,historiansof religionswhochooseto "revealthesecret"throughsuchtheoreticalpathsmustoften sufferwhatElliotWolfsonhaseloquentlydubbeda
thatis, the moraloutrageof those,scholarand
"hermeneutical
revenge,"
believeralike,whowouldpreferto keep"thehidden,"well... hidden.
I believethatsucha reactionis inevitable,understandable,
andeven
useful.It is, afterall,a logicallyconsistentconsequence,not
theoretically
methrevealingnatureof the psychoanalytic
just of the transgressively
ods that areused to uncovermysticalsecrets,but of the epistemological
whichso oftenclaimaccess
structures
themselves,
of themysticaltraditions
to an esoteric,and even antinomian,body of knowledgethat the exoteric traditionmust alwaysrejectif it is to fulfillits importantrole as
a cohesive,integratingforcein society.Putboldlybut not inaccurately,
the hermeneutical
revengethatseeksto silence(or at leastdomesticate)
the scholarwho "speaksthe secret"participatesin thatmucholderand
broaderphenomenonof the silencingof the sociallyandreligiouslysuspectmystic.
627
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Journalof the AmericanAcademy of Religion

It is in this context that I read GeraldJamesLarson'srecent review


article "Homoeroticism,Polymorphic Sexuality,and the Study of Religion."Larsonapproachesmy book Kalf'sChildin three movements:1) he
chooses not to challengethe historical and textual researchof the book
but suggestsinsteadthat it is old news;2) he readsmy final conclusionsas
monocausally reductive;and 3) he portraysthe devotional tradition as
open to the revelationof Ramakrishna'ssecrets and, consequently,questions the ethics of a scholarwho chooses not to sharehis or her workwith
this tradition (or any tradition, I gather)before publication. On the first
point, we do not seem to have many differences,although Larson certainly exaggeratesthe extent to which the sexual theses are well-known
and accepted.On the second point, he has seriouslymisunderstood me.
However,he has raisedan important, indeed criticalissue with the third
point, even if the particularsituation he discussesis far more ambiguous
and complicated than he suggests. Let me address each of these three
points in turn.
1) Polymorphic Sexuality and Homoeroticism. Larson accepts my
argumentsabout the centralityof psychoanalyticthemes in the life and
teachings of Ramakrishna.Indeed, he does not challenge a single one
of my hundreds of textual readings, translations, and interpretations;
describesthe first 308 pages (all five chapters)of the "fascinating"book

balancedandnuanced"(659);andacknowledges
that
(658)as"reasonably
thework"unlocksanimportantdimensionof themannerin whichsexual
relateto our understandfantasies,andespeciallyhomosexualfantasies"
ing of Ramakrishna's
mysticism(658).Butevenherehe wantsto writeas
if the homosexualhypothesis,my Tantricemphasis,andmy otherideas
aboutgenderandsexualorientationareallwell-knownanduncontroversial.Hence,he citesa singlelinefromKakar,mentionsSil'sabusehypothesis, and notes that Tantricelementshavealwaysbeen apparentin the
tradition(662-663).ButKakaris alsoon recordas qualifying,if not quesSilhas
tioning,thehomosexualhypothesis(ClementandKakar:177-179);
explicitlyand consistentlydeniedboth the homosexualand the Tantric
thesesin print (66, n. 14) and in publicdebate;and manyof the TantricdimensionsI havestudiedgo significantly
beyondanyandallpublic
displayswithinthe tradition.It is certainlytruethatothershad at least
mentionedthethemesof Ramakrishna's
(Isherwood1981:
homosexuality
249; Masson 1974:309-310, 312; 1979:331; 1980:8-10,46-47; Kakar:33;
McLean:lxxii-lxxv; Sarkar1985:6, 70-71, 90, 103-106)and Tantra(Mc-

Lean;Neevel)beforeme (indeed,one couldspeakof a consensuson the


homosexualissue,at leastamongacademicstrainedin historical-critical
andanalyticmethods),but no one followedup on thesethemes(forreasonsI willgetto shortly);indeed,much,if not all,of theearlierdiscussion
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Kripal:Responsesand Rejoinders

629

occurredin buriedendnotes,passingcomments,andunpublished,
almost
documents.
"underground,"
2) MonocausalReductionism.It is tellingthat the only theoretical
pointon whichLarsonchallengesme-the reductionismcharge,which
he identifieswith the book'sfinalconcludingpages-is the verypoint
he completelymisreads.I spentpagesandpagesdiscussing:my adoption
of a "nondualmethodology"
thatcandialectically
incorporate
something
of bothpsychoanalytic
theoryandTantricexperience(17-24);the roleof
socialfactorsin the constructionof Ramakrishna's
visionsandecstasies
own
consistent
(34-35, 219-220,312-313,319-325);my
rejectionof a
Freudianreductionism(6-7,21-24,37-46,67,296-304,317-328);andthe
logicalimpossibilityof reducingthe mysticalto the sexualin a radically
I concludedalong with an
monisticuniverse(22-24,43-46). "Freud,"
to
the
third
cakra"
(43-46).
anonymousThntrika,
"onlygot
Larsonquotes,completelyout of context,a passagefrom
Bizarrely,
the most extensiveof thesenumerousdiscussionsto "prove"that I am
reducingthemysticalto the sexual(Larson:659),despitethe factthatthis
passageandits claimarenestledin andglossedby a twelve-pageexplanation of whyI amrejectinga reductionistic
reading(317-328).HereI reject
a mechanistic"sublimationmodel"for a mystical"realizationmodel"
is not so mucha productof
("forthe eroticin the life of Ramakrishna
somepsychologicalor biologicalprocessas it is a realizationof an everpresent,if usuallyunconscious,reality")andexplainwhyI privilege"the
specifically
religious,evenontological,dimensionsof the saint'sworldas
the truelocus of meaning"(325).Justas mysteriously,
Larsonwantsto
I
I
in
fact
that
am
a
when
mappedout two
argue
advancing singlecause,
and
primarylevels (the Tantricand the incarnational) eightdifferent
dimensions(the textual,the political,the psychological,the social,the
ontological,the ritual,the anal,and the theological)in the production
andprocessof Ramakrishna's
secret(310-317).
Manyscholarlyreviewshave noted, if not highlighted,this multidimensional,nonreductiveelementof myworkwithwarmandenthusiastic appreciation(JRH;Haberman;Hawley;Hayes;Padoux;Parsons;
Patton;Radice1997',1998;Urban;Vaidyanathan;
Williams),ashaveeven
I
somedevoteesin personalcorrespondence.mentionthisnot to commit
thelogicalfallacyof appealingto authoritybutto asksimply:Whydoesas
a readerasLarsoncompletelymisswhatotherscholarshave
sophisticated
1William Radiceof the Universityof Londonhas twice now bravelytried to defendmy work in the
Calcuttapressas a piece of sympatheticscholarship(once as a stand-aloneletterto the editorand once
in the context of a book reviewof anotherwork). The newspaperrefusedto print the firstdefenseand
cut everyreferenceto me or my work from the book review(Radice1997).

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Journal of the AmericanAcademy of Religion

so easily seen?Why must he so seriously misrepresentwhat I have written?In Larson'sown words, "Whatis reallygoing on here?"(663).
3) The Study of Religion. Generallyspeaking,Larsonis writing well
within the political parameters of our present postcolonial situation,
where common "orientalist"and "neo-colonialist"chargestoo often devolve from their originalgenuineinsightsinto a kind of easycensorshipof
non-indigenousvoices. Morespecifically,I suspectthat Larson'sown relationship to the RamakrishnaMission and his role here as a defenderof the
tradition were influential in both the original conception and final negativeconclusionsof the review.Within this role Larsonfaultsme for not
engaging the tradition in a more explicit fashion before I published the
book and implies that, had I done so, the tradition would have engaged
me in an open fashion.
I'm not so sure. I did in fact explore, both anecdotallyand historically,the limits of the tradition'swillingness(if not in the way Larsonproposes). One Bengalifriendwould only whisperto me about the censored
passages, and this in his own home. Another felt uncomfortable talking about the issue in a restaurant.When I tried to locate a copy of Sumit
Sarkar'spowerful essay on the saint (Sarkar1985)-everyone seemed to
know about it, but no one seemed to have it-I felt as if I were askingto
buy illegal drugs (not that I have ever done that). I also spoke to Indian
intellectuals in Calcutta,whose responses could be summarized as follows: "Youare right, but we cannot say that here. You,however,can and
should say it overthere."It was my willed distanceand culturalotherness
that gave me a perspective,a voice, and an emotional freedom that my
Indian colleagues and friends either lacked or refused to claim as their
own. From a thousand such interpersonalhints and cultural cues it became patentlyclearto me that I had stumbled upon a cultural"secret,"a
topic well outside the bounds of possiblepublic discourse.
Moreoverand more importantly(becauseless anecdotally),therewere
good historical reasons for my decision not to share my researchbefore
publication.Afterall, my work on the historicaltextualtraditionproceeds
only through a hermeneuticalrecovering of that which has been suppressed, censored, and denied by the tradition. There is thus no way in
which work like mine could not be controversial;to the extent that it
revealsesoteric truths that have been concealedby the tradition, it must
be contestedand ultimatelyrejectedby that same tradition.
But again-and this needs to be stressed-there is nothing particularlynew aboutthis. Ramakrishnahas alwaysbeen a scandal.The veryfirst
biographyof the saint, Ram ChandraDatta'sfascinatingJivanav.rttanta
(1890), was called "bosh and rot" by Narendra Nath Datta (Swami
Vivekananda)and becamethe object of a possiblelawsuit,advancedin all
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andRejoinders
Kripal:
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631

likelihood by no other than Narendrahimself (Kripal 1995: 8-9). Satyacharan Mitra, Ramakrishna's"second biographer,"was still disgusted
with Dattain 1897,when he publishedhis own text in an attemptto rectify
things (1). SwamiNikhilanandasystematicallycensoredGuptain his 1942
translationof the
And ChristopherIsherwood,the gayAmeriKathm.rta.
can novelist who engaged
the traditionin waysvery similarto those Larson espouses,could not write abouthis beloved saint,who "gotinto drag"
(1981:249), in his now famous Ramakrishnaand His Disciples.That "was
out of the question,"Isherwoodwrote, as soon as his biographybecame
"anofficialprojectof the RamakrishnaOrder."He was sending the chapters to India as he wrote them for comments and corrections (isn't this
what Larsonwanted me to do?), and he knew "thatthere were limits" to
what he would be allowed to write about (1981: 249). And he was right.
Thirty years later,an old friend of Isherwood'sstood up after I finished
delivering a paper on Ramakrishna'scross-dressingat the annual AAR
meeting in Washington,DC, and said to me with a warm smile, "Chris
would be verypleased."Indeedhe would havebeen. But Chrishimself was
effectivelysilenced by and preciselybecauseof his connection to the tradition, as many writersbefore him had been and many writers after him
would be.
And continue to be. Sumit Sarkar'sprovocativesocio-economic reading of the saint was only published in a considerablyaltered,"censored"
form (Sarkar1991), and the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
Center in New
Yorkdenied Carl Olson permission to quote from Nikhilananda'sThe
Gospelof Sri Ramakrishnain his (AARpublished) TheMysteriousPlay of
Kalf. The reason?A committee appointed by the Center disagreedwith
Olson'sinterpretations(x).
My decision, then, not to enter dialogue with the official tradition
beforepublicationwas not some moralfaultor ethicallapse on my part. It
was a reasonable,responsible,consciousdecision takento protectmy own
intellectualfreedom. It was based on extensiveknowledge of the textual
tradition before me. And, most importantly,it flowed directlyout of my
understanding of the structure of esoteric mystical traditions, whose
truths are inevitably defined against and beyond those of the societies
from which they spring.
Larson wants to imagine that, had I actually done the structurally
impossible and raised the issue in an open fashion with the tradition, I
would have somehow written a more "balanced"book. The fact is that I
have engaged the tradition in an extensive two-year dialogue since the
book's publication through numerous devotees, associates,and one talented and eloquent swami (SwamiAtmajnanananda),and I can say in all
honesty that such a discussion has led to no such "balance"on my part
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(although it has correcteda few minor, tangentialerrors,each of which I


have since happilyretractedand apologizedfor [Kripal1998b]). Interestingly, this dialogue contradictsLarson'sown descriptions of my work as
old news and the tradition as intellectually open, since Swami Atmajnananandacategoricallydeniesthe homosexualhypothesisand rejectsany
and all genuinelysexualcomponents in the saint'smysticalexperiencesas
"imagined"by me (Atmajnanananda1997).
Larson is right about one thing, though: Had I engaged the culture
earlierin an open fashion and learnedwhat I know now (after the hatemail and a movementto havethe book banned in India2),I indeed would
not, couldnot, have written this book, but not because of some idealized
balancethat I would have achieved.I simply would have been too afraid,
like my whisperingfriendsand nervousintellectualcolleaguesin Calcutta.
I understandand acceptLarson'sbest intentions that he is not suggesting
that I should have allowedthe traditionto censor me, but this, if the textual record means anything, was an all too real possibility.I simply was
not willing to takethat risk.The subsequentreactionsin Indiato my work
(all of which, pace Larson,have focused on the highly explosivetheme of
homosexuality and not on when or even whether I shared my research)
have convinced me that I readthe situation correctly.
As historiansof religions,it seems to me that in caseslike this we have
two fundamentalchoices: to speak or to remain silent. I have chosen to
speak "the secret"(mustikos).I have not abandonedor rejecteddialogue
with the tradition; indeed, working out of Richard Shweder'scultural
psychology and its notion of "thinkingthrough others,"I have actually
proposeda dialogicmodel for the psychoanalyticstudy of Hinduism that
is very similar to, if not the same as, the model Larson proposes in his
reviewarticle(Kripal1998a).Nevertheless,it is true that with Kail's Child
I chose to practicemy dialoguewith the official traditiononly afterI had
published my work. These are not logically exclusivepositions, for there
are at least two pathswithin Larson'sthird, dialogicalmodel for the study
of religion:pre-dialogueand post-dialogue.I have chosen the latter,but
I recognize that this is a debatable issue and that others might choose
differently.I can only respect those choices, even if I must question the
wisdom of generalizingthem and worry out loud about their practical
outcomes in this particularcase.
JeffreyJ. Kripal
WestminsterCollege
New Wilmington,PA
2 See"Ramakrishna's
on
ImpulsesSparkRow"in TheTimesofIndia(10April1997),whichreported
a movementto encourage
thecentralgovernment
to banthebookandto havea letterof protestsent
to theU.S.government.
Fora spiriteddefensebyanIndianscholarin anotherIndiannationalnewspaper,seeT.G.Vaidyanathan.

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