HINDUISM IS THE THIRD largest religion in the world, and probably the most misunderstood. This was of little consequence in the United States as recently as half a century ago, though there have been periodic bursts of interest since Ralph Waldo Emerson first became enamored of the Upanishads. Today, though, more than two million Hindus of Indian origin live and work side by side with their fellow American citizens, Hindu temples, like synagogues and mosques before them, have cropped up in cities and suburbs throughout the country, and Americans increasingly do business in India. In addition, millions of non-Indian Americans are engaged in Hindu-related practices such as yoga and meditation, for both spiritual and secular reasons. In this context, what might otherwise seem like a narrow scholarly debate about a long-dead mystic takes on extraordinarily broad significance.
Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana's Interpreting Ramakrishna is a painstaking attempt to refute the central theses of a scholarly book — Jeffrey Kripal's Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna — published sixteen years ago, one that roiled political and cultural waters academic volumes seldom disturb. Based on Kripal's doctoral dissertation, Kali's Child took as its subject the legendary nineteenth-century mystic Sri Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna was one of the most colorful, enigmatic, and revered holy men in India, where such figures are as much a part of the landscape as the ornate temple towers looming above dusty villages or the unassuming shrines tucked into alcoves in teeming cities. Intrigued by the man so many consider a modern saint, Kripal set about dissecting the sage's psyche with the scalpel of psychoanalytic theory. What he believed he uncovered at the secret heart of Ramakrishna's life and work was homoeroticism and sexual abuse.
Objections to academic texts are typically voiced by the author's colleagues in journals, books, and conferences. But Kripal's conclusions were different, because Ramakrishna is worshiped by devotees in both India and the West, because he is regarded as a great holy man by spiritual seekers of all kinds, thanks to the chain of centers established in his name by his chief disciple, Swami Vivekananda, and by illustrious Western devotees like Christopher Isherwood, and, finally, because much of India still harbors Victorian attitudes toward sexuality, especially of the same-sex variety. The reaction of many Hindus to Kripal's thesis was similar to that of certain Christians to Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, or to those who speculate about what Jesus and Mary Magdalene may have been up to when the other apostles weren't looking. To attribute sexual impulses to a figure many consider a divine avatar — or at least an exemplar of self-realization who had transcended base desires — was, to some minds, an insult verging on blasphemy. Some critics treated Kripal to the same facile psychoanalysis that they accused him of applying to Ramakrishna. Attempts to ban his book went all the way to the Indian Parliament. He was even personally threatened in the closest thing to a fatwah that one can imagine in the land of Gandhi.
Kripal's critics within the academy were less emotional, disagreeing with his conclusion on intellectual and methodological grounds...