India and Her traditions: A Reply to Jeffrey Kripal – S.N. Balagangadhara

Before addressing this writing to Jeffrey Kripal, I would like to very clearly stipulate some of my basic stances so that the discussion does not get derailed into these issues.

(A) Even though the communication will be directed to the person of Jeffrey Kripal, it is not ad hominem but issue-oriented. However, I will eschew making some kinds of qualifications academics are prone to make, so that any intelligent, but layperson can not only follow the discussion but also evaluate what is being said.

(B)I do not subscribe to the ‘identity politics’ popular in the US universities, any more than I belong to the community of writers who call themselves ‘post-colonial’ or as defenders of the ‘sub-altern’ studies. I find such writings intellectually both puerile and pernicious.

(C) In no form or fashion do I want to claim that the location of a person is relevant to evaluating what he says. Caste, creed, ethnic origins, cultural location, skin-colour, passport, etc. are no more relevant to this debate than the fact that the ‘Jewishness’ of Albert Einstein is relevant to evaluating his theory of general (or special) relativity. That is to say, if we can do physics, Mathematics, Biology, etc.; if we can write in illuminating ways about St. Augustine or Martin Luther; I do not see why someone from another culture (whether Western, African, or American Indian) cannot do the same about Shankaracharya or Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.

(D)The above stance is not a mere moral one, as far as I am concerned. This is an integral part of what it is to contribute to human knowledge. In so far as possessing a white skin does not make one into a scientific researcher only by virtue of this fact alone, the same does not disqualify one from being a researcher either. It is strictly irrelevant. However, this does not mean that it is irrelevant to producing that knowledge. In more ways than one, one’s context is important and, perhaps, in this column I can talk about the ways in which it is the case. But this concerns the production of knowledge not its evaluation.

Therefore, I will be interrogating Jeffrey Kripal with respect to one single question: has he produced knowledge or not? I do not believe he has; I believe his stance prevents him from recognizing it; I do not believe he knows either of these two. I will try to provide arguments in defense of these charges. This is my brief.

Dear Jeffrey Kripal,

Many voices will have joined in this debate by the time I get to publish this. Mine is one such. In the course of the communication, it is possible that I raise my voice now and then to make some point or another. Let this only draw your attention to the fact that we are disputing some issues not as disembodied minds but as human beings. MenschlichesAllzumenschliches (Human, All-too-Human), as Nietzsche put it so beautifully while titling one of his contributions thus.

Your first book raises many issues; your other book even more. As does Rajiv Malhotra’s article. So does your response. I want to take up many of them; but my ‘wordiness’ (as some people so kindly characterize my style) will no doubt prevent me from doing all I want to. But the issue I want to tackle requires this writing style. So, please indulge me. In order to set the problem up, I will begin by sketching some relevant anecdotes.

1. As is the case with most Indians, I learnt English through an Indian language. I was taught that puja was worship, devas meant ‘gods’ (with this capitalisation) and so on. It was not clear what exactly ‘God’ was even though I was taught that you write ‘God’ with a ‘big G’ as we used to say. I guess I assumed that ‘God’ referred to the entity you ‘chose’: mine, for instance was ‘Ishwara’. Somehow, I fell in love with this ‘erotic ascetic’ (as Wendy Doniger titled her book on Shiva): with his abode in the ‘cemeteries’, with his tendency to be easily provoked to anger; his ‘veebhoothi’ and his snake and, of course, his children Ganesha and Skanda. No doubt, it has something to do with my name and my ‘short temper’ (as we say in India) too. One day, I must have been around 14 then, I ‘discovered’ that Linga meant phallus (a ‘penis’ as it was explained to me) and that it was a ‘symbol’ of male fertility. So, when my sisters and mother went to do puja in the nearby temple of Mallikarjuna (another name for Shiva), they actually went to worship a male penis. I was terribly, terribly embarrassed by this explanation, felt it was wrong too, but did not know what to say about it. I still remember running to the temple to see whether the Shiva linga looked like a penis. I must confess that it did not. However, my insistence on this fact generated a jeering laughter from the person who had ‘broken this news’ to me: “How many have you seen? That is what the penis will look like when you grow old.” My sense of wrongness persisted, the embarrassment never left me, especially when Europeans asked me what ‘Shiva linga’ stood for. But I did not know what to say.

2. Fast forward. Nearly a decade later. I am 24 and on my first trip to Europe. I ‘knew’ about homosexuality abstractly (i.e. it never occurred to me to visualise it concretely), and had ‘no problems with it’ (as I used to put it in those days). However, I was quite unprepared for the sight of males ‘French kissing’ each other openly and therefore was incredulously fascinated by the scene when I first came across it in Amsterdam. Anyway, I went back to India having learnt about some of the outward signs of manifesting homosexual affection.

As you will no doubt know, it is a common practice for friends to walk the streets in India, holding hands and moving them breezily. It is equally common to put your arm across the shoulders of your friend and walk or cycle. In India, I had a friend who had this habit of clasping your hands and walk along with you. After my return from Europe, I could not reciprocate any more: I knew what it ‘meant’. Even though I had no problem doing the same before I went to Europe, after my return, I could not. It was embarrassing; but I could not share this feeling with my friend who had never been to Europe. I could not tell him to stop doing it either because it would have affected our friendship. So, I tried not to walk next to him when we were together in a group. When two of us were alone and on the streets, I solved ‘the problem’ by constantly holding a lighted cigarette in the hand he would want to clasp. Instinctively, as it happened many-a-times, he would move to the other side; then, so would my cigarette.

3. Fast forward again. Nearly a quarter century later. Today, I am able to reflect about what embarrassments like the above signified. Now I have begun to fashion the intellectual and conceptual tools needed to interrogate these experiences: not mine alone but those of a culture. What was the nature of wrongness and embarrassment I felt when I ‘discovered’ that linga ‘meant’ penis? Why did I feel embarrassed to hold my friend’s hand? What sense of ‘wrongness’ prevented me from telling him what ’embarrassed’ me about this simple act of affection between friends? And so on and so forth.

4. Many readers of the debate that has ensued after Rajiv Malhotra’s article are expressing this sense of ‘wrongness’ as well. Probably, most of them do not belong to the ‘Hindu right’ or to the ‘Hindutva’ movement. Nor are they expressing an ironed out, prudish ‘neo-Vedantic’ strain, as you put it. Something else is involved. Before interrogating this experience, let me tell you what happened recently. I asked my brother (in India) to read the Sulekha column and tell me of his responses. Unprepared for what he was going to encounter, he had the article and the responses printed out and read them through. The other day, I rang up to ask him what he made of all this. He told me that he could not sleep the whole night after reading Rajiv Malhotra’s article. He just sat the night through he said, much to his wife’s worry who told him that he was ‘foolish’ to read all kinds of stuff and upset himself. “Why do they write about us like this,” he asked, “what injustice (Anyaaya) have we done to the Americans that they write about our deva’s this way?” He feels enraged, ashamed, humiliated and wounded, without knowing what to do about any of these feelings. “I feel like scratching my body incessantly” (a typical Indian expression of helplessness), he said, “they ‘should not’ have written this way. It is wrong. It is a paapa” (Ganesha is his favorite ‘God’. His home is full of pictures of all kinds of Ganesha’s: the baby Ganseha, the crawling Ganesha, the dancing Ganesha and, of course, any number of seated ones.) Why do my brother and many others like him on this board experience feelings like ‘injustice’, ‘humiliation’, ‘moral wrong’ and so on? If they are ‘shocked’ and ‘indignant’, which they undoubtedly are, what kind of a shock and indignation is it?

5. Surely, Jeffrey Kripal, this is the first thing you have to explore when you want to ‘understand’ a culture different from your own. You say, in your defense, that you have assembled a thick file of correspondence (both positive and negative) from Indians and that you are ‘sensitive’ to their feelings. This is not an issue about your sensitivity or mine, my friend, but about cultural sensibilities. What kind of shock and sense of wrongness does one feel to see Ramakrishna portrayed as a sort of pedophile? (Of course, you do not quite ‘say’ it in these terms; we will have time to look at your nuances later.) You have the answers ready: I know them, so do the readers. Instead of discussing them in the abstract, let us try and interrogate these experiences themselves, and do an exercise in ‘cultural hermeneutics’ as it were.

6. Here is the first striking thing: these purported ‘explanations’ trivialize experiences. When I ‘found out’ that my mother, my sisters, all women and all men, were merely worshipping the male penis it told me the following: (a) that what I was doing was, in fact, ‘worshipping’ the penis; (b) that I was a ‘fool’ to think that I was doing something else other than this. That is to say, not only did it make all hitherto acts of worship look foolish, it also insisted that I was being doubly ‘foolish’ for not knowing this. [Ibid. with respect to claiming that Ganesha’s love of sweets expresses his appetite for oral sex or that his trunk is a limp penis. How foolish it must seem to cook all those many, many sweet dishes during ‘Ganesha Chaturthi’!]

7. By virtue of this, it ‘transformed’ my experience. What does the transformation consist of? Such purported explanations re-describe experiences by twisting or distorting them. Before I went to Europe, holding hands was not experienced by me as an expression of homosexuality but now it gets distorted to become one after my encounter with the European culture. Same thing with respect to the re-description of linga as penis.

Of course, it is the case that scientific theories ‘correct’ experiences too: we see a stick appearing bent when immersed in water and see the movement of the sun across the horizon. Our scientific theories tell us that neither is true. In such cases, it is important to note that these theories preserve our experiences the way they are: in fact, the scientific theories explain to us the necessity of such appearances. They do not distort them, much less deny them.

8. That is what these purported explanations do: deny our experiences. Our worship of the linga is in reality not a worship of Shiva at all, but a ‘subconscious acknowledgement’ of some ‘repressed’ notion of fertility (or whatever else). Whatever we ‘experience’ is not the said object at all but something else.

9. What happens when your experience is denied by being distorted and trivialized? If you ‘accept’ this story of penis, both erect and limp, can you feel the same sense of ‘reverence’ (or call it what you want) that you did once, remember it too, without feeling a perfect ass? You cannot. You cannot have access to such an experience any more. That is, these purported explanations deny access to our own experiences.

10. Here lies the root of the sense of ‘wrongness’ that my brother and many others feel. Who or what is denying access to our own experience? It is not a theory, but a theorizing of someone else’s experience. Because this point can be easily misunderstood, let me unravel this just a bit.

Much before Freud wrote whatever he did, we had people from other religions coming to India to say the same thing: first from Islam and then from Christianity. They told us (not only them, many Indians in their wake told us that as well!) that we were worshipping the cow, the monkey, the penis, the stone idol and the naked fakir. This is how these people experienced us and our activities. Their theologies had prepared them for such an experience much before they came to our part of the world. Of course, they ‘saw’ only what they expected to see.

The descriptions the missionaries provided, the reports of Christian merchants, the interpretations of the Muslim kings, the developments within Christian theology, etc. were the ‘facts’ that Freud sought to understand. (To the extent he believed that he was laying the foundation of a ‘scientific’ theory, to that extent these were the ‘facts’ he was accounting for.) What did he ‘theorize’ then? He theorized upon the European experience of other cultures and upon a theological elaboration of these experiences.

Consequently, who or what is denying the access to our experience? The experience of another culture. (Or, the ‘theorizing of such an experience.’ Though important in its own right, we can safely drop this distinction. Taking it into consideration would make the analysis complex without adding anything of substance.) This lies at the root of the feeling of wrongness: our experiences are being trivialized, denied, distorted and made inaccessible by someone else’s experience of the world. Hence the feeling of moral or ethical wrongness, because such a situation is neither justified nor justifiable. One is made to think that, apparently, there is only one way of experiencing the world: the ‘western way’.

11. Thus some among us protest: this situation is morally wrong. “What injustice have we done that you speak of us this way? It is a paapa“, as my brother put it. Like Rajiv Malhotra, there are others who argue this point of view eloquently and with repeated insistence. But such men and women are easily branded: as the RSS, as the Hindutva and, of course, the ever-present threat of being damned as a ‘Hindu fundamentalist’. Others, much like the 14-year-old boy that I once was, fall silent because another kind of wrongness is involved as well: the cognitive wrongness.

12. Scientific theories, in so far as they explain our experiences, do so without denying or trivializing the latter. But the explanations of the sort you give, and those I heard, do not explain; they merely trivialize, distort and deny what we experience. They do not shed any light on our experiences, but render them opaque and inaccessible. Galileo did not deny that we see the movement of the sun on the horizon or that we see it rise and set. None would have taken him seriously, then or later, if he had done either. Instead, he explained the necessity of this perception, while explaining that the world is not structured this way. To be sure he challenged; but to whom or to what did he address it to? To a set of beliefs about the world and to the authority that defended those beliefs. He did not tell you or me that we hallucinate every time we see the movement of the Sun; he claimed that the geocentric theory was false. This is not what you are doing, Jeffey Kripal. You are telling us we have a false experience and not that we have a false theory about mysticism. How do you accomplish this? By trivializing and denying our experience. And this makes most of us fall silent, making us dumb. The way a boy of 14 could not think of anything to say when he heard that the Shiva linga was the male penis. Not because it struck a chord in him, but because he did not know how to counter it. He fell silent because he did not know how to express the sense of cognitive wrongness he felt, a situation that many among of us find ourselves in.

Today, more than three decades later, that boy has grown up. He has studied books, thought about questions and analyzed the relevant experiences. Today, he is able to say what is cognitively wrong: such explanations do the opposite of what scientific theories do. He now knows that these ‘explanations’ do nothing of the sort they claim; they are merely a way of structuring the experience of a people from another culture. He knows that these pseudo-explanations, that is what they are, sound fancy; knows too that many from his culture parrot this exotic product. But since when, he asks himself, are scientific truths decided by means of majority votes? Thus he claims that the first charge is true Jeffrey Kripal: your story is wrong not only morally but also cognitively. That is, you have not produced knowledge. You could not have produced it because you have not ‘explained’ the experience but, instead, provided a trivialized and distorted description of such an experience. You are not even close to capturing (let alone explaining) the Indian ‘mysticism’ or its cultural forms. In fact, he says, you are blind even to seeing it.

13. What an extraordinary thing to say! You have written a book about the mysticism of Ramakrishna and, yet, here I am, suggesting that you are not even able to see it. So, a bit of explanation is in order. It is tricky, so let us take it by stages.

13.1. Let us step back from the psychoanalytical explanations and ask ourselves the following question: which problem was Freud trying to solve? Of course, there were many: he wanted to investigate into the nature of ‘hysteria’; he wanted to figure out the story behind incest fantasies; he wanted to understand the slips of the tongue, etc. I do not mean any of these. What is the underlying problem behind these issues? Philosophers of science identify such problems as the ‘problem-situation’. What then was Freud’s problem-situation? Both the nature of the psychoanalytic practice and the structure (and content) of the psychoanalytical explanations give us ample clues in the direction of an answer. In its blandest form, it is this: “Is one’s experience in the world (especially about oneself and the others) veridical (i.e. true)?” If we keep in mind what I have said hitherto and what you implicitly assume, it can be put even more provocatively: Is the experience of an individual directly accessible to the individual whose experience it is?

13.2. Freud’s answer is known: no, he said, one can access one’s own experience only through the mediation of another, in casu, the psychoanalyst. This is not the only reason why Freud’s story appears unbelievable. There is something else of importance as well.

I am sure you will admit that not only the notion of experience but also its existence is of crucial importance to us human beings. We think that experience is valuable and important; it is both the source of and the precondition for most learning. Given its centrality to human existence, one would naturally expect the western tradition to be bothered about figuring out what this ‘experience’ is all about. Yet, amazingly enough as it turns out, such is not the case. Despite books and articles in many, many disciplines bearing the title, the nature of ‘experience’ is hardly studied. More often than not, it is reduced to thoughts, feelings, perception (or even sensation) and action. None of these, either severally or jointly exhausts experience because one could experience any or all of them as well. (One can experience thoughts, feelings, etc.) Thus, what is ‘experience’? An important question, but very ill understood.

Such being the case, Freud’s observation and his sensing of the ‘problem-situation’ is very sensitive indeed. Of course, he hypothesized that the individual experience is not directly accessible to the said individual, and postulated many mechanisms to account for this non-accessibility. We need take no sides on the ‘validity’ or otherwise of his individual hypotheses here, even though I will return to this issue in another way at the end of this column.

13.3. There is, however, another culture in the world, which has made this ‘problem-situation’ an absolutely central focus of its enquiry. All the Indian traditions, without any major exception as far as I know, have made experience and its interrogation central to their enquiry. Naturally, they too discovered that experience is not ‘veridical’; there are ‘things’ that prevent us from accessing these experiences. Different traditions called them differently: Maaya, Avidya and Agyana, are the best-known categories in this context. They thought each of these categories was an instance of ‘paapa‘ and, in fact, removing this has been their central goal: Gyaanoodaya or the ‘arising of knowledge’ (again, it is called differently by different traditions). The hindrances to knowledge were either ‘illusions’ (of sorts) or ignorance (of sorts). One could eliminate them, they said, and developed any number of practical ways of doing so. (The plurality of the Indian traditions is partly a plurality of the ways of removing the veil of ignorance.)

Though ill understood by most Indologists and philosophers, these notions are crucial. ‘Ignorance’ is not mere ‘absence of information’; it is accorded a positive role, and seen as a positive force that actively hinders the emergence of knowledge. Maaya is not mere illusion; the world exists and impinges upon us too much to make the facile claim of the sort that Patrick Hogan makes in his article on Sulekha. In any case, these traditions believed too that some kind of ‘mediation’ would be helpful in accessing one’s own experience. They called such a mediator ‘Guru’ and suggested that, in most cases, one needed a Guru to achieve ‘enlightenment’.

13.4. In other words, Jeffrey Kripal, there exist two rival or competing practical traditions that address themselves to the same (or very, very similar) problem-situation. By virtue of this, they become rival or competing research traditions that provide different answers to the same problem-situation.

13.5. Why did you not look at the Indian traditions this way to understand Kali’s Child? [Why do you speak as though the tantric ’emphasis on sex’ antedates Freud’s claims? You say that Tantrism spoke about ‘sex’ even before Freud, as though you want to compliment the Indian culture for its acuity. Actually, it does not sound complimentary but patronizing.] The Indian traditions challenge Freud’s theories. Why did you not look at the issue in this manner?

It is not as though you are ignorant of the Indian traditions. Even if you are, your mentor Wendy Doniger is supposed to be the expert on ‘Hinduism’. Why did it not occur either to her or to you that the theories you used were already facing challenges from within the Indian traditions? Here is my simple answer: you have been blinded to the existence of Indian traditions as alternatives to Freud.

13.6. This is not all. You do something more in your blindness. You use Freudian explanation to characterize a rival research tradition. Such a move can only yield a caricatured, distorted version of the competitor. When I was young, I remember one of my uncles making fun of my exposition of the Darwinian evolutionary theory with the following riposte: “You might be proud to accept that your ancestors are monkeys. I, however, am not.” I felt like a fool again, because I did not know how to respond to my uncle. As I read the research and the controversies later, I discovered that this is one of the most standard ways of ridiculing the evolutionary theory. Who does the ridiculing? Those who belong to the rival research traditions, of course! By caricaturing Galileo’s theory, Aristotelians ridiculed it; this is how modern medicine looks at Paracelsus or the medical practices in the Europe of the Middle Ages and so on. That is what you do as well. To use the stories of the Viennese master to understand Kali’s child is like using creationism to portray Darwin’s theory. You are blind to this distortion as well. So, how could you describe Ramakrishna, when you cannot see him? You cannot; the second charge is obviously not so farfetched after all.

14. This blindness inherent in your venture must render us blind too whether the ‘us’ is a Sudhir Kakar or a Sumit Sarkar. It does.But in a different way and for a different reason. I suppose you have no problem in accepting the suggestion that theories about cultural worlds have their roots in the experiences of such worlds. These theories describe experiences; they reflect on experiences; they problematize such experiences and think through them. In other words, if I want to theorize about the Indian culture, I need to have access to an experience of the Indian culture (whether directly or indirectly). These explanations deny the access by acting as a filter between our own experiences and us.

In one sense, all theories act as some kind of a filter: they select some salient aspect of the experience and focus upon it. In the case we are talking about, the situation is not the same. These purported explanations act as a distorting glass. I knew I had such experiences; I saw that others apparently continued to have the experiences I had before (I continued to see adult male friends holding hands, I continued to see people going to do puja to the Shiva Linga, etc); I knew too that I had these but was unable to access them because of these explanations. That is, these explanations came actively between my own experiences and me, and actively prevented me from describing or reflecting on my own experiences. Did I really ‘see’ the homosexuality of my friend when he held my hands? No. Did I really ‘see’ the penis when I looked at the Lingam? No, I did not. Our experiences of the world and the explanations that are used are at loggerheads with each other: without speaking about experience, one cannot say what the ‘Indian experience’ consists of; the (Freudian) stories we reproduce tell us that there is no ‘Indian experience’ to talk of.

This is the lot and daily life of cultures and peoples colonized by the western culture. The colonization, as many have pointed out, was not merely a process of occupying lands and extracting revenues. It is not a question of us aping the western countries and trying to be like them. It is not even about colonizing the imaginations of a people by making them ‘dream’ that they too will become ‘modern’, developed and sophisticated. It goes deeper than any of these. It is about denying the peoples and cultures their own experiences; of rendering them aliens to themselves; of actively preventing any description of their own experiences except in terms defined by the colonizers. This is the truth about what the Kakars and the Sarkars of my world sell, no matter how they package it, no matter how they market it.

Of course, there is a very substantial issue here: why do we, Indians, continue to be colonized when the ‘real event’ ended more than fifty years ago? I will negatively address myself to this issue shortly only to say what the answer cannot be. In this process, I can answer some possible objections, and bring the case to a conclusion.

15. The third charge is that your stance prevents you knowing you are blind. That is to say, why are you blind? Better said, what makes you blind? The answer to this has layers too, and let me peel just a few of them. To do that, I shall have to engage you in your own territory, on your own turf. That is, I want to talk to you about your understanding of your own culture and religion. (Is this not what ‘cultural hermeneutics’ all about?) Let me, therefore, play the ventriloquist and displace your voice to ask myself a few questions: Is the alienation from our own experience (that I spoke of) any different from what any believer undergoes in the west, when he ‘discovers’ that God is dead? Is my experience any different from a westerner losing his belief about God and the mystic? Are our travails anything other than the story of ‘modernity’ as it plays out in India?

16. Yes, to all three questions. Let me get again into an autobiographical mode to talk about some of them. I did not quite tell you what happened during those decades to me when we fast forwarded. Let us rewind a bit and see what happened to the lad between his 18th and 30th year. You see, he wanted to change the world and became a radical. He left home before he was even twenty, lived in the slums, worked in the quarry, went to the villages and even became a Marxist for a period of time. From an ‘orthodox’ Brahmin, he had metamorphosed into a fire-breathing ‘atheist’: India was backward, the ‘caste system’ was a curse, the Indian traditions were outdated, the ‘gods’ (though he still wrote it with a ‘small g’!) did not exist (except that they once walked the lands of Europe!). A run-of-the-mill progressive, in other words. In short, the revolution could not come soon enough for him. However, what brought him to Marxism also brought him out of it: the inability of these stories to make sense of his experience. So, he came to Europe, not in search of the Holy Grail (how could he? He was born a Brahmin after all!) but to study the root-cause of the problems in Marxist theory. You see, in those days it was difficult for us to find books of Hegel, Fichte, Schelling and many other German philosophers in the public libraries. Even as I began to solve my problems with Marx, a new issue was beginning to force itself on me: I had dimly begun to realize that I was an Indian, and that I lived as such in a culture I hardly understood.

17. This realization turned my world upside down; in doing so, however, it helped me regain access to my own experiences. The world that got turned upside down was the one I thought I lived in all the time. I had thought until then that I knew the western culture like the back of my hand: it was a shock to discover just how far I was from knowing either. I could hold forth on the notions of ‘civil society’, ‘ought’ in ethics, the histories of renaissance and enlightenment and, why, I could even eat meat and drink wine. None of these, I discovered, meant anything: I was and remained an Indian, even if I once thought I was ‘modern’. Thus, I reflected on my experiences (fed by reading and yet more reading) until I could begin to grasp the outlines of the question, what is to be an Indian? Seventeen years ago, I formulated these reflections as a research project, titling it after a poem from T.S. Eliot that goes like this: ‘…We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring shall be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. I had indeed arrived where I had started from: India, Bangalore, a Brahmin family. I began to know the place too for the first time, because, at last, I could begin to access my own cultural experiences in the way they need to be accessed. However, the job is not complete and the process not yet over. During all these years, I have been constructing the tools required to gain access to our experiences because I realized too that my individual biography was but the Indian history writ small.

18. That is why I can now say that discovering lingam was called ‘penis’ did not rob me of my world the same way atheism robs a believer of his world in the western culture. It could not. There are so many reasons why these two processes are not even remotely similar that I cannot hope to mention any of them in the course of this column. Instead, let me recount a story taken from the Chandogya Upanishad.

It appears Prajapathi said that he who has found the ‘Self’ (Atman) and understands it obtains all worlds and all desires. “The Devas and the Asuras both heard these words, and said: ‘Well, let us search for that Self by which, if one has searched it out, all worlds and all desires are obtained’. Thus saying Indra from the Devas, Virochana from the Asuras, and both without having communicated with each other, approached Prajapathi… They dwelt there as pupils for thirty-two years. Then Prajapathi asked them: ‘For what purpose have you both dwelt here?’ They both replied: ‘A saying of yours is being repeated … Now we have both dwelt here because we wish for that Self’.” He makes them both look in a pan of water and asks them what they see. They see their own bodies reflected. He makes them dress up and look again into the water pan asks them what they see. “They said: ‘Just as we are, well adorned, with our best clothes and clean, thus we are both there, Sir, well adorned, with our best clothes and clean.’ Prajapathi said: “That is the Self, this is the immortal, the fearless, this is the Brahman’. They both went away satisfied in their hearts.” Prajapathi reflects on their absence of critical thought and thinks that whichever of the two follows this line of thought will ‘perish’. The story continues: “Now Virochana, satisfied in his heart, went to the Asuras and preached that doctrine to them, that the self (the body) alone is to be worshipped, that the self (the body) alone is to be served, and that he who worships the self and serves the self, gains both worlds, this and the next.”[i] The Story further continues about what Indra did, but that is not relevant to me now. What are the three obvious points in the story:

18.1. Both the Ausuras and the Devas seek enlightenment. Quite obviously, as this story makes clear, this state does not consist of ‘believing in’ some deva or the other for the simple reason that they, the devas, thirst after enlightenment too! Further, to reach this state, as it becomes evident when we follow the story further, no ‘grace’ of any kind of ‘God’ is required: one needs to think through. (The Indian traditions speak of any number of other ways too, but that need not detain us here.) From this it follows that one’s enlightenment is the result of one’s own effort. It is a deserved ‘reward’ that is in proportion to the effort you put in. Between you and the enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal in life, no one or no thing can counteract your efforts.

18.2. Virochana’s insight that the body requires worshipping because it is the ‘Self’ is a wrong answer because it is superficial. The answer, however, is not false. As the story evolves further, the reader appreciates that the Asura’s answer is superficial because Indra is provided with a ‘deeper’ answer. Some answer is superficial only relative to a deeper one but that does not make the former into a false answer. Virochana’s insight appears as materialistic and as ‘atheistic’ as they come: yet, the story seems to condone it as a possible answer (though wrong and superficial) to seek enlightenment. (This answer will not ‘help’ and that is why it is wrong.) The discovery that all there is to life is the life one has, or the body one has, does not rob an Indian of anything. Very sharply put: in the Indian traditions, ‘atheism’ (of a particular sort, see below) can also be a way of reaching enlightenment. (We are not yet talking about ‘Buddhism’!) This claim is not even remotely similar to the shock of ‘discovering’ (in the western culture) that ‘God is dead’.

18.3. What kind of ‘atheism’ am I talking about? Not Western atheism because that makes no sense to the Indian traditions because of two things: (a) As the story above suggests, the road to ‘enlightenment’ does not go through Jerusalem. That is, Prajapthi does not tell Indra that he should ‘believe’ in ‘God’ in order to be enlightened. (b) Consequently, Indian traditions are not ‘theistic’ (poly-, heno- or mono- or whatever) the way Judaism, Christianity and Islam are. Consequently, western forms of ‘atheism’ do not have the western kind of a theistic doctrine to oppose, when they come to India.

You might object that the distinction drawn I have drawn above between the ‘wrong’ answer and the ‘false’ one is a quibble about the meaning of words. It is not: there is a cognitive issue involved here. When one has a false answer, one can know that it is false and, perhaps, even localize its falsity. To reject a false answer, one does not need the presence of an alternative answer. This is not the case with a wrong answer. One might ‘feel’ that something is wrong without being able to say what is wrong or even reject the wrong answer. (Look at what I have been saying throughout this communication.) One needs the presence of an alternative and a better answer in order to say what was wrong with the ‘wrong answer’ and reject it.

18.4. The contrast between our Asuras and the Devil in the Bible cannot be greater. Even though, in the classical but simple interpretation, the Devil himself is a fallen angel, he does not believe in God, but merely acknowledges His existence. As the Gospel puts it, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2: 26; my emphasis.) The Devil makes us deny the ‘true’ God, says the religion that Christianity is. God reveals Himself to save us from the ‘clutches’ of the Devil, it assures us further. To become an atheist in the West is to lose ‘faith’ in this revelation. Where is this ‘atheism’ and where our traditions? Where is the Devil, and where our Asuras?

19. Thus, our Asuras are not like the Devil or his minions in the Bible. Not only do they seek ‘enlightenment’, as the above story makes it clear, but some of them are also the greatest of the bhaktas of our devatas. The reason why Rama was born, they say, was to kill Ravana — a supreme Bhakta. He deserved not to die in any way other than by being slain by Vishnu himself. To this day, we celebrate the greatest king (an asura) we ever had, and the greatest bhakta who ever lives: Lord Bali (an immortal) on whose head Trivikrama (Vaamana, as he is also called) placed his third foot. Each year, it appears, he ascends from the bottom of the earth to find out how his subjects are faring: the streets are lit as our houses with their doors open, so that he may come in and feel welcomed. We call this the festival of lights, the Deepavali. You know all this. Why do I tell it to you then? It is to say that our ‘atheisms’, our ‘asuras’, the ‘immorality’ of our devas do not rob us of our traditions the way atheism does rob a believer in the West. Devatas may die, be born again, punished, or even remain immortal: our traditions do not suffer from any of these but live on precisely because of these. Consequently, today, without rejecting any piece of knowledge I have ever learnt, I can access my traditions and my experience in a very profound way. That is why, Jeffrey Kripal, you would be wrong to say that what I felt when I was fourteen is what the believer feels when he loses his faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is another process altogether.

When people protest against your portrayal of Ramakrishna, the majority of the Indians are not saying what you think they are. The language they use may sound familiar to your ears; what they say might remind you of your own experience. To see and understand us this way, however, is to understand very little about what makes us into different cultures or even what is interesting about this.

20. During the last two decades, I did not merely build the tools to recover my own experiences. I discovered that I could not do this without understanding the western culture either. My attempts at understanding one could not be begun without trying to understand the other. To know my mother better, it appears, I need to know my mother-in-law as well. So, let us look at how youhave been treating the latter because we know what you have done with the former. How has psychoanalysis, sociology, psychology, anthropology, or whatever else described what religion is? That is to say, what do they assume when they try to explain religion, if they explain it at all? They assume that religion is a human product, if not a human invention. But Jeffrey Kripal, this assumption denies them their study object: A Christian believer sees the Bible as the word of God and not just as a book. You cannot explain this belief by appealing to any sets of natural causes unless you begin with the assumption that the believer is wrong about his own experience. Of course, you cannot countenance God in your research; however, if you do not, you are not studying religion as the believer experiences it, but its caricatured representation. In other words, your Freud cannot explain religion. He explains it as merely a human product, an assumption for which he has no grounds. To formulate simply: atheism is a philosophical option, but this option will deny you from doing science. Doing theism, however, will give you theology but not science. To a Christian, the existence or non-existence of Jesus is of great importance, but the answer to the question about the historical Jesus will not tell you anything about his Christ-Nature. If he is not the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth is merely a man, not even ‘the Son of Man’. But then, of course, you cannot assume that Jesus is Christ and write a scientific tract about it either. Underlying this dilemma is a whole host of other problems. (To write further on this requires a book. I have written one such, which you might care to read.) Therefore, it appears, by assuming the stance that you do towards the study of religion, you do ‘unto your fellow-men what you do unto us as well.’ You caricature the experience of the believer in your culture; you caricature the experiences of our entire culture. It is this that blinds you to what you are doing.

21. That means, your descriptions of our experiences are doubly caricatured. Firstly, you tell us that what we ‘see’ is not what we ‘see’: the linga is not the linga but a penis. As I said earlier, this is what religions like Christianity and Islam had told us. You tell me they are right. This way, you impose your cultural experience upon us and deny our experiences. Secondly, you tell us that, even here, what we do is something else: it transpires that we are not ‘worshipping’ penis or falling in love with Shiva. We do not ‘worship’ at all (one can only ‘worship’ either God or the Devil) and Shiva is but an ‘erotic ascetic’. The aspect has two tails that sting: why does the imagination of the Indian culture express itself in such grotesque forms as the penis, the monkey, the stone idol with four arms, and an elephant-headed human? Why is the western imagination confined to more ‘decent’ things like visualizing God as the ‘father’? Enter Wendy Doniger and her children, who answer these questions in ways known to us all. Is there any wonder people are furious? Are you really that amazed?

22. Let me bring the case to a conclusion: what are you trying to ‘understand’ when you use your ‘hermeneutic’ to understand Ramakrishna? How you see him? How your culture sees him? Or how we see him? What are you theorizing about? Your experience, your culture’s experience, or ours? You insist that how your culture experiences the world is also the only possible experience of the world. (Not explicitly, of course. But, as I have argued, that is what you do.) You want to tell us what Ramakrishna’s ‘mysticism’ is all about because this is the only way your theories allow you to see it. Your theories, your explanations, your assumptions deny us what you would not, as a person, dream of denying to us: that we too have an experience, another one perhaps, but one that is as ‘valid and legitimate’ as any human experience can be.

You end your article with these words: “I at least am ready to laugh again, to exchange gifts, to argue, to apologize, to weep. I always have been.” I believe you. But do you know, people from other cultures do so too? We too laugh, exchange gifts, argue, apologize and weep? You know that we do it; you assume you know what they are because that is what you do too. But do you know how we do any or all of these things? Does it occur to you that we might do them differently? Do you, Jeffrey Kripal, know how we cry or even why? I wonder.

Friendly greetings

Balu

[i] The translation is taken from Müller. The Upanishads. In two parts. Reprint edition. New York: Dover Publications, 1962: Part I: Pp.134-137

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