I do understand the anger that people feel when they read Jeffrey Kripal’s and other people’s assessment of Indian traditions. If someone were to come up with a similar distortion of my own cultural heritage, I would probably feel the same. However, I do feel troubled when people end up calling Kripal a “cheat”, a “spiritual bandit” or begin to speculate about hidden ‘agendas’. My problem is not that these accusations are ad hominem. My problem is that they threaten to obscure a genuine intellectual problem of a more serious nature.
To make my point, I will approach the issue again from a European point of view. In contemporary Europe, both among the laity as well as among the intelligentsia, there is a genuine curiosity about other culture’s perspectives. In fact, this attitude has been a constant feature of Europe’s intellectual history from at least the period of Italian renaissance onwards. If one asks the question what keeps this sentiment alive, I believe that it would be a fair answer to say that it is the expectation of learning from other cultures. However, when one enters university, one soon discovers that there is “something wrong” with our knowledge about other cultures. Being exposed to faits divers of exotic nature from another culture might be fun at first. But after a while it becomes boring, even when the more “spicy” details are not withheld. The only change that occurs as one goes from the bachelors into the masters is the theoretical ‘sophistication’.
And here the situation gets even worse. How could one possibly take other people’s perspectives seriously when they believe that jumping up and down will cause rain; when they think that lunar eclipses are caused by a dragon swallowing up the moon; or, for that matter, when it turns out that Ganesha’s trunk should actually be considered as a limp phallus? Please bear with me as I do not want to be polemical. I want to raise an important intellectual issue: Why is it that contemporary scholarship turns one of the most fascinating fields of research–that of cultural differences–into the most sterile activity? Why is that we Europeans expect to learn from other cultures, but end up producing nonsense, some of which rightly offends the sensibilities of the people concerned? It is my intention to raise these questions so that we might look at some of Kripal’s statements from another perspective.
As far as I am concerned, I have no reason to doubt Kripal’s sincerity; that is precisely the reason why his statements are all the more interesting. At first sight, it seems that Kripal has a strong case when he refers to some factual textual evidence which supports his homoerotic interpretation of Ramakrishna’s psychology. Instead of discussing whether or not this interpretation is correct, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Kripal considers his conclusions as self-evident. He says: “now why does no one address these and other similar passages? And why are we not perfectly justified in reading the possibility of homoerotic dimensions here? I see nothing remotely wild or excessive or intellectually facile about such an idea.” If I read Kripal correctly, it seems that he asking out loud “how else could one interpret them if not in homoerotic terms?” One possible interpretation is to see a vicious mind at work here. I, on the other hand, would like to suggest that what we see here are the deeply ingrained constraints of one culture when it describes another.
The nature of these constraints becomes visible when we look at what one culture considers as self-evident when it confronts another. What is considered as self-evident depends on how we experience the world. Because this experience differs from culture to culture, different sensitivities provide us with valuable source material to start reflecting about cultural differences. To illustrate the point that I am trying to make, here are some random voices from a time long gone. in the early 18th century, the French Jesuit father Jacques Mauduit discussed the issue of lunar eclipses with some learned brahmins, who had no problem in admitting that the story about a dragon swallowing the moon was false. Sensing victory, the father then drew the attention of the brahmins to the fact that the stories about the Indian gods could not possibly be true either. It seems that they were willing to buy this as well, but they came up with the defense that, nevertheless, they could not do otherwise than worshiping these gods. Being frustrated about the reaction, this is how the father assessed the situation: “the brahmins calmly listened to me without being worried either about the contradictions with which they lived, or the ridiculous implications they were forced to admit.” For the missionary, it was self-evident that the Indians would change their behavior, once they recognized the true nature of their stories. That they did not do so necessarily colored the Jesuit’s experience of the Indians. As far as he was concerned, he had good reasons to believe that they were illogical and not willing to learn. This is another way of saying that the Indians were insensitive to logic or even stupid. On another occasion, father Pierre Martin expressed his happiness when he saw the native people’s reverence for saint Francis Xavier. At the same time, he was also very worried because he discovered that these natives placed the image of the catholic saint among the other images of their ‘false gods’. What troubled him most, however, was that they did so “despite the care with which they were instructed in the cult that was due to him.” Of course, the good father knew that the Indians were ‘devil worshippers’. But what bothered him was the Indians’ refusal to learn. The implications were obvious: the Indians were either stubborn, or not to be trusted, or cheats, etc. this is how the missionary experienced the natives and, as far as he was concerned, he did have convincing reasons too. “How else could one interpret their behavior?” This Jesuit might well have asked. These and similar examples, found in the very influential collection of the so-called lettres édifiantes et curieuses (the collection of letters written by the Christian priests in India to the holy see), show us that the missionaries were not “spiritual bandits” when they criticized the Indians. This is how they experienced the native’s behavior and they had good reasons to believe that their experience was correct.
I do not have the time; nor is there space to delve deeper into the background of this problematic. For those interested in this matter, I refer to Balagangadhara’s “The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West and the dynamic of religion’. All I want to do here is emphasize that westerners indeed produced a distorted image of India. However, instead of looking for individual motifs, I suggest that it would be intellectually more productive if we start looking at this phenomenon from a cultural point of view. Kripal is no “cheat” nor is he a “spiritual bandit”. He even does not have an “agenda”. Kripal exemplifies the constraints of one culture looking at another. What these constraints are, how they operate, how they are sustained and reproduced, etc. are questions that should bother us the most here.
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