Appraising Sri Ramakrishna

By Pravrajika Vrajaprana

This article was written for the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture’s Bulletin. Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun at the Vedanta Society’s Sarada Convent in Santa Barbara.

Sri Ramakrishna used to tell a story of a rich man who instructed his servant to take a diamond to the market and to let him know how various vendors appraised the jewel. The servant first took the diamond to an eggplant seller, who examined the jewel carefully and then said, “Brother, I can give nine seers of eggplants for it.” The servant replied, “Friend, a little more—say, ten seers.” The eggplant seller was adamant: “No, I have already quoted above the market price. You may give it to me if that price suits you.” The servant laughed and return to his master, informing him of the eggplant seller’s bid. The master smiled and told the servant to go to the cloth dealer in the market and ask him how much he would give. The servant went to the cloth seller and asked, “Will you buy this? How much will you pay for it?” The cloth merchant said, “Yes, it is a good thing. I can make a nice ornament out of it. I will give you nine hundred rupees for it.” The servant replied, “Brother, offer a little more and I will sell it to you. Give me at least one thousand rupees.” The cloth dealer retorted, “Friend, don’t press me for more. I have offered more than the market price for it. I cannot give one rupee more. Suit yourself.” Laughing, the servant returned to his master who sent him back to the market, this time to a jeweler. At a glance the jeweler knew the gem’s value. “I will give you one hundred thousand rupees for it.”

Only a jeweler can assess the value of a peerless gem. But where does that leave those who have neither the skills nor the wisdom to ascertain whether the object in question is worthy of an eggplant or a hundred thousand rupees? If it is true that only a person of exalted spiritual character can recognize one similarly constituted, how do those lower on the spiritual totem pole assess someone whose spiritual journey was so outside the realm of ordinary that some people thought him to be a madman while others saw as an avatar?

Put another way, what kind of yardstick do we use to measure Sri Ramakrishna? How and in what context can we make sense of his words and actions and what kind of standards should we use for our interpretations?

These issues are critical, for in today’s increasingly small world our respective worldviews and paradigms knock against each another with growing frequency. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. One person’s inviolable freedom is another person’s unpardonable offense. One person’s avatar is another person’s troubled neurotic. Such disparate viewpoints are inevitable since our experience of the world differs profoundly from one person to another. Every person’s worldview is shaped by their historical and geographical background, culture, religion, education, political persuasion, psychological makeup, social location and gender. Further, worldviews will inevitably clash when there are no commonly accepted sources of valid knowledge (pramana).

When we turn our attention to appraising Sri Ramakrishna, which paradigm is most appropriate for interpreting him? As there various interpretative models available, we need to ask which model or paradigm best suits our goal of finding the truest, most accurate assessment. In a Western academic setting, the generally accepted paradigms for appraising Sri Ramakrishna have been, by and large, located with Western scholars. From F. Max Müller up to the present day, Western scholarship has placed its faith in the interpretive paradigms indigenous to the West. While Western scholars largely accepted the Ramakrishna tradition’s basic source texts—the Kathamrita and Lilaprasanga among others—as valid sources of knowledge, the interpretation given to those sources of knowledge have frequently been at odds with the interpretations of Sri Ramakrishna provided by the authors of those texts. Indeed, there is a basic disconnect between the interpretive models promoted by Western modernity and those of traditional Indian models, in our case, with the models presented by the authors of the Kathamrita (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna) and Lilaprasanga (Ramakrishna: The Great Master).

Much of this disconnect can be traced to the way Western modernity assesses truth claims. During the European Enlightenment several hundred years ago, science and the scientific method became exalted over other ways of knowing. The controlled experiment became the accepted standard of what could be judged as true. This produced a worldview which, as Huston Smith noted, assumed “that science can in principle take in all that exists.” Without question the controlled experiment is the basis of modern science and no one would dispute its importance or necessity. The problem is not with the method, but with what Western modernity has done with the method, which was to make it a universal criterion for all forms of knowledge.

While science brought the world endless blessings in a panoply of various areas&mash;medicine, physics, astronomy, the list goes on and on&mash;that powerful success story became modernity’s existential unraveling. The giddy optimism about science and its seemingly limitless possibilities left the modern Western world in a delirium. The assumption that science had the capacity to discover and reveal all that exists&mash;a not-well-thought-out presumption known as “scientism”&mash;meant that science (or what passed for “science”) eventually was given the role of the ultimate arbiter of truth. The problem with this, however, is that science does not and cannot allow for transcendence.

Science can tell us a great deal about quantifiable matter but it cannot invest meaning into matter or answer the basic question at the root of human existence: What is the purpose of my life? Science may unravel any number of nature’s mysteries but it cannot provide ultimate meaning. The result of our infatuation with science has been to turn the scientific method into metaphysics, thus assigning truth value only to what is measurable and quantifiable&mash;in other words, matter in one form or another. While matter has its uses, matter in and of itself provides no purpose. More invidiously, according to current neuropsychiatric theory, our thoughts, emotions, and spiritual longings are all reduced to epiphenomenal byproducts of matter. For example, in an article in London’s Sunday Times Jonathan Leake and Andrew Sniderman reported on how current neuroscience has been exploring the phenomenon of religious experience. The article suggests that people are “programmed to get a feeling of spirituality from what is nothing more than electrical activity in these regions.” Thus a spiritual experience isn’t accepted as a “spiritual experience”—it becomes electrical activity, neurons firing, portions of the brain lighting up on cue—thus flattening humanity’s highest endeavor. In doing so it becomes quantified and reduced, and if there is one operative word to describe the shortfall which happens when inappropriate paradigms are used for appraising spiritual experiences, that word is reductionism. According to philosopher and sociologist Ernest Gellner, reductionism is “the view that everything in the world is really something else, and that … something else is always in the end unedifying.” Unedifying it is because it leaves the human spirit without any possibility of being greater than itself, in short, it leaves us spiritually impoverished, without the possibility of transcendence.

Another intractable issue that we face when dealing with Western intellectual paradigms is that Western philosophy directs its attention to the faculty of reason, which is believed to be human’s highest faculty. By contrast, the Hindu tradition views reason as secondary to the supra-rational. While reason, critical analysis and argumentation are believed to be necessary, vital according to some sadhanas, reason is nevertheless understood to be inferior to spiritual perception or anubhuti. As philosopher P.T. Raju observed, Indian religious thought has consisted of the search for the ground of being, “not through pure thought alone, but also through realization.” This realization, he writes, is a

matter of experience, not merely of logic…. The essence of religious experience is communion with the Divine. But communion is experience…. There is no a priori reason for limiting experience to sense experience, when there are other kinds of experience. The only question that can be and ought to be raised is about the truth-value of the different kinds of experience…. We ask ourselves, therefore, when and how an experience is true or false.

From the standpoint of the Hindu traditions, spiritual experience is more real, reveals more truth, than the material world and offers more direct knowledge than what objective science can provide. But Western thought gives no quarter to anubhuti. As a result, the Western search for truth did not take in the revelations of the sages and philosophers, instead the West looked towards scientists who could analyze matter. Matter could be gross or subtle, cosmic or subatomic—the secrets unlocked were revelatory and fascinating. The West’s search gave us Einstein and Newton, but it did not give us happiness or fulfillment.

Furthermore, even the humanities&mash;once seen as the bastion of wisdom in the search for truth&mash;got into the reductionist act: social scientists, religious scholars, professors of literature, psychologists and the like, all fell over each other in a headlong pursuit of “scientific” social studies, religion, psychology, etc. Max Müller was the progenitor of Religionswissenschaft, the “science of religion,” Freud famously considered psychology a science, saying: “Our science is not illusion, but an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.” The problem with such self-declared “science” is that it suggests that its findings are unalloyed truth, as self-evident as a mathematical equation. Yet completely arbitrary opinions or societal prejudices were given the armor of “scientific truth,” even when all evidence was to the contrary, and those who contested such “truth” were judged bull-headed or benighted.

It has often been remarked that Western modernity’s intellectual framework was constructed by three great thinkers: Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. While the contributions to Western thought by all three are enormous, we shall turn our attention to Freud, since his influence in assessing Sri Ramakrishna has been much more significant than the other two. In seeking a deeper understanding of human nature, Western modernity turned to Freud. Freud was a predictable choice for the modern Western world as his approach was thoroughly materialistic and claimed to be “scientific.”

Freud’s views on human nature profoundly influenced the West to the extent that today, even while many psychoanalysts have moved beyond Freud, many conscious and unconscious beliefs found in Western culture have not. Freud’s imprints regarding the basic presumptions of human nature and the mind in particular, remain frozen in place. A number of psychological presuppositions concerning human nature are axiomatically adopted as fact, whereas they are simply unanalyzed (no pun intended) Freudian postulates: the unconscious as the source of our motivations, sexual desire as humanity’s primary motiving factor, dreams as unconscious wish-fulfillment, the Oedipus complex, projection, repression, sublimation, the whore-virgin split, etc. Freud has been “the most heavily cited by European or North American author in the major arts, humanities, and social sciences citation indexes.”

Amazingly, an article in the New York Times pointed out that psychoanalysis “is alive and well in literature … and just about every other subject in the humanities,” but it is treated as a “historical artifact” within American universities’ psychology departments. Western Religious Studies departments, particularly those of South Asian Studies, have particularly been influenced by Freudian analysis. Psychoanalyst Alan Roland observed: “Psychoanalysis has played a surprisingly major role in South Asian studies, much more so than in other area studies, not to mention many other intellectual disciplines.”

This is where we encounter another major disconnect in appraising religious figures from the South Asian tradition, since Freud believed mysticism to be a state of infantile regression and associated mysticism with the death wish (two other Freudian postulates that have seeped into the groundwater of Western thought).

If an appraisal of Sri Ramakrishna begins with the presumption that mystical experience itself is a symptom of pathology, our interpretation will be skewed. Why? Because there is no way to verify that such a presupposition is true. It doesn’t take into account the possibility of transcendence, it doesn’t allow for the possibility of anubhuti.

Similarly, if truth is dependent upon whether an experience can be externally measured and quantified, our interpretation will be skewed. Why? Because by definition, anubhuti is beyond the limits of speech and mind. If we can quantify it, we are compressing the incompressible and incomprehensible into the realm of the finite. In so doing, we remove any possibility of transcendence. If we begin our appraisal of Sri Ramakrishna with the presumption that the experience of the senses is the highest experience human beings can have, then our interpretation will be skewed, because at that point transcendence cannot be judged on its own terms.

While Western scholars have argued that Western paradigms such Freudian psychoanalysis can be used for assessing Sri Ramakrishna, it has generally served to shove a square box in a round hole. It just doesn’t fit.

Post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak coined the term “epistemic violence” to describe what happens when a European epistemology (“epistemology” being the branch of philosophy that addresses the nature of knowledge) is foisted upon a non-European (Indian in our case) society. A square peg in a round hole is a gentle way of describing what is basically an act of violence since it has the potential to destroy non-Western ways of knowing. In so doing, it promotes a dominating Western paradigm and value system to the detriment of other equally valid indigenous ways of knowing.

What happens when the square peg and the round hole interact? French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard discussed this situation by coining the term “differend”—the disagreement between two parties who do not share the same rules of cognition. According to Hindu philosophy, we would say that they do not share the same commonly accepted sources of valid knowledge, or pramana. Anubhuti, for example, is not in the framework or vocabulary of the current Western epistemologies, yet Hindu epistemologies cannot allow themselves to be cut off at the knees to fit into Western paradigms.

Is there any solution to this impasse as far as appraising Sri Ramakrishna? For devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, there is neither a problem nor an impasse because how Western paradigms appraise Sri Ramakrishna is neither interesting nor fruitful to their spiritual lives. Devotees of Sri Ramakrishna gain knowledge of him through meditation, prayer, studying and thinking about his words and life, and through sadhu sanga&mash;keeping holy company. The purer our minds become, the more we can understand and appraise Sri Ramakrishna. Then Sri Ramakrishna himself, through his grace, will reveal himself more deeply in our hearts as our spiritual lives unfold.

For those of us who, for one reason or another, work with Western paradigms, we can call attention to the fact that certain paradigms don’t fit, and any attempt to force them to fit is an act of epistemic violence. Then we must bring attention to those paradigms that do fit. Sri Ramakrishna often said: “It is one thing to hear of God, another thing to see God, and still another thing to talk to God. Some have heard of milk, some have seen it, and some again have tasted it.” Similarly, some have heard of milk yet cannot believe that it can be tasted, let alone the possibility that one can be nourished by it. In that case we can remind them of the words of the great physicist Richard Feynman who said in his Nobel lecture: “A very great deal more truth can become known than can be proven.”

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Appraising Sri Ramakrishna