Historical Sri Ramakrishna (“The Statesman”)

The Statesman (Kolkata)

16 March 2011


Historical Sri Ramakrishna~I
The Difference Between Hagiography And Academic Research

By Martin Kämpchen

MANY years ago, I gave a lecture in Kolkata on Rabindranath Tagore’s visits to Germany in the 1920s. I described the enthusiastic response he received as well as the criticism his books and he himself had to face. Some of the criticism was due to envy, some to the strangeness of his exotic appearance, and because of the softness of his lyrical prose which these critics misjudged as weakness. After the lecture an elderly gentleman got up and said, sadly: “I am very sorry that you do not like Rabindranath.” It took me a while to clarify that I was merely reporting some historical facts and had not revealed my personal likes or dislikes at all.
Another time, I was requested by a college teacher to find out the full text of the remarks the German Indologist, Paul Deussen, had made of Swami Vivekananda in his autobiography. Excerpts available in India showed omissions indicated by three dots. It took me some effort to get the book and find the quotation. The omitted sentences happened to be critical of the Swami. I wrote down the German text and added a verbatim English translation and sent both to my elderly friend. This was the last I heard of him; he cut off our relationship of many years.
These examples are typical. We in India find it difficult to distinguish between historical facts surrounding a historical figure and our own subjective attitude to such a figure. We tend to hero-worship and, in the process, to block out any traits that do not happen to conform with the venerable image we have conceived. The full facts of history are being suppressed because we refuse to accept a larger, more complex and contextual view of the figure we venerate. Whoever this figure is, he or she was part of history and thus part of the positive and negative processes and attitudes of the time. This does not detract from that person’s heroic traits. In fact, I see heroism more truly exhibited in the ability to strictly follow a chosen path by conquering the hindrances and the opposition within oneself and in society.
This penchant to idealize and thus lift a person beyond history is responsible for why many saints of India have not yet been studied as figures of history. Myth and legend are being confused with history as verifiable by genuine records.
In the 1980s, I wrote a doctoral thesis at Santiniketan comparing the life of Sri Ramakrishna with the life of Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint. It was not well accepted by some devotees of Sri Ramakrishna who argued: How is it possible to compare an avatar with a mere saint? However, cannot Sri Ramakrishna, as a man of history, be compared with Francis, as a man of history? Their common ground is their historicity as human beings. Whether or not Ramakrishna was an avatar, and whether or not I as the author believe this, must not be part of an academic debate. It is an article of faith. By the way, personally, I have every respect for my friends who worship Sri Ramakrishna as their ista debatar. But again, this is outside academics.
As regards Sri Ramakrishna, the result of this idealizing predisposition, is that research on him has led into two directions. One path is taken by his devotees, especially by the learned monks of the Ramakrishna order and its followers.  Scholarly rigour, spiritual and missionary zeal have been invested in describing and interpreting Ramakrishna’s life and translating the conversations with his disciples into English. This is hagiography, intended not only to acquaint its readers with the avatar, but also to inspire in them love and veneration.
The second path is taken by academics who research on the historical time in which Sri Ramakrishna lived. They study him as historians, psychologists and scholars of religious studies. They are Indians, Europeans and Americans. As it always happens, some of the research is weak or slanted, even erroneous, and other works are original and brilliant. Unfortunately, most men and women of the first path reject these academic offerings wholly, the weak along with the brilliant. Probably, they consider academic research unhelpful in their spiritual quest.
I have felt grieved by this gulf in understanding and interpreting Sri Ramakrishna, feeling close to the ideals of the order, and at the same time, trying to be a true scholar. Why don’t educated worshippers of Sri Ramakrishna desire to know more and ever more about the life of their chosen ideal? Is this not a natural yearning? Why do they fear that seeing Sri Ramakrishna as a historical figure would weaken their faith in him? This fear, I assume, is one motivation for rejecting historical scholarship. Speaking for myself, scholarly enquiry has not dampened my enjoyment of Sri Ramakrishna’s childlike, spiritual exuberance and his inspiring conversations. On the contrary, I have grown more appreciative of his enormous spiritual struggles after understanding the complex historical context in which he lived.
Probably the central question of this debate is: Can men and women who are not worshippers of Sri Ramakrishna truly understand him as what he is? Does it need a deep spiritual love for him to appreciate his essence? In other words, do academics miss his essence when they look at him as a figure of 19th century Kolkata middle-class society?  This is an intricate question. Those who follow the first path would, I assume, reply that Sri Ramakrishna can be understood best by meditating on him, by devotedly loving him ~ not through history books. And this is the argument why they turn away from the scholarship of the historians as a waste of time.
My reaction to this is that educated persons looking at Sri Ramakrishna are obliged, by dint of their education, to gather all the facts of his spiritual and earthly journey. Such persons cannot afford to ignore the Sri Ramakrishna of history. Genuine modern education is bound to create a wish to understand an object of knowledge on all levels ~ rationally, emotionally and spiritually. Education teaches us that we are intelligent as well as spiritual beings and that we are whole only when we allow our various powers to interact with each other. We cannot but accept history as a necessary complement to our faith life.

(To be concluded)

The writer is a German scholar, based in Santiniketan






17 March 2011

Historical Sri Ramakrishna~II
The Two Biographies That Bridge The Gulf

By Martin Kämpchen

IN 2010, two books have appeared which promise to bridge the gulf between the Sri Ramakrishna worshipped by his devotees and the saint whom scholars study as a historically relevant figure. Amiya P Sen, a professor of history at Jamia Millia Islamia University of New Delhi, has written a biography of Sri Ramakrishna: Ramakrishna Paramahamsa ~ The Sadhaka of Dakshineswar (Viking/Penguin Books India, Delhi 2010). The work studies him as a historical personality. The companion volume to this biography is a selection of Sri Ramakrishna’s conversations in a new translation again by Amiya P Sen (His Words: The Preachings and Parables of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (Viking / Penguin Books India, Delhi 2010).
These two books are written for the devotees of Sri Ramakrishna as well as for persons with historical interests. In the biography, Sen succeeds in maintaining a fine balance between a scholarly standard of enquiry and a language which is respectful and sensitive towards the devotees without himself slipping into devotional language. Visions and ecstasies do not become mere psychological states in this book; at the same time, Sen does not make faith statements about them. He merely makes room for faith. Whatever only a believer may understand, is tactfully left uninterpreted. So the temptation to rationalize is resisted.
Sen approaches Sri Ramakrishna, the human being, the “saint” with sincerity and chalks out in his Preface the challenge he wanted to meet: “This book has grown out of my dissatisfaction broadly with two genres of biographical accounts available on Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Official biographies I found quite unexciting ~ partly on account of their hagiographical slant but also for their insipid prose and the lack of analytical rigour.”(p. ix). At the same time, he steers clear of the “sensationalism” created by authors who wish to “debunk both religious imagination and faith.” (p. x).
The first chapter, “Situating Sri Ramakrishna”, appears to be the most useful. On some 40 pages, Sen places Ramakrishna within the rural social milieu of Kamarpukur and thereafter in the urban milieu of Kolkata. Which gods and goddesses were worshipped in Kamarpukur and Kolkata? How did these cults evolve? We read on the pre-modern religious traditions from Chaitanya until Sri Ramakrishna’s time, the intellectual climate created by Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar and Keshab Chandra Sen. In fact, we would have liked to get more information on the Kali cult of the mid-19th century of which Sri Ramakrishna became a prominent figure.
We see that his ideas and practices by no means existed in empty space, rather they found their origin and nourishment in the cultural movements of the time. Even such ideas as the plurality of religions, often taken to be unique to Sri Ramakrishna, are seen to have pre-figured, for example, in Rammohan’s ideas. But Sri Ramakrishna put his own stamp on the concept insofar as he was never content with professing an idea; he aimed at making it an experience. However, in his ritual practices and in his ascetic and householder customs Sri Ramakrishna could be deeply unorthodox and shockingly original. This deviation from the norm, however, had its definite limits, for example when it came to tantra practices. So, in this book, his life is carefully delineated both in its orthodoxy and in its heterodoxy. The Brahmo Samaj, Christian missionaries, the social life of the British colonizers and their educational system influenced, directly or at least indirectly, the shape Sri Ramakrishna’s sanctity assumed. Amiya Sen conscientiously unfolds the “ambivalence” of the man, thus working against a simplistic, idealizing image. “Ambivalence” must not be seen as a negative trait. On the contrary, it indicates how a sensitive Ramakrishna reacted to his environment, and how he chose consciously what to accept and what to reject ritually and socially.
The most readable biography of Sri Ramakrishna to date has been the one by the British-American writer and devotee Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1965). Not knowing Bengali, Isherwood relied on English language sources, mainly on The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by Mahendranath Gupta and Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master by Swami Saradananda. Isherwood’s book reveals masterly literary craftsmanship and a sincere love of  Sri Ramakrishna. Yet, it lacks originality of thought and wealth of source material. Here, Amiya Sen’s book is a marked improvement. As its bibliography testifies, Sen has included numerous old and new Bengali sources. It is little known that, even before the Bengali Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita by Mahendranath Gupta, there existed other collections of stories and conversations recounting his astonishing life. Moreover, Sen takes cognizance of what (in my first installment) I called the second path of knowing the saint, namely the path of solid academic research. In Isherwood’s time, this kind of scholarly endeavour had not yet set in. Sen’s book will be easily available worldwide with Penguin as its publisher.
Amiya P. Sen’s second book, the collection of Preachings and Parables possesses two virtues: Again, it uses as its sources Bengali compilations other than the Kathamrita making it richer and more broad-based. Further, Sen has chosen to prepare his own translation from Bengali to English, thus discarding the decades-old translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by Swami Nikhilananda. As we are all aware, the Swami has not been a faithful translator. He omitted words, sentences, sometimes whole passages which he considered superfluous or too rough in language or too intricate. He even added words of explanation putting them into Sri Ramakrishna’s mouth without any editorial comment. His language is flat and colourless, compared to Sri Ramakrishna’s own rustic, snappy, wonderfully lively language. Having translated the Kathamrita from Bengali to German myself, I am aware of the challenge of translating Sri Ramakrishna’s language adequately. Amiya P Sen, too, has been unable to infuse the language with that colour, rhythm and sententiousness characteristic of the Bengali original. Maybe this would have required the magic pen of an Isherwood. However, Sen’s translation appears ~ in the short passages he has chosen ~ true to the text of the original. This alone is a vast improvement.


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