For many scholars the "saint" Ramakrishna (1836-86) is most notable for his vertiginous rise from an impoverished rural Bengali background to the status of founder saint of the most prestigious religious order of modern India, a trajectory marked by radical transformations in his image. In Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography, Narasingha Sil demonstrates his familiarity with an unparalleled array of Bengali textual sources. It is a matter of regret that, instead of using this material to situate his subject in the broader historial context, it is co-opted in support of a virulently antagonistic "psycho-biography" of the saint.
Despite Sil's statement that the present volume is "different from" his earlier work on the subject (Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: A Psychological Profile, 1991), this book in fact constitutes an amplified and revised edition of the latter. Apart from three appendices, a glossary and a host of printing errors not present in the original version, additions consist of a selective review of scholarly literature on Ramakrishna, and a final chapter on "Vivekananda's Ramakrishna", largely put together from other publications by the author. Sil's central concerns survive unaltered, namely, Ramakrishna's sexuality, his androgyny and misogyny, "his boys" (ie his young devotees), and his "holy insanity and ecstasy". As in the earlier version, issues such as the saint's teachings, his status (either as "godman" or divine "incarnation") and his marital situation seem to be raised only to discredit the saint, often through a heady mix of tendentious argument, speculation and innuendo. In wedding an accessible, even racy, style with detail of primary interest to the scholar, Sil appears to be aiming at both the general and the specialist reader - a strategy which risks appealing to neither.
Changes in title and chapter headings notwithstanding, the vast bulk of the text remains exactly the same as in the earlier version. Apart from the compulsions of contemporary academic life, this sleight of hand should perhaps be seen in the light of the furore caused in India by another psychoanalytically based book, Jeffrey Kripal's Kali's Child (1995), with which Sil's own work is dangerously easy to identify. At any rate, Sil's understandable attempts to distance himself from Kripal's portrayal of Ramakrishna as a homosexual are vitiated by his own emphasis on the saint's "homoerotic" tendencies, albeit related by him to repressed heterosexuality, which in turn is attributed, on no evidence whatever, to sexual seduction or abuse in childhood.
This inferred trauma is used to account for Ramakrishna's alleged obsession with sexuality. However, this and other traits are more plausibly viewed from a shared cultural repertoire, that of rural Bengali gurus, a world with which Sil clearly has little familiarity. One crucial notion, shared by Ramakrishna and many other adepts, is the necessity to overcome adult male sexuality and therefore the loss of what is literally seen as vital (seminal) fluid. In short, despite Sil's protestations to the contrary, this book is guilty of both reductionism and what has been termed "pathography" - the biography of religious figures based on their traumas rather than their cultures.
Sil's account oscillates between a mad Ramakrishna and a bad one. One is left wondering how defects so gross escaped so many sophisticated first-hand witnesses. Sil is rightly discomfited by the work of a few over-generalising scholars whose fascination for apparently exotic "eastern" gurus tends to orientalise an entire culture. Is it partly in order to salvage that culture that Sil has opted instead to pathologise a particular individual? If so, he has unwittingly pathologised a whole sub-culture in the process.
Jeanne Openshaw is research associate, Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge.
Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography
Author - Narasingha P. Sil
ISBN - 0 7618 1052 8
Publisher - University Press of America
Price - £ 33.00
Pages - 340