Ramakrishna (1836-1886) was a Hindu saint from Bengal, India. He is known for his appreciation of other religions, his devotion to the goddess Kali, and the creation of an order of monks that would become the basis for the Vedanta Society, a worldwide spiritual organization.
Ramakrishna is also remembered for controversial spiritual practices, which include cross-dressing and homoerotic behaviors. Questions regarding Ramakrishna’s orientation have inspired heated debate about whether it is appropriate to consider him a Gay icon, status that he has already achieved in the Hindu LGBTQ community.
Ramakrishna (b. Gadadhar Chattopadhyay) was raised in a small village to Vaishnava (worshippers of the God Vishnu) parents. Though they were Brahmins (the priestly and highest caste in traditional Hindu society), they were poor. As an adult, he worked at the Dakshineswar Temple dedicated to Kali, where his brother was the officiating priest. He became the temple’s priest after his brother died. Ramakrishna was well versed in the myriad religious teachings found in Bengal, including those dealing with bhakti (intense devotion to a goddess or god) and Tantra (secret teachings and rituals for the attainment of samadhi or enlightenment). He gathered disciples, mostly men, around him, and gained a reputation as an avatar (incarnation of the God Vishnu).
The most important deity to Ramakrishna was Kali, the dark-skinned, sensual, demonlike goddess who is often portrayed with long black hair, fangs, and naked breasts, wearing a necklace of human skulls or men’s severed heads, a girdle of severed hands, and her tongue extended down over her lower lip. To Ramakrishna, however, she was Shri Ma, the Holy Mother of all things, and he delighted in singing to her as well as bathing and dressing her statue.
His devotion to Kali did not keep him from honoring and even becoming other figures in Hinduism (such as Krishna, Radha, and Hanuman), neither did his love of such deities prevent him from honoring Upper Brahman (The All-Being beyond all attributes). As such, he represented in his own lived experiences the teachings of Vedantic non-dualism and three of the major frameworks for Hindu devotion: Shakta (Goddess worship, such as devotion to Parvati, Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, Radha, and Saraswati), Shaiva (honoring Shiva and the holy beings associated with him, such as the Parvati/Durga/Kali Trinity, Skanda, and Ganesh), and Vaishnava (honoring Vishnu and those associated with him, such as Lakshmi, Krishna, Radha, Rama, Sita, and Hanuman). In addition, Ramakrishna claimed to have briefly converted to Christianity and to Islam. His experiences as a Christian and as a Muslim confirmed for him the validity of both religions, although he went back to Hinduism soon after each conversion.
Sarada Devi and Vivekananda
At 23 years of age, Ramakrishna was betrothed to a six-year-old girl named Saradamani Mukhopadhyaya (also known as Sarada Devi). She moved to Dakshineswar Temple and lived in quarters of her own when she was eighteen. Sarada Devi was included among Ramakrishna’s spiritual disciples, albeit with a rank quite different from all others. Ramakrishna referred to her as Shri Ma, which is also what his disciples called her, and performed ritual worship of Kali with Sarada as the object of adoration. Although husband and wife, they claimed never to have had sex together.
After her husband died from throat cancer, Sarada Devi became a guru in her own right who advocated for social work and women’s education.
Among Ramakrishna’s most famous disciples was Vivekananda (born Narendranath Dutta — many of Ramakrishna’s disciples took new names ending with the word ananda, which means “joy” or “bliss”), the principle founder of the Vedanta Society.
Accounts of His Spirituality
Stories about Ramakrishna’s life as a Hindu saint portray a man who was intoxicated with God. He re-enacted the myths of Hinduism to the point of appearing insane. In order to understand the devotion that Hanuman (who is both monkey and human) felt for Rama, Ramakrishna went through a phase where he acted like a monkey. To understand the love that Radha (female consort of Krishna) had for Krishna, Ramakrishna dressed as a woman.
Cross-dressing for Ramakrishna was an art he had learned at a very young age, and he was good at it. He would perform in village dramas as a woman, go out in public as a woman, and enter places reserved for women dressed as a woman. For a time, he lived as a woman in the house of one of his patrons. Ramakrishna the Guru also gendered his male disciples as feminine or masculine, and then paired them into masculine/feminine couples.
In bhakti (devotion) to Krishna, there is a tradition of male cross-dressing that goes back to the sixteenth-century Hindu saint Chaitanya, who dressed as both Krishna and Radha. Chaitanya and his disciples would worship Krishna/Radha by performing kirtan (call-and-response devotional chanting) and dance themselves into states of uncontrollable ecstasy. Ramakrishna saw himself and his own disciples as a communal incarnation of Chaitanya and his followers.
In hagiographies dedicated to Ramakrishna, his gender-bending episodes were expressions of brahmacharya: renouncement of sexual pleasure. By behaving as a woman, Ramakrishna is seen as eliminating his erotic desire for women. Since he could transcend gender difference by being both masculine and feminine, it is easier for him to achieve a state of divine non-dualism. Ramakrishna’s cross-dressing and womanly behavior were considered part of his God-intoxication and a sign of his nurturing motherly spirit. Since sexual activity is considered for the most part spiritually polluting in Hinduism, Ramakrishna’s refusal to have sex with his wife was a sign of his holiness, as was his insistence that his wife was his Holy Mother.
Controversy Over Homoerotic Behavior
Not all scholars of religion find Ramakrishna’s behavior asexual, nor did everyone who had made his acquaintance. Ramakrishna’s critics accused him of having an unwholesome fondness for young men and boys. In Kali’s Child, Jeffrey Kripal states that some of Ramakrishna’s practices were homoerotic, such as when Ramakrishna placed his foot on the laps of his male disciples and into the crotches of teenage boys (he called the boys “pure pots” that could hold his love or “milk”). Within the Hindu Gay community, homoeroticism in Ramkrishna’s spiritual practice is highlighted as proof that same-sex desire can lead to spiritual enlightenment (a theme also expressed by Kripal), just as heterosexual romance and sexual practices can be used to transcend the material world, a major theme in esoteric Tantra theology.
Ramakrishna and Hijras
There is an absence of historical connection between Ramakrishna and hijras, people who are intersex or born male and traditionally cut off their genitalia in the worship of the Goddess Bahuchara Mata. Even though the story of Ramakrishna portrays a man who plays with gender and who troubles gender difference even among his disciples, the lack of dialogue between Ramakrishna and hijras is a remarkable omission.
Distance between the hagiography of Ramakrishna and the spirituality of hijras is logical if one does a queer reading of Ramakrishna’s spiritual praxis. Erotic tension between Ramakrishna and his disciples occurred in a frame in which they were first and foremost men. Identities outside of that basic masculinity (reversion to being a child, acting like a monkey, cross-dressing as a woman, homoerotic foot placement) are expressions of transcendence, of going beyond one’s established identity, but always returning to it, the same way Vishnu and Shiva might temporarily become women in Hindu myths. Born-male hijras, however, have rejected their basic masculine identity and theoretically no longer work from it, nor do they return to it, which was not the kind of same-sex spiritual play in which Ramakrishna engaged.
Ramakrishna’s marriage to Sarada (and reports of his exploration of Tantric spirituality with a female guru) is understood in the hagiographic frame to be a test of his celibacy. His intimate relationships with his male disciples may also be seen as a test of his celibacy within a same-sex homoerotic-romantic context. As long as the attraction was never allowed full sensual expression, such relationships may be understood as means by which he confronted his desires and reaffirmed his asexuality, much in the same way that, many years later, Mahatma Gandhi would test his own commitment to brahmacharya by no longer having sex with his wife, and by sleeping naked with younger women to make sure his desires were under control.
Ramakrishna is accepted by many Hindus as an avatar (incarnation of God), and is also a Gay religious icon to the LGBTQ community. Ramakrishna’s mainstream defenders, however, bristle at any insinuation that he could have been homosexual, trans (other than in a spiritual sense), or Gay. When Kripal released Kali’s Child in 1998, he was roundly criticized by Indian traditionalists, a reaction akin to what happened two years earlier when Canadian-Indian film director Deepa Mehta released Fire, a movie about two Hindu women who fall in love, but with a level of public outrage and violence that Kripal’s book did not inspire. In both cases, members of the LGBTQ community in India and worldwide are much more accepting of Kripal’s homoerotic Ramakrishna and Mehta’s female lover-protagonists. LGBTQ tantrikas (practitioners of Tantra) have praised Kripal for pointing out how homoeroticism was incorporated into Ramakrishna’s spiritual practice, just as conservative Hindus have condemned Kripal for exactly the same thing.
Ghanananda and John Stewart-Wallace. Women Saints: East and West. Hollywood, CA: Vedanta, 1979.
Gupta, M. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Mylapore Madras, India: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1944.
Kidwai, Saleem. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Kripal,Jeffrey. Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.