60 minutes with Jeffrey Kripal Life & Style

Scholars of mysticism are often mystics in their own right: Jeffrey Kripal

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

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His excursions into ‘heretical’ areas like UFOs, the paranormal and psychic phenomenon have made him both an outlier in academics and a rock star in the spiritual and new age community

In his most recent book, The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, Rice University professor Jeffrey Kripal refers to ‘flipping’ as ‘a reversal of perspective,’ or a fundamentally different way of seeing reality, often the result of an extreme, life-changing experience. Indeed, his entire oeuvre has been informed by one such experience he had some 30-odd years ago.

“While in Calcutta in 1989, I awoke one night to a paralysed body. As I laid on my back, unable to move, I sensed an intense ‘energy’ or ‘power’ emerge from somewhere else,” he tells me. “It was very obvious, and very strong.” Thinking initially that he was being electrocuted, it gradually became clear that it was a conscious force. “It was not long before it imploded into my heart region and I found myself floating toward the ceiling, as if drawn by a spiritual magnet.”

That single moment

It was the only time that Kripal had an experience like that, but it was enough to make him deeply sympathetic to other similar accounts, from the Tantric notion of shakti and kundalini to the mysticism of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. “That night has influenced everything I have written, thought, and taught over the last 30 years” he says. “Actually, I think all of the future books flowed back into me in that single moment. Of course, I didn’t understand them, as I had no context for any of their ideas, but there they all were, buzzing with millions of meanings that would take me 30 years to express on thousands of pages.”

Kripal is a rare breed; a maverick and outlier in the Western academy, known for bringing together subjects as varied as psychoanalysis and Hindu tantra, the history of American metaphysical religion, psychedelic plants and, more recently, UFOs, the paranormal, popular culture, and the study of emergent mythologies.

A prolific author, he has many acclaimed works to his name such as Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal; Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions; Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion; The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion, and Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna.

Kripal studies what he calls ‘extreme religious experiences,’ the profound mystical states that birthed the world’s major religions. His first book, Kali’s Child, on the life of Bengali mystic Ramakrishna, won the American Academy of Religion’s History of Religions Prize for the Best First Book of 1995, while simultaneously attracting controversy in India, where conservatives tried to have it banned.

Spirituality and sexuality are intricately linked, in Kripal’s view, and mysticism in all the world’s religions is a product of sublimated erotic energy. Attempting to situate his theories in the real world, he embarked on an exhaustive study of Ramakrishna, and through him, the world of Bengali Shakta tantra. He came to believe that “somehow, our deepest biological energies are intimately linked to our deepest spiritual aspirations, and that the former can be activated and harnessed, as it were, to accomplish or realise the latter.”

In 2001, in an attempt to contextualise his experiences, Kripal wrote Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism. In it, he describes how the works of scholars of mysticism are often rooted in their own mystical experiences.

Five personalities

For the book, he profiled five major personalities: English writer and spiritual director Evelyn Underhill, French Islamicist Louis Massignon, Oxford comparativist R.C. Zaehner, American anthropologist and Hindu convert Agehananda Bharati, and American historian of religions and scholar of Jewish mysticism Elliot Wolfson.

He found that many “scholars of mysticism are often mystics in their own right, even if they keep this mystical vocation in the closet and encode it in professional scholarship instead of in other more traditional genres or life-forms — poetry, monasticism, and religious devotion, for example.”

Much of Kripal’s work is undergirded by the belief that the history of erotic male mystical literature takes on a sublimated homoerotic structure in orthodox religious contexts. “By sublimated, I mean not literally genital but still drawing on and transforming or making sublime energies that can also be expressed sexually but are themselves not restricted to the human sexual system,” he explains.

“By homoerotic, I mean to refer to a particular structure of much religious experience. I mean to point out that god is generally imagined and portrayed as male in orthodox religious systems, and so men who are homoerotically inclined to desire other men are naturally more gifted in the love of such a (male) god.”

Inviting criticism

Kripal’s theories, particularly when applied to Indian mysticism, met with a fair amount of criticism even within the academy. The late Gerald Larson of Indiana University argued that Kripal’s thesis was ‘thoroughly implausible’ and that it was highly unlikely any psychoanalyst would claim that Ramakrishna’s mysticism was an outcome of his ‘homoerotic energies.’

Kripal’s excursions into ‘heretical’ areas like UFOs, the paranormal and psychic phenomenon have made him both an outlier in the academy and a rock star in the spiritual and new age community. In Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superheroes and the Paranormal, he argues that the inspiration behind many popular works of science fiction and superhero comic books was mystical states experienced by the creators themselves.

He tries to show that the ‘superpowers’ of popular mythologies like the X-Men or Superman are not very different from the ‘siddhis’ of Hindu and Buddhist yoga and tantra, and the ‘miracles’ of Jewish, Christian and Muslim saints. “We are dealing here with a very stable and very old realisation — that the human being is potentially a superhuman being. The superpowers of the movies are no doubt exaggerated, but they are also quite real, that is, they happen.”

A new dogma

Kripal’s memoir, Secret Body, is a distillation of his first six books. It was released last year to wide acclaim from the literary and academic community. In it he speaks out against another type of dogma: academic materialism. He writes, “From historical contextualism and constructivism, to Marxist, postcolonial, and feminist criticism,” we are led to believe that “nothing about the human being escapes or overflows the socially constructed body-ego and its local language games.”

Simply put, most academic methods just assume that human consciousness, and hence the ‘human being’ is nothing more than a product of firing neurons and biochemical processes, even though we have little idea of how consciousness emerges from brain matter.

He says that “academic methods just assume that a human being is fully explained as an embodied social and historical actor or physical ego — that ‘you’ are your name, your body, your family, your culture, your religion, your historical moment, your brain, and so on.”

But all the religions and mystical traditions, of course, argue against this position, affirming some kind of transcendence of the body, of history, of spacetime itself.

The interviewer is a filmmaker, columnist and scholar. When not travelling, he hangs out with his cats, toucans and pet iguana.

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 8:52:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/scholars-of-mysticism-are-often-mystics-in-their-own-right-jeffrey-kripal/article30115284.ece

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