- Infinte Paths to Infinite Reality: Sri Ramakrishna and Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion by Ayon Maharaj
Infinite Paths to Infinite Reality, by Ayon Maharaj, is a book whose significance is highly likely to reverberate throughout the fields of both the philosophy of religion and the study of Indian philosophy for years to come. It will certainly revolutionize, or at the very least raise important questions for, any future studies of the teachings of the nineteenth century Bengali sage and mystic, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886), whose religious thought is this book's primary focus.
Maharaj--who, on February 26, 2020, became Swami Medhananda (by which name I shall refer to him throughout the remainder of this review)--has taken a highly original approach, in this book, to reconstructing the philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna. The revolutionary nature of this book is evidenced, first of all, by the fact that the very notion that Sri Ramakrishna even had a coherent philosophy is one which a number of scholars would reject. Studies of Ramakrishna--at least those undertaken outside of the religious tradition that is based on his life and teachings and those of his most prominent disciple, Swami Vivekananda--have treated him not so much as a philosopher, but more as a mystic, who claimed to have a wide array of extraordinary experiences, on the basis of which he came to the conclusion that many paths can lead to a realization of the divine: that there are, in the words of the title of Medhananda's book, infinite paths to infinite reality. Sri Ramakrishna has thus been seen as a figure of greater interest to psychologists and phenomenologists of religion than to philosophers. Beginning with the work of his contemporary, William James, the questions with which scholars have approached Sri Ramakrishna have largely been of a psychological nature, with one prominent thread of Ramakrishna scholarship leaning toward a Freudian, psychoanalytic approach to this figure. The first scholar to incorporate such an approach to Sri Ramakrishna into his work was Walter Neevel (in a 1976 article entitled "The Transformation of Sri Ramakrishna"), although the first to follow this approach exclusively was Jeffrey Masson (in The Oceanic Feeling: The Origin of Religious Sentiment in Ancient India, published in 1980), followed by Malcolm McLean (A Translation of the ŚrīŚrī-Rāmakṛṣṇa-Kathāmṛta with Explanatory Notes and Critical Introduction, [End Page 1] 1983), Sudhir Kakar (The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism, 1991), Narasingha Sil (Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahāṃsa, 1991), and Jeffrey Kripal (Kālī's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, 1995). Such scholarship asks: What caused this priest of the goddess Kali to undergo such extraordinary experiences? What can Sri Ramakrishna's mystical experiences teach us about the human psyche? And--for those scholars of Sri Ramakrishna, like James, whose interests have led them at all into the philosophical realm--can such experiences ever be regarded as veridical, or must they necessarily be seen as delusional, or at best, as guides not to the nature of reality, but to the nature of the psyche of the person who has undergone them?
Medhananda's approach to Sri Ramakrishna challenges the prevailing scholarly orthodoxy in affirming that Ramakrishna was not only a mystic, but also a philosopher--and moreover, that he was a philosopher with interesting and worthwhile things to say about a number of important topics central to the philosophy of religion--and specifically, to analytic philosophy of religion. By approaching Ramakrishna in the way that he has, Medhananda is seeking not only to transform the way this figure is viewed by scholars and by the wider public, but also to contribute to the emergent field of cross-cultural philosophy, as envisioned by such thinkers as Jay Garfield, Jonardon Ganeri, and Bryan Van Norden. As Medhananda characterizes his own project, "…this book participates in the recent movement away from...