An Autistic Saint?
Some religious forms readily accommodate the sensitivities and behaviors of ASD.
Posted Mar 03, 2017
Becoming a Hindu Saint
Even as a child, Gadadhar Chattopadhyay stood apart. He reported his first spiritual reverie at the age of six, while watching a flock of cranes flying across a sky of dark clouds. At seven, Gadadhar began visiting the Laha dharmashala, a nearby facility that served religious pilgrims. Although an indifferent student of conventional subjects, he memorized many Hindu texts from overhearing their repeated recitation by local priests and pilgrims.
As a teenager, Gadadhar served at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple near Kolkata and became the temple priest at twenty. Over the subsequent decades Gadadhar undertook various devotional rituals, practices (including various bhāvas cultivating different forms of devotional feelings), and forms of asceticism (including sanyassa, aiming to renounce connections to the material world). His followers declared him Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and he became one of the best known Hindu saints of recent centuries. His followers created a monastic order based on his life and teachings.
In his final decade, Ramakrishna drew many followers, especially young, educated Brahmin men. One of his biographers, Amiya Sen, stressed the late nineteenth century Bengali elites’ bewilderment that “a man with an aversion to formal learning, a rustic speech made worse by stammering, and an utter disregard for genteel dress codes, could so strongly attract products of a modern university.” The attraction turned partly on his upheaval of social conventions—from surrendering the sacred thread of a Brahmin, to shedding all of his garments in public on occasion. His followers regarded these acts as evidences of his liberation from social distinctions and from both attachments and shame concerning the body.
Ramakrishna exhibited some striking eccentricities. As a child, he avoided social interaction, regularly secluding himself from other people and spending long days in the districts devoted to cremating the dead or in abandoned mango groves. Clay images of deities could transfix him for hours. Perhaps emulating the religious devotees he saw, he once returned home with his clothing in tatters and his body covered in ashes, provoking his widowed mother to worry that he might grow up to become a roaming ascetic, with neither a home nor means to support her later in life. As if aiming to fulfill that fear, Ramakrishna was well known for his expressions, as Sen comments, of “physical pain and discomfort at the mere touch of money.” As a priest he gained such a reputation for transgressing prevailing conceptions of appropriate social and ritual behavior that many people at the Dakshineswar Kali Temple feared that he would undermine that institution’s standing. As he frequently was unable to carry out his priestly duties early on, Temple officials and visitors worried that Ramakrishna was mad. Their worries, however, had no impact on his peculiar conduct. Ramakrishna’s periodic visions of the goddess, Kali, however, secured his position at the Temple and in his followers’ minds.
Lunatic or Holy Man? A Third Option
His colleagues’ leading hypotheses about Ramakrishna’s state of mind were either that he was a madman or that he was an especially able seer of the goddess. By contrast, the contemporary anthropologist, Roy Richard Grinker, has raised the possibility that Ramakrishna may have been on the autistic spectrum (which, of course, does not exclude either of the other hypotheses).
Much in the reports about Ramakrishna’s sensitivities and conduct is consistent with Grinker’s proposal—from his disinterest in social contact as a child, to his extended preoccupations with the clay icons, to his meticulous emulation of an ascetic, to his linguistic disfluency (e.g., stuttering), to his hypersensitivity to the “mere touch” (of money), and more. Not even all of these traits together definitively establish that Ramakrishna had some Autistic Spectrum Disorder, but taken in combination with his inattention to social and ritual propriety, Grinker’s hypothesis is eminently plausible.
Although many cognitive scientists of religion have emphasized the pivotal role of social cognition in religious understanding and, thus, have suspected that autistic people would find much about religion difficult to comprehend, the plausibility of Grinker’s hypothesis about Ramakrishna suggests that some religions include means for readily accommodating the unusual kinds of religious expression to which some autistic people might be inclined. Religions, after all, are many splendored things.
Grinker, Roy Richard. (2007). Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism. New York: Basic Books.
Sen, Amiya P. (2010). Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: The Sadhaka of Dakshineswar. New Delhi: Penguin-Viking.