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Literature and Political Theology

Political Theologians: Lauren Olamina and Ramakrishna Paramahansa

Dismantling institutionalized religion by empowering the masses.

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (PS) and Parable of the Talents (PT)  are lauded dystopian novels that are also works of political theology that study the link between individual and community belief. In dogmatic religions, theological complexity makes differences conspicuous and ultimately precipitates schisms and conflicts. While Dr Olamina’s Baptist Christianity is at heart of Parable of the Sower it isLauren Olamina’s religion Earthseed, a “belief” that “initiates and guides action,” emphasizing human participation, active creation, “forethought and work” that becomes the driving force of the novel (PS 18). It prompts not only action but otherworldly contemplation, for “The Destiny of Earthseed /Is to take root among the stars” (PS 84). Earthseed’s “otherworldly contemplation” is extremely focused on action—on taking the steps necessary for the literal realization of “taking root among the stars” by establishing human communities on other planets. “Destiny,” despite its focus on long-term planning, is still as action oriented as the other elements of Earthseed. The religion brings forth change, which is necessary and inevitable for both human life and God because as “we perceive and attend to God…we shape God… For we are Earthseed/And God is Change” (PS 47, 17). Olamina provides her followers, gathered from various walks of life, the religion, Earthseed, as a transformative counter-argument. With its core mantra of “God is Change,” Earthseed enables individual people and ultimately humanity as a species to survive political and environmental crises.

Both Earthseed and Hinduism share beliefs about the importance of change. However, this essay focuses less on these doctrinal similarities than resemblances in the practice or pedagogy among their proponents, Lauren Olamina and a notable 19th century sage and prophet of Hinduism, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who challenged institutionalized Hinduism with his innovative teachings to inspire faith in personal and communal adaptability as means to human liberation.  It is not my intention to suggest that Olamina’s Earthseed religion is based on Hinduism but rather to suggest that Olamina’s use of religion as a vehicle for community building shares mutually illuminating ethics with the teachings of Ramakrishna. Both Butler’s Parables and the teachings of Ramakrishna offer ways of viewing the world of today, rife with religious, socio-political and cultural discrimination, and provide alternate visions for human survival.

Personality of Seer and Prophet

Lauren Olamina, despite being the daughter of a Baptist minister, a believer in institutionalized religion, is a pioneering personality, who strikes out on her own on a flight for survival that turns into a pilgrimage as she becomes a savior of humans who care to join her. She is a visionary and prophet on a mission who reminds me of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who considered organized religion to be a tool of power used to promote discrimination and subjugation of the masses through oppressional and divisive social strictures like the caste system in India. Through teachings in the form of oft delivered talks and parables, Ramakrishna sought to connect with the common man, often of the lowest caste.  He opened the path of salvation by directly encouraging the layman to pray and communicate with God without going through the longstanding channel of Brahmin priests. Although he began his life observing the orthodox Brahminic rule of not eating food made by a non-Brahmin, he later encouraged his disciples to receive food from anybody irrespective of caste.

Ramakrishna stands unique among sages as one not tutored by bookish knowledge of Sanskrit texts (Vedas, Upanishads) but rather organically groomed, so to speak, in his childhood by garnering knowledge from folk culture—Puranic recitals, folk songs, and theatrical enactments performed in villages. Later in life he spent twelve years of his adulthood, as a priest apprentice in the temple.  His interest in the non-elitist, performative interpretations of religion led to his search for God not entirely as an abstract entity. For Ramakrishna, who worshiped the Goddess Kali, a manifestation of power, destruction and change known for her ferocious nature, the deity was a mother figure. An intensely human relationship is established by the endearing terms that Ramakrishna uses that sometimes register admissions of pangs of separation of a child from its mother. Olamina almost speaks the same language, but only to be critical of it, as she muses about the “big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God,” ruminating, “So what is God? Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected?” (PS 15). For Olamina, “God is Power— /Infinite, / Irresistible, /Inexorable, / Indifferent. / And yet, God is Pliable—/ Trickster, /Teacher,/Chaos,/Clay (PS 25). Olamina’s middle name is “Oya”, “the name of a Nigerian Orisha—goddess— of the Yoruba people. In fact, the original Oya was the goddess of the Niger river, a dynamic, dangerous entity” (PT 48). And yet Olamina is motherly, empathetic, and caring for all humans, though she does kill people too. Lauren Olamina’s critical comments on the anthropomorphic god, along with Butler’s giving her the name of goddess, seems to recall the Goddess Kali, even as it connects to Olamina’s pedagogical strategy of “Shaping God” in Earthseed.

Realization of Divinity

For both Olamina and Ramakrishna, realization of Divinity is a combinative procedure that needs spiritual meditation and active participation in achieving an interactive relationship with God. Apprehension of divine reality, in Hinduism, is often represented as a contemplative condition of the soul as the seeker moves from ajnana (ignorance) to jnana (knowledge) by leaving all material connections behind and going through a purificatory journey where through a single-minded sadhana (divine contemplation), one seeks the deity in an out-of-body experience. It is a dreamlike experience that often includes waking dreams, as the soul of the seeker awakens into knowledge of the divine. Ramakrishna’s sadhana was no exception. He forsook all earthly connections, following the “Light” that promises the enlightenment of jnana. In fact, to quote D.S. Sarma, “this part of the saint’s biography is a supernatural romance in which his mind is described as moving in a world of abstractions and spirit-voices, while his body remained so dead and motionless that birds would perch on it and serpents crawl over it” (192). However, this out-of-body experience was soon combined with a physical realization as the sage understood that an abstract concept of the divine would not lead to a realization of God. Thus, the most remarkable feature of Ramakrishna’s sadhana was that it was a combinative process, one that even as it embraced an abstract concept of divinity (i.e. through spiritual contemplation) endeavored to realize it through the concrete (i.e. active participation). For the sage Jota-puri, Ramakrishna’s guru of sorts, knowledge of the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures written in Sanskrit, containing ritualistic guidelines for priests, was not exclusively book learning alienated from the everyday world. For him, jnana was attainable through a pragmatic use of bhakti (spiritual belief), by traversing a pathway that seeks to help the poor and the needy. He calls it a “stairway” that humans need to climb, often resting on the terrace, to realize “Brahma” jnana, where the Absolute manifests itself to humans.

Parable of the Sower opens with Olamina in the throes of a “recurring dream” that tells her that her Baptist preacher father and the community are “all a lie” (PS 3). She strikes out on her own, reporting that “I am learning to fly, to levitate myself. No one is teaching me. I’m just learning on my own, little by little, dream lesson by dream lesson. Not a very subtle image, but a persistent one. I’ve had many lessons, and I’m better at flying than I used to be. I trust my ability more now, but I’m still afraid. I can’t quite control my directions yet” (PS 4). This out-of-body experience moves into a reverie: “the part that’s ordinary and real” inhabited by memories of her stepmother and her mother’s prosaic instances that she quotes from reality (PS 4). Olamina sums up this combinative process later: “Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures. Worship is no good without action. With action, it’s only useful if it steadies you, focuses your efforts, eases your mind” (PS 219). A comparison of both Ramakrishna and Olamina’s guiding strategies of the masses highlights their spirituality that in its contemplative approach embraces the pragmatic and active mode  ultimately traversing a pathway that seeks to help the poor and needy.

Simplicity of Teaching

Olamina and Ramakrishna’s teachings draw heavily on examples from simple things in nature. Olamina, at the end of Parable of the Sower, provides the following reminiscence:

So today we remembered the friends and the family members we’ve lost. We spoke our individual memories and quoted Bible passages, Earthseed verses….

Afterward, we sat together and talked and ate a meal and decided to call this place Acorn.

A sower went out to sow his seed:

and as he sowed, some fell by the

way side: and it was trodden down,

and the fowls of the air devoured

 it. And some fell upon a rock; and

as soon as it was sprung up, it

withered away because it lacked

moisture. And some fell among

thorns; and the thorns sprang up

with it, and choked it. And others

fell on good ground, and sprang up,

and bore fruit a hundredfold.

(St. Luke 8: 5-8)

Like Olamina, Ramakrishna’s theological discussions are often expressed in succinct parables or images, drawn from nature, easily understandable by the layman. “When palm trees go up,” he said, “the leaves drop off by themselves. But don’t tear them off as these [meaning the ascetic reformers] fools do” (Sarma 201). He denounced institutionalized Brahminic Scriptures insisting that “Freedom will come when the ‘I-hood’ (egoism) will vanish” (Sayings 124).  Giving up the “aham” (pride) is Ramakrishna’s path to liberty as he explains, “ Rice, pulse, potato and other things when put into cold water in an earthen jar can be touched with the hand until heat has been applied to them. The same statement applies to Jiva. The body is the earthen jar, wealth and learning, caste and lineage, power and position and so on, are like the rice, the pulse and potato, and egoism is the heat. The Jiva is made so hot (haughty) by egoism” (Sayings 126).

Interactive Process

For Ramakrishna, God was not a static object to be worshipped from afar. To know him, Ramakrishna insisted, we must partake of his nature. Jnana, or knowledge of God, is an interactive process.  It is only by partaking of this process that one can communicate with God. Ramakrishna’s teachings, like Olamina’s, are inherently dynamic, not a passive regurgitation of bookish knowledge. The interactive quality of Ramakrishna’s teaching is certainly comparable to Olamina’s, despite the nature of the interaction, because of the presence and absence, respectably, of an anthropomorphic god.  The significance of their comparability lies in the malleability of the concept of godhood. Olamina calls for an interactive liaison: “All that you touch, / You change/All that you Change/Changes you, /The only lasting Truth/Is change /God/Is Change” (PS 79).

Community Building

The gospel of Ramakrishna, rendered orally to his disciples between 1879 and 1886, records his teachings as informal talks. Spiritual experiences are conveyed with the love and affection of a parent explaining to his child. He never encouraged “sannyasa” (renunciation) of the world.  For Ramakrishna, the world resided in oneself and to build a community one needed to cleanse one’s soul—give up one’s ego and pride; only then could one engage in philanthropic public service. Ramakrishna’s community building sought to salvage lost souls, people who led a decadent life, splurging in wine, women and wealth. One such redeemed soul was Girish Ghosh, the 19th century legendary playwright, actor and debauchee. In later life he referred to himself as Ramakrishna’s miracle—a sinner and an atheist transformed into a great devotee of God.

Community building for Olamina also was a gathering of lost souls, lost in the wilderness of deprivation and oppression. As she journeys to her salvaged site, Acorn, she brings together people to create a growing community. Her persuasion of others is tender, the appeal of her teachings simple and lyrical: “I showed [Harry] …pages of my Earthseed notebook …four verses in all— gentle, brief verses that might take hold of him…and live in his memory” (PS 199). She admits, “This could be the beginning of an Earthseed community” (PS 221). Questioning minds are always entertained and never rebuffed: “Why personify change by calling it God?… Because [people] are more likely to remember God— especially when they’re scared or desperate” (PS 221). In times of need people need the gentle, empathetic touch of God, a solace in the face of desperation.

To conclude, both Ramakrishna and Olamina promote a combinative process that admits an abstract meditation and active participation in worldly affairs. The process is not a top-heavy dissemination of knowledge, as the leaders whether Lauren Olamina  or Ramakrishna encourage  an interactive representation of  God that is “infinitely malleable” (PS 220). The appeal of their teachings lies in the simplicity of metaphors they draw from the world of nature, a world that both the layman and the initiated may easily understand. Religion for them is a means of restructuring society in equitable ways through respect of the downtrodden and the uninitiated.

Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna. Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna. The Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Madras, 1920.


Sarma, D.S. “The Experience of Ramakrishna Paramahansa”. The Journal of Religion,  vol 27, no.2 (March 1927), pp 186-203.

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