By Swami Harshananda
The ordinary men of this world, sometimes, become so ordinary that extra ordinary men have to appear to lift them up to no ordinary heights, if not extraordinary ones. These tall men who walk this earth, may seem to be no different from others at first, but soon grow to superhuman proportions revealing their true nature even as Viṣṇu appeared first as Vāmana and then as Trivikrama
Rāmakṛṣṇa, also known as ‘Sri Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahaṅsa’ or just ‘Paramahaṅsa’, belongs to this rare species. His life was religion in the highest sense in practice. He lifted up religion from the morass of rituals and dogmas to great mystical heights as effortlessly as Varāha the earth. An earnest study of his life, his doings and sayings, can not only inspire us but also elevate us to transcendental levels.
It was a misty morning in A. D. 1814. The place was the small village called Derepur in Bengal. Khudirām Caṭṭopādhyāya, the highly venerated brāhmaṇa of the village, was about to depart from there along with his wife Candrā-devi and the two children, Rāmkumār and Rāmeśvar, for another village, Kāmārpukur. Since he had dared to disobey the zamindar of the village by refusing to bear false witness, he had incurred his wrath and had been banished.
Khudirām left nonchalantly, loudly chanting ‘Jay Raghuvīr.’ leaving behind the simple village- folk sorrow-stricken. As soon as he arrived at Kāmārpukur, he was received by his old friend and other villagers, with great warmth, love and affection. They quickly provided the whole family all that they needed, for a simple but comfortable life.
It was this Khudirām who had sacrificed everything for the sake of truth, that was chosen by Destiny to be the father of Rāmakṛṣṇa, who declared in his later life that truth is the sine qua non of religion, even in this Kaliyuga or Iron Age.
Khudirām was fond of pilgrimage. In A. D. 1824 he had gone to Rāmeśvaram all alone by foot, walking more than 2400 kms. (1500 miles). However, it was during his visit to the Viṣṇu temple at Gayā in A. D. 1835 that he had a wonderful vision of the Lord informing him of his decision to incarnate in his house as his son. Almost at the same time, Candrādevī, while paying her homage to Lord Śiva in the temple near her house, had another experience, that of a divine light from the icon in the temple entering into her and making her unconscious. When she regained her consciousness she felt as if she was with child.
When Khudirām returned home and learnt of her strange experience, his own conviction about the visitation of the Divine got further confirmed. The couple started eagerly preparing for the auspicious arrival of the Divine Being in their womb through prayers and austerities. By then, these two experiences of the holy couple affirm the statements in the scriptures that Viṣṇu and Śiva are the two aspects of the same Supreme Being.
Nativity and Early Life
The advent of the divine child took place on the 18th February 1836 at about 5:15 A.M. He was named ‘Gadādhar’, since he was born as the earthly manifestation of the deity Gadādhara-Viṣṇu of Gayā. The infant Gadādhar proved his divinity in various ways by vouchsafing mysterious experiences to the members of the household, especially to his mother Candrādevī. As he grew up into an extremely charming and highly talented boy, he became the darling of the whole village. Apart from being healthy and handsome, his extraordinary skills in fine-arts, music and acting made him the cynosure of all eyes. As for formal education at the village school, he evinced little interest and specially abhorred mathematics.
Even as a young boy, Gadādhar could get into moods of religious ecstasy as naturally as a bird takes to flying. The first experience of ecstasy came to him as he was walking on the ridge of a paddy field, observing the flight of white cranes against the background of black clouds of the rainy season. The second experience occurred when he was visiting the shrine of the village goddess Viśālākṣī of the nearby Ānur, in the company of elderly women-devotees. The third happened when he was dressed as Śiva on a Śivarātri day and brought to the stage for a whole-night drama.
Around this period Khudirām passed away and the young Gadādhar experienced the first bereavement of life. This shock made him realize the transient nature of life here and slowly heralded the dawn of spiritual quest, the quest for the Eternal. The approaching upanayāna ceremony provided him with an excellent opportunity for starting on this quest. The pure in heart shall see God. Even if they cannot do so immediately, they can at least intuit the divine presence. This is exactly what Dhani, the servant- maid and Srīnivās, the bangle-seller did. Both of them had instinctively felt Gadādhar’s immanent divinity.
Dhanī had taken a promise from Gadādhar that he would accept the first alms from her hands during his upanayāna ceremony. This he did, in spite of vehement opposition from the orthodox brothers; because for him, truth and keeping up one’s word were the most essential part of religion. Srīnivās too had his cup of ambrosia filled up, when one day, he seized the opportunity of ritualistic worship to Gadādhar privately, shedding tears of joy all the while.
From the Pond to the Ocean
After the death of his father Khudirām, Rāmkumār, the eldest brother of Gadādhar, migrated to Calcutta and opened a tol there, to better his worldly prospects. When he visited Kāmārpukur, once in A. D. 1852, he discovered to his dismay that Gadādhar was completely neglecting his studies and spending much of his time in worship and other spiritual pursuits. So, he decided to take him away to Calcutta, not only to educate him but also to get assistance from him in his own profession.
Gadādhar was really sorry to leave his dear village and its simple folk. He must have, at first, felt lost like a small fish shifted from a little pond to a limitless ocean. However, he being like the fish of the Matsyāvatāra that gradually grew to mighty proportions, needed this change for the good of the world.
Rāmkumār, at first, handed over the responsibility to Gadādhar, of conducting ritualistic worship in some houses, which he himself was doing, so as to pay greater attention to his school. Though Gadādhar did this work most willingly and enthusiastically, earning the encomiums of the enchanted householders, he continued to remain as indifferent and impervious as before, towards formal secular education.
Being the chief-guardian responsible for his future life, Rāmkumār could no longer ignore this. Hence he called Gadādhar one day and admonished him for this negligence of formal education. Gadādhar was neither dull nor immature. His uncanny intellect and mature mind had revealed to him how the whole world was immersed in ‘kāminī- kāñcana’, a term which he often used in his later life as a world-teacher, and not in the least in God, the final goal of life. So, he had no other go than politely but firmly refusing to fall in line, by declaring that he was least interested in bread-earning oriented education. Himself being a spiritually inclined and refined person, Rāmkumār could understand the aspirations of his younger brother and hence gave him full freedom to chart out his own course of life. Thus ended the encounter, the first and the last, in their lives.
The Stage Divine
When Rāṇī Rāsmaṇi the intrepid land-lady of Jānbazār in Calcutta decided to go on a pilgrimage to Kāśī she was commanded by Kālī, the Divine Mother, in a dream, to cancel the pilgrimage and build a temple complex for her at the place called Dakṣiṇeśvar now, also indicated by her in the same dream. The Rāṇī fulfilled the wishes of the Divine Mother soon. However, when the temple-complex was fully ready, no brāhmaṇa priest was prepared to undertake the responsibility of ceremonially consecrating it since it had been built by a śudra woman, thereby proving that man can dispose even when God proposes.
However, God, the final disposing authority, would not take it lying down. Strange as it may seem, it came to the lot of Rāmkumār himself not only to suggest a way out, but also do the consecration ceremony, as well as the regular daily worship in that very temple!
The Turbulence and the Tranquility
Hardly a year after the consecration of the temple complex, death suddenly snatched away Rāmkumār. Though stunned by this sudden development the Rāṇī, along with her highly competent son-in-law, Mathurānāth Biśvās, managed to prevail upon Gadādhar, by now known as Rāmakṛṣṇa, to take up the worship of the Mother Kālī. He reluctantly agreed on the condition that Hṛday, his nephew who had come there seeking a job in the temple complex, be entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of the ornaments and other valuables. This was of course immediately conceded.
Though Rāmakṛṣṇa started worshiping the Mother Kālī in the temple in the usual way, observing all the rituals and formalities, very soon a strange but intense desire gripped his heart to know whether the Divine Mother was actually living in that image or whether it was a lifeless statue of stone. This made him undertake severe, even superhuman, austerities for quite a few months. Unable to bear the poor response from the Mother of the Universe, he tried to end his life with the very sword of Kālī kept in the temple. This resulted in an instant revelation of cosmic consciousness, first as the living presence of Mother Kāli and then as an ocean of bliss, whose surging waves knocked out of him all awareness of the external world. When he came back into his own, he was a totally transformed person, able to perceive clearly the presence of the Divine everywhere and in everything. As he was gliding from the super-conscious to the conscious level, the Divine Mother commanded him to be in the bhāvamukha state. Hereafter, the image was no more an image of stone but the intensely living Divine Mother Herself.
The word bhāvamukha, generally translated as the ‘threshold of conscious¬ness’ is a special technical term used by Rāmakṛṣṇa and needs some explanation since it is not found in the earlier religious works. A person standing on the threshold of the main doorway of a house is absolutely free to move in or move out at will. Even so, a person who has reached the summit of spiritual experience, attaining identity with the Absolute, can come down to the plane of relative consciousness, of names and forms, and even engage himself in activities that are motivated by infinite compassion, for the good of man-kind. Any moment, he can also effortlessly raise his mind to the level of the Absolute, totally oblivious of the world. Even when he is in the relative plane, he continues to be in touch with the Absolute too, since, for him, it is always one state and not two, as we may surmise. Rāmakṛṣṇa calls such a person as a ‘vijñāni’.
Utterly unable to understand Rāmakṛṣṇa’s state of mind, people started believing that he was out of his mind. The news soon got wind and reached the ears of Candrādevī and Rameśvar at Kāmārpukur. At their earnest entreaties, he returned to Kāmārpukur. To everyone’s surprise Rāmakṛṣṇa’s behavior was completely normal! However, not being prepared to take any chances, Candrādevī and Rāmeśvar secretly started searching for a suitable bride, to get him married, thinking that that would ‘cure’ him of all his ‘madness!’
When even their desperate search proved futile, Rāmakṛṣṇa himself came to their rescue, asking them to contact Rāmcandra Mukhyopādhyāya of Jayarāmbāṭi in whose house was a girl ‘specially reserved’ for him. In spite of the apparent barrier, since Sāradā Devī, the girl, was hardly six years old whereas Rāmakṛṣṇa was twenty-three, the marriage was performed, as all other things like the matching of the horoscopes, were perfectly in order.
Just after the marriage, when the women of the village were ceremonially circum-ambulating the couple with lighted torches, the yellow thread tied on the arm of the bridegroom, signifying the matrimonial ties, accidentally caught fire and was reduced to ashes, without scalding him in any way! This mysterious occurrence was actually symbolic of the worldly attachments and attractions associated with the married life, being destroyed even before its beginning. Thus, the bind was unbound even before it started binding! Soon after, Rāmakṛṣṇa returned to Dakṣiṇeśvar, leaving Śāradā at her father’s house.
Though Lord Kṛṣṇa did not need to perform any action to get something pleasant or get rid of something unpleasant having transcended all duties yet, he continuously engaged himself in action, to set an example to mankind. Similarly, though Rāmakṛṣṇa had realized the highest Truth through his own efforts, without the assistance of any guru, lest the ordinary run of mankind also try to do the same and get into trouble, he now started practicing sādhanās or spiritual disciplines under the guidance of competent gurus. Thereby, he lent his weight to the age-old tradition of the formal training of a disciple under a qualified teacher. However, instead of the disciple seeking for the teacher, the teachers themselves came to him by the command of the Divine Mother.
The first to arrive was a sanyāsinī, Yogeśvarī by name, but more well-known as Bhairavī Brāhmaṇī. Not only did she recognize Rāmakṛṣṇa as the third disciple she had been commanded in a vision to guide, but also cured him quickly of his strange malady of a burning sensation all over the body, using a simple recipe. Under her expert guidance, Rāmakṛṣṇa successfully practiced even the most difficult disciplines prescribed in the tantras.
Bhairavī Brāhmaṇī was the first to recognize and to declare that Rāmakṛṣṇa was an avatāra or incarnation of God, even as Śrīkṛṣṇa Caitanya was. The gathering of the great contemporary paṇḍits including Vaiṣṇavacaraṇ, the best of them, that had been assembled by Mathurānāth at her behest, conceded it. This was practically the first such recognition which was later confirmed by others such as Gaurī Paṇḍit, Padmalocan and Nārāyaṇaśāstrī, themselves erudite scholars and genuine sādhakas.
As the mood of devotion inculcated by the tāntrik practices persisted, there arrived at Dakṣiṇeśvar, a Vaiṣṇava ascetic, Jaṭādhārī by name, carrying the image of Rāmlāla or child Rāma. To him Rāmlāla was ever a living presence. Very soon, Rāmakṛṣṇa discovered the secret and befriended Jatādhāri whereas Rāmlāla himself befriended Rāmakṛṣṇa! After enjoying filial love towards Rāmlāla for quite some time Rāmakṛṣṇa’s heart was satiated with vātsalyabhāva, an important aspect of the practice of devotion. Jatādhāri, on his part, started feeling the presence of Lord Rāma within his own heart and hence left the image with Rāmakṛṣṇa at the time of his departure.
Shortly after this Rāmakṛṣṇa practiced madhurabhāva, imitating the love of the gopīs of Vṛndāban towards Kṛṣṇa, which culminated in a vision of Rādhā who entered into his body and disappeared. The last to arrive was Totāpurī, the naked Nāgāsanyāsin, of a hefty build and an uncompromising attitude of Advaita Vedānta. When he saw Rāmakṛṣṇa and recognized him as a candidate of the highest order eminently fit for saṅyāsa and hence for advaitic practices, he proposed the same.
After getting the approval of the Divine Mother, Rāmakṛṣṇa underwent the ceremonies of saiṅnyāsa and advaita sādhanā. He was able to raise his mind instantly to the state of the highest nirvikalpasamādhi in which he remained continuously for three days. Totāpurī was astounded at this feat of his disciple since he himself had taken forty long years to attain it!
Though Totāpurī had attained a very high state of unitive consciousness, he never believed in, even disdained, God with names and forms. According to Rāmakṛṣṇa, the two were the obverse and the reverse of the same Truth, like water and ice. This lacuna, Totāpurī was able to discover and dispel, through a bitter physical ailment deliberately brought about by the Divine Mother of Rāmakṛṣṇa. He departed from Dakṣiṇeśvar as a thoroughly chastened and changed person.
After completing all the major modes of sādhanās or spiritual practices in Hinduism, Rāmakṛṣṇa turned his attention towards the practice of Islam under the guidance of a Sufi saint. A vision of the Prophet, and later, of Jesus, both of them entering into him and disappearing, gave him the same mystical experience that he had had earlier. He was thus convinced that the spiritual disciplines prescribed by the various religions of the world, ultimately lead to the same beatific experience, even as all the radii from the various points on the circumference of a circle lead to the same center. The equality of all religions taught by him should be understood in this sense, that they all lead to the same experience of beatitude, if practiced seriously and sincerely. After duly completing the expeditions into his inner Self, Rāmakṛṣṇa went on an external expedition, to various places of pilgrimage, to oblige his host Mathuranāth Biśvās, and perhaps to sanctify those places as the Nārada Bhaktisutras avers.
While Rāmakṛṣṇa was sailing over the unchartered and chartered oceans of religious mysticism, totally oblivious of his wedded wife Sāradādevī, she at Jayrāmbāṭī, was continuously thinking, when the call would come from him to join him at Dakṣiṇeśvar. When people carried tales to her parents that Rāmakṛṣṇa had gone stark mad, she decided to go to him, to be by his side in that hour of crisis and to serve him to the best of her ability. When she arrived there, she was pleasantly surprised and extremely happy to see him, not only perfectly normal, but also solicitous about her welfare. Since neither of them was interested in worldly life, but, only, in spiritual companionship, life was smooth. She became his first disciple and started practicing sādhanas under his guidance.
Soon after her arrival, one day Rāmakṛṣṇa literally worshiped her as Mother Kālī Herself and offered all the fruits of his spiritual endeavors at her feet. It was on the Phalahāriṇī Kālīpujā day in A. D. 1872. This unique event in the spiritual history of whole mankind signifies two things:
- Total eradication of lust as the end-result
- The filial attitude towards all women is the best means of achieving it
By this wondrous act, Rāmakṛṣṇa made her the co-sharer of all his spiritual attainments which automatically became hers too. Also, by invoking the Divine Mother into her and worshiping her, he roused the power of universal motherhood in her. Her later life is a proof of this. Thus ended the period in Rāmakṛṣṇa’s life, of all sādhanas. He was now fully ready to transmit his spiritual wisdom and power to worthy disciples.
The Lotus Blooms
A fully bloomed lotus does not have to invite the bees! They are irresistibly drawn towards it and hence swarm it. So is the case of truly illumined souls, especially if they are living in the society. The news of a Paramahañsa living in the temple campus of Dakṣiṇeśvar, a suburb of Calcutta, spread gradually, first by word of mouth of those who had met him and later by the writings of Keśabcandra Sen a pre-eminent leader of the Brahma Samāj which was a vibrant reform movement of those days, who was immensely influenced by him. His writings particularly attracted the youth of Bengal.
Thus started a regular procession of devotees, seekers and admirers, many of whom later became his disciples. Narendra and Rākhāl, who later on embraced sanyāsa and established the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order, formed the core-group of the younger devotees. Balarām Bose, Girīścandra Ghosh, Mahendranātha Gupta the famous author of that immortal work - The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna Rāmacandra Datta and Surendranāth Mitra were the most important among the householder disciples.
Durgācaraṇ Nāg lived in A.D. 1846-1899. He was more well-known as ‘Nāgmahāśay’ was another unique personality who combined in himself the highest ideals of both the householder’s and the samnyāsin’s lives, that came under the influence of this great teacher. Among these it was given to Girīś- candra Ghosh, a rake who had been resurrected from his miserable state, into a devotee of fiery faith by Rāmakṛṣṇa, to boldly and openly proclaim that Rāmakṛṣṇa was God Himself whose great¬ness could not be fathomed even by the great sages like Vālmīki and Vyāsa!
Drilling the Disciples
Rāmakṛṣṇa knew very well, the main mission of his advent. It was the redemp¬tion of mankind in general and to resuscitate the religion in particular. The various reform movements that had preceded him, had had only a partial effect on the Hindu society. The Ārya Samāj, though it offered stiff resistance to the proselytizing activities of the Semitic religions, completely ignored the entire gamut of the growth of Hindu ethos over several millennia, by laying stress only on the Vedas and the Vedic rituals. The Brāhmo Movement on the other hand, Christianized religion to such an extent that it appeared more like Christianity, the religion of the then ruling masters, with a veneer of religion.
The Theosophical Movement, in spite of its empathy for Hinduism, had in it weird concepts difficult to digest, especially by the intelligentsia. Hence, there was an urgent need to resurrect and exhibit the eternal values of the eternal religion, the Sanātana dharma. This Rāmakṛṣṇa did, not by intellectual research nor by alluring oratory, but by living it every moment of his life. He was amazed to find that the great truths, engendered in the ancient Hindu scriptures like the Upaniṣads and the later addenda based on them like the āgamas and the tantras, were still valid and worked even now, if only translated seriously and sincerely, into action. He was convinced that for the rejuvenation of religion, direct spiritual experience through the paths prescribed by it had to be stressed rather than formalism. For this, he needed a band of dedicated young men who would devote their lives not only to realizing these truths but also to propagating them.
The young men like Narendra and others were made of just this stuff. Hence Rāmakṛṣṇa spared no efforts in training them vigorously and even commanding them to take up this assignment under the leadership of Narendra, the genius. Though this training, or rather the drilling, was quite severe, his infinite love and concern for them made it bearable, or even pleasant.
Since he could easily intuit their inner nature, he would give personal and individual instructions best suited to them. As a result, all of them without exception, made tremendous progress in the realm of the spirit. As regards the householder-disciples, he was much more considerate. Repetition of the divine name imparted to them and surrendering to the chosen deity were the main instructions given to them. He also eminently succeeded in emotionally binding them to the younger disciples who would later on become monks.
The Curtain Downs
Even the basically tough constitution of Rāmakṛṣṇa which had withstood the severest and superhuman austerities, started breaking down under the constant strain of talking, singing and dancing for hours on end. Throat cancer was diagnosed in the latter part of A. D. 1885 and he was shifted to a suitable place in Calcutta for better treatment, first to Syāmpukur and later to the Kāśīpur garden house which was a spacious building and had a vast area around it, full of trees and fresh air. As the illness progressed—in spite of the best medical treatment available, the younger devotees under Narendra’s leadership organised round the clock service. Śāradādevī did the cooking. The house- holder-devotees defrayed the expenses. This illness provided Rāmakṛṣṇa an opportunity to cement the young disciples into the future monastic Order and the intimate householder-devotees to stand by them affording necessary support for sustenance.
On the first January 1886, he came down from his room, strolled into the garden and blessed the few householder- devotees who had gathered here, liberally vouchsafing various spiritual experiences like a vision of their chosen deities or ecstatic states, just by a touch or a wish. This day is being observed now as the ‘Kalpataru Day’ in all the centres of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order. That in Rāmakṛṣṇa, these devotees were able to actually see their iṣṭadevatās is further proof of his being an incarnation.
Sometime during this period, Rāmakṛṣṇa distributed gerua cloths to the twelve young disciples serving him and made them collect food by begging in the typical fashion of the traditional monks. After he himself tasted a little of it, the disciples partook of the same. This, for all practical purposes, was the launching of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order of monks.
Another significant event of this period was the transferring of his spiritual powers by Rāmakṛṣṇa to his beloved and chosen disciple Narendra, in the state of samādhi and declaring that he would achieve great things in his later life. Though Narendra by now had been convinced about the avatār-hood of Rāmakṛṣṇa, a doubt did creep into his mind at this time because of this serious illness.
As soon as it arose, Rāmakṛṣṇa declared in a firm and distinct voice that he who was Rāma and Kṛṣṇa earlier, was now Rāmakṛṣṇa in this body, though not in the sense of Advaita Vedānta which does not accept any distinction between the individual soul and God. As the D-day was approaching, which he himself had chosen by consulting the almanac, Rāmakṛṣṇa gave final and detailed instructions to Narendra to keep the flock together. He departed on the night of 16th August 1886 at 1.02 A.M. by clearly uttering the name of Mother Kālī thrice. The mortal remains were cremated the next day at the Kāśīpur cremation ground. There now stands a small monument at that place.
The Fragrant Candles
The lotus blooms, bees swarm it, drink its honey and disappear by the time it closes its petals. True, the bees have been satiated by honey. But, they cannot give it to others! A burning candle can give light and light up another candle; but it cannot emit fragrance. An incense can give fragrance when burned, but it cannot give light!
How nice and wonderful it would be if there were candles that could give light as also spread an aroma around them! This is exactly what Rāmakṛṣṇa did when he trained his disciples and launched them into the world to start a movement of true religion and spirituality, a movement that would aim at raising a human being from the biological to the psycho-logical level and ultimately to the level of the spirit.
Each one of these disciples who constituted the original Rāmakṛṣṇa Order of monks was a light unto himself and to the world. Each one of them was able to spread the Rāmakṛṣṇa fragrance in his own way bringing peace and solace to one and all that came to him. The householder disciples of the great Master stood by them like a bulwark.
If today, the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission have been able to spread Rāmakṛṣṇa’s spiritual message all over the world, it is not a little due to these founding fathers and their worthy disciples and successors. It is also interesting to note here that today, millions of people all over the world have accepted Rāmakṛṣṇa as an incarnation and are worshiping him as such. There are several instances of his appearing in dreams and visions, consoling and protecting persons irrespective of their religion and nationality even though they had not even heard of him! It will not be out of place here to give a brief account of these direct disciples, except that of Vivekānanda which needs a more detailed treatment, arranging the names in the English alphabetical order.
He lived in A. D. 1866—1939. Author of several exquisite Sanskrit hymns on Rāmakṛṣṇa and Śāradā Devī, the most popular one being ‘prakrtim paramām’ Svāmi Abhedānanda was a rare combination of several talents like intellectual acumen, devotional fervor and yogic introspection. He was a good speaker and a prolific writer. Known as Kālīprasād Candra in his premonastic days, he was born on the 2nd October 1866 in Calcutta to enlightened parents, both of whom were deeply devoted to Mother Kāli. Even from his boyhood days, he was inclined towards the study of Sanskrit. As he grew up he was drawn to the study of philosophical works, both Eastern and Western. His desire to become a yogi brought him to Rāmakṛṣṇa who immediately recognized him as a disciple of his inner circle. He progressed speedily in the inner life under the guidance of the Master.
After the demise of the Master, Kālī accepted saṅyāsa along with the other disciples and became ‘Svāmi Abhedānanda’. He was given to much study and contemplation during the early days of his monastic life earning for himself the nickname ‘Kālī Tapasvī’. When Svāmi Vivekānanda wanted a proper assistant to continue the work in the West, he naturally thought of Svāmi Abhedānanda. The latter’s very first discourse on Advaita Vedānta delivered at London was an instant success. He later shifted to New York. He toured and lectured very extensively in the West (both U.S.A. and Europe) for a quarter of a century. His lectures attracted the cream of Western intellects as also earnest seekers of Truth. He returned to India in 1921 and formed a ‘Ramakrishna Vedanta Society’ in Calcutta to carry on his work in his own way. When he gave up the mortal coil on the 8th September 1939, the era of the direct saiñyāsin disciples of the Master came to an end.
He lived in A. D. 1920. Svāmi Vivekānanda once declared that Lātu was the greatest miracle of Rāmakṛṣṇa. If an orphan servant-boy who had absolutely no knowledge of even the alphabets could rise to such a state of sainthood that scholars of great book- learning would sit at his feet and listen spellbound to his words of wisdom, it was nothing short of a miracle that Rāmakṛṣṇa brought about. Hence the appropriateness of his name.
The early life of the Svāmi is shrouded in mystery. Born in a remote village of Bihar, and orphaned at a tender age, the boy was later brought to Calcutta by his uncle. Good fortune favoured him by getting him the job of a servant in the house of Rāmcandra Datta, a great devotee of Rāmakṛṣṇa. The holy atmosphere in the house helped unfold his religious temperament. The frequent errands to Dakṣiṇeśvar brought him into close contact with Rāmakṛṣṇa who graciously accepted him as a disciple. Later on, as Rāmakṛṣṇa felt the need for an attendant, Lāṭu started living with him and serving him. Since the guru was all-in-all for him, his service was exceptionally devoted.
After the demise of the Master, Lāṭu embraced monastic life and became ‘Svāmi Adbhutānanda’. Though he lived a mendicant’s life, he seldom moved away from Dakṣiṇeśvar, his holiest place of pilgrimage. Through hard austerity and long bouts of meditation, he was able to live constantly in God. He lived for an unusually long period of nine years at the house of Balarām Bose, another great devotee of Rāmakṛṣṇa. It was during this period that many earnest seekers would meet him and get their doubts resolved. He spent his last days at Varaṇasi where he breathed his last on April 24, 1920.
He lived in A. D. 1828-1909. The darkness of a crisis in life often acts like the twilight before dawn leading to the effulgence of the sun. When Gopāl Candra Ghosh of Sinthi lost his wife and was heartbroken, that very grief led him to Rāmakṛṣṇa, seeking relief. The contact thus established through a crisis ultimately led to glorious spiritual heights.
Gopāldā, as he was endearingly called, was older than even Rāmakṛṣṇa. Nevertheless, the attitude of reverence and devotion he cherished towards his guru Rāmakṛṣṇa, was unflinching. It was his good luck that made him instrumental in the birth of the future Rāmakṛṣṇa Order of monks by gifting a few pieces of ochre- colored cloths to Rāmakṛṣṇa who personally distributed them among Narendra, Rākhāl and others including Gopāl himself, during his last days at Kāśipur. Along with Tārak Gopāldā was the first to join the Barānagore monastery after the departure of the Master from this world. The monastic name given to him was ‘Svāmi Advaitānanda.’ He spent a few years at the monastery, shifted to Vārāṇasī for about five years and returned to the newly established Maṭh at Ālambazār, and later at Belur. His advanced age prevented him from taking active part in the missionary activities of the new organization. His personal cleanliness, neat and methodical ways of doing any work, had been admired even by Rāmakṛṣṇa. The Svāmi passed away on the 28th December 1909 at the ripe old age of eighty-one.
He lived in A. D. 1864-1937. ‘I do not covet earthly kingdom, or heaven, or even salvation. The only thing I desire is the removal of the miseries of the afflicted! ’ If these words of Prahlāda, the great devotee, could be found truly reflected in anyone’s life, it was in the life of Svāmi Akhaṇḍānanda, the third President of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order. The Svāmī, known as Gaṅgādhar Ghaṭak before ordination into sanyāsa, was born on the 30th September 1864 in Calcutta. Even in his boyhood-days Gaṅgādhar was deeply religious and orthodox to the point of being dubbed as ‘oldish’ even by Rāmakṛṣṇa himself! As a corrective measure Rāmakṛṣṇa introduced him to Narendranāth who was, for all outward appearances, very heterodox, but inside him he had nothing but God. This acquaintance matured into a deep and lifelong friendship between them.
After the demise of the Master, Gaṅgādhar, who took monastic orders and became ‘Svāmi Akhaṇḍānanda,’ led the unfettered life of a wandering monk. For three years he roamed in the Himalayas and visited Tibet also three times. Because of his experience in the Himalayas, Svāmi Vivekānanda took him as his guide in his sojourn there. Svāmi Vivekānanda’s burning words to do something for the poor and illiterate masses, inspired Svāmi Akhaṇḍānanda to do some good work for the education of poor children both in Khetri and in Udaipur. Finally he started an orphanage at the village of Sargacchi in the Murshidabad district of Bengal to where he had gone to conduct famine relief work. He and the institution grew up with each other.
On the death of Svāmi Sivānanda, Svāmi Akhaṇḍānanda was elected as the third President of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order. The Svāmi had a flair for learning languages, which brought him into intimate contact with the people wherever he went. His childlike simplicity endeared him to one and all. His austerity and scholarship were a source of inspiration for many. He breathed his last on February 7, 1937.
He lived in A. D. 1863-1922. Svāmi Brahmānanda, the ‘Spiritual Son’ of Rāmakṛṣṇa, was the first President of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order. Known as Rākhāl Candra Ghosh in his pre monastic days, he was born at Sikra, a village near Calcutta, on the 21st January 1863, of aristocratic parents. During his high school days at Calcutta he came into contact with Narendranāth which developed into an intimate lifelong friend-ship. Even from his childhood days he was given to devotional moods bordering on mysticism, which naturally led to indifference to studies. His father got him married at an early age to ward off the religious pursuits from his mind and fix him up in the world. Strange to say, this very tie of marriage brought him to Rāmakṛṣṇa who at once recognized in him his ‘Spiritual Son’ as per the vision vouchsafed to him by the Divine Mother. Thus started a course of spiritual intimacy and intensive training under the loving care of the guru, which resulted in several exalted mystic moods and spiritual experiences. After the passing away of Rāmakṛṣṇa, Rākhāl, along with Narendra and other brother-disciples, embraced monastic life under the name ‘Svāmi Brahmānanda.’ He spent several years as a wandering monk, visiting places of pilgrimage and practicing severe austerities.
A little before the return of Svāmi Vivekānanda from the West, he came back to the Barānagore Math and started living there. After his return and establishing the Ramakrishna Mission, Svāmi Vivekānanda made over the responsibility of running the organization, to him, remembering that Rāmakṛṣṇa had once remarked that Rākhāl had the capacity to rule a kingdom. His uncanny sense in solving even knotty problems and his spiritual eminence of Himālayan heights took the organization to new levels of glory and development. It was a long stewardship marked by work and worship remarkably blended together. During his tenure as the Head, he also guided many earnest spiritual seekers by taking them under his protection, thus fulfilling Svāmi Vivekānanda’s prophetic remark that he was veritably a spiritual dynamo. He passed away on the 10th April 1922.
He lived in A. D. 1904. Nityanirañjan Ghosh, more commonly known as Nirañjan, was probably born in the village Rajarhat-Viṣṇupur, but lived in Calcutta with his uncle. Physically well-built and majestic in appearance, he had somehow become associated with a group of spiritualists who had found in him a very good medium. Having heard about the great spiritual power of Rāmakṛṣṇa, Nirañjan came to Dakṣiṇeśvar one day. During this very first visit, the great Master told him, ‘My boy! If you think of ghosts and spooks, ghost and spook will you become! But if you think of God, divine will be your life. Which do you prefer?’ And this converted him from spiritualism to spiritual life. Though frank and openhearted, he was subject to losing temper and consequently all sense of proportion.
Rāmakṛṣṇa took special care to help him overcome this weakness. Nirañjan was one of the few who served the Master day and night during his last illness. After his demise he took samnyāsa along with others and became ‘Svāmi Nirañjanānanda.’ He was mainly instrumental in the monastic disciples getting the major portion of the ashes of Rāmakṛṣṇa, to be later interred at the new Maṭh built by Svāmi Vivekānanda. He had a deep devotion for the Holy Mother. Though tender at heart, he could be fiercely stern in the face of hypocrisy. He breathed his last on the 9th May 1904.
He lived in A. D. 1861—1918. The name ‘Svāmi Premānanda’ given to Bāburām by Svāmi Vivekānanda at the time of accepting the monastic orders, was a true reflection of his basic trait, universal love. Born to affluent parents on December 10, 1861, Bāburām completed his early schooling in his village of Āntpur, came to Calcutta for higher education and joined the Metropolitan Institution. There he had the privilege of having Sri ‘M’, the celebrated author of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna as his Head-master and Rākhāl as his classmate. It was the latter who was instrumental in taking Bāburām to Rāmakṛṣṇa. Rāmakṛṣṇa examined Bāburām’s features in his own, rather queer, way and was satisfied about his high spiritual potentialities. Increased contacts with Rāmakṛṣṇa intensified Bāburām’s inherent spiritual thirst which had been manifesting itself even from his childhood.
After the passing away of Rāmakṛṣṇa, Bāburām, along with his brother-disciples like Narendranāth embraced the monastic life, becoming ‘Svāmi Premānanda.’ He spent most of his life in the monasteries at Barānagore, Ālambazār and Belṅr taking care of worship, internal management and training of the new monastic recruits. His innate motherly love endeared him to one and all. Many a young man was reformed by his golden touch. During his later sojourn in several parts of Bengal, especially in East Bengal (present Bangladesh), he inspired the youth to be useful to the society by voluntary service. Though a man of high spiritual attainments, he was wont to hiding them and was very reticent in giving expression to them. The deadly disease of Kālā Āzār took him away on the 30th July 1918.
He lived in A. D. 1863-1911. It is said that Svāmi Vivekānanda at the time of sanyāsa wanted to take the name ‘Rāmakṛṣṇānanda’ for himself, but gave it up in favor of Śaśibhuṣaṇ, who, he thought, deserved it best. Śaśi deserved it eminently by dint of his devoted service to Rāmakṛṣṇa, especially during his last days. The way he served Rāmakṛṣṇa when he was alive and the way he carried on his worship through the relics after his passing away were, to say the least, exemplary.
Born on the 13th July 1863, the same year as Vivekānanda, in an orthodox brāhmin family of the Hoogly district of Bengal, Saśi got a good education and an excellent training during the early years which laid the foundation for a lofty character. His very first visit, along with his cousin Sarat, to Rāmakṛṣṇa forged strong links with him, whom he accepted as the polestar of his life.
During the last illness of the Master, Saśi toiled day and night to serve him and to look to his comforts. After his demise, when the relics were gathered and established in the shrine of the maiden monastery at Barānagore, it was Śaśi who took upon himself the responsibility of worshiping it as also take care of his monastic brothers who had been fired by an intense spirit of renunciation. No mother would have served her children with greater feeling and care than Śaśi cared for them.
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<ref> tag was born at Calcutta in a rich and orthodox brāhmin family. He and Śaśi, who later became Svāmi Rāmakṛṣṇānanda, were not only cousins and family friends but also studied together at the Metropolitan College of Calcutta.
The first contact of the two cousins with Rāmakṛṣṇa, during October 1883, was a turning point in their lives. Friendship with Narendranāth gave a further fillip to their spiritual and monastic aspirations. Sarat, an adept in serving the sick both by temperament and by experience, was one of the few important disciples of Rāmakṛṣṇa who nursed him during his fatal illness. After his passing away, Sarat too joined the select band of monastics under the leadership of Narendra and became ‘Svāmi Sāradānanda.’
Like his other monastic brothers, Svāmi Sāradānanda also spent a few years as an itinerant monk practicing severe austerities. However, when Svāmi Vivekānanda called him for continuing his work in the West, Sāradānanda went to London first and later to New York for the same. While he was proving to be a great success in the West, especially due to his spiritual attainments, he was recalled to India in 1898 by Svāmi Vivekānanda to take over the executive responsibility of the Ramakrishna Maṭh and Mission as its (General) Secretary in which capacity he served till his last day.
The way he served Sāradā Devī, the Holy Mother, was a model par excellence for anyone to emulate. In order to build a residence for her at Calcutta which would also house the office of the Udbodhan, the Bengali Monthly of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order, he labored hard. To repay the debts he had incurred in doing so, he wrote the now monumental Bengali work Sri Rāma-kṛṣṇa Lilāprasañga.
The Svāmi was as learned as he was spiritual. His courtesy and gentleness were so overwhelming that even the rudest of men would melt into submission. Equanimity and cool headedness, even under very trying circumstances, were other remarkable characteristics of his. Soon after successfully convening the Ramakrishna Mission Convention at Belur Math in 1926, he took ill and shuffled off the mortal coil on the 19th August 1927.
He lived in A. D. 1854-1934. Svāmi Śivānanda, the second President of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order, was popularly known as ‘Mahāpuruṣ Mahārāj.’ Born probably in 1854 at Bārāsat of West Bengal, in a respectable and deeply religious family, Tārak that was his original name got a good education, both secular and spiritual. When he was working in Calcutta in an English firm, he got an opportunity of seeing Rāmakṛṣṇa about whom he had already heard. Later, when he met Rāmakṛṣṇa at Dakṣiṇeśvar, the latter was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was the son of Rāmkanāi Ghoṣāl, his old acquaintance. Needless to say that Tārak had the full approval of his father for becoming a disciple of Rāmakṛṣṇa.
Tārak was the first person to join the monastery at Barānagore after the demise of the Master, and was christened ‘Svāmi Śivānanda’ while receiving the monastic orders. Though Tārak had been married, he had successfully kept up the vow of brahmacarya. This made Svāmi Vivekānanda remark in later days that he was a ‘Mahāpuruṣa.’ This name stuck and he became known as ‘Mahāpuruṣ Mahārāj.’ Like his brother-disciples, he also spent a few years as an itinerant monk. But he had to settle down at the monastery in 1897 after the triumphant return of Svāmi Vivekānanda from the West.
For some time he was in Ceylon also, preaching Vedānta at the behest of Svāmi Vivekānanda. He also took a leading part in the first plague relief work of the Ramakrishna Mission in 1899. It was he who started the Āśrama at Vārāṇasī. But the most memorable part of his life was during his stewardship of the Ramakrishna Organizations as the President from 1922 to 1934, when he blessed a large number of people with initiation and brought spiritual solace and comfort to thousands of devotees. He passed away on the 20th February 1934 after a protracted illness which never alienated him from his Lord, whose presence he was constantly aware of. He was one of the finest examples of the fact that the beauty and sublimity of the inner life of a holy man can never be described in words but can only be tangibly felt.
He lived A. D. 1867-1932. At the behest of Svāmi Vivekānanda, but most reluctantly, Svāmi Subodhānanda rose to speak before a gathering of monks and novices of the Maṭh. And lo! There was an earth-quake! If was really an ‘earth-shaking’ speech! Whether the speech was ‘earth-shaking’ or not, the Svāmi could certainly help even the lowliest in spirits, to shake off his dejection. He was a wonderful combination of compassion, love, childlike simplicity and profound spiritual wisdom. His premonastic name was Subodh Candra Ghosh. He was born in Calcutta on the 8th November 1867. His parents were deeply religious by nature which automatically left its influence on the son also.
Coming to know of Rāmakṛṣṇa through a Bengali book of his teachings, Subodh lost no time in meeting the Saint of Dakṣiṇeśvar. Even during the first two visits, Rāmakṛṣṇa guaged the spiritual potential of the boy and put him into a deep meditation by mystic methods. Subodh joined the Barānagore monastery along with the other disciples of the Master and got the name ‘Svāmi Subodhānanda’ after ordination. Because of his simple and childlike nature, he was endearingly called ‘Khoka Mahārāj’ by his monastic brothers. After much austerities and itinerant life, the Svāmi settled down to a life of service to the suffering humanity. He was very actively associated with many of the relief works of the Ramakrishna Mission. He was extremely liberal in the matter of initiation also, especially towards the weaker sections of the society, whom he tried to help in all possible ways. The Svāmi passed away on the 2nd December 1932.
He lived A. D. 1865-1914. The depression brought about by the loss of a gold watch led the young Sāradāprasanna to Dakṣiṇeśvar, seeking peace. Master Mahāśaya, the celebrated author of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna who was his teacher, led him to his future guru. The first visit itself forged strong links between them. Fearing that his religious inclination and frequent visits to the Saint of Dakṣiṇeśvar might ultimately induce him to become a monk, his relatives tried hard to change his mind, taking recourse to, in the process, religious rites and charms. But nothing worked. This way Sāradāprasanna became ‘Svāmi Triguṇā- tītānanda.’
The Svāmi had a strong constitution and was a dare-devil. During his itinerant days he had often been on the brink of disaster and was miraculously saved. It is said that he once underwent surgery for fistula without anaesthetics. He never cared for his personal comforts but was ever eager to serve others. The famous relief work he organized at Dinajpur bears testimony to this.
At the behest of Svāmi Vivekānanda, Svāmi Triguṇātītānanda started the Udbodhan, the Bengali Monthly of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order, and assiduously built it up. When Svāmi Turīyānanda returned to India from San Francisco, it was Triguṇātītānanda who was entrusted with the responsibility of organizing the Vedānta work there. It was he who built the first Hindu temple in the West. The great life came to an abrupt end as a result of a mad man’s act of throwing a bomb. He breathed his last on the 10th January 1914.
He lived in A. D. 1863 - 1922. A few people there are, who appear to live in this world, but do not really belong here. Svāmi Turīyānanda was one of them. Born in a religious family, of brāhmaṇa parents, on the 3rd January 1863 Harināth Caṭṭopādhyāya that was his pre-monastic name, was given to much orthodox observances even in his younger days. An innate desire for liberation in this very life, kindled by the study of Vedāntic works brought him to Rāmakṛṣṇa. The Master through his deep spiritual insight and all-encompassing love, quickly won his heart. Not only that, he soon discovered and destroyed two unhealthy trends in his personality, abhorrence of womankind and excessive reliance on self-effort.
After accepting the monastic robes and vows, Harināth became ‘Svāmi Turīyānanda.’ His orthodox mental make-up made him undertake long and arduous journeys as an itinerant monk, and prac¬tise severe austerities as also study of the scriptures. Though he had great love and respect for Svāmi Vivekānanda, he was at first averse to active missionary work. But Svāmījī’s love melted his heart. He accompanied Svāmījī to the United States and worked there for about three years. The Śanti Aśrama in California was practically his creation.
After returning to India he spent his days mostly in austerity and in training the younger generation of monks. His burning spirit of renunciation, deep faith in the Divine Mother, and insight into the intricacies of the scriptures left an indelible impression on everyone that came into contact with him. His fortitude and the control he could exercise over his body were astonishing. He left the body on the 21st July 1922.
He lived in A. D. 1868-1938. Rāmakṛṣṇa one day challenged a young man to wrestle with him. The tall and hefty youth put him down in no time. And the wonder of wonders, the young man soon felt a power entering from Rāmakṛṣṇa’s body into his own, making him completely powerless! That was how Hariprasanna had one of his early encounters with the Master.
Born on the 28th October 1868 in a respectable brāhmaṇa family at Belgharia (Calcutta), Hariprasanna Caṭṭopādhyāya received a good education from his parents. He became an engineer and rose to the position of District Engineer in the erstwhile State of United Provinces, before renouncing the world. From his very first visit, Rāmakṛṣṇa spotted him out as one belonging to the inner circle and a future monk. He took particular care to instill in him the ideal of brahmacarya or celibacy. His visits to Dakṣiṇeśvar and contact with the Master laid a firm foundation for his spiritual life.
When the Master passed away, Hariprasanna who was still a student at Patna, had a strange vision in which he saw Rāmakṛṣṇa as if in flesh and blood, standing before him. Since he had lost his father early and had to support his mother, he was obliged to take to government service, but kept in touch with the disciples of the Master, especially Narendranāth. Later in A. D. 1886, he gave up the world and joined the Maṭh then at Ālambazār and became ‘Svāmi Vijñānānanda’ after ordination.
Since he was an engineer with good experience in building construction, he was entrusted by Svāmi Vivekānanda himself with the task of building the Math campus as also preparing suitable plans for a memorial temple of Rāmakṛṣṇa. So he prepared it in consultation with a noted European architect of Calcutta and Svāmījī approved of the same. Due to the sudden demise of Svāmīji and lack of funds, the project had to wait for a long time to be taken up. It was completed and dedicated by Svāmi Vijñānānanda himself on the 14th of January 1938.
A group of young men in Allahabad had formed themselves into an association called ‘Brahmavādin Club’ with a view to uplifting themselves morally and spiritually. They had done so under the inspiration of a devotee of Rāmakṛṣṇa. This devotee had left Allahabad in 1900. As luck would have it, Svāmi Vijñānānanda arrived at Allahabad in the same year as a wandering monk. The young men who were delighted to have a disciple of Rāmakṛṣṇa amongst them requested the Svāmi to live in the rented premises of their Club and guide them. The Svāmi agreed and lived there for nearly ten years, spending most of his time in austerity and study. He later on established a permanent branch of the Ramakrishna Math at Allahabad in 1910.
The Svāmi was a great scholar, not only in Sanskrit and religio-philosophical works but also in astronomy and astrology. He was elected the President of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order in 1937 after the demise of Svāmi Akhaṇḍānanda. He strove hard to complete the construction of the temple of Rāmakṛṣṇa at Belur Math, which he successfully did and dedicated in January 1938 as already indicated. He then returned to Allahabad and passed away on the 25th April the same year. The body was consigned to the sacred waters of the Triveṇī, at the confluence of the rivers Gaṅga, Yamuna and the invisible Sarasvatī.
He lived in A. D. 1861-1899. Though counted among the disciples of Rāmakṛṣṇa and guided by him, Svāmi Yogānanda was the first initiated disciple of Śāradā Devī, popularly known as the ‘Holy Mother’. Like the Mother whom he served meticulously with matchless devotion, his life was very unobtrusive for all outward appearances but very deep in inner mystic experiences, of which he sometimes gave a hint or two. Born in 1861 in an orthodox brāhmaṇa family which was in indigent circumstances but had once been aristocratic and rich, Yogīndra, who was indrawn, gentle and shy by nature.
The desire to pluck a nice flower in the Dakṣiṇeśvar garden brought him face to face with Rāmakṛṣṇa whom Yogin mistook for a gardener working there! He got the flower all right, but in the process, himself became a ‘flower plant’ to be tended by a great gardener of lives. Though married, the world could never drag his mind down to worldliness. Just as pure gold cannot be shaped into ornaments but has got to be alloyed with a small quantity of other metals, Rāmakṛṣṇa had to ‘alloy’ him with a bit of harshness to counter his too gentle a personality that could not last in this mundane world. But the disciple was not a goody goody simpleton. He could exercise his highly critical discernment even against his own guru or leader when he thought it necessary. He was a good organizer. He had successfully attracted and inspired many young men to the monastic life. He was extraordinarily devoted to the Holy Mother whom he served till the last day of his life. His congenitally frail constitution could not stand the rigors he chose to impose upon himself resulting in a rather premature death on March 28, 1899.
Philosophy of Rāmakrsna
Man is often described as a rational animal. Once the animal in him is reasonably satisfied by the provision of basic biological and some psychological needs, the rational part gets an opportunity to evolve to higher levels. Philosophy, including metaphysics, is one of the highest aspects of this evolution. The philosophical systems have developed not only as a result of intellectual speculations but also of mystical intuition. Hence the name ‘darśana’ usually applied to them. The topics most commonly discussed by these darśanas are generally four: the world and its creation or evolution; the existence, nature and attributes of the Absolute or God; the nature of man; and the goal of human life.
Different standpoints and differing views on these topics of discussion have naturally led to a variety of schools. These schools are broadly divided into two classes: the āstika and the nāstika. The former accept the authority of the Vedas whereas the latter do not. The Vedānta Darśana belongs to the former class and has gained a pre-eminent place in it due to its judicious combination of reasoning and acceptance of the authority of the Vedas as also due to its long, unbroken tradition.
The word ‘Vedānta’ means the ‘end or essence of the Vedas.’ The Upaniṣads, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagavadgītā, and also all other allied literature based on them, form the sources of Vedānta. Differing interpretations of the prasthānatraya, especially of the Brahma-sutras, have given rise to different schools of Vedānta, of which Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita and Dvaita are well-known.
Advaita of Sankara
Among these three schools, again it is the Advaita which has gained greater currency and is more widely known. According to Śaṅkara, the chief expounder of this school, the ultimate Truth is one and one only, and it is Brahman. This Brahman is Sat-Cit- Ānanda and is without form and without attributes. The world in which we live, move and have our being, is unreal since it is only an appearance in Brahman, like that of a snake in a rope, due to ignorance or illusion. However, as long as this ignorance or illusion is not transcended and Brahman is not realized as It is, this world of appearance, which is the ground of our experience, is given a tentative and empirical reality. When this empirical reality is admitted for the world, its creation or evolution, its sustenance, and its destruction or involution, have also to be admitted. Looked at from this angle and conceding Brahman as the ground of evolution and involution of the world, It becomes īśvara or God, the supreme Ruler of creation. This īśvara creates, sustains and destroys the world out of his power of māyā.
As regard the individual souls, Saṅkara posits that they are really identical with Brahman, their separate identity and bondage in the world being due to the ignorance of their real nature. This ignorance is beginningless but can be ended through knowledge of their real nature as Ātman or Self identical with Brahman or Absolute. Since it is ignorance that has caused bondage for the individual soul, Saṅkara maintains that knowledge alone can give liberation, though he admits that selfless action and devotion to God can be useful preliminary disciplines. In the state of liberation, the individual Self merges in Brahman, completely losing its identity.
Now let us see how Rāmakṛṣṇa’s philosophy compares with that of Saṅkara. At the very outset, it has to be made clear that Rāmakṛṣṇa never propagated a system of philosophy of his own. He experienced the Truth directly and then spoke out of the fulness of that experience. Hence, we have to piece together his teachings on these aspects of philosophy given at random in his conversations.
Like Saṅkara, Rāmakṛṣṇa also accepts Brahman as the highest and the only reality. He also accepts It as nirguṇa and nirākāra in Its aspect as the Absolute. But, unlike Saṅkara, he does not accept God, the aspect of Brahman with form and with attributes, as either illusory or as a reality of a lower order. To him, God is both formless and possessed of form. Not only that, He is beyond both these too! Says he:
‘God is formless, and God is possessed of form too. And He is also that which transcends both form and formlessness. He alone knows what all He is.’
He calls the Absolute as Brahman, in Its eternal aspect, i.e., when It is at rest and inactive. The same in Its sportive aspect, when involved in the process of creation, preservation and destruction, he calls Sakti or Kālī, the same as īśvara or God. So, according to him, Brahman and Śakti are one and inseparable. ‘The distinction between Brahman and Sakti is really a distinction without a difference. Brahman and Sakti are one, just as fire and its burning power are one.
Brahman and Śakti are one just as milk and the whiteness of milk are together. No one can conceive of the one without the other or make a difference between them.’ ‘God the Absolute and God the Personal are one and the same. Belief in the one implies belief in the other. Fire cannot be thought of apart from its burning power, nor can its burning power be thought of apart from it. Again, the sun’s rays cannot be thought of apart from the sun, nor the sun, apart from its rays. You cannot think of the whiteness of milk apart from its milky whiteness. Thus the Absolute cannot be thought of apart from the idea of God with attributes, i.e., Personal God and vice versa.’ ‘The Primordial Power and Supreme Brahman are identical, it is like the snake and its wriggling motion.’
Rāmakṛṣṇa accepts māyā as the veil that keeps God hidden from our sight. He compares it to a small patch of cloud that can hide the big sun from our view or like the weeds that cover placid water. He also holds, like the Sāṅkhyas, that as soon as māyā is discovered, it disappears. But he is a little more considerate towards this māyā than the advaitins, because he accepts that it has two aspects, the vidyā-māyā and the avidyā-māyā. The former helps a bound soul to get liberation by giving him discrimination and non-attachment. It is the latter, manifested as lust, lucre and egoism, that really binds him.
Again, this explanation which leads to the corollary that a spiritual aspirant should take recourse to vidyā-māyā to nullify the effects of avidyā-māyā, even as one thorn or a needle is used to remove another thorn and then both are thrown away, adds a new dimension to the philosophy of spiritual practice. By ingeniously avoiding the need to propitiate a Personal God to remove this māyā, the purely Advaitic standpoint is maintained.
As regards the locus of māyā, there is no unanimity among the traditional advaitic schools. But Rāmakṛṣṇa solves the problem convincingly by saying that it is located in Brahman, but acts on the individual souls, like the poison of a snake which is contained in its mouth and yet does not affect it in any way, but acts on those bitten by it. He thus absolves Brahman of any imperfection or limitation due to māyā.
Coming to creation, Rāmakṛṣṇa gives it a much greater degree of reality than Śaṅkara. He calls it the lilā aspect of Brahman and hence real, though not eternal. It is like ice-crystals appearing on water and again dissolving back in water. The ice-crystals are as real as water, but do not endure permanently.
A person ascending the staircase to reach the roof of a building denies at first any ‘roofness’ to the stairs. But he discovers after reaching the roof that the stairs are also made of the same material as the roof. In the same way, though a man of wisdom (jñāni) may deny the world as not Brahman, when he becomes a man of ‘supreme wisdom’ through more complete realization, he accepts that the world is also Brahman, since nothing exists apart from Brahman. This theory gives us a greater insight with the help of which we can understand better, the activities of a jīvanmukta, one who is liberated even while living.
Īśvara or God
In Śaṅkara’s Advaita, Brahman the Absolute is not very responsive to human emotions or prayers. The īśvara we bank on is either unreal or has a precarious existence. But according to Rāmakṛṣṇa, īśvara who is Brahman in Its līlā-aspeet, is real and responsive, and hence the entire gamut of devotional practices acquires validity and leads to fulfillment. Instead of being a secondary sādhanā, as in traditional advaita, bhakti is a primary sādhanā placed on an equal footing with jñāna; and this is achieved within the broad framework of Advaita which both accept as the final truth.
Closely connected with this topic is the concept of the avatāra or incarnation of God. Śaṅkara, constrained by the extreme stance of advaita which he is obliged to adopt, is very apologetic about the whole doctrine. Rāmakṛṣṇa however has no such constraints since he accepts both the nitya and the līlā aspects of Brahman as equally real and valid. Once the līlā-aspect is accepted as real, there should be no difficulty at all in according reality to the avatāra of God also. God being omniscient and omnipotent, can do anything he likes. None can put any limitation on his power. If it is his will, he can be born as a human being and sport through it. In fact, he does sport through the human body to bring enlightenment to the bound souls, out of his infinite compassion for them. And again, since the incarnation is God Himself, seeing him is equivalent to seeing God. To touch the river Gaṅgā, it is not necessary to touch the entire stretch of water from the Gomukh (the birth-place of the river) to the Gaṅgāsāgar. It is enough if it is touched at Dakṣiṇeśvar!
Immanence of God
For Śaṅkara, the world is only an illusory appearance in Brahman like silver in nacre. Brahman thus being the substratum of the world, appearance cannot be, strictly speaking, immanent in it. Immanence implies a much greater degree of reality for the substance in which immanence of the other is recognized. The Upaniṣads clearly speak of divine immanence in the world and the living beings. Rāmakṛṣṇa teaches not only of divine immanence in all the beings and things but also of its manifestation in different degrees. He says:
‘Every object is Nārāyaṇa. Man is Nārāyaṇa, the animal is Nārāyaṇa, the sage is Nārāyaṇa, the knave also is Nārāyaṇa. All that exists is Nārāyaṇa.
The Deity sports in various aspects. All things are his diverse forms and the manifestations of his glory.’ ‘God is in all men, but all men are not in God; that is why they suffer.’ ‘The manifestation of Śakti varies in varying centres of activity; for variety is the law, not sameness. God is immanent in all creatures; he is even in the ant. The difference is in manifestation only.’
Jīva or Individual Soul
Coming to the nature of the jīva or man, Rāmakṛṣṇa admits that in his essential nature he is God Himself:
‘The soul enchained is man, but when free from the chain, it is the Lord.’
‘What is the relation between the jivātman and the Paramātman? As a current of water seems to be divided into two when a plank of wood is placed against it edgewise, so the Indivisible appears divided into two, the jivātman and the Paramātman, due to the limitation of māyā.’
‘Water and a bubble on it are one and the same. The bubble has its birth in the water, floats on it, and is ultimately resolved into it. So also the jivātman and the Paramātman are one and the same, the difference between them being only one of degree. For, one is finite and limited while the other is infinite; one is dependent while the other is independent.’
Cause of His Bondage
What then is it that causes his bondage? Rāmakṛṣṇa attributes it to egoism, brought about by the avidyā-māyā. On a deeper analysis of ‘I,’ it will be found to be non-existent even as nothing is leftover when we go on peeling an onion and yet it can create many troubles. Not only that, it is extremely difficult to get rid of! How then can we get rid of it? Classifying the ego into two groups, the ripe-ego and the unripe-ego, Rāmakṛṣṇa advises us to cultivate the ripe-ego to counter the unripe one: ‘If you find that you cannot drive off this feeling of “I,” then let it remain as the “servant I.”
There is not much to fear from the ego which is centered in the thought, “I am the servant of God, I am his devotee.” Sweets cause dyspepsia, but not sugar- candy which is an exception. The “servant I,” the “I” of a devotee, the “I” of a child- each of these is like a line drawn with a stick on the surface of water; this “I” does not last long.’.
In this connection he gives the unique example as to how the liberated souls continue to live in this world and teach others even after their egoism has been wiped out:
‘As a piece of rope, when burnt, retains its form, but cannot serve to bind, so is the ego which is burnt by the fire of supreme knowledge.’
Four Types of Jīvas
Rāmakṛṣṇa, though conceding that all the jīvas, in the ultimate analysis, are equal, yet classifies them into four groups:
- The baddha - bound
- The mumukṣu - struggling for liberation
- The mukta - emancipated
- The nityasiddha - ever-free
Those of the last group are born to teach mankind. The first group is so deeply engrossed in the world of senses that it is least interested in the life of the spirit. The last two groups have already reached the goal of their lives. Hence it is the second group that needs special attention.
The Goal of Life
Rāmakṛṣṇa says that the goal of life is God-realization. All our miseries will end, all our problems will be solved once for all, by realizing God. Following the ancient tradition, he advises the aspirants to seek a competent spiritual teacher first and then practice disciplines according to his directions. Rāmakṛṣṇa’s teachings contain a veritable mine of information and instructions on practical spiritual life. Unlike the traditional philosophies or religions, he is not at all dogmatic about the path leading to the goal. Just as the Kālighāṭ temple can be reached through several roads of Calcutta, God also can be realized through several spiritual paths and disciplines. In his philosophy of sādhanā, jñāna, bhakti, yoga and karma-all have a place.
One can practice them either singly or in combination. What is needed is vyākulatā, great earnestness or intense longing. In fact, his approach can accommodate in its fold not only all the spiritual disciplines of all the religions. He goes to the extent of according a place even to the abominable practices of some tāntrik schools, calling them as ‘back-doors,’ though he does not advocate or recommend them.
Jñāna or Bhakti
As regards the controversy among the various schools about jñāna or bhakti being the direct path to liberation, Rāmakṛṣṇa advocates devotion tempered by knowledge as most suitable for this age. This standpoint avoids the extremes and prevents the aspirant from becoming dry or sentimental, the dangers to which he is generally exposed if he follows only one of them to the exclusion of the other.
What happens to a person when he realizes God? Here, Rāmakṛṣṇa follows the traditional description given in the scriptures. The man of realization experiences unalloyed bliss within and sees the Divine everywhere. Outwardly he may not exhibit any signs of his inner joy and may even behave like an abnormal person. But one thing is certain: He remains unaffected by the vicissitudes of life which affect others intensely. He lives in God and works for the good of others, seeing God in them.
Continuance of Body after Realization
Rāmakṛṣṇa says that normally a person who goes into nirvikalpa samādhi remains in that state for twenty-one days and then passes away. However, a few who are destined to teach mankind, return to the ordinary plane of consciousness by keeping a trace of egoism without which corporeal existence is impossible. About prārabdha-karma Rāmakṛṣṇa accepts it as inevitable but assures us that a greater part of its effects can be offset by the power of God’s name.
Problem of Good and Evil
Concerning the problem of good and evil which has been debated much in philosophy, Rāmakṛṣṇa says that the very act of creation presupposes imperfection. Just as pure gold cannot be made into ornaments unless it is mixed with traces of baser metals, the world cannot come into existence without māyā. The simultaneous existence of good and evil is to be counteracted through good as far as possible. But the ultimate solution is to transcend both good and evil by rising to supreme spiritual heights where every-thing is leveled in God. Then neither good nor evil is recognized, just as it is impossible to notice the difference in the heights of tall trees or clusters of grass when one is flying high in the sky.
Cause of Disagreement
Finally, a word about why there is so much disagreement and difference among the various philosophical systems and religions. Rāmakṛṣṇa tackles this question from two standpoints:
- The subjective
- The objective
Through the well-known story of the blind men and the elephant, he tells us that when people get an incomplete or imperfect view of God and preach it as the whole truth, conflicts are bound to appear. This is from the subjective standpoint. From the objective standpoint, he says that God is so great that none can comprehend him fully. He alone knows what all he is. Brahman or God is the one thing that has not become hicchiṣṭa’ since none has till now fully described him. Any attempt to size him up with our limited intellect and describe him through our limited speech will be as futile as the efforts of the salt-doll that wanted to gauge the depths of the sea! Hence, even when people who have had genuine and complete spiritual experience try to describe him, their descriptions are bound to fall far short of the ideal and are also apt to be different from one another.
In conclusion, we can safely assert that Rāmakṛṣṇa’s experiences and utterances, though similar in many respects to the traditional Vedānta, have much more in them that can form the subject matter for a fascinating study, unraveling new vistas of Vedānta. After all, this is how Sanātana Dharma has grown over the millennia.
- ↑ He is the all- pervading Divinity.
- ↑ Vāmana means the dwarf.
- ↑ He is the one who occupied all the three worlds.
- ↑ Varāha means the Boar-incarnation of Viṣṇu.
- ↑ Kāmārpukur is 112 kms. or 70 miles to the north west of Calcutta, the metropolis of Bengal.
- ↑ Zamindar means land-lord.
- ↑ Jay Raghuvīr means ‘Victory to Lord Rāma!’
- ↑ Viṣṇu is also known as Gadādhara.
- ↑ It is now in Bihār.
- ↑ It is the ceremony of investiture with the sacred thread, an insignia of brāhmaṇahood.
- ↑ Tol is a pāṭhaśālā, a school of Sanskrit and traditional learning.
- ↑ He was now a youth of 16.
- ↑ It is the Fish-incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu.
- ↑ It means lust and greed.
- ↑ He lived in A. D. 1793-1861.
- ↑ It is in Vārāṇasī, the famous pilgrimage centre in Uttar Pradesh.
- ↑ He remembered his bitter opposition to Gadādhar’s accepting the first alms from Dhani, the śudra woman!
- ↑ He lived in A. D. 1817-1871.
- ↑ It is a village very near Kāmārpukur.
- ↑ Bhagavadgītā 3.22
- ↑ Guru means spiritual teacher.
- ↑ Sanyāsinī means nun.
- ↑ Tantras are the scriptural works extolling the Divine Mother and her worship.
- ↑ Madhurabhāva means bridal mysticism.
- ↑ Rādhā is the best of the gopīs and dearest to Kṛṣṇa.
- ↑ Nārada Bhaktisutras 69.
- ↑ Paramahañsa is the ‘Great Swan’, a godman of the highest order.
- ↑ He lived in A. D. 1838-1884.
- ↑ Sanyāsa means monastic life.
- ↑ He lived in A.D. 1842-1890.
- ↑ He lived in A. D. 1844-1912.
- ↑ He lived in A. D. 1854-1932.
- ↑ He lived in A. D. 1851-1899.
- ↑ He lived in A. D. 1850-1890.
- ↑ He was the future Vivekānanda.
- ↑ It is the day of Rāmakṛṣṇa becoming like the wish-fulfilling tree of heaven as described in mythological lore.
- ↑ Iṣṭadevatās are chosen deities for contemplation.
- ↑ These are the cloths dyed in ochre color generally worn by sanyāsins or monks.
- ↑ Samādhi is super-conscious state.
- ↑ Flock refers to the young disciples.
- ↑ Lātu is the premonastic name of Svāmi Adbhutānanda.
- ↑ Adbhuta means wonder.
- ↑ Sinthi means Calcutta.
- ↑ He is Svāmi Śivānanda.
- ↑ He was called Svāmi Vivekānanda.
- ↑ It is in Bengal.
- ↑ Universal love means prema.
- ↑ Āntpur means Bengal.
- ↑ He is Mahendranāth Gupta.
- ↑ He was Svāmi Brahmānanda.
- ↑ He was Svāmi Vivekānanda.
- ↑ He was Svāmi Sāradānanda.
- ↑ He was Svāmi Vivekānanda.
- ↑ He was Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master.
- ↑ Brahmacarya means celibacy.
- ↑ Ceylon means Sri Lanka.
- ↑ It was the earthquake of 1897.
- ↑ Khoka means child.
- ↑ It is now in Bangladesh.
- ↑ He was just nine days prior to the advent of Svāmi Vivekānanda.
- ↑ It was the pre-monastic name of Svāmi Vijñānānanda.
- ↑ It is in Bihar.
- ↑ It is the premonastic name of the Svāmi.
- ↑ This guru was Svāmi Vivekānanda.
- ↑ It literally means ‘seeing’.
- ↑ These three literature are collectively known as the prasthānatraya.
- ↑ It means ‘Existence-Knowledge-Bliss-Absolute’.
- ↑ It is called as nirākāra.
- ↑ It is called as nirguṇa.
- ↑ It is called as avidyā.
- ↑ Beginningless means anādi.
- ↑ Knowledge is called as jñāna.
- ↑ Ignorance is called as avidyā or ajñāna.
- ↑ It is called as niṣkāma karma.
- ↑ It is called as bhakti.
- ↑ It is called as sākāra.
- ↑ It is called as saguṇa.
- ↑ Sayings of Sri Rāmakṛṣṇa, 871
- ↑ It means nitya.
- ↑ It is called as lilā.
- ↑ It is called as Abhinna.
- ↑ Sayings of Rāmakṛṣṇa, 857
- ↑ Sayings of Rāmakṛṣṇa, 856.
- ↑ The Gospel of Sri Rāmakṛṣṇa, 1947 edn., p. 263
- ↑ It is called as sādhanā.
- ↑ It is called as jīvas.
- ↑ It is called as vijñāni.
- ↑ It is called as bhakti-sādhanā.
- ↑ Commentary on the Bhagavadgitā 4.6-9
- ↑ It is the place where the river joins the sea.
- ↑ Taittiriya Upaniṣad 2.6
- ↑ Aitareya Upaniṣad 1.3.12
- ↑ Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.3.2
- ↑ He is Nārāyaṇa.
- ↑ Sayings 890.
- ↑ Sayings, 889.
- ↑ It is the Divine Power.
- ↑ It is Sayings, 892.
- ↑ It means māyā.
- ↑ Sayings, 20
- ↑ Sayings, 21
- ↑ Sayings, 22
- ↑ Sayings 121.
- ↑ Sayings 132
- ↑ Teacher means guru.
- ↑ It means jñāna-miśrita-bhakti.
- ↑ It is the highest state of super-consciousness.
- ↑ It is the result of past deeds, that have borne fruit in this life.
- ↑ Teachings of Śri Rāmakṛṣṇa, 913
- ↑ Hicchiṣṭa means the food tasted and leftover.
- ↑ He who is really indescribable.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore