By Swami Harshananda
From the times of the Upaniṣads, the society had sheltered and protected the sanyāsins from the problems and worries of the world. It was so very well taken care of that they could pursue their chosen path towards perfection unhindered. However, the barbaric invasions from outside by the Mohammedans and the wily manoeuvres of the English gradually undermined the religious society to such an extent that it badly needed resuscitation which must be totally dedicated to the religious cause.
Though the various reform-movements like the Brahma Samāj and the Arya Samāj contributed their bit to the revival and strengthening of the religious society, their approach was not enough since they had ignored the all comprehensive evolution of religion over the past millenniums. They needed immediate reforms according to their own favorite theories. Hence there arose a great need to de-hypnotize the society from adopting partial or alien means and to resurrect it by utilizing the age-old, time-tested, methods of jñāna and tapas.
Rāmakṛṣṇa, the Architect
Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahansa, his famous name, lived in A. D. 1836-1886, a short time of fifty years. He was worshiped by millions of his devotees as an incarnation of God. He vigorously practiced all the spiritual disciplines of the various facets of the religion and came to the conclusion that they led to the same mystical experience of Brahman/Ātman as described in the Upaniṣads and allied scriptures. An extension of his efforts towards some alien religions also corroborated the same experience. Due to this universal experience he declared,
‘As many faiths, so many paths!’
Though he had enormous jñāna gained through tapas, Rāmakṛṣṇa knew very well that the task of regeneration of the Sanātanadharma and uplifting the Bhāratavarṣa or Bhārata, the homeland of spiritual wisdom for aeons, was a task that would extend beyond the normal span of human life. For this he would need the wholehearted cooperation of a well-knit band of dedicated disciples.
Birth of the Order
Rāmakṛṣṇa gathered and trained his young disciples with Narendranāth or future Vivekānanda as their anointed leader. These disciples were also blessed with monastic robes by Rāmakṛṣṇa. They formed the core of a new monastic order that bears his name now. There were 16 founders of this order. After taking formal monastic vows through appropriate rituals under the guidance of Narendranāth or Vivekānanda, they assumed their new names as follows:
- Bāburām Svāmi Premānanda
- Gaṅgādhar Svāmi Akhaṇḍānanda
- Gopāl Svāmi Advaitānanda
- Harināth Svāmi Turīyānanda
- Hariprasanna Svāmi Vijñānānanda
- Kālīprasād Svāmi Abhedānanda
- Lāṭu Svāmi Adbhutānanda
- Nityanirañjan Svāmi Nirañjanānanda
- Rākhāl Svāmi Brahmānanda
- Śāradāprasanna Svāmi Triguṇātītānanda
- Saratcandra Svāmi Sāradānanda
- Saśibhuṣan Svāmi Rāmakṛṣṇānanda
- Subodhacandra Svāmi Subodhānanda
- Tāraknāth Svāmi Sivānanda
- Yogindra Svāmi Yogānanda
The Motto and the Emblem
Any organisation, especially the one that bears the name of an epoch-making person, needs a motto to guide it and an emblem that constantly reminds and inspires the cause. Realizing this, Vivekānanda placed the motto:
ātmano moksārtham jagaddhitāya ca.
‘For the liberation of the Self and service to the society’.
He also designed a charming but distinctive emblem that effectively reflected this motto. It consisted of an elegant swan against the backdrop of the rising sun, surrounded by wavy waters from which has arisen a beautiful lotus flower along with a couple of leaves. This whole picture is encircled by a hooded serpent. The motto adds a social dimension to the hitherto which is purely personal aspect of a self-centered sādhana. The emblem graphically describes a balanced combination or harmony of all the four yogas which enriches the sādhanā by making it more comprehensive.
The basic philosophy of life put before the Ramakrishna Order by Vivekānanda automatically led to a bifurcation of its activities into two important, but parallel, areas. These aspects are:
- The ātmamokṣa aspect resulted in the establishment of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Math, an organisation catering predominantly to the spiritual needs of the monks of the order and its votaries.
- The jagaddhita aspect, on the other hand, gave rise to another sister organisation which concentrated solely on the public service activities.
Though the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order of monks was started in A. D. 1886 with its first monastery at Baranagore in Calcutta in a dilapidated house, it was shifted to its own campus in Belur in A.D. 1899. The reasons behind this shifting were primarily due to untiring efforts of Vivekananda. For some time it had been housed in Alambazaar area of Calcutta also.
The Rāmakṛṣṇa maṭh was legally registered as trust in A.D. 1901 and the Ramakrishna Mission in A.D. 1909. The Rāmakṛṣṇa association which Vivekananda had formally established on the 1st May 1897, later on went out of existence when the other two institutions were given a legal shape. Some of the aims and objects contemplated in the original Association were as follows:
- Preaching of truth taught by Ramakṛṣna based on his life and experiences
- Bring about the fellowship among the follower of different religions
- Train men to be competent to teach spiritual knowledge as well as secular sciences for the welfare of masses
- Encourage arts and industries
- Establishing maṭhas and aśramas in different parts of country to train sanyāsins
- Send trained sanyāsins to foreign countries to bring about a better understanding among them and India
- Totally eschew politics
- Other spiritual and humanitarian activities in consonance with these ideals
The institution had fairly fast evolution of the order into two distinct fields of work:
- Spiritual ministry
- Social service
It made it's wing grow into two parallel organisations. Hence it is necessary to consider them in greater detail.
Rāmakṛṣṇa Maṭh is a totally purely monastic organization. It is solely dedicated to the twin ideas of tyāga and sevā. Young men eligible for joining the monastic order as prescribed rules of admission are vigorously trained by competent senior monks over a period of nearly ten years after which they are initiated into sanyāsa, if found fit. The code of conduct required to be followed by these novices to be shaped into ideal monks in course of times are:
- Insistence on meditation
- Study of scriptures
- Observing austerities in personal life
- Service activities as worship of God through human beings
Unlike the old monastic orders, the Ramakrishna Monastic movement has certain unique features. They may be described as follows:
Though rooted firmly into religious monastic ideals of chastity and absence of possessions, it has avoided identification with any particular sect or group or even tradition. It embraces the whole gamut of religio-spiritual development of the entire religious race over the last few millenia or more. Not only that, it has provided a place in itself for the people of alien religions and cultures too, provided they are prepared to follow the basic monastic disciplines as exemplified in the lives of Rāmakṛṣṇa-Vivekananda. In fact, the word ‘alien’ is itself alien to the Rāmakṛṣṇa-Vivekananda culture.
Austerity, Learning and Missionary Zeal
Śaṅkara, the earliest pioneer of organized religious monasticism, insisted that his disciples, who were abbots of his monasteries keep alive the spirit of tapas (austerity) and jñāna in their personal lives. They should undertake pravāsa for the sake of pracāra for public good. Vivekānanda who realized the wisdom of this healthy convention set up by Śaṅkara, has ordained that it be followed in his monastic order also. The Rāmakṛṣṇa Order is sincerely trying to keep up this glorious tradition.
Group Life and Work Ethics
Contrast to the old religious monasticism which insisted upon a lonely life, the new monastic movement advocates living in a group, thus forging a Saṅgha. This itself has several advantages, the greatest being the strengthening of one another’s spiritual vibrations and the rounding off of one’s angularities. Even the community life itself is a part of a great discipline.
Its philosophy of service and serving the jīva as Śiva has elevated the act of service which would have stagnated at the level of social service to the sublime levels of spiritual practice. This automatically helps the members of the Saṅgha in their personal spiritual evolution too.
Its insistence on work ethics, especially on high quality work of which punctuality and punctiliousness are hall-marks has set a model to the people of our country. If followed properly, it can bring the Kingdom of Heaven to this earth. It's another unique features that distinguishes it from the old monastic systems which kept aloof from the social life in all its aspects, though deriving all benefits from the society are:
- Its active canvassing for the total development of the human society in particular
- Adopting all healthy means at our disposal
- Including science, technology, sound and time-tested economic principles
Attitude towards Social Reform
It is true that this monastic movement does not directly involve social reform activities in itself. But, by quietly working for man-making and character-building, by inculcating the right values and attitudes in the minds of men, it is actually helping the society to carry out ‘root and branch reform’ as Vivekānanda put it.
Attitude towards Politics
However Vivekānanda, the prophet of modern India, with an uncanny vision of the future, forbade his organization strictly from taking part in any political movement or activity. Because the monk is a world-citizen or a man of God in particular. Even though this decision of his was not relished by some of the participants of the early years of freedom movement, later history has proved that he was absolutely right. Not only that, almost all the great national leaders were inspired by his speeches and writings. Some facts may now be adduced here to give an idea of the work that is being done by the Rāmakṛṣna Math institutions:
- Ritualistic Worship of Rāmakṛṣna, the presiding deity
- Personal interviews of the aspirants giving the necessary spiritual guidance
- Celebration of all the important festivals and the birthdays of great religious leaders
- Publications of religious works and journals
- Preaching of religio-spiritual subjects often related to or based on the life and teachings of Ramakrishna and his monastic disciples
- Running of libraries of religio-philosophical literature
- Special programs for the youth to supplement their education with moral and spiritual values and so on.
There were 53 centers of the Math including 18 in foreign countries in April 2003.
Significance of Rāmakṛṣṇa Mission
Unlike the Ramakrishna Math, the Rāmakṛṣṇa Mission is a public institution admitting lay members who subscribe to its philosophy and policies. The individual centers, though run by the monastic members, generally have a Managing Committee with non-monastic lay devotees also.
Motto of Rāmakṛṣṇa Mission
The work of these centers is spread over the following fields:
- Running of schools, colleges and hostels for students
- Starting and managing medical institutions like dispensaries, hospitals and medical camps
- Rural welfare activities including integrated rural development schemes
- Relief and rehabilitation measures during periods of natural or man made calamities like famines, floods, earthquakes, riots, fire-disasters, cyclones
Rāmakṛṣṇa Mission Centers
There are in all 59 centers of the Mission including 8 in foreign lands till April 2003. In addition to these, there are 25 combined Math and Mission centers out of which 6 were outside India. The foreign countries where these centers are located are:
- Sri Lanka
- United Kingdom
- United States of America
The Maṭh is managed by the Trustees who are all senior monks of the Order and the Mission by a Governing Body whose members are the same as the Trustees, the distinction purely being made for legal purposes. After ascertaining the opinions of the senior monks of the Order, the Trustees elect from among themselves a President, one to three Vice-presidents, a General Secretary and four Assistant Secretaries.
The President also called as the ‘Saṅghaguru’ is the supreme Head of the whole organisation and the sole authority for giving sanyāsa or administering the vows of monastic life. He and the Vice-presidents are also empowered to grant mantradīkṣā to the devotees aspiring for it.
The General Secretary is the administrative head of the organisation. However, his power is limited to implementing the decisions taken by the Trustees/Members of the Governing Body, though he has the freedom to act in matters of day-to-day administration. The assistant secretaries work under his guidance. The individual centers of the Maṭh are managed by the presidents and of the Mission by the secretaries duly appointed by the Trustees/Members of the Governing Body. These again, are expected to carry on their work with the assistance of the monastic members, volunteers and paid-workers allotted to their centers.
The funds needed for running the various institutions are raised by public donations and government grants wherever possible. Fees and charges may also be collected from well-to-do persons, for the services rendered, especially in the educational and medical centers. Sale of religious books, allied literature and various agricultural and rural products may also be another source of income.
Spreading the Message
The main purpose of Rāmakṛṣṇa-vivekananda Movement, as it is designated today, is to spread the central message of Rāmakṛṣṇa-Vivekananda as expressed through the motto of the Rāmakṛṣṇa order. Apart from its various centers which are relentlessly working towards this goal, a large number of institutions have been started by the devotees, friends and admirers of the order on their own. These institutions which are generally called 'Private Centers' are not legally affiliated to the Headquarters of the order are being run under the guidance of the monks of the order, following the same pattern of activities.
The process of legally bringing such centers under the general umbrella of protection and policy of the Rāmakṛṣṇa Maṭh started in A.D. 1981 and is slowly but satisfactorily progressing. This umbrella organisation has been named "Rāmakṛṣṇa-Vivekananda Bhavaprachar Parisat" and is being formed in each of the States of the country. This has brought in great cohesiveness in the working of such private centers and also generated a deeper faith in the minds of the public who assist in their working. Each of these centers, as a policy, is organizing an annual conference of all the devotees of that State. This is making them feel that they belong to one spiritual family.
Centers in Foreign Countries
The centers of the Rāmakṛṣṇa in foreign lands fall into two broad categories. Those countries where the social situation is similar to that of India like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Fiji or Mauritius, the nature of service activities is also similar. In other countries, especially America, Canada and Europe, the work is confined mostly to the preaching of the Vedanta, publications of books, journals and personal guidance in spiritual matters. It is gratifying to note that people of the western countries also show a lot of interest in Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature and even opt for monastic life in the Order.
Within a short span of 117 years, the Rāmakṛṣṇa Movement has grown into a formidable force influencing the lives of millions of persons interested in personal peace of mind and social harmony. Absence of narrow, sectarian or fanatical approach to religion, an all comprehensive view of life stressing spiritual evolution of men rather than the dogmatic side of religious observances and a genuine attitude of service to man as service to God have endeared this Movement to one and all.
If the decent and dignified behavior of the well educated and cultured monastics of the order has given the organisation its good image, the contribution of the volunteers, the devotees and the well wishers to this phenomenal growth is also remarkable. No wonder that it has been widely recognized as having added a new dimensions to the religious monasticism and played a significant role in the renaissance of the religion.
- He lived in A. D. 1000.
- They ruled since A. D. 1745.
- Jñāna means spiritual wisdom.
- Tapas means austerity.
- Jñāna is the highest spiritual wisdom.
- Tapas is the single minded austerities.
- Sanātanadharma is the Eternal Religion or Hinduism.
- He lived in A. D. 1863-1902.
- He lived in A.D. 1861-1918.
- He lived in A.D. 1864-1937
- He lived in A.D. 1828-1909.
- He lived in A.D. 1863-1922
- He lived in A. D. 1868-1938.
- He lived in A.D. 1866-1939.
- He lived in A.D. 1920.
- He lived in A.D. 1904.
- He lived in A.D. 1863-1922.
- He lived in A.D. 1865-1914.
- He lived in A.D. 1865-1927.
- He lived in A.D. 1863-1911.
- He lived in A.D. 1867-1932.
- He lived in A. D. 1854-1934.
- He lived in A.D. 1861-1899.
- From A.D. 1895-1899.
- Tyāga means renouncing everything for the sake of spiritual enlightment.
- Sevā means service to living being as service to God himself.
- These rules can be obtained from any centers of the Rāmakṛṣṇa order.
- Sanyāsa means monastic life.
- Jñāna means learning.
- Pravāsa means tours.
- Pracāra means dissemination of dharma or righteousness.
- Saṅgha means organisation.
- Jīva means the individual soul.
- Śiva means God.
- Mantradīkṣā means initiation into spiritual life.
- This time span is from A.D. 1886-2003.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore