Sri Ramakrishna was born on 18 February, 1836, in the small village of Kamarpukur about ninety-seven kilometres northwest of Calcutta. His parents, Kshudiram Chattopadhyaya and Chandramani Devi, were brahmins of pious and virtuous nature, albeit poor. The child was christened Gadadhar, the name denoting a form of Lord Hari.
Gadadhar was a favourite of all the villagers. However, he was a peculiar child in his own way. For one, he was completely uninterested in worldly education and base, mundane affairs. He gave up formal schooling and pursued learning in his own style. Gadadhar had a great talent for singing and fine arts. He was also drawn to holy men – hermits and sages who made their way through the village from time to time.
Gadadhar was often found absorbed in himself, lost in spiritual moods. It was at the age of ten when he experienced his first ecstasy – inspired by the striking sight of a flight of white cranes moving against a background of dark clouds. This would be the first of his many ecstatic experiences throughout life. When Gadadhar was seven, his father died. This further intensified his disinclination towards worldly attachments.
A Priest at Dakshineshwar
When Gadadhar was sixteen, he accompanied Ramkumar, his elder brother, to Calcutta – they were trying to eke out a career in the priestly profession. As it turns out, the timing was serendipitous. For it was around the same time that history was being created at Dakshineshwar, as Rani Rashmani, an illustrious social leader of the day, was building a Kali Temple on the bank of the Ganga. The temple was completed in 1855, and Ramkumar was instrumental in its consecration. He became the chief priest of the temple. But Ramkumar passed away a few months later, and the priesthood passed to Gadadhar. His metamorphosis into Sri Ramakrishna had begun.
He was a most unusual priest. The conventional bounds of ritual did not seem to apply to him – it was as if he shared a special bond with the goddess in the temple, whom he simply called Mother. He was seen immersed in deep spiritual trances, spending time in the temple, talking to the Mother intimately, and even feeding the idol with the food offerings at hand. Outsiders hardly realized that his intense longing for Mother Kali had resulted in Her being with him at all times. He had a vision of the Divine Mother appearing in a blaze of all-engulfing light.
A Novel Spiritual Odyssey
Sri Ramakrishna’s divine intoxication was not recognized by his relatives in Kamarpukur. Worried about his sanity, they got him married to Sarada, a girl from the neighbouring village of Jayrambati. This did not fulfil their expectations, though. Sarada became the perfect consort to Sri Ramakrishna in his spiritual journey, and the two of them became an exceptional example in the history of religion.
Sri Ramakrishna was immersed in extreme spiritual disciplines. He took up different schools of divine pursuit and entered discipleship under different gurus, following each path to its utmost end. His spiritual mentors included the remarkable Bhairavi Brahmani, a spiritual adept with a mastery of the scriptures, who appeared in Dakshineshwar in 1861. Under her tutelage, Sri Ramakrishna practised the Tantrik modes of discipline, and attained success in all of them. Three years after this, the Vedantist monk, Totapuri, arrived at the temple, and Sri Ramakrishna accepted him as his teacher. This phase saw Sri Ramakrishna attain Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the highest spiritual experience according to Hindu scriptures. The state of non-dual consciousness remained in Sri Ramakrishna for six months, during which he did not even identify with his own body. In other words, Sri Ramakrishna had successfully condensed three thousand years of Hindu spiritual exploration into his one lifetime.
Many Faiths, Many Paths
The time Sri Ramakrishna lived in was a time of great upheavals and dramatic changes; some intellectuals have termed this period of Indian history as ‘Bengal Renaissance’, as it saw the flowering of culture on many fronts – social, academic, literary, and artistic. Sri Ramakrishna led the revolution on the spiritual front. After having assimilated the wide variety of Hinduism, he went on to explore other faiths, such as Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism. This was to be of supreme importance to his disciples later on, since this experimentation led him to the doctrine of universal acceptance of all faiths. Sri Ramakrishna realized God through Islam and Christianity, and had visions of both Muhammad and Christ. He now saw God in all things great and small. As the final word on which faith was the true path to absolution, he declared: “As many faiths, so many paths.”
With Sarada Devi
Meanwhile, rumours had reached Sarada’s ears of her husband’s ‘insanity.’ Sarada was living in Jayrambati at this time. She now undertook a journey to Dakshineshwar – a 97-kilometer trip taken on foot – driven by her concern for her husband.’ Of course, the ‘insanity’ that people gossiped about was nothing but Sri Ramakrishna’s transcendental state of Divine Consciousness. Sarada was not one of shallow understanding, and she met her husband with complete faith in his project. Sri Ramakrishna, in turn, received Sarada Devi with the deepest cordiality and affection, and made her an integral part of his spiritual life. He encouraged her to live the life of a saint while discharging all her household duties, and Sarada Devi rose to the occasion magnificently. Ever since, they led a life of spiritual integrity and mutual devotion, while maintaining thorough purity and celibacy befitting a monastic couple.
Sri Ramakrishna did not see Sarada Devi as an assistant, or a disciple; he looked upon her as a very special manifestation of the Goddess herself. Sarada Devi, to him, was simply the Divine Mother made flesh in the guise of a wife. On a historic night in 1872, on the date of the Phala-harini Kali-Puja (a special ceremony that entreats goddess Kali to take away the fruits of all mortal actions), Sri Ramakrishna worshipped Sarada Devi as the Divine Mother with full ritualistic elaboration, and in doing so, awakened the universal motherhood latent in her.
Sri Ramakrishna’s name as an illumined saint had begun to spread among the Calcutta intelligentsia. On one occasion, an assembly of religious scholars declared him to be an Avatara – i.e., an Incarnation of God Himself on earth. The Brahmo Samaj, an order founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, was in great prominence in Bengal in those times. Sri Ramakrishna inevitably came into contact with some of its foremost leaders, and affected them deeply. If Sri Ramakrishna was an Avatara, he was an Avatara of the modern age; hence, his circle was broader than could be expected of a religious leader. As thinkers and learners from different spiritual schools began to flock to Dakshineshwar, his quarters buzzed with conversation and exchanges of the highest order every single day. Memories of these days have been preserved verbatim in the book The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, where we can still read the records of those exulted talks.
Coming of the Devotees
To use a popular metaphor – a blossomed lotus will inevitably draw bees to it. Sri Ramakrishna’s name was now so well-known in social circles that devotees began to come to Dakshineshwar drawn by his charisma. These comers were of two types: householders seeking peace and guidance, whom Sri Ramakrishna offered the hand-holding they needed; and, idealistic young men who came to see him out of an eager hunger for knowledge and truth. The latter group was the precursor of the future Ramakrishna Order. One among these zealous youths was Narendranath Dutta, who would later reveal himself to the world as Swami Vivekananda.
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
Sri Ramakrishna did not write books, or deliver speeches in public. In fact, he made no efforts to preserve his words or gain a wider audience than was at hand. He spoke to the devotees gathered in his room every day, in a rich, colloquial style replete with parables, metaphors, and everyday examples. It has been remarked by many that Sri Ramakrishna was one of the finest communicators in history – especially so as he could appeal to a wide range of listeners at the same time. His sense of humour was remarkable, and his mind cut through difficult technicalities with great candour. His conversations were noted down by one of his disciples, Sri Mahendranath Gupta, who published these notes in the form of a book named Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita in Bengali. An English translation was published in 1942 under the name ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.’ The book became vastly popular on account of its universal appeal and relevance. It remains a beloved classic to this day.
Sri Ramakrishna’s health began to show signs of wear owing to his rigorous spiritual habits and untiring ministrations to devotees and disciples who came to him. He developed cancer of the throat in 1885. His disciples got him shifted to a spacious villa, where they took earnest care of him day and night. Even confined to his bed, Sri Ramakrishna kept inspiring them to bond with each other with brotherly dedication, which kindled the flame of the future Ramakrishna Math.
It was in the small hours of 16 August 1886 that Sri Ramakrishna passed away. He uttered the name of Mother Kali as his soul left his body and merged with Eternity, leaving behind a movement that has since carried his Mission forward.
Message of Sri Ramakrishna
Sri Ramakrishna’s message to the modern world, which we can access by studying his life and his recorded conversations, may be summarized as follows:
The final goal of human life is the realization of the Absolute, which alone can give one ultimate fulfilment and everlasting peace.
The Ultimate Reality is one and immutable; but it can be realized through means both personal as well as impersonal, and is denoted by different names in different religions. All names like Ishvar, Jehovah, God, and Allah refer to the same Absolute.
The Absolute can be realized through various paths, and different religions have developed in the world that have superficial variations dependent on regional diversity. All religions are true, as they lead to the same ultimate goal.
External observances and rituals are only of secondary importance when it comes to spiritual practice. The essential condition is purity of the mind, that is – freedom from lust and greed, which alone can help us attain the Absolute.
All beings are essentially pure and good, though many are oblivious of their divinity because of worldly screens. Spiritual practices can wash away these films of impurity and redeem one’s true sense of Self. No one should feel hopeless, since the Absolute resides in every heart.
It is not necessary to give up home and hearth in one’s search for God. Sincere prayer and intense longing, along with unflinching dedication to truth, can bring enlightenment to hermit and householder alike.
God is omnipresent, but this godliness is not equally manifested in all individuals. In saintly souls, the inner divinity shows a greater manifestation, and others have to work harder to bring out the God in them. Women are manifestations of the maternal aspect of the Absolute, and are to be treated as images of the Divine Mother on earth.
No one should presume to take pity on a fellow being. Rather, the needy should be aided with a spirit of humility and service, with the sense that worship is being rendered to God.
Ignorance, and egoism as its offshoot, is the cause of all suffering.
Life is an expression of the spontaneous creativity of the Absolute. All worldly experiences like pleasure, pain, success, failure, and so on are to be borne with patience and non-attachment, and the fruits of all actions should be rendered to God.
Contributions of Sri Ramakrishna to World Culture
Spiritual Ideal: Sri Ramakrishna re-established the ideal of God-realization in the modern world. In a world where idealism is fading and faith in something loftier than the mundane is harder and harder to come by, Sri Ramakrishna expounded a fresh doctrine where the earthly was infused and identified with the ethereal. His new outlook of worshipping the living God in human beings had such powerful relevancy that even the sceptics were won over by its universal appeal. Doing away with all the narrow by-laws and outdated rules, he exemplified what religion should be in the modern age.
Harmony of Religions: Sri Ramakrishna is best known all over the world as the prophet of harmony of religions. It is not that he did not recognize the difference in religions. But he showed that, in spite of these differences, all religions lead to the same ultimate goal, and hence they have the same effective value. Today, this view is known as ‘Pluralism.’
This conviction of Sri Ramakrishna was based on his direct experience, gained through rigorous practice. It is due to this rigor that he has been described as a ‘vijnani’ – a scientist in spirit. We know that human tribalism and the xenophobia are a major threat to the peace, prosperity and progress of humanity; thus, Sri Ramakrishna’s message of harmony of religions offers itself as the cure to this malady of the world. Often, while offering wisdom to another person, we tend to forget that a different faith could choose to take a different path. Sri Ramakrishna reminds us to keep our hearts open to other modalities, always.
Bridge Between the Ancient and the Modern: Sri Ramakrishna’s life serves as the golden link between the ancient and the modern. To use an expression from Swami Vivekananda – Sri Ramakrishna brought the Vedanta of the forests to the homestead of the commoner.
Impetus to Ethics and Morality: Sri Ramakrishna always stressed the importance of honesty and the renunciation of lust and greed. This is indeed a much-needed medication for the soul in our modern times. Much like Buddha, he also cleansed religiosity of outward pomp, miracle-mongering, unhealthy practices, and other corruptions; this contributed greatly in making spirituality appealing to the younger generations.
Divinization of Love: Sri Ramakrishna uplifted love from an emotional phenomenon to a suprasensory expression of divinity, one that leads one back to their original Self – which is God. This principle was not a new one; the Upanishads had the wisdom in them all along; but it had never been so marvellously adapted to everyday life ever before. Sri Ramakrishna saw his Absolute in the temple idol, in his own wife, in the merest servants at the temple, in his own disciples and admirers, and not least of all – in his own self. He did not belittle Human relationships, but glorified them by calling them Divine. The world owes to Sri Ramakrishna this concept of religion, which is human in its metaphor and yet divine in its meaning.