Facets of the Prophet-Mystic
SATISH K KAPOOR
Originally published as Chapter Nineteen in the book JOY OF SPIRITUALITY – In the Light of Sri Ramakrishna’s Life and Message, A Vedanta Kesari Presentation, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, 2012 pp.218-232
(Note: Retyped from the original book for spreading the word among interested friends and not with a commercial interest. As the essay contains many references, to respect the author’s intentions, they have been reproduced here, with the list of references given at the bottom.
– N Ganapathy Subramanian, an ardent devotee of Sri Vivekananda.)
A Unique Prophet
Introducing Sri Ramakrishna to his western readers, Romain Rolland, the Nobel laureate in literature for the year 1915, wrote:
“I am bringing to Europe, as yet unaware of it, the fruit of a new autumn, a new message of the Soul, the symphony of India, bearing the name of Ramakrishna. It can be shown .…that this symphony, like those of our classical masters, is built up of a hundred different musical elements emanating from the past. But the sovereign personality concentrating in himself the diversity of these elements and fashioning them into a royal harmony, is always the one who gives his name to the work, though it contains within itself the labour of generations. And with his victorious sign he marks a new era”.1
If ever a God-intoxicated person in human history experienced the Reality through such different pathways as those of the Vaishnavas, the Advaita Vedantists, the Tantrics, the Muslims and the Christians, saw no difference between Krishna and Christ despite being the priest of a Hindu temple dedicated to the Goddess Kali, had the least hesitation in seeking spiritual guidance from Bhairavi, a tantric teacher, and could even turn Tota Puri, one of his gurus into his disciple, visualise the Divine Mother (Goddess Shodasi) in his wife, Sri Sarada Devi, and lead a life of chastity without nurturing any libidinal feeling, that man was Sri Ramakrishna.
If ever an illiterate person was sought after by the intellectual celebrities of his time like Pratap Chandra Majumdar and Keshub Chandra Sen, and received rich encomiums from such scholars as Max Muller, Romain Rolland, Aldous Huxley, and Arnold J Toynbee, could go into a spiritual trance without using any psychological medium, made no supernatural claims and yet could lift a person to the higher states of consciousness by his look or touch, he was none else than Sri Ramakrishna.
Christopher Isherwood, the renowned American writer, called him a ‘phenomenon’, because a phenomenon is ‘often something extraordinary and mysterious’ besides being ‘a fact, an object of experience’.2 But the word ‘phenomenon’ which refers to anything extremely unusual. Has its limitations since it does not postulate the highest Truth, of which Sri Ramakrishna was the living embodiment.
Sri Ramakrishna straddled between the physical and spiritual plane, often involuntarily, and lived in mahabhava, the supernal feeling of divinity, reflected cosmic glory in his persona. He spoke in a simple, yet illuminating manner, like the Buddha, Jesus and Zoroaster, to unfold the realm of the spirit. He who spurred the higher values of life, whose echo was heard in America and Europe, through his able disciple, Swami Vivekananda, was indeed a prophet. He was a prophet both in the traditional senses of the word, meaning ‘one who speaks out’, and in its modern signification, as one who is divinely inspired to deliver the truth.3
His Transforming Influence
Sri Ramakrishna was born on February 18, 1836 at Kamarpukur, a tiny village in the Hooghly district of Bengal. His family name was Gadadhar Chattopadhyaya. He nurtured the sapling of Indian Renaissance so ably planted by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore and other reformers. As he harmonised different strands of religious thought, he is regarded as ‘the consummation of two thousand years of the spiritual life of three hundred million people’.4
As a priest of the Kali temple at Dakshineshwar, Sri Ramakrishna did not merely perform the ordained rituals, administer sacraments or carry out other sacerdotal duties. Rather, he became the instrument of spiritual transformation. Those who watched his strange moods and movements, his habit of losing body-consciousness and shedding tears of love, and his elevating dancing acts in moments of spiritual exaltation were convinced that he had seen God face to face, and attained the nirvikalpa state in which the subject and the object dissolve in eternity.
Sri Ramakrishna’s absorption in samadhi used to be so deep that, on one occasion, he is said to have remained insensitive to a burning piece of coal on which he has fallen till he regained his consciousness. Sometime, in the bhavamukha moods, in which one is present between the normal and transcendal states of consciousness, he identified himself with Hanuman, wind-god, Radha, divine consort of Sri Krishna, or other holy personages, and behaved the same way as they did. Strong emotions are spun into the texture of consciousness and affect the bioplasmic body, triggering many physical and psychological responses. The sublimity of divine feelings envelope the complete person as is evident from the statement of St.Bernard of Clairvoux:
“When I love God with my will, I transform myself unto him, for this is the power or virtue of love, that it maketh Thee to be like unto that which Thou lovest”.5
A Mystic Par Excellance
The American Psychologist J H Leuba saw similarities between the epileptic and the mystic states. In his view, ‘the exaltation and illumination of the mystic are due to certain unconscious organic changes which influence the physical life, and produce results which are interpreted as the effects of an impact on the spirit of God.’6 It has, however, been argued that a mystic has ‘clarity of vision and lucidity of mind’ which enables him to see the Invisible, unlike the epileptic.7 Sri Ramakrishna was assured by the Tantric sannyasini, Bhairavi, that what he experienced in mystical states was not insanity but an exalted state of spiritual attainment.8
Mysticism, being the highest state of propensity of the human soul to see the Reality face to face and to realise th ultimate truth, is beyond ratiocinative faculty and cannot be fully described, shared, or scientifically validated. The mystic remains in his experience and gains new insights which are not possible through empirical ways. A xenophrenic state may not always be a mystic state but the deep awareness of the mystic stands in a class apart, as it is not abnormal but paranormal.
A Remarkable Combination
The mystics of the world are known to have the third eye, the para-perceptive faculty, which helps one to see, feel or grasp what lies beyond the domain of sense perception. Sri Ramakrishna was no exception in this respect as proved by contemporary accounts. He did not have any philosophical training yet his understanding of religion and philosophy was marvellous. He did not know Sanskrit, or any European knowledge, like the educated and progressive people of his time. But he imbibed the quintessential of sacred and secular literature of mankind. His knowledge of Bengali was far from satisfactory. But his ennobling thoughts expressed in that language, during private conversations or at small religious gatherings, contained the elixir of wisdom – the fruit of his own spiritual experiences. He was not a monk or a preacher in the strict sense of the term. But the ‘noetic quality’ of his mysticism (to use William James’ expression) provided naturalness and profundity to his utterances. He did not initiate reforms in orthodox Hinduism as Francis of Assissi did in Christianity. But he proved to be a striking example of soul-force, much before Mahatma Gandhi, and became a catalyst of socio-religious change.
Like Socrates, he wrote nothing. But each word that poured from his lips seemed to have come from the beyond. He taught through parables, proverbs and anecdotes, sometime interspersed with wit, humour or satire, taken mostly from the Indian spiritual and mythological lore, and impressed even the cynics, spectics, atheists and agnostics who came to visit him. He did not offer a spiritual utopia to his disciples and remained focussed on God-realisation. Nor did he ever try to convert others to his faith. His disciples like Girish Chandra Sen, Suresh Chandra Datta, Ram Chandra Datta, Mahendranath Gupta (popular as M.) and Swami Brahmananda among others, took notes of what he spoke and thus preserved his teachings and dialogues for posterity.
His Idea of Supreme Reality
God or Brahman remained the Supreme Reality for Sri Ramakrishna which he described as unchangeable, immovable, unconditioned, indescribable and beyond all relativity; as both eternal and temporal, formless and with form form, male and female. In static mode, it is the absolute; in kinetic form, it is Shakti. Sri Ramakrishna regarded Brahman and Shakti as one like milk and its whiteness, gem and its lustre, butter and buttermilk. “The original milk is Brahman realised in samadhi; the butter, the Impersonal-personal God; and the buttermilk, the Universe made up of twenty-four categories.”9
To know Brahman is to know oneself. The Kena Upanishad says:
He who says he does not know (Brahman) knows it; he who says he knows, does not know it. It is known to those who say they do not know it; it is not known to those who say they know it.10
Sri Ramakrishna was in tune with the Infinite but he never boasted of his spiritual attainment, or made a show of his occult powers (siddhis) for publicity. The display of siddhis depletes one’s spiritual treasure, loosens one’s control of the senses, and deviates one from the path beyond. Sri Ramakrishna spoke of a Hatha Yogi who was an expert in performing all the physical postures (asana) and could lecture well on samadhi, but deep within, he longed for ‘women and gold’.11
God and God Men
Like the Vedic Rishis, Sri Ramakrishna believed that Truth sustains existence. Truth is beauty and bliss itself, the characteristics of the Supreme Reality, which is perceived differently by different people. The Jnanis call him Brahman, the Supreme Godhead; the Yogis, Paramatman or great soul; the Bhaktas, Bhagwan or God, and so on.12 Purusha and Prakriti, the male and female principles of creation are integral and one.13 Unlike Adi Shankaracharya who regarded maya as the illusion-creating power of Brahman, Sri Ramakrishna accepted its existence but warned that it is a snare. “Maya is to Brahman what the snake in motion is to snake at rest.” The snake is not affected by the poison in its fangs; but, when it bites, the poison kills the creature bitten. Likewise, Maya is in the Lord but does not affect him while the same maya deludes the whole world.14
Sri Ramakrishna saw the manifestation of God in all beings and things – the apparent difference is in degree, not in kind. He felt that God can be perceived both in saint and sinner, in birds, animals and plants, in elemental forces, in the seen and unseen objects. One may find cheats, gamblers, and carnivores among the Homo sapiens who may aptly be described as the ‘cheating God’, ‘the tiger-God’; etc.15 The divine play of the Absolute Being goes on, and each living being has an assigned role in it. The embodied souls are traditionally classified in four categories: those who are bound (baddha), striving for liberation from the bondage of matter (mumukshu), the emancipated ones (mukta), and the ever-free (nitya-siddha). Sri Ramakrishna believed that divinity descends in corporeal form (avatara) for the redemption of souls enmeshed in maya.
The Idea of a Personal God
The idea of ishta-devata, or personal God, predominates the philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna. Himself a great devotee of Divine Mother Kali, towards whom he nurtured the feeling of divine love (matribhava), he described her as the personal aspect of the Impersonal Brahman:
Kali is verily Brahman, and Brahman is verily Kali. She is both the efficient and material cause of the Universe and functions at many levels, in different ways. She is time, which assumes infinite proportion in the finite world, and is also beyond time, space and causation.
Sri Ramakrishna would speak to Kali as one speaks to one’s mother in flesh and blood. He was like Horus to Isis, as in the Egyptian tradition. Yet he was different in the sense that he regarded the Mother Kali, not just as a Goddess who was the power point of his spiritual practices, but as the Supreme Being – both father and mother, male and female, preceptor and caretaker, and much more beyond human imagination. When a devotee asked him to justify the worship of a personal God, Sri Ramakrishna replied that as one can recall one’s father by his photograph, the image ‘reveals in a flash the nature of Reality’.16 But he argued that only after attaining the supreme knowledge (brahma-jnana) one could discern unity between Brahman and its Shakti.17 Sri Ramakrishna identified himself so much with Kali that his disciples like Rakhal and Tarak visualised in him the image of mother, a devotional feeling similar to the one held by the followers of Varkari tradition for Saint Jnaneshvara, who is called mouli (Marathi word for mother).
Sri Ramakrishna’s religion was a matter of personal experience, not of beliefs. He professed that God could be realised through love, faith and surrender. The devotee could assume towards God a particular attitude, may be that of father, mother, brother, friend or beloved, and remain in God-consciousness always. As Narada says in Bhakti Sutra (LXVII): “Primary devotees are those, who have one-pointed love for God”. Sri Ramakrishna believed in the futility of ‘book-learning’ as study is no substitute for a direct experience of the Supreme Reality. God cannot be found after reading a scripture, like a person who cannot describe the city of Banaras after seeing it only on a map.18
Bhakti and Jnana
Sri Ramakrishna likened Jnana (knowledge) to a man and Bhakti (devotion) to a woman. “Knowledge has entry only up to the outre rooms of God…. But lover… has access even to the harem of the Almighty”.19 Jnana is not em-pirical knowledge but awareness of the Supreme Truth. Bhakti, in the ultimate analysis, leads to Jnana but it is far away from the realm of dialectics. Bhakti is a matter of yearing, an intense longing for one who is none other than one’s own self. The bee hums as long as it is outside the petals of a flower and has not tasted the sweetness within, but when it gets inside, it partakes of nectar without making noise.20
Sri Ramakrishna preferred Bhakti to Mukti or complete liberation from the bondage of matter and of attachment, like some Vaishnava saints, and the followers of Shaiva Siddhanta School like Manikkavachakar, Appar and Sambandhar.
Accoring to Sri Ramakrishna, love is of three kinds: selfish, mutual and unselfish.21 The first is of the lowest quality as it is overly concerned with one’s own interests and neglects the welfare of others. Mutual ove is based on eavh other’s needs and nothing more. But unselfish love which demands nothing in return, is of the highest kind. It is the affinity of being with being, and hence immortal (amrita-swarupa cha). The more it is given, the more it is received.
Renunciation and Service
Sri Ramakrishna argued that so long as one indulged in bhoga or sensory pleasures, one could not attain to yoga or union with God. Since it was impossible for ordinary human beings to get rid of cravings or passions, it was desirable that these should be directed towards God. As devotion to God increases, attachment to worldly objects decreases. The obstacles to spiritual life are egotism, narrowness of outlook, jealousy, hatred, fear, and the lure of kaya (flesh) and kanchana (gold). To grow spiritually, one should learn to live in the world, like the lotus which stays in water but remains untouched by it, or like ‘ a mudfish in the marsh’.22 A boat may stay in water but water should not stay in the boat.23
Sri Ramakrishna’s yearning for God did not make him oblivious of the objective realities. He stressed that service of man is the service of God. His catholicity, breadth of vision and love for mankind, did not exclude any sect or class, not even low castes or outcasts, rogues or the fallen women, for all of them were inherently divine in nature, an Upanishadic idea made popular by his diciple Swami Vivekananda in India and the West.
Harmony of Religions
One of the greatest contributions of Sri Ramakrishna lay in harmonising all religions. The occultism of tantrics, the bhakti-marga of Vaishnavas, the spiritual discipline of the Sufi orders, the gospel of love and service of Christianity and the all-embracing approach of pantheistic cults, stirred him deeply, and he came to realise that different religions were like different paths leading to the Ultimate Reality. Just as water is called by different names such as ‘vari’, ‘aqua’, ‘jal’, or ‘pani’, the Absolute is invoked as God, Allah, Hari, Brahman or by some other name.24
Sri Ramakrishna was opposed to religious hypocrisy, dogmatism, and the sense of infallibility and stressed that one should maintain ‘an attitude of respect towards other religions.’25 He advised thatone should stick to one’s faith, but eschew ‘bigotry and intolerance’.26
Just as all rivers lead to the sea, so do different religious paths lead one to the Supreme, says the Shivamahimna Stotram (Verse 7). Explaining this point to Keshab Chandra Sen, he observed:
God can be realised through all paths. It is like your coming to Dakshineshwar by carriage, by boat, by steamer, or on foot. You have chosen the way according to your convenience and taste; but the destination is the same. Some of you have arrived earlier than others; but all have arrived.27
When asked, if the God of every religion is the same why is it that He is viewed differently, he replied that as the master of the house is differently related to different members of his family as father, brother, husband or some other, ‘so the one God is described in various ways according to the particular aspects in which He appears to particular worshippers.’28
Sri Ramakrishna perceived the law of unity and harmony operating at different levels of existence. His message can unfold a new vision for mankind – a vision that does not stifle the spirit of enquiry and reposes a person’s faith in himself. It is a message which does not lead to lopsided development and lays equal emphasis on spiritual values; it generates one’s concern for fellow-beings and helps each to experience the Reality behind all realities. His teachings enable one to appreciate and to imbibe the best in all traditions. Mark his catholic vision when he says:
Let a man be a Christian in the matter of mercy, a Moslem in the matter of strict observance of strict forms, and a Hindu in the matter of universal charity, charity towards all living creatures. 29
1. The Life of Ramakrishna by Romain Rolland, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2008, p.XXI
2. Ramakrishna And His Disciples by Christopher Isherwood, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2007, pp.1-2
3. Conversion by A D Nock, Oxford, 1965, p.7
4. Life by Romain Rolland, p.XXII
5. Ibid., p.72
6. Ibid., p.213
7. Ibid., p.262
8. Paramahansa Sri Ramakrishna by R R Diwakar, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1980, p.125; Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, pp.91-92
9. Sayings of Ramakrishna, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras (12th impression), pp.232., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, p.326
10. Kenopanishad, II.3
11.The Gospel, p.285
12. Ibid., p.374
13. Ibid., p.271
14. Sayings, p.33
15. The Gospel, p.287
16. Ibid., p.180
17. Ibid., pp.228-29
18. Paramahansa Sri Ramakrishna, pp.222-23
19. Ramakrishna, His Life and Sayings, by F Max Muller, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, p.138
20. Ibid., p.116
21. Ramakrishna. His Life and Sayings, p.137
22. Ramakrishna. His Life and Sayings, p.112
23. Paramahansa Sri Ramakrishna,p.221
24. Ramakrishna. His Life and Sayings, p.98
25. Ibid., p.153
26. Ibid., p.152
27. The Gospel, p.1010
28. Sayings, Ibid p.134
29. Ibid., p.135
Courtesy: Sri Ramakrishna Math and the Author Sri Satish K Kapoor