By Swami Shraddhananda
Coming to the United States in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. “ ‘Dive Deep,’ Said Sri Ramakrishna” is found in Seeing God Everywhere.
Spiritual progress depends to a considerable extent upon one’s earnest personal endeavor. “Arise, awake! Approach the wise teachers and learn from them,” the Katha Upanishad says. Throughout the Bhagavad Gita we find Sri Krishna exhorting his disciple Arjuna in a similar strain: “O mighty descendant of Bharata, arise; shake off all doubt and hesitation and hold fast to the practice of yoga.” Again Christ says, “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” Jesus is clearly stating the primary requirements for a spiritual aspirant: a keen desire and an ardent striving for the spiritual ideal. The same voice has been heard once again in our own age in this simple teaching from Sri Ramakrishna: “Dive deep.”
Sri Ramakrishna took this expression from two popular Bengali religious songs in which the spiritual quest has been compared to the search for precious gems on the bottom of the sea. One of the songs begins thus:
Dive deep, O mind, dive deep in the Ocean of God’s Beauty;
If you descend to the uttermost depths,
There you will find the gem of Love.
The second song opens in this manner:
Taking the name of Kali, dive deep down, O mind,
Into the heart’s fathomless depths,
Where many a precious gem lies hid.
But never believe the bed of the ocean bare of gems
If in the first few dives you fail;
With firm resolve and self-control
Dive deep and make your way to Mother Kali’s realm.
The two simple words “dive deep” are an incentive to engage in spiritual struggle. Sri Ramakrishna used them as a stimulus for devotees to take up spiritual practices with all their strength.
Those blessed persons who have realized the Truth do not speak in the sophisticated jargon of scholars; their language is straight and penetrating, their appeal is not to the imagination but to prompt and effective action. “Dive deep” is an excellent example of this. It is interesting to note that Sri Ramakrishna employed this simple maxim as a powerful corrective to three principal religious aberrations that he observed.
The first of these can be called a superficial fidelity to religion. Vast is the difference between make-believe formality in the name of religion and a genuine spiritual hankering. When we do not care to know the true meaning and goal of religion and consider it merely a customary fashion, then religion loses its spiritual power either for the individual or society. It becomes just a series of mechanical activities in a temple or a church—a bundle of idle speculations on the life beyond, or some unquestioned ritual, performed because of some vague, otherworldly fear.
True spiritual hankering is very different from this kind of confused thinking and behavior. Whenever a great religious teacher has appeared, his first duty has been to point out the difference between lifeless customs and a living fervor for spiritual life. This was evident in Buddha when he denounced the traditional followers of the religious patterns of his time. The Bhagavad Gita shows that Sri Krishna also made the distinction between genuine spiritual seeking and formal religion based on ritualistic sacrifices. In the case of Jesus, we know that, before he chose his disciples and began to preach his message, he first prepared the ground by rebuking the Sadducees and Pharisees. In his spiritual ministration Sri Ramakrishna also had to face the same problem: for the most part, people have only a superficial religious allegiance. This is our primary spiritual perversity. “Dive deep” was his solution. In the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna we find numerous instances of the saint’s eloquently drawing the distinction between formal piety and an honest spiritual quest. For religion to be a mighty fact of life rather than a futile conjecture, its votaries must “dive deep.”
It was not that Sri Ramakrishna did not recognize the value of rituals and customary religious observances in certain contexts, but compared to the ultimate goal of life—the realization of God—formal religion was, according to him, of little worth. “God can be seen,” Sri Ramakrishna said. “He can be touched. We can even talk with God.” He is the most essential power in our lives, the most important element in our thoughts, aspirations, and actions. We may cite one simple illustration that Sri Ramakrishna used to give: When you add zeros successively to the digit one, you get figures whose value increases proportionately: a hundred, a thousand, a million, etc., while any number of zeros without the digit one before them are of no value. Similarly, God is the numeral one in all the values of life. If you leave Him out of the picture in life’s pursuits, those pursuits become a string of worthless zeros.
We may recall a portion of the interesting conversation between Sri Ramakrishna and Pundit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, the great scholar, philanthropist, and educational pioneer of Bengal. One day Sri Ramakrishna went to visit the pundit, and, as was his custom, the Master soon gave their conversation a spiritual turn. In a mood of eloquent inspiration Sri Ramakrishna emphasized the difference between a moral or even a virtuous life on the one hand, and a genuine hankering for God-realization on the other. He said to Vidyasagar:
The activities that you are engaged in are good. It is very good if you can perform them in a selfless spirit, renouncing egotism, giving up the idea that you are the doer. . . .
The more you come to love God, the less you will be inclined to perform action. When the daughter-in-law is with child, her mother-in-law gives her less work to do. . . . There is gold buried in your heart, but you are not yet aware of it. It is covered with a thin layer of clay. Once you are aware of it, all these activities of yours will lessen.
Swami Vivekananda reiterated his Master’s sentiment when he said that religion should not be looked upon as a Japanese vase in one’s drawing room. Such a vase is only one of the many decorations one has in the house in order to pass oneself off as cultured. Similarly, religion may be just one of the various interests we have in order to pose as “decent” people. Do we not make religion a kind of mockery with such an attitude? Most of the criticisms that have been leveled against religion are due to the fact that the majority of people who pass as “religious” do not show any higher behavior than a superficial allegiance to the faith they profess. If a case for religion is to be presented, it can be done only by the practical example of sincere people who are ready to “dive deep.”
When Sri Ramakrishna said, “Dive deep,” he was careful to describe the full implications of this phrase. “Now dive deep into the Ocean of God. There is no fear of death from plunging into this Ocean, for this is the Ocean of Immortality,” he assured us. We have nothing to fear from the spiritual struggle. It will not land us in darkness and uncertainty. The sacrifices we make during spiritual practice will be more than compensated when we become illumined.
The second religious aberration that Sri Ramakrishna noticed was the confusion of spiritual wisdom with intellectual sophistry. For many people religion is equated with a sort of intellectual understanding of the scriptures or system of philosophy. Their emphasis is on argumentation rather than on actual practice, on reading books rather than on contemplation. An intellectual grasp of religious issues is, of course, good. But here great caution is necessary. Sri Ramakrishna liked to illustrate the folly of mere religious intellectualism by likening it to counting the leaves, trees, and branches of a mango orchard. Such idle counting is foolishness. It is wiser to eat the mangoes. Similarly, since the aim of human birth is to love God, one should seek to attain that love and be at peace. “What need is there of your knowing the infinite qualities of God? You may discriminate for millions of years about God’s attributes, and still you will not know them.”
If by blessed fortune one happens to take an interest in religion, that interest should not be frittered away in mere theoretical estimations. “Dive deep” would be Sri Ramakrishna’s pronouncement to these theoreticians; religion does not consist of books, but in transforming the words of books into living truth.
To recall another simple illustration that Sri Ramakrishna used to give: Suppose you have to purchase certain things from the market. While at home you prepare a list of the articles you want. After you have made the purchases, the list ceases to be of value; you may as well discard it. In a way, the scriptures are like this list. Their purpose is to indicate the means to realize the Truth. Once you are on the path, however, it becomes a waste of time to inordinately cling to them. It is more important to plunge into spiritual practice.
Sri Ramakrishna’s conversation with one of the celebrities of his time, Pundit Shashadhar Tarkachudamani, is illuminating in this connection. The author “M” records the Master as having said the following words to the pundit:
There are many scriptures like the Vedas. But one cannot realize God without austerity and spiritual discipline. . . .
Better than reading is hearing. . . . But seeing is far better than hearing. Then all doubts disappear. It is true that many things are recorded in the scriptures; but all these are useless without the direct realization of God, without devotion to His Lotus Feet, without purity of heart.
The pundit had taken upon himself the task of preaching the principles of Hinduism to various social gatherings. His fascinating talks used to draw crowds—a fact of which the Master was well aware. He asked the pundit if he had received a commission from the Lord to preach. When the pundit replied in the negative, Sri Ramakrishna told him that unless he had realized the Truth and had actually received the Lord’s commission, his preaching would be a waste of breath. In conclusion, the Master repeated his formula, “Dive deep.” Continuing in this vein, Sri Ramakrishna added, “My child, add a little more to your strength. Practice spiritual discipline a few days more. You have hardly set your foot on the tree, yet you expect to lay hold of a big cluster of fruit.”
The third aberration that Sri Ramakrishna was at pains to correct was a lukewarm attitude toward spiritual practice. Some people realize the importance of spiritual disciplines and also understand the difference between a mere intellectual interest in religion and a real longing to realize God. Yet for some reason they cannot exert themselves as much as they should. As Sri Ramakrishna put it, they are “lukewarm.” Lukewarm exertion in spiritual practice is a great danger. And here, too, Sri Ramakrishna would employ his pithy, imperative sentence, “Dive deep.”
Once a devotee named Ishan Chandra Mukherjee came to visit the Master at Dakshineswar. Sri Ramakrishna was fond of him and gave him spiritual instructions. On this occasion, after a little conversation with the Master, Ishan took his leave in order to perform the sandhya ritual in front of the Kali temple. Later in the evening Sri Ramakrishna came upon him engaged in this act of devotion. In a rapturous mood he remarked, “What? . . . Are you still performing the sandhya? . . . How long must a man continue the sandhya? As long as he has not developed love for the Lotus Feet of God.”
Then the Master sang two devotional songs in praise of Kali that emphasized cultivating genuine love for the Mother, rather than routine virtuous acts such as counting beads, charity, vows, and pilgrimages. Addressing Ishan again, the Master resumed with words that were stronger still and sounded like a mild reproach: “You cannot achieve anything by moving at such a slow pace. You need stern renunciation. Can you achieve anything by counting fifteen months as a year? You seem to have no strength, no grit. You are as mushy as flattened rice soaked in milk. Be up and doing! Gird your loins!”
Ishan was a man of affluent circumstance. Since he wasn’t entangled in his family’s affairs, he would often engage himself in self-chosen public activities. Sri Ramakrishna knew this and wouldn’t let the issue rest. In the same mood of chastisement he continued: “What are these things you busy yourself with—this arbitration and leadership? . . . You have been doing this kind of work for a long time. Let those who care for such things do them. Now devote your mind more to the Lotus Feet of God.”
Sri Ramakrishna’s counsel reached its climax when he asked Ishan to become mad with love of God: “Let people know that Ishan has gone mad and cannot perform worldly duties any more. Then people will no longer come to you for leadership and arbitration.”
The truth of the Spirit is the closest thing to us, yet it may remain the farthest away if, out of perversity, we do not care to see it. Great teachers like Sri Ramakrishna feel it is their duty to cure us of this obduracy. Truly has Sri Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita: “What is night to ordinary people is day to the sage, and what is day to the former is night to the latter.”
Spiritual values are as clear as daylight to seers of Truth. They cannot comprehend how we, the children of immortal bliss, can remain satisfied with a world-bound existence, forgetting our own spiritual nature. Hence, out of compassion, these messengers of God move among us, inspiring us to realize the supreme goal of life. They speak clearly and powerfully; they have reached Truth beyond any possibility of doubt.
And all these spiritual values become evident when we hear Sri Ramakrishna say: “Dive deep.”