A Short Biography
India, with her wealth of spiritual tradition, has produced many spiritual giants. One of the greatest was Ramakrishna (1836-1886). His life was a testament to truth, universality, love and purity.
Born in a rural village outside Calcutta, Ramakrishna even as a boy naturally gravitated toward leading a spiritual life. This tendency only intensified as he grew older. When as a young man he became a temple priest, he was seized by an unquenchable thirst for union with God, and he immersed himself in intense meditation and other spiritual practices.
Ramakrishna was constantly absorbed in the thought of God. He would often go into high spiritual states where he would merge with the Infinite Reality. For him, the Vedantic teaching of unity of all existence was more than theory; he literally saw, and knew, this to be true.
In his thirst for the divine, Ramakrishna followed different religious paths including various branches of Hinduism. Not content to stop there, however, he also practiced Islam and later meditated deeply on Christ, experiencing the same divine Reality through these non-Hindu paths. Thus, he came to the conclusion, based on his direct experience, that all religions lead to the same goal.
In addition, through his many Sikh devotees, he learned of their faith and its great founders, and he was told of the wonderful life and teachings of the Buddha. This exposure to Sikhism and Buddhism further confirmed his experience of the universality of spiritual truth.
Ramakrishna’s love for humanity was limitless. He often said human beings were the highest manifestations of God. His disciples saw this love firsthand, and the monastic order Ramakrishna inspired achieved the distinction of being the first order in India to serve humanity. Service to God in humankind is one of the foremost ideals of the Ramakrishna Order.
Among his many other noteworthy characteristics were his universality and childlike purity, his intense sincerity, his vast knowledge of things spiritual and human (which came not from book-learning but from direct perception), and his extraordinary power to transform lives.
Ramakrishna’s teachings regarding the highest truths of spiritual life were delivered in the simplest language and were punctuated by parables and homely metaphors as illustrations. Many noted writers and philosophers—Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Thomas Merton, Arnold Toynbee, Joseph Campbell—have been deeply impressed and influenced by him.
Quotes from Sri Ramakrishna
“Different people call on [God] by different names: some as Allah, some as God, and others as Krishna, Siva, and Brahman. It is like the water in a lake. Some drink it at one place and call it ‘jal’, others at another place and call it ‘pani’, and still others at a third place and call it ‘water’. The Hindus call it ‘jal’, the Christians ‘water’, and the Moslems ‘pani’. But it is one and the same thing.”
“One can ascend to the top of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo or a staircase or a rope; so too, diverse are the ways of approaching God, and each religion in the world shows one of the ways. . . . A truely religious man should think that other religions are also so many paths leading to the Truth. One should always maintain an attitude of respect towards other religions.”
“There are pearls in the deep sea, but you must hazard all perils to get them. If you fail to get at them by a single dive, do not conclude that the sea is without them. Dive again and again, and you are sure to be rewarded in the end. So also in the quest for the Lord, if your first attempt to see Him proves fruitless, do not lose heart. Persevere in the attempt, and you are sure to realise Him at last.”
“As a lamp does not burn without oil, so a man cannot live without God.”
“That which you think, you should speak. Let there be harmony between your thought and word. Otherwise, if you merely say that God is your all in all, while in your mind you have made the world your all in all, you cannot derive any benefit.”
“Knowledge leads to unity; ignorance to diversity.”
“When God is realised, the world never appears empty. He who has attained Him sees that the Lord Himself has become all these—the universe and its creatures.”
What Others Said About Sri Ramakrishna
“The story of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s life is a story of religion in practice. His life enables us to see God face to face.”
“Ramakrishna’s teachings on the essential unity of the great religions comprise Hinduism’s finest voice on this topic.”
“Sri Ramakrishna’s message was unique in being expressed in action. Religion is not just a matter for study, it is something that has to be experienced and to be lived, and this is the field in which Sri Ramakrishna manifested his uniqueness. His religious activity and experience were, in fact, comprehensive to a degree that had perhaps never before been attained by any other religious genius, in India or elsewhere.”
“Ramakrishna was a rare combination of individuality and universality, personality and impersonality. His word and example have been echoed in the hearts of Western men and women. His soul animates modern India.”
“This highly noteworthy document [The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna] conveys the personality of a great mystic in such an intimate, direct, and almost astounding manner that to read it must be an enriching experience for any intellect which is receptive and open to all things human.”
“This is the story of a phenomenon.”
(Isherwood’s opening sentence in Ramakrishna and His Disciples.)