Who is Ramakrishna?

By Christopher Isherwood

Considered by Gore Vidal to be “the best British novelist of his generation,” Christopher Isherwood attained international fame as the author of The Berlin Stories from which the movie Cabaret was made. He also wrote Ramakrishna and His Disciples; A Meeting By the River; Kathleen and Frank; Prater Violet; Where Joy Resides; among many other works. He edited Vedanta for the Western World; Vedanta for Modern Man; and, with Swami Prabhavananda, translated The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita; How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali; and Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. He wrote extensively on Vedanta for over thirty years, and maintained an active interest in Vedanta until his death in 1986.

I once met a lady in Paris who as soon as we were introduced asked me to draw a picture of a horse—which I did, somewhat mystified. She then explained that she asked everybody she met to do this because it was amazing the different ways in which people draw pictures of horses. Some people only draw the head, some the whole body. Some draw the horse in one position, some in another. She had worked out a system by which she could judge people by knowing what kind of a horse or portion of a horse they would draw.

So, I was telling this to another of my friends and she said, “Oh, I think it is entirely too complicated, drawing horses. What I do is, I ask people, ‘Who are you?’” She said, “You would be astounded, the different ways in which this question is answered. One person says, ‘I am John Smith of Sycamore Road, Santa Monica.’ Another says, ‘I am a pharmacist’s mate on such and such a ship.’ Another says, ‘I’m a screenwriter.’ Another says, ‘I’m Elvis Presley’s maternal grandmother.’ And then there are a few people who answer: ‘Who am I? My goodness, if I knew that I would know everything!”

You will see the connection between this and the title of this paper. I’m going to discuss two questions—“Who is Ramakrishna?” and “Who was Ramakrishna?”

It’s easy for me to tell you what many of you already know well—who Ramakrishna was. That is to say, who he was as a historical character. But, to engage to say who Ramakrishna is, what the full significance of this individual is, that is something which few people could attempt. Perhaps nobody could adequately express it in words. However, before we go on to these questions, I’m going to say a little bit in general about the background of Sri Ramakrishna.

I think the first thing that has to be said about this subject is that the position of a holy man in India and the whole Indian approach to religion is a little different from what we have in the West. You see, in India what is considered basic is the religious experience of an individual—what a person finds out for himself or herself. In the West, we live in the tradition of Christianity and we are used to thinking that the source of knowledge is ultimately in the Church, and that the Church defines spiritual experience, and that our spiritual experience is to be found within the Church, not as outsiders, not as individuals seeking for ourselves. In the West, we think of religion as the cult of Jesus Christ; that is to say, we cannot think of Christianity aside from the worship of this divine figure.

But in India one has to remember that there are a whole number of divine figures who may be the object of a cult of worship. You may worship one rather than another, choosing Krishna, let us say, for your Ideal and worshipping him in preference to, let us say, Kali, the Mother of the Universe. And therefore in India it is much easier to understand that there are in fact two aspects to religion—worship, devotion to a divine figure, and the general philosophical approach to religion. Because, after all, what is religion? It begins at any rate with the question, “What am I? What is there inside of me, if anything, other than my little personal ego which I know?”

In order to contact this other thing, this mystery which we sense to be not only within us but all around us in the universe, we may, and probably shall approach it through the path of devotion. We say to ourselves, I am apparently not godlike. Therefore in order to find out if there is anything godlike in myself I will look toward somebody who is evidently godlike, and so I worship a Christ, or any other divine figure, and thus ennoble myself by dwelling upon what is evidently godlike in somebody outside of myself. But this, of course, although it is the approach for most of us, and perhaps the best, safest, and easiest approach, is still not the only approach.

One must remember that there are people whose temperament shuns the idea of devotion as being too emotional, and who prefer an approach of intellectual discrimination—of trying to find out what is eternal by rejecting what is temporal and phenomenal. It is sometimes said that the path of discrimination is the path of saying “not this, not this,” as we throw aside, one after another, all of the things in life which are not eternal, trying to see what it is that finally remains. And in the same way it is said that the path of devotion is saying “this, this,” because everywhere we try to see the presence of God around us. Of course in saying all of this I am taking a big jump, because the question that first arises is, not how do we seek God, but why should we seek God? Is there any necessity to do so? Is there any compulsion? Should one perhaps lead one’s life on the surface of appearances and rely on a shot of morphia or good luck to finish you off without too much unpleasantness at the end?

The Hindus have no hesitation in answering this question, because they believe in reincarnation. It’s important to bear this in mind when discussing the thought-processes of a Hindu, because this is something that absolutely follows as a matter of course. They do not believe that death is the end. Therefore just getting through this life somehow or other is no good whatsoever, because you will be reborn and confronted with all the same unsolved problems and unfinished business to take care of again under, probably, less agreeable circumstances.

What the Hindus believe is that we are driven by our desires and compulsions to be born again and again and they believe that liberation consists in freeing ourselves from the fetters of this desire, this compulsion, and so, as they put it, getting off the wheel of rebirth. They believe, therefore, that there is in fact a very definite reason why one should seek to know God, because in knowing God one comes to know one’s own true nature, and in getting to know one’s own true nature one realizes that one is not John Smith or Mary Brown, but that one is the Eternal. In knowing this, the bonds of desire are loosed, because one no longer wishes to be reborn in this cycle of individual lives, and one is freed and becomes a part of, so to speak, what one always was; that is to say, the Eternal.

So the aim of religion in India is absolutely apparent. It is to obtain liberation through knowledge of God. And the way in which God is known is by meditating upon him, rendering service to him, which means, of course, rendering service to our fellow human beings and making it a kind of sacramental act, so that although you are working, let us say, in a hospital, you are really rendering the service to God.

This distinction is important because if you try to render service only to individuals as individuals, you will find yourself minding very much if they aren’t grateful to you, or if they misunderstand your intention, or if they don’t sufficiently reward you for your services. But if you can render the service in a dispassionate manner, then this problem simply doesn’t arise, because God is never ungrateful, he never fails to be present, he never in any way disappoints you, since you are offering your service to him. In India these various ways in which to know God are called “yogas.” There is the yoga of service, the yoga of meditation, and the yoga of discrimination of which I was speaking awhile ago—the discrimination of trying to see always the real, and to separate the real from the unreal.

The practical test by which you know if somebody is really acquiring knowledge of God is the test of character. Is this person’s character being transformed? If people are simply deluding or autohypnotizing themselves, then, of course, their characters are not in the least bit transformed, they remain exactly as they were, and what is more, they don’t acquire the power of projecting any kind of reassurance, any kind of spiritual force from themselves, which you find in the case of all genuinely spiritual people. The whole atmosphere which they bring with them is in itself conducive to belief.

One of the simplest and most fundamental ways in which God is served in India is by means of the mantra, and this is a very important thing to know about, especially in connection with Sri Ramakrishna. When you are initiated by your teacher, he gives you a form of words, of sacred words which you are to repeat as often as possible and on all occasions, either aloud, or if you are among people, to yourself. This is called a mantra. At first sight this seems too idiotic even to discuss—that mumbling a lot of words, especially where in our case they are in a foreign language, could possibly do any good to anybody.

However, the people who make money by advertising wouldn’t laugh at such an idea. They know only too well that the mumbling of some equally silly-sounding words will end up in your buying a certain breakfast product of theirs, and of course it is true that we are continually repeating mantras in our minds about our resentments, we are repeating the names of diseases that we fear we have, we are muttering about the Russians, and the Russians are muttering about us. So, after all, is this concept so silly, that by repeating the name of God, you can also produce an effect upon yourself? This is, I hope, for most of you a purely rhetorical question, because of course anybody who has used a mantra knows perfectly well that it makes a most tremendous impression upon the mind, and that it is in fact perhaps the one rope to which we can all hold firm throughout our day and throughout our lives.

There is only one other thing that I want to touch on before speaking of Ramakrishna himself, and that is something to which it is necessary to refer, but which for most of us seems so strange that it has no relation to our everyday experience whatsoever. This is, the state of samadhi. The result of prolonged meditation is, of course, that the mind becomes more and more indrawn and concentrated upon its object. And when this process has become very far advanced, a phenomenon takes place which is called in Sanskrit, samadhi, which is a state of identification in which the meditator becomes one with the thing upon which he is meditating. The mind is so completely indrawn that the body itself shows no signs of life, and all outer consciousness is lost, and yet a person in the state of samadhi is not unconscious. That person is tremendously, powerfully, conscious on another plane, and becomes aware of his identity with the object upon which he is meditating.

In other words, if you are meditating upon God you become aware of that in your nature which is divine. This is a kind of paradox, because to say I am God is the most blasphemous remark possible to make and also the deepest truth. If you say, I am God, meaning Christopher Isherwood is God, this is ludicrous. But if you say that the essential nature which abides behind this apparent personality in myself, is God, this is a statement of the deepest truth, and samadhi is a state in which this truth is known, and not only temporarily known, but known in such a way that once known, the entire person is transformed by the knowledge. We find records that samadhi occurred in the lives of many Christian saints and of saints of all the different religions; there being absolutely no distinction in this respect. Any one cult of a divine being, devotedly followed, must lead to the same result, since there is only one truth and many paths to it.

But in the case of Sri Ramakrishna, this state of samadhi became an almost daily occurrence, and this is something that is of course quite, quite out of the ordinary, even in dealing with figures of this spiritual magnitude.

It is not necessary for me to dwell at length on the actual life of Sri Ramakrishna, because there are many books about it. It’s exceedingly simple, exceedingly easy to remember in its external events. He was born in 1836 in a small village in Bengal of peasant parents. He lived exactly fifty years, died in 1886, and his whole life was spent in Bengal, with the exception of a couple of not very long pilgrimages. His parents were extremely devout, and he seems to have been surrounded, both in boyhood and indeed throughout his whole life, by love and by people who loved him. As a boy, he was very charming and lively and amusing, and not at all given to studying, but he always captivated everybody and talked them out of any severity toward him. He was very fond of dressing up, for he loved acting, and was incredibly skillful as a mimic. In those days they were very strict about purdah—the custom of keeping the ladies of the household in retirement, so that no outside men ever saw them—and there was one man in the locality who used to boast that nobody had ever seen his womenfolk at all, outside of the family. So Ramakrishna who was in his early teens dressed up as a market woman, went around to the house, sold them some things, gossiped with the various women of the household, and the next day stunned this man by describing to him exactly what each of them had been wearing and what they had said.

When he was in his late teens, he went to Calcutta where his elder brother had a school, a Sanskrit school, but he didn’t settle there to learning much. And then a lady who lived in the neighborhood, an enormously wealthy woman named the Rani Rasmani, decided to build a temple on the river bank to the Mother of the Universe. Ramakrishna’s elder brother was asked to be the priest in this temple, and he took Ramakrishna along to help him. And so it came about that by the time Ramakrishna was twenty he was settled at this place, which is called Dakshineswar, and there he spent almost all the rest of his life; that’s to say, the next thirty years.

The Rani was a woman of very determined character. On one occasion the British were trying to put a tax on the fishermen in the river, so she bought all of the fishing rights, hung chains across the river, claiming that the traffic disturbed the fishing, and wouldn’t let anything operate until the British had taken the tax off. She was always doing things like that. But at the same time, she had the grace to realize what an extraordinary individual Ramakrishna was, and she felt that they were privileged to have him there, and that any eccentricities of his were to be absolutely condoned. This is just as well, because Ramakrishna’s behavior became progressively stranger and stranger.

You see, he really wanted to know God, and even in religious circles this is very odd and makes for behavior which to outside people appears to be quite insane, because it has a different frame of reference. After all, everybody can understand one wanting money, or position, or sexual love, because we all want such things. But really to want to know God, to the exclusion of everything else, and to be frantic about it, seemed so odd that many people were seriously concerned about Ramakrishna’s sanity at this point.

Seeing as he did the Mother of the Universe in all things, he, in the very midst of the food offering in the shrine, gave the whole offering to a cat which walked into the temple, recognizing the presence of the Godhead in the cat. Well you can imagine this would create quite a sensation if it happened in a Western church too, and yet of course it was an act which only the very deepest spirituality could prompt.

He was also very firm with the Rani, and on one occasion she was meditating beside him at the shrine and started to think about a lawsuit in which she was engaged. Ramakrishna had at that time telepathic powers and turning to her said, “How dare you think such thoughts here!” and smacked her. However, all of this she accepted and realized that they were in the presence of an extraordinary person, a spiritual genius.

And it must be said that throughout all of this period, whenever genuine holy men, people of real spiritual attainment met Ramakrishna, they never thought that he was mad. It was only worldly people who thought so.

Ramakrishna then entered upon a period of about twelve years, during which he went through very elaborate spiritual disciplines under the guidance of two teachers. The first was a woman, who is usually known simply as the Brahmani, and the second was a man, named Totapuri. At the end of this period and during the last twenty years of his life, he began to have many visitors—some of them famous. There was, for example, Keshab Sen, who was one of the great religious leaders in India at that time, and was conducting a kind of reformist movement to bring Hinduism more into line with modern times and destroy some of its old customs which he regarded as abuses, such as the caste system, child marriage, etc. Keshab was a genuinely great man in his way, but a man who necessarily was deeply immersed in worldly affairs—he had even visited England and been presented to Queen Victoria—Keshab nevertheless recognized and proclaimed the greatness of Ramakrishna and kept constantly coming to see him at the temple at Dakshineswar.

Then there also came to him the young men who were later to be his monastic disciples and who were to found the Order which exists to this day. The two greatest of them were Vivekananda and Brahmananda. Vivekananda came to this country at the end of the last century and after a very successful and impressive series of lectures all over the country, he founded a center in New York. As a direct result of this, a link was established with the head monastery back in Calcutta, so that in due course other groups in other parts of the United States requested that a swami should be sent to them, in order that they could form a center and receive teaching. As early as 1903 there was a center in San Francisco, and then by degrees other centers grew up, and so the movement has steadily spread.

But of course, one must remember that what we have in the United States is only a tiny part of the Ramakrishna movement. In India it is a very big Order indeed, with many monasteries, not to mention schools, hospitals, and colleges, and centers all over the country.

There are few figures in the whole of religious literature who are as well documented as Ramakrishna. His sayings, his teachings, the whole impression that he made as an individual—everything is conveyed to us in two extraordinary books. One of them is the so-called Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by a man who signs himself simply as “M”—Mahendra. He attended Sri Ramakrishna during his last period when he had a great many disciples and was constantly in conversation with them, being asked questions and giving answers. M. wrote down everything that was said on every occasion he was present, which makes a book which is of course repetitive, but of fascinating interest. You get from it the atmosphere of complete informality which surrounded Ramakrishna. And you see in his conversation how simplicity was coupled with an extraordinary subtlety. He could answer the most complicated questions in a very simple way, showing great intellectual grasp and yet using the language of a peasant with homely illustrations based, as many of Christ’s were, on the life of the countryside.

The other book which is basic to an understanding of Ramakrishna, and which I think is even more wonderful, is a book written by one of his monastic disciples, Swami Saradananda. Saradananda’s book is called Ramakrishna, the Great Master. It began just as a series of articles which the Swami wrote late in life, long after Sri Ramakrishna had passed away. But I think that this book conveys in a way in which no other writing does, the extraordinary mixture of simplicity, fun, and strangeness which was in Ramakrishna. Here we are dealing with someone very, very strange; we are in the presence of a tremendous mystery.

Among the many people who saw Ramakrishna, there were some great sages, men who would correspond in our culture to the most responsible leaders of the Christian Church, except that of course in India there is no Church in our sense of the word. These men expressed it as their considered opinion that Ramakrishna was not a human being but an incarnation of God. And this was said in a country where such statements are not made lightly or for emotional or dramatic effect, but have an exact, clearly-defined significance.

When Hindus talk about a divine incarnation, they mean somebody who is the actual vehicle by which God himself appears, manifests himself on the earth. Such a being has no past, he is not subject to the wheel of birth and rebirth—he has no karma in this sense, he simply manifests himself to do good to the world. He is, if you like, an expression of the world’s need at any particular moment. He manifests himself and gives through himself power, which is then transmitted and gradually begins to work within Society.

It is impossible for us to realize the scope and nature of spiritual power. We think of power in terms of building up something—a big organization—something of this sort; whereas of course the organization, although it inevitably occurs, is really just a by-product. What the power of a figure like Ramakrishna consists in is this, that he could really by his touch, by his physical touch, communicate spiritual knowledge to the people around him, and when he was dying—he had a throat cancer—when he was in a condition in which most people would be scarcely conscious and would be certainly obsessed by their own suffering; at this very moment he blessed the people around him so that they went into ecstasy, and at this very moment he declared himself, and said, “Yes, he who was Rama and he who was Krishna is present here in this body.” You will find a parallel situation in the Christian story when Christ in agony, bleeding on the cross, turned to the thief and said “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” He, there, in the same way, was announcing his non-human quality, announcing that he was a son of God.

And this surely is what really matters. Nothing else does. I am told that nowadays the room where Ramakrishna lived at Dakshineswar is well kept and you can go there and pay homage, but I rather like a story, accurate or not, which a traveler tells in a book I was reading the other day, of going to Dakshineswar—I suppose in the early 1920’s, at a time when the temple was deserted, when Ramakrishna’s room was littered, untidy and uncared for, and the whole place was in a terrible state, and this traveler claims that he spoke to a monk who was around the place and said, “How can you leave the Master’s dwelling place in such bad condition,” and the monk said, “The Master isn’t here. He’s over there, on the other side of the river at the monastery. That’s where he is alive. That’s where you will find him.”

Which brings us to the thought that Ramakrishna can be every bit as much alive in California as he is over in India, amongst the scenes of this life on earth.

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Who is Ramakrishna?