By Swami Bhajanananda
Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979 through 1986, and has contributed many articles to various Vedanta journals. Swami Bhajanananda is an Assistant-Secretary and Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order. This article was first published in the March, 1979 Prabuddha Bharata.
When the sun sinks behind the western skyline, when shadows thicken and merge in the enveloping gloom, when from the horizon the carpet of stillness spreads across the twilit world, a simple ritual is performed in scores of ashramas and in thousands of homes in adoration of a being known to the world as Sri Ramakrishna. In a special room or corner of a room set apart for his unseen presence, incense is burnt and lights are waved, and often there is group singing of songs and hymns of praise and supplication.
A religious ritual is a sacrament. Behind it there is a sacralizing agent whose power sustains it for centuries. Through the ritual past events are recreated in the minds of devotees and they encounter divine phenomena afresh. When the devotees of Sri Ramakrishna do puja (ritualistic worship) or arati (evening worship or vespers) in their dwelling places, each place of worship becomes in a mystic sense his room at Dakshineswar temple garden. Time, as it were, stands still and history is transcended when Sri Ramakrishna accepts, as his devotees believe, their worship day after day. For the time being, there then exists only an eternal now. Such is the miracle that faith works through religious rituals.
A ritual, however, is only a temporal expression of the timeless aspiration of the human soul. Birth after birth, through trackless centuries, mankind has been knowingly or unknowingly adoring the Divine in some form or other. It is in response to this timeless aspiration of the human soul that the Divine incarnates again and again on earth. The God-hungry soul seizes upon these manifestations and tries to derive new meaning and direction regarding its own progress in life. Every word that an incarnation utters becomes a message of light, every gesture is a promise of hope, every action a sacrament and every place the incarnation visits is a center of pilgrimage. This is true of all the great Incarnations of the past, Rama and Krishna, Buddha and Christ, and has now come to be true in the case of Sri Ramakrishna.
Who is this Sri Ramakrishna to whom thousands of people now accord adoration? Who is Sri Ramakrishna whose deathless reality is now intimately connected with the lives and destinies of countless people all over the world? If this question is put to his devotees and followers, it is likely to embarrass a good number of them, while those who attempt to answer it soon find that they are failing to give clear expression to their deepest convictions about him. It is said that when Girish Chandra Ghosh once requested Swami Vivekananda to write a life of Sri Ramakrishna, the great Swami hastily shrank back and told him, “Ask me to dry up the ocean, I shall do that; ask me to pulverize the mountains, I shall do that; but please do not ask me to write the life of Sri Ramakrishna.”
If even a person of Swami Vivekananda’s eminence felt so diffident about his understanding of his Master, one may not find it surprising that the ordinary devotees of Sri Ramakrishna fail to comprehend his real nature. But the truth is, more often than not, the acceptance of Sri Ramakrishna by his devotees is not the result of elaborate reasoning or deep cogitation. With many it is largely a case of divine invasion of the devotees’ hearts, though they may attribute it to the reading of a book or a chance hearing of a talk or a casual visit to an ashrama. And when this happens, they feel a compelling urge to accept and worship a phenomenon which they do not fully understand.
However, an unconscious acceptance of a spiritual ideal is often not strong enough to take the spiritual aspirant far in the spiritual path. Faith in God is too precious a thing to be allowed to remain in the dark subterranean chambers of the mind. Faith must be illumined by experience, and devotion must become a fully conscious, self-directed approach.
The early Vedic Aryans worshipped several deities. Soon some inquiring minds among them began to ask themselves: “Who is that Deity to whom we offer oblations?” Questions of this kind urged them to undertake an investigation into the nature of the reality behind the phenomenal world, and in the Upanishads we find how this search culminated in the discovery of Brahman as the ultimate Truth. Devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, or for that matter, devotees of any personal God or avatar, are sure to find the bounds of their understanding of their object of adoration expanding when they too undertake a similar inquiry.
Sri Ramakrishna himself during his life-time seemed to have encouraged such a spirit of inquiry among his intimate disciples. He used to ask them now and then what they thought about him. For instance, we find in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna the Master asking M., the author of the book, on the latter’s third visit to him, “Let me ask you something. What do you think of me? How many annas of knowledge of God have I?”
There was a twofold purpose in asking this question. In the first place, the answer he got gave him an insight into the working of the disciple’s mind and an understanding of the latter’s belief pattern. Secondly, the question was calculated to stimulate the disciple’s mind to make an effort to understand the person whom he adored, and keep his relation with him an ever fresh and conscious experience. True love never becomes static, conditioned or stale. It is always a fresh and conscious experience involving the total personality. This becomes possible only when love is based on understanding, and the lover constantly encounters the beloved afresh.
The vast majority of people lose touch with Reality because they allow themselves to drift with the stream of life. A true spiritual person, on the contrary, encounters life and confronts Reality every moment of their life. Devotees often run the risk of taking their relationship with their Chosen Ideals for granted. They often remain satisfied with the thought that they already possess enough love for their Chosen Ideals. Similarly, meditation is often attempted with the assumption that the object of their meditation is known to them.
If they know all about their objects of meditation, why should they meditate on them at all? This kind of presumption, which is born of ignorance, destroys the initiative for seeking the Truth, and blocks the path of progress. That is why the Upanishad teaches: “Truth is known to the person to whom It is unknown; one does not know to whom It is known. It is unknown to those who know well, and known to those who do not know.” [Kena Upanishad 2.3.]
Sri Ramakrishna used to say: “The devotees who come here may be divided into two groups. One group says, “’O God, give me liberation.’” Another group, belonging to the inner circle, doesn’t talk that way. They are satisfied if they can know two things: who I am [meaning himself]; second, who they are and what their relationship to me is.” This is an important statement which comes to Swami Vivekananda’s definition of true religion as “the eternal relationship between the eternal soul and the eternal God.” The relationship between the devotee and the Chosen Ideal becomes eternal only when it is based on a true knowledge of the real nature of the worshipper and the object of worship.
It is in the context of the above statement that we, as devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, have raised the question: who is Sri Ramakrishna? When we try to undertake such an inquiry, we come to the surprising discovery that, apart from some factual information about the external activities of Sri Ramakrishna during his brief life span, he largely remains unknown. We do not really know the being who lived on earth as Sri Ramakrishna. Even when we try to analyze the known facts of his life on earth, we come face to face with a mystery almost at every step.
An aura of mystery surrounds Sri Ramakrishna’s life right from his birth. According to his biographers, before he was born his father had a dream at Gaya in which the deity Vishnu appeared before Khudiram and told him that he would soon be born as his son. Meanwhile Sri Ramakrishna’s mother had a wonderful spiritual experience at her native village Kamarpukur. One day while standing before a temple of Lord Siva, she saw a flood of celestial light issuing from the image and entering her person, and she soon began to feel that she was with child. Now, this raises the interesting question, whose manifestation Sri Ramakrishna really was—whether of Vishnu or of Siva. Or, was it a case of religious harmony right in the mother’s womb? The authorized biographies of Sri Ramakrishna do not attempt an explanation of this strange phenomenon.
His boyhood was full of mysterious experiences and events. Practically the whole of his youth was spent in spiritual practices the intensity, diversity and amplitude of which have no parallel in the history of hagiology. Those who came to teach him remained to adore him. The halo of divinity that he radiated was patent enough to even some of the great scholars of the day who openly declared him to be an incarnation of God. He drew his disciples and devotees to him with an irresistible power, and to each of them he revealed himself in a different way. His patron Mathur Babu saw in him Siva and Kali. To his teacher Bhairavi Brahmani and some householder disciples he was Sri Gauranga. To the great devotee known as Gopal’s Mother he was Sri Krishna.
Swami Vivekananda saw in him the fulfillment of his highest ideals. Once he had an experience in which he saw Sri Ramakrishna as gopi, Radha, and this profoundly influenced his life. In the sacred shrine of Jagannath at Puri Swami Turiyananda had a vision of Sri Ramakrishna as that deity. Swami Shivananda saw him as Siva in a vision which he had at Benares. Swami Abhedananda had a wonderful spiritual experience in which he saw all the great incarnations and deities merging in the person of Sri Ramakrishna.
This protean capacity to assume diverse divine forms is a special attribute of Sri Ramakrishna’s being and marks him out from among other great Incarnations and prophets of the world. But this only thickens the mystery that envelops his real nature, and thwarts our attempts to categorize him according to known patterns of religious belief. He was unique and universal at the same time.
Sri Ramakrishna is now being accepted as an Incarnation of God not only by thousands of his followers, but also by a large number of other people in different parts of the world, among whom may be counted several eminent thinkers and famous people. A modern biographer of Sri Ramakrishna can now feel less hesitant and apologetic in discussing this aspect of Sri Ramakrishna’s life than his early predecessors. That Sri Ramakrishna’s life and experiences are extraordinary and extend beyond the bounds of ordinary sainthood is clear to all who care to study them.
The main difficulty lies not in calling him an incarnation of God but in what that term really means. And it is here that we meet Sri Ramakrishna the Unknown, for the mystery of the incarnation has not so far lent itself to easy solution. A right understanding and evaluation of the life and message of Sri Ramakrishna should be based on the acceptance of the mystery of the incarnation. The mystery that surrounds the real nature of Sri Ramakrishna is ultimately bound up with the mystery of the incarnation.
The main function of an incarnation is the redemption of humanity. The word redemption is, however, used here not in the narrow Christian sense of saving a person from original sin. It is used here only to indicate the superhuman capacity of a divine person to cut the bonds and destroy the ignorance of millions of souls by infusing the spiritual power and knowledge into them, and lift them to higher planes of existence where they enjoy supreme peace and bliss.
The vast majority of ordinary mortals are unable to achieve all this by their own individual efforts. An incarnation is a reservoir of great spiritual power, and he creates, with himself as the center, a field of spiritual forces. Whoever is drawn into this field by the irresistible will of the incarnation spontaneously gets illumination and freedom. This is essentially how Swami Vivekananda explains the doctrines of incarnation and grace.
The salvific work of an incarnation begins on a colossal scale only after withdrawing from their physical framework. The purpose of their embodiment is to reveal to humanity an adorable human form, to set up a new ideal of life, to deliver a new message of hope—all suited to the contemporary needs and temper of the people. But all these, however necessary they are, have only a limited value. They serve only to turn suffering men and women away from the futile worldly pursuits and draw them to a particular religious focus.
The real work of an incarnation begins only after people have been brought to their focus of influence. The earthly life of an incarnation is only a guidepost pointing to their transcendental essence. This is what Sri Ramakrishna means when he says that the incarnation is like a hole in a wall through which one can see the other side, which is otherwise inaccessible to one’s vision.
To identify the reality of an incarnation solely with their earthly life and activities and exclude their transcendental dimension is to mistake the gate for the mansion. This is the mistake that Protestant theologians have been committing with regard to the life of Jesus. By over-emphasizing the historicity of Jesus and restricting the significance of the incarnation to certain incidents in his earthly life, some of the modern Protestant theologians have sought to deprive him of his mystical and spiritual dimensions.
The historical aspect of an incarnation is only the temporal dimension of their eternal spiritual Reality. Their mission on earth derives its authority and significance from their transcendent power and purpose. This point should not be lost sight of when we study the life and mission of Sri Ramakrishna. His extreme renunciation of “lust and gold,” his superhuman spiritual struggles and experiences, and the depth and sweep of his message—all these were extraordinary and glorious indeed. But they only point out to his own transcendental glory which is hidden from our mortal eyes. What the famous Purusha Sukta says may be said to be true in this case also, perhaps in a more restricted sense: “All this (created universe) manifests only one-fourth of the glory of the Purusha; the remaining three-fourths lies in the immortal celestial plane.” [Rg Veda: 10.90.3]
It takes centuries for humankind to comprehend an incarnation. For centuries millions of people have been inspired by the lives and teachings of Buddha and Christ and hundreds of books have been written on them. Yet they still continue to stimulate fresh studies, and new books are still being brought out throwing new lights on the contemporary relevance and significance of these old masters. When a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna one day complained to Swami Vivekananda that his methods of preaching and social service were Western in type and incompatible with Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings, Swamiji delivered himself with great fervor: “The thing is this: Sri Ramakrishna is far greater than his disciples understand him to be. He is the embodiment of infinite spiritual ideas capable of development in infinite ways. Even if one can find a limit to the knowledge of Brahman, one cannot measure the unfathomable depth of our Master’s mind.”
The incarnation who is the “embodiment of infinite spiritual ideas” takes centuries to work himself out. Through innumerable institutions and religious traditions, through the creative minds of saints and sages, artists, thinkers, philosophers and leaders of society, his ideas find expression for a very long period of time, inspiring, comforting and guiding suffering humanity until they all to the last person find themselves safe through the portals of immortality. In this sense the life and mission of Sri Ramakrishna may be said to have only just begun.
For a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna the most important problem of life is the quest for the real Sri Ramakrishna. A true devotee of Ramakrishna does not remain satisfied with reading or hearing about his life and teachings. Making use of the knowledge thus gained, the devotee tries to seek the Reality of which this knowledge is only a shadow. The devotee soon finds that this mystic quest is leading him or her on to the depth of their soul which is the gateway to the world of the Spirit. It is there that the real Ramakrishna is to be sought.
The real Sri Ramakrishna is unknown but not unknowable. He can be known only if he reveals himself. And he reveals himself to sincere aspirants in the secret depths of their hearts and fulfils the beginningless yearnings of their souls. Diverse and mysterious are the ways by which the incarnation reveals himself to the blessed, and leads them from the unreal to Real, from darkness to Light, and from death to Immortality. What even these blessed souls feel about him has been expressed by Swami Abhedananda, who was certainly one among them, in the following verse: “O Lord, I do not know your real nature. Whatever be the Truth you reveal yourself in, to That I offer my salutations again and again.”