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 four-part article was published in two parts in Prabuddha Bharata, in March and April of 1982.
Greatness is of two types: contemporary and eternal. An ordinary person who has attained greatness in any field like social service, religion, art or science, can influence the lives of a few thousand people but only for a short period, for his influence does not usually survive his death. But world prophets like Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad influence the lives of millions of people for centuries. Their influence is not limited by time. Nay, it undergoes a process of time enlargement: with the passage of centuries the glory of these prophets, instead of decreasing goes on increasing.
There is another point of difference between the two classes of great men. After their death ordinary great people cease to be real. If posterity remembers them, it is only as a good example or ideal, and the homage paid to their memory once in a while is only a symbolic act like saluting the national flag. On the contrary, Krishna, Buddha and Jesus are not mere symbols or legends but living realities, and it is upon their reality that millions of people have built their spiritual lives.
There is a third difference. These great prophets are accepted by vast numbers of people as their highest ideal and goal. No ordinary person, however great he or she may be, can ever claim this uniqueness. Each prophet or world teacher comes as the embodiment of the dominant ideal of a particular age, and their life becomes the highest moral standard and goal for the people of that age. The lives of these world teachers are thus bound up with history and in order to understand their true significance, they must be placed in historical perspective.
Humanity has been continually discovering new ways of exploiting nature and improving the means of production of food, clothing, other necessities and also the means of transport and travel. These changes in living conditions, and the incessant wars and social conflicts that result from these changes, bring into existence different ages or epochs in history. Each epoch with its changed conditions throws new challenges to the people. These external challenges can be met only by mobilizing the inner spiritual resources of the people. It is through ideas and ideals that the inner energies of man get mobilized. The new ideals necessary for each epoch are developed by certain charismatic individuals who become prophets of new religions or new religious movements.
A civilization can continue to exist only if it succeeds in evolving new ideals suited to different epochs, and for this it must produce a succession of charismatic religious leaders. Those civilizations which fail in this historical task get replaced by other cultures. That was how Egyptian, Sumerian, Greek and Roman civilizations came to be replaced by Christian and Islamic cultures. Such an eventuality did not overtake India as a whole because a succession of spiritual leaders enabled it to renew its immemorial culture periodically.
It is to this class of prophets and world teachers that Sri Ramakrishna belonged. His birth was a historical necessity. The discoveries of science and technology and the diffusion of new social and political ideals had ushered in the modern age. There was the need for a charismatic individual who could create, and through his life vitalize, the basic ideals of the present age. This Sri Ramakrishna fulfilled through the Ramakrishna ideal.
The personality of Sri Ramakrishna had three dimensions: the individual, the universal and the divine. Accordingly, the Ramakrishna ideal is a composite of three distinct ideals: the ideal man of the present age, the prophet of the present age, the deity of the present age. The being known to the world as Sri Ramakrishna is the power animating these ideals in the present age for the welfare of mankind.
Beyond the bare rudiments of literacy, Sri Ramakrishna never had much formal education which he ridiculed as “bread-winning education.” Most of his youth was spent in the intense practice of various spiritual disciplines. Though for a short period he officiated at the Kali temple, he virtually lived the life of a monk depending on the charity of others. How can such a person be regarded as the ideal man for the modern age which idolizes film stars, sportsmen, scientists, politicians and, now for a change, miracle-working yogis? Open any newspaper or magazine, and you will find displayed on almost every page pictures of men and women in all kinds of dress and posture who, while they advertise the qualities of a brand of soap or cloth, also project idealized images of contemporary society. No other age ever allowed “lust and greed” (Kaminini-Kancana, as Sri Ramakrishna called it) to dominate the minds of its people so completely as the modern age has done. Everything in modern society is valued for the sake of money. Can Sri Ramakrishna who could not even touch money become the ideal for the people of such a society?
The answer is that an ideal stands for perfection, and this imperfect individuals cannot give. Western culture considers beauty, truth and goodness the criteria of perfection. However, physical beauty is only skin deep and is as evanescent as youth itself. Truth is sought through science, but every new discovery of science only points to another mystery beyond. The basis of goodness is unselfish love, but in the market-oriented culture of modern society unselfishness is the most scarce commodity. The lives of scientists, artists and leaders of society are far from perfect. As for the images you see in advertisements, they are false ideals meant to tantalize ignorant people.
Perfection must be sought in the right place. Thousands of years ago it was discovered in India that perfection could not be found in the external world which is impermanent and full of contradictions. Freedom from all limitations is the Vedantic criterion of perfection. Immutable Truth, unity of Existence, boundless Bliss—this is what is mean t by perfection in Vedanta. There is only one thing which is free from all limitations of time, space and causation: it is consciousness. It is in the depths of consciousness that perfection is to be sought.
The present state of consciousness of ordinary people is no doubt limited, but these limitations are only products of ignorance. Through spiritual practice ignorance can be removed and consciousness can be made to expand, “Consciousness is the Infinite”—Prajnanam Brahma—this was one of the great discoveries of fundamental importance made in India. By transforming and expanding his present consciousness man can attain freedom from all limitations of time, space and causation, freedom from the dualities of good and evil, joy and sorrow, love and hate. It is this total freedom that is the Vedantic criterion of perfection, and the individual who has attained this freedom is the ideal of perfection. Such a person is known as the jivanmukta, the liberated-in-life.
When we speak of Sri Ramakrishna as an ideal man, what we mean is that he was the embodiment of this ancient Vedantic ideal of perfection in him. The characteristics of the fully liberated individual have been described in considerable detail in Hindu scriptures especially in the Upanisads where he is known as brahmavid (knower of Brahman), in the Gita where he is called sthitaprajna (one endowed with steady wisdom), gunatita (one who has transcended the gunas) and so on, and in Vivekacudamani and other Advaitic treatises where he is known as jivanmukta. However, a study of these descriptions reveal the fact that their emphasis is usually on negative qualities like detachment, renunciation and remaining unaffected by heat and cold, pleasure and pain, praise and blame and other polarities. The world is looked upon as unreal, a product of maya or a place of sorrow, and a liberated individual is one who has transcended the world.
In modern society with its keen awareness of the miseries of life, greater social commitment, and greater interdependence of people, the ideal of a person remaining aloof, unaffected by the sorrows and problems of his fellowmen, cannot inspire universal acceptance. The ideal that Sri Ramakrishna lived and exemplified in his life was not exactly the jivanmukta ideal of the ancient type. It was an extension or expansion of the ancient ideal adapted to the needs of the modern age. He was conversant with the jivanmukta ideal but was also aware of its limitations. However, unlike some modern reformers and thinkers, he did not reject it or condemn it. What he did was to charge it with the power of his spiritual realizations, to give it a new meaning and purpose, and to raise it to a higher level so that it might fulfill the aspirations of the modern man. The ideal person according to Sri Ramakrishna is one who, after attaining liberation for himself, strives for the liberation of others. Such a fully illumined soul he called a vijnani. It is as a perfect vijnani that Sri Ramakrishna is said to be the ideal man for the modern age.
Sri Ramakrishna himself made clear the distinction between the two types of liberated individuals on several occasions:
There are two classes of paramahamsas, one affirming the formless Reality and the other affirming God with form. Trailinga Swami believed in the formless Reality. Paramahamsas like him care for their own good alone; they feel satisfied if they themselves attain the goal.
But those Paramahamsas who believe in God with form keep the love of God even after attaining the knowledge of Brahman, so that they may teach spiritual truths to others. They are like a pitcher brimful of water. Part of the water may be poured into another pitcher. These perfected souls describe to others the various spiritual disciplines by which they have realized God. They do this only to teach others and to help them in spiritual life. With great effort men dig a well for drinking-water, using spades and baskets for the purpose. After the digging is over, some throw the spades and other implements into the well, not needing them any more. But some put them away near the well, so that others may use them.
Some eat mangoes and remove all traces of them by wiping their mouths with a towel. But some share the fruit with others. There are sages who, even after attaining knowledge, work to help others and also to enjoy the bliss of God in the company of devotees.
The difference between the jivanmukta and the vijnani has its parallel in the Buddhist ideals of the arhat and the bodhisattva, though Buddhist nirvana and vedantic mukti belong to two levels of experience. An arhat is one who has attained nirvana for himself. A bodhisattva is one who turns away from nirvana (even though it is within his reach) and works for the welfare of others. Sri Ramakrishna was the first great modern teacher to introduce into Hinduism a Vedantic counterpart of the bodhisattva ideal, though it had been adumbrated by earlier teachers, notably by Sri Krishna. It was this ideal that Swami Vivekananda universalized and placed before mankind as the ideal of the modern age.
However, Sri Ramakrishna’s ideal of the vijnani differs from the jivanmukta and the bodhisattva in one important respect. The vijnani not merely works for the welfare of others, but has attained a greater degree of realization. In the vertical scale of experience, non-dualism may mark the highest level or degree; but in the horizontal scale of experience, there are other levels open to the illumined soul. Advaita may be the peak, but beyond the peak lie valleys of divine splendor. The Vijnani does not stop with the peak but moves forward to discover new realms of experience. Says Sri Ramakrishna:
The jnani gives up his identification with worldly things, discriminating, “Not this, not this.” Only then can he realize Brahman. It is like reaching the roof of a house by leaving the steps, one by one. But the vijnani, who is more intimately acquainted with Brahman, realizes something more. The vijnani realizes that the steps are made of the same materials as the roof: bricks, lime and brick-dust. That which is intuitively realized as Brahman, through the eliminating process of “Not this, not this”, is then found to have become the universe and all its living beings. The vijnani sees that the Reality Which is nirguna, without attributes, is also saguna, with attributes.
Jnana is based on analysis and negation: it divides reality into the real and the unreal, matter and spirit, knowledge and ignorance. Vijnana is based on syntheses and affirmation. It is a more complete form of experience, more integral. Says Sri Ramakrishna:
But vijnana means knowledge with a greater fullness. Some have heard of milk, some have seen milk, and some have drunk milk. He who has merely heard of it is “ignorant.” One who has seen it is a Jnani. But he who has drunk it has vijnana, that is to say, a full knowledge of it. After having the vision of God one talks to him as if He were an intimate relative. That is vijnana.