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.
What are the marks of a fully illumined soul? According to Sri Ramakrishna these are three: renunciation, knowledge, and compassion. The relevance of the vijnani ideal in the present-day world can by appreciated only when we understand how important these three values are to the modern man’s life.
From time out of mind, renunciation has remained the bedrock of Hindu spirituality. The Vedas declare, “The few people who attained immortality did it through renunciation alone, not through work nor through progeny nor through wealth.” Renunciation is the keynote of the teachings of Buddha and Christ. Even Muhammad enjoined upon his followers to lead a simple life and renounce a part of their wealth as charity (zakat). One might think that in the modern world with its technological marvels, amenities and comforts, renunciation is an outmoded concept. Actually, however, a number of eminent thinkers have shown that it is the only way to lead humanity away from insanity and self-destruction.
The meaning of renunciation in the modern context has to be properly understood. Renunciation does not mean reducing everyone to beggary. What it really means is a change from what Eric Fromm calls a “having mode of existence” to a “being mode of existence.” It means a return to the natural harmony and rhythm of life. The basic human drive is to acquire, to possess, to hoard. In modern times this instinct has been given so much unrestricted freedom that a human being’s body, mind and talents are looked upon only as marketable commodities. A person is valued not for what he or she is, but for what he or she has. But the more one identifies himself or herself with material goods, the farther one moves away from his or her soul. The more one seeks fulfillment in the external world, the less one’s soul’s aspirations get fulfilled. As a result, people find life empty and meaningless. Says Eric Fromm, “Modern man has everything: a car, a house, a job, ‘kids,’ a marriage, problems, troubles, satisfactions—and if all that is not enough he has his psychoanalyst.” He is nothing. As Lewis Mumford says, “We are changing from a society that owns things to a society that belongs to things.” In industrialized societies people work like machines without any freedom to express their soul’s aspirations through their work. Since their labor is not really theirs, work only alienates them from their true being. According to Karl Marx, the basic problem of modern man is this self-alienation.
The purpose of renunciation is to free humanity from their slavery to external objects, and to restore the full dignity of their souls and their intrinsic value as human beings. Many thoughtful people in the affluent countries of the West have now begun to realize that “unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being, nor is it the way to happiness or even to maximum pleasure.” Renunciation is thus a fundamental need of modern humanity. It is the only way to eradicate inequality, exploitation, poverty and injustice from society. Understood in this light, Sri Ramakrishna’s practice of renunciation assumes a new significance. As the Holy Mother used to say, renunciation alone was the Master’s splendor.
The second attribute of a vijnani is true knowledge. Renunciation is only the negative aspect of higher life; its positive aspect is Self-realization. The modern age is witnessing a tremendous explosion in knowledge. In no other age did empirical knowledge assume such vastness, power and importance as it does today. But paradoxically, science itself is now revealing the limitations of empirical knowledge. Many eminent scientists have come to the conclusion that the solution to the mystery of the universe and the solution to the existential problems of humanity lie in the depths of human consciousness. Vedanta regards the whole universe as a projection of consciousness. Since consciousness is inseparable from the true Self, it is through Self-realization that humanity can attain the highest knowledge, knowledge of the ultimate Reality known as Brahman or God. Further, Vedanta holds that true bliss is inseparable from the true Self, and only by realizing it can man attain ultimate fulfillment.
In the realm of Self-knowledge Sri Ramakrishna was a veritable emperor. He experienced the bliss of communion with the Supreme Self in different ways. After practicing the disciplines of Hinduism, he followed the paths of Islam and Christianity and reached the same ultimate goal through all of them. No other great soul ever acquired such a wide spectrum of higher knowledge. Sri Ramakrishna has thus become an ideal of true knowledge for men of diverse creeds and beliefs.
The third attribute of a vijnana is love and compassion for all people. The love and kindness that ordinary people show are usually prompted by selfish or instinctual motives of which they may not be aware. But the love of an illumined soul is utterly unselfish because he or she is free from worldly desires. All people do not have equal capacity to love. One of the most remarkable aspects of Sri Ramakrishna’s personality is his superhuman capacity to love. His love knew no barriers of caste, creed or social status. The recipients of his holy love included not only his pure-hearted young disciples, but also bohemians like Girish and Kalipada, the sweeper Rasik, the ruffian Manmatha, and actresses and fallen women.
Illumined souls show love for all people in a general way. What makes Sri Ramakrishna unique is the intensity of love he was capable of. So great was his love for Naren, Rakhal, Baburam and other disciples that he would weep for them when they were away. Has the world ever seen such concentration of unselfish love in one person? Swami Vivekananda used to say. “It was his unflinching trust and love for me that bound me to him for ever. He alone knew how to love another. Worldly people only make a show of love for selfish ends.”
Sri Ramakrishna’s kindness and compassion were as great as his love. Ordinary people may feel compassion for their friends who are suffering from some misfortune or disease, and may try to help them in some way, but very often find themselves helpless. The compassion of an illumined soul is of a higher order. He feels compassion for all those who are in the bondage of ignorance, which is the root cause of all sufferings, and tries to remove it. About Sri Ramakrishna’s compassion Swami Vivekananda writes, “So, now, the great conclusion is that Ramakrishna has no peer; nowhere else in this world exists such unprecedented perfection, such wonderful kindness for all that does not stop to justify itself, such intense sympathy for man in bondage.”
The love and compassion that Sri Ramakrishna showed were not mere sentiments but were expressions of his integral experience of the unity of all beings in the Supreme Self. He sublimated human love into divine love, and acts of kindness into worship of God. It was this doctrine that later on Swami Vivekananda developed into the comprehensive philosophy of karma yoga and preached as the new gospel of service to mankind.
We have found that renunciation, supreme knowledge and love—the three attributes of a vijnani—were manifested in Sri Ramakrishna not only in their fullest measure but also integrally. Of course these were not only qualities that he possessed. He was also the perfect embodiment of some of the normal human virtues which sweeten, enrich and ennoble ordinary social life.
One of these is truthfulness. Truth was a sacred trust with Sri Ramakrishna, and he followed it to its utmost limits. Even in very small matters he would not break the sanctity of truth. If by chance he said that he would go to a particular place, nothing could prevent him from going there even if he found there was no need to go. He could not look at the face of a disciple who once told a fib in jest. Truthfulness had so thoroughly soaked even his unconscious mind that it reacted to the smallest trace of untruthfulness which might have escaped the notice of his conscious mind. One day the devotee Shambhu Malick told the master that opium was good for stomach troubles and that he would give him a dose of it. But later on he forgot all about it. However, the manager of Shambhu’s estate gave the Master a packet of opium from the dispensary. With that the Master started walking towards the Kali temple. But he felt his head was reeling and he could not see the way. Then it struck him that Shambhu had asked him to take the medicine from him, but he had taken it from the manager instead. The Master at once went back to the dispensary and, finding that the manager too had gone, threw the packet of medicine through the window and said in a loud voice, “Hello, here is your opium.” His discomfort immediately left him, and he could see the road to the Kali temple clearly.
Another aspect of his personality was his childlike simplicity which charmed all those who came into contact with him. His simple life was lived before the gaze of men. He was utterly free from affectation and show of saintliness. Till the end of his life he remained a child of the Divine Mother in whom he had absolute trust. Whenever any difficulty or doubt confronted him, he would simply go to Mother Kali and speak to Her about it. His guilelessness and trust came from the complete absence of egoism and from his total attunement to the Infinite. This made his life a spontaneous expression of the harmony, goodness and bliss of divine life. The artificial, sophisticated life in present-day society keeps the human soul stunted, and prevents it from opening itself to the power and joy of natural life. Most of the mental problems of men and women are the result of inhibitions and repression imposed upon them by the hypocrisy and sham of social life. Through his utter simplicity Sri Ramakrishna teaches modern people how to recover the suppleness, vitality and spontaneity of human life and how to live in tune with the rhythms of cosmic existence.
Humility was another noble quality of his. He subdued the vanity and arrogance of people by his humility. Even when learned pundits had declared him to be an avatar and many people had started worshipping him, he continued to be his humble old self. He never forgot to show respect where it was due. He never hesitated to learn lessons from others or to acknowledge the source of his teaching or illustration. When he once heard a devotee saying “I know,” he scolded him and asked him not to say that again. However, his humility was not mere polite manners, and was the very antithesis of the false humility which looks upon oneself as a worthless sinner. His humility was the spontaneous expression of his realization of the immanence of God in all people and the differences in the degree of divine power manifested in different people.
Two more remarkable traits of Sri Ramakrishna’s personality must be mentioned here. One is the extraordinary range and depth of his mind, and the other is the astonishing emotional intensity he was capable of. Within its invisible walls his mind held the utmost limits of jnana and bhakti ever reached by anyone on earth. He scaled the highest peaks of Yoga, and thoroughly investigated the abysmal depths of the Tantras. Devotional scriptures speak of five attitudes towards God: the calm attitude (shanta), the attitude of a servant (dasya), the attitude of a friend (sakhya), the attitude of a mother (vatsalya) and the attitude of a bride (madhura). Most people attempt only one of these, but Sri Ramakrishna cultivated all the five moods to their perfection. The intensity with which he did this is unprecedented in the history of hagiology. These devotional moods passed through him like tidal waves. He could identify himself totally with each mood and work it up to the highest possible level, Indeed, never has the world seen such intensity of spiritual endeavor achieved at such a stupendously vast scale.
Had Sri Ramakrishna been nothing more than a perfect embodiment of these rare qualities, it would have been difficult to accept him as the ideal man of the age. Mere perfection in virtues is not enough to make a person a universal ideal. Two more qualifications are necessary for this.
One is that his life must have a universal dimension. It must serve as an example to people of diverse beliefs. Among the beliefs of mankind the strongest are religious beliefs. Every religion and sect has its own set of beliefs. These beliefs derive their authority from certain fundamental spiritual truths pertaining to God and the soul. The true spirit of Islam or Christianity or Vaisnavism can be understood only by directly realizing the spiritual truths each stands for. For this one must practice its spiritual disciplines. This was what Sri Ramakrishna did. A person who merely shows sympathy or tolerance towards a religion or sect will not be acceptable to its members as an ideal. Only a person who sincerely believes its truths and has gained a living experience of these will be acceptable to them. Since Sri Ramakrishna practiced the disciplines, and realized the truths, of different religions and sects, his life gains the status of a universal ideal.
The other qualification for an ideal man is that his way of life must be practicable for a large number of people. In all religions which recognize monasticism, the monk stands for the highest ideal and is accorded great veneration. In India the sannyasin is freed from all social obligations and conventions and usually leads a secluded life. Evidently, such an ideal is not practicable for all people. A holy man who sits alone in a cave or “wanders like a rhinoceros” may be a paragon of perfection, but his way of life cannot be followed by the vast majority of people especially in the market-oriented, industrialized modern societies which put a premium on work and social life. As a matter of fact, all over the world traditional forms of monasticism have undergone a sharp decline in popularity, and more and more people are seeking an alternative way of spiritual life.
Sri Ramakrishna was an ordained sannyasin and could have followed the traditional path of sannyasa, had he so wished. He could have easily avoided his early marriage. But he chose to honor the sanctity of wedlock without lowering the ideal of sannyasa thereby. In effect this meant a synthesis of the two ways of life, monastic and lay, which had for centuries been regarded as contradictory. Through this synthesis Sri Ramakrishna has set a new ideal for modern humanity, which eliminates the seclusion and rigidity of monasticism as well as the lust and greed and attachment which characterize the householder’s life. On the other hand, this ideal combines the purity, renunciation and discipline of monasticism with the flexibility and social commitment of the householder’s life.
This is not, however, a completely new ideal. It is partly a revival of the ancient Hindu ideal of the rishi. The illumined teachers we meet in the Vedas, Upanisads and the Puranas were rishis. Though sannyasa as the fourth stage of life might have been recognized even during the Vedic period, its institutionalization and rise to popularity took place after Buddha and Sankara. The present indications are that, though traditional monasticism may continue to flourish as the core of religion, as it should, the rishi ideal may become the dominant ideal of the present age. Swami Vivekananda said, “They had hundreds of rishis in ancient India. We will have millions—we are going to have, and the sooner every one of us believes in this, the better for India and the better for the world.”
Sri Ramakrishna did not merely revive the ancient way of life, but adapted it to suit the needs of modern men and women, and also changed its meaning and scope. The life he lived was not much different from the normal life of the common people of Bengal. He lived in a modestly furnished room, wore dhoti and shirt and slippers, had an oil massage before his bath, ate the simple meal cooked by his wife, and chewed pan. He did everything with meticulous care, took a keen interest in the people around him, and met the prominent leaders of society. He showed how to lead a perfectly pure and intensely spiritual life in the ordinary social environment of a city or town. He enlivened the ancient rishi ideal and adapted it to the conditions of modern society. Further, he widened its meaning and purpose by infusing into it the power of the vijnani ideal.
Thus far our discussion has centered on only one aspect of the Ramakrishna ideal—the human aspect. Owing to limitations of space, we have only briefly discussed a few of the remarkable aspects of the Master’s life which establish him as the ideal man of the present age. We now turn to the other two aspects of the ideal: the universal and the divine.