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. This reading concludes this four-part series.
In the past three readings, three aspects of the personality of Sri Ramakrishna have been mentioned—namely, the ideal person, the world teacher and the deity—and it was pointed out that his status as the ideal person of the present age lay in his being the embodiment of the vijnani and rishi ideals. Before proceeding further, it is necessary to state the view of his chief apostle Swami Vivekananda on this matter.
In spite of his customary reluctance to speak about his master, Swami Vivekananda has on several occasions emphatically expressed his conviction that Sri Ramakrishna is the ideal person of the present age. According to Swamiji, the greatest need of the present age is two-fold. One is the consolidation and synthesis of all the achievements of the past and the present, of the East and the West. The other is a universal person who has actually achieved this in his life and has demonstrated the infinite possibilities of the human soul. Such a person alone could be regarded as the ideal person of the present age.
Swamiji saw in Sri Ramakrishna the fulfillment of the widest possible harmony and all-embracing synthesis of human values and ideals, and the fullest manifestation of the divine glory of the human spirit. Therefore, Swamiji placed his master before the world as the ideal for the present age. “Such a unique personality”, he pointed out, “such a synthesis of the utmost of jnana, yoga, bhakti and karma, has never before appeared among mankind. . . . He is the true disciple and follower of Sri Ramakrishna, whose character is perfect and all-sided like this. The formation of such a perfect character is the ideal of this age, and everyone should strive for that alone.”
Let us now turn to the other two aspects of Sri Ramakrishna’s personality.
Swami Saradananda has described Sri Ramakrishna as “the Great Teacher among world teachers” (acaryanam mahacaryah). In order to understand Sri Ramakrishna’s role as a world teacher, it is necessary to examine how far he manifested the following common features found in the lives of all the great teachers of mankind.
The first message of Sri Ramakrishna to the modern world is the message of hope. Every age marks a critical period in history, and every age needs a messenger of hope to reassure the people. In the present age, humanity is facing a graver crisis than it did ever before. This is the age of doubt and profanity. At the mighty onslaught of science and secular knowledge, ancient images are tumbling down, old values are getting devalued and earlier beliefs are being discarded. What the modern world needs is an undeniable personal testimony of the fundamental verities of religion like God, immortality of the soul, humanity’s spiritual destiny, effectiveness of prayer, worship and service.
This Sri Ramakrishna has provided. Through his stupendous spiritual endeavors, experiments and experiences, he has re-established the ideal of God realization as the goal of human life. With the authority born of direct experience, he as has assured humanity that not only is God realization possible, and possible for all, but is the only lasting solution to the existential problems of life. To countless suffering people this assurance has shown a way out of sorrow, meaninglessness, anxiety and conflict. To those who are bewildered and confused by the benefits and limitations of science and secular philosophy, this assurance has given the inspiration to seek the ultimate reality by transcending the senses.
The second message of Sri Ramakrishna is the divinity of life. Whereas Western culture upholds the dignity of man, Vedanta upholds the divinity of man. This fundamental tenet of Vedanta which had for centuries remained obscure, being largely eclipsed by the maya doctrine, has been revived in modern times by Sri Ramakrishna. He saw nothing but divine consciousness everywhere animating every living being. He looked upon every person as a unique manifestation of the Divine. According to him the differences of strength, intelligence, beauty, talents etc. found among people are due to the differences in the manifestation of divine Power in them.
He saw human life as a splendid opportunity to realize the spiritual dimension of the soul. To him, every human being is a potential God. He saw God even in the fallen, in the wicked, in the poor and the miserable. He discouraged people from dwelling upon sin and other negative aspects of life. Even in maya, which traditional advaitins regard as the power of illusion, he saw two forces: avidya-maya or deluding power and vidya-maya or liberating power.
This message has come to humankind not a day too soon. This is the age of humanism. Humankind is being exalted to the level of the superman, and human needs are considered to be humanity’s ultimate concern. Humankind is the focus of all attention, endeavor and speculation. While modern socio-political ideas proclaim the glory of humanity, the marvels of science and technology confirm it. Everywhere people are awakening from the slumber of ignorance, emerging from the darkness of superstition, and are breaking the shackles of tyranny and oppression.
Nevertheless, humanism is a limited concept. It does not provide a satisfactory solution to the existential problems of life. It does not reveal the true nature of humanity or the meaning of life. Nor can it satisfy humanity’s higher spiritual urges or relate us meaningfully to the vaster reality. Furthermore, when humanism is followed for its own sake, it runs the risk of degenerating into body worship, pleasure seeking, materialism and slavery to the physical world. When pushed beyond a limit, humanism becomes self-defeating. To prevent this, it must be made a means and not an end—a means of attaining the full divine dimension of life.
This was what Swami Vivekananda attempted to do. He formulated a new humanism which stressed the potential divinity of the soul and spiritual oneness of life. He preached a divinized humanism which sublimated service into worship, human love into divine love and every activity a means of realizing the ultimate Reality. This gives human existence a higher significance and every action and thought a higher purpose, and makes life a joyful adventure. And Swamiji only gave a practical direction to the teaching he had received from his master Sri Ramakrishna.
We now come to the third and most well-known message of Sri Ramakrishna, the message of harmony. Though this is a widely talked about subject, there yet remains a great deal to be understood about it. For Sri Ramakrishna practiced different types of harmony at different levels of human existence. Broadly speaking, spiritual life has three modes or aspects: the ideal or the ultimate Reality which the aspirant wants to attain, the means or pathway to the goal, and finally the actual experience resulting from the realization of the ideal in life. In the school of Ramanuja these are known as tattva, hita and purusartha respectively. The precise nature of each of these modes has for centuries remained a matter of controversy among the various schools and sects of Hinduism. One of the great achievements of Sri Ramakrishna is the reconciliation of these contradictory views.
Regarding the first aspect known as tattva, the ultimate Ideal or Reality, Sri Ramakrishna achieved two types of harmony. One is the harmony between the ideal of the personal God and the ideal of the impersonal God. God as a Person is the object of love and devotion, whereas God as the impersonal Absolute is the goal of knowledge. This distinction has kept Vedanta split into the dualist and non-dualist schools. Most dualists do not recognize the Impersonal, while the non-dualist tries to include the personal aspect in the realm of maya. Sri Ramakrishna accepts both as equally real and true. According to him the Impersonal and the Personal are the static and dynamic aspects of one and the same ultimate Reality. He named these aspects nitya and lila, or Brahman and Kali, respectively. The Master elucidates his concept as follows:
“Thus Brahman and Sakti are identical. If you accept the one, you must accept the other. It is like fire and its power to burn. If you see the fire, you must recognize its power to burn also. You cannot think of fire without its power to burn, nor can you think of the power to burn without fire. . . What is milk like? Oh, you say, it is something white. You cannot think of the milk without the whiteness, and again, you cannot think of the whiteness without the milk. Thus one cannot think of Brahman without Sakti, or of Sakti without Brahman. One cannot think of the Absolute (nitya) without the Relative (lila), or of the Relative without the Absolute.”
The Primordial Power is ever at play. She is creating, preserving and destroying in play, as it were. This Power is called Kali. Kali is verily Brahman, and Brahman is verily Kali. It is one and the same Reality. When we think of It as inactive, that is to say, not engaged in the acts of creation, preservation and destruction, then we call It Brahman. But when It engages in these activities, then we call It Kali or Sakti.
It is interesting to note here that this concept of the Master is supported by two aphorisms in the Brahma Sutra, one of the three foundational scriptures of the Vedanta. These aphorisms are: “(The relationship between Brahman and jivas is) like that between the serpent and its coil, for both are taught”; and “Or it is like the relation between light and its source, since both are luminous.”
A related problem is whether God is with form or without form. There are many religious sects in India which vehemently condemn worship of anthropomorphic forms of God as idolatry, not to speak of Islam and Protestant Christianity. During Sri Ramakrishna’s time this was a vital issue agitating the minds of educated Hindus. Sri Ramakrishna has solved this problem from the level of actual experience. According to him, the experience of God with form or without form depends upon the basic structure of the aspirant’s mind and the way it is oriented to Reality. Within its specific parameters each experience has its own validity. Says Sri Ramakrishna:
“No one can say with finality that God is only ‘this’ and nothing else. He is formless, and again He has forms. For the bhakta He assumes forms. But He is formless for the jnani, that is, for him who looks on the world as a dream. . . Do you know what I mean? Think of Brahman, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute as a shoreless ocean. Through the cooling influence, as it were, of the Bhakta’s love, the water has frozen at places into blocks of ice. In other words, God now and then assumes various forms for His lovers and reveals Himself to them as a Person. But with the rising of the sun of knowledge, the blocks of ice melt. Then one doesn’t feel anymore that God is a Person, nor does one see God’s forms. What He is cannot be described.”
This takes us to the other type of harmony achieved by Sri Ramakrishna in the field of the ideal or goal which has a vaster scope, for it embraces all religions. Most world religions, especially Christianity and Islam, and many Hindu sects accept a personal (non-anthropomorphic or anthropomorphic) God. But they hold divergent views regarding His true nature, and this has led to interreligious conflicts and even wars. Sri Ramakrishna has tried to reconcile these differences from the point of view of linguistic analysis which is now becoming a powerful tool in the hands of modern philosophers. The God of Hindus is not different from the God of Christians or Muslims, but He appears to be different because the religious “language” (that is, the symbols, images and myths) employed in describing Him varies from religion to religion.
“The Reality is one and the same; the difference is in name and form. It is like water called in different languages by different names, such as jal, pani, and so forth. There are three or four ghats on a lake. The Hindus who drink water at one place call it jal. The Musalmans at another place call it pani. And the English at a third place call it “water”. All three denote one and the same thing, the difference being in the name only. In the same way, some address the Reality as Allah, some as God, some as Brahman, some as Kali, and others by such names as Rama, Jesus, Durga, Hari.”
This statement of the Master may appear to be very simple, but is it is pregnant with a deep significance for universal interreligious understanding and harmony. It is a pity that its theoretical and practical implications have not yet been fully worked out.
So much for harmony in the field of the ideal or goal of religion. Let us now turn to the second aspect of religion known as hita, the suitable means or path to the goal. Here again, Sri Ramakrishna has achieved an important reconciliation. However, the harmony of the means is different from the harmony of the goal. Whereas the goal of all spiritual paths is the one God, the paths themselves are diverse. But this does not mean that they are discordant.
All spiritual paths—jnana, bhakti, yoga and karma in Hinduism and the various paths in other religions—are valid means of realizing God. This the Master learned from his own actual experience. The choice of a path depends upon a person’s temperament, and everyone must have the freedom to choose his own path. Sri Ramakrishna never allowed any of his followers to criticize any religious path. He encouraged each of them to stick to his own path and guided him along that.
The third aspect of religion is purusartha, value-fulfillment resulting from the actual realization of the ideal. The highest value cherished by traditional Indian religions is moksa, liberation from all bondage and sorrow and the experience of unalloyed bliss. The nature of this experience is also a matter of controversy among the various sects and religions. The dualists hold that in this state the individual Self remains distinct from the supreme Self, while the non-dualists hold that they become one. An attempt is often made to overcome this controversy by making dualism, qualified monism and non-dualism three successive stages in the ascending scale of experience. This, however, is unacceptable to the dualists who do not recognize non-dualistic experience as the highest. Sri Ramakrishna has reconciled these views in a remarkable way which deserves further study and popularization.
According to him, non-dualistic realization marks the highest peak of spiritual experience but not its final end. After attaining the peak experience, when the illumined soul comes down to the relative plane, he sees all beings permeated with divine consciousness. This is of course a dualistic experience but it is not, for that reason, a lower experience. Thus Sri Ramakrishna has made dvaita, visistadvaita and advaita three modes of the highest spiritual experience. He has made dualists, qualified monists and non-dualists sit around the round table of spiritual experience assigning equal status to all. It is a mistake to categorize Sri Ramakrishna’s thought as dvaita, visistadvaita or advaita. So vast and all-embracing is his consciousness that it admits of no such divisions. All that we may say of it is that it is paripurna, all-filling, completely integral.
As regards the practical aspect of purusartha, the traditional Indian view is that the illumined soul simply lives unaffected by the joys and sorrows of life, waiting patiently for the death of his body. Such a person is called a jivanmukta, liberated-in-life. As we said earlier, this ideal does not satisfy the modern person’s social awareness and commitment. Here comes the importance of Sri Ramakrishna’s ideal of the vijnani, the person of integral realization who dedicates his or her life to the service of God in humanity. Through this ideal, the Master has harmonized the ancient jivanmukta ideal with the norms and needs of contemporary society. This is Sri Ramakrishna’s ideal of the perfect person.
If the first characteristic of a world teacher is that he has a universal message for all humanity, his second feature is that he starts a new sampradaya, religious tradition or path. Every great world teacher blazed his own distinct trail which, starting at first as a movement, soon became a new religion or sect. What is the uniqueness of Sri Ramakrishna is this regard? Answers Swami Vivekananda, “Other teachers have taught special religions which bear their names, but this great teacher of the nineteenth century made no claim for himself. He left every religion undisturbed because he had realized that in reality they are all part and parcel of the one eternal religion”.
Like all other great teachers Sri Ramakrishna too started a new religious tradition, but a tradition without traditional barriers and distinctions. To give his own illustration, when the paddy fields get flooded in the rainy season, roads, fields and canals all become one vast sheet of water and one can go anywhere in any direction by the village boat. Similar is the nature of the sampradaya or religious tradition started by Sri Ramakrishna. It is a universal and all-encompassing movement which includes all the earlier traditions. Swami Abhedananda has in a memorable hymn pointed out three unique features of the sampradaya of Sri Ramakrishna: 1. acceptance of the best elements of all religious traditions, 2. non-condemnation of any traditions, and 3. the pathless path, that is, a tradition free from all sectarian prejudices and limitations.
To spread and perpetuate his sampradaya for the welfare of mankind a world teacher builds up a guru-parampara, an unbroken line of teachers. He gathers around him a band of all-renouncing disciples who carry his message far and wide. They in their turn train more disciples, and thus through a succession of apostles the purity and vitality of the original teaching are maintained for centuries. This is true of Sri Ramakrishna also whose spiritual tradition and message are enshrined in the monastic order bearing his name.
The third feature of the word teacher is that his life and ideas produce far-reaching changes in society. We have only to look at the pages of history to understand the mighty social changes that came in the wake of the great prophets. The influence of Buddha penetrated deep into Hindu society, the message of Christ totally transformed Europe, while Mohammed created a new civilization in the Middle East. Sri Ramakrishna is too close to the modern age to make a historical measurement of his influence possible.
But no discerning person can fail to notice the direct or indirect influence of Sri Ramakrishna upon the spiritual awakening and religious liberalism that are now sweeping through Europe and America. In India itself it has produced two great changes. One is the spiritual renaissance of the nation and the other is the all-round integration and rejuvenation of Hinduism. Limitations of space prevent us from discussing the subject in greater detail here. We only mention Swami Vivekananda’s views on the influence of Sri Ramakrishna.
Swamiji saw immense possibilities in the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna. One of these is the creation of a universal religion. Swamiji saw that the message of Sri Ramakrishna, if properly interpreted, could not only bring about interreligious harmony and understanding, but also unite diverse religions and sects into one universal religion. Such a unified religion would exert a tremendous liberalizing and integrating effect on mankind, and would considerably enhance human development and spiritual evolution. Secondly, Swamiji saw that the personality of Sri Ramakrishna could serve as a prototype for the creation of a new society. “The life of Sri Ramakrishna proves that the greatest breadth, the highest catholicity and utmost intensity can exist side by side in the same individual, and that society also can be constructed like that, for society is nothing but an aggregate of individuals”, said Swamiji once.
Again, in a letter to his monastic brothers he wrote, “In other words, the old teachers were rather one-sided, while the teaching of this new incarnation or ieacher is that the best points of yoga, devotion, knowledge and work must be combined now so as to form a new society”. The building of such an integral society has already begun and is going on imperceptibly.