Sri Ramakrishna: Patron Saint of the Bengali Stage

By Swami Chetanananda

Swami Chetanananda is the Minister-in-Charge of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis. He has written, edited, and translated many important books on Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and Vedanta. This article was first published in the April, 2008 issue of Prabuddha Bharata.

Girishchandra Ghosh, the noted Bengali playwright and prominent disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, brought his master to see many of his plays. And by doing so, Girish made him the patron saint of the Bengali stage. Through his plays, Girish carried Ramakrishna’s message to the red-light districts of Calcutta. Christopher Isherwood notes: ‘In those days, actresses in the Bengali theatre were regarded as no better than prostitutes—a prejudice which also persisted in England until at least the beginning of the nineteenth century.’ About Girish’s discipleship to Ramakrishna, he observes: ‘One curious result of their association is that, today, Ramakrishna’s picture is to be found hanging backstage in nearly every theatre in Calcutta. The actors bow to it before they make their entrances. By giving his approval to Girish’s art and encouraging him to continue practising it, Ramakrishna became, as it were, the patron saint of the drama in Bengal’.

Nowadays it is no disgrace to go to the theatre, opera, or cinema. On the contrary, one is considered to be uncultured, uneducated, and unsophisticated if one does not attend such cultural events. But in Ramakrishna’s time, conservative Hindu society in Bengal, the progressive Brahmo Samaj, and other groups abhorred the stage because they considered the performers to be immoral drunkards, debauchees, and prostitutes. Theatres were therefore considered to be sinful places. Under these circumstances, it was shocking when Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who was regarded as an illumined soul and even as an avatara, went to see Girish’s Chaitanya Lila on 24 September 1884 at the Star Theatre in Calcutta. Some conservative and prudish Bengalis considered Ramakrishna’s action, and his subsequent visits to the theatre, to be unpardonable.

The first repercussions came from the Brahmos. Hemendranath Dasgupta wrote: ‘Many people of the Brahmo Samaj stopped visiting Ramakrishna. After Keshab Sen passed away on 8 January 1884, Vijaykrishna Goswami became devoted to the Master. Shivanath Shastri, however, stopped coming to him. Some people asked Shivanath: “Previously you were devoted to the Master. Why do you not visit him anymore?” Shivanath replied: “How can I go to see him? He is now connected with the immoral people of the theatre. I can’t go to Dakshineswar anymore.”’

One day Ramakrishna discussed Girish with Ashwini Datta, a devout Hindu philanthropist.
‘Do you know Girish Ghosh?’
Ramakrishna asked. ‘Which Girish Ghosh? The one who is in the theatre?’
‘I have never seen him. But I know him by reputation.’
‘A good man.’
‘They say he drinks.’
‘Let him! Let him! How long will he continue that?’

Ramchandra Datta, a Vaishnava and a staunch devotee of Ramakrishna, did not approve of the Master’s visits to the theatre either. Girish wrote: ‘Wherever the Master went, Ramchandra invariably accompanied him. But when the Master came to the theatre, Ram did not come—but he did have food sent to him [Ramakrishna]. Ram considered the theatre to be a sinful place.

M recorded in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna:

Sri Ramakrishna was planning to go to a performance of the Chaitanyal?l? at the Star Theatre. Mahendra Mukherji was to take him to Calcutta in his carriage. They were talking about choosing good seats. Some suggested that one could see the performance well from the one-rupee gallery. Ram said, ‘Oh, no! I shall engage a box for him.’ The Master laughed. Some of the devotees said that public women took part in the play. They took the parts of Nim?i, Nit?i, and others.

Master (to the devotees): ‘I shall look upon them as the Blissful Mother Herself. What if one of them acts the part of Chaitanya? An imitation custard-apple reminds one of the real fruit.’

Modern readers may not be bothered by the idea of Ramakrishna’s visiting theatres, mixing with drunken actors, and addressing immoral actresses as ‘Blissful Mother’. But for many years he and his disciples had to face opposition and criticism from prominent citizens and from society in general. People spoke out against the Master even after he passed away in 1886.

For example, in August 1896, Max Muller wrote an article on Ramakrishna entitled ‘A Real Mahatman’. A relative of Keshab Chandra Sen, the famous Brahmo leader, became very jealous. When Max Muller planned to write a biography of Ramakrishna, this man wrote to him in an attempt to change his views. I could not locate the contents of that letter, but Max Muller commented on it in Ramakrishna: His Life and Sayings:

A relative of Keshub Chunder Sen, however, who evidently completely misapprehended what was implied by the influence which I said that Ramakrishna had exercised on Keshub Chunder Sen, [Pratap] Mozoomdar, and others as his disciples, is very anxious to establish the priority of Keshub Chunder Sen, as if there could be priority in philosophical or religious truth. ‘It was Keshub Chunder,’ he tells us, ‘who brought Ramakrishna out of obscurity.’ That may be so, but how often have disciples been instrumental in bringing out their master? He then continues to bring charges against Ramakrishna, which may be true or not, but have nothing to do with the true relation between Keshub and Ramakrishna.

If, as we are told, he did not show sufficient moral abhorrence of prostitutes, he does not stand quite alone in this among the founders of religion. If he did not ‘honour the principle of teetotalism according to Western notions,’ no one, as far as I know, has ever accused him of any excess in drinking. Such bickerings and cavillings would have been most distasteful both to Keshub Chunder Sen and to Ramakrishna. Both had no words but words of praise and love for each other, and it was a great pity that their mutual relation should have been treated in a jealous spirit, and thereby totally misrepresented.

The Brahmos charged that Ramakrishna ‘did not show sufficient moral abhorrence of prostitutes’. In his review of the book, Swami Vivekananda wrote:

Again another charge put forward is that ‘he did not show sufficient moral abhorrence of prostitutes’. To this the Professor’s rejoinder is very very sweet indeed; he says that in this charge Ramakrishna ‘does not stand quite alone among the founders of religion’! Ah! How sweet are these words—they remind one of the prostitute Ambapali, the object of Lord Buddha’s divine grace, and of the Samaritan woman who won the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Yet again, another charge is that he did not hate those who were intemperate in their habits. Heaven save the mark! One must not tread even on the shadow of a man, because he took a sip or two of drink—is not that the meaning? A formidable accusation indeed! Why did not the Mahapurusha kick away and drive off in disgust the drunkards, the prostitutes, the thieves, and all the sinners of the world! And why did he not, with eyes closed, talk in a set drawl after the never-tobe- varied tone of the Indian flute-player, or talk in conventional language concealing his thoughts!

With their redeeming power, avataras transform people’s characters and make sinners into saints. One morning Jesus went to the temple. People gathered around him. While he was teaching them, a group that included teachers of Jewish law and Pharisees brought in a woman who had been caught committing adultery. They said to Jesus:‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In our Law, Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death. Now, what do you say?’ They said this to trap Jesus. Jesus kept quiet at first, but when they repeated the question, he replied, ‘Whichever one of you who has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.’ When they heard this, they all left, one by one. Only Jesus remained with the woman. He then asked her: ‘Where are they? Is there no one left to condemn you?’

‘No one, sir,’ she answered. ‘Well, then,’ Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.’

‘Hatred cannot be conquered by hatred; it can be conquered only by love,’ said Buddha. Towards the end of his life, Buddha travelled to Kushinagara from Rajagriha and took shelter in the mango grove of the courtesan Ambapali. When she heard of this, she went to visit the Blessed One. As a prudent woman goes forth to perform her religious duties, so she appeared in a simple dress without any ornaments, yet was beautiful to look upon.

Buddha thought to himself: ‘This woman moves in worldly circles and is a favourite of kings and princes; yet is her heart calm and composed. Young in years, rich, surrounded by pleasures, she is thoughtful and steadfast. This, indeed, is rare in the world. … She, although living in luxury, has acquired the wisdom of a master, taking delight in piety and able to receive the truth in its completeness.’

As Buddha presented his teachings, Ambapali’s face brightened with delight. She then arose and humbly asked: ‘Will the Blessed One do me the honour of taking his meal, together with the brethren, at my house tomorrow?’ The Blessed One silently gave his consent.

Later, the wealthy people of the area came and invited Buddha to eat with them the next day. Buddha declined, explaining, ‘I have already promised to dine tomorrow with Ambapali, the courtesan.’ They departed, saying, ‘A worldly woman has outdone us; we have been left behind by a frivolous girl.’

The next morning Buddha and his disciples went to Ambapali’s house. After they had eaten, Ambapali sat at Buddha’s feet and offered her mansion and mango grove to his order, which he accepted. Her whole life was transformed and she became a follower of the Blessed One.

There is a saying: ‘A church is not a museum for saints. It is a hospital for sinners.’ It is amazing how love, compassion, and forgiveness are misunderstood by so-called civilized people. When Ramakrishna was criticized for his visits to the theatre, his compassion for the actors and actresses, and his appreciation for their art, his devotees and disciples came forward to defend their guru.

In the beginning, Ramchandra Datta did not approve of the Master’s patronage of the theatre. Later, however, he realized that every one of the Master’s actions had deep meaning and significance, and that he had used his redeeming power to save those wayward souls of the stage. In the 1890s Ram began to lecture now and then at the Star, City, and Minerva theatres on Ramakrishna and his teachings. Ram published an article entitled ‘Society and Morality—Acting’ in the first issue of his magazine, Tattwamanjari. The writer of the article supported the theatre as a wonderful medium for carrying education to the masses. He wrote: ‘People are being improved by watching dramas in which the actors and actresses unveil the mystery of spiritual truths. Those who have seen Girish Chandra Ghosh’s Chaitanya Lila, Prabhas Yajna, and Buddhadev Charit at the Star Theatre are truly uplifted and inspired.’

The writer defended employing courtesans by pointing out two facts: first, using male actors in female roles was not natural; second, at that time, most women in mainstream society were not willing or able to perform onstage. Therefore, society should not despise actresses, but rather appreciate their talents and their efforts to lead an honest life. For many of the women, the rigid rules of society had forced them to become courtesans; in addition, many of them were murdered every year. Regardless, many actresses were not prostitutes as such, but were poor women who became mistresses of wealthy men—which was their only means of bettering their condition.

In response to the concern that the characters of young people would be damaged by watching these women act onstage, the writer concluded that youth who have wayward tendencies do not listen to the advice of their parents and school teachers. He stated: ‘Of course, it is true that evil company encourages evil tendencies. It is better for society if those who have wicked tendencies go to houses of ill fame rather than spread immorality among their own relatives or neighbours.’

The actress controversy continued for a long time. Swami Vivekananda had been an uncompromising puritan before he met Ramakrishna. On 6 July 1896 he wrote to Francis Leggett about his transformation: ‘At twenty years of age I was the most unsympathetic, uncompromising fanatic; I would not walk on the footpath on the theatre side of the streets in Calcutta. At thirty-three, I can live in the same house with prostitutes and never would think of saying a word of reproach to them. Is it degenerate? Or is it that I am broadening out into the Universal Love which is the Lord Himself ?’

Vivekananda wrote to Swami Ramakrishnananda from Switzerland on 23 August 1896:

Today I received a letter from Ramdayal Babu, in which he writes that many public women attend the Ramakrishna anniversary festival at Dakshineswar, which makes many less inclined to go there. Moreover, in his opinion, one day should be appointed for men and another for women. My decision on the point is this:

1. If public women are not allowed to go to such a great place of pilgrimage as Dakshineswar, where else shall they go to? It is for the sinful that the Lord manifests Himself specially, not so much for the virtuous.

2. Let distinctions of sex, caste, wealth, learning, and the whole host of them, which are so many gateways to hell, be confined to the world alone. If such distinctions persist in holy places of pilgrimage, where then lies the difference between them and hell itself ?

3. Ours is a gigantic City of Jagannatha, where those who have sinned and those who have not, the saintly and the vicious, men and women and children irrespective of age, all have equal right. That for one day at least in the year thousands of men and women get rid of the sense of sin and ideas of distinction and sing and hear the name of the Lord, is in itself a supreme good.

4. If even in a place of pilgrimage people’s tendency to evil be not curbed for one day, the fault lies with you, not them. Create such a huge tidal wave of spirituality that whatever people come near will be swept away.

5. Those who, even in a chapel, would think this is a public woman, that man is of a low caste, a third is poor, and yet another belongs to the masses—the less be the number of such people (that is, whom you call gentlemen) the better. Will they who look to the caste, sex, or profession of Bhaktas appreciate our Lord? I pray to the Lord that hundreds of public women may come and bow their heads at His feet; it does not matter if not one gentleman comes. Come public women, come drunkards, come thieves and all—His Gate is open to all. ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.’ Never let such cruel, demoniacal ideas have a place in your mind.

Intolerance, however, was not confined to Bengali society; many Westerners also believed the theatre to be sinful. During Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Paris in 1900, he wanted to hear the famous opera singer Emma Calvé sing Carmen; he had known Madame Calvé in America, where she had attended many of his lectures. His Irish disciple Sister Nivedita vehemently objected, as Lizelle Reymond tells it in The Dedicated:

‘I should like to see you in your favourite role,’ he [Swamiji] said to her. ‘What is it?’

Calvé blushed as she answered, ‘It’s Carmen. Swamiji, you must pardon me, but every evening, in spite of myself, I become that woman when I sing and dance and play my castanets.’

‘I shall come and hear you,’ said the Swami.

At this point Nivedita broke into the conversation. ‘But that’s impossible,’ she said. ‘Swamiji, you can’t go to the Opèra Comique; you will be severely criticized.’

The Swami looked at her in astonishment. His only reply was a tender smile. And, two evenings later, accompanied by Mr. Leggett, he not only went to hear the opera but was taken to the star’s dressing-room during the intermission. Calvé received him with some embarrassment. ‘I wanted to see your Carmen, Emma,’ he said. ‘Don’t think she’s a bad woman. She is just true. She does not lie. … And in her violence she expresses her soul. She is of that superb race of women who say to the Divine Mother, after they have prayed to Her, “Don’t listen to my prayers, O Mother of God, for I want to die of my desire.” ’

Pravasi and other puritanical magazines in Calcutta continued to criticize the practice of allowing courtesans to perform onstage, but Rangalaya, Rangamancha, Rangadarshan, Majlish, and other publications supported the custom. The editor of Rangadarshan pointed out to Pravasi (a very popular and powerful magazine) that the actresses raised money to support various philanthropic activities benefiting society. For example, in the August 1901 issue, the editor of Rangalaya announced: ‘There will be a Ramakrishna Festival in Kankurgachhi Yogodyana for five days. To support this function, there will be a play in the Classic Theatre on Sunday evening. The owner will donate all the proceeds to that cause.’

A letter was published in the August 1911 issue of Rangamancha that read in part: ‘The Minerva Theatre gave two benefit performances— one for Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama, Varanasi, and the other for the poor and sick famous poet Rajanikanta Sen. The superstar Tinkari and other actors and actresses did not receive any money for their performances’. Miss Josephine MacLeod wrote in a letter on 19 February 1923: ‘Going in the evening to a benefit performance at the Star Theatre, for Ramakrishna Mission of Bhubaneswar, near Puri. The great Indian actress Tara coming out of retirement for it’ (ibid.).

It is amazing to see the extent of Ramakrishna’s influence in the Calcutta theatre world—he influenced not only Girish but also his actors and actresses. Binodini, who performed in the title role in Chaitanya Lila as well as in many other of Girish’s plays, wrote in her autobiography: ‘I don’t care if the whole world looks down upon me, because I know that the pure and venerable Ramakrishna Paramahamsa blessed me. His hopeful and nectar- like message “Hari guru, guru Hari”—Hari is the guru and the guru is Hari—still reassures me. When I am oppressed by unbearable pain and agony, his forgiving and gracious form appears in my heart and I hear his voice: “Say—Hari guru, guru Hari.” I don’t remember how many times he came to the theatre after Chaitanya Lila, but I saw his joyful face many times when he was seated in a box seat of the theatre.’

The actor Amritalal Basu wrote: ‘When the humble actress [Binodini] acted in the role of Chaitanya, the incarnation of God of Nadia, on the stage, Sri Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar, another incarnation of God, watched that play and made the wretched stage like Vaikuntha [heaven]. We were blessed! The audience was blessed and so was the Mother Earth! The stage of the theatre became a holy place when Sri Ramakrishna watched through his divine eyes the Chaitanya Lila, which was enacted on it. To watch Chaitanya Lila is no longer considered to be enjoying an amusement, or being educated, or hearing kirtan; it is now considered to be witnessing a divine lila!’

The actor Aparesh Mukhopadhyay wrote: ‘When the theatre was first started, most people believed that those who act on stage are pariahs, or outcastes. Girish once wrote in a drama, ‘Who pays respect to a fallen courtesan?’ But there was someone who paid respect, and he was none other than a monk who had completely renounced lust and gold! He put his palm on the head of a fallen actress and blessed her, saying, “May you be illumined” ’.

Amar Datta, the editor of Natya Mandir, used Ramakrishna’s picture on the cover of one of the magazine’s issues. Within, he commented:

We have printed the picture of Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna on the cover page of the current issue of Natya Mandir. Someone may ask why I have used the picture of the avatara Ramakrishna in a magazine that is full of pictures of actors and actresses. Here is my answer: According to the Natya Mandir this whole world is a theatre. All human beings act as actors and actresses on its stage every day. When the fallen ones forget to act in their proper roles according to the will of the Creator, the universal Director descends on the world stage.

Thus a masterly Director was once born in a remote place of Bengal. He lived in the holy temple compound of Dakshineswar near Calcutta and attracted the learned and the illiterate, the rich and the poor. He imprinted in the hearts of seekers: This world is apparent and not absolutely real, and the goal of human life is to realize God. No one was deprived of his teaching—be that person a sadhu or a yogi, a sinner or a fallen woman. Incognito, he appeared as a poor and humble human being and mixed with all equally, out of pure love and compassion.

The holy feet of this divine being—the saviour of the fallen—touched the national theatre of Bengal. Ordinary people despised the theatre, considering it to be an abode of immoral men and women, but heaven and hell were equal in the eyes of that great deliverer of sinners. So Ramakrishna—the teacher of humankind, the man-god, the compassionate one—came to the theatre. The touch of his holy feet sanctified the stage by wiping out all impurities, enhanced its dignity and beauty, and made it an attractive and wonderful place.

At that time, the magazines and papers connected with the Bengali stage gave tremendous importance to Ramakrishna’s visits to the theatre. Until Ramakrishna sanctified the theatre with his presence, most Bengalis considered houses of ill repute and theatres to be more or less the same. Ramakrishna’s patronage lifted the taboo. Going to see plays became socially acceptable.

The great reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar fought all his life for women’s liberation, but he dissociated himself from the theatre because he disapproved of women performing onstage. Ramakrishna, however, approved of it. Basanta Kumar Ghosh wrote an article entitled ‘Bengali Women and the Theatre’ in Natya Mandir: ‘Being impressed with their artistic skill and performances, Bhagavan Ramakrishna blessed the courtesan actresses. It was a great achievement of an actress [Binodini], who brought a great soul to the theatre and sanctified it.’

Those days are gone. Nowadays, upper-class men and women do not hesitate to become actors and actresses, and their family members are proud of them.

In the Hindu tradition, Shiva is sometimes known as Nataraja, the king of actors. Actors and actresses worship Nataraja by their performances, so their profession cannot be considered sinful. If Binodini had appealed to the prominent members of Calcutta society thus—‘I was born poor, in a red-light district. My mother was a courtesan, so I followed in her footsteps. I know that society hates our profession. God has endowed me with a talent for acting. Is it wrong if I want to change my profession and become an actress? Is it sinful to act in the role of Chaitanya and bring the audience to a spiritual realm?’—we don’t know what they would have answered. We leave Binodini’s question to the reader to answer. In this world there are thousands of Binodinis who are used and abused, neglected and persecuted, ill-treated and hated, and who are waiting for the right answer.

Girish remarked: ‘Chaitanya Lila was my all in all. I received the grace of my guru through that play’. Through that play the Bengali stage acquired its patron saint. Undoubtedly it was Girish who made Ramakrishna the presiding deity of the Bengali theatre. At that time, Girish was carried away by a great current of devotion. People in the theatre were overwhelmed by his gigantic personality and followed him spontaneously.

Girish wholeheartedly believed that on the pretext of seeing a play, the avatara Ramakrishna had come to the theatre to deliver his message to actors and actresses. As manager and director of the theatre, Girish would personally introduce to the Master those performers who had some devotion for him.

When a famous person comes to see a play, it is natural for the cast members to become inspired and act more enthusiastically than they normally would. But the actor’s in Girish’s plays were even more thrilled when Ramakrishna attended a performance. Previously they had been treated as untouchables, but Ramakrishna gave their morale a tremendous boost and helped them achieve recognition and respect in society. The performers would talk about Ramakrishna while dressing and putting on their make-up in the green room. After the play, they would assemble in Girish’s room. One night, at a gathering at the Kohinoor Theatre, the actress Tarasundari said: ‘With the type of life we have led, there is no deliverance for us.’

Girish: ‘Don’t say that, Tara. Don’t you remember your aunt Bini [Binodini]? The Master was moved by her acting in the role of Chaitanya and blessed her, saying, “Mother, may you attain illumination.” ’

Abinash: ‘Binodini is now a devotee and worships Gopala.’

Amritalal Basu also had a role in Chaitanya Lila, but he avoided Ramakrishna because he thought himself a sinner. Later Girish took him to the Master and changed his whole life, as is described in his memoirs.

After Ramakrishna’s passing away, Girish became the Master’s representative to the people of the theatre, as well as their guide. One day Ramchandra Datta and Manomohan Mitra, staunch devotees of the Master, went to visit Girish at his home. While smoking a hubble-bubble, Girish said: ‘Brother Ram, the Master has possessed me. He is bringing all sorts of people to me. This wayward Raju, a nephew of Akshay Sen, is pestering me to take him to the Holy Mother and to the monastery.’

Ram: ‘You are ordained to do that. But what good will it do if you take him? Don’t you see his character?’
Girish: ‘Yes, you are right. The Master left me all the odd and wicked ones, the drunkards and prostitutes.’
Manomohan: ‘That is the reason the Master attracted you. If you can captivate and change the most nefarious sinner, then others will be captivated easily.’
Girish: ‘Even the courtesans are flocking to me. Before they appear onstage, they bow down to the Master’s picture and then take the dust of my feet. If I do not allow them to touch my feet, they get offended and cannot act wholeheartedly. I am now in trouble!’.

The tradition of bowing down to Ramakrishna before going onstage still continues in Calcutta. The Master’s picture is decorated with a garland every night before a performance, and someone waves lights and incense. It is astonishing that even now there are pictures of Ramakrishna in Calcutta theatres, in the green room, in the parlour, and in some actors’ private dressing rooms. Even the technical workers of the theatre do not start their work before saluting Ramakrishna. Girish, a man who once called himself an atheist, is responsible for introducing this tradition.

The following story illustrates how deeply Ramakrishna’s teachings permeated the red-light districts of Calcutta: A courtesan died in a nursing home a few years ago. Some young people went to a monk of the Ramakrishna Order in Calcutta and informed him that they needed 26,000 rupees to cremate that woman. The swami learned from them who she was and found information about her will and the executor of her estate. He then talked to the executor, a prominent political leader in that area, and was informed that the woman had left everything to a hospital of the Ramakrishna Mission.

The swami gave the money to those young people for her cremation and later went to her home with the police. From her house he recovered half a million rupees in cash, half a million rupees worth of jewellery, and a certificate of deposit worth one million rupees. The swami also found in her home some books about Ramakrishna as well as his picture. That unknown courtesan must have been a great soul! She left everything she had to Ramakrishna. Although her profession kept her body in the world, her devotion connected her mind with Ramakrishna— the man-God—the Saviour of the soul.

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Sri Ramakrishna: Patron Saint of the Bengali Stage