By Swami Tyagananda
This month’s reading was presented as a paper on January 19, 2012, at the seminar on “Sri Ramakrishna’s Ideas and Our Times” held in Belur Math. Swami Tyagananda is the head of the Ramakrishna-Vedanta Society of Boston. This paper will be posted in four parts.
The Bengali phrase achine gach refers to a tree that cannot be recognized or identified, a tree that is a puzzle. The more we try to figure out what tree it is, the more confused we get and the more perplexed we become. Hence it is “the tree without a name,” a mysterious tree which is seen and yet not really seen. Its existence is known but not much else. After all, what is generally recognized as “knowledge” is nothing but cataloging and assigning of names to events, things or persons and investigating their interrelationships. If someone or something cannot be named, we say that we cannot identify them. Assigning names or labels is helpful for identification, but that does not automatically imply that we have knowledge of the labeled entity. Achine gach is a tree that may be labeled—achine, literally “unrecognized,” is a label, after all—but not necessarily known for what it really is. Achine clearly is not its true name.
The phrase achine gach was originally used by Sri Ramakrishna himself. In the September 7, 1883, entry in the Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita (known in English as The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna), we find M (as Mahendra Nath Gupta is better known) telling Sri Ramakrishna that he couldn’t be compared to anyone else. Sri Ramakrishna smiles and asks him whether he had heard of achine gach. When M says he hadn’t, Sri Ramakrishna tells him that there is indeed such a tree and “nobody knows what it is.” To which M responds by saying, “Nobody knows you too. The more people understand you, the more will they be uplifted.” Sri Ramakrishna’s analogy of achine gach raises questions in M’s mind. He begins to wonder whether Sri Ramakrishna used the analogy to refer to an avatar, Incarnation of God. Was Sri Ramakrishna referring to the play of God as a human being (naralila)? Is Sri Ramakrishna an avatar?
We can continue to wonder today alongside M and ask similar questions. M was not obviously the first to raise such questions and he won’t be the last. Can we find the true name of the tree that is referred to as achine gach? Can we find Sri Ramakrishna’s true name? Can we know who Sri Ramakrishna really was? These questions are important and are the focus of reflection in this paper, in which I first examine the role of the mind in generating knowledge of the transcendent and in producing interpretations. I then briefly review how Sri Ramakrishna’s life has been interpreted in the last hundred years. Finally, I make an effort to locate the real Ramakrishna or to discover the true identity of achine gach in and through the mind and the interpretations it generates.
The questions regarding the real nature of Ramakrishna reflect the classic dilemma that viewing life through the Vedantic lens presents us: how can we express the inexpressible? How can we conceptualize what lies beyond concepts? How can we name the unnameable? And the simple answer is, we cannot. We cannot name the unnameable and we cannot express the inexpressible. All names are little more than labels. All expressions are at best only approximations. All concepts are only props to string ideas together and support an intellectual inquiry. While none of these—names, expressions, concepts—can be mistaken for true knowledge, it cannot be denied that all of them contribute toward the attainment of knowledge. By “true” knowledge I mean what is known as “direct knowledge” (aparoksha jnana), which is mystical experience unmediated through the mind and the senses.
Using names, expressions and concepts to denote the truth that transcends them all is clearly a mistake. An ancient Sanskrit verse, sometimes attributed to Vyasa, acknowledges this mistake and seeks divine forgiveness in these words:
In my meditations I have attributed forms to you who are formless. O Teacher of the world, by singing your glory I have denied the truth that you are inexpressible. Through my travels and pilgrimages I have ignored the truth that you are all-pervading. O Ruler of the universe, forgive these threefold mistakes of mine which violate your true nature.
No mistake is intrinsically useless, however. What is life, if not a series of awakenings or a continual cascade of opportunities to learn? Not many look at life in this way, of course, and not everyone learns from their mistakes. Which is why we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Which is why also history repeats itself both in collective life and in individual lives. A truly religious person is always learning. Not for nothing did Sri Ramakrishna say, “As long as I live, so long do I learn.”
Swami Vivekananda echoed this teaching of his Guru when he said, “Learning is religion.” If we are prepared to learn, then every mistake becomes a blessing. Every mistake makes us learn something new. If we must keep making mistakes—and at present it doesn’t look like we have any choice—let us make new mistakes instead of recycling old ones. Every new mistake is an opportunity to learn something new. Every mistake can thus be rewarding if we are eager to learn.
Some mistakes are rewarding by their very nature. Several scenarios are presented in the ninth chapter of the Vedanta text Panchadasi to show that there are really two kinds of mistakes. One scenario is of a luminous light in a dark wooded area which two persons mistake for a gem. The light that the first person sees emerges from a chink in the wall of a cottage, so when he rushes there to grab the gem, he finds no gem. The light that the second person sees is in fact reflected from a truly precious gem, so when he rushes toward it, he is delighted to find the gem. In these examples, both the persons made a mistake: they mistook the light for a gem. Neither of them had seen the gem. But the first mistake was a common mistake, an “unrewarding mistake” (visamvadi-bhrama) while the second one was a special kind of mistake, a “rewarding mistake” (samvadi-bhrama).
Ascribing names to the nameless, expressing what is essentially inexpressible, and using concepts to denote what is beyond all concepts are mistakes all right, but these are rewarding mistakes in spiritual life. The three mistakes described in the prayer quoted earlier—meditating on forms of one who is formless, singing glories of one who is beyond all description, and making pilgrimages to see one who is all-pervading—are also “rewarding mistakes.” We know from scriptures as also from the testimony of the enlightened ones of the past and present that these “mistakes” have been rewarded with faith, devotion, knowledge and, above all, the supreme consummation of life called spiritual freedom (moksha). No better rewards exist.
We cannot but make such “mistakes” in spiritual life. The mind and the senses are the only instruments we have to find answers to existential questions related to life and what lies beyond. But these instruments, being material, are totally inadequate, since the answers to life’s questions relate to the spirit, which transcends everything and is completely untouched by anything material. We learn from the Upanishads that the spirit is inexpressible and is beyond name and form and concepts. It is beyond the reach of the mind and the senses.
The mind then would seem to be the wrong instrument to help us know the spirit. Paradoxically, the Upanishads also inform us that the spirit can be attained only with the help of the mind. How do we reconcile these mutually contradictory statements? We find the answer in Shankaracharya’s commentary on the Katha Upanishad, where he points out that, although beyond the reach of an impure mind, the spirit can be known “by a pure mind.” That is what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said that “pure mind, pure intellect, and pure Atman are one and the same.”
The spirit, or Atman, never really remains hidden. It is in and through the spirit that we are aware of everything else. Most of us are usually so focused on “everything else” that it is easy to overlook the constant presence of the spirit. This is somewhat like the presence of light which is generally taken for granted and hence ignored, but without which life would be almost impossible.
When an effort is made to know the spirit, the view is hazy, colored, even deceptive, because the mind is impure. The mind acts as a glass-paned window through which the spirit can be seen but not touched. The transparency of the glass depends on the purity of the mind. What makes the mind “impure” is the presence of desires for the material world. It makes the mind curved and less transparent.
The result is that whatever the mind sees is not only not clear but also distorted. The mind acts as a colored lens and that changes the view of what gets in and what goes out through the mind. Since every mind is different, meaning each mind has its own individual color and curve, the perception and interpretation vary with every mind.
What the eyes see may be the same but how the different minds interpret what is seen is open to endless possibilities. That is the cause of the diversity and the differences we encounter all around us. That is how the world is viewed through different paradigms in different wisdom traditions.