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.
In Vedanta itself it is possible to view the world in at least five distinct ways: as a cosmic sacrifice (yajna), as a cosmic play (lila), as cosmic union (yoga), as a cosmic person (virat), and as a cosmic mystery (maya). There is also immense diversity in how one’s own self is understood and, of course, how the Being that lies beyond the world and the self—often expressed in English through the overused but handy word “God”—is understood.
Since everything is filtered through the same mind, the views in each instance are interrelated. If God is viewed as the father or the mother, then we become God’s children and the world becomes a cosmic home; if God is the master, we become God’s servants and the world becomes God’s kingdom or empire; if God is the Supreme Self (paramatma) beyond name and form, then we become individualized selves (jivatma) with apparent names and forms, and the world becomes a projection (sristi), and so on.
The God that the mind conceives would remains too abstract and considerably out of reach unless we are able to represent God in something concrete, even if it is a symbol, or as someone we can relate to. Can God be engaged through feelings and somehow, at some level, grasped by the senses? The ethereal beauty of the colors splashed across the horizon at sunset and the innocent, pure smile of a baby, for instance, have filled people’s hearts with awareness of something that lies beyond the boringness of this world. Getting to know people who are Godlike also makes God more than merely an uplifting idea. Such enlightened beings, who are said to be filled with God-consciousness, make God both real and accessible. The human tendency to grade, to distinguish and to categorize everything assigns different labels to these Godlike beings. So we have a plethora of terms such as saviors, prophets, saints, incarnations. When we try to understand these Godlike beings through the filters of our minds, we unconsciously project our own phobias, fears, desires, hopes on their personalities. Look, for instance, to how Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, Chaitanya, Ramakrishna, and others have been understood and portrayed.
Since we know little beyond bare historical facts of most of these personalities, how they are viewed is largely determined by how our minds understand them. It is the mind that transforms raw information into meaningful knowledge. Interpretation is a process of making meaning. Every one of us is an interpreter. We try to make sense of every bit of information that we take in. The mind is a processing unit. The quality of the interpretation depends on the quality of the mind. Those with clear and mature minds are able to produce clear and mature interpretations. It is helpful to remember that in every interpretation, the personality being studied is named by the interpreter, viewed through the mental lens of the interpreter, and expressed in the language of the interpreter. The interpretation and the interpreter are distinct and yet inseparable. Every interpretation includes the shadow of a self-portrait and the ever-present possibility of the person whose life is being interpreted being overshadowed or even eclipsed by the interpreter.
How do the interpretations of these Godlike people help us? In at least three ways. First, these interpretations tell us a lot about the interpreters themselves and their concerns. Second, the interpretations may help us connect the Godlike person to our contemporary concerns and issues, thus revealing that the person has relevance beyond his or her time and social situation. Three, these interpretations may lead us to the real person hidden under the layers of ideas, thoughts and concepts that every interpretation abounds in.
With this is mind, let us take a look at some of the prominent interpreters of Sri Ramakrishna in the last hundred years. The starting point for this exercise is the sources, which provide the raw material for interpretation. The primary sources for Ramakrishna are many, but three among them are major: M’s Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita, Swami Saradananda’s Sri Sri Ramakrishna Lilaprasanga, and Ramchandra Datta’s Sri Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa Deber Jibanabrttanta. The Kathamrita (Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna) is a record of Sri Ramakrishna’s conversations, and the other two, the Lilaprasanga (whose English translation is Sri Ramakrishna: The Great Master) and the Jibanabrittanta, are biographies.
These three books are not stenographic, sterile records of the events in Ramakrishna’s life and his words. These books pulsate with life, passion and inspiration, since they are written by those who knew Ramakrishna personally, moved with him, talked with him and were blessed by him. Even as M, Saradananda and Datta write about Sri Ramakrishna’s life and words, they are simultaneously interpreting him for us. Their books seek not only to provide information but also to educate and teach the reader. Through their books they share with us their understanding of Ramakrishna, which places them among the first and earliest of his interpreters.
Swami Saradananda’s Lilaprasanga, which has remained to this day the most authentic and reliable research work on Ramakrishna’s life, is not a conventional biography. Based on his own contact with Ramakrishna and viewing Ramakrishna’s life against the backdrop of India’s philosophical and cultural landscape, Saradananda places Ramakrishna in the realm of eternal lila, the divine play of the avatar. He focuses his attention primarily on locating a unifying principle that would integrate both Ramakrishna’s teachings as well as all the known events of his life. Saradananda finds that unifying principle in the concept of bhavamukha, “the threshold of consciousness,” which is his original contribution to the analysis and understanding of Ramakrishna’s life.
Although the Kathamrita is primarily a record of Ramakrishna’s conversations and M took special care to keep himself as much out of the picture as possible, his interpretation of Ramakrishna’s life and teachings is included in the book through several of M’s reflections expressed in poetic Bengali suffused with devotion. Many of these reflections, mostly subtitled “In the Mind of the Attendant” (Sevak Hrdaye), have unfortunately not been included in Swami Nikhilananda’s English translation of the book. M’s interpretations can also be found in several observations he makes in the Kathamrita and usually phrasing them as questions. An example is the passage about achine gach that I quoted at the very beginning of this paper. After the brief exchange with Ramakrishna regarding achine gach, M wonders whether Ramakrishna used the analogy to refer to an avatar and whether he was in fact referring to the play of God as a human being (naralila)? Through such interpretative questions, M attempts to encourage the reader to probe further along those lines.
Ramchandra Datta (along with Girish Chandra Ghosh) was among the first to declare that Sri Ramakrishna was an incarnation of God. In his book Jibanabrttanta the reader cannot miss Datta’s firm conviction that Ramakrishna was the embodiment of “eternal and total being of Brahman” (purna-brahma-sanatan) and for this reason, according to Datta, all that was necessary for one’s spiritual life was to remember Ramakrishna, meditate on him, and propagate his name. Datta interprets Ramakrishna’s life through the lens of his own predominantly Vaishnava leanings, his language and style filled with his unquestioned love and reverence for Sri Ramakrishna.
Among the other primary sources on Ramakrishna are the conversations of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi (Mayer Katha), the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, and the recorded conversations of other direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. Although these books do not have Ramakrishna as their primary focus, the intelligent reader has no difficulty in seeing how Ramakrishna’s life is being interpreted through the observations and comments of Holy Mother, Swamiji and the direct disciples.
All other books on and about Ramakrishna can only be considered as secondary sources. Such books have been published in many languages. Those written in English have not had greater numerical distribution than those written in several Indian languages, especially Bengali, but the books in English have certainly been distributed over a larger geographical area. Partly due to this but mostly due to the fame of a few authors and the depth of their interpretations, some of the Ramakrishna books in English have left an indelible mark on Ramakrishna history.