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.
Among the earliest in this class of interpretations is Max Muller’s Ramakrishna: His Life and Sayings, first published in the year 1899. As a strong believer in the scientific study of religion, Muller believed that a comparative study would uncover hidden religious truths and was adamant that Christianity should be subjected to the same method of study as were employed in the study of other religions. Muller’s belief that truth was available even outside Christianity had its limits, however, for he also noted that the history of the world was unconsciously progressing toward a universalized, liberal Christianity. Muller had genuine admiration for Hinduism’s philosophical heritage but also an abiding interest in “purifying” Hinduism. He hoped that eventually Hinduism would be Christianized. To him it seemed that his natural allies in this were the members of Brahmo Samaj, the powerful reform movement in the nineteenth century India, which strongly denounced image-worship and vigorously preached monotheistic ideals.
Muller was impressed when he met Swami Vivekananda in Oxford and probably viewed Swamiji as a potential partner in his goal of purifying Hinduism. He offered to write a book on Sri Ramakrishna if he were given sufficient material to work with. Swamiji asked his brother disciples to supply the needed material, instructing them to include only the “universal aspect” of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings, for he knew that Muller’s appreciation, though genuine, had its limits: Muller was sure to see anything outside of his pre-existing worldview to be polluting true religion. Swami Saradananda put together whatever biographical material he could gather and Swami Ramakrishnananda collected some of the important sayings of Sri Ramakrishna, keeping in mind Swamiji’s instruction.
Even then Muller was not entirely satisfied with the material he was sent and complained that there were too many “traditional elements” in it. He divided his book into a lengthy biographical introduction and a collection of Ramakrishna’s sayings and declared that “Vedanta-philosophy … is the very marrow running through all the bones of Ramakrishna’s doctrine.” Muller filled the biographical section with his own editorial comments, seemingly providing the adult, scholarly corrective to the “childish love of the miraculous.”
On the whole, in spite of its occasional patronizing and chauvinistic tone, Muller’s book is largely sympathetic and shows genuine interest in building a bridge across cultural and religious divides. As the best-known Indologist of his time, Muller’s book brought immediate international recognition to Sri Ramakrishna and ensured serious interest from later Western scholars, among whom was the French writer Roman Rolland, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915.
Unlike Muller, Rolland had a wealth of translated material to use when he began his research. His source material included the early translations of the Kathamrita and the Lilaprasanga, Muller’s Ramakrishna: His Life and Sayings, and Dhan Gopal Mukerji’s exotic biography of Ramakrishna titled The Face of Silence. In addition, Rolland corresponded with Swami Shivananda (Mahapurush Maharaj), M and Swami Ashokananda. He also received help from Swamiji’s American disciples, Josephine MacLeod and Sister Christine. Rolland’s heart longed for unity and harmony in a Europe devastated by World War I and what attracted him Sri Ramakrishna’s life and teachings was the hope that Ramakrishna would provide the much-needed restorative and antidote to political madness and human suffering.
Although Rolland’s book on Ramakrishna was written in French and first published in 1929, it was its English translation that received wider circulation and acclaim. As a diehard humanist and idealist, Rolland assumed that Ramakrishna and other religious teachers shared with him what, according to him, was the one universal goal: “human unity through God.”
Compared to Muller’s dry, analytical style, Rolland’s is filled with passion and energy. He focuses more on Ramakrishna’s life than his teachings and its larger meaning for humanity. Not overtly enthused by Sri Ramakrishna’s mystical experience of the Divine as pervading everyone and everything, Rolland is concerned over what he felt was Ramakrishna’s lack of engagement in human suffering. It must have taken a while before Rolland realized that his own ideology was at odds with Ramakrishna’s worldview, which perceived the world as only temporarily remediable but intrinsically unfixable. We find that, not long after Rolland’s book was published, he gave up his interest in religion and became increasingly involved in socialism and combating fascism through armed resistance.
Another great book on Ramakrishna, published almost 35 years later, was Christopher Isherwood’s Ramakrishna and His Disciples. Written at the request of his teacher Swami Prabhavananda, Isherwood dedicates the book to him, describing him as “my guru, dear friend and literary collaborator for the past twenty-five years.” Although a book of this nature was so different from the kind of books Isherwood had written and become famous for, it was nevertheless both a challenging and gratifying project for him. This is what Isherwood wrote in a 1946 essay: “[Ramakrishna] is the most interesting person to write about. The most interesting and the most difficult.” Eleven years later, in his diary entry of June 10, 1957, he writes: “I ask myself: What am I fit for, nowadays? What am I accomplishing? What does my life mean? And the answer seems to be I have to write that Ramakrishna book. That will sum up what my life has been about since the thirties.”
Isherwood’s source materials were primarily the English translations of the Kathamrita and the Lilaprasanga. Recognizing that his book’s primary audience was likely to be Ramakrishna devotees and a much larger proportion of skeptical Western readers, Isherwood interprets Ramakrishna’s life through the eyes of a skeptic, but also making it clear that he believed Ramakrishna to be an avatar.
In order to remove misconceptions regarding mysticism, Isherwood emphasizes the ordinary in Ramakrishna’s life to show that Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences were an extension of what was inherent in ordinary human life, available to everyone if only they could open their hearts to it. Isherwood’s book became hugely popular among Ramakrishna devotees and it attracted a sizable number of young men and women in the West, many of whom became lifelong devotees and a few among them eventually became monastics of the Ramakrishna Order.
The interpretations of Ramakrishna that emerged in the Western academic world in the 1970s present a different dynamic and a somewhat jarring change of tone from the generally admiring books of Muller, Rolland and Isherwood. While the earlier interpreters did not question the legitimacy of the sources they worked with, the Western academics in the 1970s were not prepared to assume the accuracy and trustworthiness of the source materials.
The hermeneutic of empathy had been replaced by the hermeneutic of suspicion. The writings of Walter Neevel, Jeffrey Masson, Narasingha Sil, Malcolm McLean, and Jeffrey Kripal, among others, interpreted Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences as caused by psychopathology, doubted that it was ever possible to transcend one’s body-consciousness, and subjected Ramakrishna’s words and experiences to Freudian psychoanalysis.
Not surprisingly, their interpretations and conclusions were markedly different from the earlier ones. By and large, their interpretations circulated within, and remained confined to, the Western academic world, just as the earlier interpretations were preserved and studied primarily in the worldwide devotee circles. Only when the two worlds, academic and nonacademic, collided—as it happened after the publication of the review of Kripal’s Kali’s Child in the Calcutta edition of the Statesman in 1997—did it lead to controversy and protests, and much mud-throwing from both the sides. Not all academics, however, operated with the hermeneutic of suspicion. There were some notable exceptions, historian Amiya Sen, among them. In his Hindu Revivalism in Bengal, published in 1993, Sen offers an insightful interpretation of Ramakrishna’s life and his role in reviving the Hindu tradition. Sen points out that Ramakrishna was a “many-layered personality” with “diverse possibilities latent in his life and message.”
The interpretations of Ramakrishna’s life and teachings in the Ramakrishna Order after Swami Saradananda’s Lilaprasanga came not through full-length biographies but through essays, editorials and books, the earliest among these were Swami Ghanananda’s Ramakrishna and His Unique Message, Swami Nirvedananda’s Sri Ramakrishna and Spiritual Renaissance, and Swami Gnaneswarananda’s Ramakrishna: The Man and the Power.
In two essays published in 1962 and 1980, both published in the Order’s Bengali journal Udbodhan, Swami Dhireshananda points out that any attempt to force Ramakrishna’s life into the straitjacket of a single philosophy or tradition is bound to produce distortion. He writes that Ramakrishna was “the embodiment of infinite bhavas” (anantabhavamay) and raises an interesting question regarding the nature of Ramakrishna’s first mystical experience of the Divine Mother. Through his extensive research, Swami Prabhananda has brought to light heretofore little known incidents from Ramakrishna’s life, especially those from the untranscribed portions of M’s diaries, and this has deepened and enriched our knowledge and understanding of Sri Ramakrishna. Swami Bhajanananda’s editorials in the Prabuddha Bharata have highlighted the significance and meaning of Ramakrishna’s life, with insightful interpretations of the state of bhavamukha and Ramakrishna’s concept of vijnana.
This is only a brief glimpse into some of the interpretations of Ramakrishna’s life and teachings in English that have enriched the Ramakrishna literature. (For an extensive treatment of this subject, see the chapter titled “Ramakrishna Scholarship: A Brief History” in Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited [Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2010], 1–92.) These interpreters have helped us look at Sri Ramakrishna through different perspectives and, while we may not agree with every interpretation we come across, it cannot be denied that each viewpoint helps us go back and compare it with our own viewpoint (if we have one), and see where the meeting of the two leads us.