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 Utility of Interpretations
That’s the whole point—isn’t it?—of why interpretations are offered and why they are studied. It’s not so much a matter of agreeing or not agreeing with, or accepting or rejecting, any interpretation. That’s secondary. What is primary is the question: does this interpretation help me go closer to the truth, or the inner essence, of the person or the idea that is being interpreted.
It is possible to look at the raw information about a person’s life as the raw material needed to build a house, such a bricks, mortar, wood and metal. Every interpretation is like a house built using the available material. The object of interpretation is not the house itself, but the one who lives in that house. What kind of a house gets built, its style and design and quality, depends on the one who builds it. Ideally, the house should reflect the personality of the one living in it. How do we build a house for one whom we have never met?
All that we have is some raw information about the events in the person’s life and about what the person said on various occasions. In such a scenario, we have to imagine how that person must have been and then build a house that would best reflect the personality of its inhabitant. That is what every interpretation tries to do. When an architect is perfectly tuned to the vision and need of the client for whom the house is being designed and built, the style and nature of the house perfectly reflects the personality of the owner. When the architect uses his or her own vision, the house reflects the personality of the architect, not of the owner. That is the difference between a good interpretation and a bad interpretation.
In Sri Ramakrishna’s case, we can easily see the different interpretative-houses that were built for him by M, Saradananda, Ramchandra Dutta, Muller, Rolland, Isherwood and others. It is possible that we might find some of these houses as more likely residences of Ramakrishna than some others. It is also possible that the house you or I would build for him may be in some ways different from any of the houses others have built for him.
It is most essential never to forget that an interpretation of Ramakrishna is not Ramakrishna himself but only a house built for him. While the interpretation may give us some idea of the one who is living in the house, merely looking at the house and admiring it is never going to be enough. At some point, we will want to open the door, go in and meet Sri Ramakrishna directly. The house that makes us do this quickly and easily would be in some way the ideal house for us. That is how I see our relationship with Ramakrishna literature, specifically with the different interpretations of Ramakrishna’s life and teachings that are now available and also with the interpretations that are to come in the future.
So long as we are only studying the interpretations—or only looking at the house from outside—the resident of the house will remain unknown. If asked, who lives in that house?, our best answer would be I don’t know. I have seen the house and but not the person who lives in it. I don’t know that name of the person and I wouldn’t be able to recognize him. This is very similar to our standing before a tree and not knowing what tree it is. For us it will remain a tree that is not recognized, a tree whose name we don’t know. The best we can do is to call it an achine gach.
The purpose of studying the different interpretations of Ramakrishna is to see how different minds have responded to his life and teachings—and see how our own minds respond to his life and teachings, and how our minds respond to the interpretations of these other minds. All of this can help us refine our own understanding, reassess our own conclusions, and help us build a house for Ramakrishna that we feel would best represent him, a house that would make it easier for us to walk in and meet with him face to face.
In order for us to do that, the filter of the mind must be cleaned repeatedly and regularly, the way Tota Puri cleaned his metal water-pot. When the filter of the mind becomes transparent, when the crookedness of the mind is eliminated, the mind just melts away. It becomes pure and indistinguishable from the Atman. We enter the house of Ramakrishna and are in his presence. His presence is so powerful that our own presence is soon forgotten.
The “I” disappears and along with it space and time. When space disappears, all that remains is “here.” When time disappears, all that remains is “now.” The achine gach is no longer achine. We recognize it fully now because it has become our own true being. We still cannot name it but there is no need to do so. In order to name it, we will have to separate ourselves from it—and the separation would make it unrecognizable and unnameable again. What’s the point?
M’s question in the Kathamrita was whether Sri Ramakrishna was hinting at his being an avatar by referring to the achine gach. M certainly thought so and that does make sense. For, an avatar is a mysterious being, neither fully human nor fully divine, or fully human and fully divine at the same time. How can such a being be named? Who will be able to recognize such a strange being? Narendra Nath, before he became Vivekananda, perhaps expressed it best when Sri Ramakrishna’s physician Dr. Sarkar expressed his reservation about identifying Sri Ramakrishna as an avatar. Narendra said:
We think of him [Sri Ramakrishna] as a person who is like God. Do you know what it is like? There is a point between the vegetable creation and the animal creation where it is very difficult to determine whether a particular thing is a vegetable or an animal. Likewise, there is a stage between the human-world and the God-world where it is extremely hard to say whether a person is man or God. I don’t say that Ramakrishna is God. What I am saying is that he is a Godlike man.”
Years later, speaking with his disciple Sarat Chandra Chakravarty, Swamiji refused to categorize Sri Ramakrishna as avatar, not because he did not view him as such, but to teach his disciple that labeling Ramakrishna as an avatar would still be a distortion. It still won’t be the real name of Ramakrishna. It still don’t describe Ramakrishna accurately. The concept of an avatar is still a concept. It is not Ramakrishna’s real nature. An avatar is also an interpretation, a brilliantly decorative piece perhaps at the entrance to Ramakrishna’s true home. Swamiji said that he believed Ramakrishna to be “even greater” than those who are labeled avatars. He told Sarat Chandra:
To reestablish dharma, there come Mahapurushas (great teachers of humanity), suited to the needs of the times and society. Call them what you will—either Mahapurushas or Avatars—it matters little. They reveal in their lives the ideal. Then, by degrees, shapes are molded in their matrices—men are made! Gradually, sects arise and spread. As time goes on, these sects degenerate, and similar reformers come again. This has been the law flowing in uninterrupted succession, like a current, down the ages.
When Sarat Chandra asked Swamiji why he didn’t preach Ramakrishna as an avatar, Swamiji responded in this way:
Truly, I tell you, I have understood him very little. He appears to me to have been so great that, whenever I have to speak anything of him, I am afraid lest I ignore or explain away the truth, lest my little power does not suffice, lest in trying to extol him I present his picture by painting him according to my lights and belittle him thereby!
We can understand Swamiji’s hesitation in applying the label avatar to Sri Ramakrishna, for that description still falls too short of who Sri Ramakrishna really was. It is possible that Sri Ramakrishna asked M about achine gach not to suggest that he was an avatar, but to remind M that who Ramakrishna truly was and is would forever remain unknown. Ramakrishna would always remain the achine gach. Any attempt to label him can prove elusive. To know him, we have to be him. To the extent our minds get purified and melt into the being of Ramakrishna, what he truly is would be known in the depths of our hearts. No interpretation is needed there but every interpretation can help us get there. As Swamiji wrote in his inspired poem “The Hymn to Samadhi”:
Void merged into void—beyond speech and mind!
Whose heart understands, he verily does.