A Short Account of His Life and Teachings
On February 18, 1836, was born in India a God-man, who has come to be known as Sri Ramakrishna — a name which spontaneously evokes in the minds of millions of Hindus heart-full adoration and love. Above the din and confusion of modern life we hear the clarion call of Sri Ramakrishna directing our attention to the deeper verities of existence.
The life of Sri Ramakrishna, though devoid of spectacular events, is filled with spiritual romance of the rarest type. The fifty one years of his mortal existence give us vivid stories of religion in practice. During these years he constantly lived on the exalted plane of God-consciousness. The natural tendency of his mind was to soar above the phenomena of the world. It seems to the reader of his biography that he brought down his mind with utmost difficulty to the ordinary level in order to talk with men and women. His sayings are not those of a learned man, but pages from the Book of Life, written with the fluid of his own experiences and realisations. His utterances have upon them the badge of authority.
Sri Ramakrishna was born of poor parents living in a wayside village of Bengal (named Kamarpukur in the Hoogly district). His father was full of piety and never deviated from the path of truth. He was dispossessed of his ancestral house and property as he refused to bear false witness to the advantage of his landlord. He observed all the strict disciplines of the life of a Brahmin, devoting most of the time to prayers and meditation as enjoined by his religion. He was content to lead a life of utter simplicity, practically depending upon God for his daily food and other necessities of life. The mother was full of womanly grace and her heart overflowed with the sweet milk of kindness for her neighbours. Many a time she would turn over her own meal to the poor and needy and thus starve for the whole day. She was always respected by the villagers for the crystal sincerity of her character and the total absence of guile and other sordid traits of worldly nature. Sri Ramakrishna, like other lads of his age, was full of fun and life, mischievous and charming, with a feminine grace he preserved to the end of his life. He was adored and petted by the young girls and women of the village. They found in him a kindred and understanding spirit. It was a dream of his childhood, as he told later on, to be reborn as a little Brahmin widow, a lover of Krishna, who would visit her in her house. Sri Ramakrishna showed, during the years of his childhood, a precocious understanding of the deeper mysteries of the spiritual realm. He manifested supreme indifference to the education imparted in the school. It did not proceed beyond the most rudimentary stage. He used to say, later on, that books are fetters which impede the free expression of the soul. But even at the early age he possessed great wisdom.
One day during that period of his life, he gave in a learned assembly of the Pundits a simple solution to an intricate problem of theology which had been puzzling the brains of those astute bookworms. This profound wisdom uttered in simple words, and coming directly from his soul characterised all his later sayings. The soul is the fountain of all knowledge and wisdom, but in the commonalty it is covered by a thick pall of ignorance created by our so-called experiences of life. But simple and artless saints, like a Christ or a Ramakrishna, always have had access to this perennial fountainhead of knowledge. Sri Ramakrishna took special delight in studying and hearing about the great heroes and heroines of the Hindu religious epics. Stories of saints and association with them always set his imagination on fire and created an exalted state of mind. He often played truant from school. The simple village had an extensive mango grove where he would repair with his schoolmates and enact dramas, selecting episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The boy, with his clear skin, beautiful flowing locks, charming voice and independent spirit, would always play the leading parts. He also showed efficiency in clay modelling.
At the age of nine Sri Ramakrishna lost his father. This event, which cast a gloom over the whole family, made the boy more thoughtful and serious. Now and then he was found strolling alone in the mango groove or the cremation ground. His serious nature, though hidden under the thin film of boyish merriment, perhaps got a glimpse of the transitory nature of human life. After that he became more attached to his mother and every day spent some time with her assisting her in the household work and daily worship in the family chapel. He thought it his duty to lessen the burden of his mother’s grief and to infuse into her melancholy life whatever joy and consolation he could. Instinctively he shrank from objects and ideas that might prove obstacles to his future spiritual progress. His first spiritual ecstasy was the outcome of his innate artistic nature. Observing the flight of a flock of cranes with their snow-white wings shining against the background of the sky covered with dark rain-clouds, he lost physical consciousness and said afterwards that he had felt, in that state, an ineffable peace. More than once, during the period of boyhood, he experienced the bliss of spiritual ecstasy evoked by the contemplation of divine ideas.
At the age of seventeen, Sri Ramakrishna came to Calcutta, then the metropolitan city of India, where his elder brother conducted a Sanskrit academy. To the earnest request of his brother to continue his studies in keeping with the tradition of the Brahminical ancestry, the boy made the spirited and significant reply, “Brother, what shall I do with a mere bread-winning education? I shall rather acquire that wisdom which will illumine my heart and in getting which one is satisfied forever.” In his vivid imagination he saw the scholars of Calcutta, devoid of wisdom, scrambling for recognition and power. Regarding the merely intellectual Pundits, without a higher idealism, he would say, later on, “They are like vultures who soar high on the wings of their undisciplined intellect, having their attention fixed, all the time, on the carrion of name, fame and wealth.”
The life of Sri Ramakrishna took a new turn when he was engaged as a priest in a temple where the Deity is worshipped as the Divine Mother of the Universe under the name of Kali. Seated before the graceful basalt image, he would often ask himself, “Is this image filled with the indwelling presence of God? Or is it mere stone, devoid of life and spirit, worshipped by countless devotees from time immemorial?” Now and then a kind of scepticism would creep into his soul and fill his mind with intense agony. But his inborn intuition revealed to him the evanescent nature of the objects of sense-enjoyment and the presence of a deeper reality behind the phenomena. He conceived of God as our Eternal Mother who is ever ready to grant us the priceless boon of divine wisdom if we only turn our gaze from the shadowy objects of this world. For a few days he worshipped the Deity following the rituals and ceremonies of his ancestors. But his was a soul not to be satisfied with a mere mechanical observance of religion. He craved for the vision of God.
Soon, before the onrush of his fervour, formalities of religion were swept away. Henceforth his worship consisted of the passionate cry and prayer of a child pained at the separation from his beloved Mother. For hours he would sing the songs composed by seers of God. Tears, then, would flow continuously from his eyes. He would weep and pray, “O Mother! Where art Thou? Reveal Thyself to me. Many devotees before me obtained Thy grace. Am I a wretch that Thou dost not come to me? Pleasure, wealth, friends, enjoyments—I do not want any of these, I only desire to see Thee, Mother.” He spent day and night in such agonising prayer. Words of a worldly nature would singe, as it were, his ears. Often people would be amazed to see him rolling on the ground and rubbing his face against the sand with the piteous wail, “Another day is spent in vain, Mother, for I have not seen Thee! Another day of this short life has passed and I have not realised the Truth!” In another mood, he would sit before the Deity and say to Her, “Art Thou true, Mother, or is it all a fiction of the mind—mere poetry without any reality? If Thou dost exist, why can I not see Thee? Is religion then a phantasy, a mere castle in the air?” Scarcely would these words pass his lips when in a flash he would recollect the lives of saints who had actually seen God in this life. “She can’t be a mere freak of human imagination,” the young worshipper would think, “there are people who have actually seen Her. Then why can’t I see Her? Life is passing away. One day is gone followed by another, never to return. Every day I am drawing much nearer to death. But where is my Mother? The scriptures say that there is only one thing to be sought in this life and that is God. Without Him life is unbearable, a mockery. When God is realised, life has a meaning, it is a pleasure, a veritable garden of ease. Therefore, in pursuit of God, sincere devotees renounce the world and sacrifice their lives. What is this life worth if I am to drag on a miserable existence from day to day without tapping the eternal source of Immortality and Bliss?” Thoughts like these would only increase his longing and make him redouble his efforts to realise God. As a consequence, he was blessed with the realisation of God. Regarding this God-vision he said, later on, to Swami Vivekananda, “Yes, my child, I have seen God, only more intensely than I see you. I have talked to God and more intensely than I am talking to you.” Sri Ramakrishna used to emphasise that if an aspirant shows the same attachment to God as the miser feels for his hoarded treasure, the devoted wife for her beloved husband and the helpless child for its affectionate mother, God is sure to reveal Himself to such a fervent soul in three days.
A tremendous statement for these modern times! Yes, he has seen God! Not as an extra-cosmic Being, not as the personification of moral law, but as the very substratum of our being, the indwelling presence in all, in whom all human and moral relationships reach their culmination. His vision of God was not a remote entity of theology or the vague dream of a poet, but the irresistible content of his inner experience. Is it not a great inspiration to know that a man of our own times could assert that he had seen God, when humanity as a whole seems to be moving away from the deeper aspect of life? The first impression even a casual reader of the life and gospel of Sri Ramakrishna gets is that God is not, after all, an unrealisable object living behind the clouds, but our dearest and nearest possession, in whom we live, move, and have our being. There is truly such a thing as God-realisation in this life.
Sri Ramakrishna’s first vision of God, as we have just seen, was the result of his passionate prayer and fervent desire. He did not follow any particular ritual or ceremony laid down by the scriptures. Thus he showed that the realisation of God is perfectly possible through earnestness alone even if one be not affiliated with any church or religious organisation.
Later on, the desire arose in his mind to follow different paths of Hinduism through the rituals prescribed by various teachers for the vision of God. And it may be remarked here that whenever he followed any particular method of discipline, he poured his entire heart into it.
He was a great scientist in the realm of spirituality. He followed to the very letter the disciplines and austerities laid down by his religion. Like all true scientists, he knew that the success of an experiment depends upon the scrupulous observance of its laws. He did not spare himself at all in that direction. Purity became the very breath of his life. Nothing could persuade him to deviate, even by a hair’s breadth, from the path of truth in thought, deed and word. To learn humility he would go to the house of a pariah, at dead of night, and clean the dirty places with his long hair. He knew that the two great impediments of spiritual life were lust and gold. He looked upon all women as the manifestation of the Blessed Mother of the Universe and his body would writhe in pain if he touched a coin, even in sleep. As a result of deep discrimination, he could not see any difference between gold and clay, and found them both equally worthless for the realisation of Truth. Absolutely trustful of the Divine Providence, who hears even the footfall of an ant, he lived from moment to moment depending upon God and without worrying as to what he should eat and drink the next day. His life became a perfect example of resignation and of self-surrender to a higher Power who ever cares for our needs. His entire physical and nervous system became attuned to such a high state of consciousness that any contact with objects or thoughts of a worldly nature would give him a strong reaction of pain and suffering. His zeal for the vision of God, which ate him up day by day, beggars all description. While practising spiritual disciplines he forgot food and drink as necessities of life, and sleep, he left out altogether. He had only one burning passion, the vision of God. With such a mind he practised different rituals and ceremonies as laid down by Hinduism for spiritual unfoldment. There also he came to the realisation that different paths lead to the same goal.
The friends and relatives of Sri Ramakrishna, unable to realise the meaning of his God-intoxicated state, thought that he had fallen a victim to lunacy. In human society one who does not share the insanity of his neighbours is stigmatised as insane. So they thought that marriage with a suitable girl would help him to get back his normal state of mind. To this suggestion Sri Ramakrishna gave his willing consent, seeing in it also the hand of Providence. When later on, the wife, a pure maiden of sixteen, came to her husband at the Temple of Dakshineswar where Sri Ramakrishna practised his austerities; the saint knelt down before her and said, “The Divine Mother has shown me that every woman is Her manifestation. Therefore I look upon all women as the images of the Divine Mother. I also think of you as such. But I am at your disposal. If you like, you can drag me down to the worldly plane.” This girl, during her childhood, used to pray to God, saying, “O God, make my character as white and fragrant as yonder tube rose. There is a stain even on the moon, but make my life stainless.”
In the twinkling of an eye, she understood the state of her husband’s mind and said with humility that she had no desire to drag him down from the spiritual heights; all that she wanted was the privilege of living near him as his attendant and disciple. When asked about instruction, Sri Ramakrishna said, “God is everybody’s beloved, just as the moon is dear to every child. Everyone has an equal right to pray to Him. Out of His grace He manifests Himself to all who call upon Him. You, too, will see Him if you but pray to Him.” Henceforth the two souls lived together in the temple-garden as the sharers of many divine visions. Not for a moment would either of them think of any worldly relationship. One night the wife, since adored as the Holy Mother by the numerous devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, asked him while massaging his body, “How do you look upon me?” Sri Ramakrishna replied without a moment’s hesitation, “The Mother who is worshipped in the Temple is the mother who has given birth to this body and is now living in the temple-garden, and she again is massaging my feet at this moment. Verily I always look upon you as the visible representation of the Blissful Mother.”
Thus, Sri Ramakrishna showed by his own life that the mind of a man dwelling in God becomes totally free from all sex-relationship. The same mind which feels a physical urge during the lower state sees the vision of the Divine at the higher level. Lust is not inherent in an object; it is only an idea of the impure mind. Hitherto Sri Ramakrishna’s vision of God was limited to a Personal Deity whom he worshipped alternately as the compassionate Mother or the all-loving Father. In this conception God has human attributes which, according to the religious philosophy of India, is a lower conception of Truth. There is a transcendental aspect of God which defies all human definitions. It is beyond names and forms but is termed Existence, Knowledge and Bliss Absolute. Realising this, the aspirant transcends the world of multiplicity and merges himself in the Unity of Awareness. Sri Ramakrishna wanted to realise that aspect of the Divine as well. It is a strange phenomenon of his spiritual life that whenever he wanted to pursue a particular spiritual path, a suitable teacher, of his own accord, would come to Dakshineswar. Thus there came to him a monk by the name of Totapuri. This teacher had renounced the world at an early age, did not believe in any worldly relationship, had no earthly possessions, would not stay at one place for more than three days for fear of creating a new attachment and had realised the highest Truth which the philosophers describe as unknown and unknowable for ordinary minds. Through the help of this teacher Sri Ramakrishna realised in three days the Truth which is beyond names and forms and which the Vedas designate as Brahman the Absolute. In this realisation Sri Ramakrishna found the identity of soul and God.
Subsequently he practised the instructions of Christianity and Islam and arrived at the same conclusion. Thus he demonstrated by his own life and inner experience the Truth of his forefathers as laid down in the Vedas: “Reality is One: Sages call It by various names.” Sri Ramakrishna also used to say in his own simple and inimitable way: “Different opinions are but different paths, and the goal is one and the same.” Rituals and ceremonies, found in all great ancient religions, are external but necessary steps of spiritual growth. They are indispensable for most aspirants during the lower stages of evolution. Like the husks protecting the kernel and falling off when the seed germinates, the rituals and ceremonies also protect the aspirants during the earlier stages and drop off when the Divine Love awakens in their heart.
Having attained the goal of human birth, namely the realisation of Truth, Sri Ramakrishna became eager to share with all this vision of joy and peace. All religious experiences ultimately end in mysticism. But this inspired prophet of the nineteenth century was unlike the mystics who generally go by that name. He did not enter into a cave or lead the life of a recluse, to enjoy, for himself, the bliss of his meditation. He realised that he had become an instrument in the hand of God to help his fellow human beings. Thus he wanted one and all to partake of the joy of his realisation. Many a time he prayed thus to the Divine Mother, “Do not make me, O Mother, a cross-grained, pain-hugging recluse. I want to enjoy the world seeing in it Thy manifestation.” Drawn by the aroma of his transfigured existence, people began to flock to him from far and near. Men and women, young and old, scientists and agnostics, Christians and Sikhs— people irrespective of their race, creed, caste, or religious affiliation—came to him and felt themselves spiritually uplifted according to their inner evolution. Yet, Sri Ramakrishna was no preacher of the ordinary type. He did not move from the little village of Dakshineswar, did not mount upon a public platform to preach his message and did not advertise himself in the Press. He used to say that the bees come of their own accord in search of honey when the flower is in full bloom.
Among those who came to the saint was a young man who subsequently became world-famous as Swami Vivekananda. Narendranath, as he was then known, represented the spirit of modern times; sceptical, inquisitive, demanding evidence for everything and yet alert and eager to learn Truth. Sri Ramakrishna was the embodiment of the spirit of his ancient religion, self-assured, serene and at peace with himself as the result of his experience of divine Wisdom. He stood at the confluence of these two streams of thought, the ancient and the modern. In answer to the first question of this young man, “Have you seen God?” he gave the emphatic reply that he had seen Him. Though resisting him at every point, ultimately Narendranath became his disciple. Sri Ramakrishna, with the infinite love of a mother and the infinite patience of a teacher, initiated him step by step, into the deepest mysteries of spiritual life. It may be noted here that the teacher did not impose upon the student any blind faith nor demand from him enforced allegiance. Sri Ramakrishna, through his superior intellect, satisfied the demands of his disciple’s inquisitive mind. Under the direction of his teacher, Swami Vivekananda became the leader of a group of young men who, later on, took the vow of dedicating their lives to the realisation of Truth and service to humanity.
For a quarter of a century this God-man preached his gospel of God-life. Never did he refuse anyone the solace of his instructions, if the seeker was earnest about them. He said, “Where will you find God except in man? Man is the highest manifestation of the Divine. I will give up twenty thousand such bodies to help one man. It is glorious to help even one man.” During that period of his spiritual ministration, never did a word of condemnation escape from his blessed lips. He was incapable of seeing evil in others. His whole personality was transfused with love and compassion. Bowing before even the fallen woman, whom society looks down upon as a sinner, he would say, “Thou art also the manifestation of the Divine Mother. In one form thou art standing in the street and in another form thou art worshipped in the temple. I salute Thee.” As a result of his constant teaching, he was attacked with cancer of the throat. Even when it became almost impossible for him to swallow liquid food, he could not send away any eager enquirer without some words of solace.
One day, during this period, a Yogi remarked that he could easily cure himself through his Yoga powers, by concentrating on the throat. Quick came the reply, “How can my mind, which has been given to God, be directed again to this cage of flesh and blood?” Swami Vivekananda begged him to pray to God for the cure of his ailment. Such a prayer for his own physical body was an impossibility for Sri Ramakrishna. But at the earnest importunity of his disciple, he relented. After a while he said to Swami Vivekananda, “Yes, at your request I prayed to the Mother, ‘O Mother, on account of pain, I cannot eat anything through this mouth. Please relieve my pain if it be Thy pleasure.’ She showed you all to me and said, ‘Why, are you not eating through all these mouths?'” This is a demonstration of how the realisation of God frees the soul from the limitations of the body. At last, on the 16th of August, 1886, Sri Ramakrishna, uttering the sacred name of his beloved God, entered into a state of spiritual ecstasy from which his mind never came back to the mortal plane of existence…
Thus there lived, in our age, a man who saw God face to face. Having realised the fountain of Divine Love, he radiated love for all without any national or geographical limits. Every particle of his being was filled with God-consciousness. Though living in this world, he seemed to be a man of the other world. The man in him was completely transformed into God. Of such, the Vedas declare: “He who realises Truth becomes one with Truth. By the vision of the Divine, man himself becomes Divine.”
The life and teachings of this God-man have a tremendous significance for the people of modern times. Living during the transitional period of the nineteenth century when science was most arrogant, and practising austerities in a suburb of Calcutta, the most materialistic city of India, Sri Ramakrishna demonstrated that ideal spiritual life is always possible and that it is not the monopoly of any particular age. The revelation of God takes place at all times and the wind of Divine Mercy never ceases to blow. Who could live, who could breathe if God did not form the very core of our existence? Disciplines laid down by religion can be practised even today if we have the requisite earnestness; and the vision of Truth, revealed to man in olden times, cannot be denied to us now if we are eager for it.
On account of its transcendental experience, the life of Sri Ramakrishna is a great challenge to the narrow outlook of our generation. The reader of his life finds undeniable assurance that the highest vision of God is accessible to all as it has been given to him, one of our own times. His life and realisation are not clouded in the haze of mystery and tradition, but have been well sifted in the light of modern reason. The essence of the scientific method consists of experimentation, observation and verification. The science of religion, called Yoga by the Hindus, is based upon this method. Sri Ramakrishna, as a great Yogi, experimented with the spiritual laws without accepting them in blind faith. He observed his own reactions and then came to certain conclusions. The Hindus challenged others also to verify these by their own experimentations and observation. Religion is not occultism or so-called mysticism, but a higher way of life.
God, Sri Ramakrishna has taught us, is not the monopoly of any religion or creed, but the common property of all; He is the loving Father of mankind. He is not only an extra-cosmic Being, but He permeates the entire universe as intelligence and consciousness. He is present everywhere from the blade of grass to Brahma as the inmost essence of all. He is the Life and Substratum of all entities, from the atom to the highest Prophet. The same infinite expanse of water forms the basis of the froth, bubbles and mountain-high waves. The difference between man and man, and between other animate and inanimate objects, lies in the degree of divine manifestation. When God is involved, He is the grain of sand, and when He is fully evolved, He is Jesus Christ. Through our strivings and our struggles we are approaching the Central Truth. Art, Science, and Religion are but different expressions of Truth. But one can understand it only when one has realised the Unity of Existence.
Has God any form? Or is He formless? God is both with and without form and yet transcends both. He alone can say what else He is. God with form and God without form are like ice and water. When water freezes into ice it has form. When the same ice is melted into water, all form is lost. God with form and without form arc not two different beings. He who is with form is also without form. To a devotee, the worshipper of a Personal God, He manifests Himself in various forms. Just think of a shoreless ocean — an infinite expanse of water — no land visible in any direction! Only here and there are visible blocks of ice formed by the intense cold, similarly under the intensifying influence of the deep devotion of His worshipper, the Infinite reduces Himself, as it were, into the Finite and appears before him as a Being with form. Again, as on the appearance of the sun the ice melts away, so with the awakening of knowledge, God with form melts away into the Formless. The water of the ocean, when viewed from a distance, appears to have a dark-blue colour, but becomes colourless when taken in the hand; in the same way God is also associated with a definite colour and complexion from a distance, but He is the attribute-less Truth when the devotee merges in Him.
Religion does not consist of dogmas and creeds. It is Realisation. It is being and becoming. No one can ever put any finality upon God’s nature. It is beyond the conception of our relative mind. We grasp only a limited aspect of God according to our mental development. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that everything in the world—the word of saints, the statements of the scriptures—has been polluted like food thrown from the mouth; but God alone is unpolluted as no human tongue has been able to describe fully what He is. His nature can be known only in the silent depth of our heart.
Again, Sri Ramakrishna said that once a doll, made of salt, wanted to measure the depth of the ocean; but no sooner did it touch the water than it melted in the ocean. How could it tell about the depth? Similarly, neither the mind nor words can express the real nature of God when the aspirant has merged in Him. A text of the Vedas says: “The words come back with the mind vainly trying to express what Truth is.”
What is the relation of God to man? This is the moot question of religion. Sri Ramakrishna said in a simple way that when we consider ourselves as physical beings, then God is the Master and the Father and we are His servants or children. When we look upon ourselves as embodied souls, then God is the Universal Soul and we are Its emanations. Like fire and its sparks, God and man possess the same attributes and qualities. But when we think of ourselves as Spirit, then we are identical with God—the one and the same Spirit, birthless, deathless, causeless, and infinite. Prof. Max Muller wrote that Sri Ramakrishna’s simple words and illustrations have such a force of directness and irresistibility because his mind was unspoiled by any academic education. They were the outcome of his direct experience.
The four cardinal points of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings are the Oneness of Existence, Divinity of Man, Unity of God, and the Harmony of Religions. The entire universe is one— not only as a stretch of matter or idea but also as Indivisible Spirit. The multiplicity of names and forms, created by our ignorance, vanishes at the dawn of Divine Knowledge. The cherished treasures of human progress, such as love, understanding, unselfishness and other ethical principles, can be explained only from the standpoint of this Unity. Otherwise there is no room for fellow-feeling in a world of multiplicity, governed by lifeless natural laws. This Unity comprehends all objects, animate and inanimate, as well as men and angels.
Man is divine by nature. Either as created in the image of God, or as His spark or as one with Him, the essential nature of man can never lose this perfection. There is no such thing as sin which can change the quality of the soul. The wicked action of a man may impose a veil upon his divine nature but can never destroy it. God exists in us as potentiality and possibility. An action is called good or moral that helps us to re-discover this hidden Divinity. And an action is immoral or bad which conjures up before us the appearance of manifoldness. The experiences we gather at the physical, mental or aesthetic level do not belong to our real soul. They may be called, at best, a mixture of Truth and falsehood. Through this inscrutable ignorance we behave as if we were corporeal beings. We have hypnotised ourselves into thinking that we are imperfect and limited and that we exist in time and space, subject to the law of causation. The aim of religion is to dehypnotise ourselves and make us aware of our divine heritage.
God is one and indivisible. The different gods of religion and mythology are but different aspects of the Absolute as comprehended by finite human minds. Father in Heaven, just and moral Governor, Eternal Spirit, Nirvana or the extinction of desires, Light, Law, etc., are but different facets of the one Godhead. He is all these and infinitely more than the human mind can think. The God that is defined as the goal of different religions is only the highest reading of the Absolute by the finite human mind and expressed through imperfect human language.
The greatest contribution of Sri Ramakrishna to the modern world, torn by theological quarrels, is the Harmony of Religions. Each great ancient religion has three steps, namely, ritual, mythology and philosophy. The first two are the externals of religion, and philosophy is its basis. There can never be any uniformity in rituals and mythologies. These are the abstract ideas of philosophy made concrete for the grasp of ordinary minds. They are to be given up when the soul, through it purity and discipline, is able to comprehend the essence of religion. Religious quarrels arise when we insist that the externals of religion are to be kept forever. As Swami Vivekananda used to say, a man must be born in a church but he must not die in a church. There never has been my religion or your religion, my national religion or your national religion, but there is only one Eternal Religion of which different religions are but different manifestations to suit different temperaments. It is not the case that this religion or that religion is true in this or that respect, but the fact is that all religions are efficacious in all respects as suited to diverse conditions of our mind.
If one religion proves false then all religions fall to the ground. Men quarrel about religions because they emphasise personalities, words and explanations and never go to the fountainhead. We are quarrelling about the empty baskets while the contents have slipped into the ditch. Different religions are but different forces in the economy of God. They are necessary to maintain the equilibrium of the world and enhance the richness of creation. They are not antagonistic but complementary. Like the different photographs of a building taken from different angles, different religions also give us the picture of one Truth from different standpoints. Various religions are but flowers of different colours which we should tie with the cord of love into a beautiful bouquet and offer at the altar of Truth. By the test of the survival of the fittest the great ancient religions of the world do justify their existence and usefulness. Therefore, Sri Ramakrishna’s attitude towards other religions is not that of toleration which implies viewing faiths other than one’s own as if they were inferior. His ideal is that of acceptance. To him all religions are the revelation of God in His diverse aspects to satisfy the manifold demands of human minds.
One day a young disciple criticised before him the questionable methods of a religious sect. Sri Ramakrishna said, “That is also a pathway to reach God. To enter a house there are many doors. There are front doors, side-doors and there is also a backdoor. But you need not go in by that door.” As a result of his spiritual experiences he came to the conclusion that there are not only many mansions in the Father’s House, but there are also many doors leading thereto.
What is the utility of religious experiences in our daily and practical life? If man were only an animal with eating, drinking and sleeping propensities; satisfied with a little display of reason and the solution of some intellectual problems, then perhaps, there would be no meaning in his excursion into the realm of Spirit. But the infinite nature of the human soul can never be happy with the finite experiences of life. Through the travail of our finite experience and knowledge we are trying to reach the Infinite. The whole life of man is the play of the Infinite in the finite. Therefore any experience of life devoid of the touch of the Divine is barren and futile. The drab and grey of life can be illumined by the sunrise glow of divine experience. It invests life with a new meaning and dignity. What does it avail a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul? Nothing else matters if the touch of God is felt in our daily activities. And what else does matter if we do not feel that indwelling Presence in our everyday action? Man without the touch of the Divine roams aimlessly in the blind alleys of the world. Therefore Sri Ramakrishna used to say, “Do whatever you please with the knowledge of God in your pocket.”
Mind uninspired by Divine Wisdom is like milk that gets easily mixed up with the water of the world. But if by churning, one transforms milk into butter, then it floats on the water. In the same way we are to purify the mind by divine knowledge; and then if it dwells in the world, it will not be polluted by worldliness. And again, as our saints used to say, as long as we spin around holding fast to a post, there is no danger of our falling to the ground. In the same way, if we work in the world with our mind steadfastly devoted to God, there is no risk of losing ourselves in confusion. “Be like a wet nurse,” Sri Ramakrishna said, “who takes care of her master’s children as her own, but in her heart of hearts knows that she has no claim upon them; so think also that you are but the trustees and guardians of your people, but the real Master is God Himself”.
We are all instruments in the hands of God who has assigned to us our respective duties for the discipline of our heart. Religious life does not mean the shirking of duties or avoidance of responsibilities. The same Truth manifests Itself as our inner vision and the external manifold. As such there is no intrinsic difference between the sacerdotal and the secular. Everything is sacred. There is no difference between the temple and the farm-yard. The cloister and the laboratory, the temple and the studio, the cell and the marketplace are equally fit places of worship. To accept life after transcending its limitations is the last divine sacrifice. To labour is to pray. To have and hold is as stern a trust as to quit and avoid. Life itself is Religion, True to this ideal of its patron Saint, the Ramakrishna Mission has the twin methods of discipline, namely ‘work’ and ‘worship’; or rather its members say that ‘work is worship’.
One day when young Swami Vivekananda begged his Master to grant him the boon of a spiritual ecstasy in which the disciple could keep his mind above for four or five days together, coming down occasionally to the physical plane for a few minutes to eat some morsels of food, Sri Ramakrishna answered reproachfully “Why are you so anxious to see God with your eyes closed? Can’t you see Him with your eyes open? Worship God through suffering humanity.”
Great Prophets like Sri Ramakrishna are born now and then to demonstrate the eternal truths of Religion. There may be nothing new in what he preached and taught. Without him Hindu religion would have been equally valid today as it has been for the past thousands of years. The spiritual texts, without him, would have carried equal weight with students who care for them. But in Sri Ramakrishna we have the revealer and modern interpreter of the spiritual truths about which our minds may be in doubt for want of actual demonstration. Like the giant American hickory tree, he stands raising his head above the storms of doubt and scepticism. He has laid emphasis on these aspects of religion which we can grasp and follow in our modern daily life, Above all, he is a figure in history and his life is not obscured by doubtful myths. He stands as the justification of not only the Hindu faith but of the life of the Spirit in general. His realisations furnish us with the master-key by which we can unlock every door in the mansion of Spirit. His teachings act like a powerful searchlight by which we can see through the mummeries and externals of religion and discern its innermost essence. This Prophet of the nineteenth century did not found any cult nor did he show a new oath to salvation. When under the relentless sledge-hammer blows of modern thought our cherished ideals of the time-honoured ancient faiths began to crumble, Sri Ramakrishna, by his own life, has demonstrated the validity and truth of the Prophets and Saviours of the past and thus restored the falling edifice of Religion upon a new and more secure foundation.
An address delivered by Swami Nikhilananda at New York on the occasion of Sri Ramakrishna Centenary in 1936.
Our gratitude to Swami Nikhilananda