On January 27, 1868, Mathur Babu with a party of some one hundred
and twenty-five persons set out on a pilgrimage to the sacred places of
northern India. At Vaidyanath in Behar, when the Master saw the inhabitants
of a village reduced by poverty and starvation to mere skeletons, he
requested his rich patron to feed the people and give each a piece of cloth.
Mathur demurred at the added expense. The Master declared bitterly that
he would not go on to Benares, but would live with the poor and share
their miseries. He actually left Mathur and sat down with the villagers.
Whereupon Mathur had to yield. On another occasion, two years later, Sri
Ramakrishna showed a similar sentiment for the poor and needy. He accompanied
Mathur on a tour to one of the latter's estates at the time of the
collection of rents. For two years the harvests had failed and the tenants
were in a state of extreme poverty. The Master asked Mathur to remit their
rents, distribute help to them, and in addition give the hungry people a
sumptuous feast. When Mathur grumbled, the Master said: "You are only
the steward of the Divine Mother. They are the Mother's tenants. You must
spend the Mother's money. When they are suffering, how can you refuse
to help them? You must help them." Again Mathur had to give in. Sri
Ramakrishna's sympathy for the poor sprang from his perception of God in
all created beings. His sentiment was not that of the humanist or philanthropist.
To him the service of man was the same as the worship of God.
The party entered holy Benares by boat along the Ganges. When Sri Ramakrishna's eyes fell on this city of Siva, where had accumulated for ages the devotion and piety of countless worshippers, he saw it to be made of gold, as the scriptures declare. He was visibly moved. During his stay in the city he treated every particle of its earth with utmost respect. At the Manikarnika Ghat, the great cremation ground of the city, he actually saw Siva, with ash-covered body and tawny matted hair, serenely approaching each funeral pyre and breathing into the ears of the corpses the mantra of liberation; and then the Divine Mother removing from the dead their bonds. Thus he realized the significance of the scriptural statement that anyone dying in Benares attains salvation through the grace of Siva. He paid a visit to Trailanga Swami, the celebrated monk, whom he later declared to be a real paramahamsa, a veritable image of Siva.
Sri Ramakrishna visited Allahabad, at the confluence of the Ganges and the Jamuna, and then proceeded to Vrindavan and Mathura, hallowed by the legends, songs, and dramas about Krishna and the gopis. Here he had numerous visions and his heart overflowed with divine emotion. He wept and said: "O Krishna! Everything here is as it was in the olden days. You alone are absent." He visited the great woman saint, Gangamayi, regarded by Vaishnava devotees as the reincarnation of an intimate attendant of Radha. She was sixty years old and had frequent trances. She spoke of Sri Ramakrishna as an incarnation of Radha. With great difficulty he was persuaded to leave her.
On the return journey Mathur wanted to visit Gaya, but Sri Ramakrishna declined to go. He recalled his father's vision at Gaya before his own birth and felt that in the temple of Vishnu he would become permanently absorbed in God. Mathur, honouring the Master's wish, returned with his party to Calcutta.
From Vrindavan the Master had brought a handful of dust. Part of this he scattered in the Panchavati; the rest he buried in the little hut where he had practised meditation. "Now this place", he said, "is as sacred as Vrindavan."
In 1870 the Master went on a pilgrimage to Nadia, the birth-place of Sri Chaitanya. As the boat by which he travelled approached the sand-bank close to Nadia, Sri Ramakrishna had a vision of the "two brothers", Sri Chaitanya and his companion Nityananda, "bright as molten gold" and with haloes, rushing to greet him with uplifted hands. "There they come! There they come!" he cried. They entered his body and he went into a deep trance.