Adjustment is the law of nature, whether in the domain of spirit or matter. Through an inscrutable law, East and West offer two fields of activity, one in the domain of spirit and the other in the domain of matter, for the glorious consummation of the ideal to which all humanity has been moving through its science, philosophy, metaphysics, and religion. The West has devoted itself to researches in and discovery of the nature of material things; the East from time immemorial has experimented in religion in order to learn the laws that rule the realm of spirit. Both ideals are necessary for the progress of humanity; its future rests on their co-operation and mutual understanding.
In the last century one more adjustment on the spiritual plane was required. Material ideas were at their height of glory and power. Rampant growth uninspired by higher idealism of materiality governed the world. While the West was running after worldly enjoyments, the East had fallen from its true ideals. Devoid of the spirit of renunciation, the eternal Religion of the Vedas was broken into conflicting sects. The world was awaiting the birth of a Prophet in whose mind, purified of all worldly taint, the great truths underlying all the religious systems of the world would be revealed once more — a Prophet whose life would harmonise all apparently contradictory' religious ideals and the various national and social ideals of different races and nationalities, thus uniting humanity by the ties of love and toleration into a single brotherhood.
At this psychological moment of the world's history, the Lord, true to His promise that whenever virtue subsides and vice prevails He bodies Himself forth, incarnated Himself as Shri Ramakrishna, combining in a single personality the wonderful love and compassion of Buddha and Christ with the keen intellect of Shankara to demonstrate what true religion was.
At Kamarpukur, a distant village of Bengal, a child was born of poor Brahmin parents on the 18th of February, 1836. The father and mother were venerated as living saints by the simple villagers. The child was named Gadadhar. He grew up amidst the simplicities of a village, the cows, the fields, and the simple village life, yet he manifested even in his early boyhood remarkable traits. It is said that a religious song in praise of the gods or discussing of religious topics would often send him into a trance. When the father passed away, the family fell into straitened circumstances. The eldest brother Ramkumar came to Calcutta and opened a school. Gadadhar soon joined his brother there. Here for the first time Shri Ramakrishna — for that is the name by which Gadadhar has become famous all over the world as a great Prophet — came in touch with modern ideas. His brother was desirous of arousing his interest in secular education, but Ramakrishna who was already beginning to realise that he was born for a definite purpose, asked himself. “Shall I attain piety, devotion, and divine fervour by pursuing this education?” “No," was the emphatic reply of his mind. “Will it enable me to be as Godfearing and upright as my father?” “No,” echoed his innate religious instinct. “Shall I be able to realise God through this education and escape from universal ignorance and the glamour of material enjoyments?” The same reply came from his heart. “Then what shall I do with this education which will not help me to realise God or to transcend the miseries of the world? I would rather remain ignorant all my life and follow the path of God, than throw away my cherished ideals,” was his conclusion. To his brother’s persuasion he said emphatically, “Brother, what shall I do with a mere bread-winning education; I would rather acquire that wisdom which will illumine my heart and getting which one is satisfied for ever.” About this time the Kali temple at Dakshineswar, about four miles to the north of Calcutta on the east bank of the Ganga, was founded by Rani Rasmani, a pious Hindu lady of great wealth and influence. Mathura Nath Bishwas, her son-in-law, was the manager of her estate. Ramkumar was invited to take the place of the priest at the temple, which he accepted.
He came to live at Dakshineswar with his brother Ramakrishna. The proximity of the holy Ganga, the quietness and solitude of the temple-compound in contrast with the turmoil of the busy metropolis, and above all, the living presence of Kali, the Divine Mother of the universe, filled the mind of Shri Ramakrishna with a strong desire for the realisation of God, and there came a great change in him. The boy became the devotee; the devotee became the ascetic; the ascetic became the saint; the saint became the man of realisation; the man of realisation became the prophet; the prophet became merged in the Divine Nature which is God. And all this happened in the course of twelve years. It is impossible to give an idea of his passionate yearning for realisation, his utter renunciation of worldly enjoyments, his sincerity, single-minded devotion and the ecstasies of his soul which characterised this period of his life. He was innocent of scriptures and the intricacies of religious practices. He received very little help from guides at this stage. All he possessed was the great eagerness of the child to see his mother as well as a supreme disgust for worldly enjoyments. The day was spent in worship, prayer and song; in the twilight of the early morning and dusk he would stroll along the bank of the Ganga absorbed in the contemplation of the Divine Mother; the nights were spent in meditation. Thus while those about him were wasting time in all sorts of frivolity, he was burning day and night with this consuming thirst for God. The vision of the Divine Mother became the one passion of Shri Ramakrishna; but he had not, as yet, realised Her. Days and months passed in this wise with no abatement of his zeal.
The agony of longing for his Divine Mother was gradually increasing. In the evening on the bank of the Ganga he would cry aloud, “Another day is gone in vain, Mother, for I have not seen Thee. Another day of this short life has passed, and I have not realised the Truth/’ Then doubts would cross his mind, and he would say, “Art Thou true, Mother, or is it all fiction, 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?" But this scepticism was only momentary; like a flash of lightning he would recall the lives and the struggles of those who liad been blessed with the vision of God, and he would redouble his efforts.
One day the agony became quite unbearable. It was an excruciating pain. He thought that life was useless without the vision of God and determining to put an end to it, he seized the sword that was hanging in the Mother’s temple. All on a sudden, the Divine Mother illuminating everything with Her effulgent splendour revealed Herself to him. He fell unconscious to the floor. What happened after that he did not know, nor how that day or the next passed — for within him was a constant flow of ineffable bliss altogether new, and he felt the direct presence of the Divine Mother. After this vision Shri Ramakrishna became God-intoxicated. The period subsequent to this was replete with thrilling incidents of a spiritual nature. He was just stepping into a new realm, vast and limitless; he had extraordinary visions, in trance as well as in normal consciousness, and in reality belonged to another region where he held communion with strange invisible beings. To people about him all this looked like madness, pure and simple. Though the young priest had been blessed with the vision of the Divine Mother, yet he was not happy, for it was not continuous. Could it be that his thirst after God, intense as it was, was halfhearted? He put fresh energy into his struggles and increased his prayers to the Divine Mother. As his realisations deepened, his vision of the Mother began to be continuous; the image in the temple disappeared, and in its stead there stood the living Mother Herself, smiling and blessing him. He actually even felt Her breath on his hand, and heard Her anklets tinkling as She went to the upper story of the temple. So did the separation between him and his Divine Mother gradually vanish, and he became Her child.
His whole mind and nervous system thus became attuned to the Highest Reality and unable to respond to any worldly stimulus. Sex consciousness was completely erased from his mind. Mathura Nath even contrived to tempt him secretly; but he passed through such trials quite unscathed, embodiment of purity and self-control that he was. He himself said that in His whole life not even in dream did he look upon a woman other than as the visible representation of the Divine Mother.
The physical shock of the first vision of the Mother was so great that for a time his body became subject to various ailments. He went back to Kamarpukur at the request of his mother and there his relatives, anxious on account of his health and in order to divert his mind to worldly affairs, married him to a young girl from a neighbouring village. He readily agreed to the proposal, seeing it as the will of the Divine Mother. This stay at Kamarpukur did him much good, but soon he returned to Dakshineswar and was plunged once more into stormy struggles, forgetting his mother, wife and relations. Days, weeks, and months passed in this search for Truth. At this time there came to Dakshineswar a nun who was an adept in the Path of Devotion as well as in the intricacies of the Tantrika Sadhana.1 She was the first to diagnose the cause of Shri Ramakrishna’s maladies and his so-called madness. She saw that Shri Ramakrishna was in the state which is known in the Vaishnava scriptures as Maha Bhava and that his experiences were the result of his extreme love for God. Happy the man who had such experiences! She was convinced that in his trances he had scaled the ultimate heights of spiritual realisation. From this and various other factors she came to the conclusion that Shri Ramakrishna was an Incarnation and this she established before an assembly of Pandits (scholars), giving the scriptures as her authority. Shri Ramakrishna accepted her as his Guru and practised under her guidance the devotional and Tantrika methods of Sadhana, in which he attained perfection in an incredibly short time.
Later there came to Dakshineswar a Vaishnava saint, an itinerant monk and a devotee of Rama. Ramlala or the child Rama was his favourite deity and he had already had a vision of Him. He carried a metal image of Ramlala with him which he showed to Shri Ramakrishna. But Shri Ramakrishna saw the living Rama in it, and soon established a loving relationship with it. He saw Ramlala as vividly as he saw anyone else — now dancing, now springing on his back or insisting on being taken up in his arms. He became so much attached to Shri Ramakrishna that he refused to go with his devotee, who was finally obliged to leave him behind satisfied to see him happy in Shri Ramakrishna’s company.
Ramakrishna next took up the highest form of Vaishnava Sadhana, the Madhura Bhava or the relation between a mistress and her lover. All the Vaishnava forms of Sadhana hinge on the one potent factor of human life — Love. This particular Sadhana represents the closest union between the worshipper and the object of worship; he is not impressed by the grandeur of his Ideal but only the sweetness of the relationship interests him. The most beautiful example of this form of worship is found in Shri Krishna’s life. The perfect devotee of this type is one who looks only to the comfort of the Beloved, regardless of his own personal pleasure or convenience. This Sadhana roots out the sex idea. The soul has no sex; it is neither male nor female; it is the body which has sex. The man who desires to reach the Spirit must get rid of sex distinctions. Shri Ramakrishna took up this Sadhana with his usual zeal. He brought the feminine idea into everything; he dressed and spoke like women and lived with the women in Mathura Nath’s family. He made every little detail of their life his own till at last he found that the Truth could be gained as a woman too.
About this time Totapuri, a Sannyasin of the highest Vedantic realisation, came to Dakshineswar. Appreciating the spiritual gifts of Shri Ramakrishna he asked if he might teach him the secret of the Advaita (non-dual) philosophy. Under his guidance Ramakrishna attained to Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the state in which the soul realises its identity with Brahman, the highest, impersonal Truth, of which it is said, “If one remains in it continuously for twenty-one days, the body withers like dried leaves and the embodied soul realises its identity with Existence Absolute.” It had taken Totapuri forty years to attain this Divine Consciousness. But Shri Ramakrishna attained it in a single day!
A wandering monk who hitherto had never stayed at a place for more than three days, Totapuri remained at Dakshineswar for eleven months, imparting his knowledge to his wonderful disciple, setting him firmly on the lofty heights of Advaita. The disciple, in his turn, became the guide of his teacher and enlightened him regarding the reality of the personal aspects of Truth which Totapuri had hitherto refused to recognise.
Meanwhile strange stories that he was mad were current in his native village. His wife Saradamani Devi resolved to learn the truth for herself. So she set out and walked to Dakshineswar. He at once admitted her right to be by his side and said, “As for me, the Mother has shown me that She resides in every woman, and so I have learned to look upon every woman as Mother. That is the only idea I can have about you. Yet as I have been married to you, if you wish to draw me into the world I am at your service'’ The wife who was a pure and noble soul at once understood and said that she had no wish to bring him down to a worldly life; that all she wanted was to remain beside him, to serve him and to learn of him. Thus did Saradamani Devi, endowed with a rare spiritual fervour, become his first disciple. Shri Ramakrishna took up the task of teaching her, covering a wide range of subjects, from housekeeping to the knowledge of Brahman.
Some months after this there arose a desire in Shri Ramakrishna’s mind to perform the Shodashi Puja or the worship of the Woman. On the night of the new moon Shri Ramakrishna worshipped Sarada Devi as the living symbol of the Divine Mother. During the ceremony she went into Samadhi, as did the Master after finishing with the necessary rituals. Priest and Goddess were joined in a transcendental union in the Self. When the Master recovered, he surrendered himself and the fruits of his lifelong Sadhana together with his rosary, with appropriate Mantras at the feet of Sarada Devi. It was the consummation of his Sadhana and to him everything now became a symbol of God.
Shri Ramakrishna next sought to realise the ideals of other religions and found from personal experience that they also led him to the same goal which he had already attained through Hinduism. In his association with people of various sects and in comparing their realisations with his own he arrived at the conclusion that the ultimate aim of all religions was the realisation in different aspects of the one and the same Truth.
Among the innumerable aspects of divinity which Ramakrishna realised, the one that stands out most prominently is that of Kali, the Divine Mother whose emblem is death and destruction. She is the incarnation of time which engulfs all things. She is the form of Death which destroys all. Therefore Her garlands are a necklace of skulls, and the garment about Her loins is composed of several arms, while in Her hand She holds a bleeding head. And yet Kali is Brahman. For does not the idea of the Eternal rise in the mind when all ideas, temporal and mortal, have been eliminated?
Shri Ramakrishna worshipped Kali both as the Mother and as Brahman, in Her terrible forms as well as in the blessedness and bliss of Brahman. The Personal Kali merged, in his realisation, in the Impersonal. To Shri Ramakrishna, She was also the giver of immortality. She puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts those of low degree. She fills the hungry with good things and the rich She sends empty away. To Her devotee the Mother reveals Herself as the Ocean of Reality, whose heart is the throbbing of the Infinite Soul. For him, Kali held the scales of life and death, and the keys of wisdom and ignorance. At Her bidding the world begins the whirl of creation and at Her bidding it ends in destruction. Yet She is, also, ineffable Peace. Shri Ramakrishna saw the Mother in all things. He likewise realised Her as the indwelling Divinity of all souls. Though Her aspects be change, time, death, and destruction, She is the everlasting, unchanging Reality of Brahman. Shri Ramakrishna often became possessed by the Mother. His ideas of Her assumed such reality that the conscious mind gave way, and his soul shone forth as the Mother Herself. Lost in SamSdhi, his whole body stiff, his arms unconsciously took the form of Varabhaya.2 The vastness of nature was translated by Shri Ramakrishna into the Living Reality of the Mother. Of what was embodied, She became the embodiment. Of what was ensouled She was the Soul. Beyond all and as all She dwelt incarnate as the Active Power of Supreme Reality. “Brahman and Shakti are one' as Shri Ramakrishna would say, “even as fire and its heat, even as milk and its whiteness. The Reality when static is Brahman, when active it is Shakti, the Mother," She is absolutely beyond all speech and thought. Verily, She is the Brahman of the Vedas and the Vedanta.
In the higher forms of Samadhi, Shri Ramakrishna merged in the impersonal aspect of the Divine Mother. But for the fulfilment of the divine mission his mind had to be brought down, as if by force, to the phenomenal plane of consciousness. Then he regarded the world as the play of the Divine Mother. He, like a child, would place implicit trust in Her and follow Her guidance in everything as will be seen.
Living in intimate union with the Divine Mother Shri Ramakrishna had a number of intuitive experiences towards the close of his Sadhana period, some of which concerned himself while others related to spirituality in general. About himself Shri Ramakrishna came to the conclusion that he was an Incarnation of God, a specially commissioned personage, whose spiritual realisations were for the benefit of others, to usher in a new age of spirituality for mankind. Further, that he had always been a free soul, and so the term Mukti (freedom) was not applicable to him; at the same time he could not attain his own final liberation like an ordinary mortal but was compelled to be born again and again to show humanity the way to freedom. Lastly, he foresaw the time of his own passing away and gave certain clues about it which were subsequently verified.
About spiritual matters in general, the following were his convictions. As the result of his realisations through all forms of discipline, he was firmly convinced that all religions were true — that every religious system represented a path to God. Secondly, the three great systems of thought known as dualism, qualified monism, and monism (or non-dualism) — Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita, and Advaita — were not contradictory, but complementary to one another; they were but stages in man’s progress towards the Goal. As to action and inaction he said, “A man whose mind is absolutely pure naturally goes beyond action. He cannot work even if he tries to, or the Lord does not allow him to work. But the ordinary man must do his duties unattached, depending on the Lord — like the maidservant in a house, who does everything for her master, but knows in her heart that her home is elsewhere.” Thirdly, Shri Ramakrishna realised that through him the Mother would found a new Order, comprising those who would uphold the doctrines of universality illustrated in his life. And lastly, his spiritual insight told him that those who were in their last incarnation — those who had sincerely prayed to the Lord at least once — must come to him. The reader is at liberty to take this statement in a universal sense or in a mere personal way, as he chooses.
Firmly established in the consciousness of God and totally unified with the Cosmic Will, Shri Ramakrishna was eager to disseminate the results of his realisations to all eager aspirants for the Truth. He literally burned with that desire. About this he would say later, “There was no limit to the yearning I had then. In the day-time I managed somehow to control it. The secular talks of the worldly-minded were galling to me, and I would look wistfully to the day when my beloved companions3 would come. I hoped to find solace in conversing with them and unburdening my mind by telling them about my realisations. Every little incident would make me think of them. I used to arrange in my mind what I should say to one and give to another, and so on. But when the day came to a close, I could not curb my feelings. Another day had gone and they had not come! When during the evening service the temple premises rang with the sound of bells and conch-shells, I would climb to the roof of the building in the garden,and writhing in anguish of heart cry at the top of my voice, ‘Come, my boys! Oh, where are you all? I cannot bear to live without you!’ A mother never longs so intensely for her child, nor a friend for his companions, nor a lover for his sweetheart, as I did for them! Oh, it was indescribable! Shortly after this yearning the devotees began to come in.”
To the fragrant fully blossomed lotus of the soul of Shri Ramakrishna came like bees, Gauri Pandit, Padrnalochan, Vaishnavacharan, Shashadhar Tarkachudamani, and a host of other great Pandits and Sadhakas (aspirants); Keshab Chandra Sen and Pratap Chandra Mazumdar, Vijay Krishna Goswami and the great Nag Mahashaya; Christians, Mohammedans, Sikhs and Hindus, hundreds upon hundreds. Great poets and thinkers, eminent preachers and theologians, professors and leaders of public opinion, the rich and the poor, great devotees and disciples came. And this was at the time that Narendra Nath was pining for the vision of Truth. Unconsciously attracted by the wonderful aroma of Shri Ramakrishna’s realisations, he also came to Dakshineswar — he and that group of young men who were to become later the monks of the Order of Shri Ramakrishna.