Date: Wednesday, September 20 @ 14:53:48 UTC
Topic: Great Sages

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, (February 18, 1836 - August 16, 1886) was one of the most important Hindu religious leaders, and is deeply revered by millions of Hindus and non-Hindus to this date as a messenger of God. Ramakrishna was also an influential figure in the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. He is considered by many of his followers to be an Avatar, or even to be the Avatara Varishthaya, the Greatest Avatar.


Historically, in India, emphasis is given to the teachings of saints and less attention is paid to dates and details. In the case of Ramakrishna though, we have first-hand accounts of his life and times. This was possible because many of his disciples were well-educated and had a strong desire to present only facts that could be verified from multiple sources. Some credit for collecting and recording such facts goes to Swami Saradananda, a disciple of Ramakrishna. He wrote a biography from the legends and stories which were growing around Ramakrishna. A new English translation of this by Swami Chetanananda is available.

However, the best known record of Ramakrishna's teachings is the Bengali Kathamrita written by Mahendranath Gupta (Sri M.). Swami Nikhilananda's translation of this into the English language, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, is the most widely read. In the preface to his translation, Nikhilananda states, "I have made a literal translation, omitting only a few pages of no particular interest to English-speaking readers." Some claim that Nikhilananda's omissions have led to Western difficulties in interpreting the Kathamrita.


Gadadhar was born in the village of Kamarpukur, in what is now the Hooghly district of West Bengal. Gadadhar’s parents, Khudiram and Chandramani, were poor and made ends meet with great difficulty. Gadadhar was extremely popular in his village. He was considered handsome and had a natural gift for the fine arts. He, however, disliked going to school, and was not interested in the pursuit of money. He loved nature and spent his time in fields and fruit gardens outside the village with his friends. He was seen visiting monks who stopped at his village on their way to Puri. He would serve them and listen with rapt attention to the religious debates they often had.

When arrangements for Gadadhar to be invested with the sacred thread (Upanayana) were nearly complete, he declared that he would have his first alms as a Brahmin from a certain Sudra woman of the village. This was a shock in the days when tradition required that the first alms be from a Brahmin, but he was adamant. He said he had given his word to the lady and if he did not keep his word, what sort of Brahmin would he be? No argument, no appeal, no amount of tears are said to have budged him from his position. Finally, Ramkumar, his eldest brother and the head of the family after the passing away of their father, gave in.

Meanwhile, the family's financial position worsened every day. Ramkumar ran a Sanskrit school in Calcutta and also served as purohit priest in some families. About this time, a rich woman of Calcutta, Rani Rashmoni, founded a temple at Dakshineswar. She approached Ramkumar to serve as priest at the temple of Kali and Ramkumar agreed. After some persuasion, Gadadhar agreed to decorate the deity. When Ramkumar retired, Gadadhar took his place as priest.

Career as priest

When Gadadhar started worshipping the deity Bhavatarini, he began to question if he was worshipping a piece of stone or a living Goddess. If he was worshipping a living Goddess, why should she not respond to his worship? This question nagged him day and night. Then, he began to pray to Kali: "Mother, you've been gracious to many devotees in the past and have revealed yourself to them. Why would you not reveal yourself to me, also? Am I not also your son?"

He is known to have wept bitterly and sometimes even cry out loudly while worshipping. At night, he would go into a nearby jungle and spend the whole night praying. One day, the famous account goes, he was so impatient to see Mother Kali that he decided to end his life. He seized a sword hanging on the wall and was about to strike himself with it, when he is reported to have seen light issuing from the deity in waves. He is said to have been soon overwhelmed by the waves and fell unconscious on the floor.

Gadadhar, however, unsatiated, prayed to Mother Kali for more religious experiences. He especially wanted to know the truths that other religions taught. Strangely, these teachers came to him when necessary and he is said to have reached the ultimate goals of those religions with ease. Soon word spread about this remarkable man and people of all denominations and all stations of life began to come to him.


Ramakrishna was initiated in Advaita Vedanta by a wandering monk named Totapuri, in the city of Dakshineswar. Totapuri was "a teacher of masculine strength, a sterner mien, a gnarled physique, and a virile voice". Ramakrishna would soon affectionately address the monk as Nangta, the "Naked One", because as a sannyasin (renunciate) he did not wear any clothing.

I [Ramakrishna] said to Totapuri in despair: "It's no good. I will never be able to lift my spirit to the unconditioned state and find myself face to face with the Atman." He [Totapuri] replied severely: "What do you mean you can't? You must!" Looking about him, he found a shard of glass. He took it and stuck the point between my eyes saying: "Concentrate your mind on that point." [...] The last barrier vanished and my spirit immediately precipitated itself beyond the plane of the conditioned. I lost myself in samadhi.
After the departure of Totapuri, Ramakrihsna reportedly remained for six month in a state of absolute contemplations:

For six months in a stretch, I [Ramakrishna] remained in that state from which ordinary men can never return; generally the body falls off, after three weeks, like a sere leaf. I was not conscious of day or night. Flies would enter my mouth and nostrils as they do a dead's body, but I did not feel them. My hair became matted with dust.

Married life

Rumours spread to Kamarpukur that Ramakrishna had gone mad as a result of over-taxing spiritual exercises at Dakshineswar. Alarmed, neighbours advised Ramakrishna’s mother that he be persuaded to marry, so that he might be more conscious of his responsibilities to the family. Far from objecting to the marriage, he, in fact, mentioned Jayrambati, three miles to the north-west of Kamarpukur, as being the village where the bride could be found at the house of one Ramchandra Mukherjee. The bride of six-years, Sarada, was found and the marriage was duly solemnised. Sarada was Ramakrishna's first disciple. He attempted to teach her everything he learnt from his various Gurus. She is believed to have mastered every religious secret as quickly as Ramakrishna had. Impressed by her religious potential, he began to treat her as the Universal Mother Herself and performed a Puja considering Sarada as veritable Tripura Sundari Devi. He said, 'I look upon you as my own mother and the Mother who is in the temple'. Ramakrishna impressed upon Sarada Devi that she was not only the mother of his young disciples, but also of the entire humanity. Initially, Sarada Devi was shy about playing this role, but slowly, she filled it with courage.

Her renunciation is believed by devotees to be a striking quality that she shared with her husband in a measure equal to, if not beyond, his. The true nature of their relationship and kinship was believed to be beyond the grasp of ordinary minds. Ramakrishna concluded, after close and constant association with her, that her relationship and attitude toward him were firmly based on a divine spiritual plane. Devotees believe that as they shared their lives, day and night, no other thought, other than that of the divine presence, arose in their minds. An account of such continued divine relationship between two souls of opposite gender is unique in religious records, not known in any of the past hagiographies. After the passing away of Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi became a religious teacher in her own rights.

Later life

He soon came to be known as Ramakrishna Paramahansa, and like a magnet, is said to have begun to attract genuine seekers of God. He taught ceaselessly for fifteen years or so through parables, metaphors, songs and above all by his own life, the basic truths of religion. He had developed throat cancer and attained Mahasamadhi at a Garden House in Cossipore on 16 August, 1886, leaving behind a devoted band of 16 young disciples headed by the well-known saint-philosopher and orator, Swami Vivekananda and host of householder disciples. Among his contemporaries, Keshab Chandra Sen and Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who were known to be against Hindu idol-worship, were his admirers.


Ramakrishna emphasised that God-realisation is the supreme goal of all living beings(Kathamrita, 1/10/6). Hence, for him, religion served as a means for the achievement of this goal. Ramakrishna's mystical realization, classified by Hindu tradition as nirvikalpa samadhi (literally, "constant meditation", thought to be absorption in the all-encompassing Consciousness), led him to believe that various religions are various ways to reach the Absolute, and that the Ultimate Reality could never be expressed in human terms. This is in agreement with the Rigvedic proclamation that "Truth is one but sages call it by many a name." As a result of this opinion, Ramakrishna actually spent periods of his life practising his own understandings of Islam, Christianity and various other Yogic and Tantric sects within Hinduism.

Devotees believe that Ramakrishna's realization of nirvikalpa samadhi also led him to an understanding of the two sides of maya (illusion), to which he referred as avidyamaya and vidyamaya: He explained that avidyamaya represents the dark forces of creation (e.g. sensual desire, evil passions, greed, lust and cruelty), which keep the world system on lower planes of consciousness. These forces are responsible for human entrapment in the cycle of birth and death, and they must be fought and vanquished. Vidyamaya, on the other hand, represents the higher forces of creation (e.g. spiritual virtues, enlightening qualities, kindness, purity, love, and devotion), which elevate human beings to the higher planes of consciousness. With the help of vidyamaya, he said that devotees could rid themselves of avidyamaya and achieve the ultimate goal of becoming mayatita - that is, free from maya.

Ramakrishna's proclamation of jatra jiv tatra Shiv (wherever there is a living being, there is Shiva) stemmed from his Advaitic perception of Reality. This would lead him teach his disciples, "Jive daya noy, Shiv gyane jiv seba" (not kindness to living beings, but serving the living being as Shiva Himself). This view differs considerably from the "sentimental pantheism" of Francis of Assisi.

Ramakrishna, though not formally trained as a philosopher, had an intuitive grasp of complex philosophical concepts. According to him the visible universe and many other universes (brahmanda)are mere bubbles emerging out of the all supreme ocean of intelligence (Brahman) (Gospel of Ramakrishna, vol. 4).

The key concepts in Ramakrishna's teachings were:

  • the oneness of existence
  • the divinity of all living beings
  • the unity of God and the harmony of religions
  • that the primal bondage in human life is lust and greed (kamini and kanchana in Bengali)
A personal account of his life and teachings is recorded by his disciple, Mahendranath Gupta, simply known as "M", in Kathamrita. The account makes us aware of Ramakrishna's distinctive conversational style, his profuse employment of metaphors and parables, his characteristic wit and his frequent use of Bangla dialect words and idioms.

Like Adi Sankara had done more than a thousand years earlier, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa revitalized Hinduism which had been fraught with excessive ritualism and superstition in the nineteenth century and helped it better respond to challenges from Islam, Christianity and the dawn of the modern era. However, unlike Adi Sankara Ramakrishna developed ideas about post-samadhi descent of consciousness into the phenomenal world, which he went on to term as Vignana. While he asserted the supreme validity of Advaita Vedanta, he also proclaimed that he accepts both the Nitya (Eternal Substratum) and the Leela (lit.play, indicating the dynamic Phenomenal Reality) as aspects of the Brahman.

The idea of the descent of consciousness shows the influence of the Bhakti movement and certain sub-schools of Shaktism on Ramakrishna's thought. The idea would later influence Aurobindo's views about the Divine Life on Earth.

Ramakrishna's impact

Born as he was during a social upheaval in Bengal in particular and India in general, Ramakrishna and his movement was an important part of the direction that Hinduism and Indian nationalism took in the coming years.

On Hinduism

The Hindu Renaissance that India experienced in the 19th century may be said to have been spurred by his life and work. Although the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj preceded the Ramakrishna Mission, their influence was limited on a broader level. With the emergence of the Mission, however, the situation changed dramatically. The Ramakrishna Mission was founded by Ramakrishna himself when he had distributed the gerua cloth of renunciation to his direct disciples. This is corroborated by Swami Vivekananda himself when he says that without Thakur's grace all this would not have been possible. Many Ramakrishnites believe that Vivekananda acted as Ramakrishna's message-bearer to the West and hence helped in the fulfillment of their master's spiritual mission.

Hinduism faced a huge intellectual challenge in the 19th century, from Westerners and Indians alike. The Hindu practice of idol worship came under intense pressure specially in Bengal, then the center of British India, and was declared intellectually unsustainable. Response to this was varied, ranging from Young Bengal movement that denounced Hinduism and embraced Christianity or atheism, to the Brahmo movement that retained primacy of Hinduism but gave up idol worship, and to the staunch Hindu nationalism of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Ramakrishna's influence was crucial in this period for a Hindu revival of a more traditional kind, and can be compared to that of Chaitanya's contribution centuries earlier, when Hinduism in Bengal was under similar pressure from the growing power of Islam.

It would be difficult to give a comprehensive description of Ramakrishna's influence on Hinduism, but some important contributions of his can nevertheless be detected. In his worship of Mother Kali's murti, he questions the crux of idol worship - whether he is worshipping a piece of stone or a living Goddess and why she does not respond to his prayers. He is reassured several times by experiences that show him that she is present. To the many that revered him, this reinforced centuries old traditions that were in glaring spotlight at the time. Ramakrishna also touted an inclusive version of the religion, declaring Joto mot toto path. In Bangla, this roughly means Every opinion yields a path. He adopted a name that is clearly Vaishnavite (Rama and Krishna are both incarnations of Vishnu), but was a devotee of Kali, the mother Goddess, and known to have followed various other religious paths including Tantrism and even Christianity and Islam.

On Indian Nationalism

Ramakrishna's impact on the growing Indian nationalism was, if more indirect, neverthless quite notable. A large number of intellectuals of that age had regular communication with him and respected him, though not all of them necessarily agreed with him on religious matters. Numerous members of the Brahmo Samaj respected him. Though some of them embraced his form of Hinduism, the fact that many others didn't shows that they detected in him a possibility for a strong national identity in the face of a colonial adversary that was intellectually undermining the Indian civilization. As Amoury de Riencourt states,"The greatest leaders of the early twentieth century, whatever their walk of life -- Rabindranath Tagore, the prince of poets; Aurobindo Ghosh, the greatest mystic-philosopher; Mahatma Gandhi, who eventually shook the Anglo-Indian Empire to destruction-- all acknowledged their over-riding debt to both the Swan and the Eagle, to Ramakrishna who stirred the heart of India, and to Vivekananda who awakened its soul." This is particularly evident in Ramakrishna's development of the Mother-symbolism and its eventual role in defining the incipient Indian nationalism/s. A similar statement could be made about the fact that Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Ramakrishna held each other in high esteem, in spite of the fact that the first was a declared atheist.

Contemporary influence

It could be argued that Ramakrishna's vision of Hinduism, and its popularization by western converts like Christopher Isherwood, have largely colored Western notions of what Hinduism is. Some, like Andrew Harvey and Ken Wilber, see the beginning of a new planetary consciousness with Ramakrishna's life.

Religious scholar Jeffrey Kripal has written a controversial psychoanalytic study of Ramakrishna. Kripal adopts a multi-disciplinary approach in order to probe into the life of the mystic and uncover the connections between Tantric and psychoanalytic hermeneutical traditions. The book theorizes upon an alleged homoerotic strain in Ramakrishna's life, sadhana and philosophy. It has been criticized by the Ramakrishna Mission and other followers as being based on many mistranslations of primary sources, deceptions, and an incorrect use of psychoanalysis as a tool in forming the theory.

Historian Narasingha Sil has also written an account of Ramakrishna that suggests that Ramakrishna's mystical experiences were pathological and originated from alleged childhood sexual trauma. Other scholars, most notably psychologist Sudhir Kakar, judged Sil's study to be simplistic and misleading. Kakar sought a metapsychological non-pathological explanation that focuses on the pre-Oedipal and the Lacanian Real, and connects Ramakrishna's mystical noesis (bhava) with creativity. Kakar also argues that culturally relative concepts of eroticism and gender that have contributed to the Western difficulty in comprehending Ramakrishna. Sil's theorization has also been viewed as reductive by William B.Parsons, who has called for an increased empathetic dialogue between the classical/adaptive/transformative schools and the mystical traditions for an enhanced understanding of Ramakrishna's life and experiences.


This article comes from Community of One Love

The URL for this story is: