Ra­makr­ishna Parama­ham­sar

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Ra­makr­ishna Parma­hamsa is per­haps the best known saint of nine­teenth cen­tury In­dia. He was born in a poor Brah­min fam­ily in 1836, in a small town near Cal­cutta, West Bengal. As a young man, he was artis­tic and a pop­u­lar sto­ry­teller and ac­tor. His par­ents were re­li­gious, and prone to vi­sions and spir­i­tual dreams. Ra­makr­ishna's fa­ther had a vi­sion of the god Gadad­hara (Vishnu) while on a re­li­gious pil­grim­age. In the vi­sion, the god told him that he would be born into the fam­ily as a son.

Young Ra­makr­ishna was prone to ex­pe­ri­ences of spir­i­tual reverie and tem­po­rary loss of con­scious­ness. His early spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ences in­cluded go­ing into a state of rap­ture while watch­ing the flight of cranes, and loos­ing con­scious­ness of the outer world while play­ing the role of the god Shiva in a school play.

Ra­makr­ishna had lit­tle in­ter­est in school or prac­ti­cal things of the world. In 1866, he be­came a priest at a re­cently ded­i­cated tem­ple to the God­dess Kali lo­cated near Cal­cutta on the Ganges River. It was built by a pious widow, Rani Ras­mani. Ra­makr­ishna be­came a full-time devo­tee to the god­dess spend­ing in­creas­ing amounts of time giv­ing of­fer­ings and med­i­tat­ing on her. He med­i­tated in a sa­cred grove of five trees on the edge of the tem­ple grounds seek­ing a vi­sion of the god­dess Kali.

At one point he be­came frus­trated, feel­ing he could not live any longer with­out see­ing Kali. He de­manded that the god­dess ap­pear to him. He threat­ened to take his own life with a rit­ual dag­ger (nor­mally held in the hand of the Kali statue). At this point, he ex­plained how the god­dess ap­peared to him as an ocean of light:

When I jumped up like a mad­man and seized [a sword], sud­denly the blessed Mother re­vealed her­self. The build­ings with their dif­fer­ent parts, the tem­ple, and ev­ery­thing van­ished from my sight, leav­ing no trace what­so­ever, and in their stead I saw a lim­it­less, in­fi­nite, ef­ful­gent Ocean of Con­scious­ness. As far as the eye could see, the shin­ing bil­lows were madly rush­ing at me from all sides with a ter­rific noise, to swal­low me up. I was caught in the rush and col­lapsed, un­con­scious … within me there was a steady flow of undi­luted bliss, al­to­gether new, and I felt the pres­ence of the Di­vine Mother.

Ma­hen­dranath Gupta, Ra­makrsna Katham­rta trans­lated by Swami Nikhi­lananda as The Gospel of Sri Ra­makr­ishna (My­la­pore: Sri Ra­makrsna Math, 1952), Book 1, p. 15

Ra­makr­ishna's be­hav­ior be­came more er­ratic as time passed and be­gan to worry his fam­ily and em­ployer. He would take on rit­ual and myth­i­cal roles iden­ti­fy­ing with fig­ures from the Pu­ranas (me­dieval In­dian holy books de­scrib­ing the ad­ven­tures of gods). His par­ents found him a wife hop­ing his men­tal in­sta­bil­ity was a re­sult of his celibacy.

About this time, an el­derly holy woman named Bhairavi Brah­mani ap­peared and de­ter­mined that Ra­makr­ishna's mad­ness was "spir­i­tual mad­ness" rather than or­di­nary mad­ness. He was lit­er­ally mad for the vi­sion of God. She con­vened a group of re­spected re­li­gious lead­ers who ex­am­ined Ra­makr­ishna's symp­toms. They con­cluded that this was a case of di­vine mad­ness sim­i­lar in na­ture to that of other fa­mous saints such as Cai­tanya (a fif­teenth cen­tury Ben­gali saint). From this point on, peo­ple be­gan to treat Ra­makr­ishna with more re­spect though his un­usual be­hav­ior in worship and med­i­ta­tion con­tin­ued. The holy women stayed with Ra­makr­ishna for some time teach­ing him yo­gic and tantric med­i­ta­tion tech­niques.

A yo­gin named To­ta­puri then be­came Ra­makr­ishna's men­tor. Ra­makr­ishna adopted the role

of re­nun­ciant and learned a non­d­u­al­ist form of Vedanta phi­los­o­phy from him. In this sys­tem, God is un­der­stood to be the form­less un­man­i­fest en­ergy that sup­ports the cos­mos. Ra­makr­ishna ex­pe­ri­enced a deep form of trance (nirvikalpa samadhi) un­der the guid­ance of this teacher. This state can be de­scribed as com­plete ab­sorp­tion of the soul into the di­vine ocean of con­scious­ness.

Dis­ci­ples be­gan to ap­pear at this point in Ra­makr­ishna's life. He em­barked on a long pe­riod of teach­ing where he gath­ered a group of dis­ci­ples around him. This pe­riod of his life is well doc­u­mented by two sets of books writ­ten by his dis­ci­ples. Th­ese ref­er­ences are listed be­low.

Ra­makr­ishna ex­plained on dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions that god is both formed and form­less and can ap­pear to the devo­tee ei­ther way. He of­ten asked vis­i­tors whether they con­ceived of god as hav­ing qual­i­ties or as be­ing be­yond qual­i­ties. He then pro­ceeded to teach the devo­tee ac­cord­ing to the way he or she viewed the di­vine. His ac­cep­tance of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to the worship of God and the va­lid­ity of dif­fer­ent re­li­gious paths, such as Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam, is in the best tra­di­tion of the uni­ver­sal­ist ap­proach to re­li­gion com­mon through­out In­dia to­day.

One ex­tra­or­di­nary qual­ity of Ra­makr­ishna's mes­sage was its uni­ver­sal ap­peal to a broad cross sec­tion of In­dian so­ci­ety. In the West, re­li­gions like Chris­tian­ity and Ju­daism tend to be ex­clu­sive, and find the con­tra­dic­tions that arise from a re­li­gion that is too broad to be ob­jec­tion­able. If one re­li­gious ap­proach is right, the oth­ers must be wrong.

In terms of mass ap­peal to dif­fer­ent classes of so­ci­ety, Ra­makr­ishna's mes­sage ap­pealed to the up­per classes who are likely to fol­low a Vedan­tist or philo­soph­i­cal ap­proach to re­li­gion by some­times de­scrib­ing God as a non-dual form­less essence.

His de­scrip­tion of Kali as an ocean of light had much in com­mon with the ocean of Brah­man that the Brah­mins (the tra­di­tional priest caste) seek to encounter when they are ini­ti­ated into the Gay­a­tri mantra, or the mantra of the sun. One di­vine ocean of con­scious­ness may be dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish from an­other. Ra­makr­ishna also ap­pealed to those with an in­ter­est in yoga and es­o­teric prac­tices by prac­tic­ing a non-dual form of med­i­ta­tion pre­scribed by To­ta­puri which seeks samadhi. The most pop­u­lar re­li­gious prac­tice by far in In­dia is bhakti, or de­vo­tion to a de­ity. Ra­makr­ishna's mes­sage was wel­comed by both the ru­ral and ur­ban re­li­gious peo­ple who did puja to dif­fer­ent deities. As an ex­am­ple, Ra­makr­ishna wor­shiped the di­vine mother Kali as a pro­tec­tive and benev­o­lent de­ity (Kali also has a fierce and de­struc­tive side which she gen­er­ally does not show to those who worship her). Th­ese devo­tees saw him as a great teacher and bhakta who sang the names of God and talked in­ces­santly about God. They too did puja and sang the names of their cho­sen deities in hopes of hav­ing healthy chil­dren, get­ting good jobs or mar­riages, pro­duc­ing a plen­ti­ful har­vest, or en­ter­ing into the de­ity's par­adise af­ter death. Ra­makr­ishna be­lieved the sin­cere devo­tee could even hope for a vi­sion or dream of the di­vine mother or other de­ity. Though Ra­makr­ishna was devoted to Kali, he showed re­spect and gave guid­ance to many vis­i­tors who wor­shiped other gods and spoke highly of the past In­dian saints who were devoted to other deities.

Those who fol­lowed the Vedic pre­scrip­tion of re­li­gious uni­ver­sal­ism summed up in the phrase "There is but one Truth, but sages call it by dif­fer­ent names" noted that Ra­makr­ishna prac­ticed the rit­u­als of many re­li­gions, and found that they all brought him to the same di­vine re­al­ity in the end. For those who wor­shiped many dif­fer­ent saints and deities through­out In­dia, this uni­ver­sal ap­proach echoed their own multi-faceted re­li­gious prac­tices.

Fi­nally, for those with a strong sense of Hindu na­tion­al­ism, Ra­makr­ishna's chief dis­ci­ple, Swami Vivekananda, en­tered onto the world stage by do­ing a key­note ad­dress at the World Par­lia­ment of Re­li­gions meet­ing in Chicago in 1893, and he elec­tri­fied his au­di­ence. Hin­dus for gen­er­a­tions could point to their in­dige­nous tra­di­tions with pride af­ter his ex­em­plary speech.

Vivekananda also pro­moted a more ac­tivist form of Hin­duism, which fo­cused on ed­u­ca­tion, feed­ing the poor, and de­vel­op­ing li­braries and other in­sti­tu­tions. His works were a way of show­ing Hin­dus that it was not only the Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies that could ben­e­fit so­ci­ety, but that Hindu re­li­gion was also valu­able with re­spect to im­prov­ing so­ci­ety and com­bat­ing so­cial ills.

Ra­makr­ishna died of can­cer of the throat in 1886, leav­ing his wife Sarada Devi who was con­sid­ered a saint in her own right to take charge of his dis­ci­ples and carry on his mes­sage.

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