Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886)
Sri Ramakrishna, the great world-teacher and incarnation of divinity, who taught the universality of religion, the motherhood of God and the mystical path of love, is considered by many as the central force behind the spiritual awakening of this age. Through his extraordinary purity and devotion and his unprecedented spiritual disciplines and experiences, Sri Ramakrishna unleashed a spiritual current of grace, making the divine mystery accessible to all.
We read in the Bhagavadgita that the blessed Lord incarnates in every age when there is a decline in dharma, for the protection of the righteous and the destruction of the wicked. Devotees of Sri Ramakrishna recognize in him the latest incarnation, who came to restore the soul of India in her darkest hour, to restore her ancient dignity and spiritually uplift the world. Born in 1836, Sri Ramakrishna grew up in an orthodox brahmana family in the village of Kamarpukur. In 1852 Sri Ramakrishna moved to Kolkata, joining his older brother, Ramkumar. Two years later he accepted to officiate as pujari (priest) at Rani Rasmani’s newly-built Kali temple in Dakshineswar, which would become his home for the next 30 years.
As Kali’s priest, he began to ask himself if the goddess he was sincerely serving was real or not. If She was real, could one experience Her directly? His intense longing for the vision of Mother Kali became so great, so overwhelming, that the Mother could not keep Herself hidden from him any longer. The Master related his first vision of Kali to his close disciples:
“I had a marvelous vision of the Mother and fell down unconscious.…Within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss that I had never before experienced, and I felt the immediate presence of the Divine Mother.” Even after this beatific vision Sri Ramakrishna was not satisfied, and he longed to have unbroken communion with Her, sometimes rolling on the ground crying, “Mother, be gracious unto me! Reveal Yourself to me!” The Master later recounted:
“Sometimes I would lose outer consciousness from that unbearable agony. Immediately after that I would see the Mother’s luminous form bestowing boons and fearlessness! I used to see Her smiling, talking, consoling, or teaching me in various ways”.
“People weep a bucket of tears for family; people weep a flood of tears for money; but who is weeping for God? You have to call out with a real cry. You have to love God. Like a mother loves her son, like a devoted wife loves her husband, like a worldly man loves the world. These three people’s love, these three attractions—when you’ve combined them as much as you can, and given it to God, you attain Her vision. You need to cry to Her with yearning.”
The Divine Mother also sent him teachers to initiate him into the complicated practices of tantra, the difficult abstractions of Vedanta, the varied devotional moods of Vaishnavism, and even the ‘foreign’ faiths of Islam and Christianity. Each he practiced with full sincerity. And the goal presented in each opened up to him as direct experience. In the heart of every tradition he saw his Mother Kali shining. Sri Ramakrishna’s famous declaration “yato mat, tato path”—”as many faiths, so many paths”—was not the result of intellectual comparison or a modern open-mindedness. It came from his own realization, a gift of Goddess Kali to the world. The Master realized that this liberal view was singularly unique. He came to understand that the Divine Mother was working through his body and mind. She is the reality that Sri Ramakrishna incarnated. It was Her message that Sri Ramakrishna revealed.
Sri Ramakrishna proved that God-realization is not the monopoly of any particular age, country, or people. In him, deepest spirituality and broadest catholicity stood side by side. He did not found any cult, nor did he show a new path to salvation. His message was his God-consciousness. When God-consciousness falls short, traditions become dogmatic and oppressive, and religious teachings lose their transforming power. At a time when the very foundation of religion—faith in God—was crumbling under the relentless blows of materialism and skepticism, Sri Ramakrishna demonstrated the reality of the time-honored teachings of all the prophets and saviors of the past, and thus restored the falling edifice of religion on a secure foundation. Drawn by the magnetism of Sri Ramakrishna’s divine personality, people flocked to him—men and women, young and old, philosophers and theologians, philanthropists and humanists, atheists and agnostics, Hindus and Brahmos, Christians and Muslims, seekers of truth of all races, creeds and castes. His small room in the Dakshineswar temple garden became a veritable parliament of religions. Those who came to him felt uplifted by his profound teachings, boundless love, and universal outlook. Each seeker saw in him the manifestation of their own ideal.
Sri Ramakrishna’s life and teachings point unequivocally towards spiritual freedom. It is not birth, not upbringing, not culture that decides your path. It is yearning. With yearning for the Divine, it does not matter what path you walk; and without yearning, you will not be able to walk any path. Sri Ramakrishna reveals the purest and safest approach to an often misunderstood goddess. There are many ways of worshiping Kali. While many may be authentic, not all are safe. Sri Ramakrishna mastered the sixty-four branches of tantra—many difficult and controversial. But when the time came to train his own disciples, he made the path to God simple and beautiful. He said:
“Pray to the Divine Mother with a longing heart. Her vision dries up all craving for the world and completely destroys lust and greed. It happens instantly if you think of Her as your own mother. She is by no means a godmother. She is your own mother….This attitude of regarding God as Mother is the last word in sadhana. ‘O God, Thou art my Mother and I am Thy child’—this is the last word in spirituality.”
om niranjanam nityam ananta-ruupam bhaktaanukampa-dhrita-vigraaham
vai ishaavaataram paramesaandhyam tam raamakrishnam shirasa namamah
“We bow our heads to Ramakrishna, who is without blemish, eternal, and of limitless forms; who, out of compassion for the devotees, has assumed a human body; who is an incarnation of God; the adorable Supreme Lord Himself.”
Sri Sarada Devi, The Holy Mother (1853-1920)
People do not think of the quiet and dignified consort of Sri Ramakrishna as a mad, God-intoxicated saint. Outwardly Sri Sarada Devi rarely showed any signs of the passionate love Sri Ramakrishna and other Kali saints exhibited in their lives. On the contrary, she preferred to hide herself and her sweet divinity. Whenever anyone spoke of her as a divine being in her presence, she would at once stop such flattering words and say with the utmost sincerity that she was what she was only because the Master (Thakur Sri Ramakrishna) had given her shelter at his feet. The veil with which she always hid her face in public seemed to be symbolic of this more profound veil of modesty with which she hid her own towering greatness. It was for this reason that Sri Ramakrishna, in fun, likened her to a cat that loved to hide its real color with ashes.
Known by her devotees as Sri Ma (the Holy Mother), Sri Sarada Devi, the spiritual consort of Sri Ramakrishna, was born on 22 December 1853 in a poor Brahmin family in Jayrambati, a village near Kamarpukur in West Bengal. The Holy Mother lived her early life simply and joyously in her ancestral village. Being a child bride, she quietly prepared herself for the time when she would leave her parents’ house and move in with her husband. When nasty gossip about Sri Ramakrishna becoming mad reached remote Jayrambati, Holy Mother often overheard women discussing her husband’s state of mind. It hurt her deeply. She wanted to go to Sri Ramakrishna and see for herself what the truth was.
An opportunity to go to Dakshineshwar presented itself when a few villagers planned a trip to Kolkata to take a bath in the Ganges on a particularly auspicious day. Sri Sarada’s father agreed to accompany the girl. It was a long journey along a dusty road, across rice fields and open meadows. The Holy Mother, unaccustomed to walking such a distance, fell ill with high fever after a couple of days and had to take shelter in a rest house. There seemed to be no way that she could continue her journey. She later recounted:
“I was lying unconscious, owing to fever, without any sense of decorum, even. Just then I saw a woman, pitch dark in complexion, sitting by my side. Though she was dark, I have never seen another so beautiful as she. She stroked my aching head with her soft cool hands, and I felt the heat in my body subsiding. “Where are you from?” I asked her. And she replied, “From Dakshineswar.” At this I was speechless with wonder, and exclaimed, “From Dakshineswar! I too am going to Dakshineswar to see my husband. But this fever has unfortunately detained me on the way.” To this she replied, “Don’t worry. You will soon be alright, and see your husband at Dakshineswar. It is for your sake that I have kept him there.” I said to her, “Indeed! Is it so? But who are you to me?” “I am your sister,” she replied. I was much astonished to hear this. After this conversation I fell asleep.”
When she finally reached Dakshineswar, she found Sri Ramakrishna perfectly sane and spiritually illumined. He received his young wife with great affection. He taught her how to lead a spiritual life while discharging her household duties. Living pure, celibate lives, Holy Mother served Sri Ramakrishna as his devoted wife and disciple. Sri Ramakrishna looked upon her as a special manifestation of the Mother of the Universe. In 1872, on the night of the Phalaharini Kali Ppuja, he ritualistically worshipped Sarada Devi as the Goddess, thereby awakening the universal Motherhood latent within her. When disciples began to gather around Sri Ramakrishna, she learned to look upon them as her own children. The room in which she stayed at Dakshineshwar was too small to live in and had hardly any amenities; and on many days she did not get the opportunity of meeting Sri Ramakrishna. But she bore all difficulties silently and lived in contentment and peace, serving the increasing number of devotees who came to see Sri Ramakrishna.
After Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away in 1886, Holy Mother spent some months on pilgrimage, and then went to Kamarpukur where she lived in great privation. Coming to know of this, the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna brought her to Kolkata. This marked a turning point in her life. She now began to accept spiritual seekers as her disciples, and became the open portal to immortality for thousands of people. Her universal mother-heart embraced all people without distinction.
“But I tell you one thing—if you want peace of mind, do not find fault with others. Rather see your own faults.
Learn to make the whole world your own. No one is a stranger my child: this whole world is your own!”
~Sri Sarada Devi
When the Western women disciples of Swami Vivekananda came to Kolkata, the Holy Mother accepted them with open arms as her daughters, ignoring the restrictions of the orthodox society of the time. Although she had grown up in a conservative rural society without any access to modern education, she held progressive views, and whole-heartedly supported Swamiji in his plans for rejuvenation of India and the uplift of the masses and women.
Holy Mother looked upon herself as the mother of all beings and spent her whole life in serving all as her children, undergoing unending sacrifice and self-denial. About her role in the mission of Sri Ramakrishna on earth, she stated: “My son, you know the Master had a maternal attitude (matri-bhava) towards every one. He has left me behind to manifest that Divine Motherhood in the world.” On account of her immaculate purity, extraordinary forbearance, selfless service, unconditional love, wisdom and spiritual illumination, Swami Vivekananda regarded Sri Sarada Devi as the ideal for women in the modern age. He believed that with the advent of Holy Mother, the spiritual awakening of women in modern times had begun.
The Holy Mother said:
“In truth I am your real Mother, not just the wife of your guru, nor an adopted mother or a stepmother either. I am the Mother of all! Whenever any disturbing thought comes to you, think of me. I am the mother of the wicked, as I am the mother of the virtuous. Never fear and whenever you are in distress just say to yourself, ‘I have a mother.’ Make it a point always to remember whose child you are, and who has granted refuge to you.”
Sri Ramakrshna and Sri Sarada Devi are the male and female counterparts of the same divine incarnation. By invoking and honoring them, we are brought to the feet of the Divine Mother.
deviim prasannaam pranataarti-hantriim yogiindra-puujyaam yuga-dharma-paatriim
taam saaradaam bhakti-vijnaana-daatriim dayaa-svaruupaam pranamaami nityam
“The Goddess who removes the miseries of Her devotees hearts, the consort the t worshipable lord of yogis (Ramakrishna), who brought the religion of this age, to that Sarada, the grantor of devotion and wisdom and the embodiment of mercy—our perpetual salutations.”
Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)
‘Sisters and brothers of America…’ With these words Swami Vivekananda, the foremost disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, began his now famous speech, given in 1893 at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. This was the Western world’s earliest formulations of what we know now as Hinduism. Swamiji became one of the most popular speakers at the parliament, and his success propelled him onto the American stage and then into international fame. This allowed him, along with his brother disciples and followers, to spread yoga and Vedanta in the West and to establish the dynamic work of Ramakrishna Math and Mission in the East.
Mother Kali was Sri Ramakrishna’s overwhelming reality. He sang to Her, had visions of Her, spoke intimately to Her, and heard Her voice. It was only by accepting Mother Kali that Swami Vivekananda could fully accept Sri Ramakrishna and become his pure instrument. The Master had already seen Narendra’s (Vivekananda’s premonastic name) future in a vision. He understood that it was Narendra who would lead his disciples and devotees to accomplish the Mother’s mission in the world.
But the young Narendra, like much of young Bengal, had been swayed by the persuasive teachings of the socio-religious groups of the day, which responded to the challenge of the West, not with atheism, but with a ‘Christianized’ form of Hinduism. In their attempt to purify Hinduism of what they saw as superstition, they preached that the various deities were false, and its members even signed loyalty oaths vowing not to bow down before images. Thus, Narenda’s close association with Sri Ramakrishna created a great dilemma for him, for he had witnessed the Master’s power, purity, and devotion, but could not accept the Hindu world that the Master lived in: a world of gods and goddesses, of ‘graven’ images, of visions and ecstasies. Swamiji later said of this time: “How I used to hate Kali! … and all Her ways! That was the ground of my six years’ fight—that I would not accept Her. … I loved him [Sri Ramakrishna], you see, and that was what held me. I saw his marvelous purity. … I felt his wonderful love. … His greatness had not dawned on me then. All that came after wards when I had given in. At that time I thought him a brain-sick baby, always seeing visions and the rest. I hated it. And then I too had to accept Her!”2 Like many major breakthroughs in life, Swamiji’s ‘accepting’ Kali came as the result of a personal crisis. With the death of Narendra’s father, his once affluent household was thrown into deep poverty. The young Narendra, although employable and qualified, could not secure any work to relieve his family’s suffering. He reached the point of despair. Perhaps all this was the arrangement of the Divine Mother, for in times of great need She manifests. The Swami recounts:
“It occurred to me that God grants the Master’s prayers, so I should ask him to pray on my behalf that my family’s financial crises would be overcome. I was sure that he wouldn’t refuse, for my sake. I rushed to Dakshineswar and importuned him, saying, ‘Sir, you must speak to the Divine Mother so that my family’s financial problems can be solved.’ The Master replied: ‘I can’t make such demands. Why don’t you go and ask the Mother yourself. You don’t accept the Mother—that is why you have all these troubles.’ I replied: ‘I don’t know the Mother. Please tell the Mother for me. You have to, or I won’t let you go.’ The Master said affectionately: ‘My boy, I’ve prayed many times to the Mother to remove your suffering. But She doesn’t listen to my prayers because you don’t care for Her. All right, today is Tuesday, a day especially sacred to Mother. Go to the temple tonight and pray. Mother will grant whatever you ask for, I promise you that. My Mother is the embodiment of Pure Consciousness, the Power of Brahman, and She has produced this universe by mere will. What can She not do, if She wishes?’ When the Master said that, I was fully convinced that all my suffering would cease as soon as I prayed to Her. I waited impatiently for night. At 9.00 p.m. the Master told me to go to the temple. On my way, I was possessed by a kind of drunkenness and began to stagger. I firmly believed that I would see the Mother and hear Her voice. I forgot everything else and became absorbed in that thought alone. When I entered the temple, I saw that the Mother was actually conscious and living, the fountainhead of infinite love and beauty. Overwhelmed with love and devotion, I bowed down to Her again and again, praying, ‘Mother—grant me discrimination, grant me detachment, grant me divine knowledge and devotion, grant that I may see You without obstruction, always!’ My heart was filled with peace. The universe disappeared from my mind and the Mother alone occupied it completely.”
During the years of his training, Narendra kept asking Sri Ramakrishna for an experience of nirvikalpa samadhi, the complete absorption of the self in the Divine. The moment came at Kashipur, during the Master’s final illness. Sri Ramakrishna was lying awake in his bed while Narendra was downstairs in another room absorbed in deep meditation. He felt as if a lamp was burning at the back of his head when his sense of individual existence drowned in the bliss of pure Being. When he regained normal consciousness, Sri Ramakrishna told him: “Now the Mother has shown you everything. But this revelation will remain under lock and key, and I will keep the key. When you have accomplished the Mother’s work you will find the treasure again.” Even the realization of the non-dual Brahman comes as a gift from the Divine Mother.
“Come out into the broad light of day, come out from the little narrow paths, for how can the infinite soul rest content to live and die in small ruts? Come out into the universe of Light. Everything in the universe is yours. Stretch out your arms and embrace it with love. If you ever felt you wanted to do that, you have felt God.”
Vivekananda did not often mention Sri Ramakrishna in his public talks in the West. Even less did he reveal the centrality of Mother Kali in his life and thought. He focused, instead, on the message of the Master by presenting the broad underlying principles of religion, lecturing on the Upanishads, and preaching “what is good for universal humanity.” Though not openly preached, the swami could not keep his love for the Divine Mother hidden from his intimate disciples. “You see,” he once said, “I cannot but believe that there is somewhere a great Power that thinks of Herself as feminine, and called Kali, and Mother.”
Just as Sri Ramakrishna incarnated at a time when Indian culture was being threatened by materialism, so also Swamiji arrived in the United States at a cusp in Western culture, when simple religious beliefs were being undermined by the scientific method, the evolution theory of Charles Darwin, and the industrial revolution. The doctrines of the Church no longer satisfied the educated classes, who became Swamiji’s audience. To them he spoke his Master’s liberal and liberating message: that God not only exists but can be realized as a personal fact; that the religions of the world are paths leading the sincere to this ultimate goal; that the truths of the Upanishads and methodologies of yoga were not antagonistic to rational enquiry or scientific scrutiny.
In India Swamiji is a national hero, the prophet of the modern Hindu renaissance. We can see practically the transformative influence he has had on his motherland by inspiring generations of his monastic and lay followers to spread education, empower women, uplift the poor, serve the distressed, and distribute spiritual knowledge—all in the name of Sri Ramakrishna, the avatar of the age.
But what is his enduring legacy outside of India? As the first Hindu sannyasin to preach in America, Swamiji prepared the stage for today’s interest in yoga, meditation, ayurveda, kirtan, and the many Hindu-based religious movements that are thriving. But we also see the more subtle effect of Swamiji’s work, the effect he has had on the intellectual and spiritual culture of the world. Sri Ramakrishna’s realization: ‘As many faiths, so many paths’ was first presented to the West by Swamiji. This once revolutionary idea is now widely accepted, even by many Christians. Although ‘Vivekananda’ is not a household name, his influence has acted as a leavening agent, fundamentally lifting the world view of millions.
While in India this universal message has never been separated from the person of Sri Ramakrishna, in the West, we are only beginning to recognize the person behind the principles, the giver of the gift. When you love someone, you want to love what they love , who they love. Sri Ramakrishna and Mother Kali cannot be separated. Though it has been 120 years since Swamiji first addressed his American sisters and brothers, Mother’s work in America is just beginning. She must have a special plan, for She not only sent Vivekananda, but also other companions of the avatara, such as Swamis Saradananda, Turiyananda, Abhedananda, Trigunatitananda, and Nirmalananda—all great saints and knowers of God.
Swamiji arrived in America in 1893. Within seven short years he established a network of societies to promote the teachings of Vedanta. Since then, these have spread to hundreds of centers, ashramas, monasteries, convents, study groups, and home shrines—all dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna. Swamiji once told Sister Nivedita: “The future, you say, will call Ramakrishna Paramahamsa an Incarnation of Kali? Yes, I think there’s no doubt that She worked up the body of Ramakrishna for Her own ends.”
After many nights of intense austerities at Kshir Bhavani in Kashmir, Swamiji had the vision of the Mother. Returning to the houseboat that he and his companions were renting, he raised his hands in benediction and placed the marigolds that he had offered to the goddess on the heads of all of the disciples saying, “No more ‘Hari Om!’ It is all ‘Mother’ now! … I am only a little child!”
Today, 150 years after his birth, we are still calculating the tremendous impact this ‘little child’ has had on the world. Sri Ramakrishna held the key to the Mother’s treasure, and SwamiVivekananda, in his brief, blazing life of service, accomplished Her work, without a doubt. But Mother’s great miracle is that he then left the key for anyone of us to find, if we but surrender to Her.
om namah shrii yati-rajaaya vivekaananda suray| satchit sukha svarupaaya svamine tapa-harine
“Salutation to the sage Vivekananda, that king of monks, the embodiment of existence, consciousness and bliss, the Master, the remover of suffering.”