Updated: Jan 30
(From They Lived with God: Life Stories of Some Devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, by Swami Chetananada. Copyright rests with the author of this article.)
“When religion declines and irreligion prevails, I incarnate myself in every age to establish religion”, declared Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. The lives of Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Chaitanya, and Ramakrishna justify this statement. That God descends to the earth as a human being to help mankind is not a myth, but a fact. Each avatar, or Divine Incarnation, fulfills the need of a particular age and points out the goal of human life. Peace and bliss come through spiritual values, not materialism.
Sri Ramakrishna was born on February 18, 1836, in Kamarpukur, a small village sixty miles northwest of Calcutta. In the spring of 1835 his father, Khudiram Chattopadhyay, had gone to visit Gaya to perform a rite for his ancestors. One night, in his sleep, Khudiram had a vision. He saw a luminous Being gazing at him affectionately. The Being said in a sweet voice: “Khudiram, your great devotion has made me very happy. The time has come for Me to be born once again on earth. I shall be born as your son.” Khudiram was filled with joy until he realized that he did not have the means to carry out such a great responsibility. So he said: “No, my Lord, I am not fit for this favor. I am too poor to serve you properly”. “Do not be afraid, Khudiram”, said the Lord. “Whatever you give me to eat, I shall enjoy”. Khudiram woke, convinced that the Lord of the Universe was going to be born into his household. He then left Gaya and returned to Kamarpukur before the end of April.
On his return, Khudiram heard from his wife, Chandra, of an experience she had had in front of the Yogi Shiva temple next to their house. Chandra said: “I saw that the holy image of Lord Shiva inside the shrine was alive! It began to send forth waves of the most beautiful light-slowly at first, then quicker and quicker. They filled the inside of the temple, then they came pouring out-it was like one of those huge flood waves in the river-right towards me! I was going to tell Dhani [a neighbor woman], but then the waves washed over me and swallowed me up, and I felt that marvelous light enter into my body. I fell down on the ground, unconscious. When I came to myself, I told Dhani what had happened, but she did not believe me. She said I’d had an epileptic fit. That cannot be so, because since then I have been full of joy and my health is better than ever. Only-I feel that light is still inside me, and I believe that I am with child”.
Khudiram then told Chandra about his vision, and they rejoiced together. Prayerfully, the pious couple waited patiently for the birth of the divine child the following spring. Owing to Khudiram’s experience at Gaya, Sri Ramakrishna was named “Gadadhar”, an epithet for Vishnu meaning “Bearer-of-the-Mace”. He was the couple’s fourth child, born after two sons, Ramkumar and Rameshwar, and a daughter, Katyayani. A second daughter, Sarvamangala, was born when Sri Ramakrishna was three years old.
Sri Ramakrishna grew up in Kamarpukur. He was sent to school where he learned to read and write, but he soon lost interest in this “bread-earning education”. When he was six or seven years old, he had his first experience of Cosmic Consciousness. “One morning,” he recalled in later life, “I took some parched rice in a small basket and was eating it while walking along the narrow ridges of the rice fields. In one part of the sky, a beautiful black cloud appeared, heavy with rain. I was watching it and eating the rice. Very soon the cloud covered almost the entire sky. And then a flock of cranes came flying by. They were as white as milk against that black cloud. It was so beautiful that I became absorbed in the sight. Then I lost consciousness of everything outward. I fell down and the rice was scattered over the earth. Some people saw this and came and carried me home.”
Khudiram died in 1843. Sri Ramakrishna keenly felt the loss of his father and became more indrawn and meditative. He began to visit the rest-house in the village where pilgrims, especially monks, would stop on their way to Puri. While serving these holy people he learned their songs and prayers.
When Sri Ramakrishan was nine years old, following the brahminical tradition, he was invested with a sacred thread, which allowed him to perform ritualistic worship. Gradually he began to help the household by conducting the ritual to the family deities. He had some friends with whom he would play, sing, and act out religious dramas. Once, during the Shiva-ratri festival (a spring worship of Lord Shiva), he enacted the role of Shiva and lost outer consciousness. Then on another occasion, while going to worship the Divine Mother in a neighboring village, Sri Ramakrishna went into samadhi.
In 1850 Ramkumar opened a school in Calcutta, and as a secondary profession he used to perform rituals in private homes. It soon became difficult for him to manage both, so in 1852 he brought Sri Ramakrishna to Calcutta to assist him. Sri Ramakrishna helped his brother in performing the rituals, but when Ramkumar asked him to continue his studies he declined. On May 31, 1855, Ramkumar took the responsibility of officiating at the dedication ceremony of the Kali temple of Dakshineswar, which had been founded by Rani Rasmani, a wealthy woman of Calcutta. Sri Ramakrisha was present on that occasion. Soon afterwards he moved to Dakshineswar and in time became a priest in the temple. Ramkumar died in 1856.
Sri Ramakrishna now began his spiritual journey in earnest. While worshiping the Divine Mother, he questioned: “Are You true, Mother, or is it all a fiction of the mind-mere poetry without any reality? If you do exist, why can’t I see You? Is religion, then, a fantasy, a mere castle in the air?” His yearning for God-realization became more intense day by day. He prayed and meditated almost twenty-four hours a day. Then he had a remarkable experience:
There was an unbearable pain my heart, because I could not see the Mother. Just as a man wrings a towel with all his strength to get the water out of it, so I felt as if my heart and mind were being wrung. I began to think I should never see Mother. I was dying of despair. In my agony, I said to myself: “What is the use of living this life?” Suddenly my eyes fell on the sword that hangs in the temple. I decided to end my life with it. And then-I had a marvelous vision of the Mother, and fell down unconscious… It was as if houses, doors, temples, and everything else vanished altogether, as if there was nothing anywhere! And what I saw was an infinite, shoreless sea of light; a sea that was consciousness. However far and in whatever direction I looked, I saw shining waves, one after another, coming towards me. They were raging and storming upon me with great speed. Very soon they were upon me; they made me sink down into unknown depths. I panted and struggled and then lost consciousness. (Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Methuen and Co., London, 1965, p.65)
After this vision it was not possible for Sri Ramakrishna to continue the ritual in the temple, so he entrusted his responsibility to Hriday, his nephew, and passed more than two years in a God-intoxicated state. In 1859 he returned to Kamarpukur and lived with his mother for approximately one year and seven mounths. Chandra arranged his marriage to Sarada Mukhopadhyay (later known as the Holy Mother), a young girl from Jayrambati, a village just west of Kamarpukur. After the marriage Sri Ramakrishna returned to Dakshineswar in 1860.
After arriving at Dakshineswar the Master was caught up again in that spiritual tempest. He forgot his home, wife, family, body, and surroundings. He described his experience of that period:
No sooner had I passed through one spiritual crisis than another took its place. It was like being in the midst of a whirlwind-even my sacred thread was blown away, I could seldom keep hold of my dhoti (cloth). Sometimes I’d open my mouth, and it would be as if my jaws reached from heaven to the underworld. “Mother!” I’d cry desperately. I felt I had to pull Her in, as a fisherman pulls in fish with his dragnet. A prostitute walking the street would appear to me to be Sita, going to meet Her victorious husband. An English boy standing cross-legged against a tree reminded me of the boy Krishna, and I lost consciousness. Sometimes I would share my food with a dog. My hair became matted. Birds would perch on my head and peck at the grains of rice which had lodged there during the worship. Snakes would crawl over my motionless body. An ordinary man couldn’t have borne a quarter of that tremendous fervor; it would have burnt him up. I had no sleep at all for six long years. My eyes lost the power of winking. I stood in front of a mirror and tried to close my eyelids with my finger-and I couldn’t! I got frightened and said to Mother: Mother, is this what happens to those who call on You? I surrender myself to You, and You give me this terrible disease!” I used to shed tears-but then, suddenly, I’d be filled with ecstasy. I saw that my body didn’t matter-it was of no importance, a mere trifle. Mother appeared to me and comforted me and freed me from my fear. (Ibid., p.85)
In 1861 Bhairavi Brahmani (a nun) came to Dakshineswar to initiate Sri Ramakrishna into Tantric disciplines. The Master practiced sixty-four methods of Tantra and attained perfection thorough all of them. After completing his Tantra sadhana (disciplines) he practiced vatsalya bhava (the affectionate attitude towards God) under Jatadhari, a Vaishnava monk, and then madhura bhava (the sweet mood), in which a devotee approaches God as a lover. After these spiritual practices Tota Puri, a Vedanta Monk, came to initiate Sri Ramakrishna into sannyasa (monastic vows). The Master attained nirvikalpa samadhi, the highest Vedantic experience, in three days.
In 1866 Sri Ramakrishna practiced Islam under the guidance of a Sufi names Govinda Roy. The Master later mentioned to his disciples: “I devoutly repeated the name of Allah, and I said their prayers five times daily. I spent three days in that mood, and I had the full realization of the sadhana of their faith.”
In 1868 Sri Ramakrishna went on a pilgrimage with Hriday, Mathur (the temple manager) and Mathur’s family. He visited Deoghar, Varanasi, Prayag, Vrindaban, and also Navadwip. Mathur, after having served the Master for fourteen years, died in 1871. The following year Sarada Devi (Holy Mother) came to Dakshineswar and Sri Ramakrishna worshiped her as the Divine Mother.
In 1873 the Master met Shambhu Charan Mallik, who would read to him from the Bible and talk to him about Jesus of Nazareth. One day Sri Ramakrishna visited Jadu Mallik’s garden house, which was adjacent to the Dakshineswar temple. In his living room, the Master saw a picture of the Madonna with the child Jesus sitting on her lap. While he was gazing at it, he saw that the figures of the Mother and Child were shining, and that the rays of light coming forth from them were entering his heart.
For the next three days he was absorbed in the thought of Jesus, and at the end of the third day, while walking in the Panchavati, he had a vision of a foreign-looking person with a beautiful face and large eyes of uncommon brilliance. As he pondered who this stranger could be, a voice from within said: “This is Jesus Christ, the great yogi, the loving Son of God, who was one with his Father and who shed his heart’s blood and suffered tortures for the salvation of mankind!” Jesus then embraced Sri Ramakrishna and merged into his body.
After realizing God in different religions as well as in different sects of Hinduism, Sri Ramakrishna proclaimed: “As many faiths, so many paths”. The jewels of spirituality which he had gathered during three-quarters of his life spent in hard struggle were now ready to be given to humanity. In 1875 Sri Ramakrishna met Keshab Chandra Sen, a famous Brahmo leader, who was a popular hero of the time. Keshab and his followers began publishing the fascinating life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna in their journals, and as a result many people came to know about the saint of Dakshineswar.
Through direct experience Sri Ramakrishna realized that the form of the Divine Mother was one with formless Supreme Brahman, like fire and its burning power, like milk and its whiteness. The Divine Mother once said to the Master: “You and I are one. Let your life in this world be deep in devotion to Me, and pass your days for the good of mankind. The devotees will come.”
Sri Ramakrishna was disgusted with the mundane talk of worldly people. In the evening during vespers, when the temples resounded with the ringing of bells and the blowing of conch shells, he would climb to the rooftop of the kuthi and cry out in a loud voice: “Come to me, O devotees! Where are you? I cannot bear to live without you.”
In 1879 the devotees started to come to Dakshineswar. First came Ram, Manomohan, then Kedar Surendra, Chuni, Latu, Nityagopal, and Tarak. In 1881-82 Narendra (Swami Vivekananda), Rakhal, Bhavanath, Baburam, Balaram, Niranjan, M., and Yogin came. In 1883-85 Adhar, Sharat, Shashi, Gangadhar, Kali, Girish, Devendra, Sarada, Kalipada, Upendra, Hari, Subodh, Purna, and other disciples met Sri Ramakrishna. With them the Master played his divine drama. Sri Ramakrishna also met many distinguished people of that time, such a Michael Madhusudan Datta, Dayananda Saraswati, Devendra Nath Tagore, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar, Bankim Chatterjee, Mr. Joseph Cook, Mr Williams, Mr. Missir, and others.
Sri Ramakrishna trained his disciples to carry out his mission, and he made Swami Vivekananda their leader. When Swami Vivekananda asked the Master, “Have you seen God?” he replied, “Yes, I see Him just as I see you here, only in a much more intense way.” That impressed Swami Vivekananda at once. Later he carried the message of Sri Ramakrishna to the modern world, saying: “Do not care for doctrines, do not care for dogmas or sects or churches or temples. They count for little compared with the essence of existence in each man, with is spirituality; and the more a man develops it, the more power he has for good. Earn that first, acquire that, and criticize no one; for all the doctrines and creeds have some good in them. Show by your lives that religion does not mean words or names or sects, but that it means spiritual realization.”
When the flower blooms, bees come of their own accord. People from all over flocked to Sri Ramakrishna and he would sometimes talk about God as much as twenty hours a day. This continued for years. His intense love for mankind would not allow him to refuse to help anyone. In the middle of 1885, this tremendous physical strain resulted in throat cancer. When his disciple tried to stop him from teaching, he said: “I do not care. I will give up twenty thousand such bodies to help one man.”
Sri Ramakrishna passed away on August 16, 1886, at the Cossipore garden house, located between Calcutta and Dakshineswar. A couple of days before his passing, Sri Ramakrishna said to Vivekanandna: “He who was Rama and He who was Krishna is now Ramakrishna in this body.”