Ramakrishna of Bengal
by Dr. Lex Hixon
Excerpt from Coming Home, the Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions, Larson Publications, Burdett, 1995, (pp. 25-40).
Ramakrishna was completely at home in all the moods of spiritual expression he encountered, from Christianity and Islam to widely contrasting strands of Hinduism. Born in 1836 in a rural village of Bengal untouched by European influence, Ramakrishna expressed a universal spiritual vision rare in any culture. He experienced all religions as a single spectrum of wisdom and devotion, as a communion of the Divine with the Divine in which both worshiper and worshiped emerge from the same Ultimate Consciousness. Ramakrishna never preached. For him, each individual’s spiritual development is unique: to one person he would suggest a certain approach and to another perhaps the contrary approach. His utterances were ecstatic. His parables are songs for meditation, not rational explanations that constitute any system of theology.
Ramakrishna considered himself a child of Goddess Kali, the Divine Mother of the Universe. As a child who knew nothing and decided nothing, he would speak and act spontaneously as She spoke and acted through him. He did not even regard himself as a guru, or teacher. When holy scholars proclaimed him to be an avatar, or special emanation of the divine, Ramakrishna sat among them unself-consciously, intoxicated by the bliss of divine presence, half-naked, chewing spices, and repeating, “If you say I am, you must be right, but I know nothing about it.” However, although “knowing nothing”, this child of the Divine Mother was intensely sensitive. He responded to subtle changes of psychic and spiritual energy as plants respond to their environment. Once, Ramakrishna was observing from the temple garden two boatmen exchanging blows far out on the river Ganges. Marks from these blows appeared immediately on his own body.
The language of Ramakrishna’s parables is deceptively simple. We must be careful not to crystallize this language or to develop one-sided ideas about his teachings. Ramakrishna often remarked that the most serious distortion of spiritual life is the one-sidedness which makes us cling exclusively to a particular viewpoint. His guiding vision was that of the continuum of consciousness in which all forms or viewpoints take shape and dissolve like bubbles in a stream. Ramakrishna’s was a comprehensive way of devotion to the divine forms revealed in all sacred traditions. But his was simultaneously a way of wisdom that never perceived divine forms or attributes as separate from their source in ultimate consciousness. Ecstatically to experience all forms as one continuum of consciousness, which Ramakrishna identified as Goddess Kali in Her all-embracing aspect, is the Tantric attitude by which the ways of wisdom and devotion are fused. Through this Tantric attitude, Ramakrishna helped to release advanced spiritual seekers from the limits of their formal practices and religious perspectives into the flow of ultimate consciousness, or enlightenment.
While certain traditional paths of wisdom insist that the formless ground, or absolute, alone is real and that divine and human forms are an illusion, Ramakrishna never makes such strict demarcation between form and formless, relative and absolute. For him the divine form, such as Krishna or Christ does not obscure the formless absolute, nor is the divine form obliterated in the absolute. Ramakrishna simply responded to the stream of ultimate consciousness, which has no intrinsic form yet expresses itself fully through all sacred traditions and through manifest being itself. Resembling this universal stream of consciousness, Ramakrishna flowed freely and reverently through diverse spiritual moods, fully embodying each yet exclusively aligned with none.
The advanced practitioners who encountered Ramakrishna were each strongly identified with a certain traditional approach to the divine. The first of these was the Brahmani, an adept in the practices of Tantra as well as the Hindu devotional moods in which God is worshiped through the intimate relationships of friend, child, and lover. The Brahmani was a spiritually powerful woman in her fifties when she arrived at the Dakshineswar temple garden where Ramakrishna resided. Looking at him just once as he sat in a blissful mood contemplating his Divine Mother Kali, the Brahmani felt for Ramakrishna the overwhelming attraction a mother feels for her child. That same day, she experienced the culmination of her years of meditation practice.
The Brahmani always carried with her a stone symbol of transcendental divine wisdom, which she used for formal worship and meditation. Daily she would cook food and offer it to the holy power, which sacramentally manifested itself through the stone. She would then meditate in the radiance of divine presence. After encountering Ramakrishna, the Brahmani built her fire by he Ganges and cooked the food to be offered in worship. Ramakrishna, who was dozing in his room on the other side of the temple garden, awakened in a mood of intoxication. He often entered such moods spontaneously as he became responsive to some current of spiritual energy being evoked through authentic worship. He wandered in ecstasy toward the site of the Brahmani’s ceremonial offering, arriving just as she completed the invocation. He sat beside the holy stone and began to eat the consecrated food. For a moment the orthodox Brahmani was shocked, but then her spiritual vision opened. She perceived through Ramakrishna a full expression of the holy power she had worshiped daily for decades through the medium of the stone symbol. Seated by the river, she entered a deep meditation in which her form, the form of the sacred stone, and the form Ramakrishna were each revealed as ultimate consciousness. Some hours later, she consigned the stone to the waters of the Ganges, realizing that this ritual practice was no longer necessary to evoke divine presence. Ramakrishna had released her from the concept of formal worship, fulfilling her spiritual longing by manifesting the sacramental presence through his own person and then becoming transparent to ultimate consciousness.
Figures from sacred myth as well as redemptive figures from oral and recorded history can thus be reconstituted and their power actualized in the being of the holy person, or shaman. Ramakrishna felt an intense longing to re-embody the sacred figures of all traditions, to actualize their spiritual energy through his own person. He took up various Tantric, Yogic, Vaishnava, Vedantic, Islamic, and Christian contemplative practices simply out of his innate thirst to experience divine presence through all sacred traditions. He may not have been aware that his practices were going to help reawaken the inner potency of their various spiritual paths for countless future seekers. He was simply absorbing and re-manifesting forms as the pulsating power of the Goddess alternately withdraws and projects the universe.
Let us consider one other advanced practitioner who came in contact with Ramakrishna and was opened beyond traditional practice into all-embracing presence. Totapuri was a wandering monk who followed the path of wisdom taught by Advaita Vedanta. Totapuri was an adept of the formless reality, the cloudless sky of the absolute. He regarded the worship of divine forms as childish. Naked and smeared with ashes, Totapuri strolled through Dakshineswar temple garden and noticed Ramakrishna seated there, clapping his hands ecstatically and chanting Mother Kali’s name. Totapuri recognized at once that Ramakrishna, despite his appearance as a simple devotee of the Goddess, was inwardly prepared to receive initiation into the knowledge of the absolute, in which all forms and all emotions are left behind. Ramakrishna functioned as a mirror. Various advanced practitioners perceived him to be fully prepared in precisely their own contemplative ways.
Totapuri approached Ramakrishna with the proposal that he receive initiation into Advaita Vedanta. Ramakrishna replied, “I must ask my Mother Kali.” He entered the temple and received permission from the living divinity that he experienced pulsatiing through the stone image enshrined there. That evening, Toatpuri began instructing him in formless meditation. But as Ramakrishna concentrated deeply, the radiant figure of the Goddess appeared to his inner eye. When he reported this to Totapuri, the austere naked monk took a sharp stone and pressed it firmly against Ramakrishna’s forehead, instructing him to concentrate on the pain and assuring him that he could transcend the divine form and merge into the infinite expanse of the absolute. Once more, Ramakrishna meditated and, as he later expressed it, “with the sword of wisdom, I cut through the divine form of Kali.” Her form dissolved, and his individuality completely disappeared into Her formless aspect. For three days Ramakrishna was completely lost to the world, seated in the small meditation hut, motionless, breathing suspended. Totapuri was amazed. He had practiced for forty years to achieve this experience of nirvikalpa samadhi, or disappearance of individual identity in the Absolute. This had occurred to Ramakrishna in a single sitting.
Totapuri as an orthodox wandering monk never remained more than three days in one location, but he spent ten months at Dakshineswar because of the intense attraction he felt toward Ramakrishna. During this long stay he contracted serious dysentery. There was prolonged and severe pain, which was distracting Totapuri during meditation. Since he considered the body just a medium, essentially unnecessary after the realization of the absolute, he decided to give up his body by drowning in the Ganges. The tide was such that he walked far into the river without reaching deep water. When he looked back, he saw the Kali temple gleaming in moonlight and experienced a sudden deep awakening to the presence of the Goddess. He recognized Her as sheer divine presence of the Goddess. He recognized Her as sheer divine power and consciousness, moving through all beings and controlling all events, including his own attempt to discard the body. He now understood the Divine Mother to be the sublime dream power of the Absolute. What he had been calling maya, or the mere illusion of forms, was actually the Goddess who projects, nurtures, and dissolves all beings. Totapuri thus accepted the manifest universe and its energy as a radiant expression of the absolute. The demarcation between form and formless no longer existed for him. He accompanied Ramakrishna to the temple and bowed reverently before the image of Kali. Ramakrishna’s mere presence, without any verbal teaching, had opened Totapuri beyond he experience of the formless absolute into the continuum of consciousness, from which no divine, human, or natural forms are excluded and to which no particular doctrine exclusively applies. Totapuri had been transformed by Ramakrishna’s Tantric attitude.
Swami Nikhilananda, a disciple of Ramakrishna’s wife and a monk of the Ramakrishna Order, describes this Tantric attitude: “The Divine Mother asked Sri Ramakrishna not to be lost in the featureless Brahman but to remain in bhavamukha, on the threshold of absolute consciousness, the borderline between the absolute and the relative…. Ecstatic devotion to the Divine Mother alternated with serene absorption in the ocean of absolute unity. He thus bridged the gulf between the personal and impersonal, the immanent and transcendent aspects of reality.” Many spiritual moods flowed through Ramakrishna, but they all appeared and disappeared in the continuum of consciousness, which is more primal than the personal or the impersonal, the relative or the absolute, and which he regarded as the Divine Mother in Her ultimate aspect. This ecstatic and unitary understanding of all as consciousness excludes nothing and establishes no hierarchy. This is the Tantric way.
Once, while performing the ritual worship of Mother Kali in his capacity as temple priest, Ramakrishna noticed a stray cat. With the milk that was being offered to the Goddess, he fed the cat, which he perceived as simply another manifestation of the Divine Mother or ultimate consciousness. Ramakrishna vividly describes this experience: “The Divine Mother revealed to me in the Kali temple that it was She who had become everything. She showed me that everything was full of consciousness. The image was consciousness, the altar was consciousness, the water vessels were consciousness, the doorsill was consciousness. That was why I fed a cat with the food that was to be offered to the Divine Mother. I clearly perceived that all this was the Divine Mother-even the cat.” If we were to develop a metaphysics of the universe in which Ramakrishna was living, it would be based on the axiom that all is consciousness. This would encompass not only sentient beings but also the crystallized life-energy we call matter. The entire universe, no less than our own mind, is a structuring of consciousness. As we are capable of perfectly vivid and coherent dreams that we recognize upon waking to have been composed entirely by our dreaming consciousness, so the spiritually awakened person can regard the vividness and coherence of the ordinary world as composed by ultimate consciousness alone. This is why Ramakrishna proclaimed that the doorsill and the water vessels were simply consciousness.
Once Vivekanananda, a close disciple, heard Ramakrishna proclaim that even the clay cup he was drinking from was Brahman, or ultimate consciousness. Vivekanandna, who had undergone a Western education, became mildly irritated at what he considered an irrational remark and retired to the porch for a smoke. He was conversing with another skeptical disciple about this nonsense of a clay cup being consciousness, when Ramakrishna wandered onto the porch and touched Vivekananda, who at once experienced all physical objects as consciousness, insubstantial and transparent. The spiritual energy of Ramakrishna’s touch was powerful enough to awaken Vivekananda’s mind from conventional perception, just as one can be awakened from dream by a touch. Vivekananda’s experience is comparable to becoming aware, within the world of the dream that we are dreaming. All dream objects would still remain visible but would be realized as nothing other than our dream consciousness. The empirical would remained thus transparent to the mystically inebriated young Vivekananda for about three days after this awakening. For his master, Ramakrishna, this was a permanent vision.
Because the implications of Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences for the understanding of contemplative life are so rich, we can offer only a glimpse of what appears most significant. And perhaps the most important among Ramakrishna’s teachings based on his spiritual experience concerns equal reverence for all sacred traditions as ways to enlightenment.
To illustrate the plurality of spiritual moods or sacred traditions, Ramakrishna told this parable. The Hindus call that which quenches our thirst “jal”, the Muslims call it “pani”, the English call it “water”. Similarly, each brings a container that is a product of a different culture, and yet they all draw from exactly this same source of refreshment. The clear water of consciousness, with no shape of its own, perfectly fills all cultural receptacles. Even this analogy could mislead, however, if we concluded that consciousness is a substance separate from us or from our various receptacles. All is consciousness. As Ramakrishna expresses it: “God alone is.” This is the ecstatic insight behind the Tantric attitude, which embraces all ways to the divine as already merged in the divine.
However, while Ramakrishna taught that all spiritual paths lead to the same goal, the realization of Ultimate Consciousness, he never implied that we should ignore the diversity of spiritual moods and their contrasting cultural expression. Each path or sacred tradition has its own appropriated modes of contemplation, the integrity of which should be respected. When Ramakrishna practiced the constant praise of Allah, into which he was initiated by a wandering Sufi master, he would not enter the Kali temple. After three days of continual absorption in the holy name of Allah, Ramakrishna experienced a vision of the Prophet Mohammed, whose radiant form blended with his own and both were revealed as the radiance of ultimate consciousness. Ramakrishna experienced a similar communion with the transcendental form of Jesus following days of continuous Christ-centered contemplation.
Another significant dimension of Ramakrishna’s teaching centers around the insight that the universe is neither solid nor permanent but is a dream projection of ultimate consciousness. This can easily be misunderstood as a rejection of the world or an escape from responsibility. But Ramakrishna never regarded the dream of relative existence as meaningless, for divine presence is continuously being revealed through it, particularly through the life of spiritual aspiration. Our drama of life is a precious treasure, a stream or archetypal images or ultimate consciousness. The awakened exploration of this universal dream includes a sense of loving concern for all beings. This is the Tantric Way: all phenomena are to be recognized as the dream-play of consciousness. Knowing that all is a dream gives one the freedom to move through this single, flowing life as a fish swims gracefully through water. This is the great bliss expressed by Tantra through the metaphor of sexual union.
Totapuri, before being released from his exclusive commitment to the formless absolute, regarded the relative world as maya, or senseless illusion, to be renounced totally or ignored as much as possible. But the Tantric practitioner does not reject the world dream. The Tantric way is to continue to dream the universe, which is ultimate consciousness engaged in ecstatic worship of Itself. However, Totapuri’s experience of the formless absolute served as a ripening process for the all-embracing Tantric ecstasy that begins when the practitioner returns from the clear sky of nirvikalpa samadhi, the mystical experience in which individuality utterly disappears. The earthly and heavenly facets of the world dream as well as the formless absolute are now perceived as the same continuum of consciousness, simultaneously at play and at rest, eternally.
Perhaps the central theme of Ramakrishna’s spiritual life was his communion with Goddess Kali. Ramakrishna’s last words before his physical death were the repetition of the mantra “Om Kali”, confirming that he was indissolubly related to the Goddess as Her worshiper and as Her emanation. All other divine forms, as well as the formless absolute, Ramakrishna regarded as expressions of Her. This is characteristic of the Tantric way: the forms of guru and chosen deity-in Ramakrishna’s case, Kali Herself is the root guru-are never obliterated by the experience of the formless or lost sight of in the ecstatic embrace of all forms. Intense devotion for guru and deity remains central to the illumined practitioner’s spiritual life even in the midst of perfect unitary wisdom. Simultaneously the Tantric practitioner develops a sense of identification with guru and deity-the sense of being an emanation of the deity as well as an eternal worshiper, being the guru as well as the eternal disciple. On the special feast day of the Goddess, while talking and laughing with his disciples, Ramakrishna would spontaneously assume the mudra of Kali, hands raised to bless and to destroy, remaining transfigured for long periods of time, deep in bhava samadhi, or absorption in the deity, oblivious of his human body and the ordinary world. In that mood he would actually become a visible manifestation of Kali, radiating the power of Her blessing, which those present would experience as joy and illumination. This was not a case of possession by the deity but a temporary revelation of Ramakrishna’s own intrinsic Kali nature. Then the mood would pass, and he would again appear as the powerless and playful child of the Divine Mother.
Ramakrishna’s veneration of the feminine aspect of the divine extended to all women, whom he regarded as special manifestations of the Goddess. We notice how important women are in Ramakrishna’s life. His wife and first disciple, Sarada Devi, is regarded as his spiritual equal, a twin emanation of Kali. They were a single feminine current of divine energy expressed through two bodies. Sarada always regarded her divinely intoxicated husband as the blissful Goddess Herself, not only a human being. And once, Sarada asked Ramakrishna, “What do you think of me?” Ramakrishna replied, “She who gave me physical birth also appears as the Divine Mother Kali, and you, too, are that same Mother.” Sarada became the spiritual successor of Ramakrishna, guiding his disciples and transmitting visionary power to thousands of seekers after his death.
Mother Kali was the aspect of the Divine that Ramakrishna most often worshiped, not simply as the black, four-armed, ecstatically playful Goddess with whom he could converse face to face, but also as the infinite womb, the formless matrix of all forms, the continuum of consciousness. For Ramakrishna, the Ultimate Consciousness in which all forms appear and disappear was neither masculine nor neuter but distinctly feminine. From the Advaita Vedanta standpoint, the absolute, called atman or Brahman, is without gender. But even the staunch Vedantist Totapuri eventually accepted Ramakrishna’s worship of the Goddess in order fully to embrace manifest being as ultimate consciousness. This prominence of the feminine principle reflects the Tantric attitude, which regards all women as particularly powerful conduits for the Goddess, transmitting Her power of compassion and wisdom.
Ramakrishna’s relation to Goddess Kali was primarily that of child to mother. A clear expression of Ramakrishna’s intensely childlike attitude was his powerlessness, his refusal to perform healings and other miracles by exerting psychic and spiritual powers to which he could have had access. “It is all up to the Mother,” he would ecstatically proclaim, “I am simply Her child.” At the end of his life, when he was suffering from throat cancer, his disciples implored him to pray to Goddess Kali to be cured. He demurred, but they insisted. Ramakrishna gives this account of his subsequent conversation with the Divine Mother of the universe: “I said to Her, ‘Mother, I cannot swallow food because of my pain. Make it possible for me to eat a little.’ She pointed you all out to me and said: ‘What? You are eating enough through all these mouths. Isn’t that so?’ I was ashamed and could not utter another word.”
Kali thus asked Ramakrishna to identify with all sentient beings as his own being. Identification with all is compassion grounded in the wisdom that perceives the perfect unity of all. Ramakrishna’s compassion took the form of intense longing to transmit spiritual energy to authentic lovers of God and, through them, to the entire planet. Ramakrishna would weep and cry out to Mother Kali to send him a few pure and powerful disciples who could receive and hold the divine energy that flooded his being. However, in the midst of this intense concern, he perceived that the continuum of consciousness alone exists. As Ramakrishna used to exclaim: “I searched for ‘I’ but found that it is all the Divine Mother.”