Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886) was a Hindu mystic from India, who is among the best-known personalities in contemporary Hinduism. Born and raised in a village, he had no interest in schools and received little formal education. He had a sunny temperament and was dearly loved by everyone in his neighborhood. With his friends he enacted plays based on the lives of Indian religious figures such as Rama and Krishna. He also spent time in prayer and meditation. With the death of his father, his life received a rude awakening when he was ten. His older brother brought him to the nearby city of Kolkata, where Ramakrishna eventually became a priest at a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. There his dormant hunger for the God manifested fully. The purity of his heart, his intense longing for God and his relentless spiritual struggle resulted in a mystical experience that transformed his life forever.
Such was his hunger to remain immersed in God-consciousness and such his curiosity to “taste” the divine bliss that he sought instruction from a variety of teachers of diverse religious backgrounds. He practiced religious disciplines of not only the different streams within Hinduism but later also of Islam and Christianity. Through every religious pursuit he experienced divine bliss and fulfillment. “Every religion is a valid path to spiritual fulfillment,” became one of his important teachings to disciples that later gathered around him.
He lived a simple life, away from the limelight and would have remained largely unknown to the world had it not been for a band of young college students who became his devoted students. Before his passing, Ramakrishna gave these young men the vows of monastic life and commanded one among them, Narendranath, to guide and lead the fledgling group. Immersed in samadhi, the highest state of God-consciousness recognized in Hinduism, Ramakrishna passed away in August 1886.
Ramakrishna’s disciples led by Narendranath took formal monastic vows soon after Ramakrishna’s passing and, according to the Hindu monastic tradition, received new names. Narendranath became Swami Vivekananda. The young monks were supported and helped by Ramakrishna’s lay disciples. After some years spent as an itinerant monk, Vivekananda’s life changed dramatically from that of an unknown Hindu monk to a famous and much-admired Hindu teacher when he participated in the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. When he returned to India in 1897 after teaching Hinduism in the West for four years, he founded the Ramakrishna Mission, to provide the work that he and other disciples of Ramakrishna were already doing a strong organizational structure.
Today the Ramakrishna Order of monks and the Ramakrishna Mission together not only provide religious and spiritual sustenance to people in India and other parts of the world but also run schools, manage hospitals and dispensaries, organize relief and rehabilitation during natural calamities, in order to help the poor and the needy especially in the developing world.
Assessing a Religions Genius
Ramakrishna is now viewed as a much-revered Hindu saint. Many worship him as avatar, a diving incarnation. How do we assess the genius of Ramakrishna? The power that emanated from him both when he was alive and especially after his passing is unquestioned, considering his honored place in Hindu religious history, the inspiration he provided to not only Hindus but also others interested in spirituality, and the service being provided in his name to communities in different parts of the world. But power by itself cannot and should not be a pointer to anyone’s genius. It seems to me that the genius lies in how the power is harnessed and employed—and what its effects are.
The effects can be both quantifiable and unquantifiable. Quantifiable effects would include the service-activities that the genius inspires, initiates and guides through organizations. Unquantifiable effects would include the changes in perception of oneself and the world, the deepening of knowledge, the increased clarity, and a clearer vision of life that can be traced directly or indirectly to the genius. I feel that the unquantifiable effects traced to the saint are better markers of a genius than the quantifiable ones.
Ramakrishna’s markers of genius can be be found in his creative ability to harness and employ his spiritual powers and in the profound unquantifiable effects of his life and teachings on both his contemporaries and the succeeding generations. What makes Ramakrishna’s case interesting is that there is little evidence to show that he exercised his genius with the awareness that he was a genius. All through his life he remained an unassuming person with childlike simplicity with no pretension of being a scholar or even a teacher, let alone a genius. He remained a child of the Divine Mother, utterly dependent on her, not doing anything in life unless he received her command, which usually came through mystical revelations. As Vivekananda commented about Ramakrishna, “He lived that great life and left it to others to explain.”
Ramakrishna’s genius lay in his being totally authentic, deeply perceptive and pleasantly practical. It is on these three characteristics that I will focus my reflections in the following sections.
The assessment of Ramakrishna as religious genius—of any saint as a religious genius, for that matter—is necessarily subjective. Seen through different lenses of the mind, the examination may yield diverse results. The lens I bring to this study is that of a Hindu monk of the Ramakrishna Order, whose outlook on life is formed and shaped through the study of, and meditation on, Ramakrishna. I am not a scholar and my religious study and training have occurred in informal, nonacademic settings.
Bengali, the language Ramakrishna spoke, has a phrase to describe what we need to do to live authentically: “make the mind and speech one.” That was what Ramakrishna taught. Put simply, he meant we should live in such a way that there is harmony between our thoughts, words and actions. When what we think and what say and what we do differ from one another, our lives become inauthentic. In Ramakrishna’s life we see a remarkable congruence between his thoughts, words and actions.
One way authenticity in religious life becomes manifest is through the practice of truthfulness. Normally truthfulness as a virtue is associated with truthfulness of speech. It means one reports exactly what one knows or has seen, without any conscious distortion or hedging. But in Ramakrishna’s teaching, truthfulness goes far beyond mere honest reporting. It includes saying exactly what one thinks and doing exactly what one says. It goes even further with truthfulness of perception, which means looking deeply into oneself and at the world in order to see through all filters and masks and encountering the truth as it is.
Which begs the question: what is the “truth”? In Hindu religious thought, truth is axiomatically associated with eternality and unchangeability. If something is true, it must be both eternal and unchangeable. It is the eternal and unchangeable reality that Ramakrishna perceived as God. Hence his teaching, “God alone is true; everything else is transitory.”
Ramakrishna’s own life was authentic not only because his thought, words and actions were in harmony, but he sought in life to perceive the truth in everyone and everything. When asked whether he had seen God, his answer was simple and direct: “Yes, I have seen him more clearly than I see you,” meaning, when all the layers covering the material world are peeled away, God is all that remains, and God is truth. Such a remarkable insight into the meaning and practice of truthfulness was a mark of Ramakrishna’s genius.
Another indication of authenticity in Ramakrishna’s life and teaching is also related to the practice of truthfulness. If we must make an effort to reject falsehood and perceive truth, then we must also question our beliefs. When I say I “believe” in God, I must also ask whether God is “real” to me. If something or someone is real, our whole being is drawn toward the thing or the person. Ramakrishna showed through his own life how it is possible to dwell in God-consciousness when God becomes more than simply an idea, a hope or a belief. Ramakrishna taught that the goal of life is to realize God. In this teaching, it is possible to read the verb “realize” as “make real.” The person for whom God has become more real than the so-called reality of the world is, in Ramakrishna’s teaching, a God-realized soul. In effect, it means becoming aware of the reality of God and dwelling in that awareness. One who cultivates such awareness and abides in it is considered “enlightened” in the Hindu tradition. Such a person has become authentically religious in the complete sense of the term.
Ramakrishna’s interpretation of authenticity removes the artificial distinction that is made between “believers” and “nonbelievers.” It is possible to see everyone as believers—some believe in the existence of God and others believe in the nonexistence of God. The only ones who don’t “believe” are those who don’t need to, since they have “seen” God. God has become real to them through grace or through their own efforts and experience.
Another hallmark of a religious genius lies in a saint’s perceptiveness. How insightful is the saint in recognizing core issues of his or her times? In Ramakrishna’s case, we can easily identify at least two major points of focus, one related to the practice of religion, and the other, related to religious plurality.
Ramakrishna identified purity as a core value in the practice of religion. Purity has been defined and understood in various ways in different religious traditions. In Hinduism purity is inseparably associated with freedom. Total freedom from bondages is attained when total purity is achieved.
How purity of the body, or external purity, is achieved is obvious. Purity of the mind involves purity of intention, purity of purpose, purity of emotion, and even purity of reason. In Ramakrishna’s teachings we find emphasis on all of these. It is these teachings that Ramakrishna’s disciple Vivekananda later classified into his model of the “four yogas”: karma yoga, bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, and raja yoga. Each of these yogas comprises spiritual practices that are based on the distinct functions of the mind: thinking, feeling, willing.
Ramakrishna’s purity was legendary. As a young spiritual seeker, not even the slightest thought or feeling in his mind escaped his attention, and he was able to deal with them effectively, eliminating all thoughts and feelings that detracted from his spiritual ideal. As a result, his mind became so pure that even hearing worldly talk or sensing worldly thinking became painful to him. Such was the level of purity which he attained that he couldn’t touch, let alone eat, the food brought to him by a person of impure character.
The different kinds of abuses and weaknesses in religious practice can all be traced directly or indirectly to lack of purity of some kind or other. Ramakrishna’s emphasis on purity in his teaching is a mark of his genius because it goes to the heart of religious life. His teaching on purity is powerful and authentic because he lived what he taught. More significantly, purity as a value can be understood and appreciated in interreligious contexts as well.
Ramakrishna’s perceptiveness regarding religious plurality is seen in his teaching of seeking unity in the midst of diversity. Sometimes seeking unity is seen as a threat to the existence and celebration of diversity. Ramakrishna’s quest for unity does not eliminate diversity. On the contrary, it appreciates “the many” even while seeing “the one” that supports and produces the many.
His illustration of people drawing water from a lake is a good example of his approach to religious diversity. People may refer to water of the lake in different ways depending on the language they use, but no matter what name they give water, the substance they take away from the lake is the same for all. In exactly the same way, no matter how God is conceptualized—with form, without form, with qualities, beyond qualities—God is one and the same for all. As the Vedas declared centuries ago: “Truth is one, but people call it by different names.” Ramakrishna’s example makes the ancient Hindu insight more accessible through an illustration which is easy to relate to.
Ramakrishna’s approach to religious diversity is nonthreatening. During his lifetime he attracted followers of different religious persuasions and the trend has continued and enlarged to a global scale today. Which is why monasteries, Ashrams, schools, orphanages, and hospitals have sprung up in different parts of the world, all inspired by Sri Ramakrishna’s life and teachings, and supported by people of diverse religious backgrounds. Bringing together people of different religions in a harmonious manner is mark of Ramakrishna’s genius, something that is so much the need of the times in which we live.
Above all, a religious genius must be practical. Ramakrishna’s great achievement was that even when his mind dwelt on a higher plane of consciousness, he never quite lost touch with the ground reality, except when he was in the state of samadhi, or deep spiritual absorption.
Ramakrishna showed that a truly religious life is an undivided life. Most people practicing religion compartmentalize their lives into categories such as “spiritual” and “secular.” But these walls need to be broken down if one wants to lead a truly undivided, authentic life. Ramakrishna’s genius showed in the way he made spiritual life both practical and its pursuit joyful.
It is relatively easy to be “religious” when a person is engaged in a recognizable religious activity, but can one be religious even during what are seen as secular activities? If God is all-pervading, then isn’t God present in everyone and everything? If everything belongs to God, then even I don’t belong to myself. Nothing is “mine.” All work is God’s work. Helping others is not so much an act of compassion but of worship of God, since “others” are only a covering under whom God dwells. These are the insights we find in Ramakrishna’s teachings. What make these insights extraordinarily powerful is that Ramakrishna not only taught these things but he also lived them.
The presence of the Divine in all and, by implication, the underlying oneness of all that exists was demonstrated in Ramakrishna’s life in at least two recorded instances; both occurred when Ramakrishna was in a state of mystical absorption. In the first instance, he felt excruciating pain when a person walked on a stretch of grass in front of Ramakrishna. In the second instance, the marks of the blows that a boatman gave to another person on the bank of the river Ganges, where Ramakrishna lived, appeared on Ramakrishna’s own body. Thankfully, such dramatic things happened only when he was in a superconscious state of mind.
Ramakrishna saw the presence of the Divine in everyone and in everything. His relationships with all occurred in and through the Divine. Through his own life he showed how a spiritual seeker can live and relate to others. These teachings have relevance and value in interreligious contexts as well, since today we cannot but live our lives and forge relationships in an interreligious environment. When we begin to perceive the higher truth of divinity beyond the mundane truth of our humanity, the barriers of nationality, race, gender, class and caste begin to melt. Ramakrishna provides a key to eliminate some of the biases and prejudices underlying those barriers.
For long, religion has been viewed as a “serious” matter and those who were considered religious have also been generally associated with long faces. Ramakrishna turned that stereotype topsy-turvy through his own joyful personality. A study of his conversations—later published as the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, from a diary that his loyal disciple Mahendra Nath Gupta kept—shows how often his disciples, devotees and visitors laughed to their heart’s content at the stories he told and the illustrations he used to make a point. Ramakrishna showed that it was not wrong to laugh and be happy even while pursuing a religious life. We don’t need to be worldly in order to “have fun.”
As his disciple Vivekananda said years later, “We are the children of the blissful Divine Mother. Why should we be morose?” Ramakrishna was only echoing what he had learnt from his great teacher. Such was the genius of Ramakrishna as teacher that almost all of his teachings were given in the course of informal conversations. Ramakrishna gave no lectures and taught no classes. His students learnt from him without even realizing, most of the time, that they were learning. Ramakrishna’s life continues to inspire people all over the world because of its intensely practical approach to spiritual life.
These three, then—authenticity, perceptiveness and practicality—in Ramakrishna’s life and teachings make him an ideal religious genius, someone from whom all of us can learn and enrich our religious lives.