Source from An article by Swami Satyaswarupananda which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – February 2005
Individual freedom, social equality and democracy are considered the defining virtues of modern civilization. They are the benchmarks against which social thinkers judge the progress of nations and peoples. These values are often found to be compromised in the developing world and such areas have provided focal points for intervention by the North. Whether these interventions have been intellectual, socio-economic, political or military, they have invariably been controversial and contested. For, although few intellectuals would argue against the universal desirability of these values, few societies can boast of allowing a free play to these. In fact, numerous extant and vigorous social institutions confound and challenge the universality of these values. Caste is one such institution.
To speak of caste without condemning it is a sure way to invite censure, yet caste as an institution has proved remarkably enduring. If the Constitution of free India abolished untouchability and made caste discrimination illegal, the provision of reservations for scheduled castes and tribes has tended to reinforce the caste identity of at least a large section of the Indian population. Elections in India repeatedly confirm the fact that even progressive and liberal-minded individuals can hardly afford to ignore caste equations if they are to be successful in electoral politics. Caste remains a crucial determinant in a majority of Indian marriages, even when the individuals concerned are well educated and are otherwise little concerned about caste. It has been pointed out by social thinkers that caste served as a social bulwark that protected and preserved the Hindu society in the face of invasions, but the same bulwark also cramped the Hindus with restrictions, thus sapping their vitality and choking their growth. This paradoxical nature of caste has intrigued scholars and social observers and excited their imagination down the centuries. This has spawned hundreds of writings and observations on the subject without the last word being said yet.
The Sociology of Caste
Caste is essentially about social divisions and gradations, about the formation of classes and ranks based on differences in lineage, occupation or wealth. In recent times, Louis Dumont’s book Homo Hierarchicus has popularized the concept of human beings as essentially hierarchical in their social formations. It has been argued that social hierarchy is an inevitable outcome of basic biological differences between humans – both as individuals as well as groups – and these differences are often accentuated by environmental modifiers. That such gradations are natural is supported by their existence amongst a wide range of social animals. Ants, termites and bees provide a striking example of organized division of function and labour. The queens, nymphs, workers, soldiers and drones amongst these insects have very specialized roles and these divisions are therefore termed ‘castes’ by entomologists.
Most people identify caste with Hindu society, but discerning observers have pointed out that the Hindu caste system is only a special case of a much more general, if not universal, phenomenon of class distinction and hierarchy. Social stratification appeared early in the course of social evolution. The four varnas of Vedic India had their equivalents in other contemporary civilizations. Endogamy, commensality and occupational specialization are taken by social anthropologists to define caste, and these were virtually the determinants of all social stratification in pre-modern societies.
In modern societies, occupational diversity, increased social mobility, loosening of family ties and economic expansion have led to the replacement of the traditional determinants of caste by economic status as the sole determinative of social difference. We now have economic classes – the upper, the middle and the working – that are in no way less hierarchical than the traditional caste or the ranked feudal order. What differentiates the modern class from its medieval or ancient counterpart is the theoretical lack of exclusiveness and the individual as the unit of stratification. Unfortunately, in practice, not many individuals manage to rise from the lower ranks of society to its higher echelons, and so class divisions are not as labile as one would otherwise expect them to be.
Marxism represents a modern ideological attempt at developing a classless society. However, the inevitability of class struggle and the rule of the proletariat as predicted by Marx never really materialized in the industrial nations of Europe. Capitalist societies circumvented this problem through welfare measures and ‘class cooperation’. Marxism succeeded as a political movement in agrarian societies through dictatorial measures that not only curbed individual enterprise and democracy, but also led to the replacement of the feudal hierarchy with its bureaucratic communist counterpart.
conflict. Even after the abolition of A more sinister form of social division is the one on racial and ethnic lines. At a global level this is currently one of the leading causes of slavery and apartheid racial bias in subtle forms remains apparent in affluent societies, while in almost all recent large-scale armed conflicts ethnic issues have played a significant role.
Caste, then, as it is found in India, is hardly unique. Yet it has distinctive features that deserve attention. When the Portuguese first used the term caste they derived it from casta, meaning ‘pure or unmixed’. They were probably impressed by the rules segregating the castes and the prohibitions against inter-marriage. That a series of Smriti texts down the centuries had been formulating rules to regulate social organization, and in the process routinize and perpetuate the existing segregation, is also unique to India.
Evolution of Castes
Interestingly, the origins of the varna divisions as found in the Rig Veda appear to be racial. Early verses of this Veda speak of two varnas, the arya and the dasa (or dasyu), as two distinct and inimical groups, differing in physical features, skin colour and culture. The dasas were later conquered and assimilated even as the four varnas with their traditional duties as known to us crystallized by the later Vedic period.
Although according to texts like the Bhagavadgita varna divisions are based on individual character traits (guna) and occupation (karma), these divisions had turned hereditary in the late Vedic period itself, even as occupations became hereditary. Here it may be worth noting that even in modern societies the likelihood that children will choose the vocation of their parents, or a related vocation, is quite high. That occupations should be hereditary in ancient times was, therefore, only natural.
Despite the restrictions imposed by the Smritis on inter-varna marriages, caste divisions in ancient India remained fairly fluid. In the Mahabharata we find Yudhishthira commenting: ‘It appears to me that it is very difficult to ascertain the caste of human beings on account of confusion of all varnas … hence the wise consider character the prinicipal desirable. ‘Acharya Shankara echoes a similar view about the then existing caste structure in his Brahma-sutra-bhashya.
The proliferation of vocations and inter-varna marriages led to the formation of numerous occupational groups, each of which became, by the medieval times, a caste or a sub-caste called jati which, as the name itself implies, was hereditary.
Caste and Privilege
If social hierarchy is universal and if caste is simply one form of social hierarchy, what has made the Indian caste system an anachronism and anathema in modern times? For one, as stated earlier, economic factors are the prime determinants of the social order – the social and political relations, and the class divisions that characterize modern societies. The rise of ‘vaishya power’, as Swami Vivekananda put it, was coincident with the Industrial Revolution and has been the chief driving force for capitalist societies both in the colonial and the post-colonial era. The jati hierarchy, however, is not consonant with economic status, and has often been at odds with the rising economic order. Second, the free market capitalist economy always leaves room for upward socio-economic mobility, although in practice such rise may not be common. The predetermined nature of jatis, however, tend to discourage social change. Finally, it was the prescription of hereditary privileges and social discrimination, manifesting in its worst form as ‘untouchability’, that really made the caste system an eyesore.
Interestingly, scholars have argued that the crystallized caste system as it obtained in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was ‘neither an unchanged survival of ancient India nor a single system that reflected core cultural values’. Rather, caste as a modern social construct is ‘the product of a concrete historical encounter between India and British colonial rule’. Not only did the British privilege caste distinctions over all other forms of social identity but they also played upon caste identities to ensure colonial control. The significant changes ushered into Indian society after independence both through constitutional and social measures provide some support for this view.
Source from An article by Dr. Sreemati Mukherjee which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – July 2005
Shakti: Destruction, Defying Categorization, Ultimately Enigmatic
In the biography by Brahmachari Akshayachaitanya, the first book-length study of her life, there is a passage where the author quotes Swami Vivekananda as saying that within Holy Mother’s apparently calm exterior was embodied the power of the destructive aspect (of God as woman and Shakti). If she embodies Shakti, as Sri Ramakrishna himself said she did, then we have to keep in mind that energy must also have its terrifying dimensions. My mind goes back to an incident I read many years ago, once again in Swami Gambhirananda’s biography. In the chapter entitled ‘Devi’ he refers to an incident where, in response to someone tentatively suggesting that a mad relative of hers might set fire to an ashrama created for Sri Ramakrishna, Mother seemed to undergo a facial transformation and declared in a loud and unnatural tone, ‘That would be just wonderful! Just the way He wanted it! Let everything be a vast cremation ground.’ Thereupon she started laughing, once again in a loud and unnatural manner, which readers familiar with Bengali will recognize in the term attahasya.
Credit should be given to Swami Gambhirananda for including this piece of information that offers what many would construe as an unnatural, uncanny and even monstrous dimension of Mother’s personality. However, the incident seems to underscore the complexity of the idea of Shakti. Sri Ramakrishna speaks of Kali or Mahamaya as someone who gives birth to a child and then gobbles it up. If Kali means Time that both redeems and destroys, accepting Kali means accepting tragedy as integral to life. Kali is no symbol that speaks to one of various kinds of power only, but also an idea that stands for the struggles embedded in life. By that token, even if we are afforded a rare glimpse into the terrifying depths of Sri Sarada Devi’s personality in an incident like this, she also exemplifies suffering and pain as that face of Kali who is Time.
If one were to peruse her biographies written by Brahmachari Akshayachaitanya, Swami Gambhirananda and Swami Tapasyananda, one would become aware of Sarada Devi’s grinding domestic routine. As Swami Tathagatananda, head of the Vedanta Society of New York, once said at a congregation in which I happened to be present, ‘None of you, I can guarantee, would have been able to take her routine in that narrow, extremely low-roofed room, hung over with pots and pans, crowded with women relatives and women visitors, in the way she did, from three in the morning till about eleven in the night.’ The lives of women vegetable sellers who travel long distances to sell their produce, or hospital ayahs who work many hours outside their house without profitable gains recompensing them, perhaps bear a much closer relationship to the sheer physical demands of her work routine, than us who often occupy elite positions in society and remain far removed from the conditions of such labour.
It will be worthwhile to remember that Sri Sarada Devi lived a life that by most standards could be called qualified and circumscribed by poverty. Indeed, there is enough documentation to prove that after the death of Sri Ramakrishna, when she lived mostly alone in his parental home at Kamarpukur from 1887 to 1890, she wore saris that were knotted in various places to cover up the rents in the fabric, and that she also lived on a diet that consisted of rice and spinach, without even salt to season the fare. Although her stay at Kamarpukur was punctuated by trips to Calcutta and to places of pilgrimage, it was an intensely difficult period of her life. Besides the fact of poverty, she also had to face the indifference of Sri Ramakrishna’s surviving relatives and the cruelty of villagers, many of whom criticized her for not subscribing to the strict norms dictating a widow’s appearance. Keeping in mind Sri Ramakrishna’s wish that she wear ornaments and a sari that attested to her married state, she did not bow to the weight of public opinion, but preserved her dignity and singularity of purpose in the face of public criticism.
In the Midst of Family Life
Unhappy with her daughter’s state in Kamarpukur, Shyamasundari Devi, her mother, requested Sri Sarada Devi to take up residence with her in Jayrambati, where she lived on and off till her death. Holy Mother had four surviving brothers, Prasannakumar, Kalikumar, Baradaprasad and Abhaycharan, and their families now became her own. Her youngest and most promising brother Abhaycharan passed away shortly, leaving behind a wife (Surabala) and an infant daughter (Radharani or Radhu). Surabala had lost her mother as a child and had been brought up by her aunt and grandmother, who too passed away shortly after her husband’s death. Whatever the reasons for her mental unhinging, she thereupon became completely incapable of looking after her daughter. Observing her callous treatment of Radhu in the family courtyard, Mother resolved to take responsibility for the child herself. From that day onwards, practically till the last days of her life, Holy Mother remained Radhu’s formal caretaker.
Some aspects of Sri Sarada Devi’s life have a persistent quality. They are her unwavering commitment to people both within and without the family, a scrupulous sense of dispensing her duties and an untiring espousal of the doctrine of work. In her youth it was Sri Ramakrishna, his mother, women devotees like Golap Ma, would-be monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, and other householder devotees who visited him who benefited from her ceaseless attention to their welfare. Her own needs of washing, eating and sleeping were met with the minimum of fuss and almost beyond the direct observation of any person. In our age of obstreperous flaunting of ourselves and our rejection of the values of quietness and patience, maybe we need to look at the quiet message that her life sends us. Apart from an occasional moment of grumbling, she submitted to an arduous routine of work with the utmost grace and acceptance. Her life is well documented, and if this was not the reality of her nature, there would be stray references here and there, arguing to the contrary. She retained a habit of contentment well into her final years, and rarely displayed displeasure or taciturnity.
Her domestic life with her brothers’ families was vexing, to say the least. In the early years of her stay with her brothers, Kaliprasanna particularly harangued her constantly for money. Later on Radhu, Surabala and Nalini (Prasannakumar’s daughter) each took a part in taxing and stretching her patience to its utmost limits. The three women mentioned above were a constant feature of her retinue, whether she lived in Jayrambati or in Calcutta. Of course, the presence of women devotees like Golap Ma and Yogin Ma lessened the burden of living with such oppressive and intractable relatives, but Sri Sarada Devi mostly lived out a domestic existence that was troublesome and precarious, to say the least. The principal share in making her family life truly thorn-infested was of course Radhu’s and Surabala’s.
Love as the Defining Mode of Being
Radhu was often sick and had to be nursed very carefully, and Sri Sarada Devi often took the burden of this nursing. As a child she (Radhu) had a sweet temperament, but as she developed and matured into adult years, she lost a great deal of her earlier sweetness and in fact acquired a complaining, truculent nature. Holy Mother, unremitting in her care and attention towards Radhu, often bore the brunt of Radhu’s temperamental behaviour that sometimes crossed all recognizable limits of decency and order. I shall refer to certain incidents that occurred towards the end of Holy Mother’s life.
By this time Radhu was not only married but also the mother of a child. During the months of her pregnancy, Radhu’s nerves had been in such a state of stress that she could not adjust to even the most peaceful and unproblematic of surroundings; the least noise anywhere would be enough to upset her. Having moved around with her to various places, Holy Mother eventually resided with her in a small house in a place called Koalpara, where the almost absolute quietness of the village surroundings satisfied Radhu. For someone who was used to so much attention from a variety of devotees both male and female, Holy Mother could well have been a little less accommodating of Radhu’s idiosyncrasies. But such was the absolute nature of her commitment to this girl that she never walked away from what she read as her duty in a particular situation.
In spite of being the recipient of such loving care for years on end, Radhu remained capable of the most negative reciprocation imaginable. Once denied opium, which she had formed a habit of taking from the time of the difficult delivery of her child, Radhu took a large brinjal from a basket of vegetables that Holy Mother was cutting, and hurled it against her back. Sri Sarada Devi’s back swelled up at the point of contact, but all she said was, ‘Thakur, don’t count that as Radhu’s sin. She’s witless!’.
Within the bounds of my knowledge, I can only think of Christ’s reaction on the Cross, where he prayed to his Father to ‘forgive’ the perpetrators who had executed the deed of nailing him on the Cross, as an analogous incident. Absolute forgiveness of this nature is hard to imagine, but Sri Sarada Devi remains a fairly recent historical example of this kind of ultimate human possibility. Perhaps, this is the ‘water’ that Eliot was bemoaning the lack of in the rock-strewn wasteland of our modern existence.
Radharani, as I have mentioned before, was not the only thorn disturbing the domestic peace of Holy Mother’s household. Surabala would often break out into insane demonstrations of anger and jealousy, not stopping to accuse Sri Sarada Devi of appropriating Radhu for her own self. Once Holy Mother lost her patience and declared in an agitated tone, a rough translation of which amounts to ‘Look, don’t treat me as an ordinary person! You are lucky I don’t take offence with what you say. … Your daughter will remain yours. I can cut off her hold on me any minute that I choose to!’ . Nalini for her part insisted on airing all her petty superstitions and obsessions. Once she told Sri Sarada Devi that she would have to take her bath all over again because a crow had committed some imaginary offence on her. Whereupon Sri Sarada Devi rejoined, ‘Obsessions! Your mind is never clean of them. They will increase as much as you allow them to’ . To this same Nalini, she had on a similar occasion insisted on the purity of the mind, because it was the mind, she felt, that determined the perception of good and evil (ibid.).
Despite the frustrating conditions of her domestic life, Sri Sarada Devi had acquired an iconic status by the time she died. Sought after, importuned and loved by devotees not only from Bengal but from all over India, she retained till the last days of her life a principle of care and commitment to all those who sought her shelter in some way. Perhaps more than Sri Ramakrishna, she was tolerant of human excesses and deviances. Given her social, cultural and historical location as a Bengali woman with a conservative rural upbringing, it was no ordinary act of catholicity to say that the thief Amjad and her much beloved Sharat (Swami Saradananda) were equally her sons. This was in response to Nalini’s remonstration one day at Jayrambati, that she should not extend excessive hospitality to Amjad knowing that he was a thief. She also extended hospitality to Nivedita and to the Americans Sarah Bull and Josephine MacLeod at a time when foreigners were considered to be ‘untouchable’ by conservative Bengalis.
Her last words to a woman devotee were: ‘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!’. It is on this note that I would like to end my tribute to Sri Sarada Devi. She touched the lives of many while she was alive. Even after her death she continues to draw many lives to her and perhaps provides them with that still point of rest or repose, that shanti with which this article began.
Notes and References
1. What, in short, is modernity? Different people, different critics and different cultural historians define it variously. In India, perhaps it would be safe to equate the arrival of modernity with the revival or inculcation of scientific and rational methods of enquiry that was one of the gifts (although the word gift is used keeping in mind the coercive, politically implicated and sometimes emasculating effects of Western education in India) that Western thinkers brought to the country. We see the visible manifestation of this spirit in Raja Rammohun Roy and his championing of a more rational and thereby a more humane basis to social practices and rituals which were sometimes stifling, life-denying and cruelly oppressive to women in particular.
2. Matthew Arnold, ‘To Marguerite’ in The New Oxford Book of English Verse (1250-1950), ed. Helen Gardner (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 687.
3. T S Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (1909-1950) (New York, San Diego and London: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1950), 47.
4. The Upanishads, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1975), 182-3.
5. Complete Poems and Plays, 55.
6. Jibanananda Das, ‘Banalata Sen’ in Bangla Kabita Samuchchay, ed. Sukumar Sen (New Delhi: Sahitya Academy, 1991), 412.
7. ‘Thousand’ and ‘walking’ are simply English translations of the Bengali words hajaar and chalitechhi that occur in the poem.
8. ‘Burnt Norton’ in Complete Poems and Plays, 119.
9. St Matthew, 16.25.
10. King Lear, 4.4.
11. Louis Fischer, ‘My Week with Gandhi’ in Higher Secondary English Selections (Prose) (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati Publishing Department on behalf of the West Bengal Council of Higher Secondary Education, 1984).
12. Ibid., 61.
13. Swami Gambhirananda, Sri Ma Sarada Devi (Calcutta: Udbodhan Karyalay, 1987), 32. Translations of all Bengali citations are mine.
14. Brahmachari Akshayachaitanya, Sri Sri Sarada Devi (Calcutta: Calcutta Book House, 1396 BE), 108.
15. Sri Ma Sarada Devi, 105.
Source from An article by Dr. Sreemati Mukherjee which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – July 2005
How can a nineteenth-century Bengali village housewife speak to the needs of a modern Indian woman, situated in the twenty-first century at the crossroads of culture, history, tradition and modernity? In a world that knows, perhaps, one of the worst crises in human values, what has Sri Ramakrishna’s wife, Sri Sarada Devi, to offer us? As I look around me, I notice a world where moral and psychological fragmentation, relativism of values, and the increasing complexities of urban existence make simple certitudes impossible. One could be accused of intellectual bad faith if one professes one’s belief or reverence for traditionally sanctioned spiritual figures or icons. The only kind of belief that is intellectually sanctioned is perhaps belief in social progress through Marxist revolution or belief in the methodologies of science, although such positions are not free from their own inner contradictions and moments of bad faith. Therefore, living at a time when trenchant skepticism and non-commitment to absolute positions is intellectually de rigueur, I would like to explore what the values of humility, silence and self-abnegation embodied in the character of Sri Sarada Devi can mean for someone who wishes to avoid the terrifying abysses that intellectual power or intellectual culture alone can lead to.
Loneliness and alienation are not really the characteristic malaise of twentieth-century life alone. In mid nineteenth-century England, Matthew Arnold (1822-88) had pointed out the gradual alienation of the intellectual particularly, from both the self and nature. In The Scholar Gipsy he lays the burden of blame not only on the increasing materialism and mechanization of society but also on an excessive life of the intellect, which makes mental poise and serenity difficult to achieve. Those acquainted with the Victorian ethos will know that not only was it a period of frenetic intellectual and scientific pursuit, but also one in which the manifold complexities of urban culture often caused the self-conscious individual to retreat from meaningful relationships and a meaningful response to nature. In the poem To Marguerite Arnold poignantly utters:
Yes! In the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless water wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The trend towards the increasing incarceration of the individual within the often futile and oppressive life of the self continued in Western culture (reflecting tendencies in our own culture today), and emerged as an image of universal or global disorder and sterility in what is perhaps the seminal poem of the twentieth century – T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. In this ground-breaking poem Eliot visualized/dramatized this state of spiritual nullity and sterility as a place or a state where there is
… no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road.
His answer to this state of spiritual malaise that afflicts the world are the three words of advice that Brahma (Prajapati) supposedly gave respectively to the gods, to man and to the demons in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: damyata, datta and dayadhvam. Eliot, of course, changes the order of the words in his poem to datta, dayadhvam and damyata, which, Harish Trivedi in Postcolonial Transactions has taken great pains to point out, is an act of great intellectual casuistry on Eliot’s part. I am not interested in debating these questions here, but would like to draw attention to the closing lines of the poem, which borrow the traditional invocation of peace at the end of most of the Upanishads: ‘Shantih! Shantih! Shantih!’ It is with the word shanti or shantih that I would like to start exploring the relevance of Sri Sarada Devi’s life for us, and for myself, situated at the crossroads of tradition and modernity in India.
Is Shanti Still Possible?
How does one explain the meaning of the word shanti, I wonder. Is it something that one arrives at through meditation alone, or through reconciling sometimes the most brutal contraries of experience, or through connecting with some of the most vital and abiding areas of one’s own being? Eliot’s own explanation of it in the elaborate notes he provides at the end of the poem is: ‘The Peace which passeth understanding.’ Jibanananda Das in his famous poem Banalata Sen, a poem that echoes and re-echoes with the loneliness and fatigue of living in the world, uses the word shanti to describe the invaluable gift that Banalata Sen eventually gave the poet. From the echoes and re-echoes that the frequent use of long vowel sounds in Bengali creates in the poem, the word shanti reverberates through the multiple layers of experience that the ‘thousand’ years of the poet’s ‘walking’ on the face of the earth embodies. In the end the word retains an incalculable dimension whose meaning cannot be satisfactorily fixed. It suggests a mysterious regeneration which is not simply romantic regeneration. In song 410 of the Gitabitan Rabindranath Tagore uses the term to imply a regeneration that lights up the darkness of experience. It is to all these realms of experience, part understood, part visualized, part articulated, but experienced deeply as ‘the still point of the turning world’, that I would refer my understanding of Sri Sarada Devi.
Shanti as Powerlessness
Sri Sarada Devi had none of the external conditions of power as we understand it today, none of the accomplishments that make us viable and competitive commodities in the ruthless rat race of our professional lives. However, her life perhaps bears out the truth of the following lines from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘For whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.’ In my opinion she stands for that inexplicable condition of grace which operates on us in mysterious and unseen ways, carrying restorative and healing powers. A kind of grace that Shakespeare visualized in Cordelia, who importuned the earth to yield forth its ‘blest secrets’ and its ‘unpublished virtues’ in order to cure the tempestuous sorrow and raging illness of her father’s mind.
I think when we look at Holy Mother’s (this term was first used by her Western devotees) life (1853-1920) we have to situate it within its particular social, economic and cultural context. Born in a village of Bengal with few opportunities for a formal education, she was married off at the age of five. The lives of extraordinary people do not normally fit the trajectory of everyday lives, nor can they be codified according to conventional patterns and moulds. While obeying certain conventional patterns of a woman’s existence in late nineteenth-century Bengal, her life defies and goes beyond such conventions, and even contains paradoxical elements. Married, yet not married, housewife and sannyasini at the same time, she remains, like Sri Ramakrishna, the ultimate enigma, whose meaning it might worth be our pains to try and comprehend somewhat.
In his essay ‘My Week with Gandhi’ the American journalist Louis Fischer made insightful observations about the nature of Gandhi’s power. Citing examples of presidents and prime ministers like Lloyd George and Churchill who functioned within the external accoutrements of power, Fischer exclaims about Gandhi, ‘His power was nil, his authority enormous. It came of love. The source of his power lay in his love.’ I feel that such a comment would be extremely appropriate in the context of Holy Mother’s life, whose power lay in her seeming powerlessness.
Patience as the Defining Mode of Power/Powerlessness
Indeed, the kind of power she embodied seemed to work best not through anger and admonition – although she had provocation enough – but through patience and endurance that went even beyond the mythical and partook of the condition of grace that I alluded to before. Even if we read her as an avatara (as her devotees surely do), we must keep in mind that she had her inescapable human dimensions, and for a human being to have the kind of patience and tolerance she exemplified, borders on standards that remain unreachable for most of us. If she stands for Shakti, then it is a Shakti that expresses itself in its limitless capacity for tolerance and forgiveness, and its capacity to bear pain. Like Jesus Christ, whose trials on the Cross became one of the ultimate symbols of endurance under pain that the human imagination can encompass, Sarada Devi provides a fairly recent historical example of the possibilities of such endurance in a human being.
Sacrifice as a Viable Existential Mode
Sri Sarada Devi’s life was problematic, to say the least. Married to a man who wished to pursue sannyasa and God realization, she managed to make the sacrifice of domestic bliss very early in life. If she had bliss in the company of Sri Ramakrishna, it was not the regular kind of wedded bliss that many women still want. Her life was marked by sacrifice at every point. If there was pleasure, then it centred around watching kirtan and dancing in Sri Ramakrishna’s room through a bamboo curtain; in conversing with women devotees; in training Latu Maharaj, who came to Sri Ramakrishna as a boy, in domestic and kitchen chores; in casual and simple conversation with her husband; and later on in life, having the assurance of the love of a great many devotees, householder and monastic. Seen from the standpoint of a woman’s sensibility, her greatest sacrifice was probably giving up the desire to have a child. Historically and culturally located at a time when motherhood remained a woman’s foremost area of self-expression, she had to renounce what seems a powerful and instinctive desire for the sake of the ideal of dispassion and detachment that her husband wished to follow. A certain incident narrated in Swami Gambhirananda’s Bengali biography on her will attest to the fact that such a decision or choice was not without feelings of regret for her.
Once while on a visit to Kamarpukur during the early years of her married life, she heard Sri Ramakrishna holding forth in a semi-humorous, semi-serious mood on how injudicious it was to have children, since the children whose annaprashana (first rice-feeding) parents celebrated, almost inevitably died. His constant harping on the death of the children occasioned a rare moment of remonstrance from Mother. She quietly exclaimed from within, ‘Would all of them have died?’ Whereupon Sri Ramakrishna delightedly exclaimed that he had indeed stepped on the tail of a true-bred snake. The incident with its mixture of humour and pathos, testifies to her desire to have a child. To quote facts well known to devotees of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi, Sri Ramakrishna had assured her that her need for children would one day be met, and she would have so many that she would not have time for herself. Indeed, this came true, and if the idea of Shakti symbolizes plenitude, Mother was loved, demanded upon, and also harassed by devotees male and female for all the years of her life after the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna.
Source from An article by Swami Sandarshanananda which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – August 2004
Laden with such teachings, the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is a treasure trove to many all over the world, cutting across the boundaries of countries and creeds. That relentless flood of passion for God with continuous flow of scenes is never to be found in any other book of its kind. The slightest suggestion or hint regarding Him from any aspirant, whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim, was enough to transport Sri Ramakrishna to the realm of God in blissful ecstasy. Vivid descriptions of such day-to-day happenings from his life have made the Gospel a precious document.
The lucre fetched by technological advancement has made man arrogant and restless. The cause of his moroseness is his restive mind engrossed in the lust for pelf and power. He has consciously put their chain upon himself and has missed thus the freedom of thought. The crusading mind of Sri Ramakrishna revolted against their atrocity and forsook the tinsel of modern society. His conscience was clear:
Just because … this proving that man is not a machine is the essence of all religious thought, it is impossible to think it in the routine mechanical way. It is the tendency to bring everything down to the level of a machine that has given the West its wonderful prosperity. And it is this which has driven away all religion from its doors. Even the little that is left, the West has reduced to a systematic drill. (8.302)
Sri Ramakrishna was left disgruntled, though unscathed by the deep agony inflicted by extravagant epicureanism. He abandoned ‘bread-winning education’ to show that academic exercise is not absolutely necessary to be happy in life. Rather, if it is pursued with an ambition in view, it multiplies desires and strengthens the ego. In the demeanour of a poor villager with a veneer of rusticity, he exhibited that living a simple life surrendering to God was the only means for happiness and tranquillity. Poised at the farthest end from the formal study of scriptures and metaphysics, he exerted an undeniable appeal on the educated clique around him who were believed to have been responsible for the Indian renaissance. To stay indifferent in the face of the irresistible lure of the spiritual opulence of his character was difficult for them. What is the harm in recognizing a personality such as his who proved himself to be nonpareil among his peers, as our pathfinder who never did or thought anything unholy, whose intellect only through intuition stands head and shoulders above all the other prophets, because they were all one-sided? It was he that brought first to the world this idea of truth not in but of every religion, which is gaining ground all over the world, and that without the help of science or philosophy or any other acquirement.’ (8.299)
The concept of ‘the divinity of man’ propounded by Sri Ramakrishna was an illustrious landmark in the history of mankind. It has altered the long-nurtured concept of ‘man the sinner’. He argues, if we are the children of the Lord, and if He happens to be immortal Bliss and Holiness per se, where is there space for us to be sad and sinful? Light and darkness cannot reside together; one replaces the other. One who takes refuge in the Lord and whose mind is absorbed in His glory can never nurse impious thoughts. He practises what he preaches and reaches its acme, showing that in him ‘the man was all dead and only God remained; he actually could not see sin, he was literally “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity”.’ (7.85; emphasis added)
Polytheism and idol worship would not perturb Sri Ramakrishna the least. Contrarily, they were grist to his mill as he was keen on realizing God through different methods of spiritual practice. ‘If God was infinite, infinite were the ways to reach Him’ was his conviction. Why should he then be short of anything? So, resorting to the essence of all the major religions, apparently conflicting, he realized God, and in the process confirmed that devotion to God is central to all religions; short of that religion is nonsense. All quarrels are over the chaff leaving the grain, which is available in all faiths. Dualism, qualified non-dualism and pure non-dualism, he professed, were not contradictory, but complementary to each other. Adopting these moods from time to time like a ‘psychic amphibian’, he used to float between them with ease and brilliance. Watching him day in and day out, Swami Vivekananda arrived at the following conclusion:
Such a unique personality, such a synthesis of the utmost of Jnana, Yoga, Bhakti and Karma, has never before appeared among mankind. The life of Sri Ramakrishna proves that the greatest breadth, the highest catholicity and the utmost intensity can exist side by side in the same individual, and that society also can be constructed like that, for society is nothing but an aggregate of individuals.
He is the true disciple and follower of Sri Ramakrishna, whose character is perfect and all-sided like this. The formation of such a perfect character is the ideal of this age, and everyone should strive for that alone.’ (7.412)
Gradually but perceptibly, it is dawning on the probing minds of people of all walks of life from all parts of the world that Sri Ramakrishna gave in one single life the remedies of all human maladies, for the present and for centuries ahead. In that respect he is more modern than the most modern man of our times and, eventually, is the most indispensable spiritual leader for us. Evidence of this fact is traceable to the works of minds susceptible to the compelling spell he is unobtrusively casting everywhere. For instance, introducing himself as ‘a Christian who finds himself just as much at home in the Indian spiritual sphere as he does in his inherited Catholic faith’, the German author Hans Torwesten writes introducing his book Ramakrishna and Christ:
For most Christians, Ramakrishna – if they know him at all – is fortunately not a red rag to a bull. Christians have written almost always with approval about him and about the Ramakrishna Mission founded by his disciple Swami Vivekananda. When his picture was placed on the altar one evening in an English Dominican friary during a retreat in which Hindus as well as Catholics and Protestants participated and an Indian Swami celebrated a short Arati service before it, none of the Christians stood up to tear down the picture. It even happens that a Benedictine monk hangs up a large picture of Ramakrishna in his study and this not in India, as a gesture of tolerance, but in Germany, in the very depths of the Western World. One at once asks oneself what such a monk can see in Ramakrishna – a sage, a Hindu Saint Francis or even a revelation of God – only of course on a more modest scale than the revelation of God in Christ.’
Torwesten then describes Ramakrishna as a ‘phenomenon’ which has always been approached with a certain warmth of feeling and sympathy ‘though a serious encounter with him has been avoided, because in some way he is too close to Christians.’ And the alluded apprehension is understandable because of Sri Ramakrishna’s all-consuming spiritual eminence.
Sri Ramakrishna repudiated book learning, but was taught by nature itself, so his learning was not partial. His knowledge was complete. His penetrating insight was able to perceive our weaknesses and, thereby, provide their treatments. He worshipped God as the Mother of the universe. He was a child in Her lap; he was never separate from Her. Hence his whole being was obviously saturated with the sentiment of God the Mother. He was aware that the world was Her divine play and we are all caught in its mesh, a make-believe of unreality as reality. Winning Her affection we have somehow to wiggle ourselves free from the hook of Her inscrutable charm.
That is what is practically displayed by Sri Ramakrishna. The tenor of his life demonstrated that to surrender to God totally is to be entirely independent of the flux of mundane affairs. He had proved that ‘The ideal man is he who, in the midst of the greatest silence and solitude, finds the intensest activity, and in the midst of the intensest activity, finds the silence and solitude of the desert.’ The complexity of our life has made us too self-conscious and lonely in spite of our coexistence with our dear ones. The frustration of this ‘loneliness’ is the root of our sufferings as it is taking us away from God. Sri Ramakrishna has shown us how to be at rest being alone with God in the midst of the din and bustle of the world. The blissful state of ‘Aloneness’ in the company of the Divine Mother, as he enjoyed without break, only can save us from the predicament of this mire. We must know for sure that the love of God is the only recipe that can make our life delectable and meaningful; in its absence everything on earth is dull and deplorable.
Swamiji punctiliously performed the task of teaching the universal religion as entrusted by his Master. His allegiance to him was exemplary. In the course of a lecture delivered after returning from America, he publicly pronounced with extreme humility: ‘… let me say now that if I have told you one word of truth, it was his and his alone, and if I have told you many things which were not true, which were not correct, which were not beneficial to the human race, they were all mine, and on me is the responsibility.’ (3.268)
Of all the persons who came in close contact with Sri Ramakrishna, Swamiji was the one whom he considered the most competent bearer of his message, for he alone could judge its importance for posterity. He says, ‘He is the method, that wonderful unconscious method! … He lived that great life; and I read the meaning. Never a word of condemnation for any!’ (8.267)
The problem is with our endless cravings. Sri Ramakrishna says the hassle will be over once the desires in our hearts are extinguished for good. The culture of self-aggrandizement has induced us into the worst kind of contest and jealousy. In the strain of his voice Swamiji therefore says, ‘The Lord has hidden Himself best, and His work is best; so he who hides himself best, accomplishes most.’ (7.15)
Should we require assistance to earn solace, to be away from the inferno of worldly suffering, we must not hesitate to pick up the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna lying at our elbow. We will know from it how to put God in the middle of our existence in order to convert our life into a ‘pleasure hut’. In this connection, the book Sri Ramakrishna: A Prophet for the New Age by Richard Schiffman also commends itself for useful reading. The author concludes his work saying about Sri Ramakrishna:
The Baul [a pastoral folk singer of Bengal] had come and gone. But his band would continue to dance their way through nearly half of the twentieth century. Through most of the nations of the earth, through India, through the alien lands of Europe and America and the Far East, they would dance their heady dance – unsung, unknown perhaps to the great mass of men, but not without sowing the flaming seeds of Love on the winds of the dark age of untruth.
Sri Ramakrishna is the spiritual paradigm for the new era and Swamiji is the spearhead of the movement initiated by him. They have shown a silver lining of hope, in the midst of the chaos, of a seeming grey future of mankind. The earlier we fall in line with their direction, the better it is for us.
1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 7.44.
2. Bhagavadgita, ‘Dhyana’, 4.
3. Swami Gambhirananda, History of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1983), 16.
4. CW, 3.1.
5. Hans Torwesten, Ramakrishna and Christ (Calcutta: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1999), xi.
6. CW, 1.34.
7. Richard Schiffman, Sri Ramakrishna: A Prophet for the New Age (Calcutta: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1994), 228.
Source from An article by Swami Sandarshanananda which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – August 2004
The world is now wearing an unsightly look, reeking of an imminent calamity. The sacrilege committed by the self-serving everywhere is unbounded; its purging seems impossible. Among the animals, tyranny of the strong over the weak is instinctive. Unfortunately, it seems to be the case with the intelligent Homo sapiens too. Might and money seem to rule the roost. The two have melted into a dubious one to perpetrate the mischief. The richer we are, the larger is our influence. Throwing a piece before the hapless, we draw him to owe allegiance to us; if he chooses to remain wayward, we take umbrage at him and lead him to face dire consequences. Prowess of the penny is the peril of the day. As it is true for individuals, so is it true for nations.
This lamentable condition earnestly bids us to wake up to our senses immediately. While pride and pleasure have on the one hand reduced a few of us into brutes, penury and privation on the other have turned a majority of us cynical. It is, in fine, the crisis of our character that has relegated us to the dungeon of distress. To change the prevailing circumstances is indeed difficult, but not absurd, given the right intention for its accomplishment. We ought to realize the fact that the world will not change unless we change ourselves.
Needless to mention, due to globalization our fates are inextricably linked with each other. Accordingly, ‘sharing’ is said to be the key to a healthy society. But can it be effective without a thorough change in the attitude of man? Is it not ridiculous to expect brotherly behaviour between man and man before his spiritual regeneration? Why should one feel for others if one harbours no sense of belonging to them? Addressing basic queries such as these could perhaps pave the path of peace for us.
Talking of the inner transformation we have to simultaneously think about an effective stimulus for its achievement. There is hardly any room for argument regarding the truth that, despite numerous sedulous attempts to obliterate it or use it for evil purposes, religion has not lost an iota of its importance yet. Undoubtedly, it is still the only means to do good to humanity, for religion is essentially ingrained in man and it alone rekindles all auspicious qualities in him, when he makes it the summum bonum of his life. It is the great ‘milch cow’ that ‘has given many kicks, but never mind, it gives a great deal of milk. The milkman does not mind the kick of the cow which gives much milk.’ (1)
Paradoxically, although man could ill afford to dispense with religion, he has nevertheless failed to comprehend that religion is, in fact, one and universal; only its manifestations are many and variable; its core is immutable and eternal as it is primarily concerned only with the Absolute, or God. The story of human civilization is a procession of rise and fall of events with the progress of time. And religion is all the time beside them, remaining in people’s constitution, occasionally unfolding itself, bringing out the propitious in every sphere of human endeavour. But sometimes when it is deeply buried under the rubble of arrant materialism, its physical appearance before us is urgently necessitated, and the most practical way of its happening is the arising in a human form of what we call an incarnation of God. Being man, maybe he then behaves like any other person, but he lives the life of Religion Eternal, demonstrating its intricacies in his own character, which conspicuously sets Him apart from the common run of men.
Ironically, because of our ignorance our inane selves are seldom aware of his august presence in our midst, though we require him the most. He is there in front of us in blood and flesh and incessantly working to lay the foundation for a revolution to be perpetuated for centuries, evolving a spiritual metamorphosis in the world.
The significance of the advent of Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna in modern times becomes intelligible only if it is considered in this light. While he was living with us sometime ago, we were not bothered about him. Now that we are in trouble and are in search of a mooring to lay anchor, we are beginning to learn the implications of his contributions. He was so long a ‘gift unopened’, as it were.
Man today is tired of the rat race and the persecutions of gross sectarianism. The hard slogs of genuflections and homilies from the pulpits have bored him intolerably. It is Sri Ramakrishna who has first shown that religion is intense love of God and its surge washes out all discriminations. Smitten with its intensity man is able to transcend all human limitations. Barriers of colour, clime and creed no more pose vicious distinctions before him. To him then the Lord is the Source of all beings and we, His children, have a common identity in His existence. This simple but profound message of Sri Ramakrishna is the panacea for all human sufferings since it bears no stigma of fanaticism and lopsidedness.
Sri Krishna is compared to the milkman who milks the cows of supreme Knowledge (the Upanishads) for the benefit of the wise and Arjuna, the calf. (2) Being His able disciple, Arjuna manifests the best in him and works like a medium to carry the Bhagavadgita to the world at large for its spiritual nourishment. The relationship between Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda is somewhat similar. When the existence of God was critically questioned in the nineteenth century, Sri Ramakrishna made God palpable to Swamiji so surely as to make him his follower for life. Since then Swamiji did not waver from that position till he breathed his last. Swamiji asked Sri Ramakrishna if he had seen God. Pat came the reply, ‘Yes, I see Him just as I see you, only in a much intenser sense. God can be realised. One can see and talk with Him as I am doing with you.’ (3) These words he spoke with extraordinary aplomb. It diminished all confusions in Swamiji and he was sure that religion is direct perception of God. In 1896, while interpreting religion in a logical and scientific language to an enlightened audience in America, he said, ’It is a vision, an inspiration, a plunge into the unknown and unknowable, making the unknowable more than known, for it can never be “known” (emphasis added).’ (4) But it took almost a quixotic effort for Sri Ramakrishna to tame the ‘bull’ in Vivekananda. Once tamed, his loyalty to him was total, as indicated by his confession later: ‘I love that Brahmin priest [Sri Ramakrishna] intensely, and therefore, love whatever he used to love, whatever he used to regard!’ (7.413-4)
On the eve of taking his sannyasa vows, Swamiji was torn between his obligation towards his mother and younger brothers and to his guru. He wrote in a letter to Haridas Viharidas Desai from Chicago on 29 January 1894, ‘So on the one hand, my vision of the future of Indian religion and that of the whole world, my love for the millions of beings sinking down and down for ages with nobody to help them, nay, nobody with even a thought for them; on the other hand, making those who are nearest and dearest to me miserable; I choose the former.’ (8.297-8) Swamiji was grateful that he ‘had the good fortune to sit at Sri Ramakrishna’s feet for years.’ He observed that Sri Ramakrishna would see in every sect the same spirit working, the same God; one who would see God in every being, one whose heart would weep for the poor, for the weak, for the outcast, for the downtrodden, for everyone in this world, inside India or outside India; and at the same time whose grand brilliant intellect would conceive of such noble thoughts as would harmonise all conflicting sects, not only in India but outside of India, and bring a marvellous harmony, the universal religion of head and heart into existence. (3.267)
Sri Ramakrishna makes a clean breast of the fact that a particular religion is not a straitjacket that must fit all and sundry in the same manner, irrespective of their individualities. The only purpose of religion is realization of God. And there may be innumerable ways to serve this purpose. As one kind of food cannot be suitable for all, so also one single faith cannot be equally useful for all, though the aim of all faiths is to win love of God, which is the ultimate unifying factor among their followers in the one universal perspective of Religion. Any deliberate attempt to bind it in the stringent laws of rituals and practices is a sham. He, therefore, professed varieties of religious experiences by dint of his own spiritual attainment. He said that he would like to taste the love of God in as many ways as possible. His one constant prayer to the Lord was that he should not be made a ‘plastic saint’.
Source from An article by Swami Satyamayananda which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – January 2005
An individual is the basic social unit. Actually, we cannot think of an individual bereft of social baggage. The mind of each individual has two aspects: objective and subjective. The objective aspect is called society and the subjective is the real person. Truly speaking, the streams of individual and social consciousness blend finely and almost indistinguishably. This blending is present not just in man but in every living being.
Individual and Social Forces
There are many active forces in the individual that go into shaping society. Likewise there are many social forces incessantly working on the individual and also transforming him. It can equally be urged that when magnified, distorted and coloured, the individual forces become social forces. And when focused, the social forces make an individual. All this makes the individual constantly shift and assume different aspects according to changing social scenarios. Hence the so-called individuality keeps growing all the time. The same can be said of society. The question then arises: what is the goal of all these changes and growth?
Interrelationship among Individuals
The instinct to form societies and live in a group is ingrained in the individual psyche or rather in individual biology. But this very instinct or genetic factor throws us against each other to compete for everything. Each individual has a bundle of characteristics that combine to bring out his uniqueness. Even so a society has numerous elements that give it a distinct individuality.
An individual is related to his family, clan, class or caste, economy, education, profession, race, language, religion, culture, politics, hobbies, nationality, humanity and so on. It is not necessarily in this order or all of these, but it must also be remembered that vices and virtues also lump people together. A person is thus a part of a group, which is a part of a larger group, and so on. The moment a person is born he is born into a group or a subgroup. As the individual grows, the number of groups clustering around him also increases. Thus an individual has growing circles of subgroups and groups around him that act as a protective shell around him, simultaneously hemming him in. It is like a stone thrown in a placid pool. The concentric ripples move away, one giving rise to another. They spread out far and they return after reaching the outer limits (banks). Each concentric circle is a group in which that individual lives and with which he identifies himself.
Suppose this pool does not have just one stone thrown in (an individual) but many. All these concentric ripples now clash with one another as they emerge to spread, and again clash when they return from the outer limits (of society). All this makes the water choppy and unstable. Then the relative sizes of stones (individuals) vary, making their respective ripples varied. Some ripples get strengthened, some impelled, others contained and many destroyed.
Active and Silent Influences
There are times in the lives of individuals when a kind of frenzy tightens its stranglehold on them and threatens their sanity and existence. Every nation and society also undergoes this kind of upheaval in its history. Some nations, like some individuals, endure it longer, others briefly, yet others frequently and still others disastrously. The various forces that are involved are beyond our control and comprehension. This description fits when the forces are manifest and their effects can be perceived, but mostly these pressing circumstances are silently working on the individual and society, making for constant low-intensity struggle and despair. From one standpoint these struggles are necessary to make the society strong. Again, paradoxically, this saps our strength and with it our happiness and peace.
Society being a conglomeration of different groups and subgroups, ideally all these should work in unison, but they don’t. Just as there are different groups there are different forces operating within groups, moulding and then scattering them broadcast. This causes the inevitable palpable and impalpable clashes with other groups. No society is free from such clash of forces. Sometimes the clash of various forces in different intensities raises some groups, lets down others and crushes some others. But these forces do not absolutely destroy. They fragment a group and cast it away. From these remnants rises yet again another group that combines with the pre-existing ones or asserts its old identity. The disruptive forces thus become cohesive forces. These group wars, manifest and non-manifest, are a necessary component in every society, safeguarding and diffusing group strength all over it. Thus, an individual is a mere straw in the immensity of these movements that constantly traverse social realms.
No Man is an Island
We have got into a maze. Rather, we are already in it. What do we mean when we talk of enlightened citizenship, if we keep the above description of society in mind? The answer is obvious: no man is an island. Being an island might be poetry but bad poetry. The words monasticism and monk come from mono, ‘one’. But monks also form monastic communities and go out for begging their daily bread. A person who is really alone is an insane person. He has gone beyond sanity and also society. Yet this very sane society is seen to make some of its members insane. Where is the ground we stand on? It is all the time shifting. Is this concept of being alone true or false? This concept itself would not have arisen in our minds if it were totally baseless. Here is the other argument: being all the time in a crowd has given rise to an opposite notion of being alone. Generally, people can endure even third-degree torture but not solitary confinement.
Who Is a Leader?
If an individual asserts too much he is disliked and most likely destroyed. If one accommodates oneself to others’ wills and whims, one ends up not being oneself. Yet we find individuals who are assertive and still accommodative. They accommodate a group’s hopes, aspirations and struggles and then assert themselves. This kind of individual has grown out of limited individuality and has reached the higher social consciousness of the group or groups. Such individuals embody in themselves both aspects of assertion and accommodation in a large measure. They are natural leaders.
It can also be urged that the play of social forces themselves give rise to such individuals. These individuals are the result of those very forces they typify and embody. It is seen that as the particular goal of the group is attained, this leader’s purpose is served and he is no longer needed. As a new problem crops up, those very forces that struggle against that problem will throw up a new leader. Are such persons enlightened citizens? The answer is, not necessarily; for it is seen in many cases that ‘leaders’ are selfish, egotistical, tyrannical and paranoid about power. Is an individual, then, tucked away in some obscure corner living a small life as an enlightened citizen? The answer again is in the negative. Yet, being an enlightened citizen does not depend upon wealth, brains, power, culture, education, sectarian beliefs or any other factor.
Maintaining Poise by Living for an Ideal
If anyone observed closely how ballet dancers or gymnasts manage to keep their balance and not feel giddy while whirling rapidly, he would realize that their eyes are riveted on a distant spot on the wall or the ceiling. This eliminates the disorientation and keeps them balanced.1 Similarly when an individual keeps his sight on the ideal, far above society’s turbulence, he is not toppled by the natural and sordid social forces that try to disturb his equanimity and poise. This ideal has to be spiritual, for only the spiritual is above the material forces and is not subject to them. As the individual keeps his vision on the ideal, the orientation towards it commences and then inexorably impels him towards it. For it is ordinarily seen that our eyes lock into an object and impel the body to follow.
Those who are not inclined towards a spiritual ideal can anchor themselves to a lesser yet noble ideal: looking upon people generalized as humanity. Humanity is naturally above particular societies. As people strive for their rights and duties and a decent life, they will inevitably learn that in order to rise higher, humanity must at one point be able to transcend human bonds. The Atman, which is the divine core of human personality and ‘the Truth of truth’ (satyasa satyam),2 then becomes our ideal. Its high expression is in humanity and the highest is in all creation.
It is this ideal, the Atman, that is faintly reflected and perceived in our subjective and objective consciousness of individuality and society. This Atman is actually the motive power, the real force above all the other forces that toss us about in order to guide us to Its portals.
True Individuality in the Atman
It is not that we shall go about staring up at the skies, as that would erroneously mean we are directing our vision above society. It will be actually having our mental vision directed inside, for the Spirit, our Soul, is inside. It is on this permanence that we shall stand and view the shifting ground and the play of forces in society. This will be a first step towards seeing the reality within us and then as residing in all beings. We shall then see individuals and society, in fact all of creation, in the wonderful unchanging light of the Atman. Only then will we be perfectly enlightened individuals and perfectly enlightened citizens. Everything will then be harmonious, whole, healthy and meaningful. The smallest to the largest action, individuals, groups and subgroups will be found to be unconsciously pursuing the spiritual ideal. We shall then work harder, not only for humanity but also for the whole world. Others will then emulate us. The goal of true individuality, the Atman, having been reached, we shall identify with all the centrifugal and centripetal social ripples, and grow and help others to grow in the light of the Atman.
Notes and References
1. Disorientation of any kind is due to the kinesthetic and vestibular systems. The former is due to nerves spread all over the body and the latter, which works with the former, also detects the position of the head and is essential for maintaining balance. The brain monitors these movements along with those from the eyes to control balance and coordinate movements. The eyes and other senses can compensate to a certain degree for balance. See ABC’s of the Human Mind, ed. Alma Guinness (New York: Reader’s Digest, 1990), 134.
2. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.1.20.
Source from An article by Swami Sarvagatananda which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – December 2004
Service with a Difference
A family came to her one day, travelling a long distance by bullock cart. One of them had malaria. Jayrambati was a very bad place for the disease. The patient was shivering and didn’t know what to do. They were to go away right after seeing Mother and receiving her blessings. But he had to stay back. Now, how to provide for all of them in the house? Those who were helping Mother said, ‘Let them go to the next village and stay in such and such a place.’
‘But I can’t send them out,’ said Mother. Mind that, that night she cooked for them, served them, and served especially that diseased man. She brought some ingredients, prepared some kind of paste of them, poured some milk into it and gave it to him. Next morning, she sent him back in a bullock cart. And she herself was sick for a few days.
It was not once, but it happened many times. People came there quite healthy, but since that area was not conducive to good health, they fell sick. And she was there on the spot to serve them. ‘He’s my child,’ she used to say. ‘I shall do what I can for him or her.’ This is what I call really impossible. What is important is, she served others not just in a human way, but with a spiritual background, with total identification with them.
She Made Everyone Her Own
‘Make everybody your own, nobody is a stranger, the world is yours’ – Mother did not say that from imagination or for the good of the world. She was like that: she made everybody her own – no distinction.
In those days of the beginning of the twentieth century, caste restrictions in society were rigid, particularly with regard to Muslims and untouchables. Orthodox people never allowed them inside their house. Mother not only allowed them inside, but served them food, cleaned the area herself because others refused to do it. They would tell her, ‘You are a brahmin; you should not touch those things.’ She removed the leavings and cleaned the place after her children ate. Somebody said, ‘You will lose your caste.’ ‘I have no caste,’ she said. What caste? Being unorthodox in that orthodox area and keeping her head high at the same time was very difficult. She served everyone and made them feel that she was their mother.
Her Spiritual Ministry
And this is only the empirical side of her personality. To speak of her spiritual service: People come to her with so many doubts, with so many images in their mind, and told her their problems. Mother gave them spiritual instructions suitable and natural to each according to his stage in life.
And she was not particular about any place for initiating people. They could meet her anywhere: at the railway station or at the roadside adjacent to the fields. Wherever she was, that place was holy. And there she welcomed them, instructed them, guided them and bade them farewell. One needed just to say, ‘Mother, please instruct me’, and she was ready. As a spiritual guide, she observed no restriction. Her refrain was, ‘They have come all the way; I need to help them.’
Awe-inspiring Spiritual Greatness
In her spiritual service she stands above many people. Many of the later seniors of the Ramakrishna Order were her disciples. Once, when two disciples of Swamiji came to meet him, he said, ‘Go to Mother. Receive her blessings first and then come here.’ Swamiji had been to the Western world and conquered the hearts and minds of many people. When he went to Holy Mother, he was just like a humble soul: standing before her, waiting for her orders. Others could not understand Mother’s greatness, but Swamiji did. Other disciples of Sri Ramakrishna could not imagine how great she was. One day, Swami Vijnanananda, a brother disciple of Vivekananda, went to make prostrations before Mother. He saluted her briefly from a distance and came away. Swamiji said, ‘Come here, you don’t know whom you are approaching. Is that the way to salute her?’ And Swamiji showed him how to salute her by prostrating full length before her. ‘Just do like that. You will be blessed, I tell you,’ he said. And mind that, the person was another disciple of Ramakrishna.
On another occasion, I heard, Swami Brahmananda went to see her. He washed his hands three or four times with Ganga water, sprinkled it on his body and stood shivering before her. He returned after a quick prostration. That was because her spiritual stature was so high. We could perhaps understand Sri Ramakrishna’s stature, because it was evident and could be felt. But Mother’s was absolutely concealed. Therefore, they were awed of her. Her one word was law and obeyed as an order in the entire Ramakrishna Order. So thoughtful, so wise was her intuitive counsel. She could say things straight to even great swamis like Brahmananda and Vivekananda, and, on occasion, to even Sri Ramakrishna if she felt that her motherhood was questioned. She was the only one who could say no to Sri Ramakrishna, because she had that motherly feeling: for the sake of my children, it must be done, it must be so – no discrimination.
An Exemplar, Not an Instructor
She never encouraged any narrowness in the administration of the Ramakrishna Order. If someone wanted to do something that might not have universal approval and said, ‘Our custom tells us to do this’, she would say, ‘No, this Order belongs to the whole world. You should do everything in such a way that everyone will have a place here.’ She did not approve of political affiliations either. The Ramakrishna Order is one place where none should feel isolated. She was so broad, so universal and so calm and sublime at the same time. This combination is very difficult. It is the highest spiritual achievement. And again, coming down to the lowest level of humankind and behaving with them without losing her spiritual stature is something very difficult. What you find in her teachings, she followed it all exactly. That is why I say she is an exemplar, not an instructor. She never talked about things. She did them and observing her, people learnt from her.
Once a lady came to her from a long distance to get some instruction from her. Mother said, ‘Come in.’ And she was talking to Mother and Mother was doing her job, cooking and keeping things ready. ‘Mother, won’t you please tell me something?’ Mother replied, ‘Don’t you see me?’
Universal Motherly Love
To many of us religion means rituals, going to a shrine, a chapel and bowing down many times. No doubt, they have their rewards. But do you feel for people? Do you care for them? Do you love them? Do you identify yourself with others? That is real religion.
You all know, after the Last Supper, Jesus Christ spelt out the essence of Christianity. ‘As I love you, you love one another. As I serve you, you serve one another.’ To love and serve was the theme of Holy Mother’s life. She loved and served others and ministered to their needs. None ever went away from her without being satisfied. That is what is called a universal motherly attitude.
Somebody asked me the other day, mentioning a great soul who is highly honoured. ‘Don’t you see, swami …?’ ‘Well, for me it is easy to understand,’ I said.
‘I have known another person who was steeped in spirituality, but kept herself busy serving people; serving them herself, not through somebody.’
That person is Holy Mother. Her whole life is nothing but the expression of that motherly attitude. Even when she was a little girl in Jayrambati, everybody thought she was a grown-up girl. She was just five or six years old. She felt for everyone, carried things from her house and gave them. Her parents never objected. When she grew up and came to Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar, then again the same thing. Not only did she serve Sri Ramakrishna, but she served all people who came there. And mind you, all that silently. The man who was in charge of the temple said one day, ‘Yes, some people say she is here, but I have never seen her.’ Absolutely silent service, unseen by others – that is not easy.
All these monks and disciples of Sri Ramakrishna had experienced her service. When Sri Ramakrishna said, ‘Don’t feed them too much’, she said, ‘No, leave that to me. You give them spiritual instructions, but the question of their health is my concern. I know who needs what and how much.’ And she did not even mind what Ramakrishna said. She did her things in her own motherly way. Some need more, some less. You cannot make a rule: only two chapatis for everyone. Sri Ramakrishna made a rule, you know, that monks should only take two chapatis at night, nothing more. But mother used to serve them two, three or four, according to their need and capacity. Ramakrishna could say nothing more. She was a mother to everyone from the very beginning. See that holiness and motherly attitude, a beautiful combination in one soul. And her spiritual illumination! Concealing all that and serving others was something natural to her.
I remember an incident in the life of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Once, I think an American gentleman went to see him. Someone told the visitor, ‘You go to that hall; Maharshi is there.’ He entered the hall and found many people cutting vegetables. And he asked someone, ‘I would like to see the great Ramana Maharshi. Will you please lead me to him?’ And Maharshi was sitting right there peeling potatoes. He looked at him and said, ‘Sit down.’ He pushed a few potatoes before the visitor. ‘Come on, take them and start peeling them.’ To Maharshi, spiritual life was not something separate from secular life. Life is One. ‘Come, join us,’ he said. The visitor could not understand. Here is a man to meet whom people come from all parts of the world. Was he standing there, giving lectures? No, he was just like anyone else.
And Mother was just like that throughout her life. We have seen many great saints going to different places and performing some austerities, but Mother, never. One attitude purified her completely: ‘I am the Mother of all.’
One of her disciples once told us, ‘You need not do anything. Just be unselfish, don’t seek anything and be motherly to all. You will see a miracle happening in your own life.‘ Purity of heart is a big thing, practically impossible in this world. You can have that purity only through two things: unselfishness and love, as a mother loves her children.
‘Not me, but Thou.’ Develop this attitude and you don’t need to believe in any God, said a disciple of Swamiji. And Swamiji himself says in his ‘Karma Yoga’:
Although a man has not studied a single system of philosophy, although he does not believe in any God, and never has believed, although he has not prayed even once in his whole life, if the simple power of good actions has brought him to that state where he is ready to give up his life and all else for others, he has arrived at the same point to which the religious man will come through his prayers and the philosopher through his knowledge. (2)
And Mother translated that into action throughout her life. Unselfishness and service; to love and serve: Swamiji made that the motto of the Ramakrishna Order. It is based on Mother’s life and actions. ‘He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak, and in the diseased really worships Shiva,’ he proclaimed. (3) To me, Holy Mother is the most holy, the most motherly.
May we follow in her footsteps; may we gain some purity that comes out of that love and service, and gain some kind of illumination in this very life – that is my prayer.
1. Bhagavadgita, 7.16.
2. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.86.
3. CW, 3.142.
Source from An article by Swami Sarvagatananda which appeared in Prabuddha Bharata – December 2004
This is a very special occasion for all of us to think about Holy Mother: what she was, what she means to us now. It is rather difficult to picture her because our knowledge about her is only second-hand: we get a glimpse of her from writings on her by swamis, by others who saw her and by those who had heard about her from still others. You will be surprised and perhaps shocked to know that not many in the beginning were inclined to go to Holy Mother because they could not really see her, since she was always veiled and never spoke anything about philosophy, religion and the like. Not many could grasp the greatness of Holy Mother: they thought she was great because she was Sri Ramakrishna’s wife.
Coming down from Divinity to Human Level
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that it is rather easy to get into an ecstatic mood, raise our consciousness, dwell in that highest divine realm and be lost to the outside world. But, having had the highest spiritual experience, it is very difficult to come down to the human level and work like anyone else, without betraying any traces of having had that ecstatic experience. That was the uniqueness of Holy Mother.
Her Life Was Her Sermon
I am sure many of you know about an incident from Buddha’s life. There was a hall where he addressed his monks and other disciples. One day, on entering the hall, he surveyed it in a moment to see if everyone was present. One monk was absent. And Buddha asked the others, ‘What about him?’ ‘Well, sir, he is sick. He’s staying in his room,’ was the reply. ‘Is there anyone to serve him?’ Buddha asked. ‘No, sir.’
Buddha got up, slowly walked up to the sick monk’s place, took a towel, soaked it in water, squeezed it and washed him and served him. When the monk was asleep, Buddha came out. The other monks were waiting for him. Buddha was about to go away without a word. Some monks asked him, ‘Sir, what about the sermon?’
‘I rendered the sermon,’ he said. That is it. ‘I rendered the sermon.’ That, again, was Holy Mother. To serve others is very difficult. We can talk, we can explain things, but, with that full awareness inside, to behave just like an ordinary human being is practically impossible. That is why many could not understand her in the beginning. The more they lived with her, the more they began to understand how it was possible for a human being to serve others as she did. She was daughter to her parents, wife to Sri Ramakrishna and spiritual guide and teacher to many, but more than all this, she was a mother, unique in every way.
Our Real Mother
She lived true to her pronouncement ‘I am the Mother of all.’ Anybody, rich or poor, literate or illiterate, high class or low class, known or unknown – all received from her that wonderful love and affection. That is one important thing I discover in her life. Anybody could go and feel, ‘Here is someone who is my very own.’ Day or night, people visited her. Slowly her name spread, and more people started coming. Without exception all felt that she was heavenly. That is why I say she is holy and she is motherly. Everyone had that kind of feeling – monks, devotees, the Western disciples of Swami Vivekananda who accompanied him to India, and those who visited India after his passing way. Their common refrain was, ‘She is our real mother.’
Motherly, Compassionate and Forgiving
We could love others like a mother for a day, or maybe for some days, but throughout our life? That is very difficult. Even when she was sick, she was ready to help anyone. In the Chandi we read about the glory of the Divine Mother: ‘Ya devi sarvabhuteshu matrirupena samsthitha; … Ya devi sarvabhuteshu dayarupena samsthita; … Ya devi sarvabhuteshu kshantirupena samsthita; Namastasyai. Namastasyai. Namastasyai namo namah.’ (’Salutations to the Divine Mother, who dwells in all beings as mother, as compassion, as forgiveness.’)
God as mother, as compassion, as forgiveness – all this we hear about. Well, maybe we also try to imagine. Until we see a person translating these things into action, we don’t really understand. Holy Mother was such a person. She was not only motherly to everyone, but also compassionate and forgiving.
There is not one but many incidents in her life to illustrate how people received her blessings. Of all those who received her grace, that Muslim robber comes to my mind again and again, the one who went to jail many times. He was not allowed to even reach and see her. One day he climbed the wall and jumped into the place just to have a glimpse of Mother when she was sick. As he stood before her, she asked, ‘Baba, where were you all these days?’ ‘Oh, I did some robbery and then I was caught and was put in the jail. Just the other day they released me,’ he said. And she made him sit there and served him.
A devotee once asked her, ‘Mother, why do you waste so much time for him?’
‘Because he is lost.’
‘Do you know he robbed such and such a place the other day?’
‘What else can he do? They have lost their jobs.’ (They used to work in a silk industry. Due to an unfortunate competition, that industry was dead. And all those workers, very strong Muslims, had nothing to do. Therefore, they took to robbing others.) ‘If you give him some work he will certainly do that. When there is no work, how does he maintain his family? So robbing has become his profession. And therefore he comes here. I cannot say no to him.’ Look, Mother did not take it very badly!
Whatever Was Hers Was for Others
Imagine, if any robber comes from jail and walks into your house, how would you feel? Mother felt at home with him, not once, but many times. There are so many such incidents in her life. In the Bhagavadgita there is a nice saying from Sri Krishna: ‘Four types of persons worship me: those who are in distress, those who seek material benefits, those who are seekers of truth and those who know me (jnanis).’1 All these people worship the Lord. Now, we all do it. All religions have this kind of approach. It is easy to go to a shrine or a chapel and sit down and say, ‘Oh, God …’ and submit our petition to Him. And then, maybe our prayer is sanctioned or maybe not, but we live on faith and hope. With Mother, it is not like that. You go with all these things to her, someone sitting before you in flesh and blood. And whatever you want, you ask her.
It is easy to pray to a deity and expect that something will happen after some time. Here it is not like that. To a living person you say this and get the things done. That I call impossible in this world, but she did it. People used to go to her for many things. If she had what they wanted, she immediately gave them that. Otherwise, she made them sit, procured the thing and gave it. She never denied anyone anything. Where do you have another like her?
Once it so happened that somebody came to her clad in a small length of cloth. Mother had no money to purchase cloths. Somebody had given her a new cloth. It was on the clothesline, washed, dry and ready to wear. She immediately brought it, folded it and gave it to the person. If she had anything, it belonged to people. She was always concerned about others. She was a nurse, maid, mother—all in one. And she served everyone, day or night.
The life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna are very meaningful to people today. Although no one may ever understand his life fully, we can gain much by trying to practise his teachings. Two of the most prominent are: the need of Self-Realization, or God-Realization, which enables us to see God in all; and the need for accepting all the religions paths as valid ways and approaches to God.
Swami Bhuteshanandaji Maharaj , President of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, emphasizes the practical importance of these teachings of Sri Ramakrishna in this highly illuminating talk. We regret we could not ascertain the place and year in which this was delivered. Source: Prabuddha Bharata – Vol. 100, November 1995
The subject for this evening is “Yuga-dharma-sthapaka Sri Ramakrishna“, that is, “Sri Ramakrishna as the Establisher of the Spiritual Ideal for the Age“.
Even when he was just a little child, Sri Ramakrishna spontaneously attained God-realization of a very high order. We do not know where he got this knowledge, this realization; it was not from any kind of sadhana, as we understand the word. Sri Ramakrishna gave some hint about this, but never elaborated the point. He said, “Incarnations are born with full Realization. They are like plants that flower after the fruits have come”. The life of Sri Ramakrishna was like that. That was the peculiarity with which he was endowed from the very beginning – from his boyhood. He did not stop there. His sadhana, regular practice, began a little later, when he had a tremendous urge for God-realization. But, as we have seen, he had already had a spiritual experience of the highest order, even before adolescence. So why should he want to practise sadhana for the God realization he had already attained? The only answer is: This is a unique life that we have before us. This Sri Ramakrishna has to be understood from two different angles of understanding. One angle tells us that he is the perfect manifestation of the highest Reality. Seen from the other angle, he is just an ordinary person like us who practises sadhana to realize the Supreme Reality. These two go side by side. We see this not only in Sri Ramakrishna, but in other great prophets and Incarnations also. Every Incarnation is born with spiritual Knowledge. But that Knowledge has to be manifested, at least for the sake of others, by some prescribed methods. And Sri Ramakrishna practised those methods.
Other Incarnations also practised sadhana. Sri Krishna went to his guru’s home to learn the scriptures, and engage in sadhana. Sri Ramachandra did the same thing. Every teacher, every Incarnation has to do that. Why do they do this? Because they have to demonstrate to the world how God-realization is to be attained, step by step, up to the last stage. That has to be actually demonstrated through their own lives. Without this demonstration the purpose of the Incarnation becomes unfulfilled. If they remain at the highest stage, always immersed in Brahman, that does not help us. We have to be helped by a person who comes down to our level and shows us the way, step by step, to the highest goal. Swami Saradanandaji has stated in “Sri Ramakrisna Lilaprasanga” (“Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master”) that every event in the life of Sri Ramakrishna has a deep meaning for us. His was not simply a life lived in isolation. It was a life that was to be the beacon light for us, so that we can have our path lighted and gradually reach the highest goal.
Swami Vivekananda said that even the Vedas and the Vedanta will have to be understood in the light of Sri Ramakrishna, in the light of his teachings. His life is the light by means of which we will be able to read the meaning of the scriptures. The scriptures contain much wisdom no doubt, but they remain unintelligible to us unless we see them interpreted through the lives of these Incarnations. They make the scriptures living. As Sri Ramakrishna himself has stated, our scriptures are a mixture of sand and sugar. You have to find out where the sugar is and where the sand is, then you can reject the sand and take the sugar. In other words, Truth is mixed with some unnecessary things. It needs some husk, as it were, something to protect it from being diluted or misinterpreted.
Brahman has been so often elaborately described by the scriptures, but do we really understand It? If we study the scriptures, where do we finally end up? We too often become either agnostic or utterly bewildered. We do not know where we are. That is why the scriptures themselves warn us again and again: Nanudhyayad bahun sabdan, vaco viglapanami hi tat – “Do not read the scriptures too much; that will only make your ideas clouded.” Your mind will be clouded unless you have some sure guide who can tell you how to study the scriptures. All true Knowledge has to be received through an Enlightened Soul. A light has to be kindled by another light. An Enlightened Soul alone can enlighten others. Otherwise the scriptures remain sealed books. You do not know how to open the seal and learn the contents. This is true for scriptures of all religions, not only here. The key to their meaning is held by these Great Souls.
Sri Ramakrishna wanted to receive all Knowledge direct from the Divine Mother, to whom he always had easy access. Unfortunately it is not so with us. Still, we know that we must acquire direct Knowledge by some means. If the Divine Mother or the Mother of the Universe is not within our reach, we at least have the advantage of the Incarnations of God. It is through them that we can learn the true meaning of the scriptures. That is why Swami Vivekananda said that the Vedas and the Vedanta will have to be understood through the light of Sri Ramakrishna, his life and teachings.
Who Was Sri Ramakrishna?
The more we study his life, the more we feel we are incompetent to gauge him. Even Arjuna, when he was given that Supreme Knowledge, the Visvarupa, when he saw God in His fullness, became frightened and said to Sri Krishna, “I took you to be an ordinary man and behaved with you like a friend, and therefore 1 must have treated you disrespectfully. Please forgive me.” Those were the words of Arjuna, who was the closest associate of Bhagavan Sri Krishna. In the same way, when we look at the people who were very close to Sri Ramakrishna, what was their estimate of him? Swami Vivekananda, the greatest exponent of the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, the closest and foremost disciple, says, “I am afraid to speak of my guru, because when I try to do that, I may only distort the picture, I am incompetent to gauge him, so I am afraid. I do not feel sufficiently gifted to elaborate on that point.” If Swami Vivekananda spoke in that way, what can the other disciples say? They all felt the same way – that Sri Ramakrishna was so great that their understanding of him was very incomplete. That was Sri Ramakrishna.
So it is no wonder that we today cannot completely understand Sri Ramakrishna. He has so many facets, so many different aspects, that we get bewildered when we try to understand him. He not only realized in a systematic way the different paths leading to God-realization that are involved in Hinduism, he followed the Christian method and the Muslim method. And after completing all theses sadhanas, he said, on the bedrock of his personal experience, that these are all different paths leading to the same goal. Let us remember that this was not an intellectual generalization, but the experience that he had through the performance of the disciplines of the various religions.
We find glimpses of this kind of essential oneness of religions in the Vedas: Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti – “Truth is One, wise men speak of It in various ways.” In the Gita and the Upanishads we find the same thing. Still, Sri Ramakrishna’s kind of practical experience through the paths of different religions has not been mentioned anywhere in our ancient scriptures. That is a new thing you find in the life of Sri Ramakrishna. Perhaps it was necessary in this Age for this experience to be demonstrated to the world, so that people can know that there is an inner harmony, or Oneness in the different faiths that seem to be contradictory and conflicting. This is what is very necessary today when there is so much strife in the name of religion. Sri Ramakrishna wants us all to understand that God can never be exhausted in any one religion. You can never describe him and say that God is this and this alone and nothing more. Nonetheless, Sri Ramakrishna taught that you must have faith in and stay on your own path or you can never progress, though you must never think that your religion is the only path. It is just a path, that is all.
Religion in Practice
When religion becomes a very important factor in our life naturally it will show its effect in every walk of our life, every aspect of our personality. That was another teaching of Sri Ramakrishna. If you are religious you must show it through your whole being. If you behave in one way and believe in another way, that means you are a hypocrite. For example, if you say everything is Brahman and then make a big distinction between man and man, you are only showing your ignorance. Sri Ramakrishna saw God everywhere, not merely theoretically but as a matter of direct experience. One day he was meditating with closed eyes. Then he opened his eyes and told the devotees,”I was trying to meditate with closed eyes. 1 did not like it, because it implies that God is there only when I close my eyes. But when my eyes are open is He not there? Whether I open my eyes or I close my eyes, God is always there.” If we have this kind of God-realization, it will show in the way we behave with others. It will show whether or not we are looking upon the world as a manifestation of Divinity. Sri Ramakrishna said, ‘”f you can worship God in a stone or clay image, can you not worship Him in a human being?” Man is such a great manifestation of Consciousness, of Chaitanya, he is perhaps the best image we can have of God.
Still, Sri Ramakrishna never decried any kind of worship. He believed in all paths. But at the same time he knew what is good for the world and what is not. So he prescribed only such things as are conducive to the well-being of the whole world at all times. Sri Ramakrishna never limited the paths of God-realization, neither did Swamiji, who said, “I shall be happy when every man has a religion of his own.” There are a multiplicity of religions and a multiplicity of ideals. That does not matter. That need not bewilder us. I can see God only through my own eyes, therefore my God-realization is bound to be different from yours. As we proceed nearer and nearer to the Goal our ideas become clearer and clearer and ultimately when we reach the Goal, all descriptions cease. Yato vaco nivartante aprapya manasa saha – That Goal is one which words cannot express and the mind cannot reach, Sri Ramakrishna says, Brahman is one thing that has never been made ucchista, that is, has never been defiled by man. We go further and further and when we reach the Goal we stop. That is what Sri Ramakrishna says beautifully: “Our thought there ceases to be a stream of thinking, a meditation. It merges in the Knowledge Itself, the all-pervading Knowledge.” That is what has to be remembered.
Swamiji was once asked by Sri Ramakrishna, “What is your aim in life?” Swamiji said, “My aim in life is to remain merged in samadhi. Only occasionally I may come out of it and have a little food and again go deep into samadhi.” Sri Ramakrishna did not approve. He said, “I thought you were greater than that. Why don’t you become like a banyan tree which spreads its branches everywhere so that tired pilgrims can come and rest under its shade. You have to be the solace to everybody. Instead of that you want to remain satisfied with the bliss of samadhi!” Sri Ramakrishna himself had a tendency to remain in samadhi, which he resisted. Once when he was about to merge into samadhi, he pleaded with the Divine Mother saying, “Mother, don’t make me oblivious of my surroundings. I want to speak to the devotees. 1 don’t want to be merged into samadhi.” Why? Sri Ramakrishna did not have any kind of worldly vasanas – any kind of desire for earthly things, but he had that one desire to be helpful to others, to help people reach the highest Goal, so that they could then enable others to free themselves. That was the great desire that Sri Ramakrishna had which kept him in his body.
It is said that some sort of desire is necessary to keep the soul bound to the body. What desire did Sri Ramakrishna have? He had only this one desire, “I want to help others attain Self-realization.”
Sarvabhutesu yah pasyed
He is the supreme Bhagavata, the devotee, who realizes his Self in all beings, and all beings in his Self, and Cod residing in all beings, and all beings residing in God. (Srimad-Bhagavatam, 11.2.45)
He who attains this kind of Knowledge is the highest devotee. When the highest is achieved, we see God manifest everywhere. That is why Swamiji says, Sarvabhute seyi premamoy – that Supreme God of love is present in all beings, therefore we should worship Him there. Perhaps we must live in solitude in the beginning for some time, but we should remember that that is only a stage of preparation. When you have reached the goal, your existence will merge with the Supreme which is everywhere. In the Upanishads it is said,
Yathodakam suddhe suddham
asiktam tadrg eva bhavati;
atma bhavati gautama.
Just as a drop of pure water, when it falls into pure water, becomes one with that water and loses its individuality, in the same manner when you have God-realization of the highest order, you become one with Brahman.
You become identified with the entire world in heart and soul in every way. That sort of realization is not merely a theory; it is not merely a scriptural statement, it is a knowledge that has to be attained, that has to be made your own, that has to be realized. It will show in your behaviour. As Swamiji says, our doom was sealed on that day when we made the distinction between the vyavahara and paramartha, that is, between our behaviour and our commitment to the highest truth. If our behaviour is not consistent with the Truth we proclaim, we will end up cheating ourselves, we will remain sealed within the shell of our ideas, and they will never find manifestation in our life. That is no realization at all. True realization will make us one with the entire universe. Our behaviour will be shaped accordingly.
That is what you find in the unique teaching and life of Sri Ramakrishna. That is why he protested when somebody praised charity to others, that jiva-daya. Sri Ramakrishna protested. No! Who are you to show charity to others? You have to serve God in every being. That is a great teaching which we should follow in the Modern Age. We should know that nobody can reach the goal in isolation. The whole world is waiting to be shown this truth, that each person’s well-being depends on the well-being of others. Others’ well-being and my well-being cannot be separated. My liberation and the liberation of the world should go together. If we follow this teaching we can solve many of the problems besetting modern society.
We are trying to bring about a new way of thinking and behaving so that we can live – individuals and nations – in peace with one another. We know how our efforts are being frustrated because, though we have tried many things, we are still far from that goal. Why? Because we have not tried to change ourselves in the way that is necessary in order to have that sort of unity with the entire world. Unity that is not merely a word in the scriptures, but a way of life for us, must be rooted in the realization of the highest Truth, which is all-pervading.
May Sri Ramakrishna help us reach that goal. May his life be a light to us, and through our devotion to him, may we have this great realization!
Swami Yatiswarananda (1889 – 1966) was a disciple of Swami Brahmananda. He spent seven years teaching Vedanta in Europe, where he founded an ashram in Switzerland, though he lectured on Vedanta from Madrid to Warsaw. He left Europe as the second World War forced a closure to the European Vedanta work. The swami then spent ten years teaching Vedanta in the United States, returning to India to head several Centers, eventually becoming Vice-President of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. Swami Yatiswarananda was famed for his meditative life and spiritual attainment. His book, Meditation and Spiritual Life, a compilation of his class talks, is considered one of the finest compendiums on spiritual life. The article below was taken from the Jan-Feb 1959 Vedanta in the West.
What Are the Obstacles?
In spiritual life, we use the word “obstacles” with reference to both the inner and the outer world, to physical and subtle objects, and to conditions and situations which stand in the way of our spiritual progress.
In general, there are obstacles of various kinds producing misery, or duhkha of various types. In the Sankhya Sutras, Kapila mentions duhkhas of three types: adhyatmika or that caused within ourselves—in the body by illness and unhealthy living, and the mind by evil desires, anger, greed, folly, pride, envy, etc.: adhibhautika or that caused by other living beings such as beasts, thieves, and evil-minded persons; and the adhidaivika or the misery brought about by natural phenomena such as extremes of temperature, floods and storms, earthquakes, pestilences , etc. These may act as hindrances to spiritual life. And we are affected by our troubles all the more when we are not well inwardly.
We are all born with subtle impressions and tendencies brought from previous lives and we also acquire new ones in our present life. While good tendencies help, evil ones obstruct our spiritual progress.
There are different kinds of obstacles, and we come across them in the different stages of our spiritual life. Spiritual life is like a stream and should move towards the ocean of Sat-Chit-Ananda or Infinite Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, call it Godhead, Brahman, the Lord, Allah, or Tao, as you please. Sometimes the spiritual current does not move at all; sometimes it moves for a time and stops; sometimes it tends to move in wrong directions. The task in our spiritual life is to make this current move; move in the right direction and move steadily till the goal is reached.
Obstacles Are Inevitable but Can Be Overcome
This is the ideal. But in actual life, there is no such thing as movement in a straight line. There are ups and downs, breaks or stops, in the movement. Obstacles continue to confront us till we have known God’s grace and attain the peace and blessedness that come from divine realization. Until then, however, we have to persist steadily in our spiritual practices; we have to continue the struggle however insurmountable the obstacles may seem for the time being.
This is a matter of actual experience for many spiritual aspirants. A young man was once asked about this spiritual progress by Swami Brahmananda, his teacher. He said, “Not very well, Maharaj; my mind is restless. I have no taste for spiritual practices yet. There seems to be an obstacle inside me. I feel so unhappy. I must have been born with evil tendencies and these stand in the way of my spiritual progress.” To this the Swami replied: “My boy, you must not talk like that. Try to practice japa (chanting the Lord’s name) at dead of night; if that is not possible, do it during the early hours of the morning. . . . Waste no more of your valuable time. Lose yourself in prayer and meditation; otherwise, how can the door to spiritual truth be opened? . . . The aspirant should first learn about the spiritual path from some great soul and then follow it methodically. If the person proceeds haphazardly he or she cannot make much progress, and if the person gives up entirely, the effort to begin again will be twice as difficult. But no effort is wasted. Lust, greed, anger, all gradually leave one who practices spiritual disciplines.”
When the young man said, “My mind is restless,” he was not speaking of ordinary restlessness and unhappiness. Having made some substantial progress in spiritual life, he found inner obstacles standing in the way and these were making further advance difficult. The question may be asked, how do I know the mind of the young man? I know it because the young man was none other than myself.
There is restlessness and restlessness – that of the worldly man hankering for the pleasures of the world; and of the spiritual seeker yearning for progress, wanting to move from a lower plan of consciousness to a higher one.
Spiritual life is a twofold movement, one of which may be represented as vertical and the other as horizontal. We have to rise higher and higher and also expand more and more in our consciousness.
Most of us may not care to rise to a higher plane. We fool ourselves by thinking that we are all right where we are. We are like Pluto’s men in the cave who took the shadows to be real and were quite satisfied with the life of darkness they lived. We are quite contented with our life in the cellar.
But some of us want to come out into the light and rise to a higher plane with the help of the spiritual current, which may be likened to the elevator which takes people from one floor to another. The spiritual current, when properly roused, takes us from one center of consciousness, or chakra, to another. Sometimes we want to get into the elevator but the door does not open; this is one of the obstacles. The door opens and we get into the box but the box does not move – this is another kind of obstacle. A third one is, we move up but the door does not open. The fourth is the door opens, we get out on the floor, move about for a time, but are not able to find our way back to the elevator when we want to rise higher. Something of this kind happened to me when I spoke to Swami Brahmananda of some obstacles standing in the way of my spiritual progress.
But these obstacles can be overcome. We can undergo spiritual practices, unfold the inner eye, discover the “secret stairs” and move up higher and higher.
Co-existence of Obstacles and Helps
Let us not, however, imagine that life is only full of obstacles. If we come across many obstacles and hindrances, we get also many helps and aids both within us and without. It is essential that we have a correct idea, a balanced estimate, of our conditions and environments.
Never should we weaken ourselves by thinking too much of our shortcomings only. If we have evil tendencies, we also have good ones – even more of the good than the evil. If we have within us such enemies of spiritual life as egotism, sensuality, greed, and anger, we have also such friends as selflessness, self-control, charity, and compassion.
A great help to our moral and spiritual life is the remembering of the supreme truth that we are the Atman. We are the souls eternally in touch with the Oversoul, just as a wave is in constant touch with, and is supported by, the ocean, just as a ray of light is in touch with the infinite light.
And we must beware of morbid theologians who think only in terms of sin, who always speak of humanity as a bundle of sin. There is a story of a new clergyman who started talking too much of sin. One of the congregation congratulated him, “We never knew what sin was until you came!” What a compliment!
All our spiritual teachers tell us that there are two opposite types of ideas working in our lives, the good and the pleasant – sreyas and preyas. We find in the Katha Upanishad: “The good is one thing; the pleasant another. Both these, serving different needs, present themselves to humanity. It goes well with the person who, of the two, takes the good; but one who chooses the pleasant misses the end. . . . Both the good and the pleasant come to humanity. The calm one examines them well and discriminates. The calm one prefers the good to the pleasant, but the fool chooses the pleasant out of greed and avarice.”
Maya, the power that has projected this phenomenal world, itself has two aspects, vidya and avidya, which may be compared to the centripetal and centrifugal forces. Vidya is that current which leads us Godward; it manifests itself as discrimination, nonattachment, devotion, and love for God. Avidya leads us to worldliness and expresses itself as the various passions – desire for wealth, worldly ambition, work with attachment, cruelty, etc. Avidya darkens the understanding and binds the soul. Vidya tends to help us towards Self-realization and freedom. Let us choose the path of good and become purer in body and mind. This purity is essential for our spiritual growth and brings us in touch with the cosmic spiritual forces which the devotee calls the grace of God.
Conditions for Spiritual Unfoldment
It is necessary for us to have a clear conception of spiritual unfoldment and its relation to cosmic existence and cosmic forces. Let us try to understand its secret through the illustration of a seed. If the seed is planted in the proper bed and is kept in touch with nature – with earth, water, heat, air, and space – it grows into a plant and finally develops into a mighty tree. The seed must be kept in close touch with nature and also in the proper condition internally, for only then can it profit by earth, water, etc.
The microcosm develops properly when it is in tune with the macrocosm. This is true in spiritual life also. The individual must be in tune with the cosmos. If we look within ourselves, we find that our body is a part of the ocean of matter and that cosmic energy is flowing through it and sustaining it. Our individual mind is a part of the cosmic mind, and our individual soul is a part of the cosmic soul. In order to keep the body in good health, we must follow the physical laws. When the body is kept in good condition, it remains in touch with the cosmic forces, which again help the body to maintain good health.
To keep the mind in good health, we must follow the moral laws which stand for harmony and purity. This keeps the mind in contact with the cosmic mind and so in good health. Similarly our soul must also be in a fit condition, in a state of purity and harmony, so that it may remain in direct touch with the cosmic spiritual forces. It is then that the cosmic will or the divine grace flows through the soul and assures its progress.
Proper food, moral practices, and spiritual exercises remove the obstacles in body, mind, and ego, keep us in tune with the cosmic will and fit to receive divine grace. Divine grace comes to us at first in the form of spiritual yearning and striving. As we become purer and purer, we come more and more in direct contact with the cosmic spiritual current.
In spiritual life, there must be tremendous effort, but is must not be of the egocentric type. All our practices must be carried out in a spirit of prayer, self-surrender, and dedication to the Divine. In our outlook, habits, and ways of thinking, there must be a revolution. Spiritual life, if properly lived, must lead us from the egocentric to the cosmocentric position.
Relation Between Divine Grace and Self-Effort
What we term self-effort and divine grace supplement each other. We cannot have the one without the other. Without intense and unremitting striving on our part, we can never experience divine grace. Mere prayer without corresponding effort will not bear fruit. It will be just like the man who, finding his house on fire, started praying for rain instead of trying to put the fire out through means available then and there. The proper thing is to do all we can and also to pray.
A little girl’s brother used to set a trap to catch birds. Thinking this was wrong and cruel, she became very sad and wept. After some time, the mother found her happy and cheerful and was curious to know how such a change had come about. “Mommy,” the girl explained, “First I prayed that my brother may be a better boy, then I prayed that no more birds may fall into the trap, and then . . .” she added triumphantly, “I went out and kicked the old trap to pieces.” So prayer is to be combined with self-effort to break old unethical habits and form new good ones.
Blinded by their own narrow ideas, theologians make too much of a mystery about divine grace, which they say can be attained only by following their own pet doctrines and dogmas. But the enlightened ones speak in a different language. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” says Christ in the greatest beatitude uttered by him. This is also the ancient teaching of the sages of India: “The resplendent and pure Self, whom pure and sinless souls, free from evil or impurities, have realized as residing in the body, can be attained by truthfulness, concentration, true knowledge, and perfect chastity.”
The Supreme Reality, or God, is like the sun. It reflects itself on the pure mind. With the help of an illuminating conversation between a devotee and Sri Sarada Devi – the spiritual consort of Sri Ramakrishna, also known as the Holy Mother—we can clearly understand the connection between spiritual practice and divine grace.
Devotee: “Mother, how does one realize God? Worship, japa, meditation – do these help one?”
Mother: “None of these can help.”
Devotee: “Then how does one attain to the wisdom of God?”
Mother: “It is only through his grace. But one must practice meditation and japa. That removes the impurities of the mind. One must practice spiritual disciplines such as worship, and so forth. As one gets the fragrance of a flower by handling it, as one gets the fragrance of sandalwood by rubbing it against a stone, in the same way one gets spiritual awakening by constantly thinking of God. But you can realize him right now if you become free from desire.”
The mind has become soiled by worldliness. Spiritual practices remove the impurities, and then just as the clear mirror reflects the shining sun in all its glory, the Divine Spirit is revealed clearly in the purified mind in a spontaneous way.
Here, one point must be plainly understood. The purity attained through spiritual disciplines may be of a very high order, but it is not perfect. The spiritual seeker is established in perfect purity only after divine realization, when objects of temptation become unreal, and the Supreme Spirit remains the only reality. That is why Sri Krishna declares in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Sense objects recede from the abstinent person, but the taste for them lingers still; with the realization of the Supreme Spirit, even the taste disappears.”
It is necessary for us to understand the relation of spiritual practice to divine grace and the important part they play in our lives in removing our inner obstacles. Then only can we feel enthusiastic about the disciplines, which we ordinarily undergo in a haphazard way.
Once a disciple asked the Holy Mother about the utility of spiritual practice. She replied: “Through these spiritual disciplines, the ties of past karma are cut asunder. By these disciplines the turbulence of the sense-organs is subdued.”
Devotee: “Can action ever cancel action?”
Mother: “Why not? If you do a good action, that will counteract your past evil action. Past sins can be counteracted by meditation, japa, and spiritual thought.”
It is a matter of experience that to the extent we succeed in making our mind pure through moral and spiritual struggle, we feel the flow of divine grace. Swami Brahmananda used to tell us: “To obtain God’s grace is the most important aid in spiritual life. The breeze of his grace is always blowing. Just unfurl your sail.” This means that we should keep ourselves open to the divine grace – the cosmic spiritual current – by attaining purity through the performance of regular spiritual practice.
Spiritual Life – The Preparation for Receiving Divine Grace
All our spiritual teachers declare unanimously that the soul in its essential nature is pure spirit. Owing to ignorance, the spirit forgets itself and becomes identified with the ego, with the mind and the senses, with attachment and aversion, with the sense objects, with the body and its functions – all products of ignorance. The Atman puts on the masks of the causal body, the subtle body, and the gross body. It is the masks that become impure, not the Atman. The ego, the mind, and the body may be defiled but the spirit ever remains pure, enlightened, and free.
An illustration of Sri Ramakrishna helps us to understand this better. The body is like a vessel, the mind is like the water in it. Brahman is like the sun that is reflected in the water. The water may be impure and disturbed, but the light of the sun ever remains shining and pure. The Katha Upanishad declares: “As the sun, which forms the eye of the universe, is never defiled by the external impurities seen by the eyes, so the one Self that resides in all beings is never touched by the evils of the world.”
No impurity can affect our primary nature, which ever remains pure. It is our second nature that becomes impure, and it can and should be purified. Spiritual life is the cleansing of this second nature of ours, the cleansing of the masks – the coverings of the ego, the mind, and the body. So there is certainly hope for every one of us. It is rightly said that even as every saint has a past, so has every sinner a future.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, Sri Krishna gives this categorical assurance: “Even the most sinful amongst people, if that person worships me, the Supreme Spirit, with unswerving devotion, must be regarded as virtuous, for that person has resolved rightly. Soon the person becomes righteous and attains eternal peace. Proclaim it boldly that my devotee is never destroyed.” “Giving up all other duties, take refuge in me alone. I will free you from all sins; grieve not.” The Lord himself removes all obstacles for the devotee who has completely surrendered to him.
The Transforming Power of Divine Grace
A glorious illustration of how a most sinful person can become righteous and attain the highest illumination and peace through the grace of the Supreme Spirit is seen in the life of Girish Chandra Ghosh, the famous actor-dramatist and a great disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. According to his own statement, there was no sin that Girish did not commit. At one time he considered religion a fraud. Later, however, a great change came over him and there grew a deep yearning for spiritual light and peace. It was then that he was drawn to Sri Ramakrishna. Gradually his mind became purified, though he had to go a long way. Once the following conversation took place:
Girish: “Sir, please bless me.”
Master: “Have faith in the Divine Mother, and you will attain everything.”
Girish: “But I am a sinner.”
Master: “The wretch who constantly harps on sin becomes a sinner.”
Girish: “Sir, the very ground where I sit becomes unholy.”
Master: “How can you say that? Suppose a light is brought into a room that had been dark a thousand years, does it illumine the room little by little, or in a flash?”
Girish: “I have no sincerity; please grant it to me.”
Master: “All right, you have faith.”
Young Narendra, who later became Swami Vivekananda, was very friendly with Girish and was warned by the Master not to associate with him too much: “Girish is like a cup in which garlic is kept. You may wash it a thousand times but can never get rid of the smell altogether.” Girish heard this and felt offended. He asked the Master if the “garlic smell” would go at all. The Master assured him, “All the smell disappears when a blazing fire is lighted; if you heat the cup in the fire you will get rid of the smell,” and he declared that people would be astounded at the marvelous change that would come over Girish. The garlic smell did disappear in due course, and he became wonderfully transformed.
Directed by the Master, Girish followed the path of absolute self-surrender to the divine will – a path very few can follow. He would not promise to undergo even the simplest spiritual discipline, and was very happy when Sri Ramakrishna asked him to give “the power of attorney” and promised to assume all responsibility for his spiritual life.
Girish at that time thought that the path of self-surrender was the easiest but later on realized what a most exacting thing it was. He had to practice self-surrender every moment! As a result of this, however, he felt continually the presence of the Lord, and became a man of God. The Lord had removed all his vices – his obstacles in the spiritual path – and filled his soul with his loving, divine presence.
The last time some of us saw Girish, he told us: “As I move my hand, I feel that it is not I but the Lord who is moving it.” His eyes and face were radiant with the glow of his inner illumination and unbounded love for the Lord. This is one of the most sublime illustrations of transformation brought about the divine grace, which flows into the spiritual seeker as he strives to his utmost.