RAMAKRISHNA (1834/6–1886) was a Hindu ecstatic and mystic, and to many Hindus a "supremely realized self" (paramahaṃsa ) and an avatāra, or incarnation of the divine. Through his disciple, Swami Vivekananda, his gospel of the truth of all religions became a source of inspiration for modern Hindu universalism.
Born Gadādhar Chatterjee in an isolated village in Bengal, Ramakrishna belonged to a Vaiṣṇava brahman family whose primary deity was the avatāra of Viṣṇu, Rāma, although the family also worshiped other deities, such as Śiva and Durgā. As a boy, Gadādhar was gifted with immense emotional and aesthetic sensitivity, which was nurtured by norms of ecstatic devotion (bhakti ) common within the Bengali Vaiṣṇava tradition. Often, when overwhelmed by beauty and emotion, the boy would lose consciousness in an ecstatic trance.
His father's death in 1843 increased Ramakrishna's dependence upon his mother, while the role of father figure was assumed by his eldest brother, Rāmkumār, whom he followed to Calcutta in 1852. Rāmkumār became adviser to a wealthy widow, herself a Śākta, or devotee of śakti (the divine power symbolized as the Goddess), who was building a temple to the Divine Mother Kālī at Dakshineshwar, just north of the city. Though dedicated to Kālī, the temple also included shrines to Śiva and to Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, thus combining the major strands of Hindu devotional religion. Rāmkumār was appointed the temple's chief priest and Ramakrishna became priest to Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa.
When Rāmkumār died in 1856, Ramakrishna became priest to the Divine Mother. Bereft and overwhelmed by the pain of separation, Ramakrishna developed a frenzied longing for Kālī. Eating and sleeping little, his anguish over being separated from the Mother drove him to seize a sword in her temple, determined to end his life. Instead, he lost consciousness in a bliss-filled vision of Kālī. After this he desperately sought continual awareness of the Mother, seeking to become her instrument. As he later attested, he was nearly driven insane, spending several years in a state of divine madness in which visions of various deities came to him repeatedly, while he was unable even to close his eyes.
By 1858 concerns about Ramakrishna's mental health were mounting. His family arranged for him to return to their village, where he was married to a local girl, Sāradāmaṇi Devī, then age six. Sāradā remained in her parents' home for several more years, only visiting Ramakrishna at Dakshineshwar for the first time in 1872. By this time Ramakrishna was practicing strict celibacy, his ascetic inclinations routinely summed up in his professed aversion to kāminī-kañcan, "women and gold." His marriage to Sāradā was never consummated, but she served him as helpmate until his death.
In 1861 a middle-aged female Tantric practitioner (bhairavī) named Yogeśvarī arrived at Dakshineshwar. She became Ramakrishna's first guru, guiding him through a remarkable transformation, teaching him a panoply of Tantric rituals. Tantric practice seeks to overcome all socially based distinctions, enabling one to realize in a direct, experiential manner that all aspects of existence are manifestations of the Divine Mother, the śakti, the divine productive power. This discipline, which Ramakrishna underwent over a three- or four-year period, had a decisive impact upon his development, helping him to overcome his sense of separation and transforming his self-destructive frenzies into the joyful play (līlā) of a child in his Mother's "mansion of mirth," as he came to call the physical universe. This Tantric transformation also provided a theological framework into which he integrated all of his religious experiences, helping him to realize all divinities as forms of the Mother and inspiring him to participate fully in all aspects of her divine play. Thus he was able to re-experience his Vaiṣṇava heritage, playing with and realizing the divine child Rāma and, in the guise of Rādhā, longing for the divine lover Kṛṣṇa. It was such training that also led Ramakrishna to worship Sāradā as the Divine Mother in 1872, an event that would in later years serve to support her deification.
In 1864 or 1865, Ramakrishna took instruction from another renunciant, this time a naked ascetic named Ishwara Totāpurī, a master of the absolute nondualism of Advaita Vedānta taught by the eighth-century philosopher Śaṅkara. Advaita teaches the sole reality of the impersonal absolute (nirguṇa brahman ), which is realized in a state of consciousness devoid of all conceptual forms (nirvikalpa samādhi ). Under Totāpurī's forceful tutelage, Ramakrishna wrenched his mind from the beloved form of Kālī in order to plunge into this trancelike state; for more than a year he was so preoccupied with it and so neglectful of his body that he came near to death. According to his canonical biographers, Ramakrishna returned from this state only at the Mother's command and for the welfare of the world.
After this experiment, Ramakrishna returned to enjoy life as a child at play within his Mother's world. During this period he expanded his religious experience beyond Hindu religion, first devoting three days to the worship of Allah and then, some years later, four days to Christ. In both cases, he had visionary realizations that he held to be the same as those he had had of the various Hindu divinities. These brief but intense visions became the experiential basis for his claim that all religions can lead to the same realization of the divine.
In the mid-1870s he began to attract wider notice, especially among a generation of educated, middle-class urbanites. Surprisingly, the rustic and untutored mystic was soon entertaining some of the brightest young minds of Calcutta, including the likes of Keshab Chandra Sen (1838–1884), the fiery apostle of the Brāhmo Samāj, and Narendranath Datta (1863-1902), who first met Ramakrishna in 1881 and who would emerge as his favorite. These were men who were educated in a colonial curriculum that stressed the norms of reason, learning, and social progress, but Ramakrishna's disdain for book learning and his scorn for the workaday world of the clerk, challenged them to question their commitments. And while many of the youth had internalized the colonizer's disdain for so-called Hindu superstition, the authenticity of Ramakrishna's spiritual experiences forced his visitors to reevaluate the dignity of their spiritual heritage. Ramakrishna's final years were spent teaching such visitors and a gathering circle of disciples.
After his death in 1886, a small band of Ramakrishna's young disciples took formal vows of renunciation (saṃnyāsa ), inspired by the example of Narendranath Datta, who later took the monastic name, Swami Vivekananda. These disciples became the swamis or "masters" who would form the core of a monastic order known as the Ramakrishna Math (Skt., maṭha, "monastery"). Out of this order grew the Ramakrishna Mission, a movement to spread Ramakrishna's teachings throughout India and the world. Leadership again came from Swami Vivekananda, who made a dramatic appearance at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, where he spoke on the dignity of Hinduism. Before his premature death in 1902, Vivekananda traveled widely in India and the West, promoting what he called "Practical Vedānta," a religious vision that supported not just spiritual progress, but interreligious understanding, social uplift, and Indian national pride. As for Sāradā Devī, after Ramakrishna's death she was elevated to the status of Sāradā Mā, the Holy Mother, a complex status that reflects not simply her devoted service of Ramakrishna, but more importantly the power of the Divine Mother. Sāradā died in 1920. In official iconography she is depicted alongside Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, while popular images often show Ramakrishna accompanied by Sāradā and Kālī; as Gwilym Beckerlegge points out, in such images the Bengali word Mā "could refer equally to Kali or Sarada Devi" as mother (2000, p. 137).
Ramakrishna left no written work, but his conversations from 1882 to 1886 were recorded in Bengali by Mahendranath Gupta, writing under the pseudonym "M," and published as Śrī Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa Kathāmṛta (Holy nectar of Sri Ramakrishna's teachings). The five-volume Bengali text is widely read in Bengal. Elsewhere, readers discover the Kathāmṛta through Swami Nikhilananda's translation, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.
Ramakrishna's followers maintain that his realization of the nondual absolute under Totāpurī was the culmination of his spiritual quest and provides the basis for his teaching of the truth of all religions as paths leading to this ultimate goal. In his teachings, however, he stressed that withdrawal from the world as advocated by Advaita produces a "knower," or jñānī, who is negative and self-centered. Ramakrishna contrasted the jñānī with the vijñānī, the "complete knower" who does not reject the world as an illusory distraction from the absolute but who sees it as the play (līlā ) of the Divine Mother. Ramakrishna saw merit in both positions. The formless absolute is real, but so is the Divine Mother, or śakti, who is ever at play in the world of form. Viewing brahman and śakti as two sides of the same reality, Ramakrishna affirmed the reality of the goal sought by the followers of Śaṅkara, while also making clear that his own ideal was a complete knowledge that realizes the reality of the One who is both beyond change and playfully active.
The global appeal of Ramakrishna's teachings stems from his articulation of an inclusive worldview that promises to integrate the diverse and often conflicting aspects of Hinduism and that seems to provide the basis for a more harmonious relationship among the world's religions. As he was fond of saying, yato mat, tato path, "there are as many paths as there are points of view."
However, Ramakrishna's gospel of the truth within all religions is not based simply on the belief that they all lead to the realization of the same formless absolute, in which all difference is transcended and negated. Rather, it is based upon his own experience of the truth and reality of the divine power at work in all manifest forms. While aware that human ignorance, lust, and greed can obscure this divine presence, he had confidence that a sincere and ardent devotee of any religion would discover the Divine Mother at work, or rather at play, ever leading her child back to herself.
Interpretations of Ramakrishna
Ramakrishna was, in Walter Neevel's words, both "multifaceted and mystifying" (1976, p. 53). The challenge of understanding his life and teachings is compounded by the need to disentangle Ramakrishna's spiritual experience from the hagiography and canonical accounts promulgated by the Ramakrishna Mission. We may consider three areas of debate within the literature on Ramakrishna, each reflecting tensions between insider and outsider views.
The first area of debate centers on the question of what philosophical framework best represents Ramakrishna's thought. As we have seen, the official position is that Ramakrishna's spiritual experience is epitomized by the teachings of Advaita Vedānta. While official sources record details of Ramakrishna's transformation under the tutelage of Yogeśvarī, this experience is relativized by the putative supremacy of Totāpurī's teachings. However, in the 1950s Heinrich Zimmer called attention to the specifically Tantric aspects of Ramakrishna's devotion to, and awareness of, the Divine Mother. In 1976, Neevel built upon Zimmer's interpretation to argue that Ramakrishna's view of the ultimate was best understood as a form of Tantric nondualism, not a Vedāntic one. Among other things, this allowed Neevel to interpret Ramakrishna's concern with worldly activity as arising from his understanding of the Mother's playful śakti. This, in turn, seemed to accord better with the ideals of service that are so characteristic of the Ramakrishna Mission, since the renunciatory ethic of Advaita Vedānta less readily supports the value of worldly activity.
The problem remains vexing, however, precisely because Ramakrishna's commitment to asceticism sits somewhat uncomfortably with the later ethic of social engagement promulgated by the Ramakrishna Mission. The Kathāmṛta provides numerous examples of Ramakrishna's outspoken impatience with those who spend their time trying to improve the world. Consequently, a second area of debate centers on tracing the exact inspiration for the movement's guiding ethic. Is it in direct continuity with Ramakrishna's teaching or does it reflect a departure? Official sources present the service-based monastic movement as grounded in Ramakrishna's embodiment of Vedāntic truth. While they recognize the creative contribution of Vivekananda, they do not raise the question of innovation. Scholars outside the movement have explored a variety of theories that might explain alternate inspirations for Vivekananda's Practical Vedānta, be it his early exposure to Western morality, his travels in the West, or his appropriation of Western reconstructions of Vedānta as found in the writings of Arnold Schopenhauer and Paul Deussen. Finally, if Ramakrishna's worldview was fundamentally Tantric, the question remains as to why this aspect of his thought has been played down in the official literature.
This suggests one final area of debate, which centers on the question of how best to account for the particulars of Ramakrishna's experience of Tantra. Postcolonial scholarship has made us aware of the stigma attached to Tantra in late Victorian discourse about India. The very mention of Tantra in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would have conjured up visions of antinomian religious practices—most threateningly, ritualized sexual intercourse. Seen in this light, it is understandable that Vivekananda and the early disciples would have been sensitive about foregrounding the importance of Tantra for Ramakrishna. But beyond this, there were the sometimes scandalous particulars of Ramakrishna's own psychosexual development, be it his fondness for wearing women's clothing, his aversion to heterosexual relations, or the possible homoerotic dimensions of his spiritual life. Bourgeois prudery regarding Tantra and sexuality, on the part of both devotees and Western interpreters, has meant that these aspects of Ramakrishna's life were often denied or interpreted away.
Open discussion of such matters remained scandalous for most of the twentieth century, as is evident from the uproar surrounding the publication of Jeffrey J. Kripal's book Kālī's Child in 1995. Although scholars like Zimmer and Neevel had previously brought the Tantric side of Ramakrishna to light, Kripal attempted to put the ritual and theology of Tantra in conversation with Ramakrishna's psychosexual development. Kripal's search for a cross-cultural hermeneutic of Ramakrishna's experience that could do justice to the mystical and the erotic earned the indignation of devotees and of Hindus more generally, some of whom sought to have the book banned in India. To understand why, one need not only appreciate the fears of devotees who mistook Kripal's book for an attack on Ramakrishna, but also the sensibilities of postcolonial Hindus for whom such scholarship appeared to be yet another attempt to assert Western superiority. In the furor over the book two things were overlooked. First, far from trying to stigmatize Ramakrishna's sexuality, Kripal sought to recognize it as one dimension of a profoundly spiritual life; second, Kripal explicitly rejected any simplistic psychologism that reduced Ramakrishna's spirituality to a matter of pathology. Unflattering psycho-biographies of Ramakrishna exist, but they seem to have attracted far less attention than Kālī's Child, which suggests the degree to which the task of interpreting Ramakrishna must include reflection upon the place of Hinduism, Tantra, and the erotic in modern discourse about India. Without a doubt, the "multifaceted and mystifying" Ramakrishna will continue to generate fascinating discussions of mysticism and ethics, Tantra and Vedānta, and the dynamic relationship between modern Hindu apologetics and postcolonial identity.
The official translation of the Śrī Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa Kathāmṛta is Swami Nikhilananda's The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (New York, 1952). The Kathāmṛta is discussed in Sumit Sarkar, "The Kathamrita as Text," in Occasional Papers on History and Society, vol. 12 (New Delhi, 1985), and Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kālī's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1998). Swami Saradanada's Sri Ramakrishna: The Great Master, 3d ed., translated by Swami Jagadananda (Madras, India, 1963), provides a canonical biography, as does the Life of Sri Ramakrishna Compiled from Various Authentic Sources, 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1964). F. Max Müller's Ramakrishna (1899; reprint, New York, 1975), is an early account by a westerner, while Romain Rolland's biography, The Life of Ramakrishna (reprint, Calcutta, 1970), helped promote Ramakrishna's mystical experiences in the West. For a Western devotee's perspective, read Christopher Isherwood's Ramakrishna and His Disciples (New York, 1965). Sāradā Devī is the subject of Narasingha P. Sil's Divine Dowager : The Life and Teachings of Saradamani, the Holy Mother (Selinsgrove, Pa., 2003). Swami Gambhirana's History of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission (Calcutta, 1957) provides a standard history of the movement. For the movement in the West, see Carl. T. Jackson, Vedanta for the West (Bloomington, Ind., 1994). Heinrich Zimmer discusses Ramakrishna and Tantra in his Philosophies of India, edited by Joseph Campbell (1951; reprint, Princeton, 1969), pp. 560–602, a theme explored by Walter Neevel in his essay, "The Transformation of Sri Ramakrishna," in Hinduism: New Essays in the History of Religions, edited by Bardwell L. Smith (Leiden, 1976), pp. 53–97. On Ramakrishna and Kālī, see Carl Olson, Mysterious Play of Kālī: An Interpretive Study of Ramakrishna (Atlanta, 1989). On the mystical and the erotic, see Kripal mentioned above, which may be contrasted with Narasingha P. Sil's psychological interpretation in Ramakrisna Paramahamsa (Leiden, 1991). On this, see William Parsons, "Psychoanalysis and Mysticism: The Case of Ramakrishna," in Religious Studies Review 23, no. 4 (1997): 355–361, and Brian A. Hatcher, "Kali's Problem Child: Another Look at Jeffrey Kripal's Study of Sri Ramakrishna," in International Journal of Hindu Studies 3, no. 2 (1999): 165–182. Part 1 of Gwilym Beckerlegge, The Ramakrishna Mission: The Making of a Modern Hindu Movement (New York, 2000) provides a useful overview of interpretive debates. For Marxian and subalternist interpretations, see Sumit Sarkar, "Kaliyuga, Chakri, and Bhakti: Ramakrishna and His Times," in his Writing Social History (Delhi, 1997), pp. 282–357, and Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, 1993). Hans Torwesten explores the theme of incarnation in Ramakrishna and Christ, or, The Paradox of the Incarnation (Calcutta, 1999), while Sudhir Kakar's novel Ecstasy (New York, 2002), is loosely based on the lives of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.
Walter G. Neevel, Jr. (1987)
Brian A. Hatcher (2005)