Of the several prominent religious figures in Bengal in recent times, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836–86) has acquired an iconic status. It would not be incorrect to say that over the last century or so, there would scarcely be a Hindu home in Bengal without a photograph of the saint alongside photos of his wife Saradamani Devi (or Sarada Devi) and his chief disciple, Swami Vivekananda. In the public sphere, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission at Belur (in West Bengal) remains one of the most frequented spots, attracting both the ardent devotee and the itinerant tourist with predictable regularity.

Gaining Popularity

The interesting point about the life and preaching of Ramakrishna is his gripping importance as a subject for understanding both contemporary religious life and an existential angst that attracted very different classes or groups of people. In recent years, Ramakrishna has emerged as fascinating material for the study of the social and cultural history of his times as also an understanding of the inner dynamic of the Hindu spiritual tradition.The first has been the work of social historians, the second, that of scholars of philosophy and religious studies. When seen in the company of comparable contemporary or near contemporary figures, Ramakrishna appears to have enjoyed three advantages that others, such as like Ramprasad Sen (1718–75) or Sadhaka Bamakhyapa (1837–1911), did not. First, there is the matter of his urban location in the colonial metropolis of late nineteenth-century Calcutta, a feature that eluded other prominent figures like Sen and Bamakhyapa. His urban location also determined the social face of his numerous devotees and disciples. For some, Ramakrishna’s religion was essentially a ‘religion of urban domesticity’ though this has to be qualified in some respects. First, though born in an urban milieu, his appeal, eventually, has far surpassed this. Second, also, vitally connected with this urban life was the success of print media, a development that has contributed substantially to the creation and perpetuation of the Ramakrishna cult over time. Third, the growth of new ideas about active missionary work and organised religion even within Hinduism of which the Ramakrishna Math and Mission was but the third successful venture after the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj. The Ramakrishna order now enjoys a global presence and adopts distinctly modern methods of works, more specifically, publicist networks and proactive social philanthropy—with both of which Ramakrishna himself would have been quite uncomfortable.

The Iconoclast Swami

What explains the popularity of Ramakrishna and the enduring appeal of his words? A purely historical explanation—confined to the study of the colonialised social world of the Calcutta middle classes, with its typical anxieties—would not suffice. This tends to make Ramakrishna a captive of his middle-class audience, whereas in reality, he was a preacher in his own right; keen to instruct and share his experiences as a sadhaka, or a spiritual practitioner. In his parables and preaching, the essential point of reference was neither to man nor woman, the young or the old, the employed or the unemployed, rich or the poor but more generally, the samsari—the human being not only located in the material world (the samsar) but deeply implicated in it. In Ramakrishna’s understanding, this took away from God-vision, which was the summum bonum (ultimate goal) of all human life. Ramakrishna once compared routine domestic life to a citadel, from within which the moral and material battles of life could be most effectively fought, a training ground, if you will, for ordinary men and women. And yet, he considered detachment and world-renunciation to be goals of far greater value. This juxtaposition of social conformism and spiritual transgression is, perhaps, best exemplified by his decision to take a wife but not consummate the marriage.

Sri Ramakrishna’s appeal as a religious figure was considerably enhanced by his recourse to a varied religious praxis, undergoing by turn, Vaishnava Sakta, Tantric, Christian and Islamic forms of worship, and concluding therefrom that there were as many valid paths to God as there could be opinions. To this he added the claim that religions came from God and were not humanly created. Arguably, this struck at the root of all bigotry, intolerance and zealous self-righteousness. Also, important here, is his avowed rejection of a religious synthesis that randomly fused chosen elements from various religions as was indeed the case with the contemporary Brahmo preacher, Keshab Chunder Sen (1838–84). All religious traditions, rather than remain porous, had to be bound by a given core of beliefs and practices.

The One-Stop Guru

In hindsight, this appears to have strengthened a sense of orthodoxy at a time of sweeping religious experimentation. Ramakrishna also had two other outstanding qualities which made him the figure he was. First, there was in him the gifted storyteller who communicated profound wisdom in the simplest and most entertaining of languages. Second, there was the man blessed with acute powers of observation who well understood the existential needs of a wide cross-section of people: unemployed youth, aged pensioners, issueless widows, neglected housewives, ill-adjusted couples, people affected by death and bereavement. Quite aptly, he once described himself as a grocer who stocked a variety of goods and merchandise that would meet the varied requirements of most. This lies at the root of his continuing appeal.

(This article is part of Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Amiya P. Sen is a historian with an interest in the intellectual and cultural history of modern India and has written extensively on figures from colonial Bengal, including ‘Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: The Sadhaka of Dakshineswar’ (New Delhi: Penguin Viking, 2010). Views expressed are personal.)