Ramakrishna and his clarion call

It was 10 in the morning. At the Vedanta Math, Siliguri, a middleaged man came up to me and explained that he runs an NGO to spread awareness about cancer.

Ramakrishna and his clarion call


It was 10 in the morning. At the Vedanta Math, Siliguri, a middleaged man came up to me and explained that he runs an NGO to spread awareness about cancer. People in the rural areas there believe, he explained, that ‘cancer’ is caused by sins committed by the afflicted person. His NGO would ask them to think scientifically – if a person as pure as Ramakrishna could contract the disease, how could they relate this disease to immoral works performed by a person? I was dumbfounded.

A disease whose deadly fangs threaten life even after 140 years of the passing away of Ramakrishna gets glorified by his suffering. To many this appeared to be vicarious atonement, suffering by him for the sake of others. Irrespective of the cause, Ramakrishna calmly bore the terrible disease and was reduced to mere skin and bones in the last days of his 50 years of mortal life. The spiritual legacy of Ramakrishna has always kept its feet on the ground.

I was introduced to a book by Christopher Isherwood, the American writer, in my college days. Indeed, to me, the large number of Western biographies on Ramakrishna was itself a surprise. Max Muller, Roman Rolland and Lex Hixon have also penned full-length biographies on Ramakrishna.


What draws these writers towards this typically Indian mystic? Is it merely the inquisitiveness to delve into something singularly new to the Western audience? Or is it that the ring of authenticity and purity, such an integral part of Ramakrishna’s life, crosses the boundaries of countries and cultures and attracts people to the inner core of existence?

The one thing that immediately catches one in the personality of Ramakrishna is his lack of pretensions. Truthfulness in thoughts and deeds is his basic motto of life. So even at gatherings at Dakshineswar or elsewhere, he never used a textbook to embellish his points of views. Words flowed out in torrents from his lips effortlessly. He himself would explain that when a man opens himself up to the infinite source of knowledge inherent within, he discovers a treasure trove. He then does not have to depend on borrowed words, printed in books and written by others. Instead, he can tap from the great deep well, hidden within his own being. Connect with the Divine provides the key to the unlocking of this treasure trove.

Himself crystal clear about the morals he expounded, his teachings are delivered through homely parables, which one can easily relate to. The ‘Ramakrishna Kathamrita’ compiled by Mahendranath Gupta, the erudite Headmaster of Vidyasagar’s School, gives a verbatim narration of the conversations that Ramakrishna engaged in. None of the fanfare attached to a missionary on the dais, the setting is informal with often a maximum of ten persons in attendance.

But interestingly, such conversations are so vividly narrated that one feels that a drama is being enacted. Many of Calcutta’s historic personalities are present during these conversations – Vidyasagar, Bankim, Keshab Sen, Bijoy Goswami, Shibnath Shastri, Mahendralal Sarkar, Girish Chandra Ghosh and Narendranath Dutta. Incidentally, this book, containing the conversations of Ramakrishna in the presence of the genteel class of Calcutta and its suburbs, has now been translated into all the major languages of the world. The characters in this book have thus become global and the conversations available for inspiration to men and women from different languages and countries. Ramakrishna’s enquiry into religion convinces us that the basic tenets of religion have to be practiced in life and not merely studied.

As he started his vocational life as a priest in the temple, the thought arose in his mind— ‘Whom do I offer these food items to? Is it to a stone image or to a living entity, who is represented by means of this image?’ This question no longer remained theoretical, but seized Ramakrishna to his inner core. Ignoring the jeers and insults of other employees in the Dakshineswar temple complex, he continued his sole journey in search of God.

Like a scientist ever eager to engage in newer experiments to check a theory, he engaged strenuously in the ‘sadhanas’ (austerities) prescribed by different religious denominations. Never afraid to try newer religious practices, he was like a deft swimmer, striding across the turbulent waters of the ocean of religion. He practiced the disciplines suggested in Islam and Christianity, in addition to different Hindu religious modes. Romain Rolland, in his biography of Ramakrishna, thus considered Ramakrishna as the epitome of the spiritual practices engaged in by India over the centuries.

As the final fruition of his practices, he uttered those prophetic words ‘Joto mat Tato path’ (as many religions, so many paths). In Ramakrishna, religious practices mingled effortlessly with fine arts. He was a born actor and could narrate, in his childhood, dramas that he heard in the villages even once. He was also an adept singer and many of his conversations given in the Kathamrita were laced with devotional songs—so that they appealed more to the heart of the listeners than to the brain.

He could also prepare wonderful clay models and it was one such model of Shiva that caught the attention of the zamindar, Mathura Mohan Biswas. This was how his work as a priest at the Dakshineswar Temple started. The life of Ramakrishna spanned over 50 years. But in the last part of his life, he felt a great urge to disseminate the jewels he had gathered in 20 years of intense religious practices. The youth of Calcutta, exposed to the new Western education sweeping them off their feet, found in him a harbour where they could lay anchor.

The pristine values that had been culled in the country through centuries, had suddenly gathered dust. Discrimination towards the lower castes and neglect of women were eating into the vitals of the country. The truths of religion which could bring succour to millions, remained confined to scholars and ascetics. Ramakrishna, through his able disciple Vivekananda, broadcast the fruits of genuine religion far and wide. The doctrine of service to man was based on the teachings that he handed over to his followers. It was left to Vivekananda to interpret his teachings and utilize them for the benefit of society.

The movement centering Ramakrishna has its biggest point in its inclusion of women. Many religious movements, especially those which glorify celibacy and monastic life, avoided women in their march towards social reform. But just as a bird cannot fly without the fluttering of both of its wings, any country to progress, must acknowledge the potential of women. By including Sarada Devi, his wife and delegating to her a leadership role in his vision of religion, Ramakrishna broke many barriers.

The progressive assertion of the rights of women in the 20th century could thus be accommodated as a pillar of the Ramakrishna movement, too. A parallel organisation, the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, governed and administered exclusively by women, underlined the religious potential of women who wanted to sacrifice their lives for a greater cause. Ramakrishna’s contribution to Bengal, specially, also lay in his admission that drama and theatre were mediums of educating the masses. He visited the dramas staged by Girish Ghosh and blessed the actress, Binodini.

Female artists found a recognition in society and a saint, who was willing to bless them, irrespective of their backgrounds. It was thus that Ramakrishna’s picture would adorn the green rooms of theatre halls, in front of which actors would bow down before venturing on the stage.

Men like Ramakrishna live on for centuries, their clarion call beckoning others to sacrifice their lives for a greater cause. The aim of human life is to know the Self within, he declared. And his own life stood as a powerful testimony to this declaration. For him the practice of religion was simple — strict adherence to truth, in words and deeds. For this one should be ready to offer oneself—body, mind and soul – at the altar of Truth.

Such unselfish characters transcend the barriers of time. They are not imperialists, tycoons or even scholars. But their great heart cries for the sufferings of the poor and the afflicted. They often do not themselves gain in material terms. But instead, they get the reverence of men and women the world over, who look up to them for inspiration, peace and blessing.

(The writer is Secretary, Ramakrishna Mission, Malda.)