Swami Vivekananda's Teacher
by Marcus Braybrooke
Except for students of Hinduism, Sri Ramakrishna is a largely unknown figure in the West. Yet his teaching and influence have helped shape the global interfaith movement. His vision, if not his name, came to Europe and America through his student and devotee, Swami Vivekananda, whose electrifying contributions at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions are invoked as the beginning of the interfaith movement. Marcus Braybrooke’s profile is so carefully researched that TIO is breaking its long habit of not using footnotes. For those who want to study Ramakrishna further, they point the way.
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In the late nineteenth century, four British army officers on a mission to explore passes through the Himalayas were chatting in the evening around the camp fire. One of them asked, “Which historical character do you most admire?” One said Nelson, another Wellington, but the third astonished them all by saying, “Sri Ramakrishna,” who was little known at the time. The officer was Francis Younghusband, who, partly inspired by Sri Ramakrishna, was years later, to found the World Congress of Faiths.1
It was a moment of awakening for me also when, as a student at Madras Christian College, my professor introduced me to the teaching and example of Sri Ramakrishna. This, at least in part, has inspired my work for the World Congress of Faiths. Indeed, the Congress has sometimes been dismissed by some Christian critics as ‘neo-Hindu.’ If so, at least I am in good company, as Thomas Merton wrote, “You have to see your will and God’s will dualistically for a long time. You have to experience duality for a long time until you see it’s not there. In this respect I am a Hindu. Ramakrishna has the solution. Don’t consider dualistic prayer on a lower level. ... There are no levels. Any moment you can break through to the underlying unity which is God’s gift in Christ.”2
Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86) was born in a rural village in Bengal. He was the fourth child of pious Brahmin parents, who were worshippers of Rama. In 1855, his eldest brother Ramkumar became the resident priest at a new temple at Dakshineswar, just north of Calcutta. He asked his brother to join him. Within a year Ramkumar had died, and Ramakrishna took his place, although there were complaints about his frequent trances during worship and his irregular attendance.
Ramakrishna longed for a vision of the Mother goddess Kali. He was almost excessively devoted to his spiritual practices. When he was on the point of suicide, he suddenly had a wonderful vision of the Mother. In due course, he followed other spiritual paths and had other visions, including one of Rama and then of Jesus and Muhammad.
The meeting with Jesus has been described in this way:
For three days Ramakrishna did not set foot in the Kali temple. On the fourth day, in the afternoon… he saw coming towards him a person with beautiful large eyes, serene countenance, and fair skin. As the two faced each other, a voice sang out in the depths of Sri Ramakrishna’s soul: “Behold the Christ, who shed his heart’s blood for the redemption of the world, who suffered a sea of anguish for love of men…It is he, the Master Yogi, who is in eternal union with God. It is Jesus, Love Incarnate.” The Son of Man embraced the Divine Mother and merged in him. Sri Ramakrishna realized his identity with Kali, Rama, Hanuman, Radha, Krishna, Buddha, and Muhammad.3
On the basis of his experience, Sri Ramakrishna claimed that it was the One Divine Reality, in different forms, that he had experienced. This became the basis of the neo-Hindu claim that all religious paths lead to an experience of unity with the divine. The differences, it is said, are in our cultural conditioning and the various languages and images that we use to express an experience that is inherently ineffable. Sri Ramakrishna himself said,
A lake has several ghats (or steps down to the water). At one the Hindus take water in pitchers and call it jal; at another the Musalmans take water in leather bags and call it pani. At a third, the Christians call it water. Can we imagine that it is not jal but only pani or water. How ridiculous? The substance is one under different names, and everyone is seeking the same substance; only climate, temperament and name create differences.4
This emphasis on experience or realization carries with it the suggestion that doctrines and rituals have only a relative importance – they are like ‘fingers pointing towards the moon.’ This claim is much disputed, and Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, his disciple, unknowingly initiated a major debate about the nature of mystical experience.
The immediate reaction in India to Vivekanada’s success at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions was mixed, as Hal French showed in his The Swan’s Wide Waters. Some of the press greeted it proudly as a boost for Hinduism, but the orthodox viewed travel outside India with suspicion. Others questioned what he had achieved and whether he had made any converts. “A Christian never becomes a Hindu by accepting only Hindu philosophy… but by accepting Vaishanvism.”5 Others objected to Vivekanada’s emphasis on social action and his dedication to the service of the poor. As one critic put it, famine was caused by karma – the wrong doing of those affected in their previous lives.6 Here, of course, is the paradox of interfaith work: that, seeking to bring people of faith together, makes one critical of the parochialism of one’s own religion – or, as is often said, ‘If you make friends with people of another faith, you make enemies in your own community.’
This is because Ramakrishna’s claim is a threat to the certainty that many believers desire and why mystics are often viewed with suspicion. Mystics of many faiths have emphasized that God transcends all human language. The apophatic theology of Christian mystics such as Gregory of Nyssa, who were influenced by Plotinus and Philo, said that God can only be described in negative terms – “Immortal, Invisible,” as a hymn puts it. The same can be found in Sufism and Advaita Vedanta, with its saying “Neti, Neti, Not this, not that.”
There are those who have claimed Sri Ramakrishna as an exponent of Advaita, but I think the Indian writer P.C. Mozoomdar was right when he said, “Sri Ramakrishna is the worshipper of no particular God. He is not a Saivite, he is not a Vaisnava, he is not a Vedantist.”7 The philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) put it like this: “The seers describe their experiences with an impressive unanimity. They are near to each other on mountains farthest apart.”8 Paul Elmer More in his Christian Mysticism also spoke of a common basis to mystical experience.9 This, however, is debated. R. C. Zaehner, in his Mysticsm, Sacred and Profane, distinguished ‘nature mysticism,’ ‘monistic mysticism’ and ‘theistic mystical experience,’ which he regarded as the highest form of mysticism.10 Others argue that Advaita or ‘monistic mysticism’ is the ultimate reality.11 Other writers question whether that there can be any experience which is not shaped by words and concepts. Sri Ramakrishna, however, was not expounding a philosophical system, but was describing his experience, and this gives it authority.
Arnold Toynbee, perhaps, best expressed the continuing importance of Sri Ramakrishna’s example and message.
Sri Ramakrishna’s message was that … each of the higher religions is a true vision and a right way, and all of them alike are indispensable to mankind, because each gives a different glimpse of the same truth, and each leads by a different route to the same goal of human endeavours. Each, therefore, has a special spiritual value of its own which is not to be found in any of the others. … To know this is good, but it is not enough. Religion is not just a matter for study; it is something that has to be experienced and to be lived, and this is the field in which Sri Ramakrishna manifested his uniqueness. …In the Atomic Age the whole human race has a utilitarian motive for following this Indian way. No utilitarian motive could be stronger or more respectable in itself. The survival of the human race is at stake. Yet even the strongest and most respectable utilitarian motive is only a secondary reason for taking Ramakrishna’s and Gandhi’s and Ashoka’s teaching to heart and acting on it. The primary reason is that this teaching is right – and is right because it flows from a true vision of spiritual reality.12
Benoy Kumar Sarkar’s claim that “Nobody in the world’s culture-history and philosophical annals has been a more pronounced architect of the republic of religions” may not be an exaggeration.13
1 Quoted from the journal Englishman by Patrick French, Younghusband, London, HarperCollins, 1994, p.333
2 David Steindl-Rast, Man of Prayer, Thomas Merton, Monk ed. by Brother Patrick Hart London: Sheed and Ward, 1974, pp.88-89
3The Gospel of Ramakrishna, New York, Ramakrishna Vedanta Press, 1942, p.34
4The Gospel of Ramakrishna, p.35
5 Hal French, The Swan’s Wide Waters, Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat Press, 1974, p.83
6The Swan’s Wide Waters, p.80
7 Quoted by M.M Thomas, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance, London, SCM Press, 1969, p.113
8 S.Radhakrishnan, ‘Fragments of a Confession,’ in The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, ed by A.Schlipp, Library of Living Philosophers New York, Tudor Publishing Co, 1952, p.62 – out of print, but available from Vedic Books
9 Paul Elmer More, Christian Mysticism, London, SPCK, p.93
10 R. C. Zaehner, Mysticism, Sacred and Profane, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1957, pp.28-29
11 For example, Nalini Devdas in Sri Ramakrishna, Bangalore 1965, pp.7-24, quoted by M. M. Thomas, p.113
12 In the Forward to Great Thinkers on Ramakrishna-Vivekananda, Gol Park, Kolkata 700029, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture – available on line
13 Benoy Kumar Sarkar. Political Philosophies Since 1905, Vol.II, Part III, Lahore, 1942, pp. 232-35, quoted in Great Thinkers on Ramakrishna-Vivekananda