Ramakrishna, His Life and Sayings
By Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa
Publisher: Forgotten Books, 2008 (first published in 1898)
Also available free at www.forgottenbooks.org
Ramakrishna (1833-86), born of a Brahmin family in a poor village in Bengal, became a Hindu sage renowned worldwide as a mystic and teacher. Despite little or no education, Ramakrishna managed to acquire a profound knowledge of the Puranas, Vedas, and Hindu epics. His religious knowledge was expanded by direct experience from trance, vision, and meditation. Consequently, many of his contemporaries felt Ramakrishna’s life and teachings conveyed the essence of the Hindu religion.
Ramakrishna, His Life and Sayings was published two years after Ramakrishna’s demise. In this book of only 172 pages, the editor and translator Max Mueller covers three important aspects of his life’s work. First he describes Ramakrishna’s life and cultural background, introducing the sages and personalities who influenced his work. Next he briefly explains Vedanta and Hindu religion to give a context to Ramakrishna’s spontaneous experience of spiritual reality. Finally, taking up about half of the book, he presents in translation 350 sayings of Ramakrishna.
These sayings are pithy and profound:
Where does the strength of an aspirant lie? It is in his tears. As a mother gives her consent to fulfil the desire of her importunately weeping child, so God vouchsafes His weeping son whatever he is crying for.
Soft clay admits of forms, but burnt clay does not. So those whose hearts are consumed with the desire of worldly things cannot realize higher ideas.
As persons living in a house infested with venomous snakes are always alert and cautious, so should men living in the world be always on their guard against the allurements of lust and greed.
When does a man get his salvation? When his egotism dies.
As dry leaves are blown about here and there by the wind, and have no choice of their own, and make no exertion: so those who depend upon God move in harmony with his will, and put forth no effort of their own.
Ramakrishna’s life story is one of continual spiritual quest and inquiry. His father told of a prophetic dream in which Vishnu announced he would be born as his son. As a young child, Ramakrishna was able to memorize the whole of a religious opera – acting, music, plot – after only one hearing. He was precocious in the arts, having a fine voice, musical sense, and an ability to draw and sculpt religious idols.
A pilgrim road passed near to his village. Young Ramakrishna would often be found there talking to religious mendicants. Once he was walking the fields on a clear blue-skied day when overhead passed a flight of white cranes.The dazzling colours and contrasts induced the first of many trances throughout his life.
In his teens he went to live in a temple to the goddess Kali in Dakshinesvara, a village north of Calcutta where his eldest brother had been appointed a priest. Ramakrishna soon became a recognized worshipper of Kali, whom he regarded as his mother and the mother of the universe. He communed with Kali through singing and weeping, often for hours at a time. Eventually, such practices led to complete loss of consciousness of the external world. Some saw him as mad, others as totally devoted to God.
Seeking to restore him to normalcy, his family got him married to a girl named Saradamani Devi. But the intensity of his devotion only increased a thousand-fold. The best physicians in Calcutta could not cure his apparent madness. It was really the intense pain of separation.
“Mother, oh my mother, another day has gone and still I have not found thee.” Then, one day as he was contemplating suicide, Kali appeared to him in a vision that was repeated throughout his life.
At times, Ramakrishna expressed doubt that these visions were true. He would say, “I would believe them to be true if such and such a thing happened,” and the desired event would take place. As the visions and trances grew longer, he discontinued his duties at the temple. Then began a twelve-year period of ascetic exercises. As he put it later, “a great religious tornado, as it were, raged within me during these years and made everything topsy-turvy.”
During this period, he came under the care and direction of several impressive individuals. “About this time,” he said, “I felt such a burning sensation all over my body; I used to stand in the waters of the Ganges, with my body immersed up to the shoulders and a wet towel over my head all throughout the day, because it was insufferable. Then a Brahmin lady came and cured me of it in three days.” This extraordinary, nameless Bengali woman stayed with Ramakrishna a number of years, teaching him many forms of yoga.
Ramakrishna next came under the influence of a philosopher named Tota-puri. Seeing Ramakrishna sitting one day by the Ganges, Tota-puri recognized him as a great yogi and initiated him into the highest truths of Vedanta meditation. Remarkably, Ramakrishna quickly attained the highest state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi. “My boy,” said Tota-puri, “what I realized after forty years of hard struggle, you have arrived at in three days. I dare not call you my disciple; henceforth I will address you as my friend.”
For eleven months Tota-puri stayed with Ramakrishna. When he departed, Ramakrishna said about this part of his life, “I remained for six months in that state of perfect union which people seldom reach, and if they reach it, they cannot return to their individual consciousness again. Their bodies and minds could never bear it.”
This experience was followed by severe dysentery, the cure for which returned Ramakrishna to normal consciousness. Ramakrishna’s religious zeal then took him in a new direction. He embraced the Vaishnava ideal of love of God, throwing himself into the practice of many religions, including Islam and Christianity. Visions and conversations with each religion’s founder would follow. Ultimately, Ramakrishna came to the conclusion that all religions were true, but each only took account of one aspect of eternal existence, knowledge and bliss.
“When the rose is blown and sheds its fragrance all around, the bees come of themselves. The bees seek the full-blown rose, and not the rose the bees.” This statement was borne out in Ramakrishna’s own experience. People from all walks of life came to partake of his initiation and teachings, day and night. When asked to take rest he would reply, “I would suffer willingly all sorts of body pains, and death also, a hundred thousand times, if by so doing I could bring one single soul to freedom and salvation.”
By 1885, Ramakrishna had developed a throat condition that soon turned cancerous. He was advised to keep to silence, but the throngs of people that followed him everywhere made that impossible. He remained cheerful and always kept trying to communicate. He died on August 16, 1886, at age 53.
Mueller thanks Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) for providing the text of the sayings he translates, but otherwise scarcely mentions him. In later years, Vivekananda’s lectures, literary work and influence on the understanding of Indian mysticism extended the reach of Ramakrishna’s work throughout the world.
For the student of Indian mysticism, the life and teachings of Ramakrishna should not be overlooked. His experience demonstrates the extraordinary features and power of inner spiritual transformation, including much that seems bizarre or incomprehensible. His validation of many diverse spiritual and religious practices made him for many an icon of modern Hinduism.
Friedrich Max Mueller (1823–1900) was a German philologist and orientalist. He is considered one of the founders of the Western academic field of Indian studies and the discipline of comparative religion. The massive 50-volume work Sacred Books of the East was prepared under his direction.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.