Bigotry and intolerance are throwing the planet into an uproar: Israelis versus Palestinians, Indians versus Pakistanis, the West against the Near East. Christians are pitched against Muslims, who struggle against Hindus and Jews. What can we do to quell the surge of hatred that threatens to engulf our world?
Ramakrishna found a way to reconcile the religions of the world and unite humanity in common spiritual understanding.
It turns out that one of the most respected yogis of our era directly addressed the turmoil between religious cultures and showed how our differences can be resolved. Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836–1886) was witness to the hostility and suspicion between Christians, Muslims, and Hindus that seethed even then in North India. Unlike most of his contemporaries, who believed there could be no peace between these groups, Ramakrishna found a way to reconcile the religions of the world and unite humanity in common spiritual understanding. His words—and more importantly his actions—speak to us today more urgently than ever.
Fortunately for us, Swami Saradananda, a direct disciple of Ramakrishna, compiled an epic account of his master’s life, and Swami Chetanananda, also of the Ramakrishna Order, has given us a superb new translation of that account, called Ramakrishna and His Divine Play. The stories about and sayings from Sri Ramakrishna quoted in this article are based on that translation.
Chetanananda tells us that according to Ramakrishna: “All religions are equally valid. He found a place for each one in his own life. He first realized God by following Hindu practices, and then by following the Christian and Muslim paths. Such a journey is unique in the religious history of the world. He afterwards proclaimed, ‘As many faiths, so many paths,’ thus establishing an ideal harmony of religions for our present age, in which religions are in conflict, and hatred and violence are rampant. He taught a religion so badly needed today, a religion that is constructive and not destructive, scientific and not fanatical, practical and not theoretical, rational and not superstitious, universal and not parochial. Truly, Sri Ramakrishna worked to create unity in our time.”
Ramakrishna was born in a tiny village sixty miles northwest of Calcutta. His parents were devout brahmins (members of the Hindu priestly caste) who raised the strong-willed boy in a household that resounded with worship, prayer, and devotional songs. When he was six years old, he experienced the first of many mystical episodes. “One morning,” Ramakrishna said, “I took some puffed rice in a small basket and was eating it as I walked along the narrow ridges of the rice fields. In one part of the sky a beautiful black cloud appeared, heavy with rain. Then a flock of cranes came flying, white as milk against the black cloud. It was so beautiful that I became absorbed in the sight; I lost consciousness of everything outside of myself. I fell down, and the puffed rice was scattered over the ground. That was the first time I lost external consciousness due to ecstasy.”
“I feel the universe saturated with consciousness,” he reported, “just as the ground is soaked with water in the rainy season.”
At first his parents were afraid that Ramakrishna might have epilepsy. It would be years before a doctor from East Bengal reassured his family that “the patient’s condition is due to divine ecstasy. It is a yogic condition and is not curable by medicine.” In the meantime Ramakrishna spontaneously slipped in and out of altered states of consciousness, experiencing extraordinarily expanded awareness. “I feel the universe saturated with consciousness,” he reported, “just as the ground is soaked with water in the rainy season.”
In 1855, Ramakrishna became a priest at the Dakshineswar temple in Calcutta. He had been raised worshipping the Hindu deity Rama, who represents God as a just yet infinitely kind king, but his job here was to serve the goddess Kali at the temple complex. The transition to visualizing the Divine Being as the loving, protective mother of the universe was apparently easy and natural for Ramakrishna. He pleaded with Kali as he would with his own mother. “Why don’t you show yourself to me?” he would cry. “I don’t want wealth or friends or any material thing—only you! Please teach me how to know you. I have no refuge except you!” He would roll in the dirt in anguish as he called to the Divine Mother.
One day Ramakrishna’s mental agony at not being able to actually experience the Goddess became so intense that, seeing a ritual sword hanging on the wall, he seriously considered killing himself. Then suddenly, he said, “I saw an infinite shoreless ocean of light; that ocean was consciousness. However far and in whatever direction I looked, I saw shining waves, one after another, coming towards me.” Kali had manifested her real nature.
As a growing band of disciples watched in amazement, Ramakrishna took up one form of spiritual practice after another to see if it too would lead him to the supreme goal of yoga. He worshipped God in the forms of Rama and Krishna like the Hindu Vaishnavas do. He sat naked in the forest practicing rigorous asceticism like the renunciate sadhus, and performed demanding rites like India’s tantrics. In each case, in a matter of days he would master the devotional practices or yogic techniques that most people take a lifetime to perfect.
As a growing band of disciples watched in amazement, Ramakrishna took up one form of spiritual practice after another to see if it too would lead him to the supreme goal of yoga.
Ramakrishna’s teacher, Tota Puri (a naked Naga sadhu), discouraged his reliance on images of God or the Goddess, and encouraged him to shift his awareness to nirvikalpa samadhi, a level of mental absorption in pure consciousness beyond all mental thoughts and images. Ramakrishna’s efforts to reach the deepest state of meditation are described in this excerpt from Swami Chetanananda’s translation:
“‘I almost lost hope of reaching nirvikalpa samadhi. I opened my eyes and told the Naked One, “No, it can’t be done. I cannot raise my mind to the unconditioned state.” Irritated, the Naked One said sharply, “What do you mean it can’t be done? It must be done!” Then he looked around the hut and found a bit of broken glass. He picked it up and stuck its needle-sharp point between my eyebrows and said, “Fix the mind here.” I sat down to meditate again, firmly determined. As soon as the form of the Divine Mother appeared in my mind, I used my discrimination as a sword of knowledge and with it mentally cut that form in two. Then all distinctions disappeared from my mind, and it swiftly soared beyond the realm of name and form. I lost myself in samadhi.’
When the Master went into samadhi, Tota remained seated near him for a long time. He then silently left the hut and locked the door behind him lest anybody should intrude and disturb the Master. He took his seat near the hut…and waited for the Master to call for the door to be opened.
The day passed and night came. Thus three days passed. Still the Master did not call for Tota. With amazement and curiosity, Tota left his seat and unlocked the door to check his disciple’s condition. He found the Master sitting exactly as he had been left: His body showed no sign of life, but his face was calm, serene, and radiant. Tota realized that his disciple was totally unaware of the external world and that his mind was absorbed in Brahman [the supreme reality], like an unflickering lamp in a windless place.
As an expert in samadhi, Tota marvelled: ‘Is what I see really true? Is it possible that this great soul has realized in three days what I could accomplish only after forty years of strenuous sadhana?’ Driven by doubt, Tota began a careful examination and scrutinized the signs manifested in his disciple’s body. He checked thoroughly to determine whether there was any heartbeat or even the slightest trace of respiration. He repeatedly touched the disciple’s motionless body, seated like a piece of dead wood, and found no response, or any sign of outer consciousness. Overwhelmed with joy and wonder, Tota cried out, ‘Ah! What a display of divine maya! This is real samadhi—nirvikalpa samadhi—the ultimate result of the path of knowledge according to Vedanta. He has achieved it in three days! How miraculous is God’s power!’”
“As an expert in samadhi, Tota marvelled: ‘Is what I see really true? Is it possible that this great soul has realized in three days what I could accomplish only after forty years of strenuous sadhana?’"
Ramakrishna spent the next six months in that high state, barely eating and scarcely even breathing. By this time Hindu leaders in his community were beginning to call the priest of Kali a genuine saint. But their faith in Ramakrishna was about to be severely tested.
One day a Sufi named Govinda Roy appeared at Dakshineswar, reading the Koran and doing Muslim practices in a grove near the temple. Ramakrishna was impressed by his sincerity and devotion. “Islam too is a way to attain God,” he thought. “I’ll take initiation from Govinda and practice this path. Later, Ramakrishna recalls, “I then devoutly repeated the holy name of Allah, dressed like the Muslims, and said their prayers several times a day. Because the Hindu feeling had disappeared from my mind, I felt disinclined to worship Hindu deities.” To the horror of his Hindu devotees, Ramakrishna even insisted on eating Muslim food, including beef, which is forbidden to orthodox brahmins. After three days he had a vision of a radiant man with a serious expression and a long beard whom he intuitively recognized as Mohammed. He then experienced Mohammed merging into Allah, and Allah merging into the Supreme Reality itself. “This is a legitimate faith,” Ramakrishna saw. “It leads to full spiritual realization.”
When Ramakrishna eventually resumed the worship of Kali, his devotees heaved a sigh of relief. But they were about to get another rude surprise. While visiting a friend’s garden, Ramakrishna saw a beautiful painting of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, and his friend read him captivating biblical stories about Jesus’s life. To the shock of his followers, he decided to become a Christian. For days on end he immersed himself in meditation on Christ. Then, sometime later, as he was walking through the grove near the Dakshineswar temple, Ramakrishna saw a fair-skinned man with large, beautiful eyes approaching him. Wondering who this foreigner could be, he heard a voice say, “This is Jesus Christ, the great yogi, the loving son of God who is one with his father.” The figure then merged into Ramakrishna, throwing him into a state of total oneness with the Divine. “Christianity too is a legitimate path,” he realized. “It also takes you to the highest goal.”
Ramakrishna also spoke highly of Buddha, the Sikh gurus, and the great Jain masters. Though he always returned to the worship of the Hindu Divine Mother, his openness and respect for other faiths gave his devotees much to think about. His experiments challenged their biases and beliefs, and forced them to think seriously about the complementary role of the world’s many religions.
“There are many doors to God’s house,” Ramakrishna explained, “the main gate, the back door, even the utility entrance. No matter which door you enter through, you get in the house.” He was convinced on the basis of his own experience that all religions lead to the same divine state; each route is unique but the destination is identical. “I’m not asking you to give up your love for God, only your dogmatic ideas,” Ramakrishna insisted. “When a young woman moves into her husband’s home, she honors all her in-laws but she sleeps only with her husband. The Divine Being is seen in many different ways in different cultures. Worship your God, but honor the forms in which he appears to others as well. Don’t condemn other paths to God. If other people follow that path with full sincerity, they will definitely reach God. Go on calling to God in the way you understand him, but don’t criticize other faiths. All religions are true.”
“There are many doors to God’s house,” Ramakrishna explained, “the main gate, the back door, even the utility entrance."
What if, instead of looking at others with mutual antagonism, the great world religions recognized each other as brother and sister traditions? Terrorists could no longer play the religious card to create anger and divisiveness. There would no longer be an excuse for Iraqi Shiites to battle Sunis, or Irish Protestants to fight Catholics. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and members of all the world religions, if they acknowledged the spiritual experiments of great seers like Ramakrishna, would begin to see each other as members of one great spiritual family.
Ramakrishna “lived his life at the crossroads,” Swami Chetanananda writes, “where many religious sects of India met. He never spoke a harsh word against anyone’s faith. He was so all-embracing that members of every sect thought that he was one of them.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, news of the remarkable Indian sage and his message of universal respect spread through the world, influencing artists and intellectuals in the West, from Russian author Leo Tolstoy and French Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland to religious savant Huston Smith and mythologist Joseph Campbell. “Sri Ramakrishna’s testimony to the harmony of religions…can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family,” wrote English historian Arnold Toynbee. “Ramakrishna has the solution,” Trappist monk Thomas Merton agreed.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Ramakrishna’s insights are more important than ever. His Holiness the Dalai Lama recently said, “Sri Ramakrishna was one of the greatest of India’s spiritual adepts of recent times. By assimilating the sadhanas, customs, and practices of different faiths into his own personal practice, he presented a powerful example of respect for other traditions.”
When we stop merely professing our allegiance to our own faith and start actually practicing it, we begin to uncover the central truth at the heart of all religious life.
As yoga students grappling with the troubling conditions of the world today, we can learn a great deal from Ramakrishna Paramahansa. He taught us to look beyond our prejudices and see how Divine Spirit is working in all the world’s traditions. When we stop merely professing our allegiance to our own faith and start actually practicing it, we begin to uncover the central truth at the heart of all religious life. It is a revelation of love, grace, and unity.
The ancient yogic texts say, “There is only one truth. Men express it in different ways.” It is up to us to acknowledge and appreciate the many ways the Divine expresses itself, but we must never forget that in reality we are all, truly, one.
Biography of Spirit
Thanks to two far-sighted disciples, Ramakrishna Paramahansa is the first yogi in history about whose life we have detailed information. Mohendranath Gupta, a physics teacher, spent years sitting beside the master jotting down every word he heard him say. His 1,000 page book, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, is widely considered to be one of the greatest spiritual classics of all time. In 1942, Swami Nikhilananda published a superb English translation with help from Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, and Margaret Woodrow Wilson.
After Ramakrishna’s death, Swami Saradananda, another direct disciple, compiled Sri Sri Ramakrishna Lilaprasanga, five volumes of lore about the master, based on his own experiences as well as lengthy interviews with others who knew Ramakrishna personally. The numerous books written about Ramakrishna since then draw heavily on Saradananda’s thoroughly researched account. Several English translations, in whole or in part, eventually appeared, though the translators struggled with Saradananda’s esoteric yogic terminology and his complex sentences, which would sometimes run on for half a page. Thankfully, Swami Chetanananda has completed a more readable translation, Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play.
Swami Chetanananda was born in East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) but moved to Calcutta in 1950, where he often visited the famous temple at Dakshineswar. Deeply moved by the story of the saint who once lived there, he was ordained as a monk in the Ramakrishna Order and lived for some time in the Himalayas. When he was 34, the Order shipped him off to its Vedanta Center in Hollywood, where he served under Swami Prabhavananda (who, with noted British writer Christopher Isherwood, produced an immensely popular English translation of the Bhagavad Gita). Chetanananda himself would go on to write, translate, or edit over two dozen books, mostly about the many saints and swamis of Ramakrishna’s famous lineage. Eventually he was transferred to St. Louis, where he still resides, serving as spiritual head of the Vedanta Society in that city.
Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play is available through the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, www.vedantastl.org.