• U.S.

Religion: Prophet of All Gods

8 minute read

The first full English translation of one of the world’s most extraordinary religious documents was published last week. It is The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (1,063 pages, translated by Swami Nikhilananda,

Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York City; $7.50). Says Aldous Huxley in the foreword:

“A book unique … in the literature of hagiography. No other saint has had so able and indefatigable a Boswell. Never have the small events of a contemplative’s daily life been described with such a wealth of intimate detail.”

Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86) barely knew how to read or write. To millions in India and elsewhere he is an authentic Incarnation of God—in a class with Buddha, Krishna, Christ. His unique claim to fame is that he was the first prophet in history actually to practice the ways not only of all the principal Hindu sects but also Christianity and Islam.

To Ramakrishna the act of worshiping

God was more important than the form. Himself a Brahman, who on the whole observed the complex code of this highest Hindu caste, just as Jesus observed Jewish law, Ramakrishna like Jesus never hesitated to break it when his common sense told him to.

“Wherever I look,” he said, “I see men quarreling in the name of religion —Hindus, Mohammedans, Brahmos, Vaish-navas, and the rest. But they never reflect that He who is called Krishna is also called Siva, and bears the name of the Primal Energy, Jesus, and Allah as well —the same Rama with a thousand names. A lake has several ghats [bathing-places]. At one the Hindus take water in pitchers and call it ‘ jal’ ; at another the Mussulmans take water in leather bags and call it ‘pani.’ At a third the Christians call it ‘water.’ “

Spiritual Ecstasy. Ramakrishna’s father, a pious Brahman, made a pilgrimage in 1835 to the footprint of Vishnu at Gaya, and there, it is said, had a dream in which Vishnu promised to be born as his son. On his return he found, it is said, that his wife had had a similar vision and had conceived. Ramakrishna was born on Feb. 18, 1836. He had his first spiritual ecstasy at the age of six or seven while eating puffed rice. “He looked up at the sky and saw a beautiful, dark thundercloud. As it spread, rapidly enveloping the whole sky, a flight of snow-white cranes passed in front of it. The beauty of the contrast overwhelmed the boy. He fell to the ground, unconscious, and the puffed rice went in all directions.”

A little later he acted the part of Siva in a sacred play and was so carried away that he fell into a trance. “The effect of this scene on the audience was tremendous. The people felt blessed as by a vision of Siva Himself. The performance had to be stopped, and the boy’s mood lasted till the following morning.”

As a Brahman, Ramakrishna knew the formalities of Hindu worship. Hinduism asks its devotees to look on God as the ideal father, the ideal mother, the ideal husband, the ideal son, or the ideal friend. To the initiate, each name ultimately leads to the Nameless, the form to the Formless, the word to the Silence. The gods gradually merge in the one God. But until that realization is achieved — and it may take a million reincarnations — a Hindu devotee cannot dissociate human factors from his worship. Therefore Hindu deities must be bathed, clothed, decked with ornaments. They must be fed and put to sleep, propitiated with hymns, songs and prayers. There are appropriate rites connected with all these functions.

These rites Ramakrishna himself practiced as a priest. In 1856 he became a priest of Kali, Hinduism’s Divine Mother, in a vast new temple at Dakshineswar, on the Ganges, just north of Calcutta. The temple and its 20 acres of gardens had been built by a wealthy fourth-caste widow named Rani Rasmani, and Ramakrishna showed his disregard for caste by serving as priest there. He had no false respect for his patron. One day as Rani Rasmani was listening to his singing in the temple, the young priest abruptly turned and slapped her. He said that while she was apparently listening to his song, she had actually been thinking of a lawsuit.

The Ocean of Consciousness. To Occidentals, no Hindu deity is stranger than Kali. “She wears necklaces of gold and pearls, a golden garland of human heads, and a girdle of human arms. . . . She has four arms. The lower left hand holds a severed human head and the upper grips a bloodstained saber. One right hand offers boons to Her children; the other allays their fear. The majesty of Her posture can hardly be described. It combines the terror of destruction with the reassurance of motherly tenderness.”

To Ramakrishna, no deity was dearer than Kali. For years his absorbing passion was to become a paramahamsa—one who reached life’s highest earthly stage—and see Kali “as tangibly as the temples, the trees, the river.” Eventually he did:

“I felt as if my heart were being squeezed like a wet towel. I was overpowered with a great restlessness and a fear that it might not be my lot to realize Her in this life. I could not bear the separation from Her any longer. Life seemed to be not worth living. Suddenly my glance fell on the sword that was kept in the Mother’s temple. I determined to put an end to my life. When I jumped up like a madman and seized it, suddenly the blessed Mother revealed Herself.

“The buildings with their different parts, the temple, and everything else vanished from my sight, leaving no trace whatsoever, and in their stead I saw a limitless, infinite, effulgent, Ocean of Consciousness. As far as the eye could see, the shining billows were madly rushing at me from all sides with a terrific noise, to swallow me up! I was panting for breath. I was caught in the rush and collapsed, unconscious.

“What was happening in the outside world I did not know; but within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss, altogether new, and I felt the presence of the Divine Mother.”

Soon he could see Kali even without meditation. In the end he believed that he had merged himself with Her completely.

When he had successively materialized the Hindu gods, Ramakrishna turned to other religions. In 1874 he tried Christianity. “Breaking through the barriers of creed and religion, he entered a new realm of ecstasy. Christ possessed his soul. For three days he did not set foot in the Kali temple. On the fourth day … he saw coming toward him a person with beautiful large eyes, serene countenance, and fair skin. As the two faced each other, a voice rang out in the depths of Sri Rama-krishna’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 Son of the Divine Mother and merged in him.”

Pundits’ Praise. By this time many a pious Hindu, including the two most famed pundits of the time—Gauri and Vaishnavcharan—declared that this walking pantheon was himself an Incarnation of God. Other pious folk thought him a madman. His strange acts while in trance varied from imitating a monkey to feeding Kali’s food to a cat. Later he made fun of people who proclaimed his divinity by pointing to his left arm, which he had broken in a trance, and saying, “Have you ever heard of God breaking His arm?”

From 1879 until his death from cancer of the throat in 1886 crowds of all classes and castes thronged to see Ramakrishna. He answered visitors’ questions for 20 hours out of every 24, steadily undermined his health while doing so. Faced with the same problem, Gandhi solved it by one day of silence every week.

Woman & Gold. Gist of Ramakrishna’s gospel: 1) Every religion is true, and a possible path to God. 2) For most men, who are slaves of their senses, a dualistic religion with ceremonies, music and symbols is necessary. Men of purer intellect can attain modified monism; they know there is a further range of experience but are not able fully to realize it. Monism, the realization of oneness of all things with differences merely in form, can be achieved only by those who reach ecstasy. 3) For each ladder of thought there is a corresponding series of duties. “In order to learn archery one should first aim at a banana tree, then at a reed, then at a wick, and last at a flying bird.”

Chief stumbling blocks in the path of spiritual progress, Ramakrishna told his followers in an oft-repeated phrase, is kaminikanchan (literally “Woman & Gold,” meaning “lust & greed”). ” ‘Woman & Gold’ alone is the obstacle to yoga,” said he. “What is there in the body of a woman? Only such things as blood, flesh, fat, entrails, and the life. Why should one love such a body?” In some of his ecstasies, Ramakrishna regarded himself as a woman and worshipped Kali as her handmaid. Said his woman devotees: “We seldom looked on Sri Ramakrishna as a member of the male sex.”

Says Gandhi: “Ramakrishna was a living embodiment of godliness. His sayings are not those of a mere learned man but they are pages from the Book of Life.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com