Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886)
The connection between the supernatural and Ramakrishna started before his birth. His mother, Chandramani Devi, was said to have had a vision of light entering her womb before his birth. Sri Ramakrishna was just six years old when he had his first spiritual experience. This mystical experience accorded him, without his wishing it, a spiritual status that his contemporaries could have envied.
Many in his village of Kamarpukur considered the child Ramakrishna to be an incarnation of God. He entered into trancelike states throughout his childhood. Henceforth he neglected his studies, preferring instead to spend his time in solitary meditation, singing and performing Hindu stories. For much of his life he served as priest at the Kali Temple at Dakshinesh-war, near Calcutta. There he lived a life of renunciation, but he would stop performing his priestly duties whenever the “divine madness” took over his conscious awareness.
He married Sarada Devi, whom he viewed as the goddess incarnate. In turn, she looked upon Ramakrishna as her spiritual teacher. He would lead no movement, nor establish any society for the faithful; however, he remained devoted to the goddess Kali throughout his life. He benefited from the teachings of Tota Puri, who taught him Advaita Vedanta and the practice of absorption in the formless, which he quickly achieved.
Union with God
Ramakrishna sought to turn his whole life into an uninterrupted contemplation and union with God. In part, his doctrine was that the revelation of God can take place at all times and that God realization is not the monopoly of any one religion or faith.
In “The World as Seen by a Mystic,” he shows his method of reaching a state of God realization.
I practiced austerities for a long time, I cared very little for the body. My longing for the Divine Mother was so great that I could not eat or sleep. I would lie on the bare ground, placing my head on a lump of Earth and cry out loudly: “Mother, Mother, why dost Thou not come to me?” I did not know how the days and nights passed away. I used to have ecstasy all the time. I saw my disciples as my own people, like children and relations, long before they came to me.
Ramakrishna then relates how he attained a state of continuous ecstasy and “gave up all external forms of worship.” In referring to the time of joyous illumination that immediately followed his enlightenment, he exclaimed:
What a state it was! The slightest cause aroused in me the thought of the Divine Ideal. One day I went to the Zoological Garden in Calcutta. I desired especially to see the lion, but when I beheld him, I lost all sense-consciousness and went into Samadhi. Those who were with me wished to show me the other animals, but I replied: “I saw everything when I saw the king of beasts. Take me home.” The strength of the lion had aroused in me the consciousness of the omnipotence of God and had lifted me above the world of phenomena.
It is said there are two levels of Samadhi: samprajnata Samadhi, in which the yogi is still aware of a degree of worldly differentiation; and asamprajnata Samadhi, in which there is a full realization of the self or purusha and its consciousness and no involvement in worldly differentiation. Ramakrishna had reached the second stage.
Vivekananda (1863–1902) was a disciple of Ramakrishna. One of the outstanding achievements of his life was the establishment of Rama-krishna Missions in India, involved in philanthropic activities. Once, he encouraged his audience in Madras, saying, “We must conquer the world through our spirituality and philosophy. There is no other alternative; we must do it or die.” He wanted to promote a universal religion based on a Vedanta that might be adapted to the needs of our time.
The first stage is said to contain the seeds of awareness of the external world of differentiation, while the second stage is said to be “seedless”; that is, it no longer engenders thoughts tied to the external world. Neither of these states can be described precisely because both take consciousness beyond language and into indescribable realms.
Ramakrishna's entire life was spent longing for uninterrupted contemplation and union with God. Both his life and teaching appeal to seekers in all religions, as he taught that the revelation of God can take place at all times and that God realization is not the special possession of any one religion or faith. He took up various disciplines associated with other religions, specifically Christianity and Islam, and maintained that the paths of all lead to God realization; all religions have the common goal of God consciousness.
Hinduism is a decidedly theistic religion. A difficulty lies in determining whether it is polytheistic, pantheistic, or perhaps even a monotheistic religion. The difficulty of labeling it lies with the Western thinkers, because for Indian thinkers, divergent views both complementary and contradictory can coexist, and are acceptable to all.
Ramakrishna had several mystical experiences, which accorded him spiritual status. His devotion is characterized by an unrestricted nonsectarian Hinduism; the cult of the Mother seemed to predominate his religious beliefs. He performed several miracles as the result of mystical rewards from the Mother Goddess.
Sri Ramakrishna died on August 16, 1886; he was an inspiration for a generation of Hindus. In time, his influence spread throughout the world through the Vedanta societies founded by Swami Vivekananda.