Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

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Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (Bangla: রামকৃষ্ণ পরমহংস Ramkrishno Pôromôhongsho), born Gadadhar Chattopadhyay (Bangla: গদাধর চট্টোপাধ্যায় Gôdadhor Chôţţopaddhae) , (February 18, 1836–August 16, 1886) was a Hindu religious teacher and an influential figure in the Bengal Renaissance of the Nineteenth century. His teachings emphasised God-realisation as the highest goal of life, love and devotion for God, the oneness of existence, and the harmony of religions.

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[edit] Biography

Historically, in India, emphasis is given to the teachings of saints and less attention is paid to dates and details. In the case of Ramakrishna, however, there exist first-hand accounts of the details of his life. This was possible because many of his disciples were well-educated and had a strong desire to present only facts that could be verified from multiple sources. Some credit for collecting and recording such facts goes to Swami Saradananda, a disciple of Ramakrishna. He wrote a biography from the legends and stories which were growing around Ramakrishna.

The best-known record of Ramakrishna's teachings is the Bengali Kathamrita written by Mahendranath Gupta (Sri M.). Swami Nikhilananda's translation of this into the English language, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, is the most widely read. In the preface to his translation, Nikhilananda states, "I have made a literal translation, omitting only a few pages of no particular interest to English-speaking readers." Some claim, however, that Nikhilananda's omissions were quite significant and have led to Western difficulties in interpreting the Kathamrita.

[edit] Childhood

Gadadhar was born in the village of Kamarpukur, in what is now the Hooghly district of West Bengal. Gadadhar’s parents, Khudiram and Chandramani, were poor and made ends meet with great difficulty. Gadadhar was extremely popular in his village. He was considered handsome and had a natural gift for the fine arts. He, however, disliked going to school, and was not interested in the pursuit of money. He loved nature and spent his time in fields and fruit gardens outside the village with his friends. He was seen visiting monks who stopped at his village on their way to Puri. He would serve them and listen with rapt attention to the religious debates they often had. About why he was named Gadadhara in his childhood there is an interesting story describing which as a digression here can add importance to biography. Once Khshudhiram went to Gaya for offering foods to the manes of his forefathers ("pindodaan" as called in Bengal) at the Falgu River. There was no system of hotel, lodge etc during the early 19th century in India. People like Khshudhiram had no choice but to spend nights on the terrace of the temple of Lord Gadadhar (Lord Vishnu is known by this name in Gaya). At the end of the day Khshudhiram fell asleep as soon as he sat at one corner of that terrace with a content heart after discharging his duty towards his forefathers. Suddenly he saw in dream Lord Gadadhar standing before him and asking “Oh Khshudhiram, time has become ripe for my incarnation, would you mind if I come as your son?” Khshudhiram said “A poor Brahmin as I am, how can I dare to take the responsibility of serving you the Lord of the cosmos?” The Lord insisted “I shall be happy with whatsoever you treat me to. I am entering your wife’s womb now, go home, nurse her well and prepare for my advent in your family”. After this incident Khshudhiram’s youngest son is born and named Gadadhar. The following story would narrate how and by what kind of people Gadadhar was respected in his childhood and also would give an idea about what kind of people were Kamarpukur inhabitated by. There lived a maker of shell made bangles ("shaankhaa" as called in Bengal worn by married ladies) in Kamarpukur named Chinu Shankhari in Gadadhar's time; because of his accommodating and pious nature the villagers respected Chinu. He hailed from the Vaishnavite sect and was a staunch devotee of Lord Krishna. Holding a noble character Chinu had also the acumen to understand others’ characters. He identified Gadadhar as Lord Krishna Himself reborn. Chinu used to look upon guests as the forms of the Lord and any deficiency of alacrity in serving the guests was a sin to him. There is a famous incident relating to his hospitality which aggrandized his fame as a devotee. Once in a winter some of his guests expressed the desire to eat mango dal (dal boiled with the crux of raw mango or "kancha aam" as called in Bengal). He stood aghast at such request since he was not an affluent person who could afford to arrange such fruit in a time which is not the season thereof. He was habituated in praying to the Lord in any distress. Behind Chinu’s house there was a mango tree. A staunch Vaishnavite Chinu used to see the Lord in every thing and being. Forgetting his natural agoraphobia he knelt before the tree and yelled “Oh Lord, save me from failure to feed the guests, please!”. Immediately around half a dozen kancha aams fell from the tree. For common men this is a miracle in winter. Today also this incident is cited as an example of how God alleviates the miseries of his devotees.

When arrangements for Gadadhar to be invested with the sacred thread were nearly complete, he declared that he would have his first alms as a Brahmin from a certain low-caste woman of the village. This was a shock in the days when tradition required that the first alms be from a brahmin, but he was adamant. He said he had given his word to the lady and if he did not keep his word, what sort of Brahmin would he be? No argument, no appeal, no amount of tears are said to have budged him from his position. Finally, Ramkumar, his eldest brother and the head of the family after the passing away of their father, gave in.

Meanwhile, the family's financial position worsened every day. Ramkumar ran a Sanskrit school in Calcutta and also served as purohit priest in some families. About this time, a rich woman of Calcutta, Rani Rashmoni, founded a temple at Dakshineswar. She approached Ramkumar to serve as priest at the temple of Kali and Ramkumar agreed. After some persuasion, Gadadhar agreed to decorate the deity. When Ramkumar retired, Gadadhar took his place as priest.

[edit] Career as priest

When Gadadhar started worshipping the deity Bhavatarini, he began to question if he was worshipping a piece of stone or a living Goddess. If he was worshipping a living Goddess, why should she not respond to his worship? This question nagged him day and night. Then, he began to pray to Kali: "Mother, you've been gracious to many devotees in the past and have revealed yourself to them. Why would you not reveal yourself to me, also? Am I not also your son?"

He is known to have wept bitterly and sometimes even cry out loudly while worshipping. At night, he would go into a nearby jungle and spend the whole night praying. One day, the famous account goes, he was so impatient to see Mother Kali that he decided to end his life. He seized a sword hanging on the wall and was about to strike himself with it, when he is reported to have seen light issuing from the deity in waves. He is said to have been soon overwhelmed by the waves and fell unconscious on the floor.

Gadadhar, however, unsatisfied, prayed to Mother Kali for more religious experiences. He especially wanted to know the truths that other religions taught. Strangely, these teachers came to him when necessary and he is said to have reached the ultimate goals of those religions with ease. Soon word spread about this remarkable man and people of all denominations and all stations of life began to come to him.

[edit] Initiation

Ramakrishna was initiated in Advaita Vedanta by a wandering monk named Totapuri, in the city of Dakshineswar. Totapuri was "a teacher of masculine strength, a sterner mien, a gnarled physique, and a virile voice". Ramakrishna would soon affectionately address the monk as Nangta or Langta, the "Naked One". Nikhilananda interjects that this is because as a renunciate, Nangta did not wear any clothing. I [Ramakrishna] said to Totapuri in despair: "It's no good. I will never be able to lift my spirit to the unconditioned state and find myself face to face with the Atman." He [Totapuri] replied severely: "What do you mean you can't? You must!" Looking about him, he found a shard of glass. He took it and stuck the point between my eyes saying: "Concentrate your mind on that point." [...] The last barrier vanished and my spirit immediately precipitated itself beyond the plane of the conditioned. I lost myself in samadhi.

After the departure of Totapuri, Ramakrishna reportedly remained for six months in a state of absolute contemplation: For six months in a stretch, I [Ramakrishna] remained in that state from which ordinary men can never return; generally the body falls off, after three weeks, like a sere leaf. I was not conscious of day or night. Flies would enter my mouth and nostrils as they do a dead's body, but I did not feel them. My hair became matted with dust.

[edit] Married life

Rumors spread to Kamarpukur that Ramakrishna had gone mad as a result of his over-taxing spiritual exercises at Dakshineswar. Alarmed, neighbors advised Ramakrishna’s mother that he be persuaded to marry, so that he might be more conscious of his responsibilities to the family. Far from objecting to the marriage, he, in fact, mentioned Jayrambati, three miles to the north-west of Kamarpukur, as being the village where the bride could be found at the house of one Ramchandra Mukherjee. The five-year-old bride, Sarada, was found and the marriage was duly solemnised. Sarada was Ramakrishna's first disciple. He attempted to teach her everything he had learned from his various gurus. She is believed to have mastered every religious secret as quickly as Ramakrishna had. Impressed by her religious potential, he began to treat her as the Universal Mother Herself and performed a puja considering Sarada as veritable Tripura Sundari Devi. He said, 'I look upon you as my own mother and the Mother who is in the temple'. Ramakrishna impressed upon Sarada Devi that she was not only the mother of his young disciples, but also of all humanity. Initially, Sarada Devi was shy about playing this role, but slowly, she filled it with courage.

Her renunciation is believed by devotees to be a striking quality that she shared with her husband in a measure equal to, if not beyond, his. The true nature of their relationship and kinship was believed to be beyond the grasp of ordinary minds. Ramakrishna concluded, after close and constant association with her, that her relationship and attitude toward him were firmly based on a divine spiritual plane. Devotees believe that as they shared their daily lives, no other thought other than that of the divine presence, arose in their minds. An account of such continuous divine relationship between two souls of opposite gender is unique in religious records, not known in any of the past hagiographies. After the passing away of Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi became a religious teacher in her own right.

[edit] Later life

He soon came to be known as Ramakrishna Paramahansa, and like a magnet, is said to have begun to attract seekers of God. He taught the basic truths of religion ceaselessly for about fifteen years through parables, metaphors, songs, and above all by his own life.

He developed throat cancer and attained Mahasamadhi at a garden house in Cossipore on 16 August, 1886, leaving behind a devoted band of 16 young disciples headed by Swami Vivekananda, who would eventually become a well-known saint-philosopher, orator, and leader of the householder disciples. Among his contemporaries, Keshab Chandra Sen and Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Hindu reformers, were his admirers.

[edit] Teachings

[edit] God-realisation

Ramakrishna (1881, Calcutta) The key concepts in Ramakrishna's teachings were the oneness of existence; the divinity of all living beings; the unity of God and the harmony of religions; that the primal bondage in human life is lust and greed (kamini and kanchana in Bengali).

Ramakrishna emphasised that God-realisation is the supreme goal of all living beings[6]. Religion, for him, was merely a means for the achievement of this goal. Ramakrishna's mystical realisation, classified by Hindu tradition as nirvikalpa samadhi (literally, "involuntary meditation", thought to be absorption in the all-encompassing Consciousness), led him to know that the various religions are different ways to reach The Absolute, and that the Ultimate Reality could never be expressed in human terms. This is in agreement with the proclamation in the Rig Veda that "Truth is one but sages call it by many names." As a consequence of this view, Ramakrishna actually spent periods of his life practicing his own understandings of Islam, Christianity and various Yogic and Tantric sects within Hinduism.

[edit] Avidyamaya and vidyamaya

Devotees believe that Ramakrishna's realisation of nirvikalpa samadhi also led him to an understanding of the two sides of maya, or illusion, to which he referred as Avidyamaya and vidyamaya. He explained that avidyamaya represents dark forces (e.g. sensual desire, evil passions, greed, lust and cruelty), which keep the world-system on lower planes of consciousness. These forces are responsible for human entrapment in the cycle of birth and death, and they must be fought and vanquished. Vidyamaya, on the other hand, represents higher forces (e.g. spiritual virtues, enlightening qualities, kindness, purity, love, and devotion), which elevate human beings to the higher planes of consciousness. With the help of vidyamaya, he said that devotees could rid themselves of avidyamaya and achieve the ultimate goal of becoming mayatita - that is, free from maya.

[edit] Other teachings

Ramakrishna's proclamation of jatra jiv tatra Shiv (wherever there is a living being, there is Shiva) stemmed from his Advaitic perception of Reality. This would lead him teach his disciples, "Jive daya noy, Shiv gyane jiv seba" (not kindness to living beings, but serving the living being as Shiva Himself). This view differs considerably from what Ramakrishna's followers call the "sentimental pantheism" of, for example, Francis of Assisi.

Ramakrishna, though not formally trained as a philosopher, had an intuitive grasp of complex philosophical concepts. According to him brahmanda, the visible universe and many other universes, are mere bubbles emerging out of Brahman, the supreme ocean of intelligence .

Like Adi Sankara had done more than a thousand years earlier, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa revitalised Hinduism which had been fraught with excessive ritualism and superstition in the Nineteenth century and helped it become better-equipped to respond to challenges from Islam, Christianity and the dawn of the modern era. However, unlike Adi Sankara, Ramakrishna developed ideas about the post-samadhi descent of consciousness into the phenomenal world, which he went on to term "vignana". While he asserted the supreme validity of Advaita Vedanta, he also proclaimed that he accepts both the Nitya (or the eternal substance) and the Leela (literally, "play", indicating the dynamic phenomenal reality) as aspects of Brahman, which basically means a denial of non-duality.

The idea of the descent of consciousness shows the influence of the Bhakti movement and certain sub-schools of Shaktism on Ramakrishna's thought. The idea would later influence Aurobindo's views about the Divine Life on Earth.

[edit] Ramakrishna's impact

Born as he was during a social upheaval in Bengal in particular and India in general, Ramakrishna and his movement was an important part of the direction that Hinduism and Indian nationalism took in the coming years.

[edit] On Hinduism

The Hindu Renaissance that India experienced in the 19th century may be said to have been spurred by his life and work. Although the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj preceded the Ramakrishna Mission, their influence was limited on a broader level. With the emergence of the Mission, however, the situation changed dramatically. The Ramakrishna Mission was founded by Ramakrishna himself when he had distributed the gerua cloth of renunciation to his direct disciples. This is corroborated by Swami Vivekananda himself when he says that without Thakur's grace all this would not have been possible. Many Ramakrishnites believe that Vivekananda acted as Ramakrishna's message-bearer to the West and hence helped in the fulfillment of their master's spiritual mission.

Hinduism faced a huge intellectual challenge in the 19th century, from Westerners and Indians alike. The Hindu practice of 'idol worship' came under intense pressure specially in Bengal, then the center of British India, and was declared intellectually unsustainable by some intellectuals. Response to this was varied, ranging from Young Bengal movement that denounced Hinduism and embraced Christianity or atheism, to the Brahmo movement that retained primacy of Hinduism but gave up idol worship, and to the staunch Hindu nationalism of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Ramakrishna's influence was crucial in this period for a Hindu revival of a more traditional kind, and can be compared to that of Chaitanya's contribution centuries earlier, when Hinduism in Bengal was under similar pressure from the growing power of Islam.

It would be difficult to give a comprehensive description of Ramakrishna's influence on Hinduism, but some important contributions of his can nevertheless be detected. In his worship of Mother Kali's murti, he questions the crux of idol worship - whether he is worshipping a piece of stone or a living Goddess and why she does not respond to his prayers. He is reassured several times by experiences that show him that she is present.To the many that revered him, this reinforced centuries-old traditions that were in the spotlight at the time. Ramakrishna also touted an inclusive version of the religion, declaring Joto mot toto path (roughly meaning Every opinion yields a path). He adopted a name that is clearly Vaishnavite (Rama and Krishna are both incarnations of Vishnu), but was a devotee of Kali, the mother goddess, and known to have followed various other religious paths including Tantrism and even Christianity and Islam.

[edit] On Indian Nationalism

Ramakrishna's impact on the growing Indian nationalism was, if more indirect, nevertheless quite notable. A large number of intellectuals of that age had regular communication with him and respected him, though not all of them necessarily agreed with him on religious matters. Numerous members of the Brahmo Samaj respected him. Though some of them embraced his form of Hinduism, the fact that many others didn't shows that they detected in him a possibility for a strong national identity in the face of a colonial adversary that was intellectually undermining the Indian civilisation. As Amoury de Riencourt states,"The greatest leaders of the early twentieth century, whatever their walk of life -- Rabindranath Tagore, the prince of poets; Aurobindo Ghosh, the greatest mystic-philosopher; Mahatma Gandhi, who eventually shook the Anglo-Indian Empire to destruction-- all acknowledged their over-riding debt to both the Swan and the Eagle, to Ramakrishna who stirred the heart of India, and to Vivekananda who awakened its soul." This is particularly evident in Ramakrishna's development of the Mother-symbolism and its eventual role in defining the incipient Indian nationalism/s. A similar statement could be made about the fact that Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Ramakrishna held each other in high esteem, in spite of the fact that the first was a declared atheist.

[edit] Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission

Vivekananda, Ramakrishna's most illustrious disciple, is considered by some to be one of his most important legacies. Vivekananda spread the message of Ramakrishna across the world. He also helped introduce Hinduism to the west. He founded two organisations based on the teachings of Ramakrishna. One was Ramakrishna Mission, which is designed to spread the word of Ramakrishna. Vivekananda also designed its emblem. Ramakrishna Math was created as a monastic order based on Ramakrishna's teachings.

The Ramakrishna Mission went to the courts in the 1980s in order to have their organisation and movement declared as a non-Hindu minority religion.[15] They sought to gain in this way the same privileges that are accorded only to the minority religions. The constitution grants privileges to minority religions; for example, in Article 30(1) it gives them greater control over their educational institutions: “All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.” But their case was turned down by the Calcutta High Court and the Supreme Court.

[edit] Contemporary influence

It could be argued that Ramakrishna's vision of Hinduism, and its popularisation by western converts like Christopher Isherwood, have largely coloured Western notions of what Hinduism is. Some, like Andrew Harvey and Ken Wilber, see the beginning of a new planetary consciousness with Ramakrishna's life.

In 1991, historian Narasingha Sil wrote an account of Ramakrishna that suggests that Ramakrishna's mystical experiences were pathological and originated from alleged childhood sexual trauma.Other scholars, most notably psychologist Sudhir Kakar, judged Sil's study to be simplistic and misleading. Kakar sought a meta-psychological non-pathological explanation that focuses on the pre-Oedipal and the Lacanian Real, and connects Ramakrishna's mystical noesis with creativity. Kakar also argues that culturally relative concepts of eroticism and gender have contributed to the Western difficulty in comprehending Ramakrishna.Sil's theory has also been viewed as reductive by William B. Parsons, who has called for an increased empathetic dialogue between the classical/adaptive/transformative schools and the mystical traditions for an enhanced understanding of Ramakrishna's life and experiences.

In 1995, Religious scholar Jeffrey Kripal completed a controversial psychoanalytic study of Ramakrishna. Kripal adopts a Freudian approach to probe into the life of the mystic and uncover the connections between Tantric and psychoanalytic hermeneutical traditions. The book theorises upon an alleged homoerotic strain in Ramakrishna's life, practice, and teachings. It has been criticised by the Ramakrishna Mission and other followers as being based on many mistranslations of primary sources, deceptions, and an incorrect use of psychoanalysis as a tool in forming the theory.

In 2006, composer Philip Glass wrote The Passion of Ramakrishna, a choral work. It premiered on September 16, 2006 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, California, performed by Orange County's Pacific Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carl St. Clair with the Pacific Chorale directed by John Alexander.





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