When I was in Kamarpukur in 1953 it was only for part of a day. At that time it was difficult to get to Sri Ramakrishna's birthplace and not very convenient to stay there. Approach was by bullock cart or jeep over rutted trails and an unbridged river, from the nearest train stop at Bishnupur, thirty miles distant. Although there was a Ramakrishna Math at Kamarpukur, there were as yet few arrangements for pilgrims; furthermore, for much of the year the village was considered possibly unhealthful. I had only a hurried glance at the principal sites connected with Gadadhar's advent and youth.
Yet the few hours I spent in Kamarpukur sustained me in the years that followed. Half a world away in America I could recall what I had seen and take nourishment from it. The mature Ramakrishna, teaching in Calcutta, drew much inspiration from his youthful experiences. Many of the parables and illustrations with which he vivified his message came from the sights of his childhood. My visit to Kamarpulur helped me make a small start toward learning to know and love the Master.
Precious and sustaining as were these memories, the glimpse I had was far too brief. I yearned to go back to Kamarpukur again, to stay a much longer time. I would linger in its streets and watch the life of the people. I would walk outside among the fields. I would spend time in places where the Master had been. Perhaps I could absorb something; perhaps love and knowledge would grow. And this wish was granted. In November of 1963 I was vouchsafed an unhurried view of Kamarpukur. I lived in Ramakrishna's village for a wonderful twenty days.
Today it is easy to get to Kamarpukur. The man who during his lifetime was appreciated by very few has become one of India's favorite saints. The Order established in his name is today the country's leading religious society. Now good roads connect the Master's village with the outside world, and bus services to Kamarpukur are frequent. Reliable year-round accommodations for pilgrims are in good supply. Perhaps it would be nice to have been able to place a glass case over the Kamarpukur of one hundred or even ten years ago to preserve it as it was. But this was not to be. Kamarpukur is growing modern. It is on its way to becoming a bustling town. Fortunately, the most important spots connected with Gadadhar's childhood have come under the jurisdiction of the Ramakrishna Order. They are well maintained and on view, for the edification of the Master's growing body of devotees.
By walking around the streets of Kamarpukur today one can easily gain an idea of the manner in which his family must have lived when Ramakrishna was a boy.
Although clustered together to form a village, the dwellings are really farmhouses. Each forms a private domain, self-contained and largely self-sufficient. A courtyard formed by the house, by the stables and other outbuildings, and by high walls, provides a large central quarter open to light and air, but closed to intruders. A quarter useful for many purposes: for drying and husking paddy, for storing fodder, for sunning clothing, for milking the cow. Here the baby safely can learn to crawl or walk, in sight of his mother. A covered veranda running along the courtyard side of the house furnishes a cool place for cooking, for taking meals, and for sleeping on hot nights. A door from the courtyard leads to a nearly tank. In its waters the housewife can wash the family's clothes and cooking utensils; the members of the family may conveniently go to the tank for the daily bath.
This kind of house can be built by the householder himself. The floors and walls are of earth, and the roof is thatched with layers of paddy straw, placed over rafters of bamboo. A house of this kind, if it is well built and suitably maintained, is attractive, clean, and durable.
It is to this sort of residence — the cottage of Khudiram Chatterjee, that the pilgrim in Kamarpukur first makes his way. He will see an earthen house of modest size. In the open quarter behind the residence originally stood two other structures: a shrine built of earth which housed the family deities; and a bamboo shed containing household implements. It was the custom in Bengal for women to go to some place away from the house to bear their children; and it was to this shed that Chandra made her way on February 18, 1836, to give birth to the boy who was to be named Gadadhar.
The house, consisting of three rooms, remains much as it was in Ramakrishna's time. But the earthen shrine and the shed have vanished. Where the former stood there is a new shrine constructed of brick and marble. And the shed has been replaced by a well-built stone temple of considerable size. A marble altar on which sits a marble statue of Sri Ramakrishna rests on the very spot where Ramakrishna was born.
The shrine and temple give the appearance of crowding the house, and indeed they do. But the devotee does not object to this, for it reminds him of his Lord's modest antecedents. Apparently Khudiram's compound simply was not large enough to permit the buildings to be placed any farther apart.
Surrounding Ramakrishna's birthplace are the buildings of the Ramakrishna Math, whose monks protect and maintain these precious relics.
"A mother keeps on cooking while the baby is in bed sucking his toy. But when it throws the toy away and cries for her, she puts down the rice pot and takes the baby in her arms and nurses it." The visitor to Kamarpukur will at once recognize the setting for this saying of Sri Ramakrishna. An open door into a courtyard reveals the scene. From the rafters of the veranda hangs a wooden cradle. It swings in the light breeze. Inside, the baby lies, contented. At a little distance the mother squats in front of a brass vessel set on a firepot formed of mud. She is busy, but she will turn to the child if it calls for her. "It is said that if a man can weep for God one day and one night, he sees Him."
The courtyard contains many things over which a baby might fall: farm tools, piles of firewood, a stone tablet for grinding spices. "But one need not fear anything if one has received the grace of God. It is rather easy for a child to stumble if he holds the father's hand, but there can be no such fear if the father holds the child's hand."
The tank Khudiram's family used was the Haldarpukur, some two hundred feet to the north of their house. That this is an excavated pond is made clear by the embankments of earth around its edges; but because of its generous size Haldarpukur gives the impression of being a small natural lake. Palm trees rise from the high ground surrounding it.
"God has covered all with His maya. He doesn't let us know anything. He who puts maya aside to see God can see Him. Once, when I was explaining God's actions to someone, God suddenly showed me the lake at Kamarpukur. I saw a man removing the green scum and drinking the water. The water was as clear as crystal."
Three or four ghats are on a lake. "The hindus, who drink water at one place, call it 'jal'. The musulmans at another place call it 'pani'. And the English at a third place call it 'water'. The Reality is one and the same; the difference is in name."
Haldarpukur is only one of many tanks in Kamarpukur. At the edge of a certain tank we see a woman scouring cooking vessels with wood ashes and rinsing them in the water. "And one must always chant the name and glories of God every day and pray to Him. An old metal pot must be scrubbed every day."
Trees bend low over the tank; at one corner there is a patch of lotus plants. A man sits on the bank holding a rod. We see him watching the bobbin intently. He is unaware of our presence, like the fisherman in Ramakrishna's parable who failed to hear a whole conversation directed to him by a passing friend. "A person can achieve such single-mindedness in meditation that he will see nothing, hear nothing."
"Finish the few duties you have at hand, and then you will have peace. When the mistress of the house goes to bathe after finishing her cooking and other household duties, she won't come back however you may shout after her."
Just to the east of Khudiram's house there is a big old mango tree. The seed, we are told, came from the village of Bhursubo, about a mile from Kamarpukur. Here lived, in Gadadhar's time, a man known as Manik Raja. Manik was rich, virtuous, and humanitarian. He loved Gadadhar and arranged for the child to come and visit him frequently. The ruins of Manik Raja's house can be seen today standing out among the mud huts of Bhursubo: frescoed ceilings faded and sagging, carved pillars now supporting no second floor, a sculptured entrance gate all grown up with creepers and trees. It is said that on one occasion Gadadhar enjoyed at Manik Raja's house a mango so delicious that he brought the seed home and planted it in his own yard. And there the tree is today, still giving in the season delicious fruit in plentiful quantity. "The mango grows and ripens on account of the covering skin. You throw away the skin when the mango is fully ripe and ready to be eaten. It is possible for a man to attain gradually the knowledge of Brahman because of the covering skin of maya. Maya in its aspects of vidya and avidya may be likened to the skin of the mango. Both are necessary."
Across the road from Khudiram's house, not more than a few paces away, stands the Jugis' Shiva temple. It is square, less than twelve feet on a side, perhaps twenty-five feet in height. It is made of masonry, the line of the roof simulating the drooping eaves of a Bengal cottage. The back and the sides are plain. The front is inlaid with red clay tiles depicting religious figures and mythological scenes. The only opening is a small narrow door, revealing a black stone linga within.
To look at this shrine today is to see a familiar kind of small Bengali temple, not in the least unusual except that it is better maintained than many. But the visitor cannot pass it without remembering the remarkable event which occurred there the year before Gadadhar was born. Chandra was standing in front of this temple when she felt a rush of light pour from the linga and enter her body. As a result, she felt that she was pregnant, and in due course Gadadhar was born.
Although bicycle rickshaws ploy the lanes of Kamarpukur today and there is a new cinema at the edge of the village on the Puri road, a walk through Gadadhar's town is still an excursion into the past. The visitor will first come upon the old buildings of the Lala estate, just to the south of Khudiram's house. A temple, a prayer hall, and a pavilion (used as the village school) still remain, although dilapidated. Trees grow inside some of the ancient rooms. "Chaitanya said, 'The name of God has very great sanctity. It may not produce an immediate result, but one day it must bear fruit. It is like a seed that has been left on the cornice of a building. After many days the house crumbles, and the seed falls to the earth, germinates, and at last bears fruit'."
The Lahas were close friends of Khudiram, Chandra, and their children. Prasannamayi Laha, together with the blacksmith woman Dhani, assisted at Gadadhar's birth. Gayavishnu Laha was Gadadhar's bosom friend. On the occasion of Gadadhar's sacred thread ceremony, it was mainly with the help of Dharmadas Laha that Khudiram was able to entertain the people of the entire village. "At a feast...one at first hears much noise of talking. When the guests sit on the floor with leaf plates in front of them much of the noise ceases. Then one hears only the cry, 'Bring some luchi!' As they partake of the luchis and other dishes, three quarters of the noise subsides. When the curd, the last course, appears, one hears only the sound 'soop, soop' as the guests eat the curd with their fingers. Then there is practically no noise. Afterwards all retire to sleep, and absolute silence reigns. Therefore I say, at the beginning of religious life a man makes much ado about work, but as his mind dives deeper into God, he becomes less active. Last of all comes renunciation of work, followed by samadhi."
In the house of the Lahas occurred the shraddha ceremony during which Gadadhar solved, with a sentence or two, a philosophical point over which the pandits had been arguing for hours. The Laha residence, dilapidated beyond salvage, was demolished in 1953 and its site incorporated into the grounds of the Ramakrishna Math. The open-air stall, where the monks of the ashrama take their breakfast and four-o'clock tea, is located in what was previously a side yard of the Laha mansion.
Durgadas Pyne's residence was a few steps farther south. No trace of it remains today. It will be remembered that Durgadas was a stout advocate of the pourdah system, who boasted that no male outsider had ever seen or could ever see the women of his household or the rooms in which they lived. The story of how Gadadhar reproved Durgadas is well known. Lingering in the paths between the tanks and cottages in the quarter where the house of Durgadas had been, I tried to visualize the teen-age Gadadhar arriving at Durgadas's gate, dressed as a lowly woman who had been left behind, after the close of the market, by her friends. I saw him gaining permission from Durgadas to take shelter for the night at his house, then going inside to gossip with the Pyne women until interrupted by calls from his brother, who had been sent out to search for him. I saw the chagrin on the face of the master of the house as the young man, throwing off his disguise, bounded out of the house to join his brother and start home.
Sitanath Pyne's residence and Vishnu temple were and are in the same locality. The present occupants of the house were kind enough to let me go all through the building, upstairs and down. The temple too still stands, although most of its upper part has collapsed, and the deity has been removed. A platform facing the temple was the stage on which Gadadhar appeared in the role of Shiva when he was about ten years old — or more properly, where he attempted to enact the part. He was prevented by an ecstasy which rendered him outwardly unconscious. Of this platform there is no trace; its probable position is now taken up by the yard of a small hut.
Except for the market place on down the main street, Kamarpukur has no public square other than the small open area in front of the Laha school. In my walks around Gadadhar's village I passed this place every day. It is used by the children of the neighborhood as a playground. The old school, which Gadadgar attended, is merely an open-air shed, or natmandir, with a dirt floor and with wooden posts holding up what must have originally been a roof of rice thatch, presently of corrugated tin. Kamarpukur now has an up-to-date brick school managed by the Ramakrishna Mission. The old school is not in use.
I made friends with the children and once treated them to jilipis. For at least five generations the jilipis of Kamarpukur have been considered among the best in Bengal. Gadadhar greatly liked this most delicious sweetmeat, joking as a mature man later in Dakshineswar when someone brought him an offering of jilipis: "You see, I chant the name of the Divine Mother; so I get good things to eat."
On Kali Puja afternoon three or four of the children invited me to their home to see an image of Kali which they had made and which was to be worshiped that night. It was well modeled and realistically colored. Seeing the image reminded me of Ramakrishna's statement that he had never been very good in school; it seemed to him he was being taught only what would attach a person to the world. But as a youngster he could model gods and goddesses very well.
In his Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master Swami Saradananda speaks of the youthful Gadadhar's enormous popularity in Kamarpukur. He was very gay and charming and most lovable; Ramakrishna himself referred to the boy he had been as a "happy pigeon." He was on very personal terms with everyone — boys, girls, men, women. The Bengali he spoke and the illustrations he used show how intimately he knew the people of the community. Yet Gadadhar aroused spiritual emotions in many who knew him. Swami Saradananda mentions several people — among them Manik Raja, Prasannamayi Laha, and an artisan named Srinivas — who regarded Gadadhar as possessing a divine personality even as a carefree boy playing among the lanes and tanks of Kamarpukur.
Upon asking the children in the playground what their names were, I found that in many cases it was Laha or Pyne. My heart gave a leap. These noisy little tykes were descendants of the playmates and friends of Gadadhar!
I met, also, the descendants of the family of Ramakrishna. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Gadadhar's brother Rameswar live in Kamarpukur to this day. One of them is Kanai Ghosal, who serves as daily worshiper of the family deities in the shrine behind Khudiram's house. Kanai has a young brother of ten, named Swapan Ghosal. I had wondered whether there could be any youngster in Kamarpukur today in the least resembling what Gadadhar might have been like in 1845 or 1850. It was suggested that Swapan might have a slightly similar appearance. I took a number of photographs of Swapan dressed as Gadadhar might have dressed twelve decades before, in dhoti and chadar, standing on the streets of Kamarpukur and in front of Haldarpukur. Swapan is a fine boy, bright-faced, intelligent, and gentle, but how could anyone hope to resemble the magical Gadadhar?
One day the children assembled in the old school so that I could take their picture. The entire court, but no king; the full cast, devoid of the leading player. I could only think, with regret, of what Sri Ramakrishna himself cried when he was in Krishna's boyhood town of Vrindaban: "O Krishna! Everything here is as it was in the olden days. You alone are absent "
The visitor to Kanarpukur will wish to see other places connected with the early life of the Master. He will visit the site of Dhani's house, the Gopeswar and Mukundapur Shiva temples, and the Bhutir-Khal and Budhui-Moral cremation grounds. He will walk along the Puri road, a quarter of a mile east of Kamarpukur, remembering how Gadadhar used to go to the public pilgrim shelter there to associate with wandering sadhus.
If he does not wish to pause long anywhere, the visitor can make the circuit of these places in an hour or two. Dhani's house has been replaced by a small modern temple. The Gopeswar and Mukundapur temples are venerated today because it was to these shrines that Chandra went to pray for the welfare of her son, when it was reported from Dakshineswar that the young temple priest there was mad; at Mukundapur Chandra received assurance that Gadadhar was not sick; her son was under the sway of an extraordinary spiritual power. Both of these temples are still in use, but are in poor stages of repair. The cremation grounds were once thickets, forbidding and eerie. Sitting at one or the other in the dead of night, the youthful Gadadhar meditated on the vanities of the world. Both the cremation grounds have been cleared and now resemble small fields. The young men of Kamarpukur play soccer and other games there. Bhutir-khal is just west of Ramakrishna's house and is shaded by the same old banyan tree which shaded Gadadhar. The Budhui-Moral is on the northeastern edge of the village. Both are still used for cremations. As for the resthouse on the Puri road, not a trace remains, and two different places are pointed out as locations where it might have stood.
Lastly the pilgrim will want to see the mango grove where Gadadhar and his companions had good times as boys, organizing and rehearsing religious dramas — and, it is assumed, feasting on mangoes. This orchard was west of the village, halfway between Kamarpukur and Bhursubo, on the road to Jayrambati. The grove was planted and donated for public use by Manik Raja. The place is now a rice field; only five trees remain. It is bounded on one side by a new state college having an enrollment of over four hundred students. But even if the site of Manik's orchard were to be forgotten or otherwise lost to view, it has been preserved forever through these words: "The aim of human life is to attain bhakti. I have come to the garden to eat mangoes. What is the use of my calculating the number of trees, branches, or leaves? I only eat the mangoes; I don't need to know the number of trees and leaves."
Almost every day I walked or cycled out in the country, among the farms and hamlets surrounding Kamarpukur. Living reminders of the Master's teachings greeted me on every side. Standing in paddy fields stretching yellow-green to palm-shaded tanks or clusters of houses, I remembered that Ramakrishna said; "I go into an ecstatic mood when I stand in a big meadow." I recalled how he compared single-minded devotion to a tree "shooting straight up."
Seeing the shepherd children leading animals out to graze, I thought of the reassuring words: "God is fond of his devotees. He runs after the devotee as the cow after the calf." And this invitation: "In every age He descends to earth, in human form, as an Incarnation to teach people love and devotion. The milk comes through the udder of the cow. The Incarnation is the udder."
Paddy fields must be flooded with water during the planting and growing season. Looking over the undulating land, I could see that the fields followed the courses of waterways; rising ground was generally given over to sparse grass where goats or cows grazed. "By being lowly one can rise high. Cultivation is not possible on high land; in low land water accumulates and makes cultivation possible."
Everywhere the land bloomed under the strong sun: millions upon millions of growing things, reaching upward. "There is a great power in the seed of God's name. It destroys ignorance. A seed is tender, and the sprout soft; still it pierces the hard ground. The ground breaks and makes way for the sprout."
I hear a creaking of wood and a soft clanging of bells. A heavy bullock cart lumbers down the road. An old man sits in the back of the wagon. A boy straddles the shaft, guiding the oxen with a stick. A young man, wrapped in a mantle, walks behind, to give the cart guidance from the rear when necessary. All three have the same hard bodies, the same strong faces, the same distant look in the eye: three generations of one family. "Sometimes it happens that, discriminating between the Real and the unreal, a man loses his faith in the existence of God. But a devotee who sincerely yearns for God does not give up his meditation even though he is invaded by atheistic ideas. A man whose father and grandfather have been farmers continues his farming even though he doesn't get any crop in a year of drought."
Near at hand I see a farmer hard at work. What is he doing? He is standing in a stream of water, operating some sort of implement which looks like a narrow canoe, open at one end. As I draw closer I see that he is raising water from the stream to the land above. The water-lift is pivoted, and weighted on the higher, open end. By lowering his end of the lift, the farmer can let in a quantity of water. As he raises the lift, the water flows out the open end into a channel, to run along an earthen trough to a distant field. Here is the inspiration for Ramakrishna's parable of the determined farmer, who, seeing that the seasonal rains have been delayed and his crops were drying up, persevered until he had irrigated his land. From sunup he worked. He could not take his bath: he would not eat his dinner; he would not take any midday rest. Angrily he drove away his wife and children, when they came to urge moderation. Through a whole day's back-breaking labor the farmer toiled, managing only by evening to irrigate his field. Then "his mind was filled with peace and joy. As without determination the farmer cannot bring water to his field, so also without intense yearning a man cannot realize God.'
Yet the more I saw of Kamarpukur and its environs, and the longer I stayed there, the more that I felt that Sri Ramakrishna was most fully present and his message available in the life of the Math. Here he does not have to be sought within crumbling relics or among the shadows of times long past. At the Math the Master is steadily regarded as the darling youngster of Kamarpukur, as the sage of Dakshineswar, as friend, beloved, and God — ever present, ever visible. Every event of the Math rotates around the fact of his actuality; every move of each of its members confirms and reinforces the truth of his living presence.
In the daily worship of the family deities the spiritual traditions of Ramakrishna's family are respected and continued. In the shrine behind Khudiram's house, on cushions placed upon miniature brass thrones, reside the images of Rameswar and Raghuvir. Sitala sits on a wooden platform adjacent to them. These deities were installed and worshiped by Khudiram; and in the years following his sacred thread ceremony, until the time when he moved to Calcutta, they were worshiped by Gadadhar. The priestly duties of the family shrine are now carried on, as I have said, by Kanai Ghosal, whose grandfather on his mother's side was Shivaram Chatterjee, the second son of Ramakrishna's brother Rameswar. Kanai was thirty-four years old when I met him in 1963,was married, and had three children. He is quiet and pleasant. Some see in his features a slight resemblance to Ramakrishna. I had been told to take the dust of Kanai's feet when meeting him — the family of the guru should be given the same respect as the guru — and I did.
When one looks at these images, except for their age and associations, one can see nothing extraordinary in them. Sitala is a red earthenware pot about half a foot in height, filled with water, and with mango leaves and a green coconut placed on top. Rameswar is a Shiva linga perhaps three inches tall, brought back by Khudiram from the Rameswaram temple in south India, where he went on pilgrimage in 1824. And Raghuvir is the shalagrama stone, hardly more than an inch in diameter, which Khudiram found — the miraculous story of his finding it in a field near Kamarpukur is well known — and installed in about 1815.
Yet Khudiram believed in these emblems. He regarded Sitala as an awakened deity; that is, the living presence of the goddess is there and responds actively to the worship addressed to her. Khudiram had many visions of Sitala. In the morning as he walked about picking flowers for her worship, he often saw her going along with him as a little girl, sometimes assisting him by bending down the flowery branches.
As for Raghuvir, Khudiram had absolute faith that the Power represented in this small stone would sustain him and his family and see them through all difficulties. He relied on Raghuvir as patron and provider. So did his wife Chandra. So did Gadadhar, who said many years later: "When my father chanted the name of Raghuvir his chest would turn red. This also happened to me." Although I cannot comprehend the symbology of the shalagrama — or of the earthen pot or the linga either — how can I question what was regarded as divine by such knowers of God as these?
Every night after the evening worship Kanai Ghosal would come to my room. Without any advance sound, the door would be swung open. There Kanai would stand, holding a tray of luchis — prasad from Raghuvir's supper; that is, from the evening food offering in the family shrine. Smiling, without saying anything because he does not know English, Kanai would place a luchi in my hand and quietly leave. I experienced the strangest feeling of faith. Raghuvir was providing for the residents of Khudiram's homestead today. For me, too, for am I not also a part of Khudiram's family?
Sri Ramakrishna, equally, in his temple, a few feet away from the family deities, is worshiped daily by the monks of the Math. He is treated as the honored personage of the place; and in so treating him, he is always regarded as alive and present. One would no more pass in front of his image without bowing than one would cross the path of a king without giving some sign of obeisance. One enters his presence only when wearing clean clothing and after removing one's shoes. Near him one is quiet and respectful.
Ramakrishna is symbolically awakened in the morning. He is offered dishes he likes to eat at various times throughout the day. An elaborate ritual is performed each morning, during which every possible mark of veneration is made. In the evening, just as the coconut palms and amalki trees to the west are becoming black silhouettes against the red sky, arati is done. This is a vesper service of song and praise, conducted by the monks, and joined by people of the town and the pilgrims who happen to be present — numbering from a dozen to a hundred. After that the Master is symbolically put to bed for the night in his old bedroom in his father's house just behind the temple.
And that is not a one-sided relationship. Sri Ramakrishna responds to the devotion of those who love him. "I cherished one desire. I said to the Mother, 'O Mother, I shall be king of the devotees.'" "At the time of the evening service I used to cry out from the roof of the kuthi, weeping: 'Oh, where are you all? Come to me.' You see, they are all gathering, one by one." "He who has sincerely called on God or performed his daily religious devotions will surely come here." "Sometimes God acts as the magnet and the devotee as the needle. God attracts the devotee to himself. Again, sometimes the devotee is the magnet and God is the needle. Such is the attraction of the devotee that God comes to him, unable to resist his love."
It is November 30, 1963. Tonight there is a full moon. My three weeks in Kamarpukur are just about over. From the door of my room I can see Khudiram's house and Ramakrishna's temple lying still in the cool white light. I feel sad to be leaving. First, only a few hours in Kamarpukur. Then three weeks. But even that is not enough. Would a whole lifetime be enough? It is so easy to think of him here.
Then I remember something that he said, and I see how to surmount the difficulty. Each one of us can have one's own Kamarpukur, from which one need never be separated. One may, if one wishes, establish a Birthplace within: "The heart of the devotee is the abode of God. He dwells, no doubt, in all beings, but he especially manifests himself in the heart of the devotee. A landlord may at one time or another visit all parts of his estate, but people say he is generally to be found in a particular drawing-room. The heart of the devotee is the drawing room of God."
I have earlier in this book spoken of Sri Ramakrishna as an avatar — as an Incarnation of God appropriate to our age. I should like now to devote the remainder of this chapter to Sri Ramakrishna and my feelings concerning him. To write about him as an avatar is of course an undertaking impossible to carry out adequately, for the magnitude of the Incarnation is far beyond any man's comprehension, and his qualities beyond any writer's power to evaluate or describe. Scholars and devotees are still writing books about Jesus, who lived two thousand years ago and has already been the subject of countless treatises; the subject has not been exhausted yet.
The Incarnation is described as the Re-establisher of Religion, the Vindicator of the Pious, the Re-institutor of Dharma, the Incorporation of all Knowledge, the Supreme Creator, the Primordial Teacher, the Manipulator of all Power, the Sanctuary, and ever so much more. Yes, even a cow's udder! As Ramakrishna said, "God's Incarnation as a man cannot be explained by analogy. One must feel it for oneself and realize it by direct perception. An analogy can give us only a little glimpse. By touching the horns, legs, or tail of a cow we in fact touch the cow herself; but for us the essential thing about a cow is her milk, which comes through te udder. The Divine Incarnation is like the udder. God incarnates Himself as man from time to time in order to teach people devotion and divine love.'
These are grand subjects. But all beyond my power to handle adequately. Thus in these pages I shall try to present Ramakrishna as I have learned to admire him, in explaining my own personal attitude toward him and what he means to me. Serving up the milk is beyond my talent; but perhaps I can describe not too badly the horns and legs and tail!.
First of all, there is the fact that the incarnation for this age, the originator of modern history, was born in Bengal. Bengal? For goodness's sakes, why? An immediate answer is, because Bengal is in India. We could make a joke and say that after having had a poor experience in being born in Israel, God reverted to his old habit of taking birth in Bharat. And there is something to that. India has been for centuries and still is a great plantation of religions.
There existed in India for an investigator like Ramakrishna the freedom necessary and all the facilities required to carry on his research. In India and in India only the message of the Vedas was a living reality. The realizations of the rishis were current knowledge. The influences of Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Shankara were still strong. Shiva and Kali were everyday realities. The many approaches to God — from the severe nondualism of Shankara to the melting devotion of Sri Chaitanya — and all gradations in between — were in current practice. Even extreme disciplines like Tantra were accepted.
In addition, India possessed a large and powerful minority of Musulmans, practicing their religion of Mohamed, very visible for examination.
And finally, Bengal in 1836 was the home state of the capital of India, at Calcutta. New Delhi became the headquarters of the government only in 1912. And to Calcutta had come many western influences, Christianity for one, with all its proselytizing enthusiasm. Western science was another, with all the effect that it was to have on the world, and which seemed capable of setting aside forever traditional religious values.
Whereas the Incarnation is essentially God, he also shares man's fate in being to some extent a product, and eventually a critic, of his environment. And what a propitious environment to be born into for one who was to become the new world teacher! Everything was there in Bengal, at his disposal, everything best — and worst — from East and the West. And as we know, Ramakrishna acquainted himself with it all and could thus speak to all.
Then too, coincident with Ramakrishna's appearance Bengal was the center of the Indian intellectual renaissance which would eventually lead to India's independence. Anything that happened in Bengal affected all the rest of India.
And was there a good reason why Ramakrishna should have chosen to appear in the nineteenth century?
Yes, he "had" to be born then. The nineteenth century marked a turning point in the history of the whole world. Everything was becoming secularized. The Age of the Enlightenment had in effect vanquished religion and replaced it with science. Earthly prosperity and progress became dominant themes. Life is real, life is earnest, and hard work can bring rewards here and now. The religion of hard work and organization can bring a secular paradise. The awesome power of Great Britain in the nineteenth century seemed to justify this philosophy. The justice of territorial and economic colonialism was not to be doubted, for did any other nation possess an equally high standard of living? It is amusing to note how briefly this eminence lasted. The white man was not only forced to relinquish his colonies; but what domination remains at the present day is threatened by the Arab's possession of oil, the blacks' mere possession of large numbers, and the nations of the Far East's enterprise. Aside from pursuing a murderous war which he could easily lose, western man can do nothing about the decline of his domination.
A second characteristic of the nineteenth century is that at this time provincialism began to weaken. Everything became internationalized. Thus the ignorance of others' ideas which had characterized the world up to that time and made fanaticism viable, began to disappear. This was to prepare the way — or so it would seem — for the vast reconciliation of diverse religious viewpoints Ramakrishna was to precipitate.
Into this scene of this-worldliness and modernity glided Sri Ramakrishna. Why was he subject to such frequent samadhis? To underline the importance of the eternal. The masters said that time is money. Ramakrishna said that both time and money were of secondary importance. Why did he dress so carelessly? To show that appearance, the foundation-stone of the English virtue of gentlemanliness, is not of much moment. Why did he urge his disciples to sing and dance? To show his contempt for religion of the head and of mere respectability. He admonished Pratap Chandra Mazumdar for his too conscientious dedication to work: "What can you do to help the world? It is God's world, and he is capable of looking after it. Devote yourself to God." The hippies were to make something like this their own idea a hundred years later. And the growing revolt of factory workers against production-line drudgery cries out against heartless efficiency. It is difficult in 1991 to find anybody anywhere who feels he possesses the whole truth. Like it or not, this may well prove to be the trend of the future: a love of leisureliness and a dedication to acceptance.
Why did Sri Ramakrishna choose to be born a brahmin? Well, in India one had to be born in one caste or another. In India in 1836 when the concept of caste was still strong it was appropriate for one who was to become a teacher to be born a brahmin. It is the caste of priests and teachers, which Ramakrishna went on to become, and as a brahmin he could mingle freely with other brahmins and members of all other castes. His brahmin background gave him a sort of inherent authority and credibility in others' eyes. Whereas democratic-minded, no doubt, God is also practical. Christ, too, as a direct descendant of David, was born into an elevated class. But Ramakrishna took birth in a family of poor brahmins, very pious but poor, whose profession was agriculture — just as Jesus was destined by family background to take up the trade of carpenter.
That was necessary for the master. But what about his disciples? It was quite natural that the exponent of his message should have been of the warrior caste — like St. Paul — and the characteristics of this class Vivekananda manifested all his life: fearlessness and vigor. He spoke of himself as descended from Mogul conquerors. Ramakrishna's spiritual son, Swami Brahmananda, who was to perform as chief abbot of the early monastic effort, also was of the warrior caste, thus certifying Ramakrishna's approval of a religion in which karma yoga was to have an accepted place.
Was there some reason why Ramakrishna was brought up in a rural environment, speaking the unvarnished language of a rustic? As the early sections of this chapter have made clear, even today Kamarpukur is little more than a hamlet lost in the midst of rice fields, where the inhabitants speak a local dialect.
I like to think the reason is that Ramakrishna was an environmentalist long before pollution was to become a world problem. Perhaps this is putting it a little strongly. It is rather that he realized that man is born of the earth, and is sustained by the earth's natural functions: its rains, its periods of harvest, its plants and animals. When man gets too far away from the soil he suffers. Witness the psychological disorders associated with today's living in great cities, in high-rise buildings. Ashramas — as I argue in Chapter Nine — become necessary, designed to counteract this effect. Ramakrishna loved the earth, respected natural rhythms, and always stayed close to the soil. His teachings are made understandable by the inclusion of many parables drawn from nature. I showed this by compiling a little book of photographs illustrating the natural scenes in Bengal which gave rise to the explanations he used in order to make clear his doctrines. I have done the same via the written word in earlier sections of this chapter. The simplicity of such parables, their earthiness, make them easily graspable universally, by all mankind, whether one is Indian, Chinese, African, American. Allusions from the earth provide a kind of Esperanto, a world language, in which all can communicate.
The farm boy patois added a genuineness, a charm, that touched the hearts of his hearers and today touches the hearts of the sophisticated city dweller, the hungry intellectual. It lent and lends a kind of believability.
Is there some significance in the fact that Sri Ramakrishna was born in winter — and his major disciples also — Sri Sarada Devi, Vivekananda, Maharaj, Swami Shivananda, Swami Saradananda, Swami Turiyananda, and others? Let me be a bit jocular and say it was because he knew before his birth that western people would become his followers and would want to attend festivities in India organized for him and his apostles, which they could do more conveniently in the cool months from December to March!
Ramakrishna remained childlike all his life. Even though he was a guru to men and women older than himself and was regarded as a master, in his personality Ramakrishna remained essentially a boy. Does this trait hold significance for us? Does it bring him closer to us personally?
Emphatically yes. He valued the openness, the candor, and the enthusiasm of the adolescent. Boys are gay, active, and full of hope, full of fun. He was not like the Man of Sorrows who had preceded him. He could be light-hearted and very funny. In the young there is a genuineness and lack of calculation. Ramakrishna said many times that a calculating man cannot attain God. One must be open, frank. This is what Ramakrishna meant when he said: "Blessed is he who remains a boy to the end of his days."
Not only childlike but practically illiterate. What was his purpose in presenting himself in this age of mass enlightenment as someone unable to read and write? Could it have been so as to teach mankind that information and knowledge are not the same thing, and that knowledge is more important than information? The present age is an age marked by an enormous increment of information. Radios and television sets spew it forth, as do newspapers and magazines. Unprecedented numbers of people are attending college. But all this does not necessarily provide wisdom, sagacity, knowledge. Ramakrishna could not read Sanskrit texts, yet what the Sanskrit texts said, people were astonished to find he knew perfectly. He could not read textbooks and romances and poetry and histories — but he communicated to others perfectly the message they convey — the ordinary man's main concerns are sex pleasure and the attainment of preeminence through money — lust and greed. (Read the seven volumes of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past — a master portrait of our age — and you will see how true this is.) If you analyze world literature you will find the theme generally boils down to woman or gold or both. Ramakrishna's mind was such that he struck through "information' to the truth which lay behind it.
Today we have so much information that it has become necessary to invent the computer to contain and deliver it as needed. Through the accumulation of information modern research is seeking to factor out the real. A study of the phenomenal is supposed to bring us eventually to the principles behind the phenomenal. Our exploration of outer space is justified as a means toward "unlocking the secrets of the universe". Once when the compiler of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, M., tried to explain through a diagram how the phases of the moon affected the earth's tides, Ramakrishna put his hands to his ears and cried: "Stop! Stop! You are making me dizzy. All I know is that the Lord is real and all else is illusory." To some of us this reaction makes Ramakrishna very dear.
I don't mean to say that Ramakrishna was a reactionary, against all things modern, against culture and scientific investigation. It is just that, established in knowledge, he cut through all busy-work to arrive at the heart of the matter The conclusion to which man will come when he has piled up all knowledge and investigated all phenomena Ramakrishna already knew.
It seems that Ramakrishna rejected the importance of money. He could not touch a coin, and even in sleep he recoiled when a coin was placed on his body. The explanation of this is that his renunciation of wealth was so intense, his dependence on God as sole provider so absolute, that he felt that dealing with money to be a sort of betrayal of his principles The astonishing thing about Sri Ramakrishna was that every concept he accepted was accepted fully — not merely an intellectual acceptance, but as a personality readjustment, a realignment of the unconscious, according to that conviction. His rejection of Hindu ways when he practiced the Muslim religion is another example of this. Even physical characteristics changed as a result of his convictions, as happened when he practiced the madhura-bhava and thought of himself as a female lover of Sri Krishna.
But I like to believe that Ramakrishna's rejection of money — indeed of metal of all kinds — had a further significance. He also rejected mathematics — just at the moment the world was about to enter an age when everything was to be depersonalized, quantified, and reduced to numbers. It was this whole trend toward dehumanization which he rejected, the replacing of human relations with the manipulation of ciphers. You may say, But the world has grown so complicated that we have to do things this way. Agreed. But the Avatar stands by first principles and emphasizes his message. Computerizing everything is all beside the point; it is not necessarily wrong, but it has nothing to do with essentials. It has the effect of alienating man from man and man from himself. This message, which admittedly seems reactionary, is not for the masses anyway — who will go on with their computers and trips to the moon and must accept all the consequences that so-called progress begets — but for the few ready to apply the Avatar's message.
There is another aspect to Ramakrishna's rejection of money. As a priest at the Dakshineswar temple he was paid a salary. But he preferred not to draw the money, as he felt he was working for the love of God and not for recompense. "I love to do what I am doing. Why should anyone pay me for that?" This was his attitude. He made of his daily work a pleasing pastime. We have a good deal to learn from this attitude.
Ramakrishna was married and yet was celibate. How could that be? Why? What ] have learned concerning this subject is based on Swami Saradananda's explanation, found in his masterpiece Ramakrishna the Great Master.
The Incarnation comes in order that man may progress by worshipping him. He therefore must possess universal, idealized characteristics, which people can emulate or at least attempt to emulate. Yashoda saw the whole universe in Baby Krishna's mouth. Ramakrishna said he felt his jaws reached from one end of the universe to the other. Thus a militant will define Christ as an activist and love him for his revolutionary qualities. A moralist will see Christ as a law-giver. A sick person as a healer. An evangelistic-minded individual will think of Christ as a soulsaver. The Incarnation lends himself willingly to all roles and elevates his admirers by way of their devotion to him in accordance with their capacity.
As a world teacher Ramakrishna contained in himself all archetypes or models. He was an ideal child, ideal husband, ideal servant, ideal monk, ideal woman, ideal courtesan, ideal father-figure, ideal sage. Thus he legitimatized and blessed all human conditions.
Marriage is one of the accepted stages in Hindu society. Ramakrishna married and so endorsed the married state as legitimate. He did not condemn marriage or regard it as an inferior state. On the contrary, he showed how to idealize the nuptial relation and elevate it to a level spiritualizing to each partner. Any married person may learn much from Ramakrishna's marital attitudes.
Ramakrishna was at the same time an ideal renunciate or monk, and even went so far as to take the vows of sannyas, thus becoming a swami. Any sannyasin may learn much from his behavior. He was a model of the declared objectives of the wearer of the kaupin: compassion for others, renunciation, willingness to give solace to people nearly twenty-four hours of the day, modesty, passionate search for God.
It may also be presumed that Ramakrishna took formal sannyas so as to be able to create an order of sannyasins possessing an impeccable monastic heritage. The sannyas guru of Ramakrishna was Totapuri, who was a member of the Puri order of monks founded by Sri Shankara, whose mother house is at Sringeri in southwest India. Ramakrishna's monastic disciples, destined to preach his message and demonstrate his example, were thus attached to an admirable monastic family tree.
Ramakrishna lived as a woman for some six months in 1866. So complete was his identification with this state that his bodily characteristics became womanly. The male organ was absorbed into his body, and he menstruated. This is really extraordinary, nearly unbelievable. He said that he assumed the female sex in order to be more able to worship Sri Krishna as a gopi — that is to say, with the mad ardor of a woman illicitly in love with a paramour, a love heedless of the conventions of society. According to Hindu calculations such is counted as being the most intense of all forms of love.
But I believe that it was also a part of this great quality of the Incarnation of being everything to all people. Once Ramakrishna was asked whether he was a man or a woman, and he responded that he really didn't know. Only now are we realizing that there is much maleness in women and much femaleness in men. And thank goodness that this is now recognized. The old stereotyped notion that men are completely male and women completely female separates the sexes as well as produces many psychological maladjustments in both when they perceive that such is not the case. In the Victorian period in which Ramakrishna lived women were considered a species apart. They were man's responsibility, but were also his property and his toy. Such has been, with some variations, the position of women always and everywhere.
The movement toward the liberation of women in our day has balanced this situation. Women are seeking and gaining all rights of men, including typical male roles, and men are realizing to their relief that they may manifest so-called womanly characteristics without social ostracism if they so desire: child-rearing, housework, a subservient role in marriage. There is even said to have been organized a men's liberation front to protect men's rights to act womanly if they so wish. There appeared recently in the "New York Times" an article addressed to men titled: "Now You Have the Right to cry if You Want To."
All accounts of Ramakrishna emphasize the suggestion that Ramakrishna came in order to bring reconciliation. Not the least of this reconciliation is that between the sexes, and also between the ambisexual tendencies which thrive in each person — that is to say, reconciliation with the disparate drives of one's own character. I admire and love him for this.
It follows of course that Sri Ramakrishna should have taken a woman as a guru — namely the Bhairavi Brahmani. The first reason for his doing so was in order to be able to practice tantric disciplines. Tantra is a daring religious discipline employing techniques aimed at spiritualizing the sensate, or forcing the sensuous to reveal the spiritual. Tantra can be an aberrant path and a dangerous one for most people because of the aspirant's involvement with base physical aspects: faeces, dead bodies, meat, wine, sexual relations without consummation. In his attempt to use mayaic agencies as a means for transcending maya, the individual may become entrapped in maya. But so-called base elements can help a devotee if they are manipulated with the conviction that they too are genuine aspects of reality. Nothing is degrading if the idea of Brahman-is-all is clearly present. A female partner and instructor was necessary for some of the tantric exercises Sri Ramakrishna wished to engage in; the Bhairavi Brahmani served as that partner.
As I see it, a second reason why Ramakrishna took a woman as guru was so as to be able to endorse the truth that women can be spiritual and have a right to become renunciates. And as we know, when Ramakrishna died, Sri Sarada Devi became chief guru and exemplar for the movement.
And then there was the fact of Mother Kali and the importance of this strange figure in Ramakrishna's life. Of course, Ramakrishna was a worshipper of all deities, but Kali the Mother was his favorite Ideal. What shall we say? Because the Kali symbol is the best explanation available of the way creation works — the two sides so in opposition — one representing the horrible reality of carnage, suffering, and death, and the other all the sweet facets of existence. All this poised on the prostrate body of Shiva, the impersonal. Two-sided Shakti has seemed to vanquish Brahman, and Shiva looks up from beneath her feet in assent. The Kali image is a tremendous conception, when you realize that all this is God. And if you can accept the entire ensemble as God, and love it, then you will be able to traverse safely your existence and your demise. Sister Nivedita was a worshipper of Kali and died triumphantly when cut down at only forty-two. In his latter days Vivekananda too became enamored of Kali and at his death at thirty-nine went to her willingly as a tired child to a loving mother.
Another reason why Ramakrishna worshipped Kali is that Kali represented Mother, God as Mother. He always saw woman's highest fulfillment as that of the mother figure. And he solved the question of man-woman relations by assuming, with respect to women, the role of a boy child. If a man thinks of woman as mother and himself as her child, purity is easier to maintain between the sexes. This is a concept which he wanted to teach.
But Ramakrishna was far from exclusive in his adoration of Mother Kali. He became a devotee of many paths: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, nondualism, tantra, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism; and he worshiped God as God's friend, lover, female companion, child, mistress, and servant — as a man, as a woman, and as a boy.
All his life Ramakrishna made a religious laboratory of himself; he plunged in and tried all faiths, and in so doing discovered by experiment and so confirmed a most significant religious truth: So many paths, so many ways.
A seemingly enigmatic statement of Ramakrishna was: "Those whose last life it is, will come here." He didn't say to come to him and get saved. He used the word "here" in the same sense as Sri Krishna used the word "me".
Give me your whole heart.
Love and adore me.
Worship me always,
Bow to me only,
And you shall find me.
What Ramakrishna meant was: "If you've been through it all you will come here. From whatever race, from whatever religion, think of me, love me, whatever you are, and I shall see you through." By "here" he meant what he stood for, what he personified — all that I have tried to outline in this chapter, and earlier in Chapter Two. "Here" didn't mean the physical person Ramakrishna — it meant God, the Ground of all Being.
Then did Ramakrishna found a new church, with reconciliation as its theme, the Ramakrishna Mission as the agent of its hierarchy, with its Vatican at Belur Math? Yes and no. He said that those who come to him form a new "caste", the "caste" of devotee. "While he yet talked to the people, behold his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren." But they who form this new "caste" are devotees of an Incarnation who preached all approaches — no exclusive creed, no exclusive caste. There is no exclusiveness there; so it follows that there can be no church. Those who would want to build an institution based on the veneration solely of Ramakrishna would be sabotaging the nature of the truth which he taught. The theme of the new Incarnation is that everything in this world will take you to God if seen as God, and if that is where you want to go. This is an absurdly high ideal, but unless the ideal is held high, people don't try to aim high. This is Ramakrishna's message to the world of today: if God-knowledge is your objective, I shall help you to achieve it.
Why did Ramakrishna choose to die of cancer? His vulnerability to the scourge of our age has upset many people. But it can equally be seen as a gesture on God's part demonstrating his sense of fraternity with man. Much has been made of Christ's form of death. Dying on a cross seems madly extraordinary to us of today and so is given extraordinary interpretations. Yet it was an end in perfect accordance with practices of the time. Crucifixion was a normal and frequently practiced method of dispatching criminals and deviates in the first century of our era. To say that Christ died on the cross in order to save man from his sins is not the main point. He became redeemer not by being crucified but in the manner all Incarnations do. As God Incarnate he freely accepted the body of a human so that his teachings and grace should be available to humans. This is what God does for us "when goodness grows weak, when evil increases", and in a particular fashion appropriate to the times and man's need.
And having done this, having taken a human form, he must undergo a human death, and such, like every other gesture of his life, will have significance. In Jesus' case it was to proclaim his acceptance of the brutality of the world and to set up such a pity and horror in the hearts of his followers that they would turn from brutality. He died an inhuman death in order to encourage the humanization of life which western man was to try to adopt and still sometimes attempts.
In Ramakrishna's case, his death from cancer was an act proclaiming God's comprehension of and identification with man the sufferer. What fitting gesture can God make after living as a man than to die as a man? And die in a particularly significant manner? He thus demonstrated also that Kali's left side is as true as her right side. Death is as necessary as life and must be embraced with equal acceptance. Later Ramakrishna's disciple Vivekananda, in his own turn, was to shout: "Come death."
A Christian will say, "Ah, yes, but Christ didn't remain dead." Of course not; that is the proof of the avatar. His power continues in the world after his physical disappearance, making his form immortal. Incarnations can be seen by those who love them for centuries after their physical disappearance. Throughout the two thousand years after Christ's passing away many have seen Jesus and I believe many see him still. I beheld in India with my physical eyes in 1952 two persons who had seen Ramakrishna in the flesh nearly seventy years before. That was a remarkable privilege and for it I am everlastingly thankful. But every day I behold something more remarkable still. I see people who have seen Ramakrishna in spirit, with the inner eye — an even more significant seeing. This I think is what Christ meant when he said: "I go to prepare a place for you, and where ] am, there ye shall be also." The fact that he lived, but also died, forces us to turn inward. God is spirit and is to be seen in spirit. The place he prepares for us is in us, and there he resurrects.
This, then has been an account of the Devotee's effort to express his admiration for Sri Ramakrishna. In doing so the Devotee has been obliged to "interpret" Sri Ramakrishna in terms of world history and spiritual significance. The Devotee thus has had the temerity to go beyond where even Vivekananda dared to go. Although Swamiji was the Master's chosen explainer and popularizer, he declared often that his master was so great that even he himself comprehended Ramakrishna very little. Well, fools rush in. . . .
Swamiji could not know what was in store for the world during the next centuries, and neither can we, any more than people in Jesus' time could know what was going to happen between then and now. But I would venture to say that the overall result of Christ's advent was the humanizing of western man — imperfect as that turned out to be. While the overall result of Ramakrishna's advent will be in the future an acceptance of the great variability of man and the welcome of all variables into te kingdom of heaven. In a letter written to a Muslim gentleman, Swami Vivekananda phrased this possibility in the following words: "Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expression of The Religion which is Oneness, so that each may choose the path that suits him best."
And of course walk ahead confidently in it. "To achieve this unitive knowledge," the Perennial Philosophy reminds us, "to realize this supreme identity, is the final end and purpose of human existence" .