Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa
The Supreme Seer
One of the greatest souls in the annals of Indian spiritual history, Ramakrishna was born Gadadhar (the macebearer) Chattopadhyaya in a poor Brahmin family on February 18, 1836 at the little village of Kamarpukur, near Calcutta in Bengal.
From his very early years, Ramakrishna had an intensely spiritual streak, which is not surprising considering that both his parents were very pious individuals. Occasionally, Ramakrishna would go into a spiritual trance and temporarily lose consciousness.
On the first occasion, when he was barely six, he went into a state of rapture while watching some cranes in flight moving across a storm cloud. And on another occasion, he was lost to the outer world while playing Lord Shiva in a school play.
Thanks to the family's impoverished background, although a Brahmin, he was barely educated. In 1852, his brother Ramkumar called him to Calcutta, where he was serving as a temple priest at the Dakshineshwar Kali temple, established by a lady called Rani Rashmoni. Although not the most popular calling even in those days, this was one occupation that allowed Ramakrishna to indulge in what he loved most - immersing himself in intense meditation and other spiritual rituals that would take him closer to God and God-Realization.
Ramkumar died in 1856 and this meant that Ramakrishna was now the sole priest of the temple of Goddess Kali, located on the banks of the Ganges near Calcutta.
His constant absorption in spiritual thoughts ensured he had frequent spiritual and mystic experiences, where he would merge with the Absolute Reality. Ramakrishna was a guru who was not constrained by thoughts of one discipline or approach being the 'right' one. He believed in the universalism of all religions. From idol worship to Advaita, Vaishnava, Yoga, Tantra and all other forms or practices of Hinduism, he tried them all to reach Divine Consciousness. Not content with this, he turned to Christianity and Islam. Much to his pleasant surprise, he found that all paths led him to the same experience of Divine Bliss or Ultimate Reality.
Which is why the seer said: 'Different people call God by different names: some as Allah, some as God, and others as Krishna, Shiva and Brahman. It is like the water in a lake. Some drink it at one place and call it 'jal', others at another place and call it 'pani', and still others at a third place and call it 'water'. The Hindus call it 'jal', the Christians 'water' and the Moslems 'pani'. But it is one and the same thing.'
Having thus had first-hand experience of the Divine Truth, he proclaimed that all religions of the world were essentially one, as all the different paths led to the same goal: 'As many faiths, so many paths.'
He did not deny idol worship, but felt it was a legitimate way of seeking the Divine. He revealed that it was through his intense devotion to the image of the Divine Mother in Dakshineshwar that Realisation had come to him. Meditating in a sacred grove of trees near the temple grounds, he sought another vision of the Goddess Kali. When this did not happen for quite some time, he became frustrated and threatened to kill himself with a ritual dagger normally held in the hands of the Goddess.
Suddenly, he had a Divine experience: 'When I jumped up like a madman and seized a sword, suddenly the blessed Mother revealed Herself. The buildings with their different parts, the temple, and everything 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 caught in the rush and collapsed, unconscious...within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss, altogether new, and I felt the presence of the Divine Mother.'
As time passed, Ramakrishna's behaviour seemed more and more eccentric, becoming a cause of concern to his near and dear ones. On and off, he would identify himself with religious and mythical figures. Hoping to curb this 'mental instability', his parents decided to get him married as it was felt that celibacy could be causing him problems. At the age of 19, he was married to Sharada Devi.
However, a holy woman called Bhairavi Bramahni - who later became his first guru - concluded that Ramakrishna's was a 'spiritual madness' and nothing else. People thereafter treated him with more respect.
Years later, when the child-bride Sharada had matured, she went to meet her 'eccentric' husband. Somehow, she recognized the great soul in him. Instead of being her husband, he became her guru. Throughout their married life, the relationship was totally devoid of any sexual element. In the days to come, Sharada would herself be recognized as a realized soul.
Ramakrishna now adopted the life of a renunciate. Through his second guru Totapuri (a wandering ascetic from the Naga sect), he also learnt about the non-dualist philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which considers God to be a formless Unmanifest Energy that permeates the Cosmos. During this period, Ramakrishna experienced a deep form of trance referred to as Nirvikalpa Samadhi - a state of complete absorption of the soul into the Divine Ocean of Consciousness.
It was this multiplicity of experiences that facilitated his understanding of all forms of worship. Which is why, at different times, the seer explained to his followers that God was both formed and formless and would appear to a devotee in whichever way the latter believed in. Therefore, he taught each devotee about God according to the devotee's line of thinking. He exhorted his devotees: 'Remain always strong and steadfast in your own faith, but eschew all bigotry and intolerance.'
Seeking to reaffirm the ancient truths of Hinduism, Ramakrishna trained a devoted band of followers. Then man he appointed as his torchbearer was no less a persona than he was - his disciple Narendranath, popularly called Swami Vivekananda. As Vivekananda put it, Ramakrishna brought old truths to light.
Truth through Parables
Like Jesus Christ and other great religious teachers, he often spoke in parables. Questioned about the existence of evil, Ramakrishna had this to say: 'Evil exists in God as poison in a serpent. What is poison to us is not poison to the serpent. Evil is evil only from the point of view of man.' In other words, from the absolute viewpoint, there is no such thing as 'evil'. 'Evil' exists as a terrible reality only from a relative human perspective.
It was such an intense form of Realization that held him aloft from all forms of sex-consciousness. This was why he could approach men and women with the innocence and simplicity of a child. Declaring that human beings were the highest manifestations of God, he had an intense love for humanity.
On August 16, 1886 Ramakrishna succumbed to cancer of the throat. By this time, he was already well known as 'Paramahansa' - the Supreme Swan.