Ramakrishna, the God-man of modern times, was born on February 18, 1836, in the little village of Kamarpukur, in the district of Hooghly in Bengal. How different were his upbringing and the environment of his boyhood from those of Narendranath, who was to become, later, the bearer and interpreter of his message! Ramakrishna’s parents, belonging to the brahmin caste, were poor, pious, and devoted to the traditions of their ancient religion. Full of fun and innocent joys, the fair child, with flowing hair and a sweet, musical voice, grew up in a simple countryside of rice-fields, cows, and banyan and mango trees. He was apathetic about his studies and remained practically illiterate all his life, but his innate spiritual tendencies found expression through devotional songs and the company of wandering monks, who fired his boyish imagination by the stories of their spiritual adventures. At the age of six he experienced a spiritual ecstasy while watching a flight of snow-white cranes against a black sky overcast with rain-clouds. He began to go into trances as he meditated on gods and goddesses. His father’s death, which left the family in straitened circumstances, deepened his spiritual mood. And so, though at the age of sixteen he joined his brother in Calcutta, he refused to go on there with his studies; for, as he remarked, he was simply not interested in an education whose sole purpose was to earn mere bread and butter. He felt a deep longing for the realization of God.
The floodgate of Ramakrishna’s emotion burst all bounds when he took up the duties of a priest in the Kali temple of Dakshineswar, where the Deity was worshipped as the Divine Mother. Ignorant of the scriptures and of the intricacies of ritual, Ramakrishna poured his whole soul into prayer, which often took the form of devotional songs. Food, sleep, and other physical needs were completely forgotten in an all-consuming passion for the vision of God. His nights were spent in contemplation in the neighbouring woods. Doubt sometimes alternated with hope; but an inner certainty and the testimony of the illumined saints sustained him in his darkest hours of despair. Formal worship or the mere sight of the image did not satisfy his inquiring mind; for he felt that a figure of stone could not be the bestower of peace and immortality. Behind the image there must be the real Spirit, which he was determined to behold. This was not an easy task. For a long time the Spirit played with him a teasing game of hide-and-seek, but at last it yielded to the demand of love on the part of the young devotee. When he felt the direct presence of the Divine Mother, Ramakrishna dropped unconscious to the floor, experiencing within himself a constant flow of bliss.
This foretaste of what was to follow made him God-intoxicated, and whetted his appetite for further experience. He wished to see God uninterruptedly, with eyes open as well as closed. He therefore abandoned himself recklessly to the practice of various extreme spiritual disciplines. To remove from his mind the least trace of the arrogance of his high brahmin caste, he used to clean stealthily the latrine at a pariah’s house. Through a stern process of discrimination he effaced all sense of distinction between gold and clay. Purity became the very breath of his nostrils, and he could not regard a woman, even in a dream, in any other way except as his own mother or the Mother of the universe. For years his eyelids did not touch each other in sleep. And he was finally thought to be insane.
Indeed, the stress of his spiritual practice soon told upon Ramakrishna’s delicate body and he returned to Kamarpukur to recover his health. His relatives and old friends saw a marked change in his nature; for the gay boy had been transformed into a contemplative young man whose vision was directed to something on a distant horizon. His mother proposed marriage, and finding in this the will of the Divine Mother, Ramakrishna consented. He even indicated where the girl was to be found, namely, in the village of Jayrambati, only three miles away. Here lived the little Saradamani, a girl of five, who was in many respects very different from the other girls of her age. The child would pray to God to make her character as fragrant as the tuberose. Later, at Dakshineswar, she prayed to God to make her purer than the full moon, which, pure as it was, showed a few dark spots. The marriage was celebrated and Ramakrishna, participating, regarded the whole affair as fun or a new excitement.
In a short while he came back to Dakshineswar and plunged again into the stormy life of religious experimentation. His mother, his newly married wife, and his relatives were forgotten. Now, however, his spiritual disciplines took a new course. He wanted to follow the time-honoured paths of the Hindu religion under the guidance of competent teachers, and they came to him one by one, nobody knew from where. One was a woman, under whom he practised the disciplines of Tantra and of the Vaishnava faith and achieved the highest result in an incredibly short time. It was she who diagnosed his physical malady as the manifestation of deep spiritual emotions and described his apparent insanity as the result of an agonizing love for God; he was immediately relieved. It was she, moreover, who first declared him to be an Incarnation of God, and she proved her statement before an assembly of theologians by scriptural evidence. Under another teacher, the monk Jatadhari, Ramakrishna delved into the mysteries of Rama worship and experienced Rama’s visible presence. Further, he communed with God through the divine relationships of Father, Mother, Friend, and Beloved. By an austere sannyasin named Totapuri, he was initiated into the monastic life, and in three days he realized his complete oneness with Brahman, the undifferentiated Absolute, which is the culmination of man’s spiritual endeavour. Totapuri himself had had to struggle for forty years to realize this identity.
Ramakrishna turned next to Christianity and Islam, to practise their respective disciplines, and he attained the same result that he had attained through Hinduism. He was thereby convinced that these, too, were ways to the realization of God-consciousness. Finally, he worshipped his own wife — who in the meantime had grown into a young woman of nineteen — as the manifestation of the Divine Mother of the universe and surrendered at her feet the fruit of his past spiritual practices. After this he left behind all his disciplines and struggles. For according to Hindu tradition, when the normal relationship between husband and wife, which is the strongest foundation of the worldly life, has been transcended and a man sees in his wife the divine presence, he then sees God everywhere in the universe. This is the culmination of the spiritual life.
Ramakrishna himself was now convinced of his divine mission on earth and came to know that through him the Divine Mother would found a new religious order comprising those who would accept the doctrine of the Universal Religion which he had experienced. It was further revealed to him that anyone who had prayed to God sincerely, even once, as well as those who were passing through their final birth on earth, would accept him as their spiritual ideal and mould their lives according to his universal teaching.
The people around him were bewildered to see this transformation of a man whom they had ridiculed only a short while ago as insane. The young priest had become God’s devotee; the devotee, an ascetic; the ascetic, a saint; the saint, a man of realization; and the man of realization, a new Prophet. Like the full-blown blossom attracting bees, Ramakrishna drew to him men and women of differing faith, intelligence, and social position. He gave generously to all from the inexhaustible store house of divine wisdom, and everyone felt uplifted in his presence. But the Master himself was not completely satisfied. He longed for young souls yet untouched by the world, who would renounce everything for the realization of God and the service of humanity. He was literally consumed with this longing. The talk of worldly people was tasteless to him. He often compared such people to mixture of milk and water with the latter preponderating, and said that he had become weary of trying to prepare thick milk from the mixture. Evenings, when his anguish reached its limit, he would climb the roof of a building near the temple and cry at the top of his voice: ‘Come, my boys! Oh, where are you all? I cannot bear to live without you!’ A mother could not feel more intensely for her beloved children, a friend for his dearest friend, or a lover for her sweetheart.
Shortly thereafter the young men destined to be his monastic disciples began to arrive. And foremost among them was Narendranath.
The first meeting at Dakshineswar between the Master and Narendra was momentous. Sri Ramakrishna recognized instantaneously his future messenger. Narendra, careless about his clothes and general appearance, was so unlike the other young men who had accompanied him to the temple. His eyes were impressive, partly indrawn, indicating a meditative mood. He sang a few songs, and as usual poured into them his whole soul.
His first song was this:
Let us go back once more,
O mind, to our proper home!
Here in this foreign land of earth Why should we wander aimlessly in stranger’s guise?
These living beings round about,
And the five elements,
Are strangers to you, all of them; none are your own.
Why do you so forget yourself,
In love with strangers, foolish mind?
Why do you so forget your own?
Mount the path of truth,
O mind! Unflaggingly climb,
With love as the lamp to light your way.
As your provision on the journey, take with you
The virtues, hidden carefully;
For, like two highwaymen,
Greed and delusion wait to rob you of your wealth.
And keep beside you constantly,
As guards to shelter you from harm,
Calmness of mind and self-control.
Companionship with holy men will be for you
A welcome rest-house by the road;
There rest your weary limbs awhile, asking your way,
If ever you should be in doubt,
Of him who watches there.
If anything along the path should cause you fear,
Then loudly shout the name of God;
For He is ruler of that road,
And even Death must bow to Him.
When the singing was over, Sri Ramakrishna suddenly grasped Narendra’s hand and took him into the northern porch. To Narendra’s utter amazement, the Master said with tears streaming down his cheeks: ‘Ah! you have come so late. How unkind of you to keep me waiting so long!
My ears are almost seared listening to the cheap talk of worldly people. Oh, how I have been yearning to unburden my mind to one who will understand my thought!’ Then with folded hands he said: ‘Lord! I know you are the ancient sage Nara — the Incarnation of Narayana — born on earth to remove the miseries of mankind.’ The rationalist Naren regarded these words as the meaningless jargon of an insane person. He was further dismayed when Sri Ramakrishna presently brought from his room some sweets and fed him with his own hands. But the Master nevertheless extracted from him a promise to visit Dakshineswar again.
They returned to the room and Naren asked the Master, ‘Sir, have you seen God?’ Without a moment’s hesitation the reply was given: ‘Yes, I have seen God. I see Him as I see you here, only more clearly. God can be seen. One can talk to him. But who cares for God? People shed torrents of tears for their wives, children, wealth, and property, but who weeps for the vision of God? If one cries sincerely for God, one can surely see Him.’
Narendra was astounded. For the first time, he was face to face with a man who asserted that he had seen God. For the first time, in fact, he was hearing that God could be seen. He could feel that Ramakrishna’s words were uttered from the depths of an inner experience. They could not be doubted. Still he could not reconcile these words with Ramakrishna’s strange conduct, which he had witnessed only a few minutes before. What puzzled Narendra further was Ramakrishna’s normal behaviour in the presence of others. The young man returned to Calcutta bewildered, but yet with a feeling of inner peace.
During his second visit to the Master, Narendra had an even stranger experience. After a minute or two Sri Ramakrishna drew near him in an ecstatic mood, muttered some words, fixed his eyes on him, and placed his right foot on Naren’s body. At this touch Naren saw, with eyes open, the walls, the room, the temple garden — nay, the whole world — vanishing, and even himself disappearing into a void. He felt sure that he was facing death. He cried in consternation: ‘What are you doing to me? I have my parents, brothers, and sisters at home.’
The Master laughed and stroked Naren’s chest, restoring him to his normal mood. He said, ‘All right, everything will happen in due time.’
Narendra, completely puzzled, felt that Ramakrishna had cast a hypnotic spell upon him. But how could that have been? Did he not pride himself in the possession of an iron will? He felt disgusted that he should have been unable to resist the influence of a madman. Nonetheless he felt a great inner attraction for Sri Ramakrishna.
On his third visit Naren fared no better, though he tried his utmost to be on guard. Sri Ramakrishna took him to a neighbouring garden and, in a state of trance, touched him. Completely overwhelmed, Naren lost consciousness.
Sri Ramakrishna, referring later to this incident, said that after putting Naren into a state of unconsciousness, he had asked him many questions about his past, his mission in the world, and the duration of his present life. The answer had only confirmed what he himself had thought about these matters. Ramakrishna told his other disciples that Naren had attained perfection even before this birth; that he was an adept in meditation; and that the day Naren recognized his true self, he would give up the body by an act of will, through yoga. Often he was heard to say that Naren was one of the Saptarshis, or Seven Sages, who live in the realm of the Absolute. He narrated to them a vision he had had regarding the disciple’s spiritual heritage.
Absorbed, one day, in samadhi, Ramakrishna had found that his mind was soaring high, going beyond the physical universe of the sun, moon, and stars, and passing into the subtle region of ideas. As it continued to ascend, the forms of gods and goddesses were left behind, and it crossed the luminous barrier separating the phenomenal universe from the Absolute, entering finally the transcendental realm. There Ramakrishna saw seven venerable sages absorbed in meditation. These, he thought, must have surpassed even the gods and goddesses in wisdom and holiness, and as he was admiring their unique spirituality he saw a portion of the undifferentiated Absolute become congealed, as it were, and take the form of a Divine Child. Gently clasping the neck of one of the sages with His soft arms, the Child whispered something in his ear, and at this magic touch the sage awoke from meditation. He fixed his half-open eyes upon the wondrous Child, who said in great joy: ‘I am going down to earth. Won’t you come with me?’ With a benign look the sage expressed assent and returned into deep spiritual ecstasy. Ramakrishna was amazed to observe that a tiny portion of the sage, however, descended to earth, taking the form of light, which struck the house in Calcutta where Narendra’s family lived, and when he saw Narendra for the first time, he at once recognized him as the incarnation of the sage. He also admitted that the Divine Child who brought about the descent of the rishi was none other than himself.
The meeting of Narendra and Sri Ramakrishna was an important event in the lives of both. A storm had been raging in Narendra’s soul when he came to Sri Ramakrishna, who himself had passed through a similar struggle but was now firmly anchored in peace as a result of his intimate communion with the Godhead and his realization of Brahman as the immutable essence of all things.
A genuine product of the Indian soil and thoroughly acquainted with the spiritual traditions of India, Sri Ramakrishna was ignorant of the modern way of thinking. But Narendra was the symbol of the modern spirit. Inquisitive, alert, and intellectually honest, he possessed an open mind and demanded rational proof before accepting any conclusion as valid. As a loyal member of the Brahmo Samaj he was critical of image worship and the rituals of the Hindu religion. He did not feel the need of a guru, a human intermediary between God and man. He was even sceptical about the existence of such a person, who was said to be free from human limitations and to whom an aspirant was expected to surrender himself completely and offer worship as to God. Ramakrishna’s visions of gods and goddesses he openly ridiculed, and called them hallucinations.
For five years Narendra closely watched the Master, never allowing himself to be influenced by blind faith, always testing the words and actions of Sri Ramakrishna in the crucible of reason. It cost him many sorrows and much anguish before he accepted Sri Ramakrishna as the guru and the ideal of the spiritual life. But when the acceptance came, it was wholehearted, final, and irrevocable. The Master, too, was overjoyed to find a disciple who doubted, and he knew that Naren was the one to carry his message to the world.
The inner process that gradually transformed the chrysalis of Narendra into a beautiful butterfly will for ever remain, like all deep spiritual mysteries, unknown to the outer world. People, however, noticed the growth of an intimate relationship between the loving, patient, and forgiving teacher and his imperious and stubborn disciple. The Master never once asked Naren to abandon reason. He met the challenge of Naren’s intellect with his superior understanding, acquired through firsthand knowledge of the essence of things. When Naren’s reasoning failed to solve the ultimate mystery, the teacher gave him the necessary insight. Thus, with infinite patience, love, and vigilance, he tamed the rebellious spirit, demanding complete obedience to moral and spiritual disciplines, without which the religious life can not be built on a firm foundation.
The very presence of Narendranath would fill the Master’s mind with indescribable joy and create ecstatic moods. He had already known, by many indications, of the disciple’s future greatness, the manifestation of which awaited only the fullness of time, What others regarded in Naren as stubbornness or haughtiness appeared to Sri Ramakrishna as the expression of his manliness and self-reliance, born of his self-control and innate purity. He could not bear the slightest criticism of Naren and often said: ‘Let no one judge him hastily. People will never understand him fully.’
Ramakrishna loved Narendranath because he saw him as the embodiment of Narayana, the Divine Spirit, undefiled by the foul breath of the world. But he was criticized for his attachment. Once a trouble-maker of twisted mind named Hazra, who lived with the Master at Dakshineswar, said to him, ‘If you long for Naren and the other youngsters all the time, when will you think of God?’ The Master was distressed by this thought. But it was at once revealed to him that though God dwelt in all beings, He was especially manifest in a pure soul like Naren. Relieved of his worries, he then said: ‘Oh, what a fool Hazra is! How he unsettled my mind! But why blame the poor fellow? How could he know?’
Sri Ramakrishna was outspoken in Narendra’s praise. This often embarrassed the young disciple, who would criticize the Master for what he termed a sort of infatuation. One day Ramakrishna spoke highly of Keshab Sen and the saintly Vijay Goswami, the two outstanding leaders of the Brahmo Samaj. Then he added: ‘If Keshab possesses one virtue which has made him world-famous, Naren is endowed with eighteen such virtues. I have seen in Keshab and Vijay the divine light burning like a candle flame, but in Naren it shines with the radiance of the sun.’
Narendra, instead of feeling flattered by these compliments, became annoyed and sharply rebuked the Master for what he regarded as his foolhardiness. ‘I cannot help it,’ the Master protested. ‘Do you think these are my words? The Divine Mother showed me certain things about you, which I repeated. And She reveals to me nothing but the truth.’
But Naren was hardly convinced. He was sure that these so-called revelations were pure illusions. He carefully explained to Sri Ramakrishna that, from the viewpoint of Western science and philosophy, very often a man was deceived by his mind, and that the chances of deception were greater when a personal attachment was involved. He said to the Master, ‘Since you love me and wish to see me great, these fancies naturally come to your mind.’
The Master was perplexed. He prayed to the Divine Mother for light and was told: ‘Why do you care about what he says? In a short time he will accept your every word as true.’
On another occasion, when the Master was similarly reprimanded by the disciple, he was reassured by the Divine Mother. Thereupon he said to Naren with a smile: ‘You are a rogue. I won’t listen to you any more. Mother says that I love you because I see the Lord in you. The day I shall not see Him in you, I shall not be able to bear even the sight of you.’
On account of his preoccupation with his studies, or for other reasons, Narendra could not come to Dakshineswar as often as Sri Ramakrishna wished. But the Master could hardly endure his prolonged absence. If the disciple had not visited him for a number of days, he would send someone to Calcutta to fetch him. Sometimes he went to Calcutta himself. One time, for example, Narendra remained away from Dakshineswar for several weeks; even the Master’s eager importunities failed to bring him. Sri Ramakrishna knew that he sang regularly at the prayer meetings of the Brahmo Samaj, and so one day he made his way to the Brahmo temple that the disciple attended. Narendra was singing in the choir as the Master entered the hall, and when he heard Narendra’s voice, Sri Ramakrishna fell into a deep ecstasy. The eyes of the congregation turned to him, and soon a commotion followed. Narendra hurried to his side. One of the Brahmo leaders, in order to stop the excitement, put out the lights. The young disciple, realizing that the Master’s sudden appearance was the cause of the disturbance, sharply took him to task. The latter answered, with tears in his eyes, that he had simply not been able to keep himself away from Narendra.
On another occasion, Sri Ramakrishna, unable to bear Narendra’s absence, went to Calcutta to visit the disciple at his own home. He was told that Naren was studying in an attic in the second floor that could be reached only by a steep staircase. His nephew Ramlal, who was a sort of caretaker of the Master, had accompanied him, and with his help Sri Ramakrishna climbed a few steps. Narendra appeared at the head of the stair, and at the very sight of him Sri Ramakrishna exclaimed, ‘Naren, my beloved!’ and went into ecstasy. With considerable difficulty Naren and Ramlal helped him to finish climbing the steps, and as he entered the room the Master fell into deep samadhi. A fellow student who was with Naren at the time and did not know anything of religious trances, asked Naren in bewilderment, ‘Who is this man?’
‘Never mind,’ replied Naren. ‘You had better go home now.’
Naren often said that the ‘Old Man,’ meaning Ramakrishna, bound the disciple for ever to him by his love. ‘What do worldly men,’ he remarked, ‘know about love? They only make a show of it. The Master alone loves us genuinely.’ Naren, in return, bore a deep love for Sri Ramakrishna, though he seldom expressed it in words. He took delight in criticizing the Master’s spiritual experiences as evidences of a lack of self-control. He made fun of his worship of Kali.
‘Why do you come here,’ Sri Ramakrishna once asked him, ‘if you do not accept Kali, my Mother?’
‘Bah! Must I accept Her,’ Naren retorted, ‘simply because I come to see you? I come to you because I love you.’
‘All right,’ said the Master, ‘ere long you will not only accept my blessed Mother, but weep in Her name.’
Turning to his other disciples, he said: ‘This boy has no faith in the forms of God and tells me that my visions are pure imagination. But he is a fine lad of pure mind. He does not accept anything without direct evidence. He has studied much and cultivated great discrimination. He has fine judgement.’