God is in all men, but all men are not in God; that is why we suffer.
Ramakrishna was born in 1836 in a region known today as West Bengal, India. At that time, or very shortly afterwards, he was named Gadhadhar Chatterjee. Even as a very young boy, he was keen on all things spiritual. When he was old enough to serve as a temple priest, Ramakrishna1, as he was then known, became well known as someone with a profound spiritual awareness who would fall into trances and experience directly something of the true nature of reality denied to lesser beings. Through his tireless devotion and meditation, he gained a personal experience of the creative energy of the universe. In other words, he saw God.
As word of Ramakrishna's attainment began to spread, people of all religious backgrounds travelled to see him. Perhaps unexpectedly, the effect Ramakrishna had on his visitors was to confirm the essential truth of their own spiritual traditions and strengthen their faith rather than undermine it. Ramakrishna saw in all religions a fundamental human yearning for spiritual truth, and understood the efficacy of any genuine religious devotion. He saw the diversity of religion, like the diversity of humanity, as its real strength; the differences provide us with a choice of methods for achieving what must ultimately be seen as a common goal.
If you desire to be pure, have firm faith and slowly go on with your devotional practices without wasting your energy in useless scriptural discussions and arguments. Your little brain will otherwise be muddled.
Ramakrishna was given the responsibility as a young man for making daily offerings to the Hindu goddess Kali, the Divine Mother, at a temple at Dakshineswar, near Calcutta. This involved saying prayers and placing food before a stone statue of the goddess. His devotion to this ritual was so deep that, eventually, his relationship to the statue changed and became as personal as if he were actually attending to the needs of a living human being such as his own mother.
In deep meditation Ramakrishna perceived the goddess as actually inhabiting the stone statue. After a while, however, Ramakrishna saw that the stone image of Kali really was the goddess herself. Then, Ramakrishna was able to experience the goddess in ordinary waking consciousness, outside the deep meditative state, moving about the temple and gazing at the Ganges as it flowed towards the city of Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal.
As his perception of the Divine Mother became even more profound, Ramakrishna saw her presence in all living things: giving food to a stray cat was essentially the same act of devotion as making food offerings to the statue of the goddess had been.
Many are the names of God and infinite the forms through which He may be approached.
Ramakrishna extended his direct experience of the manifestations of God to other members of the Hindu pantheon, including Rama and Krishna. But the scope of his spirituality was to extend still further. He had heard about the life of Jesus Christ and had been deeply moved by stories in the Bible, which spoke of love and compassion. After meditating deeply for several days, Ramakrishna had a vision of Jesus Christ, whom he recognised as yet another manifestation of God.
Ramakrishna's vision of the universe reconciled the great and the holy of all traditions. In his view, all who are revered by the world's religions represent different views of the same god. How fitting, then, that those who knew Ramakrishna came to revere him as being among that select company.
A man is truly free, even here in this embodied state, if he knows that God is the true agent and he by himself is powerless to do anything.
Ramakrishna did not personally start the Ramakrishna Order. He believed that it was wrong to deliberately attract followers since individuals must find their own path. Nevertheless, a group of particularly devout disciples attempted to incorporate Ramakrishna's spiritual practice in their own lives in a form that they called Vedanta.
Simply put, Vedanta is based on the ancient Hindu Veda texts, which state that God (Brahman) is present in all living things, and that, to find God, we must seek out the divine essence inherent in our own nature. All religions are equally valid inasmuch as they help individuals to find their own divinity, regardless of the differences in practice which lead to that ultimate realisation.
In the Vedanta cosmos, God is the ultimate reality, existing without name or form, the reason for the existence of everything and the cause of a divine orderliness in which everything has a place and nothing happens by accident. All beings are reborn in a timeless cycle of death and reincarnation, which ends when we finally achieve a realisation of our own inherent divinity. Human life is especially precious, therefore, because human beings are equipped (allegedly) with a cognitive ability superior to that of other animals with which to improve their level of existence.
Key to achieving ultimate realisation is individual effort; each person must make the necessary effort to improve. Religion that merely preaches to people who are unwilling to better themselves is about as useful as giving encyclopedias to a bunch of monkeys: the information may be there; but, at the end of the day, the monkeys are still just monkeys...though the encyclopedias may end up being something less than encyclopedias.
In 1893, Ramakrishna's closest disciple, Swami Vivekananda, brought the new Vedanta religion to America at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois. At the end of the Parliament, Swami Vivekananda was invited to remain in the USA and give lectures around the country, which he did for three years.
The worldwide Ramakrishna movement began in 1897, and has grown in popularity since then. Now there are 125 Ramakrishna Order Societies around the world, including 13 in the USA.
Good and evil cannot bind him who has realised the oneness of Nature and his own self with Brahman.
India is a land rich in spirituality and seemingly replete with saints and spiritual masters. For many people living in Western countries, perhaps their first hint of Indian spirituality is linked to the 1960s counterculture, The Beatles, their association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the popularity of The Transcendental Meditation Movement. The tradition of Western civilisation looking east, however, has much deeper roots. Some say, for example, that Jesus Christ travelled to India, and that much of what he had to say was influenced by the Hindu world view. In any event, the wealth of Indian wisdom is a vast resource, which Westerners have tapped with varying degrees of skill and sensitivity for a very long time.
Truly, there is nothing new under the sun and what was old is once again new. At the turn of the Millennium, a new hunger for exotic spirituality has entered the mainstream of popular culture in the form of the New Age movement. In addition, many Westerners, particularly celebrities, have once again focussed on the traditions of India, Tibet and the esoteric mysticism of the Middle East to satisfy what they perceive to be a need created by deficiencies in their own spiritual traditions.
A part of the cause for this spiritual yearning is no doubt the sense of alienation produced by the complexity of our modern lives. On the other hand, the basic humanity expressed in the messages of men like Sri Ramakrishna and His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives many of us hope and our lives new meaning.
Sri Ramakrishna was born in a poor Indian village and lived a modest, pious life. Although he is revered as an avatar2, he is still recognisably an ordinary human being on an earnest quest for truth. His message, although fundamentally profound, is still an appealingly simple one:
God is within all of us, waiting to be found.
Sri Ramakrishna left his body in 1886, after a human life of 50 years.