Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Gospel of Ramakrishna

This is a short book by Swami Tapasyananda, who was a leading member of the Ramakrishna Mission. The book deals with the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886), the Hindu guru after which the Mission is named. Judging by the book, Ramakrishna's formal teachings are hard to follow. He never wrote anything himself and was primarily a mystic and bhakta who “taught” by example or miracle. Technically, Ramakrishna was a devotee of Kali, living as an ascetic in the Kali temple in Dakshineswar near Calcutta in India. In practice, he followed or experimented with many different Hindu paths, including Tantrism, devotion to Krishna, and Advaita Vedanta. He even had Muslim and Christian mystical visions. From these varied experiences, Ramakrishna drew the conclusion that all religions are true. All are paths towards the same goal. However, it's clear from the author's exposition that Ramakrishna wasn't simply being “tolerant” or “inclusive”. Rather, he accomplished the goals of various traditions in order to teach their adherents certain spiritual lessons. For instance, he realized Brahman according to the methods of Advaita in order to make the Advaitins realize that devotion to a personal god is a necessary addition to their impersonalist doctrines.

Tapasyananda says very little about the social or political matrix in which Ramakrishna was active. This is unfortunate, since one of Ramakrishna's peculiar traits was that modern and educated Hindus, often with a background in various reform movements, felt attracted to him, despite his apolitical stances, hard line mysticism and “superstitious” orthodox Hinduism. Indeed, the Ramakrishna Mission became known as a Hindu reform movement and one of the first Hindu groups to actively proselytize among Westerners.

It's obvious from most accounts of Ramakrishna that he was something of a “wild man”. Many of his contemporaries thought him to be literally mad, and some of his behavior was strikingly antinomian. Despite being an ascetic, he lived together with his wife (who was also an ascetic). During his Krishna-devoted phase, he dressed in drag and imitated the mannerism of Radha, Krishna's mistress! His Tantric initiation included all the usual paraphernalia, including craniums and watching sexual intercourse. Ramakrishna would also eat the remains left by dogs. This and other antinomian acts were presumably a way of showing in dramatic action that the Divine is everywhere and in everything, including in what is generally regarded as repulsive and unholy.

The more formal teaching states that God is Personal-Impersonal, with the Impersonal interpreted as “lacking the limitations of personality”. God is also Being-Will, with Being as the passive aspect. Will is the active and creative ditto. Ramakrishna emphasized the personal and active aspect of the Divine, which he usually identified with the Great Mother or Kali. The most important characteristic of the Great Mother is Love, a love activated by the devotion (bhakti) of humans. However, all gods and prophets are in some sense manifestations of the Mother, including Allah, Christ and the Buddha. Ramakrishna emphasized strict renunciation of “women and gold” (sex and riches) as the path to liberation, a renunciation combined with a lot of ecstatic devotion.

Tapasyananda spends considerable time discussing Ramakrishna's status as a divine incarnation. Apparently, this doesn't mean that Ramakrishna was literally God (except in the sense everything is literally God). Rather, it means that he combines the human and the divine in one person, with the divine aspect only gradually coming to fruition. Ramakrishna is said to have been situated in the unique state of Bhavamukha, on the border between the divine and the created. From this state, he could act as a kind of Bodhisattva, refusing to merge fully the divine, instead trying to save as many sentient beings as possible. It's easy to see parallels with Buddhism and Christianity here.

“Sri Ramakrishna: Life and Teachings” is probably not very interesting for a general reader, and the author is naturally completely uncritical of the subject-matter, being a true believer. Still, if you want to read a relatively comprehensible introduction to the "gospel" of Sri Ramakrishna, the wild saint of Bengal, I believe it could be worth investing in this e-book.

Four stars.

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