Boil your sugar well over a fiercely burning fire. As long as there is dirt and other impurities in it, the sweet infusion will smoke and simmer. When the impurities are burnt out, there is neither smoke nor unpleasant smell – the delicious crystalline fluid acquires a pure, natural character, and, whether liquid or solid, is the delight of man and the gods. Such is the character of a man of faith.
If round that I had begun to take a great liking for the man… Oddly, this did not grow out of any feeling of veneration for that would have implied my being overawed and somewhat fearful in the presence of someone-vastly superior. Rather, my feelings grew spontaneously and from the very depths of my heart. I simply reveled in the man’s company.
—Mahendra Nath Dutta (Swami Vivekananda’s brother) on Ramakrishna.
Press reports in I 870s Calcutta marveled at the way ‘highly educated’, ‘civilized’ and reasoning’ men like Mahendra Nath Dutta were drawn to the ‘ill clad’, ‘illiterate’, ‘friendless’ and ‘unpolished’ Ramakrishna. The progressive press, which had first brought Ramakrishna to public attention scoffed at his use of’ vulgar’ speech acknowledging its effectiveness in communication. Despite these critiques Ramakrishna came to occupy an important place in the cultural life of late-nineteenth- century Bengal.
Amiya P. Sen’s lucid introductions and fluent translations of the interactions between Ramakrishna and his followers in His Words make for an engaging and illuminating account of Ramakrishna’s teachings.
Compiled from a variety of contemporary and near-contemporary sources, this book brings out the dramatic simplicity of Ramakrishna’s incisive commentaries on profound religious ideas.
I got the idea of preparing a compilation of the preachings and parables of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa at about the same time that I began work on a short biography of him. My sincere thanks go to Diya Kar Hazra of Penguin India for agreeing so promptly to the idea. They are now being brought out as companion volumes.
Short life sketches of Ramakrishna, together with some of his preachings and parables, began to appear in the Calcutta press from about the 1870s, and increased considerably in volume following his death in 1886. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Indologist Max Muller they were translated into English by the 1890s. Some fifty years later, this was followed by Swami Nikhilananda’s translation of the classic Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita as The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, a richly documented account of Ramakrishna’s life and sayings between the years 1882 and 1886 by Mahendra Nath Gupta, the Calcutta schoolteacher and devotee. Since that time, several other compilations of his teachings have been published, a few by the Ramakrishna Math and Mission itself. However, to the best of my knowledge, such works rely almost exclusively on the Kathamrita as a sourcebook, notwithstanding the fact that earlier and equally authentic compilations are also available. More importantly, these do not include critical notes or observations by the editor.
The advantages with the present volume—I claim this in genuine modesty—are, first, recourse to a larger variety of sources and, second, a thematic arrangement of Ramakrishna’s preachings and parables, accompanied in each instance by critical notes. I trust that both historically and hermeneutically, this will contribute more meaningfully to our understanding of the complex religious world of Ramakrishna. This compilation too, draws heavily upon the Kathamrita but even so, I have preferred to personally translate chosen passages and excerpts from this work rather than rely on Swami Nikhilananda’s somewhat bowdlerized version. Apart from a substantive introduction, there are two additional features to this work that will be of use to the interested reader. There is a critical note on the relevant sources as well as a list of compilations of his preachings and parables as they appeared over a span of about seventy-five years, from 1875 to 1947.
Putting this volume together has been an extremely challenging task, and I am not ashamed to admit that, given my inadequate understanding of Indian religion and philosophy, there were many occasions when I sweated over the underlying import of a particularly complex passage. In this work, I have thought and written much as a historian would, and not as a scholar of religion or philosophy. However, it would be only fair to add that even as a historical subject, Ramakrishna continues to captivate us.
I would be greatly remiss if I did not acknowledge the ungrudging help that I received from R. Sivapriya, for her insightful observations and suggestions, and Meena Bhende and Aakash Chakrabarty, for their editorial inputs. They have contributed significantly towards making this work presentable.
I do not know of any other man who has willingly undergone such pains for the sake of a spiritual life.
- Sibnath Sastri
The character of Ramakrishna was singularly simple. He seemed to be capable only of a single motive, namely, a passion for God that ruled him and filled him; when we follow this clue, every detail of his character and life falls into place.
- J.N. Farquhar
In Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-86), we have a religious figure whose preachings and parables were seen merely as an extension of his unusual life and care, for a considerable length of time. In fact although, judging by the earliest press reports that appeared in the 1870s and testimonies left behind by early critics and admirers, some of the man’s idiosyncrasies were already widely known and discussed, a full-length biography was not produced until after his death. Middle-class society in contemporary Calcutta marvelled at the way in which ‘highly educated’, ‘civilized’ and ‘reasoning’ men were drawn to one who was reportedly ‘badly dressed’, ‘illiterate’, ‘friendless’ and ‘unpolished’. The Brahmo press, which first brought Ramakrishna to public attention, scoffed at his use of ‘vulgar’ speech, and yet acknowledged its effectiveness in religious communication.
Those who believed that Ramakrishna had nothing new to offer or doubted the practicality of his quaint spiritual methods, were nevertheless struck by the deep communion in which he was often found. In the early 1880s, the news of his passing into a state of samadhi pulled in the crowds. People visited Dakshineswar where he lived, or else the other places in north Calcutta which he frequently visited, to judge for themselves whether this was some sort of nervous affliction induced by failing health, symptoms feigned in order to attract public attention, or some genuinely spiritual state with which the Hindu urban culture of the time had become unfamiliar.
It is important to assert that, while the contemporary, modern Bengali press did a lot to publicize him, Ramakrishna’s spiritual genius had been recognized earlier by traditional Hindu scholars who had met him at various stages of his spiritual apprenticeship (sadhana). This is an aspect of Sri Ramakrishna’s life that is relatively little known, for most of the available sources originate in a specific social and cultural world, and reveal preferences which were peculiar to it. Contemporary Hindu scholars chose not to write about it—either because they did not fancy themselves as self-conscious cultural mediators, or else because they did not regard as quaint or unfamiliar the words or deeds associated with the man.
Whatever it was, then, Ramakrishna came to occupy an important place in the religious and cultural life of late-nineteenth-century Bengal. There appear to be two reasons for this. First, his life and teachings stayed clear of the agnosticism or non-conformism of the Western-educated Hindus and Brahmos on the one hand, and the deeply reactionary moods revealed by the orthodox Hindu, on the other. Even the reformist Brahmos admitted that the moral habits of the young men who regularly visited Dakshineswar were seen to palpably improve.
Educated Hindus who took a rational view of their religion, were pleased with his strong critique of religious dogmatism and self-seeking priesthood. Such critiques, importantly, had developed without his formally identifying himself with any of the somewhat aggressive and alienating reformist campaigns. In his general habits and temperament too, Ramakrishna appeared to be a most unusual Brahmin. Sometime during the course of his spiritual practices, he had given up the sacred thread (the ‘Brahmin’s ego’ as he called it) without making a public issue of it, as had the Brahmo reformer and fellow-Brahmin, Ramtanu Lahiri (1813—98). Strange tales were also told about how, in spite of being an orthodox Brahmin, he had not only violated taboos of food and drink but also undergone certain austerities that sounded unfamiliar even to Brahmins.
Making Ramakrishna’s acquaintance often proved a humbling experience for the Western- educated, because, at the end of it all, they were left a little bemused by the burden of their own ‘learning’. Above all, there was his personal charisma which, for the trusting, gave meaning to his preaching and parables, and for the sceptical, helped bridge gulfs of understanding. The latter was certainly true of the young Narendra Nath Dutta (later Swami Vivekananda, 1863—1902), a man who was initially repelled both by the ‘hideous’ icon of the goddess Kali at Dakshineswar and the philosophical monism of Sri Ramakrishna. Narendra Nath, at the time, was convinced that the answers to his deepest philosophical queries lay in Kant and the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment and yet, despite himself, he would often turn up at Dakshineswar, drawn by some power that he could not explain rationally.
Ramakrishna himself once asked his favourite pupil why, in spite of his doubts, he kept up his frequent visits. To this, Narendra Nath is reported to have replied that it was the love for another man (Ramakrishna) that brought him there, not expectations of any personal gains or rewards. On hearing this, so the legend goes, the Master joyfully embraced his pupil, shedding tears of ecstasy. Only such selfless love and longing could lead to God-realization, he said, turning to other pupils present.
The following reminiscences of a contemporary show how Ramakrishna’s personal magnetism worked in conjunction with the stirring aptness of his parables:
Having taken my seat, I began watching the man [Ramakrishna] intently. He was speaking but in an intermittent fashion and words did not gush out of his mouth as they do with people lecturing before Calcutta audiences. He made no effort to exhibit his scholarship, nor assume the postures of an all-knowing guru. None of us present argued with him. No one put a question to this man and from what I could see, no one had any intentions of doing so either.
All of us gathered simply listened to what the man was saying in rapt attention. At the end of it all, I could sense that his was a highly elevated mind which had been deliberately scaled down so as to connect with ours. Once firmly glued to his, our minds steadily ascended.
Presently, I found that I had begun to take a great liking for the man. This was not born of affection, for that is a feeling that a man showed towards one younger to him in age or else socially inferior. Oddly, this did not grow out of any feelings of veneration either for that would have implied my being overawed and somewhat fearful in the presence of someone vastly superior. Rather, my feelings grew spontaneously and from the very depths of my heart. I simply revelled in the man’s company.
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