From 1986: What Christians can learn from the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 29, 1986, edition of America, titled “Ramakrishna and World Religions.”
Mother Teresa of Calcutta is one of the most revered religious figures of our century; her tireless and loving work amid terrible poverty is a sign of hope for people around the globe—an example of grace sufficient for any one place. Yet Calcutta was also the city of a remarkable Hindu holy man named Ramakrishna, who in an equally important way illuminates our present global situation by teaching us how to live among the many world religions. Since he is little known in the West, I wish to offer some reflections on his life and message, reflections especially timely because in 1986 we mark the 150th anniversary of his birth (February 18) and the 100th anniversary of his death (August 15).
A remarkable Hindu holy man, Ramakrishna illuminates our present global situation by teaching us how to live among the many world religions.
It is difficult to portray any person in a few paragraphs, and much more difficult to portray an extraordinary person from a different century, culture and religion. I have therefore narrowed my task here to a few reflections on Ramakrishna’s greatest achievement: his discovery within his own Hindu tradition of the resources and motivation for a positive experience of other people’s religious traditions. His growth in this regard took place within a series of widening horizons that frame my description of him: his initial love of God as his Mother and his sense of Her presence everywhere; his encounter with two wandering ascetics who showed him new ways to look for Her, and his experience of non-Hindu religions as harmonious with his own.
Most of Ramakrishna’s life was spent just outside Calcutta, at a large temple dedicated to the Mother Goddess (Kali). He went there as a boy to help his older brother who was a priest of the temple (and apparently to avoid going to school). In 1856, his brother died, and Ramakrishna, already noted for his piety, became the temple priest.
From the beginning, Ramakrishna exhibited an intensity of devotion to his Mother that was the basis for every later spiritual experience. His relationship to Her was deep and all-consuming, one he was progressively less able to express in the traditional rituals and hymns of the temple. He came to find unbearable any distance at all from Her, and insisted (to himself and to Her) that they move beyond religious conventions into direct encounter.
He sought this intimacy in various unpredictable ways, upsetting the decorum of the temple with a variety of uninhibited ecstasies. He nearly ruined his health through penances and extreme shifts in mood, caused his family great anxiety and convinced many people that he was quite mad. One day, as a last resort, he grabbed a sword hanging in the sanctuary in order to kill himself, to see if by death he could reach the Mother. But, he later recalled, the Mother prevented his suicide by giving in to him. She crossed the distance between them in order to give him the direct experience he sought, and Ramakrishna was plunged into an “ocean” of immediate divine presence.
But this encounter did not sate his desire. On the contrary, he concluded that his Mother was so great and all-embracing that he could not have fully experienced Her on that single occasion. He felt able and compelled to look elsewhere to find Her again and again in the rich variety of Hindu religious experiences. Every path, he decided, would be the path to Her.
We may wonder if we can remain true to Christ and still learn from non-Christians. Ramakrishna teaches us that the very basis for meeting believers of other faiths is our own Christian faith.
He looked for Her in two ways. First, he meditated on the holy stories he knew from childhood, taking parts in them and acting out the roles of various characters. For example, in meditating on the story of Rama (the supreme Lord come down on earth as a perfect king), he “became” one of the jungle monkeys who served Rama in a great war. For a period of time he lived like a monkey, up in a tree, in order to understand what it must have been like to serve Rama so closely. In addition, he saw the people around him as part of the same stories. For instance, he thought that a village prostitute was really Sita, the holy wife of Rama.
His second method relied on the idea that the ways human beings relate to each other are the ways in which they relate to God. He practiced five modes of relationship: the quiet reverence and worship one shows to a great potentate; faithful service toward a master and the master’s family; friendship and relaxed companionship; “parenting,” being mother or father to one’s child; marriage and the consummation of intimacy. He related to God according to each mode—my ruler, my master, my friend, my child, my beloved—and enjoyed the special graces appropriate to each. Consonant with his view that all the ways were truly human, he refused to identify any one as superior to the others.
Although Ramakrishna’s lifelong spiritual journey was essentially an elaboration of his initial experience of the omnipresent Mother, he was helped significantly by two wandering ascetics who widened his horizons beyond those familiar from childhood. The first was a mysterious woman known as the Bhairavi Brahmani (”the Brahmin who worships the Goddess in Her ‘terrifying’ form”). She appeared at the temple in 1861 and directed Ramakrishna for several years, introducing him to the concept of Tantra and a variety of Tantric disciplines. According to Tantra, one must experience the divine in every person, thing, state and activity, including those one considers merely “secular” or even “unholy” (for Ramakrishna, things like meat and alcohol). Discriminatory attitudes of approval and disapproval are obstacles to the realization that God is everywhere without exception, and Tantric discipline is the set of exercises by which one is trained to live according to that realization.
Ramakrishna, always the trusting child, did whatever the Bhairavi Brahmani asked. Her care and faith in him were a great support at a time when no one else understood him very well, and she managed to convince many people that Ramakrishna really was a great and unique holy man. But in the end he did not adopt her spirituality completely, for he found even the Tantric path confining. I suspect he felt that it did not reach deeply or explicitly enough into his Mother-experience and that it was unable to account for all that he already knew.
In 1865, Ramakrishna was visited by a “naked ascetic” named Totapuri, a monk from the Punjab who had dedicated his life to the search for an unqualified unitive experience, in which all difference from Absolute Reality was overcome. Totapuri traveled a radical via negativa, unsatisfied with any spirituality in which the seeker remains distinct from God. Ramakrishna was reluctant to accept Totapuri’s guidance, since the implication was that there was something ineffable beyond even his Mother. But relying on his conviction that She dwelt in every experience, he asked Her if he could put Her image aside in order to enter the nondualistic Absolute. He tells us that She readily granted permission.
We are encouraged by Ramakrishna to contemplate Mother-images in the Bible, to allow their power to illuminate anew our relation to the world and its people and religions.
Totapuri prepared Ramakrishna for the abolition of all separation from the Absolute by having him perform his own funeral rites; if he was not dead to the world and caste and family, how could he get beyond interior distinctions? Through a series of strenuous meditations Ramakrishna outstripped his teacher and quickly passed over into a state of undifferentiated and simple “oneness with the One”—the goal Totapuri himself had not yet reached. But Ramakrishna saw the lofty state not as superior to his Mother-relationship, but as an aid to deepening it by cutting away his hitherto limited image of her. Moreover, his experience enabled him later on to impress upon his followers that even nondualism was not the enemy of their God-oriented faith; It too was the Mother’s gift.
Ramakrishna did not stop upon reaching these limits of the Hindu experience. In 1866, he was initiated into Islamic mysticism by a Sufi. He later interiorized in his own way the spiritualities of three other great religions; Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
Most remarkable and provocative to us is his insistence that he entered the Christian mystery as well. He recounts that one day in 1874, his meditation on a small Madonna drew him into a luminous state in which he became for a time nothing but a devotee of Jesus. On the third day he saw walking toward him in the temple garden an exceedingly attractive young man and heard within himself a cry of recognition; “Behold the Christ, who shed His heart’s blood for the redemption of the world, who suffered a sea of anguish for love of humans. He is the master Yogi, in eternal union with God. It is Jesus, love incarnate.”
Ramakrishna thus claimed a Christ-experience and was filled with love toward Him, without becoming a Christian or claiming that Jesus was merely the symbol of a Hindu deity or that the Mother and Jesus were merely appearances of an underlying primordial religion. He claimed simply that his Mother was everywhere and that this enabled him to travel for a time the Christian path; he never made further equations or hypotheses unwarranted by his own experience. It might be added, too, that his experience was paradigmatic for his disciples in India and the West; they learned from him how to celebrate feasts like Christmas, without being uneasy at the foreignness of the religion involved, and how to praise Christ and learn from Him even if they had no intention of becoming Christian.
Ramakrishna’s final years before his slow death from cancer were the years of gathering disciples. He attracted (more perhaps by his personality than by any particular idea he preached) all kinds of men and women who wanted to be near him, share his experiences and translate them into a way of life and program of action (culminating, at the turn of the century, in the founding of the Ramakrishna Mission, which now has ashrams, schools and hospitals all over the world). Most importantly, his example inspired Vivekananda, his greatest disciple, to journey to the West and the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Ill., in 1893. Although this was by no means the first such journey by a Hindu, it did constitute the real entrance of living Hinduism into the West.
What lessons do we learn from Ramakrishna? We have seen that the source of all his experiences was his unqualified, unlimited devotion to the Mother. There is no sign that he ever had doubts in this regard. Ramakrishna discovered in his relation to the Mother the motive and rationale for entering other religious paths; his experiences elsewhere simply enriched his appreciation of the source to whom he always returned.
This is the first lesson. In the face of the many religions of the world—a plurality that is not about to go away—we may wonder if we can remain true to Christ and still learn from non-Christians. Ramakrishna teaches us that the very basis for meeting believers of other faiths is our own Christian faith. Devotion to Christ, not a vague theocentrism, is the motive and stimulus for reverence toward and interest in non-Christian religious experiences. Ramakrishna might say that the deeper we journey into Christ the more we will understand that He wants us to seek Him beyond the boundaries of our religion—or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his…”
Ramakrishna might say that the deeper we journey into Christ the more we will understand that He wants us to seek Him beyond the boundaries of our religion.
Ramakrishna likewise reminds us that our meeting with other religions is not simply a “problem” or a “challenge” or even a “dialogue.” It may be these, but it is something more. This joyful and tireless seeker tells us that experiencing other faiths and understanding their words and images illuminates our own faith and deepens our knowledge of the God we already know. In other words, the meeting of religions is itself a religious event, an encounter with God at the boundaries of our tradition.
Finally, we have seen that calling God “Mother” stimulated Ramakrishna to reach out in every direction, peacefully and joyfully, neither tearing other ways down nor forgetting his own way home again. If there is a correlation between his sense of the Mother and his openness to other religions, this should encourage us to reflect on the correlation between our experience of God as Father and the traditional Christian way of meeting other religions: preaching the Gospel to all nations. Is it because God is our Father that we have sent missionaries to believers of other faiths, to convert them?
Whatever our answer to that question, we are encouraged by Ramakrishna to contemplate Mother-images in the Bible, to allow their power to illuminate anew our relation to the world and its people and religions. The fruit of such meditation may be a new sense of being at peace in the world as our home, the graced place where God is always nurturing us. Nor should we forget, it should be added, a vast resource at our disposal: the millions of Hindus whose families have for centuries worshiped God as Mother, Hindus with whom even today we can sit and pray.
A well-informed friend of mine read a draft of this essay and commented that it did not quite capture the joy and childlike attractiveness of Ramakrishna. But some of my readers will wonder, I suspect, why I have not been more skeptical and questioning in my portrayal of him. Both reactions are legitimate, and what is written here is not the “last word” on the man. I have tried simply to say enough about Ramakrishna to encourage the reader to read more about him and reflect on him during his anniversary year: to enter faithfully into the kind of spiritual encounter that Ramakrishna exemplifies. It seems to me that this would be a fruitful spiritual endeavor, whatever judgments one might eventually want to make.