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Vedanta and Ramakrishna

Der Augenblick ist zeitlos (The moment is time-less). [Leonardo da Vinci]

The Ramakrishna Order is an international organisation that bases it teachings on Vedanta and yoga, especially as explained by Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86).

Ramakrishna took his mind into the time-less level of living, we are told. So many of his artful teachings can have a flair of immediacy and timelessness.

In the following, Swami Nikhilananda's preface and introduction to The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is made use of. Unless otherwise shown, the current text is a blend of paraphrases and abridged teachings. In some places, relevant-looking comments are added too.

Parts of a Preface by Swami Nikhilananda from 1942.

M (Mahendranath Gupta)

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is the English translation of the Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita, the conversations of the godman Ramakrishna with disciples, devotees, and visitors. Mahendranath Gupta recorded the scenes and sayings in diaries, and later wrote the book under the pseudonym of "M". The conversations in Bengali fill five volumes: the first was published in 1897 and the last shortly after M's death in 1932.

During the four last years of Ramakrishna's life-time, Mahendranath spent all his Sundays and other holidays with Ramakrishyna and his devotees, and besides listening to the holy talks and devotional music, practised meditation both on the Personal and the Impersonal aspects of God under the direct guidance of Ramakrishna.

Mahendranath took down notes in his diary all along, and thus served as a hagiographer. Writes Swami Nityatmananda tells how his prodigious memory combined with his imagination, so that he vividly visualised scenes from the life of Ramakrishna. "Superb too was his power to portray pictures by words."

During Ramakrishna's life-time, Mahendranath did not seem to reveal the contents of his diary to anyone. No one knew about this diary for a decade until he brought out selections from it as a pamphlet in English in 1897 with the blessings and permission of Ramakrishna's widow.

Father and Mother

Khudiram Chattopadhyaya and Chandra Devi, the father and mother of Ramakrishna, were married in 1799. At that time Khudiram was living in his ancestral village of Derepore, not far from Kamarpukur. Their first son, Ramkumar, was born in 1805, and their first daughter, Katyayani, in 1810. In 1814 Khudiram was ordered by his landlord to bear false witness in court against a neighbour. When he refused to do so, the landlord brought a false case against him and deprived him of his ancestral property.

About his parents Ramakrishna once said that his mother was of rectitude and gentleness. Innocent of the art of concealment, she would say what was in her mind. People loved her for open-heartedness. His father, an orthodox brahmin, spent much of his time in worship and meditation. At times in his daily prayers his chest flushed and tears rolled down his cheeks.

A Boy and His Brother

Gadadhar - later known as Ramakrishna - grew up into a boy full of fun and mischief. He was intelligent and precocious and endowed with a prodigious memory.

At the age of six or seven Gadadhar had his first experience of spiritual ecstasy. One day in June or July he was walking along a narrow path between paddy-fields, eating the puffed rice that he carried in a basket. He looked up at the sky and saw a beautiful, dark thunder-cloud. As it spread, rapidly enveloping the whole sky, a flight of snow-white cranes passed in front of it. The beauty of the contrast overwhelmed him and he fell to the ground, unconscious. Some villagers found him and carried him home in their arms. Gadadhar said later that he had experienced indescribable joy.

At the age of sixteen Gadadhar was summoned to Calcutta by his elder brother Ramkumar, who had become a priest there and wished assistance in his priestly duties. Ramkumar had opened a Sanskrit academy to supplement his income. He asked Gadadhar to pay attention to his studies. But the boy replied, "I would rather acquire that wisdom which will illumine my heart and give me satisfaction forever."

A Rich Widow and Great Presence of Mind

At that time there lived in Calcutta a rich widow. In 1847 she bought twenty acres of land at Dakshineshwar, a village about four miles north of Calcutta. Here she created a temple garden on the east bank of the Ganges and constructed several temples. Ramakrishna was to spend a considerable part of his life in a chamber in the northwest angle beyond the last of the temples. To the west of this chamber was a semicircular porch overlooking the Ganges.

At this time there came to Dakshineshwar a youth of sixteen, a distant nephew of Ramakrishna, and a boyhood friend. Hriday was his name. Clever, exceptionally energetic, and endowed with great presence of mind, he moved like a shadow. Ramakrishna entered the temple service on condition that Hriday should be asked to assist him.

He once said to his nephew Hriday: "When one thinks of God one should be freed from all ties." There are the fetters of hatred, shame, lineage, pride of good conduct, fear, secretiveness, caste, and grief, according to traditional reckoning –and many others. Hriday thought his uncle was becoming insane.

Shining, Engulfing Billows

While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die. [Leonardo da Vinci]

Ramakrishna became more and more unaware of the world. He almost gave up food; and sleep left him altogether. He described his situation at the time:

"I felt as if my heart were being squeezed like a wet towel . . . Life seemed to be not worth living. Suddenly my glance fell on the sword that was kept in [a] temple. I determined to put an end to my life. When I jumped up like a madman and seized it, suddenly the . . . buildings with their different parts, the temple, and everything else vanished from my sight, leaving no trace whatever, and in their stead I saw a limitless, infinite, effulgent Ocean of Consciousness. As far as the eye could see, the shining billows were madly rushing at me from all sides with a terrific noise, to swallow me up! I was panting for breath. I was caught in the rush and collapsed, unconscious. What was happening in the outside world I did not know; but within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss, altogether new, and I felt the presence . . ."

He Fed a Cat, and Other Uncommon Experiences

He had many uncommon experiences. When he sat to meditate, he would see flashes like a swarm of fire-flies floating before his eyes, or a sea of deep mist. Many of his actions seemed sacrilegious to the people. The temple officials took him for an insane person. His worldly well-wishers brought him to skilled physicians; but no medicine helped.

Ramakrishna one day fed a cat with the food that was to be offered to the temple goddess. This was too much for the manager of the temple garden. However, Ramakrishna saw that everything was full of Consciousness - all was Consciousness. "That was why I fed a cat with the food," he explained.

The smallest feline is a masterpiece. [Leonardo da Vinci]

One day when the widow who owned the place was listening to Ramakrishna's singing in the temple, the young priest abruptly turned and slapped her. She had actually been thinking of a lawsuit.

He Married, but His Craze Reappeared Tenfold

Soon his happy mother found it to be a good time to arrange his marriage. The boy was now twenty-three years old. She was delighted when her son welcomed her suggestion. A little girl of five was chosen as the bride for Ramakrishna. He lived at Kamarpukur about a year and a half and then returned to Dakshineshwar. There his craze reappeared tenfold: the same so-called delirium.

When he would sit in meditation, birds would perch on his head and peck in his hair for grains of food. Snakes would crawl over his body, and neither would he aware of the other.

The widow who had founded the temple garden, passed away in 1861. After her death her son-in-law Mathur became the sole executor of the estate. He placed himself and his resources at the disposal of Ramakrishna and fulfilled most of his desires without hesitation.

A Woman of God-Making

A brahmin woman came to Dakshineshwar at this time. Born in East Bengal, she was an adept in the Tantrik and Vaishnava methods of worship. She was pretty and had two pieces of wearing-cloth.

Ramakrishna welcomed her with great respect, and described to her his experiences and visions. She listened to him and said: "Everyone in this world is mad. Some are mad for money, some for creature comforts, some for name and fame; and you are mad for God." Hm, did she exclude herself from the list of madcaps?"

She assured him his experience was described in the scriptures as a most exalted rapture of love, and manifesting through nineteen physical symptoms, including shedding tears, perspiring, and having a burning sensation. She came to the conclusion that only an Incarnation of God was capable of such spiritual manifestations, and proclaimed that he was an Incarnation of God, an Avatar comparable to Rama, Krishna, Buddha.

Finding out of Matters or Not

The woman confidently asked Mathur – who had inherited the whole temple compound – to arrange a conference of scholars who should discuss the matter with her. He agreed and the meeting was arranged on front of one of the Kali temple.

Two famous pundits of the time were invited, and then one of them arrived with a distinguished company. They then discussed the question while Ramakrishna sat in their middle like a child, immersed in his own thoughts and indifferent to what was happening around him, sometimes smiling, sometimes chewing a pinch of spices from a pouch, or again saying to one of the pandits with a nudge: "Look here. Sometimes I feel like this, too."

Soon one of the pandits arose to declare that he agreed completely with the view of the Brahmani, that what Ramakrishna had reportedly experienced was a certain sign of God manifestating in someone. The assembled people were struck dumb. Ramakrishna said to Mathur: "Just fancy, he too says so! Well, I am glad to learn that, after all, it is not a disease."

A few days later the other pundit arrived, another meeting was held, and he too agreed with the view that Ramakrishna was an Avatar. The second pandit added that saying so was saying very little, and, "I am fully convinced that you are that Mine of Spiritual Power, only a small fraction of which descends on earth, from time to time, in the form of an Incarnation."

"Ah!" said Ramakrishna with a smile, "You seem to have quite outbid Vaishnavcharan [the first pandit] in this matter. What have you found in me that makes you entertain such an idea?"

The other said: "I feel it in my heart and I have the scriptures on my side."

"Well," Ramakrishna said, "it is you who say so; but, believe me, I know nothing about it."

Two scholars agreed, but their Divine Incarnation knew nothing! Life's not always fair, is it?

Years later, when two of his householder disciples openly spoke of him as a Divine Incarnation and the matter was reported to him, he said with a touch of sarcasm: "Do they think they will enhance my glory that way? One of them is an actor on the stage and the other a physician. What do they know about Incarnations?"

Then he spoke of the pundits that had declared him to be an avatar. "They were great scholars . . . But that did not make any change in my mind."

Ramakrishna was a learner all his life. He often used to quote a proverb to his disciples: "Friend, the more I live the more I learn."

Bliss Ain't All

According to the Tantra, the Ultimate Reality is Chit, or Consciousness, which is identical with Sat, or Being, and with Ananda, or Bliss. This Ultimate Reality, manifesting as Satchidananda (Sat-Chit-Ananda), or Being-Knowledge-Bliss, is from the Unity-Reality preached in the Vedas. And man takes to be real a merely apparent world, and this error means bondage and suffering.

The average man wishes to enjoy the material objects of the world. Tantra bids him enjoy these, but at the same time discover in them the divine presence somehow. Outward renunciation is not said to be necessary. In Tantra the way is to refine Bhoga, or enjoyment, into Yoga in deep Consciousness.

Disciplines of Tantra are graded to suit aspirants of different sorts. Exercises are prescribed for people with "animal", "heroic", and "divine" qualities. Certain of the rites require the opposite sex. A key to Tantra is the Motherhood of God and glorification of woman.

According to the Tantra, all deep women are Goddess symbols, and the Goddess has several forms. Tantric practices have many different forms as well.

Many have made a trade of delusions and false miracles. [Leonardo da Vinci]

Ramakrishna set himself to the task of practising the disciplines of Tantra, and it took him never more than three days to achieve the result promised in anyone of them. The whole world and everything in it appeared as Lila, sport, and he beheld everywhere the World Mother. Animate and inanimate, appeared to him as pervaded with Chit, Consciousness, and with Ananda, Bliss.

He saw in a vision the Ultimate Cause. He heard the sound Om. He got the eight supernatural powers of Yoga, which make a man almost omnipotent, and saw Maya, the often inscrutable, by which the universe is created and sustained, and into which it is finally absorbed.

But the most remarkable experience during this period was the awakening of the "Serpent Power" in himself. I was waking up and ascending along a subtle canal, and through six centres, to the so-called lotus in the top of the head. He further saw that as the Kundalini went upward the different lotuses bloomed. This phenomenon was accompanied by visions and trances. Later on he described to his disciples various movements of the Kundalini: fishlike, birdlike, monkey like, and so on.

About this time it was revealed to him that in a short while many devotees would seek his guidance.

The Ramlala Image

About the year 1864 there came to Dakshineshwar a wandering Vaishnava monk, Jatadhari. He always carried with him a small metal image of Rama, which he called Ramlala, the Boy Rama. He devoted himself to nursing Rama, feeding Rama, playing with Rama, taking Rama for a walk, and bathing Rama. And he found that the image responded to his love.

Soon Ramlala became the favourite companion of Ramakrishna too. Later on he described to the devotees how the little image would dance gracefully before him, jump on his back, insist on being taken in his arms, run to the fields in the sun, pluck flowers from the bushes, and play pranks like a naughty boy. A very sweet relationship sprang up between him and Ramlala, as he felt the love of a mother for It.

One day Jatadhari asked Ramakrishna to keep the image and bade him adieu with tearful eyes. A few days later Ramakrishna was blessed with a vision wherebyhe came to see that the Rama of the Ramayana, the son of Dasharatha, pervades the whole universe as Spirit and Consciousness; that He is its Creator, Sustainer, and Destroyer; that, in still another aspect, He is the transcendental Brahman, without form, attribute, or name.

While worshipping Ramlala as the Divine Child, Ramakrishna's heart became filled with motherly tenderness, and he began to regard himself as a woman. His speech and gestures changed. He began to move freely with the ladies of Mathur's family, who now looked upon him as one of their own sex. During this time he worshipped the Divine Mother as Her companion or handmaid.

Reaching Vedanta

The Brahmani served as Ramakrishnas teacher for three years. After that, another guru appeared on the scene. It was a wandering monk, the sturdy Totapuri. Ramakrishna learnt to address him affectionately as Nangta, the "Naked One", because he used to walk about naked.

Totapuri was the bearer of Vedanta philosophy. This ancient Hindu system designates the Ultimate Reality as Brahman, also described as Satchidananda, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. Brahman is the only Real Existence. In It there is no time, no space, no causality, no multiplicity. But through Maya, Its inscrutable Power, time, space, and causality are created and thus the Perennial first appears as One without a Second, and then One appears to be many.

Vedanta teaches how experiences based on relationship are unreal, ultimately speaking. Man attains liberation by piercing the veil of Maya, one with the Universal Spirit in Its Bliss, where subject and object are alike dissolved.

The impact of such an experience, with an excess of Light, may be hard on the mind and body.

In the Vedanta books it is said that after the experience of nirvikalpa Samadhi the body drops off like a dry leaf. Only those who are born with a special mission for the world can return from this height to the valleys of a humble or normal life. When man descends from this dizzy height, he surveys everything in the world with an eye of equality, and move in the world for the welfare of mankind.


Totapuri arrived at the Dakshineshwar temple garden toward the end of 1864. Perhaps born in the Punjab, he was the head of a monastery in that province of India and claimed leadership of seven hundred sannyasis. Trained from early youth in the disciplines of the Advaita Vedanta, he looked on the world as an illusion and continued living in it. He had liberated himself from attachment to the sense-objects. For forty years he had practised austere discipline on the bank of the Narmada River in central India, and had realised his identity with the Absolute. From then on he roamed in the world in a loin-cloth in storm and sunshine. Totapuri had been visiting the estuary of the Ganges. On his return journey along the bank of the Ganges, he stopped at Dakshineshwar.

Totapuri considered that Ramakrishna was ready to be a student of Vedanta, and proposed to initiate him in it. Ramakrishna agreed. On the appointed day, in the small hours of the morning, a fire was lighted on the temple grounds. Totapuri and Ramakrishna sat before it. The flame played on their faces. "Ramakrishna was thin to emaciation and extremely delicate. His temperament was high-strung." Facing him, the other was very tall and robust, a sturdy and tough guy.

Totapuri began to impart to Ramakrishna the subtle truths of Vedanta. "Brahman", he said, "is the only Reality, ever pure, ever illumined, ever free, beyond the limits of time, space, and causation. Though apparently divided by names and forms through the inscrutable power of Maya, that enchantress who makes the impossible possible, Brahman is really One and undivided.

"Go deep in search of the Self and realise It through Samadhi and realize your identity with Brahman, Being-Knowledge-Bliss." Quoting the Upanishad, Totapuri also said, "That knowledge is shallow by which one sees or hears or knows another." He added that through [fit] Knowledge one attains Great Bliss.

Totapuri asked the disciple to withdraw his mind from all objects, gods and goddesses. The task was not easy for Ramakrishna. He described the event,

Nangta began to teach me the various conclusions of the Advaita Vedanta and asked me to withdraw the mind completely from all objects and dive deep into the Atman. But in spite of all my attempts I could not altogether cross the realm of name and form and bring my mind to the unconditioned state. I had no difficulty in taking the mind from all the objects of the world. But the radiant and too familiar figure of the Blissful Mother, the Embodiment of the essence of Pure Consciousness, appeared before me as a living reality. Her bewitching smile prevented me from passing into the Great Beyond. Again and again I tried, but She stood in my way every time. In despair I said to Nangta: 'It is hopeless. I cannot raise my mind to the unconditioned state and come face to face with Atman.' He grew excited and sharply said: 'What? you can't do it? But you have to.' He cast his eyes around. Finding a piece of glass he took it up and stuck it between my eyebrows. 'Concentrate the mind on this point!' he thundered. Then with stern determination I again sat to meditate. As soon as the gracious form of the Divine Mother appeared before me, I used my discrimination as a sword and with it clove Her in two. The last barrier fell.

Practice must always be founded on sound theory. [Leonardo da Vinci]

Theory and Practice Ought to Go Hand in Hand

Ramakrishna's spirit at once soared into Samadhi. He remained in it for three days. "Is it really true?" Totapuri cried out in astonishment, "Great God! It is nothing short of a miracle!"

With the help of Totapuri, Ramakrishna's mind finally came down again. Then, one day, when guru Totapuri and Ramakrishna were engaged in an animated discussion about Vedanta, a servant of the temple garden came there and took a coal from the sacred fire that had been lighted by the great ascetic. He wanted it to light his tobacco. Totapuri flew into a rage and was about to beat the man.

Ramakrishna rocked with laughter. "You are explaining to me the reality of Brahman and the illusoriness of the world; yet now you have so far forgotten yourself as to be about to beat a man in a fit of passion!"

Totapuri was embarrassed. He soon bid farewell to his disciple.And Ramakrishna remained for six months in a Brahman state. "For six months at a stretch", he said, "I remained in that state from which ordinary men can never return . . . I was not conscious of day and night. Flies would enter my mouth and nostrils just as they do a dead body's, but I did not feel them."

Soon afterwards Ramakrishna was afflicted with a serious attack of dysentery. Day and night the pain tortured him, and his mind gradually came down to the physical plane. From now on Ramakrishna appeared to others as a normal person.

Vedantists began to arrive after the departure of Totapuri. In the room of Ramakrishna, who was then in bed with dysentery, the Vedantists engaged in scriptural discussions, and, forgetting his own physical suffering, he solved their doubts by referring to his own experiences.

Ramakrishna used to say that when the flower blooms the bees come to it for honey of their own accord.


Ramakrishna, now very aware through first-hand experience that the world is some Maya, acknowledged its power in the relative life. To him Maya itself was God, for everything was God. It was one of the faces of Brahman, through his benign eyes, a transparent sheath through which he got aware of divine, immanenct glory. He experienced Maya, the mighty weaver, as the Divine, primordial She and none else.

Ramakrishna realized Maya – and the world became the glorious manifestation of the Divine. Maya turned out to be Brahman. Ramakrishna soon discovered that Maya operates in the relative world in two ways, and he termed these "Avidya-Maya" and "Vidya-Maya", that is, "Ignorance-Maya" and "Gnosis-Maya". Avidya-Maya represents sensuous desires, evil passions, greed, lust, cruelty, and so on –various sides to living that have to be vanquished. But Vidya-Maya is the higher force of creation: the enlightening qualities, kindness, purity, proper devotion. Vidya-Maya elevates man to Vidya-Maya, and a stalwart one goes on to become altogether free of Maya in deep samadhi, so long as it lasts. And then goes back again into the field of Maya to get a little bewitched at least.

The two aspects of Maya are two main forces of creation.

In order to prove whether the spirit can speak or not, it is necessary in the first place to define what a voice is and how it is generated. [Leonardo da Vinci]

But on the other hand, experience overrides theory too. If you hear a voice from inside, you hear it. You can hear voices in dreams too, all of which tells that physical organs are not needed in all cases. Lt os go on:

The Divine She asked Ramakrishna not to be lost in the featureless Absolute but remain on the border line between the Absolute and the Relative at the "sixth centre" of Yoga Tantra, so that he could perceive the glory of the seventh, and also the workings of the Kundalini in the lower centres. He switched between serene absorption in the Ocean of Absolute Unity and more or less ecstatic devotion to the favoured, Personalised Godhead.

Ramakrishna later described: "When I think of the Supreme Being as active, I call Him Maya or Personal God. But the distinction between them does not mean a difference. The Personal and the Impersonal are the same thing. The Divine Mother and Brahman are one."

The Wife

Ramakrishna later explored other religions, especially Islam and Christianity. They triggered off the same altered states as he had gone into already. Ramakrishna accepted the divinity of Buddha and used to point out the similarity of his teachings to those of the Upanishads. He also showed great respect for the founders of Jainism and the ten Gurus of Sikhism.

Then, in 1867, Ramakrishna returned to the Kamarpukur village to recuperate. The peaceful countryside, the simple and artless companions of his boyhood, and the pure air did him much good. The villagers were happy to get back their playful, frank and witty Gadadhar from Calcutta. His wife, Sarada Devi, now fourteen years old, soon arrived at Kamarpukur. She was able to understand her husband's state of mind. Referring to the experiences of these few days, she once said: "The joy was indescribable."

In 1872, Sarada Devi paid her first visit to her husband at Dakshineshwar. She had heard many rumours about her husband's insanity. She felt that her duty was to be with him, giving him, in whatever measure she could, a wife's devoted service.

The "Ego" of Ramakrishna

Wisdom is the daughter of experience. [Leonardo da Vinci]

In nirvikalpa Ramakrishna had realized that Brahman alone is real. By keeping his mind six months on the plane of the non-dual Brahman, he had attained to be a direct Knower of Truth who sees Brahman not only in himself and in the transcendental Absolute, but in everything of the world. In this state he would regard himself as one with Brahman, and when conscious of the dual world, he would regard himself as God's own.

He described the trace of ego in him as the "ego of a child", the "ego of a servant", the "ripe ego" in contrast with the ego of the bound soul, which to him was the "green" or bound ego. The ego of the bound soul identifies itself with the body, relatives, possessions, and the world; but the "ripe ego" knows the the world to be quite unreal and God alone. Through this "ripe ego" Ramakrishna dealt with the world and his wife.

Towering Spirituality

Ramakrishna preaches that the three schools of Vedanta, known as Dualism, Qualified Non-dualism, and Absolute Non-dualism – Dvaita, Visishtadvaita, and Advaita – represent three stages in man's progress toward the Ultimate Reality. They are not contradictory but complementary and suited to different temperaments.

Dvaita: For the ordinary man with strong attachment to the senses, material support, music and several other symbols can be useful. The ordinary mortal must perform his duties well.

Vishishtadvaita: The mind can comprehend and describe the range of thought and experience up to the Vishishtadvaita, and no further.

Advaita: The Advaita, the last word in spiritual experience, is something which transcends mind and speech. From the highest standpoint, the Absolute and Its manifestation are equally real, that is, of the same spiritual Essence. Behind every form that appears, is Spirit.

As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death. [Leonardo da Vinci]


Vedanta for Westerners, Vedanta for the soul, Ramakrishna and Totapuri, Literature  

Advaita Asram. Life of Sri Ramakrishna. Calcutta: Advaita Asram, 1971.

Advaita Asram. Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna. Calcutta: Advaita Asram, 1975.

Chatterjee, Satischandra, and Dhirendramohan Datta. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. 7th ed. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1968 (Later editions include an eighth reprint edition of 1984 by the University of Calcutta, and one lacking in several headings, by Rupa Publications, New Delhi 2007, etc.)

Gupta, Mahendranath. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Tr. Swami Nikhilananda. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1942. Online.

Jagadananda, swami, tr. Sri Ramakrishna: The Great Master. 4th ed. Mylapore: Ramakrishna Math, 1970.

Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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