Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, born Gadadhar Chattopadhyay, (February 18, 1836–August 16, 1886) was a Hindu religious teacher and an influential figure in the Bengal Renaissance of the Nineteenth century. His teachings emphasised God-realisation as the highest goal of life, love and devotion for God, the oneness of existence, and the harmony of religions.
Gadadhar was born in the village of Kamarpukur, in what is now the Hooghly district of West Bengal. Gadadhar’s parents, Khudiram and Chandramani, were poor and made ends meet with great difficulty. Gadadhar was extremely popular in his village. He was considered handsome and had a natural gift for the fine arts. He, however, disliked going to school, and was not interested in the pursuit of money. He loved nature and spent his time in fields and fruit gardens outside the village with his friends. He was seen visiting monks who stopped at his village on their way to Puri. He would serve them and listen with rapt attention to the religious debates they often had. About why he was named Gadadhara in his childhood there is an interesting story describing which as a digression here can add importance to biography. Once Khshudhiram went to Gaya for offering foods to the manes of his forefathers (“pindodaan” as called in Bengal) at the Falgu River. There was no system of hotel, lodge etc during the early 19th century in India. People like Khshudhiram had no choice but to spend nights on the terrace of the temple of Lord Gadadhar (Lord Vishnu is known by this name in Gaya). At the end of the day Khshudhiram fell asleep as soon as he sat at one corner of that terrace with a content heart after discharging his duty towards his forefathers. Suddenly he saw in dream Lord Gadadhar standing before him and asking “Oh Khshudhiram, time has become ripe for my incarnation, would you mind if I come as your son?” Khshudhiram said “A poor Brahmin as I am, how can I dare to take the responsibility of serving you the Lord of the cosmos?” The Lord insisted “I shall be happy with whatsoever you treat me to. I am entering your wife’s womb now, go home, nurse her well and prepare for my advent in your family”. After this incident Khshudhiram’s youngest son is born and named Gadadhar. The following story would narrate how and by what kind of people Gadadhar was respected in his childhood and also would give an idea about what kind of people were Kamarpukur inhabitated by. There lived a maker of shell made bangles (“shaankhaa” as called in Bengal worn by married ladies) in Kamarpukur named Chinu Shankhari in Gadadhar’s time; because of his accommodating and pious nature the villagers respected Chinu. He hailed from the Vaishnavite sect and was a staunch devotee of Lord Krishna. Holding a noble character Chinu had also the acumen to understand others’ characters. He identified Gadadhar as Lord Krishna Himself reborn. Chinu used to look upon guests as the forms of the Lord and any deficiency of alacrity in serving the guests was a sin to him. There is a famous incident relating to his hospitality which aggrandized his fame as a devotee. Once in a winter some of his guests expressed the desire to eat mango dal (dal boiled with the crux of raw mango or “kancha aam” as called in Bengal). He stood aghast at such request since he was not an affluent person who could afford to arrange such fruit in a time which is not the season thereof. He was habituated in praying to the Lord in any distress. Behind Chinu’s house there was a mango tree. A staunch Vaishnavite Chinu used to see the Lord in every thing and being. Forgetting his natural agoraphobia he knelt before the tree and yelled “Oh Lord, save me from failure to feed the guests, please!”. Immediately around half a dozen kancha aams fell from the tree. For common men this is a miracle in winter. Today also this incident is cited as an example of how God alleviates the miseries of his devotees.
When arrangements for Gadadhar to be invested with the sacred thread were nearly complete, he declared that he would have his first alms as a Brahmin from a certain low-caste woman of the village. This was a shock in the days when tradition required that the first alms be from a brahmin, but he was adamant. He said he had given his word to the lady and if he did not keep his word, what sort of Brahmin would he be? No argument, no appeal, no amount of tears are said to have budged him from his position. Finally, Ramkumar, his eldest brother and the head of the family after the passing away of their father, gave in.
Meanwhile, the family’s financial position worsened every day. Ramkumar ran a Sanskrit school in Calcutta and also served as purohit priest in some families. About this time, a rich woman of Calcutta, Rani Rashmoni, founded a temple at Dakshineswar. She approached Ramkumar to serve as priest at the temple of Kali and Ramkumar agreed. After some persuasion, Gadadhar agreed to decorate the deity. When Ramkumar retired, Gadadhar took his place as priest.
Career as priest
When Gadadhar started worshipping the deity Bhavatarini, he began to question if he was worshipping a piece of stone or a living Goddess. If he was worshipping a living Goddess, why should she not respond to his worship? This question nagged him day and night. Then, he began to pray to Kali: “Mother, you’ve been gracious to many devotees in the past and have revealed yourself to them. Why would you not reveal yourself to me, also? Am I not also your son?”
He is known to have wept bitterly and sometimes even cry out loudly while worshipping. At night, he would go into a nearby jungle and spend the whole night praying. One day, the famous account goes, he was so impatient to see Mother Kali that he decided to end his life. He seized a sword hanging on the wall and was about to strike himself with it, when he is reported to have seen light issuing from the deity in waves. He is said to have been soon overwhelmed by the waves and fell unconscious on the floor.
Gadadhar, however, unsatisfied, prayed to Mother Kali for more religious experiences. He especially wanted to know the truths that other religions taught. Strangely, these teachers came to him when necessary and he is said to have reached the ultimate goals of those religions with ease. Soon word spread about this remarkable man and people of all denominations and all stations of life began to come to him.
Rumors spread to Kamarpukur that Ramakrishna had gone mad as a result of his over-taxing spiritual exercises at Dakshineswar. Alarmed, neighbors advised Ramakrishna’s mother that he be persuaded to marry, so that he might be more conscious of his responsibilities to the family. Far from objecting to the marriage, he, in fact, mentioned Jayrambati, three miles to the north-west of Kamarpukur, as being the village where the bride could be found at the house of one Ramchandra Mukherjee. The five-year-old bride, Sarada, was found and the marriage was duly solemnised. Sarada was Ramakrishna’s first disciple. He attempted to teach her everything he had learned from his various gurus. She is believed to have mastered every religious secret as quickly as Ramakrishna had. Impressed by her religious potential, he began to treat her as the Universal Mother Herself and performed a puja considering Sarada as veritable Tripura Sundari Devi. He said, ‘I look upon you as my own mother and the Mother who is in the temple’. Ramakrishna impressed upon Sarada Devi that she was not only the mother of his young disciples, but also of all humanity. Initially, Sarada Devi was shy about playing this role, but slowly, she filled it with courage.
Her renunciation is believed by devotees to be a striking quality that she shared with her husband in a measure equal to, if not beyond, his. The true nature of their relationship and kinship was believed to be beyond the grasp of ordinary minds. Ramakrishna concluded, after close and constant association with her, that her relationship and attitude toward him were firmly based on a divine spiritual plane. Devotees believe that as they shared their daily lives, no other thought other than that of the divine presence, arose in their minds. An account of such continuous divine relationship between two souls of opposite gender is unique in religious records, not known in any of the past hagiographies. After the passing away of Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi became a religious teacher in her own right.
He soon came to be known as Ramakrishna Paramahansa, and like a magnet, is said to have begun to attract seekers of God. He taught the basic truths of religion ceaselessly for about fifteen years through parables, metaphors, songs, and above all by his own life.
He developed throat cancer and attained Mahasamadhi at a garden house in Cossipore on 16 August, 1886, leaving behind a devoted band of 16 young disciples headed by Swami Vivekananda, who would eventually become a well-known saint-philosopher, orator, and leader of the householder disciples. Among his contemporaries, Keshab Chandra Sen and Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Hindu reformers, were his admirers.
The key concepts in Ramakrishna’s teachings were the oneness of existence; the divinity of all living beings; the unity of God and the harmony of religions; that the primal bondage in human life is lust and greed (kamini and kanchana in Bengali).
Ramakrishna emphasised that God-realisation is the supreme goal of all living beings. Religion, for him, was merely a means for the achievement of this goal. Ramakrishna’s mystical realisation, classified by Hindu tradition as nirvikalpa samadhi (literally, “involuntary meditation”, thought to be absorption in the all-encompassing Consciousness), led him to know that the various religions are different ways to reach The Absolute, and that the Ultimate Reality could never be expressed in human terms. This is in agreement with the proclamation in the Rig Veda that “Truth is one but sages call it by many names.” As a consequence of this view, Ramakrishna actually spent periods of his life practicing his own understandings of Islam, Christianity and various Yogic and Tantric sects within Hinduism.
Ramakrishna’s proclamation of jatra jiv tatra Shiv (wherever there is a living being, there is Shiva) stemmed from his Advaitic perception of Reality. This would lead him teach his disciples, “Jive daya noy, Shiv gyane jiv seba” (not kindness to living beings, but serving the living being as Shiva Himself). This view differs considerably from what Ramakrishna’s followers call the “sentimental pantheism” of, for example, Francis of Assisi.
Ramakrishna, though not formally trained as a philosopher, had an intuitive grasp of complex philosophical concepts. According to him brahmanda, the visible universe and many other universes, are mere bubbles emerging out of Brahman, the supreme ocean of intelligence.
Like Adi Sankara had done more than a thousand years earlier, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa revitalised Hinduism which had been fraught with excessive ritualism and superstition in the Nineteenth century and helped it become better-equipped to respond to challenges from Islam, Christianity and the dawn of the modern era. However, unlike Adi Sankara, Ramakrishna developed ideas about the post-samadhi descent of consciousness into the phenomenal world, which he went on to term “vignana”. While he asserted the supreme validity of Advaita Vedanta, he also proclaimed that he accepts both the Nitya (or the eternal substance) and the Leela (literally, “play”, indicating the dynamic phenomenal reality) as aspects of Brahman.
The idea of the descent of consciousness shows the influence of the Bhakti movement and certain sub-schools of Shaktism on Ramakrishna’s thought. The idea would later influence Aurobindo’s views about the Divine Life on Earth.