2008 Issues: August 24
The 19th century was remarkable in many ways. Between 1526 and the first Battle of Panipat and the slow deterioration and final collapse of the Mughal Empire in 1857, a period of roughly three centuries and a quarter, Hinduism was under great strain.
With the arrival of the British and Christian missionaries, Hinduism was under no less strain. Islamic and later Christian onslaught had led Hindu society to do some hard thinking.
In Bengal, the first state to come under British administration, it led to the establishment of the Brahmo Samaj. It was also Bengal which gave Hinduism one of its most powerful protagonists. One suspects that the times called for such a man.
Born on February 17, 1836, to a devoted and deeply religious couple, Kushudiram and Chandra Devi Chattopadhyaya, he was named Ramakrishna. Called Gadadhar in his childhood—his friends called him Gadai—Ramakrishna was to make history as few others of his time like Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917) or Pherozeshah Mehta (1845-1915) did.
We must remember the times. Those were days when the British looked down on Indian culture and civilisation in no uncertain terms as low, and condemned Hinduism as backward and mired in superstition. It was fashionable among the newly set up Bengali intellectuals to heap scorn on their own ancestral religion.
Something had to happen. It did. A child was born in a mud and thatch hamlet of Kamarkapur, eighty six miles north west of Calcutta. Then history took its course. Right from his boyhood, Ramakrishna as the child was named, showed spiritual tendencies. The author, Mehrotra, says that, “all while during those sylvan years (of his boyhood), Gadadhar’s body and mind were being made ready from within, for the awesome transformations that were to thrust him into terrifying, unknown, unlimited inner spaces.”
Terrifying is the right word. It is unimaginable that while he was still a boy, he attained spontaneous samadhi, a state of superconsciousness that was an unthought of phenomenon to the family. Once, when a Brahmin guru who was appointed to initiate Gadadhar into priesthood and had whispered a holy word in Gadadhar’s ears, it is reported that he uttered a loud cry and plunged into deep concentration that lasted for about five days!
There was strange ‘relationship’ between Gadadhar and the Goddess Kali. If he felt separated from Her, he would fall into a trance! As the appointed priest to Dakhshineshwar Temple, it is said that he was in daily communion with the Mother Goddess. Sometimes he would feel he had lost Her. His search would drive everyone at Dakshineshwar to paroxyms.
Some thought he was a mad man. His behaviour was unexplainable. In his young days he was known to be very caste conscious. Strange to think that he would be that. But he overcame it. He was frequently unconventional. Sometimes he would spend a great part of the day and night in a cremation ground, deep in meditation.
One never knew what he would do or what would happen to him at any given moment of time. Once, when performing a ritual, he began to shake uncontrollably and gradually became rigid and went into samadhi. This was to become a major feature of his life in the years to come.
His family got him married to a beautiful girl who came to be known as Sarada Devi. That didn’t change Sri Ramakrishna, as he came to be known. He merely became his wife’s spiritual guide. He left his child bride with his mother and worked at Dakhshineshwar where he undertook sadhana.
Then a women, a Bhairavi, came into his life who guided Sri Ramakrishna methodically, meticulously and consciously to peaks of spiritual vision and even took him through tantric sadhanas. She was to leave him in due course.
Then an advaitin monk, Totapuri by name, came into his life, towards the end of 1864. This was to lead Sri Ramakrishna into another mode of spiritual attainment. He went into nirvikalpa samadhi for an unbelievable six months without food or water. It is difficult to believe all these feats in this day and age. But these are recorded.
Once, a friend who had become a sufi told Sri Ramakrishna of the values of Islam. Without hesitation, Sri Ramakrishna decided that he would seek them. He dressed himself like a Muslim, with a prayer cap, recited Islamic prayers five times a day and even felt disinclined to see the forms of Hindu gods and goddesses, to the utter disgust of his devotees.
Then he gave that up and practiced Christianity, fascinated by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Years later he was to say that all paths lead to the same source and all religions are true, Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual journey lasted long and unevenly, but in the end he was to reach a stage where his spiritual status was acknowledged in full and he began to attract disciples from every segment of society.
Mehrotra says Sri Ramakrishna “gave to them all, without stint, from his infinite store of realisation”. Among them was Narendranath Datta, who was later to be transformed into Swami Vivekananda, born in Calcutta on January 12, 1863 of an aristocratic Kayastha family. How Narendra was transformed from a cynical, questioning young man to an ardent devotee is a story told in detail.
Narendra was at first violently disturbed by Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual power. How could he become a disciple of a mad man, he would ask himself. Sri Ramakrishna eluded judgment. He was a challenge and a riddle. It was when Sri Ramakrishna knocked down Narendra by the mere touch of his palm, that Narendra was to realise the spiritual prowess of one he took as his guru.
Sri Ramakrishna passed away on August 16, 1886 when he was hardly fifty. Sarada Devi was distraught until she heard the words of faith: “I have only passed from one room to another.”
One can’t imagine a more thrilling recounting of the story of the Saint of Dakhshineshwar. It is even difficult to imagine that such a person existed.
It must have taken Mehrotra years of immense research to write this magnificent biography, but he has done full justice to his subject. To say that it is an illuminating work is to make an understatement. Sri Ramakrishna was Thakur, the Master. This book tells how it all came about and understandably holds one spell-bound with the mystic unfolding of events.
Thakur: A Life of Sri Ramakrishna; Rajiv Mehrotra; Penguin Books; pp 178, Rs 250.00