Ramakrishna and His Disciples by Christopher Isherwood. Vedanta Press. 348 pp. $16.95. ****
“God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion…One may eat a cake with icing either straight or sidewise. It will taste sweet either way.”
― Ramakrishna, Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
Those who are proud of their twenty-minutes-twice-a-day or forty-minutes-every-morning meditation practice would do well to read about the great Indian saints, for whom spiritual practice was virtually all they did. Ramana Maharshi is a good example, or Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, or—perhaps most notably—Ramakrishna. It wasn’t that he scheduled periods of meditation through the day, or had any particular schedule at all. He decided as a young man to retreat to life in a temple, and from then on meditation was a way of life for him. He fell into samadhi at the drop of a hat.
Samadhi for him was not the mild feeling of being settled in sitting that it is for the rest of us. For Ramakrishna it could be quite incapacitating—his associates sometimes had to hold him up—and might take place in any posture. Several photos show him in this state, like these (of the seated photo, he said that it would serve as an inspiration for future practitioners, and would be hung in countless practice places). He might stay in the state for hours or days. He also entered a different state called ecstasy, when he might sing or dance; in one dancing state, pretty close to the end of his life, he was said to be moving so gracefully that it was as if his joints were rubber.
I grew interested in Ramakrishna when I stumbled across the quote with which I’ve led this article. More and more in my life, the things I read about different religions seem to be converging. I assume that others have noticed that the three persons of the Buddha—the Dharmakaya, Nirmanakaya, Sambogkaya—bear a striking resemblance to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the same way that Hindus regard Brahma as the one God, and see other gods as aspects of his personality. Virtually every religion seems to revere a female figure, whether it’s the Virgin Mary, or the Divine Mother in Hinduism, or the Kwan Yin that Buddhists call on in times of difficulty.
John E. A. Robinson spoke of God not as a being somewhere out there, but as the ground of being, the depth of life, the same way that Buddhists speak of going deeper in meditation, and Hindus fall into deep states of samadhi. Vedantic practitioners seem to see all of us as manifestations of God in a way, but also see particular people as avatars, people who were fully realized incarnations. They saw Jesus as one such person. And there were people in Ramakrishna’s life who declared that he was an avatar. They sometimes discussed this possibility in front of him, and he listened with deep interest, as if they were discussing someone else. He didn’t seem to care one way or another.
Ramakrishna himself was famously open to other practices; when one of his teachers for a time was an Islamic practitioner, his Hindu convictions took a back seat for him, and he had a period when he actually practiced Islam, and prayed five times a day. The same thing happened when he came in contact with a man who first read to him from the Bible. This incident was the most striking one for me in the entire book.
“Ramakrishna’s thoughts began to dwell on the personality of Jesus. As it happened, he often took walks to a garden-house which was situated to the south of the Dakshineswar Temple grounds, and rested there; and the parlour of this garden-house was hung with pictures of holy personalities, including one of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus sitting on her lap. Ramakrishna became especially attached to this picture. One day, while he was looking at it, he felt that the figures of the Mother and Child began to shine, and that rays of light struck forth from them and entered his heart. As this happened, he was aware of a radical change in his attitude of mind. He felt—just as he had felt during the time of his initiation into Islam by Govinda Ray—that his Hindu way of thinking had been pushed into the back of his mind and that his reverence for the Hindu gods and goddesses had weakened. Instead, he was filled with love for Jesus and for Christianity. He cried to Kali, ‘Oh Mother, what are these strange changes you are making in me?’, but his appeal did not alter his condition. And now he began to see visions of Christian priests burning incense and waving lights before the images of Jesus in their churches, and he felt the fervor of their prayers. Ramakrishna came back to Dakshineswar under the spell of these experiences, and for three days he did not even go into the temple to salute the Divine Mother. At length, on the evening of the third day, while he was walking in the Panchavati, he saw a tall, stately man with a fair complexion coming towards him, regarding him steadfastly as he did so. Ramakrishna knew him at once to be foreigner. He had large eyes of uncommon brilliance and his face was beautiful, despite the fact that his nose was slightly flattened at the tip. At first, Ramakrishna wondered who this stranger could be. Then a voice from within told him, ‘This is Jesus the Christ, the great yogi, the loving Son of God and one with his Father, who shed his heart’s blood and suffered tortures for the salvation of mankind!’ Jesus then embraced Ramakrishna and passed into his body. Ramakrishna remained convinced, from that day onward, that Jesus was truly a divine incarnation.”
Just the fact that Ramakrishna had undergone these experiences would have made him fascinating to me, but when I realized that the great Christopher Isherwood had written a book about him—the man who Gore Vidal said wrote the best English sentences of his generation—I was sold. Isherwood was himself quite involved in Vedantic practice, and apparently took time off from his novels and screenplays to write this rather long book. It is, like all of his work, beautifully written. (I also highly recommend My Guru and His Disciple, which details his own involvement in religious practice.)
I’m fascinated by the way different cultures perceive different religious states. Indian people believe that these deep states of samadhi exist, and so their great saints experience them, while people from other religions—Japanese Zen and Tibetan Budddhism come to mind—see things otherwise and have no such experiences. To read about the physical agonies Ramakrishna went through as he got deeper and deeper into his realization is to wonder what Jesus must have gone through in his 40 days in the desert, and to marvel at how functional he eventually became. Ramakrishna led a largely sheltered existence for most of his life, with various people looking after him at the temple where he presided. He would talk to anyone who showed up, but didn’t go out and seek people. He lived pretty much without an agenda, just did whatever came up.
There is always the question, of course, of how we should live the one life we’ve been given: should we live in a cave all our lives, in a constant state of samadhi, or is it better to be out in the world engaging with people? Ramakrishna did finally touch many people, and seemed completely content with his life. He was an oddly childlike man, who had a deep understanding of spiritual matters but not much ability to live a practical life in the world. Eventually, though, a number of disciples gathered around him, and his most famous disciple, Vivekananda, founded an order in his name. Isherwood writes brief biographies of him and any number of others. It’s fascinating to see the variety of backgrounds they come from, and the various ways they arrive at this one place.
Ramakrishna developed throat cancer when he was relatively young, at a time and place where there was virtually no treatment for it. He died at the age of 50. But as Isherwood points out, he is a saint who didn’t live in the remote past, but at a time (1836-86) when there were historical records, and plenty of people to observe and record his life, as in the massive Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna that one follower put together. Isherwood does a wonderful job of bringing these accounts together and creating an engaging narrative. He sees the man as a phenomenon. There’s no way to explain him. There are only the accounts of various people who met him, and the words he left behind.
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