At a time when the world seems to be at a crossroads in terms of man’s willingness to accept differences of creed, colour and status, I would like to introduce you to a great 19th century saint, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. This great Soul, born into a brahmin family, devoted his life to God, but although a devout Hindu, he opened his mind, heart and soul to experience the essence of other religions, including Islam and Christianity. It was his belief, based on his experiences, that “There are many doors to God’s house- the main gate, the back door, even the utility entrance. No matter which door you enter through, you get in the house.” He is respected the world over for his views on the harmony of religions, that he believed makes it possible for the human race to unite as a single family.
Born in 1836 in a tiny village about sixty miles from Calcutta, he had his first experience of Divine Consciousness when he was only six years old. Walking though the rice fields one day his attention was drawn to a beautiful black cloud, against which a flock of white cranes flew. The beauty of the scene completely overwhelmed him, and he lost consciousness. He had so many of these experiences as a child, his parents feared he might have epilepsy. They finally accepted that their little boy was, in fact, slipping in and out of altered states of consciousness. He said of these incidents: “I feel the universe saturated with consciousness, just as the ground is soaked with water in the rainy season.”
At the age of nineteen he started his life as a Hindu priest, serving the Goddess Kali in the temple at Dakshineswar. He spent the rest of his life there, until he left his body in 1886. As his name indicates, he was raised in a home where worship of Lord Rama had been the mainstay of his devotion, and it took him a little time to experience the Divine Mother. He would sit in anguish, pleading with her to show herself, begging Kali to teach him how to know her. Finally, on a day when he felt he could no longer bear the pain of separation, Kali revealed her true nature: “I saw an infinite shoreless ocean of light; that ocean was consciousness. However far and in whatever direction I looked, I looked I saw shining waves, one after another, coming towards me.” This is the same temple Paramahansa Yogananda writes about in his book “Autobiography of a Yogi”, when Kali came to life before him.
Ramakrishna began to draw a lot of attention as he undertook many severe disciplines and practices, mastering in a couple of days what other devotees might achieve in a lifetime. One of his teachers, a Naga sadhu called Tota Puri encouraged him to strive for nirvikalpa samadhi, the deepest state of meditation, which had taken him forty years to accomplish. Ramakrishna realised this state after only three days. For the next six months he experienced only the joy of God, barely eating, or resting.
What is remarkable about this saint is that he didn’t confine his practices to only those traditionally observed by Hindus. Anywhere he thought he could find God he went. He noticed a Sufi, Govinda Roy, close to the temple, absorbed in his prayer and the Quran. Impressed by his devotion he asked Roy to initiate him on the path. To the horror of his Hindu devotees, he immersed himself fully in the Muslim practices and rituals, and again, after only three days, he experienced Mohammed merging into Allah, and Allah merging with the Supreme. “This’, he declared, ‘is a legitimate faith. It leads to full spiritual realisation.” Sometime later he saw a picture of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus in a friend’s garden. His friend told him stories of the life of Christ, and Ramakrishna decided to immerse himself in meditation on Christ. A number of days later he encountered Christ who merged into him, bringing him to a state of total oneness with the Divine. He said: “Christianity too is a legitimate path. It also takes you to the highest goal.”
In 1872, Sarada Devi, paid her first visit to her husband, Ramakrishna, to whom she had been betrothed when she was only five years of age. She was happily instructed by him in the mysteries of spirituality, evolving to become a highly realised Master in her own right. She was seen by her husband as an incarnation of the Divine Mother. She came to be known as Sri Sri Maa, or Holy Mother, not only by her husband, but by his followers. She devoted her life to serving him and spreading his teachings.
Rama Krishna always returned to his worship of his Divine Kali, but his openness and willingness to experience other faiths, challenged his devotees to open their hearts and minds to the idea that there are many roads to God. His message of universal respect spread beyond India, attracting the attention of influential artists and intellectuals from the West, including the Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton and the mythologist, Joseph Campbell. Ramakrishna never left India during his fifty years on earth. It was enough that his experiences showed an uncovering of the truth at the heart of all religions, a truth that is love, grace and unity.
His greatest disciple was, Swami Vivekananda, who brought his teachings to the West. The moment they met, when Vivekananda was still a boy, Ramakrishna realised his spiritual potential, saying: “You made me wait for long. Finally, you are here.”. Although they were polar opposites in character and background, they developed a great closeness. Nobody has done as much to share his teachings. Following his participation at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, he became known as the “Messenger of Indian Wisdom to the Western World. Another disciple, Mohendranath Gupta, who had taken notes of everything his Master said over many years, published these teachings in “The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna”.
Ramakrishna’s message is more relevant today than ever. I encourage you to open your hearts and minds to what you perceive as differences in others. When you meet someone whose belief systems don’t agree with yours, or whose politics you disagree with, or who has been labelled a criminal, or a failure, call to your mind Ramakrishna’s response to Vivekananda when that disciple asked if he had met God : “Therefore when I meet different people I say to myself, “God in the form of the saint, God in the form of the sinner, God in the form of the righteous, God in the form of the unrighteous.”