Ramakrishna was born on 18 February 1836 in Kamarpukur, some seventy miles from Calcutta. Though his name is often equated with other famous Indians saints, religious, teachers, and bhaktas (devotees), he is a rather distinct figure in the annals of Indian history. His teachings and sayings are preserved in the memoirs of his numerous disciples and admirers, but principally in a compilation entitled The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, which was put together by his disciple ‘M’ or Mahendranath Gupta.
In his childhood, Ramakrishna was known as Gadadhar, and his biographers have noted that even as a child he displayed the capacity to be immersed in God. One of the women in his neighborhood began to address Ramakrishna as the Goddess when he was less than ten years old. He moved to the Jhamapukur district of
Calcutta in his early teens, and served as an assistant to his brother Ramkumar, who ran a tol or Sanskrit school. When Ramkumar was summoned a few years later to Dakshineswar, just four miles from Calcutta, to serve as a priest at the new Kali temple, he was accompanied by Gadadhar, who was henceforth to be known as Ramakrishna. It is here that Ramakrishna gradually began to assume some of the duties of his brother, and soon the worship of Kali devolved upon him, as his brother performed the worship of Krishna and Radha. When Ramkumar died in 1856, Ramakrishna took over his brother’s duties. But at the same time his spiritual visions were acquiring such intensity that Ramakrishna could not even perform the temple worship. He became absorbed in the vision of Kali and was moved by forces that he was unable to apprehend; and he prayed anxiously to Kali, “I don’t understand what’s happening to me. Please, teach me yourself how to know you. Mother, if you won’t teach me, who will?” Over time, he increasingly began to assume the personality of a child of the Divine Mother. His devotion to the Divine Mother was so complete that he gradually disassociated himself from temple worship, and he would remain immersed in samadhi, a state which transcends all consciousness — though paradoxically it can be described as a state of constant awareness, a form of supra-consciousness.
Ramakrishna’s devotion became legendary and he was soon to acquire a large number of disciples, one of whom, Narendra Nath Datta, better known as Swami Vivekananda, would go on to establish the Ramakrishna Order. One might say that Ramakrishna defied ontological dualism in an altogether unprecedented fashion. There are many accounts which testify to his androgyny, and from his childhood he could take on the characteristics of the female sex. He was allowed in the company of women because not only did he assume a woman’s voice, but because, it is said, women did not feel they were in the presence of a man. When he assumed the madhura bhava, or the postion of the lover as she approaches God, Ramakrishna would dress in feminine attire and imitate feminine behavior. Witnesses furnished accounts of Ramakrishna menstruating: he would sit in samadhi, and blood would come out from the pores of his skin. His biographer says,
As soon as he was dressed as a woman, Ramakrishna’s mind became more and more deeply merged in the mood of woman- hood. Those who saw him were amazed at the physical trans-formation which seemed to take place; walk, speech, gestures, even the smallest actions were perfectly in character. Sometimes, Ramakrishna would go to the house in the Janbazar district which had belonged to Rani Rasmani and live there with the women of the family, as a woman. They found it almost impossible to remember that he was not really one of themselves.
Though Ramakrishna was married to Sarada Devi, he did not consummate his marriage with her: she herself is now worshipped as the Holy Mother. Ramakrishna counseled that one should look upon all women as one’s mother, and he saw the spark of divinity within women as much as men. Indeed, his greatest teacher was a man of the Puri sect by the name of Tota Puri, whom Ramakrishna called Nangta, The Naked One: Tota Puri went about largely naked. It is from him that he perfected his techniques of meditation and concentration and his understanding of non-dualism; and it is under his guidance that he for the first time experienced nirvikalpa samadhi, or total absorption in the Divine, where there is only One. Ramakrishna went into his final samadhi early in the morning on Monday, August 16, 1886.
Though Ramakrishna was to acquire a large middle-class following, and the Ramakrishna Mission still attracts many member of the Bengali educated elite, the middle- class has always nurtured anxieties about him. Indian nationalists saw him as a weak and androgynous figure, scarcely a credible model for an aspiring nation-state, and they have been inclined to see his devotionalism as the kind of force that left India vulnerable in the past to the depredations and greed of more materialistic, ambitious, and worldly people. There is always an implicit contrast between his purported effeminacy and the unambiguous masculinity of Vivekananda. Though members of the Ramakrishna Mission would never openly concede it, Vivekananda has in some respects been elevated to a higher position than the master himself. In recent years, the Ramakrishna Mission fought an ultimately unsuccessful battle, which went up to the Supreme Court, to have it declared itself as a non-Hindu faith: no doubt the common, folk understanding of Hinduism as a religion without the characteristics of the monotheistic faiths, which makes it into a ‘soft’ and effete religion, does not sit easily with the mandarins to whom the legacy of Ramakrishna has been entrusted. But Ramakrishna will continue to represent, as he always has, the possibility of sheer spiritual joy and ecstatic abandonment at the feet of the Divine.
Christopher Isherwood. Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1950; reprint ed., New York: Simon and Schuster/Touchstone Books, 1965).
Mahendranath Gupta. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna , Translated by Swami Nikhilananda. Various editions.
Rolland, Romain. The Life of Ramakrishna. Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1930.
Saradananda, Swami. SriRamakrishna The Great Master. Translated by Swami Jagadananda. Mylapore, Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1952.
Modern Critical Reading:
Chatterjee, Partha. A Religion of Urban Domesticity: Sri Ramakrishna and the Calcutta Middle Class
Subaltern Studies VII: Writings on South Asian History and Society, pp. 40-68. Edited by Partha Chatterjee and Gyanendra Pandey. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992.