Sri Ramakrishna (1833-1886) was an Indian mystic, reformer, and saint who, in his own lifetime, came to be revered by people of all classes as a spiritual incarnation of God.
Born in a rural Bengal village, Ramakrishna was the fourth of five children. His parents were simple but orthodox Brahmins deeply committed to the maintenance of traditional religious piety. As a child, he did not like routine schoolwork and never learned to read or write. Instead, he began to exhibit precocious spiritual qualities, which included ecstatic experiences, long periods of contemplation, and mystical absorption in the sacred plays of the Indian epic tradition, especially with the roles of the gods Shiva and Krishna. During his formal initiation ceremony into the Brahmin caste, he shocked his highcaste relatives by openly accepting a ritual meal cooked by a woman of low caste.
Though Ramakrishna resisted orthodox priestly studies, at the age of 16 he went to Calcutta to assist his brother, who was serving as a priest for a number of local families. He was disturbed by the gross commercialism, spiritual drabness, and inhumanity of the urban environment. However, when his brother was asked to become a priest at a large temple complex at Dakshineswar near the Ganges outside Calcutta, Ramakrishna found a new and ultimately permanent environment for his spiritual maturation and teaching.
That temple complex—one of the most impressive in the area—had been built by a wealthy widow of low caste whose spiritual ideal was the mother goddess Kali. This great deity traditionally combines the terror of death and destruction with universal motherly reassurance and is often embodied in a statue of ferocious appearance. She represents an immense spectrum of religious and human emotions, from the most primitive to the most exalted, and consequently has a symbolic universality not easily contained within conventional religious forms.
Ramakrishna was selected to serve as priest in the Kali temple, and it was in this context that he had a series of crucial religious experiences in which he felt that Kali was calling him to a universal spiritual mission for India and all mankind. His ecstatic, unorthodox, and often bizarre behavior during this period of spiritual transformation was interpreted by many as a sign of madness; but it clearly represents an aspect of his struggles to free himself from routine religious patterns and achieve a new and more profound spirituality: he imitated the actions of the god-monkey Hanuman (a sign of humility and service); he fed animals from the same food prepared for Kali (a blasphemy to the orthodox); he cleaned an outcaste's hovel with his hair (a terrible defilement for a Brahmin); he sang and danced wildly when the spirit moved; he rejected his Brahminical status, asserting that caste superiority was spiritually debasing—all of this symbolizing his inward spiritual transformation.
When Ramakrishna was 28, his emotional confusion subsided, and he began studying a wide variety of traditional religious teachings. His teachers were astounded at his powers of assimilation, prodigious memory, and innate spiritual skill. He was openly proclaimed a supreme sage. At the age of 33 he began to study Moslem tradition, and after a short period of instruction he had a vision of a "radiant figure"—interpreted as Mohammed himself, which confirmed his universal religious calling.
In 1868 Ramakrishna undertook an extensive pilgrimage; but despite the honors accorded him he was saddened by the poverty of the masses and took up residence with outcaste groups to dramatize their plight, insisting that his rich patrons make formal efforts to alleviate their condition. He was always a man of the people, simple, full of affective warmth, and without artificial intellectualism or religious dogma.
By now Ramakrishna had a wide following from all classes and groups. He was not merely a great teacher; he was regarded as an embodiment of the sacred source of Indian religious tradition and of the universal ideals toward which all men strive. His spiritual vitality and magnetism were combined with a sharp sense of humor—often aimed at himself or his disciples when the hazards of pride and self-satisfaction seemed imminent.
During the last decade of his life, one of the most important events was the conversion of his disciple Vivekananda, who was destined to organize and promote Ramakrishna's teachings throughout India, Europe, and the United States. In 1886, when Ramakrishna was near death, he formally designated Vivekananda his spiritual heir.
Ramakrishna's teachings do not appear in systematic form. He wrote nothing. His disciples recorded his words only in the context of the spiritual force of his personality, and consequently in collected form these sayings have the character of a gospel—a message of salvation centered in the spiritual paradigm of his own life. He rejected all efforts to worship him personally; rather, he suggested that his presentation of man's spiritual potentialities serve as a guide and inspiration to others. Above all, Ramakrishna had a "grass-roots" appeal equaled by few others in any religious tradition, marked by his love of all men and his enthusiasm for all forms of spirituality.
Further Reading on Sri Ramakrishna
The sayings of Ramakrishna are available in several editions, such as The Gospel of Ramakrishna (1907) and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated and introduced by Swami Nikhilananda (1942). Among the many works devoted to Ramakrishna's life and influence are Friedrich Max Mueller, Ramakrishna: His Life and Sayings (1898); Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna (trans. 1931); Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1965); and Nalini Devdas, Sri Ramakrishna (1966).