175 years ago, in February of 1836, a boy was born who would later come to be known as Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Who was Ramakrishna and how is his life connected with ours? To get some idea of Ramakrishna let us look at what Mahatma Gandhi said of him: “His life enables us to see God face to face.” Ramakrishna indeed was a great yogi and a giant spiritual figure. He has had a huge influence in shaping modern thought and modern life and his influence continues to this day. Ramakrishna’s life had three distinct phases and the first phase began in Gaya before his birth.
Gaya is a city situated in Eastern India and has many sites regarded as holy both by Buddhists and Hindus. Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment at a site called Bodh Gaya about 8 miles from Gaya. In 1835, one Mr. Khudiram was on a pilgrimage to Gaya. One night he had a strange vision that foretold that a son would be born to him who would attain great spiritual heights. About the same time his wife also had a similar vision. Both husband and wife were overjoyed at the possibility of having a child with great spiritual potential. In about 9 months his wife gave birth to a baby boy whom Khudiram gave the name Gadadhar in memory of the vision he had at Gaya.
True to the vision, Gadadhar grew into a restless child with strong spiritual inclination. Once when he was about 6 years old an event happened that foretold how his life would unfold. This is how he later recounted the incident; “I was walking along a narrow path separating paddy fields, eating some puffed rice from a basket that I was carrying. Looking up at the sky I saw a beautiful somber thundercloud. As it spread rapidly enveloping the whole sky, a flock of snow-white cranes flew overhead across. It represented such a beautiful contrast that my mind wandered to far-off regions. Lost to outward sense, I fell down, and the puff rice scattered in all directions. Some people found me and carried me home in their arms. This was the first time I completely lost consciousness in ecstasy.” From then on Gadadhar slowly came to the realization that his mission in life was realization of God. Consequently he started ignoring school and spending more time with spiritual people and studying scripture. His older brother was concerned about this and one day pulled him aside. Gadadhar replied, “Brother, what shall I do with a mere bread-winning education? I would rather acquire that wisdom which will illuminate my heart and quench my spiritual quest forever.”
Slowly the family fortunes declined. First Khudiram, Gadadhar’s father, and subsequently his older brother passed away. The family land was sold and the family faced penury. Gadadhar found himself penniless in a place called Dakshineswar in the outskirts of the eastern city of Calcutta, India. He was soon made the priest of Kali temple. Luckily for him the trustees of the temple saw his spiritual potential and gave him great leeway.
To Gadadhar the image of Kali was not an inert stone but the Divine Mother Herself. Gadadhar increasingly became God-intoxicated and spent increasing time wandering the nearby jungles or in meditation. Such was his fervor for God that when the sound of evening bells in the temple announced the close of the day, he would grow disconsolate and cry in agony, “Another day is spent in vain, Mother, for I have not seen Thee! Another day of this short life has passed, I have not realized the Truth!”
At last, when he was at the limit of physical endurance, the veil was lifted, and he was blessed with the vision of the Divine Mother. Gadadhar describes his first experience as follows, “I was then suffering from excruciating pain, because I had not been blessed with a vision of the Mother. I felt as if my heart were being wrung like a wet towel. I was overpowered by a great restlessness and a fear that it might not be my lot to realize Her in this life. I could not bear the separation any longer; life did not seem worth living. Suddenly my eyes fell on the sword that was kept in the Mother’s temple. Determined to put an end to my life, I jumped up like a madman and seized it, when suddenly the blessed Mother revealed Herself to me and I fell unconscious on the floor. What exactly happened after that, or how that day or the next passed, I do not know, but within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss altogether new, I felt the presence of the Divine Mother!”
From now on Gadadhar’s behavior became increasingly eccentric and God-intoxicated. His constant prayer was to have a repetition of the Divine Vision. When he was in fact experiencing spiritual ecstasies the people around him seemed like “shadows or painted pictures than real objects.” Reports of Gadadhar’s alarming behavior reached Mathur, one of the trustees of the temple. He paid a visit to the temple to examine the situation firsthand. What he saw impressed him and he was convinced on Gadadhar’s authenticity. He gave Gadadhar the name Ramakrishna. From now on Gadadhar was known as Sri Ramakrishna. Mathur felt that the purpose of building the temple complex was finally being fulfilled. Instructions were given to other priest to give complete freedom to Sri Ramakrishna and not interfere in his work.
One day Sri Ramakrishna got a vision in which he was explicitly instructed to remain in the threshold of relative consciousness and not attempt to go deeper. Sri Ramakrishna was achieving higher spiritual states but he still had no idea how to control his meditation. Without proper training he was in danger of losing control of his consciousness completely and the larger purpose of his life going unfulfilled. In the next phase of his life Sri Ramakrishna will have to learn to control his meditation and go deeper than ever before. To do this he would need Gurus who would guide him. Next week we shall see how this unfolds. The next phase of Sri Ramakrishna’s life will set the stage for a daring spiritual experiment the reverberations of which we can feel to this day.