The story of the flow of eastern thoughts and ideas to the west is a remarkable one. We have covered the story of Sri Ramakrishna earlier. Previous week we took up the story of his most remarkable disciple: Swami Vivekanada who was known as Naren in the early part of his life. After Naren had met Sri Ramakrishna he felt drawn to him though he fought every inch of the way questioning and challenging him all the time.
The years rolled by and gradually Naren’s trust and faith in Sri Ramakrishna took hold. However one day an incident took place that threw everything off kilter. Naren’s father passed away and left the family in huge debt. Naren found his situation suddenly transform from that of carefree wealth to abject poverty. Even shoes became a luxury. His garments were now of the coarsest cloth, and he found that he had to occasionally skip meals and remain hungry as there was no food at home. By now he had graduated from college and was enrolled in a law college. He was on track to become a lawyer like his father. Naren now found himself being pulled in two directions. On one side was his career and responsibilities towards family. On the other side was a spiritual pull of Sri Ramakrishna that beckoned to give up all for the sake of God realization. How could he forsake his family for his own selfish needs? What should he do?
Naren tried to get a job but the only offers that came his way required him to compromise on his values. He would not go there and declined such job offers. Slowly the situation turned increasingly dire and his family continued to suffer. Even his normally God-devoted mother told him bitterly, “You have been crying yourself hoarse for God since your childhood. Tell me what has God done for you?” Naren had no answer and doubts about God’s existence began to creep in his mind too.
One day Naren was out in soaking rain looking for a job. He had had nothing to eat and was wandering about in the rain the entire day. In the evening he sat exhausted on the porch of a house. His mind was in such turmoil that he lost control of his thoughts. Suddenly he had a strange vision and felt complete peace and calm. He now gained deep understanding of God’s mercy. He understood that the real Self was above the day-to-day problems faced by the ego-self. The vision stayed with him for the entire night and he stayed put on the porch for the entire night. Only in the morning he returned home refreshed both in body and mind.
This was a turning point for Naren. He now became indifferent to daily problems and pleasures. He was now able to renounce the world internally while continuing with his day-to-day activities. He soon went to Sri Ramakrishna and asked that his renunciation be made formal and he be initiated as a monk. He was finally prepared to accept Sri Ramakrishna as a guru. However Sri Ramakrishna told him, “I know you will be a monk. But stay in the world as long as I live, for my sake at least.”
Many years later Naren would remark that the difficulties and suffering in this phase of his life were excellent preparation for the rigors of monkhood. The hardship showed him how to remain indifferent and unsullied by problems and tribulations of daily life. It also provided him with a first hand understanding of the problems faced by most people. He now thoroughly understood Sri Ramakrishna’s message of empowering and strengthening the weak and the poor. If he did not have the strength to face his own problems how could he help others?
Within a year Sri Ramakrishna was diagnosed with throat cancer. Naren found himself with increasing responsibility to manage Sri Ramakrishna’s congregation. Naren now spent more time doing serious meditation. And as he progressed, Sri Ramakrishna gave him further instructions. As Sri Ramakrishna’s health continued to deteriorate Naren felt pressure to make spiritual progress faster. During the day he would do a low paying job of a teacher and meditate at night with only a few hours of sleep. Night after night he spent in deep meditation. As the New Year dawned in 1886 Sri Ramakrishna initiated Naren and 11 other disciples as monks. By now Naren had given up his law study for good so that he could devote all his energy to meditate under the guidance of Sri Ramakrishna.
One night as he meditated, he felt as if somebody had placed a bright lamp behind his head. The intensity of light slowly increased and suddenly burst open and he merged into the Absolute. When he came back to his senses he could only feel his head and had no sensation in the rest of his body. He cried for help and a brother disciple, Gopal, responded. Gopal tried to bring back sensation in Naren’s legs by massaging them to no avail. Thinking that Naren was dying he ran in panic to Sri Ramakrishna who merely smiled and said, “Let him stay in that state for a while; he has teased me long enough for it.”
Naren had already gone back into Samadhi and he stayed there for a few more hours. When he regained normal consciousness he realized that he had experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the highest form of conscious experience. He immediately went to meet Sri Ramakrishna, who told him, “’Now the Mother has shown you everything. But this realization, like the jewel locked in a box, will be hidden away from you and kept in my custody. I will keep the key with me. Only after you have fulfilled your mission on this earth will the box be unlocked, and you will know everything as you have known now.”
Naren was destined never to experience the highest state of consciousness again till the very end of his life. Sri Ramakrishna warned him that there was very little separating him from the deepest experience and there was always danger that he would topple into it at any time. He warned Naren to stay away from it and instead devote his time to the deeper mission of his life. From now on Naren would feel twin pulls. One pulled him in the direction of his work and the other towards deeper meditation. In line of the wishes of his Guru, Naren would henceforth focus only on his work. His ideal was that of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha who postponed his own enlightenment for the good of humanity.
Naren found many of Sri Ramakrishna’s disciple believed that he had the powers to cure himself and did not need any treatment. It was only on Naren’s insistence that proper medical care was provided to Sri Ramakrishna. Naren insisted that though Sri Ramakrishna personified divinity he nevertheless was in human form and had to undergo all the afflictions of a mortal. He therefore had to be treated medically as any other mortal.
The illness of Sri Ramakrishna put great emotional stress on the monks and devotes. In this highly charged atmosphere some devotees began to copy Sri Ramakrishna by imitating his trances. It was as if those who went into more number of trances would be seen as being closer to Sri Ramakrishna, and be seen as making more spiritual progress than others. Naren quickly put an end to this. He saw danger in encouraging artificially exaggerated emotional states. He feared that such devotees may suffer from emotional break down if unchecked. He gathered all the devotees and said, “’Of one hundred persons who take up the spiritual life, eighty turn out to be charlatans, fifteen insane, and only five, maybe, get a glimpse of the real truth. Therefore, beware.”
Sri Ramakrishna’s health continued to deteriorate and he continued to suffer. Naren was amazed to see that even in this state Sri Ramakrishna was able to go into deeper state of consciousness and when he was there he was free of pain. One day Sri Ramakrishna called Naren to his bedside. He gazed lovingly in Naren’s eyes and went into deep meditation. Naren felt a subtle force, resembling an electric current, entering his body. He gradually lost all outward consciousness. When he came to he found his master weeping and heard him speak, “Naren, today I have given you everything I possess — now I am no more than a fakir, a penniless beggar. By the powers I have transmitted to you, you will accomplish great things in the world, and not until then will you return to the source whence you have come.”
A few days later, in August 15 1886, Sri Ramakrishna passed away by entering into final Samadhi, leaving Naren in charge.
From this moment forward Naren became the leader and messenger of Sri Ramakrishna’s congregation. He always strove to stick to the message of Sri Ramakrishna. Whenever he accidentally introduced any thoughts or ideas that were uniquely his own he always felt that he had gone astray and felt remorse for having done so.
Sri Ramakrishna did not want his monks to be like other Indian monks who strove for personal God realization. Instead he wanted his monks to be also devoted to the service of others. For Indian spirituality this was an uniquely new concept. Indian spirituality gives the right to each person to select whatever path they want to attain God. But in the end it is a personal effort devoted to an individual’s goals. Now the spiritual path was being re-defined. It included twin goals of God realization and social upliftment with the latter getting precedent. Many years later Naren would clearly state this when he said, “After so much austerity, I have known that the highest truth is this: He is present in all beings. These are all the manifested forms of Him. There is no other God to seek for! He alone is worshipping God, who serves all beings!”
Naren faced a daunting task. It was challenging enough to create a formal religious organization from scratch based on the ideals of Sri Ramakrishna. But the goals that Sri Ramakrishna had outlined were much broader. He wanted social transformation both locally and globally. However, to think that a penniless group of powerless monks could do any such thing would be considered laughable at best. Will Naren be able to achieve the goals set out by his guru? Click here for the next part of this series.
Related post: The Story of Sri Ramakrishna.
Related post: The Story of Swami Vivekananda: Part 1 This is the previous part of the series.
Related post: The Wandering Years. This is the next part of the series.