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Ramakrishna

Shri Ramakrishna’s life and work
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Shri Ramakrishna
Shri  Ramakrishna
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Biography
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Biography of Shri Ramakrishna

The following biography is an abridged version of one written by Swāmī Vivekānanda of his famous guru, Shrī Rāmakrishna (1836-1886). The full version appears as the “Biographical Introduction” to The Original Gospel of Rāmakrishna: Based on M.’s English Text, Abridged (World Wisdom, 2011).

Rāmakrishna, we are told, was born in the village of Kāmārpukur, in the Hooghly District, situated about four miles to the west of the Jahānābad subdivision, and thirty-two miles south of Burdwan. His life on earth began on the 20th of February, 1833,[*} and ended the 16th of August, 1886, 1 a.m. The village in which he was born was inhabited chiefly by people of the lower castes, mostly blacksmiths with some sprinkling of carpenters, cowherds, husbandmen, and oilmen. His father was the head of the only brāhminic family settled in the village… The original name given to his child was Gadādhara, a name of Vishnu…  It was later in life that he began to be called Rāmakrishna.…

Rāmakrishna…had something in him which attracted everybody and made people love him, as if he were of their own kith and kin, even at the first appearance. The young child used to repeat the whole of the religious operas and dramas, the acting, the music, and everything, after hearing them once. He had a very good musical voice and a taste for music. He was a very good judge of the merits and defects of the statues or images of gods or goddesses, and his judgment was held as final by the old people of the village, even from his childhood…  At the age of six he was well versed in the Purānas, likewise in the Rāmāyana, the Mahābhārata, and the Shrīmad Bhāgavatam, by hearing them from the kathaks, a class of men who preach and read these Purānas for the enlightenment of the uneducated masses all over India.

The pilgrim road to Purī passes through the outskirts of the village where he lived [the family had by this time migrated to Kāmārpur], and very often a whole host of ascetics and religious men would come and take shelter in the dharmasālā or pilgrim-house [there]… Rāmakrishna used to go there very often, talk to them on religious subjects, mark their habits, and hear their tales of travel.

It is the custom in India to gather all the learned pandits or professors of the neighborhood at a funeral ceremony. In one of these gatherings…a question arose about some intricate points of theology, and the professors could not come to a conclusion. The boy Rāmakrishna went to them and decided it quickly with his simple language, and all present were astonished.

Before he reached his teens, he was walking in the fields one day. The sky was very clear and blue, and he saw a flight of white cranes moving along it. The contrast of colors was so very beautiful and dazzling to his imagination, and produced such thoughts in him, that he fell down in a trance.

[Rāmakrishna] was the youngest child of a family of three sons and two daughters. His eldest brother, Rāmkumār Chattopādhyāya, was a very learned professor of the old school. He had his own school at Calcutta. At the age of sixteen Rāmakrishna, having been invested by his own father with the sacred brāhminic thread, was taken to this school, but what was his disgust to find that after all their high talk on being and non-being, on Brahman and māyā, on how the soul is liberated by the realization of Ātman, they would never dream of practicing these precepts in their own lives, but run after lust and gold, after name and fame. He told his brother plainly he would never care for that kind of learning… He yearned to learn something which would raise him above all these, and give him as a recompense God Himself. From that time he kept aloof from the school.

The temple of the goddess Kālī at Dakshineshwar, about five miles to the north of Calcutta, was established in 1853 A.D. It stands on the side of the Ganges, and is one of the finest temples in India… The eldest brother of Shrī Rāmakrishna was appointed as priest to the temple…  A few months afterwards, his brother became incapable of conducting the services through illness, and requested Rāmakrishna to take charge of the duties. He consented at last, and became a recognized worshipper of the goddess Kālī.

Sincere as he always was, he could do nothing from mercenary motives, nor did he ever do anything which he did not thoroughly believe. He now began to look upon the image of the goddess Kālī as his Mother and the Mother of the universe. He believed it to be living and breathing and taking food out of his hand. After the regular forms of worship he would sit there for hours and hours, singing hymns and talking and praying to her as a child to his mother, till he lost all consciousness of the outward world… His mother and brothers, thinking that his imagination would calm down when he had a young wife and a family of his own to look after, took him to his native village and married him to Rāmachandra Mukhopādhyāya’s daughter, who was then five years of age, Sāradā Devī by name.…  

After his marriage he returned to Calcutta and took upon himself the charges of the temple again, but instead of toning down, his fervor and devotion increased a thousand-fold. His whole soul, as it were, melted into one flood of tears, and he appealed to the goddess to have mercy on him and reveal herself to him.…

Crowds assembled round him and tried to console him, when the blowing of the conch-shells proclaimed the death of another day, and he gave vent to his sorrow, saying, “Mother, oh my mother, another day has gone, and still I have not found thee.” People thought he was mad, or that he was suffering from some acute pain, for how was it possible for them…to imagine that a man could love his God or Goddess Mother with as much intensity as they loved their wives and children? The son-in-law of Rānī Rāshmani, Mathur Bābu, who had always had a love for this young brāhmin,took him to the best physicians in Calcutta to get him cured of his madness. But all their skill was of no avail. Only one physician of Dacca told them that this man was a great yogī or ascetic, and that all their pharmacopeia was useless for curing his disease, if indeed it were a disease at all. So his friends gave him up as lost.…

These visions [in which he saw his Mother (Kālī)] grew more and more, and his trances became longer and longer in duration, till everyone saw it was no longer possible for him to perform his daily course of duties.… Mathur at first objected to this, but shortly afterwards… He appointed the nephew of Rāmakrishna to conduct the regular services, and left him free to do whatever he liked.

The ardent soul of Rāmakrishna could not remain quiet with these frequent visions, but ran eagerly to attain perfection and realization of God in all His different aspects. He thus began the twelve years of unheard-of tapasyā, or ascetic exercises. Looking back to these years of self-torture in his later days, he said that a great religious tornado, as it were, raged within him during these years and made everything topsy-turvy. He had no idea then that it lasted for so long a time. He never had a wink of sound sleep during these years, could not even doze, but his eyes would remain always open and fixed…  “I did not once,” he [later said], “look to the preservation of my body. My hair grew till it became matted, and I had no idea of it. My nephew, Hridāya, used to bring me some food daily, and some days succeeded and some days did not succeed in forcing a few mouthfuls down my throat, though I had no idea of it. Sometimes I used to go to the closet of the servants and sweepers and clean it with my own hands, and prayed, ‘Mother! destroy in me all idea that I am great, and that I am a brāhmin, and that they are low and pariahs, for who are they but Thou in so many forms?’”

“…About this time,” he said, “I felt such a burning sensation all over my body; I used to stand in the waters of the Ganges, with my body immersed up to the shoulders and a wet towel over my head all through the day, for it was insufferable. Then a brāhmin lady came and cured me of it in three days.…”

All people were astonished at the wonderful learning of this brāhmin lady, but they could not understand how she could sympathize and place even above herself this half-crazed Rāmakrishna they took him for. To prove that he was not mad, the lady mentioned some Vaishnava scriptures, got the manuscripts from some learned pandits, and quoted passage after passage, showing that all these physical manifestations come to an ardent lover of God…  The lady held it to be no real disease, but a state of physical disturbance, which would come to all who arrive at that stage of bhakti, or love of God. She applied the same remedies for three days, and the trouble passed away.

The lady lived there for some years, and made her friend practice all the different sorts of yoga which make a man complete master of his body and mind, render his passions subservient to his reason, and produce a thorough and deep concentration of thought, and, above all, the fearless and unbiased disposition which is essential to everybody who desires to know the truth and the whole truth.…

By this time Rāmakrishna had learnt all that the brāhmin lady could teach, but he was still hankering after higher truths, when a jnāni (a true philosopher) came and initiated him into the truths of the Vedānta. This was a sannyāsī named Totāpurī, tall, muscular, and powerful. He had taken the vow of the order from his very boyhood, and after a hard struggle had succeeded in realizing the highest truths of the Vedānta… On seeing Shrī Rāmakrishna sitting on the border of the Ganges, he at once recognized in him a great yogī and a perfectly-prepared ground for the reception of the seeds of the highest truths of religion. He addressed him at once and said, “My son! Do you want to learn the way to perfect freedom? Come, then, and I will teach it to you.” Rāmakrishna, who never did anything without first asking his Mother (the goddess Kālī), said that he did not know what he should do, but he would go and ask his Mother. He came back in a few minutes and told the sannyāsī that he was ready. Totāpurī (the name of the sannyāsī)made him take the vow, and told him how he was to meditate and how to realize unity. After three days of practice he attained to the highest, the nirvikalpa stage of samādhi, where there is no longer any perception of the subject or of the object…  And such was the love of this holy man for Shrī Rāmakrishna that he stayed with him for eleven months, and in his turn learnt many things from his own disciple.…

After the departure of Totāpurī, Rāmakrishna himself tried to remain always in union with the Absolute Brahman and in the nirvikalpa state. Looking back to this period of his life in his later days, he said, “I remained for six months in that state of perfect union… In those days I was quite unconscious of the outer world. My body would have died for want of nourishment, but for a sādhu (an advanced religious ascetic) who came at that time and stayed there for three days for my sake. He recognized my state of samādhi, and took much interest to preserve this body, while I was unconscious of its very existence.…”  

After six months the body gave way under these severe irregularities, and Rāmakrishna was laid up with dysentery. This disease, he said, did much in bringing him back to consciousness, slowly and gently, in a month or two. When the native physicians had cured him, his deep religious zeal took another turn. He began to practice and realize the Vaishnava ideal of love for God. This love, according to the Vaishnavas, becomes manifested practically in any one of the following relations—the relation of a servant to his master, of a friend to his friend, of a child to his parents, or vice versa, and a wife to her husband. The highest point of love is reached when the human soul can love his God as a wife loves her husband.…

After having thus devoted himself to Vaishnavism, he practiced in turn many other religions prevalent in India always arriving at an understanding of their highest purposes in an incredibly short time. Whenever he wished to learn and practice the doctrines of any faith, he always found a good and learned man of that faith coming to him and advising him how to do it. He found a Mohammedan saint and placed himself under him; he underwent the disciplines prescribed by him, and to his astonishment found that when faithfully carried out, these devotional methods led him to the same goal he had already attained. He gathered similar experience from following the true religion of Jesus the Christ. He had seen Jesus in a vision, and for three days he could think of nothing and speak of nothing but Jesus and His love. He went to all the sects he could find, and whatever he took up he went into with his whole heart. He did exactly as he was told, and in every instance he arrived at the same result. Thus from actual experience, he came to know that the goal of every religion is the same, that each is trying to teach the same thing, the difference being largely in method and still more in language.

During all these years he forgot entirely that he had been married, which was not unnatural for one who had lost all idea of the existence even of his own body. The girl had in the meantime attained the age of seventeen or eighteen. She had heard rumors that her husband had become mad, and was in deep grief. Then again she heard that he had become a great religious man. She determined therefore to find him and to learn her fate from himself. Having obtained permission from her mother, she walked all the way, about thirty or forty miles, to the Dakshineshwar temple. Rāmakrishna received her very kindly, but told her that the old Rāmakrishna was dead, and that the new one could never look upon any woman as his wife. He said that even then he saw his Mother, the Goddess Kālī, in her, and however much he might try he could never see anything else. He addressed her as his Mother, worshipped her with flowers and incense, asked her blessings, as a child does from his mother, and then became lost in a deep trance. The wife, who was fully worthy of such a hero, told him she wanted nothing from him as her husband, but that he would teach her how to realize God, and allow her to remain near him and cook his meals and do what little she could for his health and comfort. From that day forward she lived within the temple compound, and began to practice whatever her husband taught her.…  

Though Rāmakrishna had no proper education, he had such a wonderful memory that he never forgot what he once heard. In his later days he had a desire to hear the Adhyātma Rāmāyana, and he requested one of his disciples to read it to him in the original verse. As he was hearing, another of his disciples came and asked him whether he was understanding the original verses. He said he had heard the book before, with an explanation of it, and therefore knew all of it, but he wanted to hear it again because the book was so beautiful, and he repeated at once the purport of some of the verses which followed, and which were about to be read.

He had attained to great yogic powers, but he never cared to display these marvelous powers to anybody. He told his disciples that all these powers would come to a man as he advanced, but he warned them never to take any heed of the opinions of men. They had not to please men, but to try to attain the highest perfection, that is, unity with Brahman.…

About that time Mathur and his family went on a pilgrimage, and took Rāmakrishna with them. They visited all the sacred places of the Hindus as far as Brindāvan, and Rāmakrishna took the opportunity not only of seeing the temples, but of forming acquaintances with all the religious men, and with the sannyāsīs who were living in these places. These sādhus assigned to him a very high position, and regarded him not only as a Brāhma-jnāni, but as a great religious teacher (āchārya), nay, as an Incarnation of God Himself.…

“When the rose is [in full bloom], and sheds its fragrance all around, the bees come of themselves. The bees seek the full-blown rose, and not the rose the bees.” This saying of Shrī Rāmakrishna has been verified often and often in his own life. Numbers of earnest men, of all sects and creeds, began to flock to him to receive instruction and to drink the waters of life. From day-dawn to night-fall he had no leisure to eat or drink, so engaged was he in teaching, exhorting, and ministering to the wants of these hungry and thirsty millions. Men possessed of wonderful yoga powers and great learning came to learn from this illiterate Paramahamsa of Dakshineshwar, and in their turn acknowledged him as their spiritual director (guru), touched as they were by the wonderful purity, the childlike simplicity, the perfect unselfishness, and by the simple language in which he propounded the highest truths of religion and philosophy… The crowds of men and women began to increase daily, and he went on as before. When pressed to take rest, he would say, “I would suffer willingly all sorts of bodily pains, and death also, a hundred thousand times, if by so doing I could bring one single soul to freedom and salvation.”

In the beginning of 1885 he suffered from what is known as “the clergyman’s throat,” which by-and-by developed into cancer. He was removed to Calcutta, and the best physicians were engaged, who advised him to keep the strictest silence; but the advice was to no effect. Crowds of men and women gathered wherever he went, and waited patiently to hear a single word from his mouth, and he, out of compassion for them, would not remain silent. Many a time he would be lost in a samādhi, losing all consciousness of his body and of his disease, and coming back he would talk incessantly as before. Even when the passage of his throat became so constricted that he could not swallow even liquid food, he would never stop his efforts. Once a man asked him, “Sir, you are a great yogī. Why do you not put your mind a little on your body and cure your disease?” At first he did not answer, but when the question had been repeated, he gently said, “My friend, I thought you were a sage, but you talk like other men of the world. This mind has been given to the Lord. Do you mean to say that I should take it back and put it upon the body which is but a mere cage of the soul?”

He was undaunted and remained as cheerful as ever, till on August 16, 1886, at 10 o’clock in the night, he entered into samādhi, from which he never returned.…

He was a wonderful mixture of God and man. In his ordinary state he would talk of himself as servant of all men and women. He looked upon them all as God. He himself would never be addressed as guru, or teacher. Never would he claim for himself any high position. He would touch the ground reverently where his disciples had trodden. But every now and then strange fits of God-consciousness came upon him. He then became changed into a different being altogether. He then spoke of himself as being able to do and know everything. He spoke as if he had the power of giving anything to anybody. He would speak of himself as the same soul that had been born before as Rāma, as Krishna, as Jesus, or as Buddha, born again as Rāmakrishna.

Swāmī Vivekānanda



[*] Editor’s Note: Later research indicates that Rāmakrishna was more likely born on February 18th, 1836.

Books/DVDs containing the work of Shri Ramakrishna

Shri Ramakrishna's words are featured in the following World Wisdom book:



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