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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 50 New Delhi December 1, 2018

Ramakrishna, the Quintessential Hindu

Sunday 2 December 2018, by Ashok Celly

Ramakrishna was a quintessential Hindu. He believed in and lived by the Vedantic credo that God lives in all human beings—men and women, Brahmins and Shudras, princes and beggars. Nothing demonstrates his faith better than his concern for and love of the pariah and the ‘fallen’ women—the most despised segments of the Hindu society.

His favourite disciple, Swami Vivekananda, gives a very moving account of Ramakrishna performing menial services in the house of a pariah. The pariah would not allow a Brahmin to do the menial services in his house. Nothing could be more sinful than that. So Ramakrishna would steal into the pariah’s house in the middle of the night and clean it with his long hair.

Similarly, he would bow before the so-called ‘fallen’ women—women who were treated by the society as untouchables—with utmost respect saying, “Mother, in one form thou art in the street, and in another form thou art the universe. I salute thee, Mother, I salute thee.”

While all Hindu saints swear by the divinity of men and women, Ramakrishna practised it with an earnestness and intensity seldom seen elsewhere. His love and empathy for ‘the lowliest of the low’ is bound to remind one of Mahatma Gandhi but perhaps there was a lot more spontancity in Ramakrishna’s case. In Gandhi, it was an act of atonement for the sins committed by the caste Hindus, in Ramakrishna it was an expression of personality, of his oneness with creation, of his ‘advait’ (non-dualistic) vision.

It seems Ramakrishna had a colossal ability to empathise with others. “One must learn to put oneself into another man’s soul,” he had once told Swami Vivekananda. Probably he had this capability in a far greater degree than many of his illustrious contemporaries like Keshab Chandra Sen and Devendra Nath Tagore. That could well be the reason why he made such a deep impact on the people and attracted the elite and masses alike. Even though he was a semi-literate priest with no glamour—his disciple Vivekananda had this in plenty—and no erudition.

Also, look at the awesome spiritual daring of this man—a semi-literate priest from an obscure Bengal village. He, a sanatani Hindu, wants to know the truth about Islam! So what does he do? He does not consult big tomes of learned theologians. He ‘becomes’ a Muslim. That is, he finds a Muslim ‘guru’ and undergoes the discipline prescribed by him. He wants to know it first hand through direct experience—in a word existentially. And comes to the exhilarating conclusion that the method he followed as a Muslim led him to the same goal he had already attained as a Vaishnava Hindu. In Ramakrishna’s own words, “I have practised all religions—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity—and I have also followed the paths of the different Hindu sects, I have found that it is the same God towards whom all are directing their steps, though along different paths. You must try all beliefs and traverse all the different ways once.”

In the history of religions such a thing had never happened before. His conduct by conventional standards would be considered shocking, even heretical—a Hindu following Islamic religious practices; but he didn’t care how others, that is, the saintly fraternity or Bengali bhadralok would react. So strong was his faith in his spiritual quest. As Swami Viveka-nanda puts it, “And this method was his own. No one ever before in India became Christian and Mohammedan and Vaishnava by turns.”

In fact, Ramakrishna’s forays into Islam and Christianity added another dimension to the liberal vision of Hinduism. Also, these forays, alongwith Guru Arjan Dev’s compilation of the Guru Granth Sahib, signify a momentous step in the spiritual evolution of mankind. Like the Sikh guru Ramakrishna was no respector of man-made boundaries between different religious faiths.

We must also appreciate the liberal ethos of nineteenth century Bengal for, it seems, Ramakrishna’s maverick conduct didn’t invite any adverse criticism from any quarter. One shudders to think what would happen today if someone would essay something similar. He could be lynched by a Hindu bigot. As a nation we have regressed no end.

Ramakrishna, Guru Arjan Dev and Amir Khusrau are the finest embodiments of the spirit of India—of our Ganga-Jamuni tehjeeb. It is a pity our young men and women know so little about them. In our new-found love for economic history, we seem to have completely neglected cultural history. A grounding in cultural history will strengthen liberal values and instil in our youth love for their pluralistic culture—their Ganga-Jamuni tehjeeb. They will then be better equipped to offer spirited and considered resistence to the saffronists who have a pathological aversion to all diversity, linguistic, religious and ethnic, and are hell-bent on straitjacketing this wonderful country. 

The author, who retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi, is now a freelancer.

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