IT HAS BEEN OBSERVED in several ways that Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda were the opposites of each other. Sri Ramakrishna, with his rural background and little formal education, represented traditional India. Narendra, the premonastic name of Swami Vivekananda, with his urban background, education, and keen intellect, was fascinated by the virile thought and achievements of the West. With doubts and scepticism born of the modern age, he was unwilling to accept the claims of religion without verification. ‘He [Narendra] was critical of the traditional Hinduism for which Ramakrishna stood. He believed—or thought he believed—in reason rather than in intuition, in discrimination rather than devotion. Ramakrishna’s ecstasies embarrassed him. He could not imagine himself shut up inside a temple compound, spending his days in meditation and worship. His restlessness demanded a wandering life; his reformist conscience made him eager for social service.’1
Further, in contrast to Sri Ramakrishna’s unfailing politeness, Narendra was unconventional in his social behaviour. He appeared to many people as conceited and arrogant and even cynical and bohemian. However, the contention of this article is that through the dynamics of a unique relationship, Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda together evolved as an integrated soul, and this unified soul played a meaningful role in the formulation of a socio-religious approach to human development.
Background of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda
Before he met Narendra, Sri Ramakrishna had undergone a long period of sadhana. Born as Gadadhar Chattopadhyaya in a devout and spiritual brahmana family in the obscure village of Kamarpukur in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, he served as a priest in the Kali temple at Dakshineswar, built by the pious lady Rani Rasmani. Despite his little formal education, he was no ordinary priest, given only to performing puja at the temple.
Engrossed in intense sadhana for twelve years he attained the vision of the divine Mother Kali and realized the ultimate Reality through the Vedantic mode of sadhana as well. Having subsequently achieved realization through various sadhanas, as prescribed by different sects of Hinduism, he also accomplished the same through Islam and Christianity. He proved there was only one universal religion of which the conventional religions were various forms and ways of reaching the same goal; a goal that earnest seekers, irrespective of faith professed, could reach provided they gave up ‘lust and gold’ and sought to experience God through purity, renunciation, and unselfish love.
Two things stand out in Sri Ramakrishna’s sadhana of God-realization. One is his method. It was entirely empirical, experimental, and scientific. He pursued the paths of various religions to prove the same truth, called by various names. He also illustrated that the essence of religion is not in pontificating but directly experiencing the reality.
The second outstanding aspect of his sadhana was his concern for humanity. After he attained nirvikalpa samadhi, in which the sadhaka realizes his total oneness with Brahman, he brought his mind down to dwell in the world to serve, love, and enlighten humankind.
As Sri Ramakrishna’s mission was to give others the benefits of his spiritual realization, he was most eager to seek out the earnest souls who would become his disciples. To quote him:
There was no limit to the yearning I had then. In the day-time I managed somehow to control it. The ordinary talk of the worldly-minded was galling to me, and I would look wistfully to the day when my beloved, all-renouncing spiritual companions would come. I hoped to find solace by telling them about my realizations, and so unburdening my mind. Every little incident would make me think of them. I used to arrange in my mind what I should say to one, give to another, and so on. But when the day came to a close, I could not curb my feelings. Another day had gone by and they had not come! When during the evening service the temple precincts rang with the sound of bells and conchs, I would climb to the roof of the building in the garden, and writhing in anguish of heart, cry at the top of my voice, ‘Come, my boys! Oh, where are you all? I cannot bear to live without you!’2
Before he met his guru, Swami Vivekananda, too, had gone through a period of intense spiritual longing. Born as Narendranath Datta in North Calcutta, he showed signs of deep spirituality even as a child. All through his childhood— whether practising meditation, challenging orthodox beliefs, saving a boy from under the hoofs of galloping horses, or nursing an injured sailor—Narendra’s spontaneous inclination towards God and his disposition towards serving fellow human beings was clearly evident.
The boy learned stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata at the knees of his mother and received lessons in Sanskrit grammar from an old relative. Side by side with Sanskrit education, he studied English and Bengali literature. As Narendra grew into adolescence, he channelized some of his exuberant energ y into serious academic pursuits; his favourite subjects were history and philosophy. Music was his passion and he became an adept at singing and playing the drums.
Having completed his high school education in 1879, Narendra began higher studies the following year, first at the Presidency College and a year later at the General Assembly’s Institution [renamed as Scottish Church College]. Professor William Hastie, the Principal, had the following observation of Narendra’s scholarship at the General Assembly’s Institution: ‘Narendranath is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide but I have never yet come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, amongst philosophical students. He is bound to make his mark in life!’ (1.48).
Narendra’s secular education however could not satisfy his query as to the ultimate Reality. Not finding an answer to his query in John Stuart Mill, David Hume, and Herbert Spencer, Narendra turned to the Brahmo Samaj, an important religious movement of his time. He was attracted by their liberal and progressive ideas on religious and social matters as well as offering congregational prayers in which he himself sang devotional songs. However, his enthusiasm for the Brahmo Samaj did not last long. Basically, he was looking for a spiritual experience that could give him direct proof of God. The Brahmo Samaj had no ‘root in the spiritual experience of sayings and seers’ and as such ‘could not satisfy the deep spiritual yearning of his soul.’3
Narendra detested many of the religious practices of Hinduism and yet he was not quite happy with the alternative that he had taken. In the midst of such a crisis, he turned to Devendranath Tagore, the leader of the Adi Brahmo Samaj, with the question whether he had experienced the vision of God. Narendra posed the same question to leaders of some other religious sects and none could give him an affirmative reply.
Unhappy and determined yet to meet one who had actually experienced God and who could help or guide him into that experience, Narendra recalled the words of Professor Hastie, who, in course of explaining the word ‘trance’ as used in Wordsworth’s Excursion, observed that, ‘Such an experience is the result of purity of mind and concentration on some particular object, and it is rare indeed, particularly in these days. I have seen only one person who has experienced that blessed state of mind, and he is Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineswar. You can understand if you go there and see for yourself.’4 Having heard of Sri Ramakrishna and of his spiritual ecstasy from Professor Hastie, Narendra felt inspired to go to Dakshineswar to see Sri Ramakrishna. Before making the trip to Dakshineswar however, he had an opportunity to meet him in November 1881 at the house of his neighbour, Surendranath Mitra. Narendra was invited to the house of Surendranath on the occasion of Sri Ramakrishna’s visit to sing devotional songs in honour of Sri Ramakrishna. This was not a one-to-one meeting. It was rather a chance meeting at a gathering. Thus, except for Sri Ramakrishna expressing his appreciation of the song sung by Narendra, and inviting him to visit him at Dakshineswar, nothing much came of that meeting.
Narendra carefully weighed two visions of life that were within his means to attain. The first concerned ‘a life of ease and luxury, the life of the senses, of the enjoyment of wealth, power, name and fame, and along with all this, the love of a devoted wife and family’ (1.59). The other concerned ‘the life of a sannyasi, a wandering monk, having no possessions, established in the consciousness of a Divine Reality’ (ibid.). Narendra resolved in favour of a life of renunciation, but his problem at that point in time was to find a guru who could lead him to experience God. His cousin Ramchandra Datta, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, came forwards at this stage and told Narendra, ‘If you have a real desire to realize God, then come to the Master at Dakshineswar instead of visiting Brahmo Samaj and other places’ (1.60–1). Narendra was not so sure. He thought: ‘I have read the works of Spencer, Hamilton, Locke and other philosophers; what does he [Sri Ramakrishna] know that he can teach me?’5 When Ramchandra insisted, Narendranath replied: ‘I shall meet him, but if he fails to solve my problems, I shall pull him by the ears’ (ibid.). ‘His doubt was his passion. He longed to believe but could find no foundation for faith. Books could not satisfy him, or experiences got at second hand.’6 He expected much from people but ‘soon realized that he was not getting the only thing he wanted; direct spiritual experience’ (ibid.).
Sri Ramakrishna was seeking out earnest souls to whom he could pour out the benefits of his spiritual realization and Narendra was seeking out the person who could confer on him the benefit of direct spiritual experience. The stage was ready for positive encounters between the two, the first of which took place at Dakshineswar one wintry afternoon in December 1881.
With his keen observation Sri Ramakrishna could fathom the depth of Narendra’s spirituality: ‘There were other boys who also came here; I felt greatly drawn to some of them, but nothing like the way I was attracted to Narendra.’7 During this first meeting, Sri Ramakrishna addressed Narendra with folded hands and pronounced, ‘Lord, I know you are that ancient sage, Nara, the Incarnation of Narayana, born on earth to remove the miseries of mankind’ (ibid.).
Narendra’s initial reaction was one of amazement at being described as the ancient sage Nara. He thought to himself: ‘Who is this man whom I have come to see. He must be stark mad! Why, I am just the son of Vishwanath Datta, and yet he dares to address me thus!’ (Ibid.).
As Narendra introspected further on the words and conduct of Sri Ramakrishna, he noted that despite his strange way of referring to him, Sri Ramakrishna’s words were charged with spirituality, that his ecstatic states indicted he was a man of genuine renunciation, and the consistency between his words and his life was unmistakable. In the wake of such mental notation, Narendra asked Sri Ramakrishna a crucial question, of which he had been seeking an answer in vain for so long. ‘“Have you seen God, sir?” “Yes, I see Him just as I see You here, only in a much intenser sense.” “God can be Realized. … one can see and talk to Him as I am seeing and talking to you. But who cares? People shed torrents of tears for their wife and children, for wealth or property, but who does so for the sake of God? If one weeps sincerely for Him, He surely manifests Himself ”’ (1.77).
Narendra was hugely impressed with this answer. He stated: ‘For the first time I found a man who dared to say that he had seen God, that religion was a reality to be felt, to be sensed in an infinitely more intense way than we can sense the world. As I heard these things from his lips, I could not but believe that he was saying them not like an ordinary preacher, but from the depths of his own realizations’ (ibid.).
Thus, the overall conclusion of Narendra on his first encounter with Sri Ramakrishna was that despite the way he addressed Narendra, the man was holy and reverential. Such acknowledgement, however, did not indicate Narendra’s acceptance of Sri Ramakrishna as his guru.
It is with such an attitude that Narendra went to visit Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar a second time about a month later. This time he went all alone and on foot from Calcutta to Dakshineswar. His struggle had just begun, that is, the struggle between his scepticism and his willingness to believe. He wanted to trust but only after verification. Could Sri Ramakrishna truly help him overcome his inner struggle? In his second encounter with his guru, Sri Ramakrishna placed his foot on Narendra’s body, sending him into an ecstatic state.
Narendra’s rationalistic mind could not explain the tremendous spiritual experience he had at his second meeting with Sri Ramakrishna and was therefore determined to be on his guard. The question arose because, in the face of ‘remarkably loving treatment’ he received from Sri Ramakrishna, he could not deny his request to come
again to Dakshineswar.
On Narendra’s third visit, which followed a few days after the second, Sri Ramakrishna took him to the adjacent garden of Jadunath Mallick. While sitting in the parlour therein, Sri Ramakrishna had a trance during which he touched Narendra, and despite all the precautions that Narendra took, he also lost all outward consciousness as soon as he was touched. On regaining his consciousness, he saw Sri Ramakrishna stroking his chest, but remembered nothing during the period he lost consciousness.
Once Sri Ramakrishna detected the great potential of Narendra, he set about the task of bringing the transformation of Narendra in all earnestness.
Sri Ramakrishna correctly surmised that what others thought to be Narendra’s conceit and arrogance was actually his self-confidence; that his assertion of the right to act freely according to his conscience actually sprang from self-control, which was natural to him; that his supreme indifference to praise or blame sprang from the purity of his nature; and that in due time Narendra with all the attributes of his uncommon nature would blossom fully like a thousand-petalled lotus.
Sri Ramakrishna knew that Narendra was a struggling seeker of truth, that he was a stubborn rationalist and that he would not accept anything without proof or evidence. He appreciated Narendra’s enormous self-confidence and manly spirit and therefore far from riding roughshod or imposing his ideas on him, encouraged the independence of his thought, knowing fully well that it is only through encouragement and selfless love that he will be able to develop further the regard for truth and spirituality that was innate in Narendra. He knew Narendra’s struggles and intellectual questioning sprang from his desire to be convinced of the soundness of the man he now accepted as his teacher. Could he also accept him as his guru and the ideal of spiritual life? Narendra’s struggle arose from his anxiety to find a satisfactory answer to this question. Sri Ramakrishna knew the source of Narendra’s struggles and he sought to bring illumination to his aspiring pupil with all the love and patience of a teacher extraordinaire.
(To be concluded)
(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha Special Edition January 2014)
1. Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1994), 196.
2. His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2008), 1.72.
3. Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda: A Biography (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1982), 14.
4. The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 1.48.
5. Sailendra Nath Dhar, A Comprehensive Biography of Vivekananda, 2 vols (Madras: Vivekananda Kendra, 1975), 1.79.
6. Ramakrishna and His Disciples, 192.
7. The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 1 .76.