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Introduction Advaita Acharya (1434–1559), born Kamalaksha Bhattacharya, was said to be an incarnation of Krishna or Chaitanya in the Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya, notable disciple and…
One of the most prominent religious figures of India during the nineteenth century, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa was a mystic and a yogi who translated complex spiritual concepts into lucid and easily intelligible manner. Born in a simple Bengali rural family in 1836, Ramakrishna was as simple yogi. He pursued the Divine throughout his life in various forms and believed in divine embodiment of the Supreme Being in every individual. Sometimes believed to be the modern day reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, Ramakrishna was the embodiment of spiritual salvation to troubled souls from all walks of life. He was a key figure in revival of Hinduism in Bengal at a time when intense spiritual crisis was gripping the province leading to predominance of young Bengalis embracing Brahmoism and Christianity. His legacy did not end with his death in 1886; his most prominent disciple Swami Vivekananda carried on his teachings and philosophy to the world through Ramakrishna Mission. In essence, his teachings were as traditional as ancient sages and seer, yet he remains contemporary throughout the ages.
Date of Birth: February 18, 1836
Place of Birth: Kamarpukur village, Hoogly District, Bengal Presidency
Parents: Khudiram Chattopadhyay (Father) and Chandramani Devi (Mother)
Wife: Saradamoni Devi
Religious Views: Hinduism; Advaitaism
Philosophy: Shakto, Advaita Vedanta, Universal Tolerance
Death: 16, August, 1886
Place of Death: Cossipore, Calcutta
Memorial: Kamarpukur village, Hoogly District, West Bengal; Dakshineshwar Kali Temple Compound, Kolkata, West Bengal
Ramakrishna was born as Gadadhar Chattopadhyay on February 18, 1836 to Khudiram Chattopadhyay and Chandramani Devi. The poor Brahmin family hailed from the Kamarpukur village of Hoogly district in Bengal Presidency.
Young Gadadhar was sent to the village school to learn Sanskrit, but a reluctant student he would often play truant. He loved to paint and create clay models of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. He was attracted to folk and mythological stories which he had heard from his mother. He gradually leant Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas and other holy literature by heart just by hearing it from priests and sages. Young Gadadhar loved the nature so much that he used to spend much of his time in orchards and on the river-banks.
From a very young age, Gadadhar was religiously inclined and he would experience episodes of spiritual ecstasy from everyday incidents. He would go into trances while performing pujas or observing a religious drama.
After the death of Gadadhar’s father in 1843, the responsibility of the family fell on his elder brother, Ramkumar. Ramkumar left home for Calcutta to earn for the family and Gadadhar, back in his village started performing regular worshipping of their family-deity, previously handled by his brother. He was deeply religious and would perform the pujas ardently. Meanwhile, his elder brother had opened a school to teach Sanskrit in Calcutta and served as a priest at different socio-religious functions.
The Kali temple at Dakshineshwar was established by the celebrated philanthropist Queen of Janbazar, Calcutta, Rani Rashmoni, during 1855. Since the Queen’s family belonged to the Kaibarta clan that was considered a lower caste by the Bengali society of the time, Rani Rashmoni was having immense difficulty in finding a priest for the temple. Rashmoni’s son-in-law, Mathurbabu came across Ramkumar in Calcutta and invited him to take the position of the head priest at the temple. Ramkumar obliged and sent for Gadadhar to join him at Dakshineshwar to assist him in the daily rituals. He arrived at Dakshineshwar and was entrusted with the duty of decorating the deity.
Ramkumar died in 1856, leaving Ramakrishna to take over the position of the head priest at the temple. Thus began the long, celebrated journey of priesthood for Gadadhar. It is said that Mathurbabu, witnessing Gadadhar’s piousness and certain supernatural incidents, gave the name Ramakrishna to young Gadadhar.
As a worshipper of Goddess Kali, Ramakrishna was considered a ‘Shakto’, but the technicalities did not limit him to worship the divine through other spiritual approaches. Ramakrishna was perhaps one of the very few yogis who had tried to experience divinity through a host of different avenues and have not stuck to one single way of spirituality. He schooled under a number of different Gurus and absorbed their philosophies with equal eagerness.
He worshipped God Rama as Hanuman, Rama’s most devoted follower and even experienced vision of Sita merging with himself.
He learned the nuances of ‘Tantra Sadhana’ or tantric ways from Bhairavi Brahmani, a female sage, during 1861-1863. Under her guidance Ramakrishna completed all 64 sadhanas of tantras, even the most intricate and demanding of them. He also learned Kundalini Yoga from Bhairavi.
Ramakrishna next moved on to leaning the inner mechanics of the ‘Vaishnav’ faith, a faith starkly opposite in philosophy and practices to Shakto tantric practices. He learned under the tutelage of Guru Jatadhari during 1864. He practiced ‘Batshalya Bhava’, worshipping of God, specifically Lord Vishnu in a child image with the attitude of mother. He also practiced ‘Madhura Bhava’, the central concepts of Vaishav faith, synonymous with the love that Radha felt for Krishna. He visited Nadia and experienced a vision that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Vaishnav faith merging in his body.
Sri Ramakrishna was probably the most celebrated mystic of all times. A simple man, sometimes with childlike enthusiasm, he explained the most complex concepts of spiritual philosophies in most simple parables, stories and anecdotes. His words flowed from a deep sense of belief in the Divinity and his experience of embracing God in a very real form. He directed that the ultimate goal of every living soul is God-realization. Having practiced different facets of Hinduism as well of other religions like Islam and Christianity, he preached that all of these religions were different paths that lead up to a single goal – God. His conversations with his disciples were recorded by his devotee Mahendranath Gupta and the collective work was titled as Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita (The Nectar of Sri Ramakrishna’s Words). To get rid of the thought that he belonged to a higher Brahmanical caste, he began to eat food cooked by the shudras or lower-caste.
The principal source for Ramakrishna’s teaching is Mahendranath Gupta’s Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita, which is regarded as a Bengali classic. Kripal calls it “the central text of the tradition”.The text was published in five volumes from 1902 to 1932. Based on Gupta’s diary notes, each of the five volumes purports to document Ramakrishna’s life from 1882–1886.
The most popular translation of the Kathamrita is The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by Swami Nikhilananda. Nikhilananda’s translation rearranged the scenes in the five volumes of the Kathamrita into a linear sequence. Malcolm Mclean and Jeffrey Kripal argue that the translation is unreliable.Philosopher Lex Hixon writes that the Gospel is “spiritually authentic” and a “powerful rendering of the Kathamrita”.
Ramakrishna’s teachings were imparted in rustic Bengali, using stories and parables. These teachings made a powerful impact on Calcutta’s intellectuals, despite the fact that his preachings were far removed from issues of modernism or national independence.
Ramakrishna’s primary biographers describe him as talkative. According to the biographers, Ramakrishna would reminisce for hours about his own eventful spiritual life, tell tales, explain Vedantic doctrines with extremely mundane illustrations, raise questions and answer them himself, crack jokes, sing songs, and mimic the ways of all types of worldly people, keeping the visitors enthralled.
Ramakrishna emphasised God-realisation as the supreme goal of all living beings. Ramakrishna taught that kamini-kanchana is an obstacle to God-realization. Kamini-kanchan literally translates to “woman and gold.” Partha Chatterjee wrote that the figure of a woman stands for concepts or entities that have “little to do with women in actuality” and “the figure of woman-and-gold signified the enemy within: that part of one’s own self which was susceptible to the temptations of ever-unreliable worldly success.Carl T. Jackson interprets kamini-kanchana to refer to the idea of sex and the idea of money as delusions which prevent people from realising God.Jeffrey Kripal translates the phrase as “lover-and-gold” and associates it with Ramakrishna’s alleged disgust for women as lovers. Swami Tyagananda, considered this to be a “linguistic misconstruction.”
It has been revealed to me that there exists an Ocean of Consciousness without limit. From It come all things of the relative plane, and in It they merge again. These waves arising from the Great Ocean merge again in the Great Ocean. I have clearly perceived all these things.
Ramakrishna taught that jatra jiv tatra Shiv (wherever there is a living being, there is Shiva). His teaching, “Jive daya noy, Shiv gyane jiv seba” (not kindness to living beings, but serving the living being as Shiva Himself) is considered as the inspiration for the philanthropic work carried out by his chief disciple Vivekananda.
In the Calcutta scene of the mid to late nineteenth century, Ramakrishna was opinionated on the subject of Chakri. Chakri can be described as a type of low-paying servitude done by educated men—typically government or commerce-related clerical positions. On a basic level, Ramakrishna saw this system as a corrupt form of European social organisation that forced educated men to be servants not only to their bosses at the office but also to their wives at home.
The message of Sri Ramakrishna to the modern world, which he gave through his life and through his recorded conversations, may be briefly stated as follows:
In 1885 Ramakrishna suffered from throat cancer. In order to consult the best physicians of Calcutta, Ramakrishna was shifted to a devotee’s house in Shyampukur by his disciples. But with time, his health started deteriorating and he was taken to a large house at Cossipore. His condition kept worsening and on 16 August, 1886, he passed away at the Cossipore garden house.
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