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A fascinating account of devotees of Sri Ramakrishna
By MV Kamath
They Lived with God: Life stories of some devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Chetanananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata; Pp 434, Rs 140.00
In an era when an American pop-singer’s death makes front page news every day, it would be presumptuous for anyone to speak about Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, and his times. More often, one fears, the young may innocently ask: "Ramakrishna who?" For that matter, one wonders whether the newest generation would be even distantly aware of such identities as Swami Vivekananda or Sri Aurobindo or Dayananda Saraswati. But that is all the more reason why it is so important to acquaint the unacquainted with our great spiritual past and the role played by some of the greatest figures in the 19th century among whom, undoubtedly, Sri Ramakrishna is one of them.
Sri Ramakrishna was born in Bengal in 1836 and passed away a bare fifty years later, in 1886. That in those five decades he attained a status of a Buddha is close to a miracle. He lived for many years of his life in a place called Dakshineshwar and he had innumerable disciples from all walks of life coming to see him. To them Sri Ramakrishna was, literally, God. Once, his most distinguished disciple, Swami Vivekananda, who was to establish the Ramakrishna Mission asked his Master: "Have you seen God?" Replied the Master: "Yes, I see him just as I see you here, only in a much more intensive way". Sri Ramakrishna was literally besotten with God and, as the Introduction to this book says, he would "sometimes talk about God for as much as twenty hours a day!". If Swami Vivekananda is normally considered the one closest to his Master, one must not forget Rani Rasmani, a famous and very wealthy lady who had her home in Calcutta and of whom the Master said: "She (Rani Rasmani) is one of the eight nayikas (attendant goddesses) of the Divine Mother (Kali). She came down to the world to spread the worship of the Divine Mother". In the middle of the 19th century this great woman of India provided a setting in which Sri Ramakrishna enacted his divine drama for thirty years. And this was at Dakshineshwar, famous for its temple.
As Sister Nivedita, an early disciple of Swami Vivekananda once said: "Humanly speaking, without the temple of Dakshineshwar there would have been no Ramakrishna, without Ramakrishna no Vivekananda and without Vivekananda, no western mission". Rani Rasmani herself was born in 1793 and passed away in 1861 hardly four year after the Sepoy Mutinee or the first war of Independence.
Sri Ramakrishna attracted disciples from all walks of life; they were, of course, mostly Bengalis, inevitable in those days when transport was minimal and nation-wide communication a dream. Swami Chetanananda had chosen twenty eight among the thousands who flocked to see the Master for a study of how they were affected by him. Of these, five are women like Lakshmi Devi, Yogin-ma, Gopaler-ma ( Aghoremani Devi) and Golap-ma (Golap Sundari Devi). Their stories make endlessly fascinating reading.
Once when Gopaler-ma visited Sri Ramakrishna. He fed her with various delicacies and when she protested, saying: "Why are you so fond of feeding me?" his reply was: "You have also fed me with so many things in the past". She did not quite remember when that was and innocently asked him: "In the past? When?". To which the Master replied: "In your previous life! She could well believe in it and found nothing strange in the Master’s reply. After the Master passed away Gopaler-ma was grief-stricken and for a long time lived in seclusion. But then she had repeated visions of the Master which consoled her bereaved heart.
Continued from above:
Then there is the story of Hridayanath Mukhopadhyay who wanted to test whether Sri Ramakrishna was truly a renunciate. One day he conspired with a Marwari friend of his in this regard. The Marwari had noticed how unwashed the Master’s bedsheet was and offered to help. He told the Master: "I shall invest ten thousand rupees in your name. The interest on it will enable you to pay your expenses". When he heard those words, the Master fell unconscious. When, after a few minutes he regained his consciousness, he told the Marwari: "If you utter such words again, you had better not come here. Its is impossible for me to touch money". Mukhopadhyay was later to say: "Sri Ramakrishna was simple and guileless like a child". He could-and did-talk of God as a familiar figure.
Another disciple, an atheist, Ramachandra Dutta once asked the Master: "Does God exist? How can one see God?" He received a clear reply: "Yes, he does. Have faith. Can God whose creation is so beautiful and enchanting, be imperceptible?" But Ram had his doubts and they would haunt him endlessly. Once, when he was standing at the corner of College Square in Calcutta, explaining his mental conflict to a friend he heard a passer-by say: "Why are you so anxious? Have patience!" Ram had noticed a passer-by, a tall man, get close to him but when he turned around to address him, the man had vanished into thin air. Ram thought it was an illusion and recounted the story to the Master a few days later. The Master smiled. He told Ram: "Yes, you will see many such things as that". The Master was by no means a man who wrought miracles.
Every disciple covered in his delightful volume has stories to tell that are often unbelievable. There surely are-and there always will be-sceptics who won’t be taken in by such stories. But for those who respect and literally worship the Master, this is a book to read. As Trappist monk Thomas Merton was to write: "You have to experience duality for a long time until you see it’s not there. In this respect I am a Hindu. Ramakrishna has the solution". Sri Ramakrishna has been dead for just about a century and a quarter but he continues to live in the hearts of his devotees who see in him the face of Ultimate Reality. The Ramakrishna Mission today serves millions of people all over the world. It is in this selfless service that the name of Sri Ramakrishna is perpetuated.
(Advaita Ashrama (Publication Deptt), 5 Dehi Entally Road, Kolkata-700 014)