Sri Ramakrishna is today worshipped as an Incarnation of God. In Indian language, we call him an Avatara. Swami Vivekananda is today hailed as a Prophet, as an Acharya. This is a phenomenon that is already happening. I raise two questions about this phenomenon. What is the meaning of someone being called an Avatara? Secondly, of what use is it to me whether Sri Ramakrishna is an Avatara or not? Is it of any personal consequence to me, is the second question I raise. I must confess to you all, before I proceed further, that I do believe that Sri Ramakrishna is an Avatara. But I shall try to explain to you why I believe so.
Swamiji never tired of pointing out that religion has always been very practical in this country. If a religious idea is not practical, it is not entertained here. What is the meaning of ‘practical’ here, in this context? It means – an idea being of some personal consequence; or to put it more bluntly, the religious idea must be of some concrete use to me, and benefit me here, now, in this very life. Time and again, at almost regular intervals, India has seen the advent of some powerful religious person in her hoary history. Why they are not considered as Avatara? Why is Swami Vivekananda himself not called an Avatara, and why is he called a Prophet? What is the difference? Is there some sort of hierarchy in this too?
An Avatara is a spiritual person who has the power to change the course of a man’s life. This is the original meaning of the term. Now, we may argue that many of us also change the lives of those who come in our contact. People like Dale Carnegie & Steven R Covey & Napoleon Hill & Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle too have changed innumerable lives. If you see their best-seller books, you will find in them the testament of many persons who claim that their lives were changed for the better by reading those books. So why can’t these people also be called Avatars?
You see, the thing is not to change the life of a person by means of an idea. There is no doubt that ideas are very powerful. Like they say, ‘Nothing can resist an idea whose time has come.’ Ideas can even make or break a whole nation. Personal lives are nothing for ideas. If you have read the short story ‘A Necklace’ by Guy De Maupassant, you will clearly understand how a mere idea can destroy a life. Again, if you read the marvelous book ‘Man in search of meaning’ by Viktor Frankl, you will appreciate how a mere idea can transform a life. The thing with an Avatara is not that he can change a person’s life by means of ideas. There is another technique, unique to an Avatara, by which he changes lives. The power in Avatars lies in the sheer intensity of their lives. In just one life, an Avatara sort of compresses the lives of a thousand years of humanity; an extremely intense life! When an Avatara says ‘I am hungry’, it is as if men spanning a thousand years have at once expressed their hunger. So much intensity lies in their lives. Such a life has a different kind of transformative power. Each and every incident in the lives of such a person has a special kind of transformative power.
Some of you may ask here – Does this transformative power that you speak of work only when we believe in that person being an Avatara? We answer that it is nothing of the kind. If an apriori belief is required, then we already have our Christian missionaries and Muslim mullahs and Buddhist monks. What new thing are you bringing us here? With regard to an Avatara, you need not have any sort of apriori belief at all. It is something like this – if you put a piece of chocolate in your mouth, whether you know that it is chocolate or not, you will feel its sweetness, all the same. Similarly, the transformative power of an Avatara will work whether you believe in his Avatara-hood or not. This logic is taken so far in our Hindu literature that in some cases, there is something called ‘Vidvesha Bhakti‘ or ‘Antagonistic Devotion’. If this logic is correct, then a person who hates an Avatara too will experience the same kind of transformation of character as the one who loves and adores him. We have records of such cases to prove the point, in the examples of Angulimala or Kalia the demon or Manmatha the Calcutta ruffian. Anyway, we need not go into that topic here, for we shall concentrate on the questions that we have raised in the beginning of our deliberations – Sri Ramakrishna is being worshipped as an Avatara today; what does an Avatara mean? And of what use is it to me that he is an Avatara?
Like I said just now, an Avatar’s life is where the transformative power lies. What does this mean? An Avatara lives a life much like ours, with all sorts of interactions with all sorts of people. However, in an Avatar’s case, each of those interactions would have led to some sort of root & branch personality-transformation in the other person! If we wish to explain how such a transformation can occur as a result of their interactions, we may have to resort to the language of the mystics. We shall not go into that here. Right now, what is of interest to us is the fact that personal interactions with an Avatara can change personalities at a very basic level. For, in this amazing fact lies a way out for all of us! We all remember the small exercises that we had in our schools, where we enacted the parts of the famous dramas in order to understand them better. What we need to do here is also something quite similar.
What we need to do is this – we recognize a particular problem that we need to overcome in our lives. Then we identify an incident in the life of the Avatara where he has specifically helped someone to overcome the same problem. Then we try to identify ourselves with the redeemed person and in due course of time, we too overcome the problem. This is a verifiable fact, and this has nothing to do with apriori belief or anything of that kind. Anyone of us can experiment with this technique and benefit from this exercise; and the amazing thing that this technique works only with reference to events of a person who is an Avatara. Events in the lives of even great religious personages do not carry this unique transformative power. We must note that our participation in the events of the life of an Avatara is of an essentially vicarious nature; for, we do not interact with the Avatara in flesh and blood. It may be hundreds of years after the physical death of the so-called Avatara, but this technique will be fruitful with respect to the events of a life of an Avatara.
Before I proceed further, I must note here that what I have just outlined here is just one of the various criteria for categorizing a religious person as an Avatara. There are many other criteria. For instance, Swami Vivekananda says that a person can be called an Avatara if he is seen to be a ‘Kapala-mochana’. Kapala-mochana means a person has the unique power of literally wiping away the mental tendencies of a person with just one stroke and fills him up with a whole new set of mental tendencies! In another place, Swamiji says the essential condition for categorizing a person as an Avatara is that his love for other people is absolutely unconditioned. There is another school of thought that says that an Avatara is a religious person who validates all the spiritual experiences recorded in the spiritual books. Yet another explanation, subscribed to by Sister Nivedita and Swami Ashokananda, is that an Avatara is a person who opens up a new spiritual ideal for mankind. Although I will be coming to this concept a little later, I do not use the other views, because, they are useful only in the case of an Avatara when he is living in flesh and blood; those views do not mean much for people like us who are removed from an Avatara by a distance of a few decades or a few centuries.
So, let us consider some common problems that we all face in the daily flow of our life; problems that paralyze us and removes the very ground from beneath our feet, as it were.
- Death of a loved one.
- Ennui and lack of purpose in life.
- Fear of failures.
- Helplessness felt by women.
- Feeling of sin & guilt.
Modern psychology has a beautiful term for all these daily problems that beset us. They call them ‘Existential problems’. These problems come to us from the mere fact of our existence as human beings in this world! Every one of us faces them, at some time or other, with varying degrees of intensity. Each of us develop some psychological instrument to deal with these problems, failing which, we either lose our sanity, and in extreme conditions, end up in committing suicide!
From the logical argument developed in this lecture till now, I claim that Sri Ramakrishna’ life allows us to overcome these and similar existential problems, and therein lies his claim for his Avatara-hood. Let us see how this is so in some detail. I shall choose three issues for substantiating my claim.
Death of a loved one: Most of us experience the death of a loved one. Those of us who have experienced it know how traumatic it can be. Some would have lost a father or mother or a brother or a sister, or a wife or a son or a daughter or a friend. The grief that follows is completely debilitating. It feels as if there is no more any motive for us to continue our lives. Nothing that we do has any meaning any more. No philosophy, no inspiring idea appeals to us in that state of mind.
Now, based on what I delineated above, I have recognized one problem in our lives. Next I shall identify a similar incident in the life of Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Sharada Devi was Sri Ramakrishna’s wife. The relation between them was platonic in the true sense of the term. She was married to him in her childhood. She grew up with complete dependence on him. She was so much in love with him that she had attained a peculiar sort of at-one-ment with him. And one fine day, he died. In fact, so strong was her love for him that she had a sort of premonition of his impending death. She heard one day that some pots were being broken, and she interpreted this to mean that he would die soon. Yet, despite having such a wonderfully clear premonition, she was shattered! When she was thus totally shattered, a voice came up from within her, which made her feel as if Sri Ramakrishna were telling her ‘Why do you grieve? Where do you think I have gone? I have just moved from one room to another. That is all that death actually is.’
A friend of mine told me that he had used this particular incident to wonderful effect in his own life. He was very closely attached to a monk of our Order, whom he looked upon as his mentor. Then, as is the case with everyone in this world, that monk developed some serious health complications, and this friend of mine realized that he wouldn’t last much longer. Although he knew it very well, he felt a gnawing in his heart that he would be losing the only person in his life that he had dearly loved and revered. He told me that during those days, again and again, he put himself in the position of Sri Sharada Devi, for the loss of that monk would effectively mean for him the loss that she felt when Sri Ramakrishna died. Then, one morning, when he was engaged in doing his daily duties in the shrine, he distinctly heard the sound of some pots breaking. When he came out of the shrine after completing his duties there, someone brought him the news that the monk he dearly loved was no more. The experience he had had that morning, strangely enough, sustained him from breaking down, to such an extent that he even went on with his normal daily routine, as he confessed to me later!
I will tell you another living example of an industrialist friend of mine from Bangalore. He is one who can be called a ‘hereditary devotee’. His father was a staunch devotee of the Bangalore Ramakrishna Math. He too is a staunch devotee. All the members of his family are devoted similarly. He was a total family man, in the sense that he was greatly attached to his wife and two sons. There was a strong bond amongst them. Then, all of a sudden, in his middle age, his wife passed away. I was in Belur Math when she died. I knew that he would be totally devastated. I even suspected that he might distance himself from Ramakrishna Mission because of this untimely bereavement. Then, a couple of months later, he came to Belur Math. I met him at the Math Office. He broke down when he saw me. I too didn’t have any words to speak to him. Really, what do you say to someone who has lost a dear one? It is one situation when no philosophy makes any sense. Then he composed himself and told me something I will never forget. He said, ‘Do you know Maharaj how I compose myself? Again and again, the picture of Sri Ramakrishna standing before the burning pyre of his nephew Akshaya comes to my mind. I don’t do it voluntarily. Quite involuntarily it comes up in my mind. Sri Ramakrishna says that he saw that Akshaya’s death was like a sword being removed from its sheath. The sheath fell down and was being burnt, while the sword continued to shine. Somehow, this picture composes me greatly.’
This is what I mean by saying that the life of an Avatara has a tremendous transformative power on our lives. Let me explain this with regard to another very common problem most of us face – addictions.
Addictions: There seems to be literally a plethora of things to which we become addicts. Most of them happen to be some sort of intoxicant. The most common ones being smoking and alcohol.
I know of one long-standing devotee of the Bangalore Ramakrishna Math who was a confirmed alcoholic. In his youth, he used to enjoy his drink; but slowly, as he entered middle age, he felt that this habit was distancing him from his family and his friends at the Math. But by now, the habit had become so strong that he was helpless. He even tried to abstain but the withdrawal symptoms were so severe that he had to go back to the bottle, he told me. One day, he met a monk of the Bangalore Math and with tears in his eyes, he explained his helplessness to him. That monk told him a technique that helped him to kick the habit completely. The devotee himself told me this. The monk told him to offer his drink to Sri Ramakrishna every time before he drank, and then drink it as a sacrament. He started doing it in right earnest and in a matter of just two years, he was able to completely abstain from liquor.
I was surprised when I heard this. What the monk had done was this: In Sri Ramakrishna’s life, there is an incident where the famous dramatist Girish Chandra Ghosh comes to him. Girish Ghosh was an inveterate drunkard. After coming in contact with Sri Ramakrishna, pressure started on him from Sri Ramakrishna’s other devotees, to abstain from this despicable habit. So, he approached Sri Ramakrishna once about it. Sri Ramakrishna softly told him, ‘Don’t stop drinking. Just do one thing. Every time you drink from today, offer it to the Divine Mother. That will be enough.’ And Girish Ghosh testifies that this had made him free of the habit!
This devotee, in all probabilities, didn’t know of this incident. But, he implicitly followed the technique and got the same benefit. This fact is important for us.
If you will kindly pardon me for being indelicate, I wish to tell you about one more interesting case I came across. Although we all know of smoking and drinking, there is one more very common addiction that is ruining innumerable lives, and that is the addiction to sex. We have a Vivekananda Balaka Sangha in the Bangalore Ramakrishna Math. I was a member there in my student days. What I am going to explain to you is about a senior member of that Balaka Sangha. I came to know about his marvelous transformation much later on, by which time I had joined the Ramakrishna Mission. He used to suffer from compulsive sex addiction. And his exposure to the ideals of personal purity in the Balaka Sangha only worsened his condition by creating a terrible conflict in his mind. Out of shame, he couldn’t even discuss his miserable condition with anyone else. He didn’t stop attending the Balaka Sangha and his compulsive sex addiction too continued unabated. Somewhere down the line, there was one incident in the life of Swami Brahmananda that started coming to his mind again and again. When Swami Brahmananda was still young Rakhal, living with Sri Ramakrishna, one day, he was massaging Sri Ramakrishna’s feet. Rakhal was feeling miserable within and Sri Ramakrishna sensed it. He asked him what was troubling him. Rakhal told him that he was troubled by lust. Sri Ramakrishna then rubbed Rakhal’s chest and from then on, Rakhal was completely freed from lust! This was the incident. This person went on thinking of this strange incident, gradually putting himself in Rakhal’s place. Gradually, he became free from his compulsive habits and today he lives a celibate’s life in Bangalore.
Helplessness felt by women: India is a decidedly male-centric society. Naturally women feel estranged in such a patriarchic society. Yet, there have been many instances where, relying on the lives of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sharada Devi, women have lived a meaningful life in this vey society of ours. I will relate to you two such incidents that I personally know of.
When I was a student in Bangalore, I knew one lady. Actually she was a friend of my mother. She ran a small school in a suburban locality, which was very sparsely populated in those days. By the time she returned from her school, it used to get dark and that area was very desolate after sunset, in those days. One day my mother asked her how she managed to get the courage to move about like that, day after day, in such a lonely locality. What she said was very striking and I still remember it. She wasn’t a regular devotee of the Ramakrishna Math. But a certain incident of Sri Sharada Devi’s life had appealed to her very much and it was that incident that made her like that. In Sri Sharada Devi’s life, there was a period when she used to get up very early in the morning, go from her room in Dakshineswar to the Ganges for her morning ablutions. It used to be very dark and she used to be alone. During those days, Sri Sharada Devi used to see that every time she went out alone, she was accompanied by nine goddesses, whom she identified as the Nava Durga. This lady said that she too used to put herself in Holy Mother’s place and used to feel that she was being accompanied by the nine goddesses every day when she walked alone from her school to the bus stop which was a mile away!
I used to go to Gujarat to collect money for our Belgaum Ashrama. There I met two sisters who were spinsters. They were quite young and were leading a holy life; they had a shrine in their house. I asked them how they could lead such a life in a conservative society. Their answer was very startling. They said, ‘Maharaj, do you remember how Holy Mother lived alone after Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away? We live like that. Sri Ramakrishna instructed her how she should live alone. We put ourselves in Holy Mother’s shoes and try to live like that.‘ I was overwhelmed when I heard that!
Many more such instances can be quoted. But I hope the point has been made. It is possible to bring about a substantial transformation in ourselves by using the life of Sri Ramakrishna. I knew one revered monk of our Order who told me a most marvelous secret about himself. Just a couple of months before joining the Ramakrishna Mission, he had visited the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. As he was doing pranams to the Divine Mother, a stray thought involuntarily rose in his mind – ‘O Mother, you had shown yourself to Sri Ramakrishna a few years ago and transformed him into a living god. Can you not do the same to me too?’ He emphasized that this was a totally involuntary thought in his mind. When I met him, he was very old. It was just a few years before his death. He said that as the years went by, he saw that the Divine Mother had indeed brought him most of the experiences that makes a man into a god! He said this to me. I was thrilled when I heard this from him.
Before I end, I wish to clarify just one more idea.
You would have noticed that when I began my lecture, I chanted a mantra. It is called the Ramakrishna Pranama Mantra. On 6th February 1898, at Navagopal Ghosh’s house in Ramakrishnapore, Howrah, Swami Vivekananda was consecrating the Marble image of Sri Ramakrishna. During that occasion, he composed extempore the famous pranama mantra:
Sthapakaya cha dharmasya, sarva dharma svarupine, Avatara Varishthaya Ramakrishnaya te namaha.
Avatara Varishtha means ‘The Greatest among all incarnations’! That, Swami Vivekananda, who was extremely large-hearted, catholic to the extreme, the Prophet of Universal Religion, the main propounder of Religious Harmony used such an epithet seems to militate against popular perception of the great Swami. It seems like sycophancy on the part of a star-eyed disciple towards his beloved Guru, which is quite natural in a novice. But coming as it does from no less a person than Swami Vivekananda, it must certainly mean something concrete.
In the official journals and publications of the Ramakrishna Mission, many learned Swamis have written scholarly articles justifying this extreme eulogising by Swami Vivekananda. I wish to draw your special attention to the articles on this particular topic authored by Swamis Gambhirananda, Bhuteshananda, Bhajanananda and Sridharananda. For the sake of brevity, I shall give you the gist of arguments presented in the journals and publications of Ramakrishna Mission till date.
The oldest argument is that while all the other Avataras proclaimed that Truth could be obtained only through them, and not through any other path, Sri Ramakrishna emphasised again and again that all paths to Truth known to mankind are valid, provided one sticks to one’s chosen path sincerely. This unprecedented catholicity automatically catapults Sri Ramakrishna into the Varishtha position among Avataras.
Another argument mentions that the spiritual moods, ecstasies, visions and realizations of Sri Ramakrishna have been unprecedented in history. Hence one is clearly justified in extolling him the greatest of Avataras.
From the mystical standpoint, it is argued that every Avatara creates a unique sphere of consciousness where the devotees of that Avatara reside. Sri Ramakrishna has created a platform from which any of the different spheres of consciousnesses of the other Avataras can be accessed. Therefore, Sri Ramakrishna occupies the supreme place in the hierarchy of Avataras.
Another school of thought contends that never before had materialism taken its hold on mankind like it has now. And when an Incarnation of God establishes spirituality in the midst of such rampant materialism, surely he must be the greatest of Avataras.
Yet another school of thought claims that never before in history did God incarnate with such elaborate planning as He did in the case of Sri Ramakrishna. He even brought his own Boswell and photographer!
One particularly strong argument states that while all the other Avataras used women for furthering their mission on Earth, they never gave women their due status. But in the case of Sri Ramakrishna, we find that he even accepted a woman Guru and proudly proclaimed that his first disciple was his own wife! And not only that, he made a woman his spiritual successor, which again is unprecedented in history.
The Mundaka Upanishad gives a hierarchy of Brahmajnanis. It says that even among the knowers of Brahman, there is Brahmavid Varishtha, the Greatest among the knowers of Brahman. The exact details of how the ancient sages arrived at this gradation among the Knowers of Brahman is couched in the dense forest of cold, impersonal logic and archaic language, but it is heartening to know that even from the most ancient times, people have tried to grade the very greatest of spiritual men.
In the light of the above explanations, we may have to accept that Swami Vivekananda was right in using such a superlative epithet in describing his Guru.
Let me tell you a story. A Christian father was very busy spreading the name of Jesus Christ among the masses. He caught a person and gave him the basic details of Jesus’ life, his Immaculate Conception and resurrection and such things. After a week, when he came across the man, he asked him if he accepted Jesus as the saviour. The poor man said he wholeheartedly accepted Jesus as his saviour. The Father then asked him to name Jesus’ parents and the hill on which he was later crucified. The poor man was unable to answer, but he said, ‘Father, I do not understand any of those things. Such details don’t stay in my mind. But look here Father, some years ago, I was a drunken wretch; I lost everything on the horses and my family was disintegrating. Then sweet Jesus entered my life and I became a new man. Today I have a happy family. Hence I claim that Jesus Christ is my saviour.’
Similarly, those of us who do not understand all these details of Sri Ramakrishna’s greatness from an objective standpoint, still love to repeat this pranama mantra purely because of a very personal reason. History has produced many incarnations of God – Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, Rama, etc. Many more may come in the future. But, none of them touched our lives in the way Sri Ramakrishna has done. They have certainly influenced many millions, who may eulogize them as the greatest Avataras. But, in your and my case, it was Sri Ramakrishna who accepted us, graciously allowed us to obtain his divine name from a true devotee, allowed us to participate in his divine mission and advance the evolution of our soul. We know in the very depth of our hearts that although we do not deserve it at all, Sri Ramakrishna has showered all this grace on us. Surely, if he is not the greatest of Avataras for us, who else is!
About the Author
A monk of the Ramakrishna Order, presently rendering service as Correspondent of Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira [A Polytechnic College], Belur Math, Howrah, Kolkata.