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SRI RAMAKRISHNA: A NEW SPIRITUAL WAVE, Part III

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WEEKLY MESSAGES

In this new feature of our website, we present every week a new selection of the teachings of Vedanta, taken from a variety of sources – lectures and writings of Swami Adiswarananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Literature, and other spiritual texts.

 

 

 

 

Sri Ramakrishna: A New Spiritual Wave

Part Three

(From “My Master” by Swami Vivekananda)

It was while reforms of various kinds were being inaugurated in India that a child was born of poor brahmin parents on the eighteenth of February, 1836, in one of the remote villages of Bengal. The father and mother were very orthodox people. The life of an orthodox brahmin is one of continuous renunciation. Very few things can he do to earn a living, and beyond these the orthodox Brahmin must not occupy himself with any secular business. At the same time he must not receive gifts from everybody. You may imagine how rigorous that life becomes. You have heard of the brahmins and their priestcraft many times, but very few of you have ever stopped to ask what makes this wonderful band of men the rulers of their fellows. They are the poorest of all the classes in the country, and the secret of their power lies in their renunciation. They never covet wealth. Theirs is the poorest priesthood in the world, and therefore the most powerful. Even in this poverty, a brahmin’s wife will never allow a poor man to pass through the village without giving him something to eat. That is considered the highest duty of the mother in India; and because she is the mother it is her duty to be served last; she must see that everyone is served before her turn comes. That is why the mother is regarded as God in India. This particular woman, the mother of the child we are talking about, was an ideal Hindu mother.

The higher the caste, the greater the restrictions. The people of the lowest caste can eat and drink anything they like, but as men rise in the social scale, more and more restrictions come, and when they reach the highest caste, the brahmin, the hereditary priesthood of India, their lives, as I have said, are very much circumscribed. Judged by Western standards, their lives are of continuous asceticism. But they have great steadiness. When they get hold of an idea they carry it out to its very conclusion, and they keep hold of it generation after generation until they make something out of it. Once you have given them an idea, and it is not easy to take it back again; but it is hard to make them grasp a new idea.

The orthodox Hindus, therefore, are very exclusive, living entirely within their own horizon of thought and feeling. Their lives are laid down in our old books in every little detail, and the least detail is grasped by them with almost adamantine firmness. They would starve rather than eat a meal cooked by the hands of a man not belonging to their own small sub-caste. But withal, they have intensity and tremendous earnestness. That force of intense faith and religious life is often found among the orthodox Hindus, because their very orthodoxy comes from a tremendous conviction that it is right. We may not all think that what they hold on to with such perseverance is right; but to them it is.

Now, as our books say, a man should always be charitable, even if it means extreme suffering. If a man starves to death in order to help another man, to save that man’s life, it is all right; it is even held that a man ought to do that. And it is expected of a brahmin to carry this idea out to the very extreme. Those who are acquainted with the literature of India will remember a beautiful old story about this extreme charity, as related in the Mahabharata: how a whole family starved themselves to death and gave their last meal to a beggar. This is not an exaggeration, for such things still happen.

The character of the father and the mother of my Master was very much like that. Very poor they were, and yet many a time the mother would starve herself a whole day to help a poor man. Of them this child was born, and he was a peculiar child from his very babyhood. He remembered his past from his birth and knew for what purpose he had come into the world, and all his powers were devoted to the fulfillment of that purpose.

While he was quite young his father died and the boy was sent to school. A brahmin’s boy must go to school; the caste restricts him to a learned profession only. The indigenous system of education in India, especially of the orthodox type, still prevalent in many parts of the country, was very different from the modern system. The students did not have to pay for their education. It was thought that knowledge is so sacred that no man ought to sell it. Knowledge must be given freely. The teachers used to take students without charge; and not only so, but most of them gave their students food and clothes. To support these teachers the wealthy families on certain occasions, such as a marriage festival or the ceremonies for the dead, made gifts to them. They were considered the first and foremost claimants to such gifts, and they in their turn had to maintain their students.

Now, this boy about whom I am speaking had an elder brother, a learned professor, who took him to Calcutta to study with him. After a short time the boy became convinced that the aim of all secular learning was mere material advancement, and he resolved to give up study and devote himself solely to the pursuit of spiritual knowledge. The father being dead, the family was very poor, and this boy had to make his own living. He went to a place near Calcutta and became a temple priest. To become a temple priest is thought very degrading to a brahmin. Our temples are not churches in your sense of the word; they are not places for public worship; for, properly speaking, there is no such thing as public worship in India. Temples are erected mostly by rich persons as a meritorious religious act.

If a man has much property he wants to build a temple. In that temple he puts a symbol of God or an image of an incarnation and dedicates it in the name of God. The worship is akin to that which is conducted in Roman Catholic churches, very much like the Mass, the priest reading certain sentences from the sacred books, waving a light before the image, and treating the image in every respect as we treat a great man. This is all that is done in the temple. The man who goes to a temple is not considered thereby a better man than he who never goes. Rather, the latter is considered the more religious, for in India religion is to each man his own private affair, and all his worship is conducted in the privacy of his own home.

It has been held from the most ancient times in our country that to be a temple priest is degrading. The idea is that temple priests, like schoolteachers, but in a far more intense sense, make merchandise of sacred things by taking fees for their work. So you may imagine the feelings of this boy when he was forced through poverty to take up the only occupation open to him, that of a temple priest.

There have been various poets in Bengal whose songs have passed down to the people and are sung in the streets of Calcutta and in every village. Most of these are religious songs, and their one central idea, which is perhaps peculiar to the religions of India, is the idea of realization. There is not a book in India on religion which does not breathe this idea. Man must realize God, feel God, see God, talk to God. That is religion. The Indian atmosphere is full of stories of saintly persons who have had visions of God. Such ideas form the basis of their religion; and all these ancient books and scriptures are the writings of persons who came into direct contact with spiritual facts. These books were not written to appeal to the intellect, nor can any reasoning understand them; they were written by men who saw the things of which they wrote, and they can be understood only by men who have raised themselves to the same height. They declare there is such a thing as realization even in this life, and it is open to everyone, and religion begins with the opening of this faculty – if I may call it so. This is the central idea in all religions. And this is why, in India, we find that one man, with the most finished oratorical powers or the most convincing logic, may preach the highest doctrines and yet is unable to get people to listen to him, while another, a poor man who scarcely can speak the language of his own motherland, is yet worshiped as God by half the nation in his own lifetime. When the idea somehow or other gets abroad that a man has raised himself to a high state of realization – that religion is no more a matter of conjecture to him, that he is no longer groping in the dark about such momentous questions of religion as the immortality of the soul and God – people come from all quarters to see him and gradually they begin to worship him.

In the temple was an image of the “Blissful Mother.” The boy had to conduct the worship morning and evening, and by and by this one idea filled his mind: “Is there any reality behind this image? Is it true that there is a Blissful Mother of the universe? Is it true that she is living and guides this universe, or is it all a dream? Is there any reality in religion?” This kind of doubt comes to almost every Hindu aspirant – Is this that we are doing real? And theories will not satisfy us, although there are ready at hand almost all the theories that have ever been made with regard to God and the soul. Neither books nor dogmas can satisfy us; the one idea that gets hold of thousands of our people is this idea of realization. Is it true that there is a God? If it be true, can I see him? Can I realize the truth? The Western mind may think all this very unpractical, but to us it is intensely practical. For this idea men will give up their lives. For this idea thousands of Hindus every year give up their homes, and many of them die through the hardships they have to undergo. To the Western mind this must seem most visionary, and I can see the reason for this point of view. But after years of residence in the West, I still think this idea the most practical thing in life.

Life is but momentary, whether you are a toiler in the streets or an emperor ruling millions. Life is but momentary, whether you have the best of health or the worst. There is but one solution of life, says the Hindu, and that solution is what they call God and religion. If God and religion are real, then life becomes explained, life becomes bearable, becomes enjoyable. Otherwise life is but a useless burden. That is our idea. But no amount of reasoning can demonstrate religion; it can only make it probable, and there it rests. Facts are based only upon experience, and we have to experience religion to demonstrate it to ourselves. We have to see God to be convinced that there is a God. Nothing but our own realization can make religion real to us. That is the Hindu conception.

This idea of realization took possession of the boy, and his whole life became concentrated upon it. Day after day he would weep and say: “Mother, is it true that thou dost exist, or is it all poetry? Is the Blissful Mother an imagination of poets and misguided people, or is there such a reality?” We have seen already that of education in our sense of the word he had none; therefore so much the more natural, so much the more healthy, was his mind, so much the purer his thoughts, undiluted by drinking in of the thoughts of others. Because he never went to a university, he was able to think for himself. Well has Prof. Max Müller said, in the article I have just referred to, that he was a clean, original man, and that the secret of his originality was that he was not brought up within the precincts of a university.

Now this thought – whether God can be realized – which was uppermost in his mind gained in strength every day until he could think of nothing else. He could no longer conduct the worship properly, could no more attend to the various details in all their minuteness. Often he would forget to place the food offering before the image, sometimes he would forget to wave the light, at other times he would wave the light for hours, and forget everything else.

At last it became impossible for the boy to serve in the temple. He gave up the worship and spent most of his time in meditation in a wood near by. About this part of his life he told me many times that he could not tell when the sun rose or set, or how he lived. He lost all thought of himself and forgot to eat. During this period he was lovingly watched over by a relative who put into his mouth food which he mechanically swallowed.

Days and nights thus passed with the boy. At the end of the day, towards evening, when the peals of bells and the singing in the temples would reach the wood, it would make him very sad, and he would cry: “Another day is gone in vain, Mother, and thou hast not come. One more day of this short life has gone and I have not known the truth.” In the agony of his soul, sometimes he would rub his face against the ground and weep.

This is the tremendous thirst that seizes the devotees’ heart. Later on, this very man said to me: “My child, suppose there is a bag of gold in one room, and a robber is in the next room. Do you think that robber can sleep? He cannot. His mind will be always thinking how to get into that room and obtain possession of the gold. Do you think, then, that a man firmly persuaded that there is a reality behind all these appearances, that there is a God, that there is one who never dies, one whose nature is infinite bliss, compared to which these pleasures of the senses are simply playthings – can rest contented without struggling to attain him? Can he cease his efforts for a moment? No. He will become mad with longing.” This divine madness seized the boy. At that time he had no teacher, nobody to tell him anything, and everyone thought he was out of his mind. This is the ordinary condition of things: If a man throws aside the vanities of the world, we hear him called mad. But such men are the salt of the earth. Out of such madness have come the powers that have moved this world of ours, and out of such madness alone will come the powers of the future that are going to move the world.

So days, weeks, months passed in continuous struggle of his soul to arrive at truth. The boy began to see visions, to see wonderful things; the secrets of his nature were beginning to open up to him. Veil after veil was, as it were, being taken off. Mother herself became the teacher and initiated the boy into the truths he sought. At this time there came to the place a woman beautiful to look at, learned beyond compare. Later on this saint used to say about her that she was not learned, but was the embodiment of learning; she was learning itself in human form. There too you find the peculiarity of the Indian nation. In the midst of the ignorance in which the average Hindu woman lives, in the midst of what is called in Western countries her lack of freedom, there could arise a woman of supreme spirituality. She was a sannyasini; for women also give up the world, renounce their property, do not marry, and devote themselves to the worship of the Lord. She came, and when she heard of this boy’s yearning she offered to go and see him; and hers was the first help he received. At once she recognized what his trouble was, and she said to him: “My son, blessed is the man upon whom such madness comes. All men in this world are mad: some are mad for wealth, some for pleasure, some for fame, some for a hundred other things. But blessed are they who are mad after God. Such men are very few.” This woman remained near the boy for years, taught him various religions disciplines, and initiated him into the different practices of yoga.

Later, there came to the same temple a sannyasin, one of the begging friars of India, a learned man, a philosopher. He was an unusual man; he was an idealist. He did not believe that this world existed in reality, and to demonstrate that, he would never live under a roof; he would always live out of doors, in storm and sunshine alike. This man began to teach the boy the philosophy of the Vedas, and he found very soon, to his astonishment, that the pupil was in some respects wiser than the master. He spent several months with the boy, after which he initiated him into the order of sannyasins, and finally he departed.

Previously, when his extraordinary conduct as a temple priest had made people think him mad, his relatives had taken him home and married him to a girl of five, thinking that that would restore the balance of his mind. But he came back and only merged deeper in his madness. Sometimes, in our country, children are married by their parents without having any voice in the matter. Of course such a marriage is little more than a betrothal. When they are married they still continue to live with their parents, and the real marriage takes place when the wife grows older, at which time it is customary for the husband to bring his bride home. In this case, however, the husband, absorbed in worship, had entirely forgotten that he had a wife. In her far-off home the girl had heard that her husband had become a religious enthusiast and that he was even considered insane by many. She resolved to learn the truth for herself; so she set out and walked to the place where her husband was. When at last she stood in her husband’s presence, he at once admitted her rights as his wife – although in India any person, man or woman, who embraces a monastic life is thereby freed from all worldly obligations. The young man said to he: “As for me, the Mother has shown me that she resides in every woman, and so I have learnt to look upon every woman as Mother. But if you wish to draw me into the world, since I have been married to you, I am at your service.”

The maiden was a pure and noble soul and was able to understand her husband’s aspirations and sympathize with them. She quickly told him that she had no wish to drag him down to a life of worldliness, but that all she desired was to remain near him, to serve him, and to learn from him. She became one of his most devoted disciples, always revering him as a divine being. Thus through his wife’s consent the last barrier was removed and he was free to lead the life he had chosen.

The next desire that seized upon the soul of this man was to know the truth about the various religions. Up to that time he had not known any religion but his own. He wanted to understand what other religions were like. So he sought teachers of other religions. By a teacher you must always remember what we mean in India: not a bookworm, but a man of realization, one who knows truth at first hand and not through an intermediary. He found a Mohammedan saint and underwent the disciplines prescribed by him. To his astonishment he found that, when faithfully carried out, these devotional methods led him to the same goal he had already attained. He gathered a similar experience from following the religion of Jesus Christ. He went to all the sects he could find, and whatever he took up he went into with his whole heart. He did exactly as he was told, and in every instance he arrived at the same result. Thus from actual experience he came to know that the goal of every religion is the same, that each is trying to teach the same thing, the difference being largely in method and still more in language. At the core, all sects and all religions have the same aim; they only quarrel for their own selfish purposes.

From “The Great Spiritual Teachers of the World” quoted from “VIVEKANANDA, WORLD TEACHER: His Teachings on the Spiritual Unity of Humankind”, Edited and with an Introduction by Swami Adiswarananda.

 

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