Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86) began life as an obscure, unschooled village boy, Gadhadhar Chatterji. His first major religoius experience came at age six.
Ramakrishna describes his first spiritual ecstasy…while walking along the paddy fields, a flock of white cranes flying against a backdrop of dark thunder clouds caught his vision. He reportedly became so absorbed by this scene that he lost outward consciousness and experienced indescribable joy in that state.¹
In the years to come, he became a prominent Hindu holy man, emphasizing unity among all religions.
Ramakrishna says he practiced all faiths and discovered that they all lead to the same spiritual place. Just how thoroughly, however, one can effectively rid oneself of one’s cultural and religious biases remains open to debate. My sense is that he viewed other religions through the lense of his own biases, even though he claims all thoughts of Hinduism vanished while, for instance, someone read the Bible to him or while he recited the name of Allah.²
To me his exploration of non-Hindu religions seems superficial and, perhaps, even delusional. He bases his analysis on visions had while practicing some of the outward measures of different religious faiths, including Chritianity. But for most mystically inclined Christians, religious visions only strenghthen and reassure. They are not the measure of faith. Faith is about putting your religion into practice, day in and day out. It’s about finding God through selfless serving, while sweeping the floor or maybe cleaning a toilet. It’s not about a brief and, I would suggest, questionable vision that comes after a few days of external practice. Anyone on drugs or with a hepped up brain can have that. Moreover, it is not about wanting to be exalted as a holy man that everyone should liken to God.³
This issue aside, biographers say Ramakrishna often fell into extended ecstatic raptures. These trances were extreme to the point that even Ramakrishna himself sometimes wondered if he’d gone mad. At such moments the Hindu Blessed Mother, Kali, apparently would appear in a mystical vision and console him with her graces.
Before marrying Sri Devi, Ramakrishna prayed that Kali would “root out” all of her sexual tendencies. Not surprisingly, their marriage was never consummated. While this may seem strange to many who can’t see beyond our materialistic, techno-sexual culture, the two reportedly were united in a purely spiritual sense, making sexual union redundant, perhaps even distasteful. Considering she was much younger than him, this is surprising. But most Hindu accounts don’t talk too much about female sexuality, focussing on the male gurus’ ‘great victories’ over their male sexual urges.4
To help overcome his male sexual urges, Ramakrishna often dressed and behaved as a woman. Again, to me this seems quite crude, not in the sense that I am against cross-dressing (I’m not) but in the sense that it is such a materialistic, clunky approach. I would think that a deeply spiritual person, someone revered as holy, would be able to inwardly experience a “subtle body,” as the Hindus put it, of the opposite sex without having to go through all the laborious externals of cross-dressing.
The Gospel of Ramakrishna, based on the writings of his direct disciples, is widely available in the West. Essentially a wisdom book, it is full of pithy sayings and examples. In one analogy Ramakrishna notes, for instance, that bad tomatoes rot faster when bashed up and thrown into a garbage heap. This alludes to the idea that the soul may be purified of ungodly attitudes (bad tomatoes) through holy suffering (for more on this dynamic, see » Bhagavad Gita, Alchemy).
With regard to the idea of karma transfer, which for most people sounds alien and difficult to grasp, an Indian biographer writes that Ramakrishna:
had a vision of his subtle body…[with] a number of sores on the back. He was puzzled by the sight, but it was made clear…profane people had caused the sores on his body. They themselves had been purified, but they had left the suffering arising from their own sins with him.5
This illlustrates some core beliefs about the dynamics of Hindu mysticism. Similar but not identical beliefs can be found in Christian mysticism, In Catholicism souls closer to God suffer for the salvation of less pure souls (see » Faustina Kowalska). Further to this point, the worldly critique that “prayer does nothing” might, from the perspective of a bona fide saint, be seen as an unfortunate misunderstanding perpetuated by ignorance or sin.
Having said that, the idea that we can pick up bad vibes from other people is nothing new. And I think some religious people sensitive to this dynamic make a kind of grandiose career out of being “special” and “holy” when really, they are just sensitive—probably at least partly due to some physiological predisposition. The grandiosity, I think, comes from an underlying inferiority complex or from some other complication.
On the social level, Ramakrishna’s disciples founded the international charity organization known as the Ramakrishna Mission. And his most beloved disciple, Swami Vivekananda, became another pivotal Hindu religious figure.
³ Non-Christians, of course, accuse Jesus of this. But it’s pretty clear that Jesus didn’t personally want to go on the cross, a symbol which has lasted through the centuries.
4 We also see this with Gandhi, who apparently in the platonic sense slept naked with his grand-neice and married women to overcome his sexual urges, which seems a little weird from a Western perspective. See >> http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/ghandi-slept-grandniece-historian-tells-uk-government-1460499
5 Swami Tejasananda, A Short Life of Sri Ramakrishna, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama [Publication Department], 1990, p. 92. PDF (downloadable) version: https://advaitaashrama.org/downloads/A%20Short%20Life%20of%20Sri%20Ramakrishna.pdf, p. 105.