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Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar in 1885. CREDIT: Photo by Abinash Chandra Dna; public domain image from Wikipedia Commons

Ramakrishna (1836-1886) was an Indian Hindu mystic and spiritual leader. After adhering to various religious practices from the Hindu traditions of Bhakti yoga, Tantra, and Advaita Vedanta, as well as from Islam and Christianity, he proclaimed the world's various religions as "so many paths to reach one and the same goal", thus validating the essential unity of religions. Ramakrishna's followers came to regard him as an avatar, or divine incarnation, as did some of the prominent Hindu scholars of his day.

Ramakrishna, who experienced spiritual ecstasies from a young age, started his spiritual journey as a priest at the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple, near Kolkata, India, built by Rani Rasmani. Soon his mystical temperament gained him widespread acclaim amongst the general public as a guru, attracting to him various religious teachers, social leaders, Bengali elites, and common people alike; initially reluctant to consider himself a guru, he eventually taught his disciples, who later formed the monastic Ramakrishna Order. After his death, his chief disciple Swami Vivekananda popularized his ideas, and founded the Ramakrishna Math, which provides spiritual training for monastics and householder devotees, and the Ramakrishna Mission, to provide charity, social work and education.

Ramakrishna's original name was Gadadhar Chattopadhyaya.

Early life

Birth and childhood

He was born on 18 February 1836, in the village of Kamarpukur, in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, India, into a very poor and pious Bengali Brahmin family. He was the fourth and the youngest child of his parents. His father, Khudiram Chattopadhyaya, was born in 1775, and his mother, Chandramani Devi, was born in 1791. The couple's first son, Ramkumar, is said to be born in 1805. A daughter, Katyayani, was born five years later, and a second son, Rameswar, in 1826.

Chandramani Devi was Khudiram's second wife, as his first wife had died young. Khudiram had ancestral property in Dere Village of West Bengal, India. An unscrupulous landlord, Ramananda Roy, who was angry with Khudiram for refusing to commit perjury, brought a false petition against him in the court and took possession of his ancestral property. Bereft of all property, Khudiram and Chandramani Devi moved to Kamarpukur where a friend, Sukhlal Goswami, gifted them some land.

The parents of Ramakrishna are said to have experienced supernatural incidents and visions regarding his birth. In Gaya, his father Khudiram had a dream in which Bhagwan Gadadhara (a form of lord Vishnu) told him that he would be born as his son. Chandramani Devi is said to have had a vision of light entering her womb from the lingam in Yogider Shiv Mandir. In another vision following Ramakrishna's birth, his mother saw a strange tall person lying in the bed instead of the baby Ramakrishna.

The family was devoted to the Hindu deity Rama (the family deity was Sri Raghubir, an epithet of Rama), and the male children of Khudiram and Chandramani were given names that started with Ram or Rama: Ramkumar, Rameswar, and Ramakrishna. There has been some dispute about the origin of the name Ramakrishna, but there is "evidence which proves beyond doubt that the name 'Ramakrishna' was given to him by his father..."[yy] Ramakrishna confirmed this himself, as recorded in "M"s diaries, "I was a pet child of my father. He used to call me Ramakrishnababu."

First spiritual experience

Around the age of six or seven, Ramakrishna experienced his first moment of spiritual ecstasy. One morning, while walking along the narrow ridges of a paddy field, eating some puffed rice from a small basket, he came across the sight of a flock of snow white cranes, flying against the background of heavy, rain-laden black clouds, which soon covered the entire sky. The ensuing sight was so beautiful that he got absorbed into it and lost all outer consciousness in a profound ecstasy, before falling down with the rice scattered. People nearby who saw this came to his rescue and carried him home.

At age nine, in accordance with Brahminical tradition, the sacred thread was vested on him, thus making him eligible for conducting ritual worship. He would later help his family in performing worship of their deities. As a result of his devotion in worship, he started to experience bhava samadhi (savikalpa samadhi) He reportedly had experiences of a similar nature a few other times in his childhood—while worshiping the Goddess Vishalakshi, and portraying the God Shiva in a drama during the Shivaratri festival.


Ramakrishna was sent to the village school where he learned to read and write, but he had an aversion to arithmetic, and didn't progress beyond simple addition, multiplication and division. He read the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other religious books with devotion. But he observed the scholars and found that they were only interested in acquiring wealth and contrasted this with his father's standards of detachment and righteous conduct. So he later lost interest in this "bread-winning education". He instead became proficient in making images, acting, and painting. When he was fourteen years old, he started a drama group with some of his friends and left school to pursue it.

Kamarpukur, a transit-point on well-established pilgrimage routes to Puri, brought him into contact with saints and holy men. He became well-versed in the Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavata Purana, hearing them from the wandering monks and the Kathaks—a class of men in ancient India who preached and sang the Purāṇas. He used to sing and enact the songs and scenes from the Purāṇas to the village women. A trader, Durgadas Pyne, who enforced a strict purdah on the women in his household, criticized those who met Ramakrishna to listen to the Purāṇas. Ramakrishna argued with him that women can only be protected through good education and devotion to God, and not through Purdah. A challenge was thrown by Durgadas that it was impossible to look into his inner apartments. Ramakrishna accepted the challenge and dressed himself like a weaver woman, then fooled Durgadas with his disguise and entered the inner apartments of his house. Durgadas, defeated, allowed the women to go and listen to Ramakrishna's recitals.

Ramakrishna's father died in 1843, a loss which he felt very strongly, making him more reticent. Ramakrishna was about seven and half years at this time. Sometimes, visiting the nearby cremation ground alone, he would practice spiritual disciplines there. At this stage, the family responsibilities fell on his elder brother, Ramkumar, who was about thirty-one years older. When Ramakrishna was in his teens, as the family's financial position worsened, Ramkumar started a Sanskrit school in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), while also serving as a priest there. Ramakrishna moved to Calcutta in 1852 to assist Ramkumar.

Priesthood at Kali Temple

In Calcutta, there lived Rani Rasmani, a woman with a commanding personality, a wealthy widow. She endeared herself to the people of the city through her exceptional managerial skills of the estate, resistance against the British authorities, and various philanthropic works. Well known for her kindness, benevolence to the poor, and also for her religious devotion, she was much loved and revered by all, and proved herself to be worthy of the title "Rani". An ardent devotee of the Goddess Kali, she had the words, "Sri Rasmani Dasi, longing for the Feet of Kali”, inscribed in her estate's official seal. After having a vision of the Goddess Kali, in a dream on the night before her departure for a pilgrimage to the holy city of Kashi, she founded the now famous Dakshineswar Kali Temple. Reportedly in the dream, the goddess instructed her that instead of visiting Kashi, to set up a stone idol of the Goddess at a beautiful place on the banks of the Bhagirathi River, and make arrangements for the daily worship and Prasada offering there.

With great delight, the Rani bought a large piece of land on the banks of Hooghly river at Dakshineswar and started the construction of the nine-spired temple, where pilgrims could congregate to catch a glimpse of the Goddess. However, being born into a low caste family, she was deemed unworthy by local Brahmins to make food offerings to Kali. But it was her heart's desire to offer Prasada to the deity of Kali, and if she did so going against the norms of Brahmanical society of that time, then no devotees would visit that temple, nor would a kulin Brahmin priest officiate there. To find a scriptural solution to her problem, the Rani sought the written opinions of various pandits from different parts of the country; however, none of them were in her favor. When all hope was seemingly lost, she received a letter from Ramkumar, who assured her that scriptural principles would be observed intact if she made a gift of the property to a Brahmin, who could then install the deity and make arrangements for food offerings.

The Rani decided to consecrate the temple and proceeded with her plans. While the search for priest was on, a Brahmin named Mahesh Chandra Chattopadhyaya, who worked on the estate of the Rani, and her secretary Ramdhan Ghosh, both of whom were well acquainted with Ramkumar, requested him to officiate as a priest at the Rani's temple, albeit temporarily. Ramkumar agreed, and when Rani installed the black Kali image on the last day of May 1855, he became her chief priest.

Ramkumar informed Ramakrishna about his taking up the post of the priest and asked him to stay in the Kali Temple. Ramakrishna objected strenuously and reminded Ramkumar that their father never officiated in the ceremonies of the purported 'lower castes', but the will of Ramkumar prevailed in this matter.

In May 1855, Ramkumar, in the presence of Ramakrishna, officiated at the dedication ceremony of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. Within three months after the consecration of the temple, Mathur Babu, the Rani's right-hand man, much impressed by Ramakrishna, appointed him with the task of dressing the deity of Kali, and Hriday, the sixteen year old nephew of Ramakrishna, as an assistant to both him and Ramkumar. Ramkumar began to teach his brother the mode of worship and service of the Goddess in the hope that he might perform them in his absence.

Ramkumar later employed Ramakrishna on few occasions to perform the worship of Kali. As Ramkumar grew old and infirm to carry out the difficult duties at the Kali temple, Mathur, with the permission of the Rani, requested him to move to the Vishnu temple in the complex for conducting worship, and appointed Ramakrishna to the office of priest. Ramkumar was glad with this arrangement, and after serving for one year since the consecration of the temple, he died suddenly while preparing to go home on leave, in 1856.

Dakshineswar Kali Temple. CREDIT: Original uploader was Nikkul at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Vision of Goddess Kali

At age 20, Ramakrishna who by now had witnessed more than one death in his family, realizing the utter impermanence of life, became more engrossed in the worship of Kali. After the daily worship, he would sit in the temple looking intently at the deity and get absorbed in her, before losing himself in devotion whilst singing with profound emotion the songs composed by devotees like Ramprasad and Kamalakanta. With an ardent heart, he would say, "Thou showed thyself to Ramprasad, Mother, why then shouldst Thou not reveal Thyself to me? I don't want wealth, friends, relatives, enjoyment of pleasure, and the like. Do show Thyself to me." Being averse to wasting any time, after the closure of the temple during midday or at night, he would visit the nearby jungle to think and meditate on Kali.

Before meditating, he would put down his clothes and the sacred thread aside, and meditate completely naked. When Hriday, his nephew, found this out, he confronted him to ask him to explain his strange conduct. Ramakrishna explained to him that when one thinks about God, one should be free from all attachments and the eight servitudes of "hatred, fear, shame, aversion, egoism, vanity, noble descent, and good conduct." He viewed his sacred thread as a display of the ego, of his Brahmin descent, and thus kept it aside, saying when calling upon the Mother, one should discard all such bondages and call on Her with a focused mind.

In this way, he spent his days and nights altogether in prayer, singing, and meditation, while his longing for her vision kept increasing daily. It was not long before people around the temple started noticing his passion and adherence to devotion, which was quite unperturbed by the opinions of people around him. The Rani was informed by her son-in-law, Mathur thus: "We have got an extraordinary worshiper; the Goddess will be awakened very soon".

As the days passed, Ramakrishna's food intake and sleep gradually declined, and when not engaged in either worship or meditation, he was seen to be in a state of turmoil over whether he would have a vision of the Mother. Seeing the setting sun, he would cry, "Mother, another day is gone and still I have not seen you!" Eventually he would question, "Are you true, Mother, or is it all a fabrication of my mind, mere poetry without reality? If you do exist, why can't I see you?"

In time, his longing for her vision became extreme, and he was engaged in either worship or meditation for almost twenty-four hours a day. Despaired, and feeling an unbearable pain at the thought that he might never have her vision, one day, as he later recounted: "In my agony, I said to myself, 'What is the use of this life?' Suddenly my eyes fell on the sword that hangs in the temple. I decided to end my life with it then and there. Like a madman, I ran to it and seized it. And then — I had a marvelous vision of the Mother and fell down unconscious." He became overwhelmed, and before fainting, observed that to his spiritual sight — houses, doors, temples and everything else around vanishing into an empty void and "What I saw, was a boundless infinite conscious sea of light! However far and in whatever direction I looked, I found a continuous succession of effulgent waves coming forward, raging and storming from all sides with great speed. Very soon they fell on me and made me sink to the unknown bottom. I panted, struggled and fell unconscious. I did not know what happened then in the external world — how that day and the next slipped away. But, in my heart of hearts, there was flowing a current of intense bliss, never experienced before, and I had the immediate knowledge of the light that was Mother." When he regained consciousness, he was found, uttering the word "Maa" (Mother) repeatedly in an aching voice.

Thoroughly convinced of Kali's existence, Ramakrishna now lived at her abode, all the time, and like a child disinclined to leave its mother, was disinclined to leave his Divine Mother. Hovering in an ocean of bliss, he guided various seekers to Kali. When asked why he called the deity a "Mother", he answered that it was because the child is most free with the Mother, and she alone can cherish the child more than anyone else. People around him noted that he engaged in talks of spiritual matters alone and never any worldly issues, and while talking about Kali the Divine Mother, he would simply cry and be elated. When someone once asked him about Kali worship, he said:

   "I do not worship Kali made of clay and straw. My Mother is the conscious principle. My Mother is pure Satchidananda — Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. That which is infinite and deep is always dark-colored. The extensive sky is dark-colored and so is the deep sea. My Kali is infinite, all-pervading, and consciousness itself."[1]


Sarada Devi, wife of Ramakrishna. CREDIT: Ramakrishna math official website page, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rumors spread to Kamarpukur that Ramakrishna became unstable as a result of his spiritual practices at Dakshineswar. Ramakrishna's mother and his elder brother, Rameswar, decided to get Ramakrishna married, thinking that marriage would be a good steadying influence upon him — by forcing him to take up responsibilities, and keep his attention on normal affairs rather than on his spiritual practices and visions. Ramakrishna himself mentioned that they would find the bride at the house of Ramchandra Mukherjee in Jayrambati, 3 miles to the north-west of Kamarpukur. The five-year-old bride, Saradamani Mukhopadhyaya (later known as Sarada Devi) was found, and the marriage was duly solemnized in 1859. Ramakrishna was twenty-three at this point, but this age difference for marriage was typical for nineteenth-century rural Bengal.[57] They later spent three months together in Kamarpukur when Sarada Devi was fourteen, and Ramakrishna thirty-two. Ramakrishna became a very influential figure in Sarada's life, and she became a strong follower of his teachings. After the marriage, Sarada stayed at Jayrambati and joined Ramakrishna in Dakshineswar at the age of eighteen.

By the time his bride joined him, Ramakrishna had already embraced the monastic life of a sannyasi; the marriage was never consummated. As a priest, Ramakrishna performed the ritual ceremony – the Shodashi Puja in his room, where he worshiped his wife, Sarada Devi as the Divine Mother. Ramakrishna regarded Sarada Devi as the Divine Mother in person, addressing her as the Holy Mother, and it was by this name that she was known to Ramakrishna's disciples. Sarada Devi outlived Ramakrishna by thirty-four years and played an important role in the nascent religious movement.

God-realization via various traditions

In 1860, Ramakrishna returned to Dakshineswar and was again caught up in a spiritual tempest, forgetting his wife, home, body, and surroundings. He once described his experiences during this most tumultuous period of his life thus:

   "No sooner had I passed through one spiritual crisis than another took its place. It was like being in the midst of a whirlwind, even my sacred thread was blown away. I could seldom keep hold of my dhoti [cloth]. Sometimes I would open my mouth, and it would be as if my jaws reached from heaven to the underworld. "Mother!" I would cry desperately. I felt I had to pull her in, as a fisherman pulls in fish with his dragnet. A prostitute walking the street would appear to me to be Sita, going to meet her victorious husband. An English boy standing cross-legged against a tree reminded me of the boy Krishna, and I lost consciousness. Sometimes I would share my food with a dog. My hair became matted. ... I had no sleep at all for six long years. My eyes lost the power of winking. I stood in front of a mirror and tried to close my eyelids with my finger and I couldn't! I got frightened and said to Mother: 'Mother, is this what happens to those who call on you? I surrendered myself to you, and you gave me this terrible disease!' I used to shed tears — but then, suddenly, I'd be filled with ecstasy. I saw that my body didn't matter — it was of no importance, a mere trifle."[2]

Ramakrishna grew up practicing Bhakti towards Lord Rama and his duties as a priest at the Dakshineswar temple led him to practice worship of Mother Kali. While serving as a temple priest at Dakshineswar, Ramakrishna would encounter various itinerant sadhus who would visit his place and stay there for a while. Practicing their own modes of worship, several of them initiated Ramakrishna into various schools of Hinduism.

In the year 1861, a female ascetic named Bhairavi Brahmani initiated Ramakrishna into Tantra. Afterwards, he took up the practice of vatsalya bhava (attitude of a parent towards the divine child) under a Vaishnava guru named Jatadhari. In 1865, a Vedanta monk named Tota Puri initiated Ramakrishna into sannyasa and he attained nirvikalpa samadhi, considered as culmination of spiritual practices. In 1866, Govinda Roy, a Hindu guru who practiced Sufism, initiated Ramakrishna into Islam; furthermore, in 1873, Ramakrishna practiced Christianity and had the Bible read to him.

After more than a decade of sadhana in various religious paths, each culminating in the realization of God by that path, his personal practices settled, and he is said to have remained in bhavamukha, a level of blissful samadhi. He would meditate in the Panchavati (a wooded and secluded area of the Dakshineswar Temple grounds), go to the Kali temple to offer flowers to the Mother, and wave incense to the assorted deities and religious figures, whose pictures hung in his room.


Tantra focuses on the worship of shakti and the object of tantric training is to transcend the barriers between the holy and unholy as a means of achieving liberation and to see all aspects of the natural world as manifestations of the divine shakti.

In the year 1861, an itinerant middle-aged female ascetic named Bhairavi Brahmani initiated Ramakrishna into Tantra.[66] Under her guidance, Ramakrishna went through sixty-four major tantric sadhanas. He began with mantra rituals such as japa and purascarana and many other rituals designed to purify the mind and establish self-control. He later proceeded towards tantric sadhanas, which generally include a set of heterodox practices called vamachara (left-hand path), which utilize as a means of liberation, activities like eating of parched grain, fish, and meat along with drinking of wine and sexual intercourse. According to Ramakrishna and his biographers, Ramakrishna did not directly participate in the last two of those activities; all that he needed was a suggestion of them to produce the desired result. Ramakrishna acknowledged the left-hand tantric path, though it had "undesirable features", as one of the "valid roads to God-realization", he consistently cautioned his devotees and disciples against associating with it.

The Bhairavi also taught Ramakrishna the kumari-puja, a form of ritual in which the Virgin Goddess is worshiped symbolically in the form of a young girl. Under the tutelage of the Bhairavi, Ramakrishna also learnt Kundalini Yoga.[78] The Bhairavi, with the yogic techniques and the tantra, played an important part in the initial spiritual development of Ramakrishna.

Vaishnava bhakti

In 1864, Ramakrishna practiced vātsalya bhāva under a Vaishnava guru Jatadhari. During this period, he worshiped a small metal image of Ramlālā (Rama as a child) in the attitude of a mother. According to Ramakrishna, he could feel the presence of child Rama as a living God in the metal image.

Ramakrishna later engaged in the practice of madhura bhāva, the attitude of the Gopis and Radha towards Krishna. During the practice of this bhava, Ramakrishna dressed himself in women's attire for several days and regarded himself as one of the gopis of Vrindavan.

Ramakrishna visited Nadia, the home of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Nityananda Prabhu, the fifteenth-century founders of Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava bhakti. According to Ramakrishna, he had an intense vision of two young boys merging into his body while he was crossing the river in a boat. Earlier, after his vision of Kali, he is said to have cultivated the Santa bhava—the child attitude – towards Kali.

Tota Puri and Vedanta

Towards the end of 1864, an itinerant monk named Tota Puri, a tall, naked mendicant with tangled hair, arrived at Dakshineswar while on a pilgrimage through various holy places in India. He was the head of a monastery and claimed leadership over seven hundred sannyasis. It was customary with him to not spend more than three days at any one place, and therefore he arrived at the Kali temple to only spend a few days.

Initial meeting with Tota Puri

Arriving at the temple ghat, Tota Puri, getting a glimpse of the devotional face of Ramakrishna, stepped up to him wondering if he could be a fit aspirant for learning Vedanta. After observing Ramakrishna rigorously, he asked him if he was interested in practicing any Vedantic disciplines. Ramakrishna replied, "I know nothing of what I should do or not; my Mother knows everything; I shall do as She commands." A startled Tota told him to go ask your mother, at which Ramakrishna silently went into the temple and returned ecstatically with a joyful face, and informed Tota that his Mother said, "Go and learn; it is in order to teach you that the monk came here." Being aware that the one whom Ramakrishna was referring to as his Mother was the idol of Devi in the temple, Tota, though fascinated at his childlike simplicity, opined his behavior was due to ignorance and false beliefs. Being a learned man, and of sharp intellect, Tota had no regard for any deity except for the Ishvara of Vedanta. He looked upon the Devi as a delusional figure and had no belief in her existence.

At the Panchavati, situated to the north of the temple garden, Ramakrishna was initiated into sannyasa by Tota Puri. At the dawn of morning in the auspicious moment of Brahmamuhurtha, he was guided through the various rites and ceremonies involved in the procedure of becoming a Sannyasi. In accordance with the scriptural injunctions and tradition of successive generations, he offered as an oblation, to be free from the desire of having spouse, children, wealth, admiration from people, beautiful body and so on, and renounced them all. He then also offered his sacred thread and the tuft of hair on his head as part of the oblation. A pair of Kaupinas and an ochre cloth were then presented by the Guru Tota, to the Sādhaka Ramakrishna, and was instructed thus:

   "Brahman, the one substance which alone is eternally pure, eternally awakened, unlimited by time, space and causation, is absolutely real. Through Maya, which makes the impossible possible, It causes, by virtue of its influence, to seem that It is divided into names and forms....Break the firm cage of name and form with the overpowering strength of a lion and come out of it. Dive deep into the reality of the Self existing in yourself. Be one with It with the help of Samadhi. You will then see the universe consisting of name and form, vanish, as it were, into the void; you will see the consciousness of the little I merge in that of the immense I, where it ceases to function; and you will have the immediate knowledge of the indivisible Existence-Knowledge-Bliss as yourself."[y7]

Experience of samadhi

Quoting scriptures, Tota explained to his disciple the need to attain the non-dual consciousness, as it alone can provide a person the supreme bliss. He asked his disciple to free his mind from all functions, and merge it into the absolute. It so came to pass that when Ramakrishna sat for meditation, he could by no means make his mind stop from functioning. He would withdraw his mind easily from everything, but as soon as he did so, the intimately familiar form of the Divine Mother would appear before him as a living and moving being. Every time he sat for meditation, this happened all over again, and becoming nearly hopeless, he said to his guru, "No, it cannot be done; I cannot make the mind free from functioning and force it to dive into the Self." Criticizing his disciple very harshly for his defiance, Tota now feverishly went about searching for something in the hut. After finding a broken piece of glass, he took it and forcibly pierced its needlelike end on his disciple's forehead between the eyebrows and said, "Collect the mind here to this point With a firm determination." Ramakrishna, now determined, sat for meditation, and when as previously the form of the Divine Mother appeared before his mind, he immediately cut her mentally in two with the sword of knowledge. There remained then "no function in the mind, which transcended quickly the realm of names and forms, making me merge in samadhi."

After being near his disciple for a long time, who now entered into samadhi, Tota came out of the hut and locked its door lest someone enter. Taking his seat outside under the Panchavati, he awaited a call to open the door. Days passed by and nights rolled on, and at the end of three days when there was no call, surprised and curious, he entered the hut and found Ramakrishna sitting in the exact same posture in which he left him, with no sign of breath whatsoever and face calm and radiant. Tota was astonished and thought, "Is it indeed true, what I see enacted before me? Has this great soul actually realized in a day what I could experience only as the fruit of forty years of austere Sadhana?" In disbelief, he now began to examine and inspect in detail, all the signs manifested in the body of Ramakrishna. He particularly examined if his heart was beating and whether there was the smallest amount of breath coming out through his nostrils. Seeing no signs of change, nor any return of normal consciousness, Tota, brimming with awe, exclaimed, "Is it in truth Samadhi? Is it the Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the ultimate result attained through the path of knowledge spoken of in the Vedanta? Ah, how very strange is the Maya of the Divine."

After the experience of nirvikalpa samadhi, Ramakrishna realized that the great weaver of Maya is none other than Kali, the Divine Mother herself; that she projects it by Her will like a spider that spins a web out of itself, and She can no more be differentiated from Brahman than can the power of burning from fire.

He observed that Maya functions in the world in two ways and named them as "Avidya Maya" and "Vidya Maya". Considering Avidya Maya to be represented by the lower forces like evil, greed, cruelty etc., which consign a man to the lower level of existence, and Vidya Maya to be represented by the higher forces like kindness, love and devotion, which elevate a man to the higher levels of existence, he felt that when an individual with the help of Vidya Maya could rid himself of Avidya Maya he would become Mayatita or free of Maya. He realized these two facets of Maya to be the two forces of creation, the two powers of Kali — Who stands beyond them both, like the beaming sun behind the clouds of different colors and patterns, and shines through them all. Instead of looking upon the world as an illusion of Brahman, Ramakrishna looked upon it as the manifestation of the Divine Mother.

He further elaborated his view on the Brahman of Vedanta and the Divine Mother of Tantra thus:

   "When I think of the Supreme Being as inactive - neither creating nor preserving nor destroying - I call Him Brahman or Purusha, the Impersonal God. When I think of Him as active - creating, preserving, and destroying - I call Him Sakti or Maya or Prakriti, the Personal God. But the distinction between them does not mean a difference. The Personal and the Impersonal are the same thing, like milk and its whiteness, the diamond and its lustre, the snake and its wriggling motion. It is impossible to conceive of the one without the other. The Divine Mother and Brahman are one."[3]

Tota Puri humbled

After staying in Bengal Province for a while, the revered Tota Puri, who until then had never had any illness in his life, caught dysentery, which made his life quite miserable. Thinking about taking his leave and moving away, he approached Ramakrishna, but every time he did so he would either forget to mention it, or would feel prevented from speaking by someone within him, and would go back hesitantly. Seeing his frail body, and knowing about his condition, Ramakrishna with help of Mathur arranged for a special diet and medicines, all to no avail. Being well versed in meditation, Tota Puri used to merge his mind into samadhi at will and thus avoid feeling the pain in his body. However, on one night the pain in his intestines became so intense that his mind was no longer able to merge in samadhi, and he decided to drown his "cage of bones and flesh" in the river Ganga and be free from it. He thus set out and on reaching a bank of the river, started walking into it and kept walking further all the way to almost other side of the bank. Baffled that there seemed to be not enough water in the river to drown himself, he looked back, to find, in one dazzling vision, the sight of the Divine Mother, the one beyond Turiya, filling up all the space round him. Feeling awed and realizing that the Brahman he had been worshiping all his life was none other than the Mother herself, he turned back, and spent the remaining night, meditating on the Divine Mother.

When Ramakrishna met him in the morning to enquire about his health, he was found a totally different person with no more illness. Tota then asked Ramakrishna to exhort Her to give him permission to leave, as he now realized that was Her will that he, who had never spent more than three days at a place, had spent eleven months there. Both of them then visited the temple and Tota, who until then considered the image of the Devi as a delusion, prostrated himself in front of her idol, along with Ramakrishna. A few days later, he took leave and left Dakshineswar, never to return.

Perception in samadhi

Some time after the departure of Tota Puri from Dakshineswar, owing to his lack of any desires in the world, Ramakrishna decided to dwell in the plane of nirvikalpa samadhi. As he attempted to do so, once again the form of the Divine Mother, "beautiful, more beautiful than the most", started appearing in front of his mind and he, not having the heart to leave her behind, would return. After much internal deliberation, with great courage, he again took up knowledge as the sword and cut her form into two, and "there was nothing left in the mind then; and it rushed quickly up to the complete nirvikalapa state."

Ramakrishna remained in the nirvikalapa state continually for a period of six months, a state of perception said to be from which no ordinary person returns, as the body would then fall dead after twenty-one days. He remained unconscious of the outer world throughout this period, and stayed put like a dead man, with matted hair and flies moving through his mouth and nostrils. He might have passed away then if not for the untiring efforts of an unknown monk, who happened to be present in Dakshineswar at the time, and who on recognizing the state in which Ramakrishna was, thought his body must be kept alive for the betterment of the world. This period of being in the nirvikalapa state came to an end after Ramakrishna received a command from the Mother to remain in Bhava Mukha, a state of consciousness bordering between being absorbed into the absolute and remaining in the relative world, for the sake of enlightening people. This was followed by him having an affliction with a severe bout of dysentery. After suffering intense pain continually for about six months, his mind gradually returned to the normal plane of consciousness; before that it used to rise and be fixated at the nirvikalpa state every now and then.

He then firmed his awareness at the sixth chakra of Tantra, and lived with his consciousness oscillating between being either absorbed into the impersonal absolute, or remaining in personal devotion to the Mother.[108] Later in his life, it was observed that while talking about or listening to subjects related to God, Ramakrishna with his face beaming a smile and body turning radiant, would become noticeably stiff and unconscious. When one of his disciples asked him why does it happen so and what does he experience in that state? Ramakrishna smiled and replied:

   "Well, it is called samadhi, the culmination of meditation. I borrow one-sixteenth part of the mind from the Divine Mother and talk and laugh with you, but the remaining portion rests with the Mother, meditating on her real essence as Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute."[yy]

The periods of samadhi would later become a regular part in the life of Ramakrishna, and people near him used to find him in a state of samadhi every now and then, sometimes for almost twenty-four hours a day. Ramakrishna used to say that the natural tendency of his mind was towards the nirvikalpa plane and once in samadhi, he would not be inclined to come back to the normal plane of consciousness, but would return for the sake of his devotees and sometimes even this will was not enough, so he would fill his mind with trivial desires like, "I will smoke tobacco", "I will drink water", "I will take this", "I will see so and so, "I will talk", and by repeatedly saying such things to his mind, he would make it gradually return to the plane of body consciousness.

Islam and Christianity


In 1866, Govinda Roy, a Hindu man who was previously initiated into Islam and practiced Sufism, initiated Ramakrishna into Islam. Ramakrishna learned about Govinda through the latter's regular visits to Dakshineswar. Being much impressed by seeing the faith and love for God in Govinda, Ramakrishna decided to practice Islam, reasoning: "This also is a path to realization of God; the sportive mother, the source of infinite Lila, has been blessing many people with the attainment of her lotus feet through this path also. I must see how through it she makes those who take refuge in her, attain their desired end."[yy]

Ramakrishna engaged himself in the practice of Islam according to its prescribed rules. He devotedly repeated the name of Allah and said their prayers five times a day and remained in that state of mind for three days, after which he had full realization through their path.

During this practice, Ramakrishna had a vision of a luminous figure, and Swami Nikhilananda's biography speculates that the figure was "perhaps Mohammed". According to these accounts, Ramakrishna "devoutly repeated the name of Allah, wore a cloth like the Arab Muslims, said their prayer five times daily, and felt disinclined even to see images of the Hindu gods and goddesses, much less worship them—for the Hindu way of thinking had disappeared altogether from my mind."[yy] After three days of practice he had a vision of a "radiant personage with grave countenance and white beard resembling the Prophet and merging with his body." He opined this vision to be of the all pervasive Brahman with attributes, as the vision eventually ended with him merging into the attributeless absolute Brahman.

After his experience of practicing Islam, Ramakrishna opined that knowledge of Vedanta can make Hindus and Muslims sympathetic to one another as, "There is, as it were, a mountain of difference between them. Their thoughts and faiths, actions and behavior have remained quite unintelligible to one another in spite of their living together for so long a time."[YY]


At the end of 1873, Ramakrishna started the practice of Christianity. After one of his devotees named Sambhu Chandra Mallick read the Bible to him, he got well acquainted with the life and teachings of Jesus.

Once when the Bible was being read out loud to him, from the very beginning there were references to the doctrine of sin. After hearing a little and finding that it talked of nothing but sin, he refused to listen to it anymore further, saying, "Just as in the case of snakebite, if the patient can be made to believe that there is no poison at all, he will be all right. Similarly, if one constantly thinks, I have taken the name of the Lord, so I am sinless, one becomes pure." He ideated that the more we give up such ideas as "I am sinful", "I am weak", the better it will be for all, as we all are children of God, thus not weak and sinful.

In 1874, Ramakrishna experienced a strange vision at the parlor of Jadu Mallik's garden house, situated to the south of Kali temple in Dakshineswar. He was sitting there and looking keenly at a picture of Madonna and Child hanging on the wall, when all of a sudden he saw it come to life with effulgent rays of light emerging from the image and merging into his heart. A few days later, while walking in the Panchavati, he reportedly had a vision of Jesus coming towards him, embracing and merging into his body. At this moment, he reportedly lost his normal consciousness, entered into trance and remained for some time identified with the all pervasive Brahman with attributes.

In his own room amongst other divine pictures was one of Christ, and he burnt incense before it morning and evening. There was also a picture showing Jesus Christ saving St. Peter from drowning in the water.

Popularization and final years

Keshab Chandra Sen and the New Dispensation

In 1875, Ramakrishna met the influential Brahmo Samaj leader Keshab Chandra Sen. Keshab had accepted Christianity, and had separated from the Adi Brahmo Samaj. Formerly, Keshab had rejected idolatry, but under the influence of Ramakrishna he accepted Hindu polytheism and established the "New Dispensation" (Nava Vidhan) religious movement, based on Ramakrishna's principles—"Worship of God as Mother", "All religions as true", and "Assimilation of Hindu polytheism into Brahmoism". Keshab also publicized Ramakrishna's teachings in the journals of New Dispensation over a period of several years, which was instrumental in bringing Ramakrishna to the attention of a wider audience.

Following Keshab, other Brahmos such as Vijaykrishna Goswami started to admire Ramakrishna, propagate his ideals, and reorient their socio-religious outlook. Many prominent people of Kolkata—e.g., Pratap Chandra Mazumdar, Shivanath Shastri, and Trailokyanath Sanyal—began visiting him during this time (1871–1885). Mazumdar wrote the first English biography of Ramakrishna, titled The Hindu Saint in the Theistic Quarterly Review (1879), which played a vital role in introducing Ramakrishna to Westerners. Newspapers reported that Ramakrishna was spreading "love" and "devotion" among the educated classes of Kolkata and that he had succeeded in reforming the character of some youths whose morals had been corrupt.

Ramakrishna also had interactions with Debendranath Tagore, the father of Rabindranath Tagore, and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a renowned educator and social reformer. He had also met Swami Dayananda. Ramakrishna is considered one of the main contributors to the Bengali Renaissance.

Swami Vivekananda

Some monastic disciples (L to R): Swamis Trigunatitananda, Shivananda, Vivekananda, Turiyananda, Brahmananda. Below: Saradananda. CREDIT: Ramakrishna Mission, 1899, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Among the Europeans who were influenced by Ramakrishna was Principal Dr. William Hastie of the Scottish Church College, Kolkata. In the course of explaining the word "trance" in the poem "The Excursion" by William Wordsworth, Hastie told his students that if they wanted to know its real meaning" they should go to "Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar." This prompted some of his students, including Narendranath Dutta (later Swami Vivekananda), to visit Ramakrishna.

Despite initial reservations, Vivekananda became Ramakrishna's most influential follower, popularizing a modern interpretation of Indian traditions which harmonized Tantra, Yoga, and Advaita Vedanta. Vivekananda established the Ramakrishna Order, which eventually spread its mission posts throughout the world. Monastic disciples, who renounced their family and became the earliest monks of the Order, included Rakhal Chandra Ghosh (Swami Brahmananda), Kaliprasad Chandra (Swami Abhedananda), Taraknath Ghoshal (Swami Shivananda), Sashibhushan Chakravarty (Swami Ramakrishnananda), Saratchandra Chakravarty (Swami Saradananda), Tulasi Charan Dutta (Swami Nirmalananda), Gangadhar Ghatak (Swami Akhandananda), Hari Prasana (Swami Vijnanananda), and Swami Turiyananda.

Last days

In the beginning of 1885 Ramakrishna suffered from clergyman's throat, which gradually developed into throat cancer. He was moved to Shyampukur near Kolkata, where some of the best physicians of the time, including Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar, were engaged. When his condition aggravated, he was relocated to a large garden house at Cossipore on 11 December 1885.

During his last days, he was looked after by his monastic disciples and Sarada Devi. Ramakrishna was advised by the doctors to keep the strictest silence, but ignoring their advice, he incessantly conversed with visitors. According to traditional accounts, before his death, Ramakrishna transferred his spiritual powers to Vivekananda, and assured him of his avataric status. Requesting other monastic disciples to look upon Vivekananda as their leader, Ramakrishna asked Vivekananda to look after the welfare of the disciples, saying, "keep my boys together."

Ramakrishna's condition gradually worsened, and he died in the early morning hours of 16 August 1886 at the Cossipore garden house. His last word, on one account was "ma", while another states he uttered thrice, the word "Kali", before passing away.

After the death of their master, the monastic disciples led by Vivekananda formed a fellowship at a half-ruined house at Baranagar near the river Ganges, with the financial assistance of the householder disciples. This became the first Math or monastery of the disciples who constituted the first Ramakrishna Order.

Reception and teachings

Ramakrishna's religious practice and worldview, contained elements of Bhakti, Tantra and Vedanta. Ramakrishna emphasized God-realization, stating that "To realize God is the one goal in life." Ramakrishna found that Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam all move towards the same God or divine, though using different ways: "So many religions, so many paths to reach one and the same goal." Ramakrishna further said, "All scriptures - the Vedas, the Puranas, the Tantras - seek Him alone and no one else." The Vedic phrase "Truth is one; only It is called by different names," became a stock phrase to express Ramakrishna's inclusivism.

Ramakrishna preferred "the duality of adoring a Divinity beyond himself to the self-annihilating immersion of nirvikalpa samadhi..." and is quoted in the Nikhilananda Gospel stating, "The devotee of God wants to eat sugar, and not to become sugar."


The principal source for Ramakrishna's teaching is Mahendranath Gupta's Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita, which is regarded as a Bengali classic and "the central text of the tradition". Gupta used the pen name "M", as the author of the Gospel. 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 to 1886.

The most popular English 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. Swami Nikhilananda worked with Margaret Woodrow Wilson, daughter of President Woodrow Wilson, who helped the swami to refine his literary style into "flowing American English". The mystic hymns were rendered into free verse by the American poet John Moffitt. Aldous Huxley wrote in his Forward to the Gospel, "'M' produced a book unique, so far as my knowledge goes, in the literature of hagiography. Never have the casual and unstudied utterances of a great religious teacher been set down with so minute detail." Philosopher Lex Hixon writes that The Gospel of Ramakrishna 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 Kolkata's intellectuals, despite the fact that his ideas were far removed from issues of modernism or national independence. According to contemporary reports, Ramakrishna's linguistic style was unique, even to those who spoke Bengali. It contained obscure local words and idioms from village Bengali, interspersed with philosophical Sanskrit terms and references to the Vedas, Puranas, and Tantras. For that reason, according to philosopher Lex Hixon, his speeches cannot be literally translated into English or any other language.[4] Scholar Amiya P. Sen argued that certain terms that Ramakrishna may have used only in a metaphysical sense are being improperly invested with new, contemporaneous meanings.[5]

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. As an example of Ramakrishna's teachings and fun with his followers, here's a quote about his visit to an exhibition,

“I once visited the museum. There was a display of fossils: living animals had turned into stone. Just look at the power of association! Imagine what would happen if you constantly kept the company of the holy.” Mani Mallick replied (laughing): “If you would go there again we could have ten to fifteen more years of spiritual instructions.”[6]

Ramakrishna was skilled with words and had an extraordinary style of preaching and instructing, which may have helped convey his ideas to even the most skeptical temple visitors. His speeches reportedly revealed a sense of joy and fun, but he was not at a loss when debating with intellectual philosophers. Philosopher Arindam Chakrabarti contrasted Ramakrishna's talkativeness with the Buddha's legendary reticence, and compared his teaching style to that of Socrates.[yy]

In the Kolkata 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 organization that forced educated men to be servants not only to their bosses at the office, but also to their wives at home. What Ramakrishna saw as the primary detriment of Chakri, however, was that it forced workers into a rigid, impersonal clock-based time structure. He saw the imposition of strict adherence to each second on the watch as a roadblock to spirituality. Despite this, however, Ramakrishna demonstrated that Bhakti could be practiced as an inner retreat to experience solace in the face of Western-style discipline and often discrimination in the workplace.

His spiritual movement indirectly aided nationalism, as it rejected caste distinctions and religious prejudices.[7]

Influence and legacy

Ramakrishna is considered an important figure in the Bengali Renaissance of 19th–20th century. Several organizations have been established in his name. The Ramakrishna Math and Mission is the main organization founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1897. The Mission conducts extensive work in health care, disaster relief, rural management, tribal welfare, elementary and higher education. The movement is considered one of the revitalization movements of India.

Other organizations include the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society founded by Swami Abhedananda in 1923, the Ramakrishna Sarada Math founded by a rebel group in 1929, the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Mission formed by Swami Nityananda in 1976, and the Sri Sarada Math and Ramakrishna Sarada Mission founded in 1959 as a sister organization by the Ramakrishna Math and Mission.

Rabindranath Tagore wrote a tribute poem to Ramakrishna, [8]

   Diverse courses of worship from varied springs of fulfillment have mingled in your meditation.
   The manifold revelation of the joy of the Infinite has given form to a shrine of unity in your life
   where from far and near arrive salutations to which I join my own.

During the 1937 Parliament of Religions, which was held at the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta, Tagore acknowledged Ramakrishna as a great saint because

   the largeness of his spirit could comprehend seemingly antagonistic modes of sadhana, and because the simplicity of his soul shames for all time the pomp and pedantry of pontiffs and pundits.

Max Müller, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sri Aurobindo, and Leo Tolstoy have acknowledged Ramakrishna's contribution to humanity.


Some content on this page may previously have appeared on Wikipedia.


  1. Chetanananda, Swami (1990). Ramakrishna As We Saw Him. St. Louis: Longmans, Green, and Co. ISBN 978-0-916356-64-4.
  2. Swami Chetananda (1990), pp. 14--15
  3. Gupta, Mahendranath (1942), The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Nikhilananda, Swami, Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, ISBN 978-0-911206-01-2, p. 44.
  4. Hixon, Lex (1997). "Introduction". Great Swan. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. xi. ISBN 978-0-943914-80-0.
  5. en, Amiya P. (2010). Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: Sadhaka of Dakshineswar. Penguin Books Limited. ISBN 978-81-8475-250-2.
  6. American Vedantist, issue No. 74, Summer 2018, 'Sri Ramakrishna – English Lessons' [1]
  7. Menon, Parvathi (1 November 1996), "A History of Modern India: Revivalist Movements and Early Nationalism", India Abroad
  8. "Sri Ramakrishna Tributes", Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York, https://ramakrishna.org/ramakrishnatributes.html