One problem in spiritual life is to get a man of God who can be followed implicitly, with absolute faith. Even in the case of Divine Incarnations the aspirant has doubts and difficulties because of the gaps in our knowledge about various aspects of their lives and teachings. Biographies of Buddha or Jesus were compiled only long after the Great Ones had passed away and so there is scope to doubt some statements in the scriptures relating to them. We of today are, however, fortunate that about Sri Ramakrishna, the Avatara Varishtha, the Supreme Incarnation, our knowledge is flawless. Both 'M', who has recorded the Great Master's sayings verbatim in the Kathamrita, and Swami Saradananda, who has given us the fully verified narrative of the Lilaprasanga, have rendered yeoman service by reproducing with great fidelity the words and deeds of the Prophet of the Age. Sri Ramakrishna walked this earth of ours only the other day and we have no reason to doubt what he is reported to have said and done.
It is against this background that we welcome Swami Prabhananda's Journeys with Ramakrishna. A Jnani has no need to go from place to place, Because he finds fulfillment in 'being still'. But Sri Ramakrishna was not just a Jnani; he was a Vijnani. After climbing to the terrace and finding that the terrace is made of the same materials as the steps leading to it, he realized that he had a duty to come down the steps so that he could share with other earnest souls the riches he had discovered. That is one explanation of the pilgrimages he undertook to various places like Varanasi and Vrindavan. Pilgrimage forms one of the 'musts' in a devotee's life and Sri Ramakrishna's activities were all meant to be role models for aspirants to emulate. It was not to secure merit for himself that he undertook arduous journeys but to demonstrate to Bhaktas how a pilgrimage should be accomplished. Also it is said that holy places derive their holiness from the visits made to them by holy persons. As we go through Swami Prabhananda's narrations we can see how the traditional holy spots shine all the brighter by Sri Ramakrishna's paying homage to them.
Swami Prabhananda's untiring research work gives us wonderful radiant images to comtemplate and enables us to feel blessed.
-Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai
A carefree child of the Divine Mother, Sri Ramakrishna had a child's curiosity. As soon as he became curious about something, he could not rest till his curiosity was satisfied. And when he had attained the object of his curiosity, he would abandon himself wholly in it till he had got to the bottom of it. Curiosity prompted him to visit places of interest as well as persons endowed with extraordinary qualities. In Calcutta he seems to have climbed the Ochterloney Monument, visited the Asiatic Society Museum, ridden on the steep gradient inside Fort Williams, and gone to the zoo, the Kalighat temple, and Bengal Bank. Once he went to the Maidan to see a balloon go up and there noticed a young English boy leaning against a tree with his body bent in three places. It at once brought before him the vision of Krishna.
He also went to see Wilson's Circus and was impressed to see an English woman standing on one foot on a horse, which was running like lightning. Once he was taken to a photographer's studio in Radhabazar to see the art of photography and observed how a piece of glass covered with silver nitrate takes an image. Another day he saw the microscope of Dr. Bepin Behari Ghosh. His inquisitiveness led him to other areas of interest also, though he never had the kind of curiosity to look into other's affairs.
Among the well-known people he met were Padmalocan, the chief pundit at the court of the Maharaja of Burdwan; Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj; Keshab Chandra Sen; Iswarchandra Vidyasagar; Devendranath Tagore, and so on. The reason for his curiosity to meet such people, he said, could be found in the Gita. As he put it, 'It is said in the Gita that if a man is respected and honoured by many, whether it be for his scholarship or his music or his oratory or anything else, then you may know for certain that he is endowed with a special divine power.
Curiosity apart, Sri Ramakrishna visited places for several other reasons. The religious urge to visit places of pilgrimage-both nearby and far away-took him to Tarakeswar, the holy place of Shiva; Varanasi, the luminous city of Shiva; Vrindavan, the playground of Krishna, and so on. The accounts of his visits to these places are accounts of profound and extraordinary spiritual experiences and revelations.
It can well be said that India is the land of tirthas, or holy places, and also the land of pilgrimage. Throughout the ages people in India have whole-heartedly carried on the tradition of visiting pilgrimage centres. Regardless of whether they are rich or poor, people come to a holy place carrying the same inner yearning inn the heart. Even the hazards and difficulties of the journey cannot deter them.
At holy places people open their hearts to God, and as they offer their sincere prayers for a happy, peaceful life, they get courage and inspiration. This is why pilgrimages draw people closer to God. In fact, a pilgrimage itself is evidence of an eternal craving to make our lives more blessed, more perfect than before. The attraction for these pilgrimage places is so great that all-renouncing ascetics trod the same paths with lay pilgrims. And all of them have the same purpose to have the vision of the deities and to obtain their blessings.
But one feels tempted to ask why a person of Sri Ramakrishna's spiritual stature, to whom God was like a fruit in the palm of the hand, took the trouble of visiting sacred places. Ordinary people may be compared to the musk deer in Dadu's example:
'Though kasturi [musk] lies hidden in the body of a deer, it wanders also over in search of it. The deer does not perceive its own wealth and roams about here and there sniffing at the grass.' But this was not the case with Sri Ramakrishna. Moreover, Sri Ramakrishna clearly stated that people could find everything in spiritual life within himself.
Once, in a spirit of renunciation, Narendra (Swami Vivekananda), Tarak (Swami Shivananda), and Kali (Swami Abhedananda) left Cossipore, where they were attending on the Master. At this, some of the other disciples of the Master wanted to go in search of them. But Sri Ramakrishna reassured them, saying: 'Although you take journeys even to all the four corners of the world, you will find nothing (no true spirituality) anywhere. Whatever is there, is also here (showing his own body). The great spiritual leader Vijay Krishna Goswami, on his return from a pilgrimage, confirmed this. Once at Shyampukur he told the devotees in Sri Ramakrishna's presence: 'I realize that everything is here where we are sitting now. This roaming about is useless. At other places I have seen two, five, ten, or twenty-five per cent of him [meaning the Master], at the most. Here alone I find the full one hundred per cent manifestation of God."
Sri Ramakrishna himself had pointed out that religious rites, such as pilgrimage, are for beginners in spiritual life. Sri Ramakrishna once said that kutichakas-that is, those who feel serene and peaceful in one place-'don't feel the need of going to any sacred place. If one of them ever visits a place of pilgrimage, it is only for the purpose of new inspiration.
But one can seriously ask, why did a kutichaka and realized soul like Sri Ramakrishna take the trouble of making a pilgrimage? One reason might be that he wanted to help fulfil the desire f devotees such as Jagadamba and Mathurmohan. Besides this, however, Swami Saradananda could discern two other reasons behind this decision of the Master: (1) It was necessary for a great spiritual teachers like Sri Ramakrishna to learn about the spiritual position and material conditions of the people; and (2) since visits by great spiritual teachers enhance the spirituality of a holy place, and renew, as it were, the spiritual power of such a place, Sri Ramakrishna agreed to undertake these pilgrimages.
In spite of his exalted state, Sri Ramakrishna, as an Avatar, had to do many things, including pilgrimage, to fulfil his commitments, as it were. According to Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna, like his predecessors, carefully studied the spiritual ideas that had already been introduced from the time of the rishis onwards, and then, after assessing the needs of the people of his time, set forth a new movement 'the turning of this mighty wheel of new dispensation,' as Swami Vivekananda said.
Sri Ramakrishna was the exemplar of his own saying, 'So long as I live, so long do I learn,' and he took advantage of his travels to get acquainted with the spiritual condition of people in the country. Having an uncommonly sharp eye, he would study the appearance, mannerisms, and behaviour of people and see how they lived and earned their living. No doubt, this demanded a high degree of mental alertness, which he had. This is how he could assess the mental state of people even from a few casual words of theirs, and he could understand the realities of contemporary life by observing just a few incidents. Finally, the truth about other facts he could ascertain through his extraordinary yogic powers.
The Sanskrit word Tirtha has several other meanings besides the commonly understood one of 'holy place'. Of them, the following are worth considering in the context of our discussion. In Malavikagnimitram of Kalidasa we find Ganadasha saying, 'Maya tirthad abhinayavidya siksita'-that is, 'I learned the art of acting from a competent teacher.' Tirtha can also mean a holy person. For example, Rama said, 'Kva punastadrsasya tirthasya sadhoh sambhavah-However, what else could be possible for a holy man like you?' In either of these senses, Sri Ramakrishna could be said to be the greatest of tirthas.
The word tirtha, however, is most frequently used to indicate a holy place, and scriptures abound in examples in which a holy person's visit to a tirtha is extolled. For example, in the Srimad Bhagavata King Yudhisthira tells Vidura, on his return from a pilgrimage :
'O Great One! Lovers of God such as you, who have yourselves risen to the height of holiness, sanctify the holy places you visit by bringing with you the presence of Narayana, who resides within you.'
Swami Saradananda explains that when Godmen visit a holy place 'they leave behind them either new manifestations of special aspects of God or enhance and illumine the previous manifestation already in existence there.'
Tirthas may be of three kinds: (a) sthavara, which means static-for example, Varanasi, Kurukshetra, Pushkara, the Ganga, the Godavari, and so forth; (b) jangama, which means mobile-for example, a pure-hearted holy person; and (c) manasa, which refers to moral qualities such as kindness, truthfulness, forgiveness, contentment, and so forth. When a holy person such as Sri Ramakrishna, endowed with the qualities of truthfulness, compassion, simplicity, and so forth, visits a tirtha such as Varanasi, then the glory of the tirtha is truly manifest in all its splendour.
We, however, feel that Sri Ramakrishna also went on pilgrimage in childlike obedience to the promptings of the Divine Mother. About this we get a few hints from the words of Sri Ramakrishna himself. Once he said: 'There are two persons in this. One, the Divine Mother
. And the other is Her devotee.' Thus, Sri Ramakrishna manifested himself at two levels and at each level differently. At least it appeared so. At one level he was a devotee of God, a child of the Divine Mother; at the other-deeper-level he appeared as God, or the Divine Mother. As a child of the Divine Mother he lived entirely dependent on her will. He was an instrument in her hands. He visited different places in response to her prompting, or at least with her approval. And the Mother, for her part, never failed him.
So self-effacing was Sri Ramakrishna in his role as a child of God that he would say what he felt, and speak with transparent sincerity, sometimes to the embarrassment of his patrons. His disappointment at the gulf of difference between the mundane Varanasi and the celestial abode he had cherished disturbed him deeply. One day Sri Ramakrishna found himself in the drawing-room of his wealthy host at Varanasi when the persons there began talking about real estate and profit and loss. Annoyed at this, he cried out in tears: 'Mother, where have you brought me? I was much better off in the temple garden at Dakshineswar.' Later he observed, 'In Allahabad I noticed the same things that I saw elsewhere-the same ponds, the same grass, the same trees, the same tamarind-leaves.'
Despite some unpleasant experiences, however, Sri Ramakrishna advised people to visit holy places. He felt that when a large number of spiritual seekers and holy persons practice austerities for a long time in a place, an atmosphere is created there which helps devotees concentrate their minds easily on God. One can also meet advanced souls in holy places. Sri Ramakrishna himself met Trailanga Swami, Gangamayi, Bhagavandas Babaji, a monk belonging to the Order of Nanak, and others at different pilgrimage places.
But even while commending pilgrimage, Sri Ramakrishna would emphasize two important points: First, one cannot derive much benefit from visiting sacred places without devoutly cherishing holy thoughts beforehand. And second, after visiting temples and holy places one should 'chew the cud'-that is, one should keep one's mind engaged in holy thoughts associated with the place one has visited.
Sri Ramakrishna said again and again that a person's pilgrimage may be considered successful only if it has helped him to attain love of God. During his own pilgrimages his companions were amazed to see how he lost all external consciousness at the slightest inspiration and became totally absorbed in God.
Just as the post-Caitanya Vaishnava scholars made a thorough study of the role and significance of the Avatar, so also the life and activities of Sri Ramakrishna, as a Godman or Avatar, need to be studied in depth. Before Caitanya the seeds of Vaishnavism had already sprouted, but Caitanya's life and message nourished the tiny sapling of Vaishnavism and helped it grow into a majestic tree laden with fragrant flowers. Part of these flowers were the writings of the Vaishnava scholars, who made some original contributions towards a better understanding of an Incarnation of God. The appeal of their teachings created a resurgence of interest in the path of devotion to attain God.
To explain why God, an aptakama (one who has no desires of his own), would incarnate as a human being, the Vaishnava scholars argued that as the Lord is the embodiment of infinite knowledge and bliss, His Incarnation as a human being is nothing but a divine play and there is no change in His essence. Commenting on the prayer of Brahma and other gods in the Srimad Bhagavata (10.2.39), 'Vina vinodam bata tarkayamahe' (We do not consider your birth as a human being as anything other than divine sport), the Vaishnava scholars said that God, being engrossed in His svasvarupananda (the bliss of His own real nature), spontaneously sports in various ways without having any particular desire that He wants to be fulfilled. An exuberance of bliss prompts Him to act, though He has no motive-almost like a child who talks, sings, and plays out of sheer joy. Similarly, Sri Ramakrishna also said: 'God is born as Man for the purpose of sporting as man. Rama, Krishna, and Chaitanya are examples.'
The descent of the divine as a human being is but God's play. He wants to enjoy the bliss which is His very nature. Looking at Sri Ramakrishna's pilgrimages and other journeys from this standpoint, we can find new light thrown on his life.
Even though Sri Ramakrishna had exalted spiritual experiences at Varanasi, it was at Vrindavan that he was especially immersed in a sea of divine bliss. At the Akrura ghat the thought of Sri Krishna's divine play threw him into deep ecstasy. Another day, while traveling in a palanquin in Vrindavan, he was so overwhelmed with divine emotion thinking of Sri Krishna that he almost jumped out of the palanquin. Hriday, who was walking alongside, restrained him with difficulty. At Govardhan he ran straight to the top of the hillock like a madman. And after meeting Gangamayi he wanted to remain at Vrindavan. It was only his concern for his own mother, who was then living at Dakshineswar, that made him change his mind.
Again, as he was stepping into the boat at Navadvip, Sri Ramakrishna was so overwhelmed by a vision of the radiant forms of Gaur and Nitai running towards him and merging into him that he almost fell into the river. Timely intervention by Hriday saved him. But it was at the villages of Sihore and Fului-Shyambazar where we get the most striking glimpses of his divine play. At Fului-Shyambazar he created a mart of joy for seven days and nights while the local people lived in a heavenly realm and for the time being forgot completely the mundane world.
Though spiritually-enlightened devotees had an opportunity to glimpse Sri Ramakrishna's divine play and also get a taste of the divine bliss emanating from him, still, the Vaishnava scholars maintain that the primary purpose of God's descent is to enjoy His own blissful nature. The idea of the devotees getting a taste of true devotion and love of God, or the Incarnation's intention of teaching people true love and devotion, are at best by-products.
Aware of the modern attitude towards miracles, which are often presented in biographies of religious leaders, we have scrutinized every episode that hints of a miracle in the life of Sri Ramakrishna. But at the same time, we would like to share with the readers an observation by a twentieth-century rationalist, George Bernard Shaw. This remark itself seems to be nothing less than a miracle. He said: 'There is nothing that people will not believe nowadays if only it be presented to them as Science, and nothing they will not disbelieve if it be presented to them as religion. I myself began like that; and I am ending by receiving every scientific statement with dour suspicion whilst giving very respectful consideration to the inspirations and revelations of the prophets and poets.' Therefore, readers would do well to study the extraordinary or miraculous incidents in Sri Ramakrishna's life with an open mind.
Sri Ramakrishna's travels and pilgrimages can thus be studied from different points of view. Whatever his reasons for visiting different places, the Master's experiences at each place were extraordinary and unforgettable. Naturally then these visits merit closer study than what has been presented so far in Sri Ramakrishna's biographies and other writings, and for this reason we have made a thorough investigation of them. To the perceptive reader, many new facets of the glorious life of the Master will be revealed in these pages.
Most of these chapters were originally published as separate articles in journals of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, particularly in the Vedanta Kesari. The chapter entitled 'Sri Ramakrishna's Visit to East Bengal', however, was previously published in the book More about Ramakrishna. It was been included here with the permission of Advaita Ashrama, its publisher. I would like to express my thanks to Mr. Dharitri DasGupta for translating from Bengali into English two of the chapters included in this book, to the artists and photographers who provided the illustrations, and to others who worked on this book. I am grateful to all of them. if a person is able to get a glimpse of the joyous and blissful personality of Sri Ramakrishna by reading this volume, the author will consider himself blessed.
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