[Speech delivered at the 108th birthday anniversary of Sri Ramakrishna (Mar 1943) at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, New Delhi. ]
It seems to me that if we consider the teachings of the Paramahamsa, we can find three or four distinct features in them, which have been found severally in the teachings of other great religious teachers, which, perhaps, have been expounded individually with greater force, and which possibly commanded much larger and wider audiences; but I do not think that you will find all these teachings, combined in the same person and in the same manner as you will find in the Paramahamsa.
To begin with, he made it very clear, right from the outset of his own religious experiments and subsequent messages, which he gave to the world, (and I think this is where the Hindu in the Paramahamsa comes in, and that is why I think the Ramakrishna Mission will always be a branch of Hinduism and it will be a Hindu mission), because he saw, like all Hindus, whatever part of the country they may belong to, that you cannot have the conception of God in an impersonal, abstract, and theoretical manner. That if you want to know God, or see God, or walk with God, or experience God, you cannot do it merely by thinking of a God, who is nameless, colourless, and smell-less, who is everything and who is nothing, and so on. You know the series of phrases which are used in the Upanishads to describe what is indescribable. You cannot approach God by thinking of Him as a philosophic abstraction. You can approach Him only if you think of Him in concrete, material, personal terms. It does not matter in what personal terms God may appear to you. You can think of Him as Mother, in which form God appeared to the Paramahamsa. You may think of Him as anyone of the gods, and you know there are a large number of them with whom we who come from different parts of India are familiar. If I may illustrate, to some of us who come from the South, God is known as Venkatachalapati of Tirupati; some others may like to think of Him as Ranganatha of Srirangam; some others may think of Him as Vishwanatha of Kashi; some others may think of Him as Purandara Vittala of Pandarpur. It does not matter what name you give Him as long as you try to approach the conception of God in a personal manner. And I think it is this approach to the knowledge of God, this approach to religion, which is typically and peculiarly Hindu, which has been misunderstood by all other religions, or which, at any rate, does not form part either of the Christian faith, or of the Muslim faith, or of the Buddhist faith. We think of God as a living person whom we can feel, touch, see, enjoy, rejoice over, love, and lose ourselves in. It is exactly this which seized Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. He could get into ecstasies of transport; he could talk, sing, dance with joy at the sensation created in him by the approach, touch, and the feeling of the Mother whom he worshipped. That, I think, is one of the most characteristically Hindu parts of the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
At the same time, he did not say his particular God was the only God. He did not say, ‘You can think of God only in terms of Mother, or only in terms of a particular deity whom you are accustomed to worship, but he only said, ‘You may approach God through the particular deity with whom you are familiar.’ When foreigners come and say, ‘You have got so many thousands of gods. How can you reconcile all these thousands of gods with the truth that there is only one God? It only shows that foreigners are not able to go beyond the superficial elements of the Hindu custom and belief. Our individual gods are only a means of approach to God who exists not only in the temples but also outside the temples. He exists not only in places where He is worshipped, but also in places where He is despised. ‘God exists everywhere, in air, in water, in the atmosphere, in man, in woman, in children, in animals, in plants, in birds, in everything that is living and that is non-living. This universality of God is another cardinal, fundamental creed of the teachings of Paramahamsa. He said, ‘you cannot think of God as an impersonal entity or as having a place where you cannot go to see Him without showing or sending in your visiting card. If you want to think of God, if you want to know what is meant by God, you must think of Him in terms of a person who exists here, there, and everywhere.’ Logically, the moment you begin to accept the view that you recognize God in every place, in every living animal, in every living thing, it follows that you have got to treat all creation in the same manner.
Just try and draw the practical inferences from this conception of the universality of God. The moment you see that God is present everywhere, in everyone, there can be no such thing as untouchability, there can be no such thing as caste, there can be no such thing as specially privileged priests, there can be no such thing as inequality. There can be nothing excepting the simple’ acceptance of the fundamental principle that all living things are equal in the sight of God. If all living things are God, then all living things obviously must be equal. That, of course, is the philosophy which has been preached by a number of Hindu philosophers. You find it in the Hindu philosophy, you find it in the Hindu mythology. The famous story of Prahlada and Narasimha is familiar to most Hindus, where, you know, it was supposed to have been proved concretely that God could be found even in a pillar.
Everybody knows that the Hindus believe in the universality and the presence of God. As a matter of fact, not only do we believe in the universality of God but according’ to the teachings of the Gita, we are asked to dedicate ourselves completely to God, in everything that we ,do, whether it is an act of worship, whether it is an act of Punya or prayer, or anything that we do. Even when we pray to God, at the end of the prayer we have got to say, ‘All merit that might have been acquired by this prayer is not for me but is given to that God.’ That is nearly the same thing which every Hindu is taught from the beginning. Even when he takes food, to him it is religious. There is a religious element in sleeping; there is a religious element in marriage. Everything that a Hindu does has got to be coloured by the fact that everywhere there is God and that whatever he (the Hindu) does has got to be done as a dedication to the service of God.
That is another characteristic teaching of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, which leads to the philosophy of love, love of all creatures. You know, for example, it has been related in the life and teachings of the Paramahamsa that latterly he became so sensitive to others’ pain, such an embodiment of this principle of the universality of love, that even if somebody living somewhere was punished, he would actually see the lashes on his own body. That was only a symbolic way of pointing out how thoroughly Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had imbibed and typified and concretized the philosophy of the universality of God.
Not only did he combine these two things, which to someone would seem to be inconsistent, that one should approach God in a personal manner and that God is here, there, and everywhere, but he also went further and did a thing which no religious teacher has done before. At any rate, it does not seem to have been done effectively before, looking at the way in which their teachings have been practised by the followers. He said, ‘Don’t think for one moment that there is one patented way of approaching God; don’t think that there is one regular, royal, well-marked, and well-planned route which is the only route by which you can approach God.’ Time and again, he made it clear in his own life, in his own religious experiments, and in his teachings and sayings, that all religions were but different methods, different ways of approach to God, by whatever name He might be known; and that is something which appeared very easy for the Hindu to grasp, because, even if you take hold of a Hindu at random, you will find that he does not recognize God by one name. If you go to one part of the country, God will be known by a particular name; if you go to another part, even in a neighbouring district or in the same street, perhaps, even in the same house, you will find God being addressed by different names. Nobody is more familiar than the Hindu is with the multiplicity of names by which you can recognize God and you can approach Him. It is this, I think, which makes tolerance, and the acceptance of many ways of knowing and approaching God, so fundamentally and naturally a part of the teachings of Hindus and of Ramakrishna. He says, ‘Whether it is a question of Islam, or Christianity, or any other religion, do not for one moment think that a person is an infidel, irreligious, and condemned to eternal perdition, simply because he does not follow your way of approaching God.’ He contended in different ways, by parables and by homilies, that all religions were nothing but different paths, or ways, or means for achieving the same object, and in doing that, of course, he necessarily preached the philosophy of tolerance, and the equality of all religions. He also did something much more important. He, as far as his aims and his teachings were concerned, made it clear that no person could be denied the right of salvation or could be put into a category of non-saveable souls simply because he did not follow the belief that one particular way was the only correct way of knowing and approaching God. That again is associated with his personal approach to God and with the fact that he knew, from his own experience, that if one wants to know God, one has to think of Him in one’s own natural way. And if one thinks of Him sufficiently devotedly and with intensity of concentration, sooner or later one begins to feel the identity of oneself with God.
These three tenets have been preached earlier, and I do not say they are new philosophies; but they have not been all preached by the same man, nor have they been brought together to form a consistent whole. And even more important than that and that is something, which particularly Hindu religion requires is the pointing out that salvation was not a personal affair, that salvation did not mean withdrawing oneself from all worldly responsibilities and obligations. You know that the ideal which had been most popular not only in the East but also in the West, had been the ascetic ideal the ideal of a person withdrawing himself from all surroundings and social obligations and wishing one’s salvation in the complete withdrawal of oneself from life in general. The Paramahamsa definitely discouraged his disciples from taking this attitude to life. He himself returned from the Samadhi into which he frequently fell, because all the time he was conscious of the fact that one cannot bring about a reform in this wise. As you know, he was a person who refused to give his chief disciple permission to get into a state of religious and spiritual ecstasy where he would become lost to human life in general.
I do not think it is really necessary for me to say anything more about the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. But I can think of no more complete a set of philosophy and religious practice that can be easily understood by the man in the street, particularly if he has a Hindu background, and that can effectively lead him to a discovery of his spiritual self than is embodied in the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
From our archives – Published in Prabuddha Bharata, July 1943
V. K. R. V. Rao (Vijayendra Kasturi Ranga Varadaraja Rao) (1908–1991) was a prominent Indian economist, politician, professor and educator.
A recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, he served in various positions in the fields of Food Planning, Economics and Social Affairs.
Distinguished with many literary honours, Rao also established three noted institutions in Social Science research: Delhi School of Economics, Institute of Economic Growth and the Institute for Social and Economic Change.
Another organization that owes its present prominence to Rao’s vision is the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, Delhi.
Dr. Manmohan Singh, India’s former Prime Minister has credited him with being responsible for the high quality of economics education and research in India.