Immense Idealism with Immense Practicality: Ramakrishna Mission—A Phenomenon

— Swami Vireshananda —

Vedanta speaks of a universe filled with the consciousness of Brahman, the Supreme Reality, whose conscious presence is felt in all the individual components, however small they may be. This idea is graphically described in the Mundaka Upanishad:

तदेतत्सत्यं यथा सुदीप्तात्पावकाद्विस्फुलिङ्गाः
सहस्रशः प्रभवन्ते सरूपाः ।

तथाक्षराद्विविधाः सोम्य भावाः प्रजायन्ते
तत्र चैवापि यन्ति ॥

That thing that is such, is true: As from a fire fully ablaze, fly off sparks in their thousands that are akin to the fire, similarly, O good-looking one, from the Imperishable originate different kinds of creatures and into it again they merge.1

This Upanishadic idea appropriately applies to the Ramakrishna Mission, which is celebrating 125 years of its illustrious existence. Sri Ramakrishna is the Supreme Divine Consciousness that has taken the form of a living mechanism called the Ramakrishna Mission. In the collective sense, it is Sri Ramakrishna, who truly symbolises the Ramakrishna Mission, while its members, branch centres, activities, and other external expressions are but varied manifestations of the non-dual consciousness of which Sri Ramakrishna is the exemplary embodiment in this modern age. It is pertinent to recount here what Swami Vivekananda, the founder of the Ramakrishna Mission, said of this organisation in the Rules and Regulations formulated by him: ‘The Lord has not yet given up His Ramakrishna form. … The form of His will last until He comes once again in another gross body. Though He may not be visible to all, that He is in the organisation (Sangha, Brotherhood, and is guiding it) is patent to all.’2In another place, Swamiji reaffirms: ‘The organisation is His very body, and in the organisation itself He is ever-present.,’3

Forming Great Characters

One of the primal duties that the Ramakrishna Mission has taken upon itself is to form characters combining jnana, bhakti, yoga, and karma. This idea is explicitly spelt out by Swamiji in his Rules and Regulations, in which he says that Sri Ramakrishna is a unique personality—a synthesis of jnana, bhakti, and karma in their utmost perfection. Never before did such a divine personality appear in the human race. ‘He alone is a true disciple and follower of Sri Ramakrishna whose character is similarly perfect in all respects.’ Swamiji further specifies that the aim of this age is the formation of such a perfect character and wants everyone to strive for that alone with all one’s might.

Another hallmark of the Mission’s mode of work, in Swamiji’s words, is a combination of immense idealism with immense practicality. He set up a new kind of monasticism, which gives utmost importance to selfless work to be done as a part of one’s spiritual sadhana. This devoted work should always go hand in hand with ardent meditation and deep analysis, without which the work loses its spiritual significance. Also, Swamiji despises the selfish notion of asserting one’s own salvation without caring for the suffering masses. He says: ‘It is right for you that you should serve your millions of brothers rather than aggrandize this little self.’4

As we can see, it is the type of sannyasins best suited in the complex situation prevalent in present society. All-renouncing monks, in these modern times, are duty-bound to help others in secular fields like education, health, poverty alleviation, and so on even while living a God-centred life, which the old monastic tradition demands. These apparently secular works are conducted in the Ramakrishna Mission with the spirit of selfless service as worship to Sri Ramakrishna, through which all of them are transformed instantaneously into spiritual disciplines. This, in turn, creates a conducive ambience in the ashramas where the distinction between the mundane and religious activities vanish. This is what makes sense of the pure and unalloyed spiritual atmosphere prevailing in all the ashramas of the Ramakrishna Mission.

Through this, the ashramas become excellent training grounds of great characters, who in due course, will turn out to be spiritually enlightened and, at the same time, serve the needy and poor, pouring their heart and soul. This idea is excellently encapsulated by Swami Yatishwarananda in his talk to the first Convention of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission held in 1926 at Belur Math:

 

The object of Swami Vivekananda’s founding the twin institutions of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission was to carry on the Mission of his great Master, and this by bringing into existence a band of workers who would strive their utmost ‘for both emancipation of the Self and the well-being of the world’. And with this end in view, the Swami tried to express the ancient monastic ideals not only through the old methods of quiet spiritual practice and silent preaching, but also through what the modern world calls service—but service spiritualised.5

Transforming Individual Lives

Ramakrishna Mission is greatly appreciated in the wider circles for rendering succour to countless people in multifarious fields. However, its positive pervasion in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, though lesser-known, marks one of the outstanding contributions of this organisation of divine origin to humanity for the last 125 years. These blessed souls have transformed their lives of mundane existence into that of service, devotion, knowledge, and meditation culminating in union with God. It is not just publication and preaching, directly impacting the lives of earnest spiritual seekers, that the various centres of the Ramakrishna Mission engage in. The mode and method of the various service activities of the Mission and the exemplary lives of the venerable monks of the Ramakrishna order, who have moulded their lives in the light of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda, have also set new trends for the entire society to follow. They illustrate how one can lead an earnest spiritual life, and at the same time, successfully adapt oneself to the secular circumstances around, where one is working. They also fill one with courage and hope, giving solace and enthusiasm, guiding one in the path of God. This is well articulated by Swami Prabhananda:

 

It must be admitted that devoid of character building on spiritual values, no attempt for reformation and resolution will be of any avail. … Ramakrishna Movement aims at a basic transformation of the lives of men in a social revolution. It believes that the forging of strong character can build up forces for the betterment of society.6
Also, Swami Saradananda in his address to the convention held in 1926 says that the slogan of the Mission is ‘Individual Reform’ or what Swamiji called his ‘man-making work’.

True Constructive Work

Swami Shivanandaji Maharaj, in his presidential address to the convention of 1926, referred above, reveals the true inspiration behind all the activities of the Ramakrishna Mission: ‘Sri Ramakrishna, our light and guide, is working from behind you and through you. His benign hands are at the back of all of your activities.’7

In the Mission, no work is considered inferior or superior; it is accepted that the motive behind each work makes a work inferior or superior. Swami Saradananda, in his address to the above convention, says that the same work which brings bondage upon bondage when we do it with selfish motives, frees and makes us rise higher and higher when we do it with perfectly unselfish motives and with no idea of gain to us, not even of name and fame. According to him, Ramakrishna Mission teaches us all to work with the highest of motives and the foundation of this kind of true constructive work is laid by none other than Swami Vivekananda himself. He also warns that the restless activity of the Western world that disturbs the repose of the soul must not be mistaken for the karma yoga of India. He beautifully captures the whole essence of the work culture in Ramakrishna Mission: ‘The aim of the Mission is high; its skill in work is matchless.8

In Ramakrishna Mission, ‘service is a way of life’, which is not restricted to a particular type, time, or place. These activities are multifarious in nature as we can see from the following list: 1. Education, 2. Health, 3. Rural development, 4. Self-employment, 5. Women’s welfare, 6. Moral life, 7. Spiritual guidance, 8. Relief to the victims of calamities, and the like. All these activities are conducted, as Swamiji envisaged, ‘as service to God in man’.9

Swami Saradananda, in his address to the Convention of 1926, gives a clear concept of the ideal of karma yoga being practised in the Ramakrishna Mission: ‘The true Karma Yogin, in the words of Emerson, “must keep his head in solitude and hand in society”. Such is the character of the activity of the Ramakrishna Mission.’10

Towards Integrated Personality

Sri Ramakrishna has given a clear warning to his disciples against the monotony in life. That is why the motto of the Ramakrishna Mission is the harmony of four classical paths of jnana, bhakti, karma, and yoga. An integrated personality is that in which all the faculties of a human personality are fully developed, harmonised, and directed to a single noble cause. This goal can be achieved, according to Swamiji, only when one combines all the yogas in one’s sadhana. He says in the Math rules: ‘The aim of this Math is to build character through the combination of Jnana, Bhakti, Yoga, and Karma; and all the Sadhanas that are necessary for that end will be accepted as Sadhanas of this Math.’ He further cautions: ‘Therefore, everyone should bear in mind that anyone showing deficiency in even a single one of these, has not had his character perfectly cast in the mould of Sri Ramakrishna.’ It is clear from this that Swamiji wanted each member of the Ramakrishna Mission to fully harmonise the four yogas in his character.

Through this, the development of an integrated personality becomes feasible. It is evident from the lives of the scores of revered monks of the Ramakrishna Mission, who successfully applied all the four yogas in their lives to become great spiritual giants. These monks are exemplary illustrations of Swamiji’s ideal of an integrated personality.

The Epicentre of Efficient Management

Swamiji has given clear guidelines to the members of Ramakrishna Mission as to what kind of attitude one should have while doing work: ‘Be the servant of all. … Kill the self first if you want to succeed. … Do not figure out big plans at first, but begin slowly, feel the ground and proceed up and up.’11

The spectacular success of the Ramakrishna Mission in expanding and managing more than 225 centres across the globe lies in strictly adhering to these practical teachings. And, the secret lies in the dedicated and enduring service rendered by its members eschewing all egotism, vanity, and pride of achievement.

The efficient management of huge human and material resources is another special characteristic of the governance of this great organisation. Hindol Sengupta, a famous author, calls the work in Ramakrishna Mission, a ‘Detached Worship’. He asserts that the Mission follows detached ownership, which prevents personal ego, ambition, and the cult that overshadows the real work. The Mission has scrupulously avoided these negatives, usually found in ordinary social work. He also says that the Mission is run in a ‘hub and spoke model’, a kind of decentralised corporation, in which the revolving set of monks are constantly moved every few years from centre to centre to prevent any attachment to one location. Mr Sengupta is of the firm opinion that the Ramakrishna Mission is a great example of how to run enlightened companies.12

Enlightened Community

Establishing an enlightened spiritual community is one of the life missions of Sri Ramakrishna, as recorded by Swami Saradananda in his magnum opus Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play. After having attained perfection in various sadhanas, Sri Ramakrishna had many unique intuitive revelations. ‘One of them was His realization that as an instrument of the Divine Mother, he would have to establish a new religious order based on the universal truths revealed in his life.’13This is the genesis of a great spiritual movement initiated by the Master, which has taken an organisational form as the Ramakrishna Mission.

It is the love for Sri Ramakrishna and the ideals that the organisation stands for, which is the force holding together this great community comprising both lay and monastic members. The pure and unalloyed love of the Holy Trio and the direct disciples flows in and through the Ramakrishna Mission. It is this divine love that sustains the lives of members and binds them together as an enlightened community. The vision of the Mission is to nurture culture through education and social service with an emphasis on spiritual values. This ideal is permeated and manifested in each of its members in the form of their committed dedication and loving service.

Great Repository of Spiritual and Human Values

Sri Ramakrishna vindicated in his life the age-old spiritual values taught in the Upanishads, Gita, Bhagavata, and other scriptures like shraddha (faith), sadhana (spiritual practice), brahmacharya (purity through continence), sakshatkara (God-realisation), and vishwaprema (universal love).14

All these spiritual abilities are imbibed by the members of the Ramakrishna Mission to the best of their capacities. In fact, it is the collective spiritual energy of its members that gives wherewithal to Ramakrishna Mission to conduct its functions according to the principles laid down by its illustrious founder. Here, the contribution of each individual member becomes paramount in strengthening the edifice on which the organisation rests upon.

Also, the official website of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission lists several values which form the bedrock of this monastic community.15 They are:

  1. Selflessness, Sacrifice, Love
  2. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
  3. Excellence, Efficiency, Teamwork
  4. Truthfulness, Honesty, Transparency
  5. Social commitment without politics

The practical application of the above qualities in individual life and also in community endeavours has shaped Ramakrishna Mission into one of the most respected and acclaimed spiritual organisations in the world.

Inspiration to Thousands

Ramakrishna Mission is one of the legitimately recognised frontrunners in the Indian National Renaissance that emerged during the latter part of the 19th century. The Mission rejuvenated national consciousness during that period by holding on to strictly non-political means like service, education, publication, and preaching, which are being continued even today with all might and enthusiasm. The Mission also pioneered a spiritual invigoration all over the world benefitting hundreds of earnest spiritual seekers, which is now being expanded in leaps and bounds into new territories. Though the direct administrative sphere of the Mission is restricted due to the limited number of dedicated monks, it has positively influenced a far wider circle of devotees and admirers in all parts of the world. Hundreds of unaffiliated ashramas, Vedanta Centres, medical centres, educational institutions, and the like are serving lakhs of people, giving them both spiritual and material assistance. The monks of the Mission guide them so that they are better organised and equipped to reflect the spiritual ideals of the Ramakrishna Mission. This in turn has impacted the lives of a still larger number of people, bringing them into the fold of the greater realm of the Ramakrishna Movement.

Apart from this, the Ramakrishna Mission has inspired hundreds of organisations adhering to various cults, sects, and ideologies to bring about a perceptible constructive transformation in the Indian society and a definite positive impact elsewhere in the world. Hundreds of traditional ashramas and Maths have now become the centres of service and education during the last hundred years—thanks to the ground-breaking work done by the respected monks of the Ramakrishna Mission.

A Phenomenon

To confine the scope of the Ramakrishna Mission to a social service organisation is an incongruous concept. As an snow-ball is nothing but water in it, the divine consciousness Sri Ramakrishna is the essence and the goal of all the activities of the Ramakrishna Mission. This organisation is the concrete demonstration of the Practical Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda, where the distinction between secular and spiritual merges into one unbroken God-consciousness to be practised by the spiritual seekers. Ramakrishna Mission is a great apparatus where the eternal truths of Sanatana Dharma enshrined in the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavadgita, and other scriptures are put into earnest practice in the light of the life and teachings of three great spiritual lumi­naries of the modern age—Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda.

References

1 Mundaka Upanishad, 2.1.1.

2 Swami Tapasyananda, The Pilgrimage of Faith (Thiruvananthapuram: Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, 2021), 610.

3 Ibid., 611.

4 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 1989), 3.446.

5 Quoted in Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission Convention 1980: Souvenir (West Bengal, Howrah: Belur Math, 1980), 88.

6 Ibid., 53.

7 The Ramakrishna Math and Mission Convention, 1926 (West Bengal, Howrah: Belur Math, 1926), 37.

8 Ibid., 120.

9 See <https://belurmath.org/activities/>.

10 The Ramakrishna Math and Mission Convention, 1926, 119.

11 Complete Works, 5.78, 83, 75.

12 See <https://www.fortuneindia.com>.

13 Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, trans. Swami Chetanananda (St Louis: Vedanta Society of St Louis, 2003), 362.

14 See The Pilgrimage of Faith, 603.

15 See <https://belurmath.org/activities/>.

16 Christopher Isherwood, Sri Ramakrishna and His Disciples (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2012), 1.

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