— Swami Vireshananda —
One day in February 1882, M. entered Sri Ramakrishna’s room in Dakshineshwar with his friend Sidhu. This was his first visit to the Master. He describes:
Entering the room, they found Sri Ramakrishna alone, seated on the wooden couch. … Sri Ramakrishna asked them: ‘Where do you live? What is your occupation? Why have you come to Baranagore?’ M. answered the questions, but he noticed that now and then the Master seemed to become absent-minded. Later he learnt that this mood is called bhāva, ecstasy. It is like the state of the angler who has been sitting with his rod: the fish comes and swallows the bait, and the float begins to tremble; the angler is on the alert; he grips the rod and watches the float steadily and eagerly; he will not speak to anyone. Such was the state of Sri Ramakrishna’s mind. Later M. heard, and himself noticed, that Sri Ramakrishna would often go into this mood after dusk, sometimes becoming totally unconscious of the outer world.
This bhāva, the divine mood, is the essential ingredient in the spiritual sadhana of Sri Ramakrishna. The story of his sadhana is marked by the gradual evolution of divine moods culminating in the state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Swami Saradananda, in his magnum opus Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, records this progression of divine moods of the Master enumerating in detail its philosophical and mystical significance.
Sadhana in the Life of an Incarnation
Sri Ramakrishna is adored as an incarnation of God. What is the need for such a great spiritual personality to undergo spiritual practices? Swami Saradananda says that even an incarnation, with infinite divine power hidden in the garb of a human body, has to manifest his spiritual potential through sadhana. Another objective of sadhana is to show humankind the importance of spiritual practices in one’s effort to realise God.
The Advaitic experience is not an exclusive state; it is the culmination and fulfilment of all divine moods, being their perennial source.
An incarnation is a man of God. He has ingrained in himself both human and divine qualities. One can recognise his divine attributes in full only in a spiritually advanced state. Until then, an incarnation is to be considered a human being, manifesting the divine qualities. The human aspect of an incarnation is as important as the divine one; it is the gateway to spiritual seekers, through which they can approach the supreme God.
How does the sādhaka bhāva, the mood of a spiritual seeker, manifest in the life of an incarnation? It happens through a steady evolution of divine power hidden in him. The more it evolves, the more yearning an incarnation develops for it, making his life an intense struggle to realise God. Such an exploration will have no place for any ulterior motive. Also, an incarnation visualises the world from ordinary as well as divine perspectives. He enjoys the world as the veritable abode of the divine play of God.
The inspiration for sadhana comes to an incarnation from his tremendous will power to rise to higher spiritual realms. Also, deep compassion towards suffering humanity will induce him to engage in intense spiritual practices—the welfare of the whole world being the sole purpose of such an endeavour—unlike an ordinary aspirant.
An incarnation feels his world of divine moods to be more real than the world of objects. The faith in the divine nature of Reality exponentially grows in him, culminating in the non-dual experience, which is beyond the pale of name and form. An incarnation is able to return to the empirical realm, but, with a new perspective. In that, he would experience both the world and Brahman, its divine cause, at the same time. Everything in this universe appears to him as a shadow of the Reality.
Mystical Evolution in Sri Ramakrishna’s Sadhana
Mystical experience is not gained through the senses. Such an experience is transcendental, intense, comprehensive, realistic, and pure. It is the state of identity with the Divine, where one loses one’s mundane attachment to the body and mind. This gives the mystic a pure sense of joy and freedom. The inner happiness and the love of a mystic are all-embracing and universal. His mystical experiences lead to the light of knowledge and in turn, identity with God, the ultimate goal of all spiritual pursuits.
Sri Ramakrishna, at the beginning of his sadhana, experienced an intense yearning for the vision of Kali, the deity he worshipped in the temple at Dakshineshwar. In this first vision, the Divine Mother appeared to him as an ocean of divine consciousness. He felt the living and blissful presence of the Mother in that state. This divine presence became permanent as he prayed for it intensely.
During the Tantra practice, Sri Ramakrishna did not need the help of any paraphernalia to get his mind merged in the state of samadhi. He also had numerous visions at that time. He went through all the sixty-four kinds of Tantra practices with a concentrated mind and attained perfection in them. During this period, he started looking on all women as embodiments of the Divine Mother, the mood which he maintained throughout his life.
Next, Sri Ramakrishna put his mind wholeheartedly to the practice of filial love towards Ramalala. It is an image of boy Rama, which became living to him. This divine child became the centre of his affection and source of divine inebriation that he was filled with during those days.
Sri Ramakrishna then developed the mood of a female paramour to Lord Krishna. He felt extreme pain on separation from and intense joy on union with the Lord. His body would undergo numerous changes according to his divine moods, reflecting his complete engrossment and diligence in spiritual practices.
What we have observed so far in the sadhana period are the bhāvas, divine moods with which Sri Ramakrishna would identify himself. The deep concentration of mind and purity of heart, that he manifested in the process, prepared him for the next level of spiritual discipline. In that, he would cast off all these moods to rise to the state of pure non-dual consciousness. Totapuri, his Guru, initiated him into sannyasa. Sri Ramakrishna received the instruction of the identity of Brahman-Atman from his Guru and plunged in deep meditation. However, his mind could not transcend the divine form of Kali, his chosen deity. At the insistence of Tota Puri, he succeeded in going beyond all names and forms and merged himself in the bliss of non-dual consciousness. He remained in this state, which is traditionally called ‘Nirvikalpa Samadhi’ for six long months. At the end of that period, he received the command of the Divine Mother to remain in the state of ‘Bhāvamukha’, the threshold state between the absolute and the relative, where one would experience both the world and its cause, Brahman.
This non-dual experience developed in Sri Ramakrishna the liberal attitude even towards religions of non-Indian origin. He recognised the fact that the same Brahman, in its different manifestations, is worshipped through every religion. This catholic attitude, an offshoot of his Advaitic experience, impelled Sri Ramakrishna to practise Islam and Christianity as well, through which he had the visions of prophet Muhammad and Lord Jesus Christ, the latter merging into his own body.
This brief description reveals to us that Sri Ramakrishna’s mystical journey is an extraordinary evolution of various divine moods into the non-dual experience of Reality. Through this ultimate state, he was able to recognise the same Reality in and through the empirical world also. In that state called Bhāvamukha, Sri Ramakrishna could roam through both the absolute and the relative realms of Reality. Also, through this, he could appreciate all the religions and identify himself with all forms of God, which he came to know to be the manifestations of the same Brahman.
Philosophical Implication of Sri Ramakrishna’s Sadhana
At the beginning of Sri Ramakrishna’s sadhana, he felt the presence of the Mother of the Universe. The Mother showed him that her real nature was divine consciousness. Later, he tasted divine bliss in the divine moods relating to different deities, which are but expressions of the same consciousness.
Sri Ramakrishna’s early spiritual experiences were of the personal forms of God. The divine moods that he had during this period were of identity with the particular deity. We have several instances in which the deities like Sita and Krishna merged in his person. We find various Vidyas or Upasanas in the Upanishads, where an aspirant tries to find unity with the deity he is meditating upon. Here, as, Sri Shankaracharya says, attributes are superimposed on the attributeless Brahman and a spiritual seeker aspires to identify with it.
Sri Ramakrishna concluded his sadhanas of Hindu traditions with the Advaitic practice. All along, he was like a lion roaming in the forest of infinite divine moods. Now he aspired to go beyond them. Vedanta explicitly states that the Ishwara, the ruler of the universe in essence, is Brahman but with attributes. In the Advaitic state, the idea of Ishwara is merged in the unconditioned state of Brahman.
The Advaitic experience is not an exclusive state; it is the culmination and fulfilment of all divine moods, being their perennial source. It is the state of Brahma Chaitanya, the pure Consciousness, of which all names and forms in the existence are but appearances. It is the state of all-embracing integration of myriad spiritual ideals and paths. For Sri Ramakrishna, it is not the state of negating anything, but that mystical state of experience in which the whole world is experienced as a manifestation of divine consciousness.
Swami Saradananda says that Sri Ramakrishna, at the end of his Advaitic sadhana, discovered that the ultimate goal of all spiritual disciplines is to become firmly established in nonduality. Further, he adds that after performing sadhanas according to the main religious denominations prevalent in India, Sri Ramakrishna observed that each of them led the aspirant towards the nondual plane. Swami Saradananda writes: ‘When we asked about nondual state, he (Sri Ramakrishna) told us repeatedly: “It is the last word, my child, the culmination of sadhana. At the ultimate development of love of God, this nondual experience manifests spontaneously in the life of all aspirants. Know it to be the goal of all faiths; and as many faiths, so many paths.” ’
The state of Bhāvamukha is the perpetuation of the state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Swami Saradananda says that although this state is a few steps below Nirguna Brahman, the experience of nonduality persists in this state also. It is a testimonial to the fact that the experience of Brahman is not limited to the transcendental realm; it is the same reality that we experience unknowingly even at the mundane level. The bhāvamukha state affirms the all-inclusive nature of Advaitic experience, which rejects none, but accepts everything as the manifestation of the ultimate Reality.
This fact is corroborated in the Upanishadic sayings like ‘Īśāvāsyam idam sarvam; whatever exists should be enveloped by God’ and ‘Sarvam khalu idam Brahma; everything is indeed Brahman’. Sri Shankaracharya, in his Vivekachudamani, says: ‘All this universe, which through ignorance appears as of diverse forms, is nothing but Brahman.’ Sri Ramakrishna used the term ‘vijnana’ to refer to this all-inclusive experience as found in the Upanishads and also as stated by Sri Shankaracharya.
Sri Ramakrishna accepted all the three levels of experiences as propounded by the different Vedantic schools: Dualism (Dvaita), Qualified nondualism (Vishishtādvaita), and Nondualism (Advaita). According to Swami Saradananda, the Master said that these three levels of experiences appear one after another, according to the evolutionary progress of the human mind. When one reaches the culmination of spiritual progress through sadhana, one experiences only the Nirguna aspect of the Divine Mother and dwells in the nondualistic state. Swami Saradananda also says that as a result of his sadhana, Sri Ramakrishna came to the firm conclusion that the ideas of dualism, qualified dualism, and nondualism emerge spontaneously according to one’s spiritual growth. The Master said that they were not contradictory but depended on the stages of one’s spiritual progress.
Sri Ramakrishna’s practise of Islam and Christianity is also philosophically significant. It extends the idea of Ishwara, the Brahman with attributes, even to other forms of God, not rooted in Indian tradition. ‘After having this nondual experience, the Master’s mind achieved an unbounded catholicity. He had then a tremendous sympathy for religious communities that taught that the goal of human life is the realization of God.’ It facilitated him to give the status of Saguna Brahman to the spiritual ideal adored by other religions also. In other words, the Master discovered that the same Brahman is worshipped in Churches as ‘Christ’ and in mosques as ‘Allah’. The revolutionary poet of Bengal, Kazi Nazrul Islam has beautifully conveyed this idea in the following lines:
Mandire masjide girjāy
pujile brahme sama-shraddhāy;
Taba nām-mākhā prem-niketane
bhariyāche tāi trisamsār
Thou didst worship God (Brahman)
with equal fervour in temple,
mosque, and church; for which reason
the whole world is
filled with the reservoir of Love
that Thou art.
A brief note of Sri Ramakrishna’s Islamic and Christian sadhanas is pertinent here. Swami Saradananda writes: ‘While practicing Islam, the Master at first had a vision of a radiant Being who looked grave and had a long beard; then he experienced the cosmic Saguna Brahman; and finally his mind merged into absolute Nirguna Brahman.’ ‘Then (at the end of Christian sadhana) the godman Jesus embraced the Master and merged into him. In ecstasy, the Master lost external consciousness and his mind remained united with Saguna Brahman for some time. With this vision, the Master became convinced that Jesus was truly a divine incarnation.’ [Italics added for emphasis]
The opening out of the concept of Saguna Brahman to universally acknowledge all ideas of God, and thus accepting all the modes of worship to be equally valid and true is a great contribution of Sri Ramakrishna to both religion and philosophy.
Source of Inspiration for a New Spiritual Awakening
Swami Saradananda remarks that three factors control every action undertaken by an avatara: Purity, Universal Love, and Compassion. He also says that one of the convictions Sri Ramakrishna had at the consummation of his sadhana was that, being an incarnation, all his spiritual endeavours are meant for the benefit of others. One of the conclusions Sri Ramakrishna arrived at after his sadhana period is that a religious organisation based on the catholic attitude should be founded. This is the genesis of a great spiritual movement initiated by the Master, which has taken an organisational form as the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Undoubtedly, the immense spiritual power generated as a result of Sri Ramakrishna’s sadhana is the sustaining factor of this worldwide undertaking of spiritual revival.
Through his spiritual practices, Sri Ramakrishna demonstrates the validity of divine visions, depicted in our scriptures. He shows in clear terms that the idea of God-Realisation is not just a fantasy but a goal to be actualised in one’s life. This practical illustration of the possibility of spiritual attainment has been the source of inspiration to thousands of spiritual seekers in the modern times. This has indeed brought about a new spiritual awakening in the world. A new mighty spiritual wave arose in the East, which reached the West with its catholic all-embracing message. Romain Rolland, a French savant, effectively brings out the universal appeal of Sri Ramakrishna and his sadhana thus:
The man whose image I here evoke was the consummation of two thousand years of the spiritual life of three hundred million people. Although he has been dead forty years, his soul animates modern India. He was no hero of action like Gandhi, no genius in art or thought like Goethe or Tagore. He was a little village Brahmin of Bengal, whose outer life was set in a limited frame without striking incident, outside the political and social activities of his time. But his inner life embraced the whole multiplicity of men and Gods. It was a part of the very source of Energy, the Divine Sakti, of whom Vidyapati, the old poet of Mithila, and Ramprasad of Bengal sing. [emphasis added]
Sri Brajendra Nath Seal, one of the illustrious thinkers of the modern era, has succinctly captured the significance of Sri Ramakrishna’s sadhana in glowing terms:
He [Sri Ramakrishna] sought to experience each religion in its entirety in sādhanā or spiritual discipline. … Here was an individual soul who would enrich himself all human experience in religious life and history. And precious elements were thus added to his Hindu heritage—the sense of human brotherhood and equality from the Muslim faith, and the need of salvation from sin from Christianity. In the same way, Vaiṣṇava saṅkīrtana and music were added to his religious exercises. These became elements (aṅgas) of his sādhanā. What we want is not merely Universal Religion in its quintessence, as Rammohun sought it in his earlier days—not merely an eclectic religion by compounding the distinctive essences, theoretical as well as practical, of the different religions, as Keshub Chandra sought it, but experience as a whole as it has unfolded itself in the history of man, and this can be realized by us, Ramakrishna taught, by syncretic practice of Religion by being a Hindu with the Hindu, a Moslem with the Moslem, a Christian with the Christian, and a Universalist with the Universalist, and all this as a stepping stone to the Ultimate realization of God-in-Man and Man-in-God.
Notes and References
 M., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2004), 78.
 For a detailed account of the topic, see the chapter ‘The Avatar as a Spiritual Aspirant’ in Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, by Swami Saradananda, trans. Swami Chetanananda (St Louis: Vedanta Society of St Louis, 2003), 160. [Indian edition available at Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata]
 For a detailed account of Sri Ramakrishna’s sadhanas, see ‘Sri Ramakrishna as a Spiritual Aspirant’, ibid., 143.
 Ibid., 318.
 See ibid., 449.
 Isha Upanishad, 1.
 Chandogya Upanishad, 3.14.1.
 Vivekachudamani, 227.
 See Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, 448.
 See ibid., 361.
 Ibid., 318.
 Swami Ranganathananda, The Message of the Upanishads (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2019), 20.
 Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, 319.
 Ibid., 358.
 Ibid., 359.
 Ibid., 359.
 Ibid., 362.
 Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2008), xxii.
 Great Thinkers on Ramakrishna–Vivekananda (Kolkata: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 2009), 14.