— Swami Vireshananda —
What is the essence of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings? This question is difficult to answer. The Master did not write any book; nor did he give any lectures. Neither did he frame any definite rules and regulations to be followed. He expressed spiritual truths in simple language in his conversations with his faithful devotees. He articulated his divine experiences through various allegories, proverbs, anecdotes, and parables so that even a common man can have glimpses of these moods. Through this unique method, Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual ideas would become intelligible to the spiritual seekers and bring about momentous transformation in their personalities. How these spiritual truths that originate in the Master’s extraordinary mind were communicated to the devotees and satisfied their spiritual hunger—is too mysterious for an ordinary intellect to comprehend.
We cannot put barriers of any particular philosophy or religion to the ambrosial teachings of Sri Ramakrishna. Also, in these teachings, there is no enforcement of one particular idea ‘to be the only truth’ as we generally find in the orthodox interpretations of the scriptures. Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings, like his personality, are universal and catholic. They have a wide expanse of spiritual insights, and at the same time, are endowed with the depth of sublime truths.
Three Essential Characteristics
We find three main characteristics in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna: 1. Trustworthiness; 2. Authenticity; and 3. Practicability. Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings are based on his own mystical visions and also on the various experiences that he had while engaging in strenuous spiritual disciplines. Hence his teachings are trustworthy to the core. Apart from this, Sri Ramakrishna himself is the authentic illustration of all the spiritual truths and experiences that he has expressed in his teachings. Therefore, they are genuine and dependable. Thirdly, Sri Ramakrishna demonstrated these truths in his life and has shown that it is possible for others also to put them into practice even if in a lesser degree. So, his teachings are of practical value.
Let us suppose that we are building a house. The first stage is to construct a foundation. Then we go on with walls, windows, doors, and the roof in that order. However, our most important duty is to construct a spiritual mansion, that is, to transform our life into spiritual life. It is more essential for us than constructing a house made up of bricks, cement, and wood. Sri Ramakrishna helps us in building such a spiritual mansion stage by stage.
The first stage of the spiritual life is a commitment to moral principles. The second stage is renunciation and dispassion. The third one is love towards God, and the fourth is to experience God’s presence everywhere. We have four great teachings of Sri Ramakrishna in conformity to these four stages of spiritual life. Through these four great statements, we come to know of the essence of the spiritual life, as taught by Sri Ramakrishna.
1. Mon mukh ek kora: Make your mind and words one
Morality should be the basis of spiritual life. We don’t see the foundation of an already constructed house. However, we all know how important is a firm and solid foundation to a house. This is the same with our spiritual life. Only when moral sensibility is awakened in us, will spiritual awareness spring from our hearts. This is the reason why all spiritual personages teach simple and practical moral precepts to everyone who begins spiritual life. The spiritual life requires purity of body, mind, and intellect. The body needs to be strong and healthy; the mind should be purified and concentrated to understand the subtle spiritual ideas; and the intellect should be penetrative to analyse the spiritual ideas and make them one’s own. Morality is a must to achieve this. As Swami Vivekananda says, ethics itself will not bring fulfilment in one’s life; however, it prepares our personality for spiritual evolution, which is the next stage. We must live a noble life and make it meaningful and fruitful. Morality provides the foundation for such a beautiful edifice called spiritual life.
Morality is expressed in our external behaviour. The root or the essence of morality is truthfulness. A poet offers his homage to a great personality in this manner: ‘You have acted in accordance to your speech.’ This is the normal standard of a truthful person. Sri Ramakrishna’s moral sensibility and conduct were much higher than this ordinary yardstick of morality. The Master’s speech, in fact, was in harmony with his conduct. It means, he only spoke about those spiritual truths which he himself experienced first-hand. He first experienced the spiritual truths and then taught them to others.
Let us analyse whether our actions are in agreement with our thoughts and speech. Generally, there will be a contradiction in our thoughts, speech, and actions. This inconsistency is the breeding ground of mental stress, hatred, jealousy, and other psychic maladies we suffer from. These make our life frustrating and miserable. The only remedy to this existential problem is to achieve harmony in our thoughts, speech, and action, which in general is termed ‘truthfulness’. Truth means yatārthata, to be exact; unchanging. Most of us fail to maintain truthfulness even in our daily life. If it is so, Sri Ramakrishna questions, how will it be possible to reach God, which is the Universal Truth?
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: ‘Atha nāma-dheyaṁ satyasya satyam iti; now Its name: “The Truth of truth”’ (2.3.6). One of the names of Brahman, the Reality is ‘The Truth of truth’. It means Brahman is the Reality or the essence of everything that we perceive as the empirical world. The challenge before us is this: If we are unable to be truthful in this world, which is within the sphere of maya, how can we even think of attaining the Ultimate Truth, which is beyond this illusory existence? How can we even dream of qualifying ourselves in an attempt to reach such a Reality without truthfulness?
It is for this reason, Sri Ramakrishna teaches the purity of mind as the first step in spiritual life. This is called ‘bhāvaśuddhi’ or ‘sattvaśuddhi’ in Sanskrit. The Master cautions spiritual aspirants that one should never be deceitful in one’s mind. What is the effective way of implementing this ideal in our daily life? The answer lies in Sri Ramakrishna’s first great saying, Mon mukh ek kora. The literal meaning of this Bengali utterance is: ‘Make your mind and speech one.’ It means, ‘to be truthful to oneself ’; ‘to speak what is in our mind’. The problem is that the mind is crammed with contradictory thoughts. Hence, it will not be practical for us to speak our minds. The best way to solve this enduring problem is to cleanse our minds of evil thoughts and follow the moral precepts in letter and spirit. This will solve many of our psychic problems.
According to Western psychology, the mind operates on two levels. One is consciousness and another is unconsciousness. The conscious mind contains all kinds of thoughts, feelings, cognitions, and memories that we recognise and acknowledge. The unconscious mind is full of such mental processes that are not available to the conscious mind.1 The disharmony between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind is the cause of all the conflicts that our mind is afflicted with. Sri Ramakrishna’s statement suggests that one should maintain harmony between the conscious and the unconscious parts of the mind, which leaves no room for dichotomy or fissures in our personality. This kind of harmonious mind alone can lead us to the integration of personality, which is essential for lasting tranquillity and contentment.
The state of a perfect coherence of mind is the goal of every spiritual aspirant. This is extolled as one of the divine qualities in the Bhagavadgita and is called sattvaśuddhi. Sri Shankaracharya beautifully explains this all important term as follows:
सत्त्वसंशुद्धिः सत्त्वस्य अन्तःकरणस्य संशुद्धिः संव्यवहारेषु परवञ्चनामायानृतादिपरिवर्जनं शुद्धसत्त्वभावेन व्यवहारः इत्यर्थः
Purity of the mind, mentally avoiding fraud, trickery, falsehood, etc. in dealings, i.e. honest behaviour.2
Mundaka Upanishad highly praises the importance of truthfulness in spiritual life:
सत्यमेव जयते नानृतं सत्येन पन्था विततो देवयानः ।
येनाक्रमन्त्यृषयो ह्याप्तकामा यत्र तत् सत्यस्य परमं निधानम् ॥
Truth alone wins, and not untruth. By truth is laid the path called Devayāna, by which the desireless seers ascend to where exists the supreme treasure attainable through truth.3
There are two significant takeaways in the above Upanishadic statement. One is that the ultimate Reality is of the nature of Truth. Second, the way of reaching that Reality is also pervaded with the light of Truth. Swamiji says: ‘There is a sage in India, a great Yogi, one of the most wonderful men I have ever seen in my life. … He told me once the secret of work, “Let the end and the means be joined into one”.’4 It means if the Truth, the Reality is our goal, the path towards it should also be illumined by the Truth. In the practical sense, only if we are truthful in every sense in our dealings in the external world, can we hope of attaining the Supreme Truth. Hence, we should, by all means, be truthful. This is what Sri Ramakrishna is conveying through the statement ‘Mon mukh ek kora’.
2. Kāmini-Kāncan Tyāg: The renunciation of lust and greed
Along with the purity of mind, what is essential for a spiritual seeker is renunciation. In fact, both are complementary to each other. Sri Ramakrishna has given utmost importance to the aspect of renunciation in his teachings. He repeatedly emphasises the renunciation of lust and greed to be the true form of renunciation.
How to understand the above teaching? If we analyse our mind, we come to realise that it is multifarious desires in our mind that instigate us to do work. The desires have a fundamental cause in the avidyā, ignorance of our real nature as Divine. Hence, Sri Shankaracharya gives a scheme of saṁsāra, the transmigratory existence: avidyā, kāma, karma, and janma: ignorance, desires, actions, and repeated birth. The earlier one is the cause of the latter one, the most fundamental being avidyā, ignorance.
The desires are plenty in number. We can easily recognise a few underlying desires behind these multitudes of desires. However, with some analysis, we can trace two fundamental desires to be the breeding grounds of all other desires. They are lust and greed. Sri Ramakrishna, being a good psychologist, has found out this psychological truth. The hankering for money and the craving for sensuous pleasures—these fundamental desires later branch off themselves into hundreds and thousands of desires that overpower our minds.
Western psychology also is in agreement with the above to a certain extent. Sigmund Freud is considered one of the prominent figures of modern psychology. He is of the view that sexual instincts are the driving forces of all human behaviour. He proposes that acceptance of this fact and fulfilling the desires is the only way to lead a happy life and not doing so, results in psychic neurosis. However, Indian psychology opposes this view. It says that the psychic lacuna or incompleteness experienced by human beings is entirely due to ignorance of one’s spiritual nature. This is called avidyā in almost all Indian philosophies. The sense of fulfilment in a person can be achieved only if one realises one’s personality to be spiritual. The Atman, the spiritual entity of an individual, is beyond the senses and the mind.
Another fundamental desire, Sri Ramakrishna points out, is greed. It is labelled as an ‘inappropriate expectation’ in modern psychological language. The word ‘greed’ stands for a craving of a person to acquire money and prosperity beyond his or her requirement and eligibility. ‘According to St. Thomas Aquinas, greed is the denial of things eternal for the sake of worldly things. In other words, it is an inordinate love of material things. Greed, also called avarice, replaces eternal satisfaction with temporal stimulation.’5
The motives behind human greediness are fundamentally three-fold: security, independence, and happiness. Ordinary people fall into the illusion that these values can be best acquired only through money. Yoga and kṣema become the primary occupations of a greedy individual. According to Sri Shankaracharya, Yoga, in this context, means acquiring what one does not have yet; kṣema means putting all efforts to keep the acquired wealth safe and secure. These are the two main characteristics of a greedy person. This makes one move far away from the very goals (security, independence, and happiness) that one has set upon oneself to achieve. The person in search of security in life becomes utterly insecure due to the uncertainty in the possession of money and wealth. One who desires independence becomes a slave for money and worldly possessions. The individual who aspires for happiness suffers from mental stress, anxiety, and restlessness due to incessant hankering for money.
Sri Ramakrishna points out these two major obstacles (lust and greed) in spiritual life, so that the spiritual aspirants may strive hard to avoid them at any cost. It was also the perpetual warning of all the incarnations and prophets who have preceded him.
3. Īśware anurāg, viṣaye virāg: Love towards God; dispassion towards worldly objects
Every human being is in search of true love. True love should bring bliss to us. It also should induce a sense of fulfilment and contentment. There should not be any sense of fear or anxiety in the love. However, worldly love is filled with all these blemishes. It generates negative emotions like sorrow, hatred, and fear. Hence, instead of experiencing happiness, we suffer from unbearable misery due to worldly love. Despite this, one fails to come out of its clutches due to human weakness and attachment. It creates a very complex situation in one’s life, making it a veritable hell.
Sri Ramakrishna gives a lasting solution to this persistent problem of human existence. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that we are deprived of true love. So, the task before us is to discover what true love is and to acquire it by all means. Love is entirely a positive sentiment. It finds its real identity and meaning only in the love of God. It is for this very reason that Sri Ramakrishna repeatedly exhorts his devotees to develop anurāg, the love of God. It is improper for a spiritual person to develop a negative attitude towards the world where he lives. One should think of God to be the edifice and essence of the whole creation and try to feel His presence pervading the whole universe. It is only then that our life on this earth becomes satisfying and the world appears as a veritable mart of joy.
Attraction is an invariable element in love. We naturally get attracted to the person whom we love. The more the intensity of the love, the more the attraction felt. At the same time, we develop more and more identification with the person whom we love. Sri Ramakrishna instructs us to direct this love towards God. As a result, when we love God more and more, we feel more and more attraction towards God, and get more and more identified with the consciousness of God. Due to this, our initial attraction towards worldly things dies out. Sri Ramakrishna teaches this great truth through a simple aphorism: Īśware anurāg, viṣaye virāg; pure devotion towards the Supreme God and dispassion towards worldly objects. His intention is crystal clear: The love which is directed towards the world is to be turned towards God. The nearer one goes towards God, the more one will be released of worldly attraction.
Our motive has to be clear and pure, if we really want God. A poet says that one should combine yoga (spiritual path) and bhoga (worldly enjoyment). Sri Ramakrishna rejects this illusion of reconciliation of worldly desires with spiritual aspiration. Such an ideal is only a fancy in the poet’s mind. It is but a delusion. If we want to follow the spiritual path, we have to strive hard to make God alone the centre of our entire life; then, naturally, the desires for worldly enjoyments drop off slowly. These two ideals (bhoga and yoga) cannot exist together. The idea that both are possible in one’s life leads to deceitfulness. Hence, we need to determine first what should be the ideal of our life. Sri Ramakrishna’s simple but effective teaching makes us understand this existential reality of life.
4. Śivajñāne jīva sevā: serving a human with the idea of God
There are two complementary concepts in Vedanta: 1. pratyagātmā, the indwelling self; 2. Parāgātmā or virāḍātmā: Universal Self. The divine consciousness illuminating one’s being is termed pratyagātmā. The same consciousness which has pervaded the entire existence is called virāḍātmā. It is essential for a spiritual aspirant to feel the presence of the Supreme Self in both these aspects. Vedanta teaches that one should experience God within and without; within the body-mind conglomeration and also outside of it in the entire universe. The highest ideal, Vedanta is putting before us, is to realise God in its entirety—within as well as without.
A spiritual aspirant strives hard to experience the presence of God. In this process, one encounters two dangers: selfishness and egotism. When one thinks only about one’s own individual spiritual progress—however noble and profound the goal may be—there is always a peril of falling into the abyss of self-aggrandisement. Hence, a spiritual aspirant should give equal importance to the ‘God without’ as to the ‘God within’. We all try to experience the presence of God within our being through prayer, meditation, and repetition of God’s name. At the same time, we should strive our best to experience the presence of God in all human beings. How can it be achieved? Sri Ramakrishna answers this germane question through his simple, but effective method: śivajñāne jīva sevā; serving a human being with the knowledge that he or she is God Himself.
We always see another human being as a mortal and value him or her in the same yardstick as we assess ourselves. Sri Ramakrishna calls for qualitative transformation in this instinctual human outlook towards others. First, we have to ennoble our outlook on ourselves. Then, we should learn to see others also on the same pedestal. The first task before us is to be aware of the divinity within us. Then we should extend the same awareness of divinity to not only all human beings but also to all animate and inanimate things. This is the method of enlarging the sphere of seeing the external world through inner transformation. As a supplement to this, we should also learn the method of how to adore the people around us as embodiments of the Divine. This will ultimately elicit divine presence within our being. The main purpose of both the methods is to feel the presence of divinity internally as well as externally—within and without.
When we develop spiritual insight into seeing every human being as God, a real type of service becomes possible. No longer it becomes a service to another human being; it transforms into the worship of God. Through this transformation in attitude towards others, every secular help or service will have a spiritual dimension. Then, through the touch of the Divine, all our actions will become sacred and our minds will be purified through constantly engaging in service activities performed as worship of God.
Whatever we do with a worshipful attitude, in due course, will take the form of worship of God and become a part of spiritual discipline. What is considered ‘work’ in the beginning, will become ‘sevā (service)’; sevā will become ‘worship’; and worship will evolve into upāsanā (contemplation). And through constant contemplation, one will realise God. This is how one can find fulfilment in one’s life.
People are suffering from the meaninglessness and uncertainty of life in this modern world. However, being of rational and scientific temperament, they refuse to follow the dogmas and blind beliefs of popular religions. What they are yearning for is spiritual consolation. Many of them, being honest, are craving for an experience of the Divine, and an enduring and fruitful relationship with others. Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings have the intrinsic capacity to fulfil the spiritual requirements of these modern people. They can infuse new vigour in the lives of countless sincere spiritual aspirants by removing the veil of frustration and anxiety that has pervaded the modern society today. Through this, Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings will be able to herald a new beginning for a bright future for humanity. It is very much evident today that the relevance of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings is increasing with the passage of time, as there is an urgent necessity to adopt them in one’s life and conduct. It is Sri Ramakrishna’s universal love that is flowing towards us in the form of these teachings. Are we ready to receive these life-giving ideas full of faith and devotion?
1 See <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/unconscious>.
2 Sri Shankaracharya’s commentary on Bhagavadgita, 16.1.
3 Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.6.
4 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.70–71.
5 See <https://stmaryrockledge.org/greed/#:~:text=Thomas%20Aquinas%2C%20greed%20is%20the,