Sri Ramakrishna, known as Gadadhar in his youth, was born in the village ofKamarpukur in rural Bengal, India, in 1836. From his childhood young Gadadhar’s energetic, imaginative and loving nature endeared him to all. His insightful parents gave free rein to his remarkable spiritual inclinations, which resulted in his character being moulded beautifully. Even as a small boy his God-like nature was manifest. As Gadadhar grew up, his innate spirituality began to awaken even more. His older brother Ramkumar, desiring to educate Gadadhar, brought him to Calcutta. But, being profoundly intuitive, he was completely adverse to a mere “bread-winning” education. His heart was yearning for something beyond this ordinary sense-perceived universe. Eventually, Gadadhar was persuaded to become the priest in Mother Kali’s temple atDakshineswar on the banks of the Ganga, north of Calcutta.
It was here that Sri Ramakrishna spent more than thirty years of his life. Initially by worshipping the Divine Mother Kali, he practiced intense spiritual disciplines in order to attain God realization. He realized the personal aspect of God as Mother Kali and the impersonal aspect as Brahman. Under the guidance of different teachers of various religious traditions, such as Vaishnava, Sakta, Shaiva, Christian, and Islam, who came, through divine providence, to the temple garden to teach him, he underwent their prescribed disciplines and experienced God vision through all of them.
“Bees come of their own accord in search of honey when the flower is in full bloom.” Gradually, spiritual seekers in Calcutta and the surrounding area became attracted to Sri Ramakrishna. Some of the leading religious leaders and reformers of that time, such as Kesab Chandra Sen of the Brahmo Samaj and others began to visit him for spiritual instruction and inspiration. By now the Divine Mother had made it clear to Sri Ramakrishna that he had a mission in life. His was not an ordinary life, nor were his spiritual realizations for himself alone, but were for the benefit of humanity.
Sri Ramakrishna’s life exemplified to the world that the innate nature ofall beings is spiritual, that the purpose of human existence is the realization of one’s real divine nature, and that all paths of every religion lead to the same universal goal. He demonstrated the harmony of all religions by disclosing the underlying unity amidst diversity. Sri Ramakrishna unequivocally showed in his own life that religion is one. He verified this through his own experience as expressed in his teachings, “As many faiths, so many paths,” and “Truth is one, sages call it by various names.” And according to Sri Ramakrishna, God can be seen by those who sincerely yearn for Him. God realization is the summum bonum of human life. This was the message he taught while living quietly in the sylvan surroundings of the Dakshineswar temple garden. Sri Ramakrishna attainedmahasamadhi on August 16, 1886, leaving behind a monastic order of monks headed by his illustrious disciple, Swami Vivekananda, to propagate his life-giving message of the divinity of mankind to all spiritual seekers throughout the world.
Sri Sarada Devi
Sri Sarada Devi was the spiritual consort and first disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. She was born in the humble village of Jayrambati in West Bengal, India, in 1853. Her life was one of extreme simplicity, hard work and intense spiritual practice. Married at an early age, she joined her husband, Sri Ramakrishna, at Dakshineswar much later when she was eighteen years old. Though joined by marriage, theirs was an immaculately pure life, absolutely untainted by any physical relationship. Sarada Devi was an exalted personality in her own right. Her noble bearing and modest behavior enhanced her deep spirituality. Sri Ramakrishna recognized her wonderful spiritual capacity and tenderly trained her in all ways, so that her inner life would expand, which it did like a full-blown lotus.
Sri Sarada Devi lived an unassuming life of quiet prayer and active service to Sri Ramakrishna and his disciples for years together in and around Dakshineswar, often in very trying circumstances. Her life was complicated further by her turbulent family members with all their aggravating problems. During this time, Sri Ramakrishna gave her a wealth of spiritual instruction, which amply bore fruit in her daily life. He was, after all, preparing her to assume the spiritual responsibility of the many people that he knew would be coming to her for solace and inspiration in the future.
After Sri Ramakrishna’s death, she became the spiritual guide of his disciples, including the young monks who had gathered together under Swami Vivekananda’s care. From the very inception of the Ramakrishna Order, she was the guiding force behind the Order, gently and lovingly influencing the lives of its members, as well as the organization as a whole. In addition to this, the shy and retiring Sarada now had to shoulder even more responsibility by accepting literally hundreds of people as her own disciples. Her calm, patient nature amidst the trials and hardships of life was a living testimony of an ideal spiritual life made practical. Her active ministry of thirty-four years far exceeded both that of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Sri Sarada Devi, known as the Holy Mother to her devotees, accepted everyone as her own child and through her simple acts of love and kindness, she worshipped God in all. Everyone who came into contact with her felt blessed and uplifted. Her last message embodies her innate simplicity and wisdom, “If you want peace, my child, do not find fault with others. See your own faults. Learn to make the world your own. No one is a stranger. The world is yours.”
Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother, left this mortal world on July 21, 1920. She has handed down one of the greatest legacies for spiritual seekers, that of utilizing every moment of one’s life in a very natural, spontaneous way for the attainment of God realization.
Swami Vivekananda was born into the aristocratic Datta family of Calcutta on January 12, 1863. In his premonastic days, he was known as Narendranath or Narendra. Narendra was an extraordinary child by any measure. Unusually gifted, precocious and endowed with a sensitive heart, he excelled in whatever he undertook. His unselfish character and love of truth set him apart from others. Even in his youth, his outstanding characteristic was his keen interest in meditation.
Narendra’s inquiring mind had a natural spiritual bent which led him to Sri Ramakrishna, who would be his spiritual teacher. The divine power had earmarked Narendra to be the messenger of Sri Ramakrishna’s universal teachings in the East as well as in the West. Having received a broad-based education in both Eastern and Western cultures, and a thorough spiritual training from Sri Ramakrishna, which spanned six years and resulted in his own exalted spiritual experiences, Narendra was well prepared for his world mission. After Sri Ramakrishna passed away in 1886, Narendra and other young disciples of Sri Ramakrishna formed a monastic community under Narendra’s able leadership. This community was the foundation of the Ramakrishna Order, which was established formally some years later.
During the early period of the Order’s history, Narendra spent a number of years as an itinerant monk wandering across his beloved motherland, India. He gained tremendous experience during his travels, including an ever-increasing intuition into his destiny as a world spiritual teacher. His insight culminated in his determination to uplift India spiritually and materially and in the formulation of a plan to visit the West, where he would share India’s spiritual heritage in exchange for assistance for his country.
In Swami Vivekananda’s brief life of thirty-nine years, he came to the West twice: the first time as the representative of Hinduism at the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, where he was highly honored; the second time in 1899 to recoup his failing health and to further the work which he had started earlier both in America and in England of spreading the eternal teachings of the Vedanta philosophy and religion through classes, lectures and informal gatherings. Between his first and second visits, he returned to India in January 1897, for a stay of two years, where he continued to work indefatigably to rejuvenate his motherland. Swami Vivekananda was a universal man whose comprehensive vision united the best of the East with that of the West and whose large heart embraced everyone with his unconditional love.
His message to mankind was the message of his master Sri Ramakrishna, a call to all people to manifest their innate divinity, and the means by which their spiritual consciousness could be awakened here and now. By the time he reached the shores of India for the last time in 1900, he had succeeded in disseminating the seeds of spirituality worldwide in the worship of the only God he believed in, the sum total of all souls. “It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body, to cast it off like a worn-out garment. But I shall not cease to work! I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God!” This great compassionate soul entered mahasamadhi on July 4, 1902, a highly significant day symbolizing the freedom and independence of Spirit that he, Swami Vivekananda, stood for.