Sri Ramakrishna Parmahamsa was a Hindu sage and mystic who never wrote any articles or books. He was known for practices and experiences that many considered bizarre, but also for a “god-consciousness” that drew people to him from many religious traditions.
Raised in a poor Brahmin family (the priestly caste), the boy, known then as Gadadhar, early on evidenced a great love for nature and a passion for religious matters. He challenged customs by taking his first alms from a low-caste woman in his village rather than from another Brahmin. He followed his older brother into the Hindu priesthood, serving in a temple for the goddess Kali.
While expressing his frustration in prayer about whether Kali was a piece of stone or a living goddess, he had a life-changing religious experience he described as having waves of light coming from the deity that overwhelmed him. This experience led him to a journey of opening himself up to many expressions of divinity first within Hinduism, then extending to Islam and Christianity. He diligently practiced spiritual disciplines from these various traditions, seeking what they might teach from their faithful practice. In all these traditions he felt he could open himself up to God and have some sort of merging with the divine being.
Out of these experiences his teaching developed. He thought that revelation of God can take place at all times. “God- realization” is not monopolized by any era, country, people or religion. When religious traditions slip away from their center of passionate “god-consciousness,” they become oppressive and dogmatic and lose their transformative power. All religions can be a channel for God’s revelation, and therefore they are not competitive but complementary, giving visions of truth from different angles. Religions should be seen and embraced in harmony. They were not to be blended or fused into uniformity, but were diverse ways of pursing a common goal, namely communion with God. He taught, “As many faiths, so many paths.” The harmony of religions was not found in uniformity but in diversity.
People of many religious traditions sought out Ramakrishna for his teaching, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and even atheists and humanists. His small room at the Dakshineswar temple on the edge of Calcutta became a gathering place for people of various creeds, castes, races and ages, both men and women. He didn’t seek conversion but called people to deeper connection to God within the fullness of each faith.
The legacy of Ramakrishna is a mixed one. Many scholars have commented on the complex ways that his religious journey took him though forms of sexual experimentation and reflection. Some of these spiritual-sexual connections linked Ramakrishna with long-standing Hindu traditions; others led to sharp criticism from opponents and concern about his wellbeing even among his own supporters. For example, he developed an intense devotion to a female deity that, on one occasion, nearly led him to kill himself. Later, he regarded his wife as a deity.
He taught about the female nature of deity in an era when this seemed shocking to some critics. On the other hand, his fearless and almost overwhelming passion for “God-consciousness” inspired great thinkers from Tolstoy to Gandhi. Ramakrishna’s closest disciple was Vivekananda, who took his master’s teaching to the Western world, opening up a new era of East-West religious interaction. Vivekananda participated in the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, introducing Ramakrishna’s version of Hinduism to the larger world. Vivekananda also established a monastic order based upon the teachings of Ramakrishna.
Meet more peacemakers
This profile on Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa comes from the pages of Interfaith Heroes 2. Interfaith Heroes 2 is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.