Sri Ramakrishna was a great saint of the 19th century whose primary teachings were that God can be experienced as directly as we experience the everyday world, and all religions offer valid paths to God. He reached those views by taking spiritual instruction from masters of one religion after another until each teacher affirmed that Ramakrishna had become a master in his own right.
Every spiritual master passes at one time or another from the world of the senses to a transcendent state of mind called samadhi. Sri Ramakrishna passed between samadhi and ordinary consciousness many times every day for many years. One of his lay disciples described how Sri Ramakrishna behaved and what he said during many of these transitions. The notes were published in a book called The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and are unique in showing the Master’s disarming humanity along with his sayings.
The picture that emerges from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is a loving individual with the simplicity, honesty, and mischievous good humor of a bright child. He was immune to the lure of material wealth, and lived in the simplest of conditions all his life. From such a person, one expects only the truth. Ramakrishna’s truth was the affirmation that, however we may seem at present, each of us will surely attain the highest spiritual realization in the course of time.
Sri Ramakrishna was born on February 18, 1836 in a small village about 60 miles northwest of Calcutta. Gadadhar, as he was known as a child, had high religious experiences from a young age, and was drawn to wandering monks who congregated at a nearby hostel. Years later, after his father died and left the family destitute, he moved to Calcutta to work with his brother and help to support the family in the village.
In Calcutta he became a priest in the Kali Temple at Dakeshineswar, a village near Calcutta. Here he began spiritual practices in earnest. After a short time he was having spiritual visions of Kali, a manifestation of God in Its feminine aspect. Rumors reached the village and convinced his family that he had lost his mind. Hoping to restore his balance, they brought him back to the village and married him to a young girl named Sarada. But she was too young to leave home, and he returned to the Kali Temple and hurled himself again into spiritual practices.
In 1861, a master of the tantra — an advanced branch of Hinduism — came to Dakeshineswar and recognized his potential. Under her direction, he quickly achieved spiritual states that few disciples reach in a lifetime. After that, he mastered several other Hindu spiritual disciplines, culminating in Advaita Vedanta. Here, guided by a master named Tota Puri, he achieved Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the highest of all spiritual states—a state from which few return to ordinary consciousness. But return he did, and went on next to explore Islam and reach its highest state as pronounced by his master, a Sufi adept named Govinda Roy. There followed a period when he experienced visions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. After reaching the highest spiritual states in each of these paths, he proclaimed with authority that all those paths lead to the same spiritual fufillment.
Between 1879 and 1885, a dedicated group of students came to Sri Ramakrishna. He brought them all to Self-realization, and taught them how to help others to the same fulfillment. He had always thrown himself fully into his exploration of spirituality, but in those years he taught as much as twenty hours a day, even when his body developed throat cancer that made both eating and speech highly difficult and painful. The cancer developed until the body could sustain itself no longer. His life ended on August 16, 1886.
Before his passing, many came to consider Sri Ramakrishna an Avatar, one of those dazzling and rare individuals such as Krishna, Rama, Jesus and the Buddha, in whom the power of the divine shines brightly enough to bring others to Self-realization at a glance or a touch. His message to humankind is easy to paraphrase: To achieve the highest realization, it is enough to yearn for it with all your heart. You may wander this earth for many lifetimes, but in the end you will wake to your real nature, which is divine.Meanwhile, there is nothing wrong with living this life in full measure.