Sri Ramakrishna

Sri Ramakrishna is regarded as the Avatar of the modern age by millions of people around the world. Born on 18 February 1836 in Kamarpukur, a village about 120 kilometers to the northwest of Kolkata, Sri Ramakrishna had only the rudiments of school education. At a young age, owing to poverty at home, he became the priest of the Kali temple at Dakshineswar, newly built by Rani Rasmani. He could not continue his priestly duties for long, as he absorbed himself in his spiritual disciplines. Possessed as he was by intense longing for God from his childhood, Sri Ramakrishna plunged into intense spiritual practices. After attaining the realization of God as the Divine Mother of the Universe, Kali, he followed the spiritual paths of different sects of Hinduism and the spiritual paths of other religions like Islam and Christianity, and realized the Ultimate Reality through them all. His spotless holiness, utter simplicity, extraordinary spiritual wisdom and love of God drew people to him like a magnet, and a number of sincere seekers gathered around him as his disciples.


Sri Ramakrishna trained a group of young men, the chief of whom was Narendra, to carry on his mission of spiritualizing the human race all over the glove. After the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna on August 16 1886, this group of sixteen young men under the leadership of Narendra took the vows of Sannyasa and formed a monastic brotherhood, which came to be known as Ramakrishna Math.

Before Sri Ramakrishna passed away, at the Cossipore Garden House, Narendra was sitting near the Master thinking that in the midst of the terrible pain that Sri Ramakrishna was having in his throat, if he can speak out and declare that he is God, then he will surely believe him. No sooner, he thought thus, Sri Ramakrishna said clearly to him: "Well, don't you believe even now? He who was Rama and He who was Krishna is now Sri Ramakrishna in this body."


"This is the message of Sri Ramakrishna to the modern world. Do not care for doctrines, do not care for dogmas or sects or churches or temples; they count for little compared with the essence of existence in each man, which is spirituality. The more this is developed in a man, the more powerful is he for good. Earn that first, acquire that, and criticize no one, for all doctrines and creeds have some good in them. Show by your lives that religion does not mean words, names, or sects, but that it means spiritual realization. Only those can understand who have felt. Only those who have attained to spirituality can communicate it to others, can be great teachers of humanity. They alone are the owners of light. Therefore my Master's message to mankind is "Be spiritual and realize truth for yourself". To proclaim and make clear the fundamental unity underlying in all religions was the mission of my Master. Other teachers have taught special religion, which bear their names; but this great teacher of nineteenth century made no claim for himself. He left every religion undisturbed because he had realized that, in reality they are all part and parcel of the one eternal religion."

Sri Sarada Devi

Sri Sarada Devi, known to millions as Sri Sri Maa or Holy Mother, is the spiritual consort of Sri Ramakrishna. Born on 22 December 1854 in the village of Jayrambati, she was married to Sri Ramakrishna, according to the custom prevalent in India in those days, at the age of six. At the age of eighteen she went to Dakshineswar. Sri Ramakrishna worshiped her as the Divine Mother and taught her how to discharge the duties of life and at the same time lead an intensely spiritual life.

After the Master's passing away, she played a significant role as the spiritual teacher and universal Mother in the development of the Ramakrishna Movement. By her life of sacrifice, forbearance, service and motherly love, which knew no distinctions of caste, creed, race or wealth, she has set a shining ideal for women all over the world.


Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda, known in his pre-monastic life as Narendra Nath Datta, was born into an affluent family in Kolkata on 12 January 1863. His father was Vishwanath Datta, a well-known Kolkata attorney, and his mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi, was endowed with deep devotion, strong character and other noble qualities. A precocious boy, Narendra excelled in music, gymnastics and academic studies. By the time he graduated from Calcutta University, he had acquired a vast knowledge of different subjects, especially Western philosophy and history. Born with a yogic temperament, he used to practice meditation even from his boyhood, and was associated with the Brahmo Samaj reform movement for some time.

However, his philosophical mind was restless, and the Brahmo Samaj could not satisfy his quest for the true meaning of life. Encouraged by one of his relatives, Naren met the Bengali saint Sri Ramakrishna in November 1881. This incident affected Naren a great deal, and he gradually came to realise that Ramakrishna was an extraordinary man. Spending quality time with the saint, Naren gradually began to look upon him as his guide. He eventually accepted Sri Ramakrishna as his master and became completely dedicated to him.

A group of chosen young men had gathered around Sri Ramakrishna and had begun to receive spiritual guidance from him. When he developed throat cancer, they undertook to nurse him. Naren was the leader of this group. Ramakrishna had wanted them to take to monastic life and had symbolically given them saffron clothes. Keeping in line with their master's wish, the group founded a monastery at Baranagar and began to live together. They supported themselves by begging, without knowing where this journey would take them. It was during this time that Naren took for himself the name Vivekananda (meaning "the bliss of discernment"), in keeping with the monastic traditions of India.

After the Master's passing away, Vivekananda set out on a long, extensive pilgrimage throughout India, and came to realise the abject poverty, illiteracy and degradation of the Indians at large. Later, in 1888, Vivekananda left the monastery as a parivrajaka-a wandering monk, "without fixed abode, without ties, independent, and a stranger wherever he goes." His sole possessions were a kamandalu (water pot), staff, and his two favorite books-The Bhagavad Gita and The Imitation of Christ. Vivekananda travelled the length and breadth of India for five years, visiting important centres of learning, acquainting himself with the diverse religious traditions and different patterns of social life. He developed a sympathy for the suffering and poverty of the masses and resolved to uplift the nation. Living mainly on bhiksha (alms), Vivekananda travelled mostly on foot and by railway, using tickets bought by admirers whom he met on the way. During these travels he met and stayed with scholars, dewans, rajas and people from all walks of life-Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Pariahs (low-caste workers) and government officials.

He approached many Indian princes of the time to see if they could do anything for the common people of India. Gradually this idea spread amongst the leaders, and a slow change began to take place. The ruler of Mysore was among the first to make primary education free within his state. This, however, was not enough in Swamiji's view. He wanted education taken to the peasant's doorstep, so that the peasant's children could work and learn at the same time. His correspondence with the Maharaja of Mysore on the subject reveal how genuine and palpable his ideas were. Vivekananda reached Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, on 24 December 1892. He swam through the sea and started meditating on a lone rock for three days on the past, present and future of India. The rock is today a primary tourist destination and is called the Vivekananda Rock Memorial.

Vivekananda attended the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois, and earned great applause for beginning his address with the famous words, "Sisters and brothers of America." It was Vivekananda's arrival in the USA that started the beginning of Western interest in Hinduism-not as merely an exotic Eastern oddity, but as a vital religious and philosophical tradition. A few years after the Parliament, Vivekananda started Vedanta centres in New York City and London, and lectured at major universities on Hinduism.

From the West, he also set his Indian work in motion. Vivekananda wrote a stream of letters to India, giving advice and sending money to his followers and brother monks. His letters from the West in those days laid down the motive of his campaign for social service. He constantly tried to inspire his close disciples in India to do something big. His letters to them contain some of his strongest words. In one such letter, he wrote to Swami Akhandananda,

Go from door to door amongst the poor and lower classes of the town of Khetri and teach them religion. Also, let them have oral lessons on geography and such other subjects. No good will come of sitting idle and having princely dishes, and saying "Ramakrishna, O Lord!"-unless you can do some good to the poor.

Eventually, in 1895, the periodical called The Brahmavadin was started in Madras, with money supplied by Vivekananda, for the purpose of teaching Vedanta.

After spreading India's ancient wisdom in the USA and England for four years, he returned to India in 1897. Soon after his arrival, he inaugurated the Ramakrishna Mission, a unique organization in which monks of the Ramakrishna Order work together with lay devotees for the uplift of the poor masses through social service programmes, being inspired by the ideal that Sri Ramakrishna gave to Swami Vivekananda: Serve the jiva (living being) as Shiva (God Himself)

He founded two other monasteries-one at Mayavati, near Almora in the Himalayas, called Advaita Ashrama; and another at Madras. Two journals were also started: Prabuddha Bharata in English and Udbodhan in Bengali. The same year, famine relief work was started by Swami Akhandananda in Murshidabad district.

His tours, hectic lecturing schedule, private discussions and correspondence, not to mention the privations he had endured during his early years of wandering, had taken their toll on his health. He was suffering from asthma, diabetes and other physical ailments. A few days before he died, he was seen intently studying the almanac. Three days before his death he pointed out the spot for his cremation, where a temple in his memory stands today.

Vivekananda died at ten minutes past nine p.m. on July 4, 1902, while he was meditating, fulfilling his own prophecy that he would not live to be forty.

Swami Vivekananda believed that the essence of Hinduism was best expressed in the Vedanta philosophy, based on the interpretation of Adi Shankara. He summarized the Vedanta's teachings as follows:

According to Vivekananda, an important teaching he received from Ramakrishna was that "Jiva is Shiva" (each individual is divinity itself). This became his Mantra, and he coined the concept of "Daridra Narayana Seva" - the service of God in and through (poor) human beings. "If there truly is the unity of Brahman underlying all phenomena, then on what basis do we regard ourselves as better or worse, or even as better-off or worse-off, than others?" - This was the question he posed to himself. Ultimately, he concluded that these distinctions fade into nothingness in the light of the oneness that the devotee experiences in Moksha. What arises then is compassion for those "individuals" who remain unaware of this oneness and a determination to help them.

Swami Vivekananda belonged to that branch of Vedanta that held that no one can be truly free until all of us are. Even the desire for personal salvation has to be given up, and only tireless work for the salvation of others is the true mark of the enlightened person. He founded the Ramakrishna Math and Mission on the principle of "Atmano Mokshartham Jagat-hitaya cha" (for one's own salvation and for the welfare of the World).

Vivekananda advised his followers to be holy, unselfish and have shraddha (faith). He encouraged the practice of Brahmacharya (Celibacy). In one of the conversations with his childhood friend Priya Nath Sinha he attributes his physical and mental strengths, and eloquence to the practice of Brahmacharya. Vivekananda did not advocate the emerging area of parapsychology and astrology saying that this form of curiosity doesn't help in spiritual progress but actually hinders it.