/rah'meuh krish"neuh/, n.
Sri /sree, shree/, 1836-86, Hindu religious reformer and mystic.

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▪ Hindu religious leader
originally called  Gadadhar Chatterji  or  Gadadhar Chattopadhyaya  
born February 18, 1836, Hooghly, Bengal state, India
died August 16, 1886, Calcutta

      Hindu (Hinduism) religious leader, founder of the school of religious thought that became the Ramakrishna order, and the best-known Hindu saint of the 19th century.

      From a poor Brahmin (the highest-ranking caste) family, Ramakrishna had little formal schooling. He spoke Bengali and knew neither English nor Sanskrit. His father died in 1843 and his elder brother Ramkumar became head of the family. At age 23, Ramakrishna married Sarada-devi, a five-year-old girl, and, even though they remained together until his death, the marriage was never consummated because of his advocacy of celibacy. (Sarada-devi was later deified and is still considered a saint by devotees who treat her as the Divine Mother.)

      In 1852 poverty forced Ramkamur and Ramakrishna to leave their village to seek employment in Calcutta. There they became priests in a temple dedicated to Kali, the Hindu goddess of creation and destruction. In 1856, however, Ramkumar died. Ramakrishna, now alone, prayed for a vision of Kali-Ma (Kali the Mother), whom he worshiped as the supreme manifestation of God. He wept for hours at a time and felt a burning sensation throughout his body while imploring the Divine Mother to reveal herself. When she did not, the young priest sank into despair. According to traditional accounts, Ramakrishna was on the verge of suicide when he was overwhelmed by an ocean of blissful light that he attributed to Kali. Visions of Kali or other deities brought ecstasy and peace; he once described Kali as “a limitless, infinite, effulgent ocean of spirit.”

      Soon after his first vision, Ramakrishna commenced on a series of sadhanas (austere practices leading to the identification of the self with a deity) in the various mystical traditions, including Bengali Vaishnavism, Shakta Tantrism (Tantra), Advaita Vedanta (Vedānta), and even Islamic Sufism (Ṣūfism) and Roman Catholicism. (His interest in Roman Catholicism ended with a vision of “the great yogi” Jesus (Jesus Christ) embracing him and then disappearing into his body.) After each of these sadhanas, Ramakrishna claimed to have had the same experience of Brahman, the supreme power, or ultimate reality, of the universe. Later in life he became famous for his pithy parables about the ultimate unity of the different religious traditions in this formless Vedantic Brahman. Indeed, seeing God in everything and everyone, he believed that all paths led to the same goal. “There are in a tank or pool,” he said, “various ghats (steps to the water). The Hindus draw out the liquid and call it jal. The Muslims draw out the liquid and call it pani. The Christians draw out the liquid and call it water, but it is all the same substance, no essential difference.”

      The message that all religions lead to the same end was certainly a politically and religiously powerful one, particularly because it answered in classical Indian terms the challenges of British missionaries and colonial authorities who had for almost a century criticized Hinduism on social, religious, and ethical grounds. That all religions could be seen as different paths to the same divine source, or, even better, that this divine source revealed itself in traditional Hindu categories was welcome and truly liberating news for Hindus.

      A small band of disciples, most of them Western-educated, gathered around Ramakrishna in the early 1880s, drawn by the appeal of his message and by his charisma as a guru and ecstatic mystic. It was also about this time that Calcutta newspaper and journal articles first referred to Ramakrishna as “the Hindu saint” or as “the Paramahamsa” (a religious title of respect and honour).

      After Ramakrishna's death, his message was disseminated through new texts and organizations. Notably, Ramakrishna's teachings are preserved in Mahendranath Gupta's five-volume Bengali classic The Nectar-Speech of the Twice-Blessed Ramakrishna, best known to English readers as Gospel of Ramakrishna, a remarkable text based on conversations with Ramakrishna from 1882 to 1886. Moreover, his disciple and successor Narendra Nath Datta (d. 1902) became the world-traveling Swami Vivekananda (Vivekananda) and helped establish the Ramakrishna Order, whose teachings, texts, and rituals identified Ramakrishna as a new avatar (“descent” or personification) of God. The headquarters of the mission is in Belur Math, a monastery near Calcutta, and there are numerous other monastic and mission centres in India that carry on various philanthropic activities, including medical service, educational works, publishing, and relief work. The Ramakrishna Order also played an important role in the spread of Hindu ideas and practices in the West, particularly in the United States.

Additional Reading
Ramakrishna has been the subject of numerous biographies that range in nature from the hagiographic to the controversial. Among the more important works by his disciples are Mahendra Nath Gupta, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, ed. and trans. from Bengali by Swami Nikhilananda (1942, reissued 1992); Swami Jnanatmananda, Invitation to Holy Company: Being the Memoirs of Ten Direct Disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. from Bengali (1979); Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna: The Great Master, 6th ed., trans. from Bengali by Swami Jagadananda, 2 vol. (1983–84, reissued 1994–95); and Swami Vivekananda, My Master (1901, reissued 1912). F. Max Müller, Râmakrishna: His Life and Sayings (1898; reissued 1975), the first biography of Ramakrishna written by someone other than a disciple, is still useful. Other valuable studies include Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1965, reissued 1990), a sympathetic portrait; and Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna, trans. by E.F. Malcolm-Smith (1930, reissued 1994; originally published in French, 1929), vol. 1 of Ramakrishna, the Man-Gods, and the Universal Gospel of Vivekananda, and also a part of Prophets of the New India, a favourable portrait by a Nobel laureate. Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, 2nd ed. (1998), is a controversial attempt to identify homoerotic tendencies in Ramakrishna's mystical experiences and teachings.Valuable studies of the teachings of Ramakrishna and their place in the broader context of Indian philosophy are Satis Chandra Chatterjee (Satischandra Chatterjee), Classical Indian Philosophies: Their Synthesis in the Philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna (1963); and Sumit Sarkar, An Exploration of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Tradition (1993). A useful study of Ramakrishna and his disciple Vivekananda in the Western context is Harold W. French, The Swan's Wide Waters: Ramakrishna and Western Culture (1974).

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Universalium. 2010.

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