In Thakur- Sri Ramakrishna: A biography, Rajiv Mehrotra explores the ‘challenge and the riddle’ presented by the great mystic who, more than a century after his death, continues to dominate secular Hindu consciousness. Sri Ramakrishna brought a new vitality not only to the practices, rituals and symbols of the Hindu Heritage but also to the celebration of divinity in diverse forms and reinforced the underlying possibility of a real harmony between all religions. It is this vision that makes him one of the great religious teachers of all time and so profoundly relevant today.
This illuminating and intimate biography is most reader- friendly and comprehensive, revealing the boundless power and magnetism of Sri Ramakrishna, as well as the Order that was inspired by his spiritual quest.
Mehrotra’s narrative gift is remarkably precise and richly evocative, integrating all details of an aspect into a visual and verbal complex of significance.
This is a book for all those who want to know more about Sri Ramakrishna, as well as for anyone looking for a brilliant read.
Rajiv Mehrotra, while still in his teens, started his spiritual quest at the feet of the late Swami Ranganathananda, who has to later become the President of The Ramakrishna Mission. He has been a personal student of His Holiness The Dalai Lama for more than twenty-five years. He serves as the Trustee &amp; Secretary of The Foundation for Universal Responsibility of HH The Dalai Lama established with the Nobel Peace Prize (www.furhhdl.com). It has remained a source of great joy that his first and present teacher were good friends.
He has been a familiar face on national public television in India for more than thirty years and has won several international and ten national awards for his documentary films from the President of India.
His published works include In My Own Words: An Introduction to My Key Teachings and philosophy with His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Understanding the Dalai Lama, The Mind of the Guru: Conversations with Spiritual Masters, and The Essential Dalai Lama. All you Ever wanted to Know from the Dalai Lama on Happiness, Life and Living is under publication.
Sri Ramakrishna was one of the great spiritual masters and mystics of all time. His life and strivings were transparent. Deeply rooted in the traditions and philosophies of India and its civilization, his message is for all time and for all people everywhere.
He has inspired not only great spiritual activists such as Swami Vivekananda who founded the Ramakrishna Mission to honour his master but also generations of monks, sadhakas, scholars and lay people around the world. In Sri Ramakrishna’s universal teachings they have individually and collectively found pointers and lessons for their own spiritual growth and the inspiration to serve others. They have each emphasized and learnt from different facets of Sri Ramakrishna’s religion.
Sri Ramakrishna was both divine mnad intensely human. It is difficult for nay one human mind to fully understand and interpret the life of an avatar. Each account must therefore seem finally incomplete on its own. There have been several excellent biographies in Bengali, English and other languages, each from the vantage point of the author.
This effort through the prism of a serious lay spiritual aspirant grounded in tradition as he embraces the modern is a truly laudable contribution and addition to the literature on Sri Ramakrishna. It offers important new perspectives and insights based on the imperatives of the twenty – first century and the author’s personal quest.
Rajiv Mehrotra has long been a friend of the Ramakrishna Mission. He took Diksha from Swami Ranganathanandaji Maharaj, the thirteenth President of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. With his blessings and support, and that of swami Gokulananda and our Mission in Delhi he produced and presented a television series on the life of Sri Ramakrishna which was released by the then President of India Shri K.R. Narayanan at Rashtrapati Bhavan in the presence of Swami Ranganathanandaji Maharaj, Swami Gokulananda and other luminaries to great critical acclaim.
I wish his latest offering to Sri Sri Thakur all success, and invoke His blessings on him and all who read the book.
This book is offered to the reader with great trepidation as ‘my’ book. Each time I go back to reading the text it feels like I was reading someone else’s work. I didn’t write this book. It got written. I believe I have been merely a blessed, undeserving intermediary. It draws upon the contributions, insights, writings and support of more people than I can conceivably acknowledge or recall. It is based on what began as a personal journey more than thirty-five years ago when as a teenager I attended the lectures of Swami Ranganathananda with my father in Calcutta. Swamiji was then a young monk and through his long and distinguished career that climaxed as President of the Ramakrishna Mission I was blessed by his wisdom and guiding hand in my quest. In the later years of his life he encouraged me to use my skills as a television anchor and filmmaker to produce a television series on the life of Sri Ramakrishna. While I struggled to research, understand and then write a script he gave me long hours of his valuable time drawing upon his wisdom and rich experience with the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, occasionally leading me through practices that I might more fully experience and thus better communicate elements of the narrative. I was not a worthy student.
The television series was only a moderate success and went largely unnoticed in the cacophony of commercial television. The manuscript for this book evolved as part of my continuing process of bringing order to my thoughts and understanding the profound relevance and lessons from the life of Sri Ramakrishna, a need to go beyond the brevity and simplification that writing for the visual media seemed to involve. I went back to a lifelong collection of notes. I had started collecting these much before I thought of a book or a television serial, for my own learning, memorizing and understanding. They were written while reading books, and listening to the monks of the order, especially Swami Ranganathananda. This work is also deeply indebted to the contributions of my friend Indira Rana who passed away while we were still researching the television series together. This book is really by all of them and the many authors and commentators I have read and learnt from over the years. I crave forgiveness from them all for not acknowledging individual contributions and sources. I have no records. I will be grateful to anyone who can help point out specific references or quotes so that these can be duly acknowledged in the future editions.
At the urgings of several monks of the Ramakrishna Mission but most of all my first editor Krishan Chopra, I found the courage to publish a work on a subject I know little about and that draws more on the works and insights of others than my own.
I am deeply grateful to the current President of the Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Atmasthanada; its late President Swami Gahanananda, Swami Prabhananda, the late Swami Gokulananda, Swami Atmashraddhananda, Swami Shantatmananda, Swami Bodhasarananda, and the many monks of the Ramakrishna Order who have inspired and helped me over decades and vetted the manuscript at different stages pointing out errors and making many valuable suggestions. The remaining errors, needless to add, are my own.
While evolving and fine- tuning the manuscript, I was helped enormously by the contributions of my sister Preeti Kapur, Milly Chakravarthy, Bindu Badshah, Asha Sharma, Jehanara Wasi, Sherna Wadia and by Shalini Srinivas for her help with the supplementary research and in putting the glossary together.
I am profoundly greatful for the support and unequivocal encouragement of my current publisher Ashok Chopra and Hay House. This is second revised and somewhat expanded edition that includes an index, some minor corrections suggested by the Ramakrishna Mission, and photographs generously provided by them. It follows a modest first edition that quietly slipped into the market and sold out in a matter of a few weeks.
In my early thirties my quest led me to the footsteps of the Buddha and the teachings of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Even though this evolved from a tradition of devotion to a ‘creator’ God to the agnostic world view of Buddhism, I continued to draw inspiration from the sadhanas of both the young Gadadhar who was to evolve to Sri Ramakrishna, as the young prince Siddhartha was to become the Buddha. That the latter became the primary inspiration for my journey did not diminish my celebration of the former. As my root guru The Dalai Lama teaches, we each have different mental dispositions, and hence have much to learn from different paths drawing upon different traditions to fulfil individual needs. These can change and evolve. No one path is inherently superior or inferior per se. We can and must learn from all of them, even as we remain true to the primary teaching that works best for us.
Sri Ramakrishna was to embody a similar aspiration and inspired people from diverse backgrounds who came to him – Tantrics, Vedantists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, et al. He said: ‘With sincerity and earnestness one can realize God through all religions. The Vaishnavas will realize God, so will the saktas, the Vedantists and the Brahmos. The Muslims and Christians will realize him too. All will certainly realize God if they are earnest and sincere. Some people indulge in quarrels, saying “one cannot achieve anything unless one worships our Krishna” or “Nothing can be gained without the worship of Kali, our divine Mother” or “One cannot be saved without accepting the Christian religion”. This is pure dogmatism.’
It is in this deep and fundamental rejection of dogmatism by Sri Ramakrishna, his spiritual and temporal heir Swami Vivekananda, the monks of the Ramakrishna Order he founded and contemporary masters such as His Holiness The Dalai Lama whose influence continues to grow amongst millions in India and around the world, that we can find hope for our fractured and fragmented world.
Swami Vivekananda, recalling the message of his master, said: ‘One must learn to put oneself into another man’s very soul. . . no one ever before in India became Christian and Muslim and Vaishnava by turns.’ He went on to say: ‘The idea of harmony of religions, the idea of universal acceptance, and universal tolerance, will be a great acquisition to civilization. Nay, no civilization can exist unless this idea enters into it. No civilization can grow unless fanaticism, bloodshed and brutality stop.’
When asked about the Buddha, Sri Ramakrishna said: ‘Meditating and becoming one with pure intelligence is the Buddha’ and noted that because the Buddha was unable to articulate and put into words the experience of his enlightenment he opted to be agnostic. Swami Vivekananda deeply immersed himself in Buddhism. In his vision the Buddha was the quintessential ‘Karma yogi’. Of him he said: ‘I am the servant of the servants, of the servants of the Buddha. Who was there ever like Him? The Lord Buddha is my Ishta- my God. He preached no theory about Godhead- he was himself God, I fully believe it.’
It has remained one of the great joys of my life that the teachings of both my teachers honour the many paths to human happiness and believe in the pre-eminence of the path of service, of serving others. The monks of the Ramakrishna Mission to this day embody the highest aspirations of the Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattva who seeks enlightenment to teach and serve humanity. When His Holiness The Dalai Lama visited Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission, the two great teachers representing their great traditions struck an immediate rapport. They were to meet several times with deep affection and great mutual respect, including over a memorable public dialogue I was privileged to moderate.
What drew me first to the story of Sri Ramakrishna, as with that of the Buddha, was the willing, open acknowledgement and documentation of the sadhanas, the techniques, the practices and the struggles on the spiritual path. It offers us the reassurance and the opportunity to learn from their lives, that with the right motivation and right effort we too can arrive at similar realizations that will bring real, enduring freedom from suffering.
Though legend has it that were celestial portents of the imminent birth of both and while many saw the sparks of the divine in the young Buddha and the young Ramakrishna, neither was spared the effort, the striving nor the pain, the suffering and the agonies of the journey from ignorance to the wisdom that brings final liberation. There was no divine or supernatural intervention that spared them a human sadhana. There was no spontaneous, cataclysmic effortless moment of truth that might suggest that their journeys were any easier or more comfortable than ours might be today. With the right motivation and the right effort their achievements can be ours.
If the Buddha and Sri Ramakrishna were to meet, while there is much they might see differently, they would bow to each other with humility and respect out of a knowing that the experiences of transformation by processes other than from one’s own tradition can only enrich, not threaten, us.
Knowing that the lives of the great masters- Jesus, the Buddha, Muhammad, Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, The Dalai Lama- evolved from deep suffering to profound insights that inevitably led to an equanimity in which the otherness of the other dissolved, breeds a deep humility, a true celebration of diversity and plurality. While Ramakrishna publicly engaged in the sadhanas of other faiths, the Buddha experimented with the range of techniques and practices of his times before arriving at his own truths. Neither claimed they had created or transmitted something new, only that they had pierced the veils of ignorance to arrive at insights and techniques that could help others in their quest. This book is a humble offering about Sri Ramakrishna’s quest.
May any merit gained from this effort help all sentient beings to find an end to their suffering.
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