An Illumined Teacher and a Brilliant Pupil
An Illumined Teacher and a Brilliant Pupil
A question is sometimes raised as to whether the scholastic education imparted in schools and colleges is really necessary to prepare individuals to attain maturity and fulfilment. There are a number of cases of unlettered men and women who have achieved greatness and left their impact on posterity. Sri Ramakrishna is one such shining example in the domain of spiritual realization and mastery. If one can ' achieve such great heights as he did without what we call education, we need to ask ourselves quite seriously if we should not revise our educational pedagogy which insists so much on reading, writing and numerous intellectual exercises.
To some extent, the answer seems to lie in the fact that mental education, which is given an overwhelmingly large role in the total scheme of our normal pedagogy, is not oriented in any considerable measure to the development of personality. If this orientation were effected in our pedagogy, we would not have any serious ground for complaint. What constitutes the development of personality is a complex question, and this is not the right place to discuss it in detail. Briefly speaking, however, there are two elements which must be cultivated to a very high degree of excellence if we want to have an effective and well-developed system of education. These two elements are concentration and irresistible will. If these powers are sufficiently developed and widely applied in certain domains of activity, one can achieve a living experience and possession of manhood even though one may not have cultivated those things which are so insistently and exclusively emphasized in our present system of education.
For a comprehensive pedagogy, however, we should make a distinction between the development of personality and the development of integral personality. While some can dispense with mental education and yet achieve a high level of human excellence, we cannot afford to ignore the demands of mental education if our aim is to develop integral personality. Deficiency in mental education mil always be felt as a handicap, particularly when there is a question of involving oneself in an action relating to large masses of people. Akbar the Great, for example, who was unlettered, filled his deficiency by cultivating the companionship of some. of the most learned and accomplished men of his time. And even Sri Ramakrishna, whose personality was highly integrated, felt the need of the services, for the accomplishment of his work for humanity, of such a brilliant mind as that of Swami Vivekananda.
These brief reflections will provide some clues to the development of a new pedagogy of integral education, in which a right place would be found for mental education in the overall context of the aims of the development of integral personality.
This new pedagogy will not pursue mental education as we do today in our schools and colleges. The present system of mental education is book-oriented, subject-oriented and examination-oriented. On the other hand, in the integral system of education a stress would be laid on the methods of concentration so as to cultivate the qualities and powers of clarity, complexity, subtlety, intuition and silence. Swami Vivekananda once remarked that if he had known at an early stage the significance of concentration, he would have devoted his time to the development of concentration rather than to reading a number of books. In the same way, an integral system of education would emphasize the energizing of will in all domains of the being—physical, vital, mental, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual.
That there is something much vaster and much more important than the mind is underlined in an integral scheme of education. Our present system of education considers mind as the summit of our being, and leaves out of the scheme the. consideration of profounder and sublimer domains of being. In this sceptical age of ours, it has become quite common to doubt the existence of these domains and even to deny them dogmatically. But a true seeker and a good pupil eschews every kind of dogmatism and is prepared to launch upon a bold adventure to make his own experiments and discover deeper and higher possibilities of personality.
The significance of some of the passages presented here is that they portray an exemplary pupil who had the courage and patience to examine critically the
possibilities of transcending the limits of the mind. Narendranath, later known as Swami Vivekananda, was an extraordinary student. He had a multi-sided intellectual' curiosity and a persistent will to discover truth. He knew intellectual doubt very well, and even when an undergraduate had achieved a rare mastery over logical thought. And yet he refused to develop a brilliant shell of mind and to get caught up in it. He had a deep yearning for the truth, even if that meant treading a razor s edge. It is true that he questioned the validity of his spiritual yearning, but when his questioning was answered, he did not desist from pursuing it in full measure. He embraced the path of spiritual realization by accepting and following an exemplary teacher, Sri Ramakrishna.
The mark of a good pupil is his self-sustaining perseverance, effort and enthusiasm. Another mark of a good pupil is that he tests on the anvil of experience every belief or claim of truth that comes to him in the course of his quest. He may accept a teacher or an authority, but only after questioning and testing. He knows in his heart of hearts that he is not a follower of a book or of any human agency, but that he is a seeker of the unknown and of the infinite. Finally, a good pupil is utterly humble and obedient in imposing upon himself the severest discipline required in his search for the highest truth. All these characteristics we find in Swami Vivekananda. It is not easy for a good pupil to find a good teacher, nor is it easy for a good teacher to find a good pupil. But sometimes a good pupil and a good teacher happen to meet each other, and their relationship becomes so intense that they fulfil each other and enact an unforgettable drama where the pupil seeks the teacher as much as the teacher seeks the pupil — a drama of love that uplifts the inmost soul and spirit to ever-increasing excellence and perfection. Such a marvellous example of '"r relationship between pupil and teacher we find in Swami Vivekananda, the brilliant pupil, and Sri Ramakrishna, the illumined teacher.
Sri Ramakrishna standing in ecstasy during a kirtan at
Keshab Chandra Sen's house in Calcutta.
His nephew Hriday is seen supporting him.
( September 1879 )
Sri Ramakrishna and Narendranath could not have been more different in their background and approach to life. Sri Ramakrishna represented traditional India, with its spiritual perspective, its ideal of renunciation and its realizations — the India of the Upanishads. To him came Narendranath, representing the analytical, rational, truth-seeking and vigorous modern mind. With all the doubts and scepticism of youth, unwilling to accept any claim of truth without verification, he had a highly developed scientific temper. He was a votary of reason and had studied and mastered different systems of Western philosophy and the Vedanta, but none of these could satisfy his searching mind. He doubted the existence of God.
Narendranath Datta, who later was to become famous as Swami Vivekananda, was born in Calcutta on January 12, 1863, into a wealthy Kshatriya family of scholars and philanthropists. Naren's father, an attorney of the Calcutta High Court, had earned a lot of money and was free in spending it. His mother was deeply devout, highly intelligent and, though without formal education, had a remarkable memory. Naren was the eldest boy among three brothers and four sisters.
In his boyhood he showed exceptional intellectual capacities and powers of concentration, as well as physical courage, self-confidence, a spirit of independence, resourcefulness and a tender heart. Like his mother, he had an extraordinary memory. His earlier years at home were spent in a spiritual atmosphere of purity and truth.
A child's first education is usually at his mother s knee, and Narendra's mother was keen to educate her eldest son well. He would listen with rapt attention as she read from the epics and mythology and in his later life he said, "I am indebted to my mother for the efflorescence of my knowledge. "' At the age of six he was sent to a traditional Indian school, and was soon noticed for his exceptional intelligence. He would often close his eyes and sit motionless in the classroom. It is said that one day a teacher got particularly provoked by this apparent inattentiveness and rudely reprimanded him. But when challenged to repeat the lesson, Narendra recited it word for word, much to the teacher s surprise. He was energetic, restless and aggressively independent and a natural leader among the boys of his age. Once, when Naren was quite small, someone told him that a ghost lived in a certain tree. lie immediately scrambled up the tree to show his friends that this was not true.
At the age of eight, he entered the Metropolitan Institution of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and in January 1880, at the age of seventeen, he entered calcutta's Presidency College. His college days were marked by intellectual fervour
and spiritual upheaval. He was a voracious reader, and studied history, mathematics, logic, psychology, and philosophy. He also made great efforts to master the English language. His favourite subject was history and he made a detailed study of the modern European nations. His studies were not limited to the university curriculum. By himself he acquired a thorough grasp of the masterpieces of Western thought and philosophy. He had many other interests as well — sports, music, friends and meditation. He was a wonderful singer.
Narendra's mind was original and intensely analytical. Everything was subordinated to the demands of reason. For him, truth was too sacred to be trifled with. He was also an idealist and had taken a vow of celibacy, brahmacharya.
Narendra went to see Sri Ramakrishna at the suggestion of his English professor, W. W. Hastie. While discussing states of meditation, purity and concentration, Mr. Hastie had told Naren, "... I have seen only one person who has experienced that blessed state of mind, and he is Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineshwar. You can understand if you go there and see for yourself."2 Some college friends accompanied Narendra on his first visit to Dakshineshwar. He was then in a very critical state of mind, and pointedly asked Sri Ramakrishna: "Have you seen God, sir? " Narendra had earlier approached other so-called holy men with the same challenging query, and never received a convincing answer. But this time the young man was shaken by the prompt, terse reply:
"Yes, I see Him just as I see you here, only in a much intenser sense."
"For the first time, " Narendra recounted later, "I found a man who dared to say that he had seen God... As I heard these things from his lips, I could not but believe that he was saying them not like an ordinary preacher, but from the depth of his own realizations. "3
The same day, Narendra was asked to sing in Sri Ramakrishna s presence. Sri Ramakrishna narrated this in the following words:
Naren entered the room by the western door.... I noticed that he had no concern about his bodily appearance, his hair and clothes weren't tidy at all. He seemed altogether unattached, as if nothing external appealed to him. His eyes showed that the greater part of his mind was turned inward, all the time. When I saw this, I marvelled to myself, "How is it possible that such a great spiritual aspirant can live in Calcutta, the home of the ¦ worldly-minded?" There was a mat spread out on the floor. I asked him to ! sit; a few of his friends were with him that day. I saw that their nature was
Kali temple at Dakshineswar
that of ordinary worldly people, just the opposite of his. They were thinking only of their pleasure. I asked him about his singing and I found that he knew only two or three songs in Bengali. I asked him to sing them. He began singing [a] Brahmo song.... He sang that song with his whole soul, as though he were in deep meditation. When I heard it, I couldn't control myself. I went into ecstasy.4
What followed is better told in Narendra's own words:
As soon as I had finished that song, the Master stood up, took me by the hand and led me onto the northern verandah... the Master closed the door. I thought he must be going to give me some instruction in private. But what he said and did next was something I could never have believed possible. He suddenly caught hold of my hand and began shedding tears of joy. He said to me, affectionately as if to a familiar friend, "You've
come so late! Was that right? Couldn't you have guessed how I've been waiting for you? My ears are nearly burned off, listening to the talk of these worldly people. I thought I should burst, not having anyone to tell how I really felt!" He went on like that, raving and weeping. And then suddenly he folded his palms together and began addressing me as if I were some divine being. "I know who you are, My Lord. You are Nara, the ancient sage, the incarnation of Narayana. You have come back to earth to take away the sufferings and sorrows of mankind." I was absolutely dumbfounded. I said to myself, "What kind of a man is this? He must be raving mad! How can he talk like this to me, who am nobody — the son of Vishwanath Datta?"... Presently he asked me to stay there on the verandah, and he went back into the room and came out again bringing butter, rock candy and a few pieces of sandesh; and then he
began feeding me with his own hands. I kept asking him to give me the sweetmeats, so I could share with my friends, but he wouldn't. "They will get some later," he said, "you take these for yourself." And he would not be satisfied until I had eaten all of them. Then he took my hand and said, "Promise me — you will come back here soon, alone." I couldn't refuse his request; it was made so earnestly. So I had to say, "I will". Then I went back into the room with him and sat down beside my friends.5
Sri Ramakrishna seemed perfectly sane and spoke lucidly and beautifully about renunciation, but Narendranath began to reflect. To quote his own words:
"Here is a true man of renunciation," I said to myself, "he practises what he preaches; he has given up everything for God. 'God can be seen and spoken to,' he told us, 'just as I am seeing you and speaking to you. But who wants to see and speak to God? People grieve and shed enough tears to fill many pots, because their wives or sons are dead, or because they lost their money and their estates. But who weeps because he can't see God? And yet — if anyone really wants to see God, and if he calls upon him — God will reveal Himself, that's certain.' " I thought, " Well, he may be mad — but this is indeed a rare soul... Yes, he is mad — but how pure!.. ."6
Narendra hesitated to visit Sri Ramakrishna again because the holy man represented a challenge to his way of thinking; besides, Sir Ramakrishna's ecstasies embarrassed Narendra. That first meeting had deeply disturbed him. How could he follow a madman? But a month later, Narendranath was back at Dakshineshwar:
I walked... and went straight to the Master's room. I found him sitting, deep in his own meditations ... There was no one with him. As soon as he saw me, he called me joyfully to him and made me sit on one end of the bed. He was in a strange mood. He muttered something to himself which I could not understand, looked hard at me, then rose and approached me. I thought we were about to have another crazy scene. Scarcely had that thought passed through my mind before he placed his right foot on my body. Immediately I had a wonderful experience. My eyes were wide open, and I saw everything in the room, including the walls themselves, whirling rapidly around and receding; and at the same time, it seemed to me that my
consciousness of self, together with the entire universe, was about to vanish into a vast, all-devouring void....I felt that death was right before me, very close. Unable to control myself, I cried out loudly, "Ah, what are you doing to me? Don't you know I have my parents at home?" When the Master heard this, he gave a loud laugh. Then touching my chest with his hand, he said, "All right — let it stop now. It needn't be done all at once. It will happen in its own good time." To my amazement, this extraordinary vision of mine vanished as suddenly as it had come. I returned to my normal state and saw things inside and outside the room standing stationary, as before. Although it had taken so much time to describe all this, it actually happened in only a few moments. And yet it changed my whole way of thinking. I was bewildered ... I had read about hypnotism ... But my heart refused to believe that was it. For even people of great will-power can only create such conditions when they are working on weak minds. And my mind was by no means weak. Up to then, in fact, I had been proud of my intelligence and will-power. This man did not bewitch me or reduce me to his puppet. On the contrary, when I first met him, I had decided that he was mad. Why then should I have suddenly found myself in this state? It seemed an utter mystery to me. But I was determined to be on my guard, lest he should get further influence over me in the future.7
Narendranath was to return a week later for their third meeting. He was very much on his guard, determined not to be hypnotized, as he said. They were sitting in the garden house when Sri Ramakrishna passed into samadhi. Narendra watched him. Suddenly Sri Ramakrishna touched him and despite Narendra's strong will to resist, he was unable to control himself and became completely unconscious. When he came to himself, he found Sri Ramakrishna passing his hand over his chest and sweetly smiling at him. He had no idea what had happened in the meantime.
Of this third meeting, Sri Ramakrishna said:
That day, after Naren had lost consciousness of his present individuality, I asked him many questions such as who he really was, where he had come from, how long he would stay in this world, and so forth. I made him enter into his innermost being and find his answers to my questions there. These answers confirmed what I had already learned about him in visions. It is forbidden to tell all those things ...
Naren is a great soul, perfect in meditation.8
Sri Ramakrishna later described this vision as follows:
One day I found that my mind was soaring high in Samadhi along a luminous path. It soon transcended the stellar universe and entered the subtler region of ideas. As it ascended higher and higher, I found on both sides of the way ideal forms of gods and goddesses. The mind then reached the outer limits of that region, where a luminous barrier separated the sphere of relative existence from that of the Absolute. Crossing that barrier, the mind entered the transcendental realm, where no corporeal being was visible. Even the gods dared not peep into that sublime realm and were content to keep their seats far below. But the next moment I saw seven venerable sages seated there in Samadhi. It. occurred to me that these sages must have surpassed not only men but even the gods in knowledge and holiness, in renunciation and love. Lost in admiration, I was reflecting on their greatness, when I saw a portion of that undifferentiated luminous region condense into the form of a divine child. The child came to one of the sages, tenderly clasped his neck with his lovely arms, and addressing him in a sweet voice, tried to drag his mind down from the state of Samadhi. That magic touch roused the sage from the superconscious state, and he fixed his half-open eyes upon the wonderful child. His beaming countenance showed that the child must have been the treasure of his heart. In great joy the strange child spoke to him, "I am going down. You too must go with me." The sage remained mute but his tender look expressed his assent. As he kept gazing at the child, he was again immersed in Samadhi. I was surprised to find that a fragment of his body and mind was descending to earth in the form of a bright light. No sooner had I seen Narendra than I recognised him to be that sage.9
When questioned, Sri Ramakrishna admitted that the child in the vision had been himself.
Narendranath's doubting, sceptical and highly intelligent mind grew to accept Riimakrishna as his Master. One marvels at such a transformation. Narendra ."'opposed to the traditional Indian idea of the chela owing blind obedience to the lie revolted at the very thought of surrendering his freedom of judgment to
another. On his part, Sri Ramakrishna expected neither blind faith nor blind allegiance. He was able to fully satisfy the demands of Narendra's inquisitive mind. The Master was glad that Naren was a rebel and a doubter because he believed that without questioning and struggle no one can arrive at illumination. Years later, when Naren had become Swami Vivekananda, he remarked to some of his Western followers who were discussing the question of accepting everything he said, "Lei none regret that they were difficult to convince! I fought my Master for six long years, with the result that I know every inch of the way! Every inch of the way!"10
Sri Ramakrishna dealt with his pupil with much psychological perception. Little by little, the disciple was led from doubt to certitude, from darkness to light, from anguish of mind to the peace of vision, from bondage to spiritual freedom.
This is how Narendra described his teacher:
I... had the great good fortune to sit at the feet of one... whose life, a thousandfold more than whose teaching, was a living commentary on the texts of the Upanishads, was in fact the spirit of the Upanishads living in human form ... the harmony of all the diverse thoughts of India.... India has been rich in thinkers and sages... .The one had a great head (Shankara), the other a large heart (Chaitanya), and the time was ripe for one to be born, the embodiment of both this head and heart... who in one body would have the brilliant intellect of Shankara and the wonderfully expansive infinite heart of Chaitanya; one who would see in every sect the same spirit working, the same God; one who would see God in every being; one whose heart would weep for the poor, the weak, for the outcaste, for the downtrodden, for everyone in this world, inside India or outside India; and at the same time whose grand brilliant intellect would conceive of such noble thoughts as would harmonize all conflicting sects... and bring a marvellous harmony, the universal religion of head and heart into existence; such a man was born his life's work was just near a city which was full of Western thought, a city which had run mad after these Occidental ideas ... There he lived without any book-learning whatsoever; this great intellect never learnt even to write his own name, but the most brilliant graduates of our university found in him an intellectual giant... the sage for the time... .If I have told you one word of truth it was his ....11
And what did Narendra have to say about himself?
My motto is to learn whatever good things I may come across anywhere. This leads many friends to think that it will take me away from my devotion to the Guru. These ideas I count as those of lunatics and bigots. For all Gurus are one and are fragments and radiations of God, the Universal God.12
Sri Aurobindo has written, "Ramakrishna had the siddhi himself before he began giving to others — so had Buddha.... Ramakrishna always put that as a rule that one should not become teacher to others until one has the full authority. "13 All that Sri Ramakrishna had to teach was based on the bedrock of realization and he could give a practical demonstration of all he preached. He used to say to Narendra, "Test me as the money-changers test their coins. You must not accept me until you have tested me thoroughly. "'4 Naren' s great respect for Western science and its analytical processes made him test Sri Ramakrishna s experiences and he accepted
only those which stood the test. One day, Narendra came to Dakshineshwar and found that Sri Ramakrishna had gone to Calcutta. He was alone in the room and suddenly felt a desire to test the genuineness of Sri Ramakrishna' s often expressed aversion for money — so he hid a rupee under the mattress. Presently Sri Ramakrishna returned and no sooner had he touched the bed than he started back — he had actually felt physical pain! Narendra was watching him quietly. Sri Ramakrishna called one of the attendants to examine the bed. The rupee was discovered. Narendra then frankly explained what he had done. The Master fully approved of this action.
Sri Ramakrishna had absolute faith in his pupil too, but he also used to test him. Once for an entire month he completely ignored Narendra whenever he came. But Narendra continued his visits. Finally, Sri Ramakrishna asked Naren why he kept coming when he spoke scarcely a word to him. Naren replied that he came because he loved him and wanted to see him. Sri Ramakrishna was happy with his pupil's answer, and admitted, "I was only testing you to see if you would stay away when I did not show love and attention. Only one of your calibre could have put up with such neglect and indifference. Anyone else would have left me long ago, never to come again. "15
Sri Ramakrishna put Narendra to other tests as well.
One day he said, "My son, as the result of tapasyas, I have acquired some supernatural powers, which are of little use to me — a man who cannot even keep his body properly covered. I would like to transmit them to you." Narendra asked whether the powers would help him sooner to attain God. Sri Ramakrishna said they might not be helpful that way but after he had attained God, they might assist him in carrying out His purpose. "I do not want them," said Narendra, "let me have God's grace first, next I shall consider whether I should have those powers, or not."16
The answer was certainly the one his Master expected of him.
Such, then, was the relationship between the teacher and his pupil, between the man of realization and the man of reason. The love and liberty which Narendra enjoyed at the hands of his Master were unique: Sri Ramakrishna confided the secrets of his heart to Narendra. This helped increase Narendra' s innate spirituality and provided a protection for the freedom loving disciple against any deviations from the set goal.
Sri Ramakrishna commissioned Narendra to look after the spiritual well-being
Of his brother-disciples, and after the Master's passing on August 16, 1886, these young men banded together as a brotherhood of monks. In spite of a flood of difficulties and hardships they remained together: such was the strength of the Master's influence and of his pupil's personality. When Sri Ramakrishna passed away, Narendra was only twenty-three years old. It was many years before he would begin the work of translating Sri Ramakrishna s thought into living action. The young monk was hesitant, torn between dream and action. One side of his nature desired to possess, to conquer, to dominate the earth, and the other to renounce all earthly things in order to realize God. This conflict was resolved in due course. It was the Master's discerning and prophetic eye which had foreseen and declared:
The day when Naren comes in contact with suffering and misery, the pride of his character will melt into a mood of infinite compassion. His strong faith in himself will be an instrument to re-establish in discouraged souls the confidence and faith they have lost. And the freedom of his conduct, based on mighty self-mastery, will shine brightly in the eyes of others, as a manifestation of the true liberty of the Ego.17
What Narendra was able to achieve as Swami Vivekananda is a tremendous story in itself He took the message of Sri Ramakrishna to people throughout India and the world. His favourite theme was:
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; and 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... Only those who have attained to spirituality can communicate it to others, can be great teachers of mankind. They alone are the powers of light.18
In later years, Swami Vivekananda was to recall the sweet memories of the five he spent with Sri Ramakrishna, and he paid perhaps the most exalted compliment that a pupil can ever make to his teacher:
It is difficult to explain to others how blissfully I spent my days with the Master. It is simply astonishing to think how, through play, merriment and
other ordinary daily activities, he gave us the most exalted spiritual education and moulded our lives without our knowledge.
1. Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashram 1979), vol. l,p.21.
2. Ibid., p. 48.
3. Ibid., p. 77.
4. Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples (Almora: Advaita Ashram), pp. 193-9't
5. Ibid., p. 194.
6. Ibid., pp. 195-96.
7. Ibid., pp. 197-98.
8. Ibid.. p. 198.
9. Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna (Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1974), pp. 220-21.
10. Sister Nivedita, The Master as I Saw Him (Calcutta: Ramakrishna Math, 1977), pp. 10-11.
11. Romain Rolland, op. cit, pp. 280-81.
12. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashran. 1984), vol. 6, p. 234.
13. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, 1970. vol. 23, p.619.
14. Eastern and Western Disciples, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 97-98.
15. Ibid., p. 99.
16. S. N. Dhar, A Comprehensive Biography of Swami Vivekananda (Madras: Vivekananda Prakasha Kendra. 1975), Part 1, p. 142.
17. Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (Calcutta: Advaita Ashram1975), p. 10.
18. Swami Vivekananda, op. cit., vol. 4, p. 187.