Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood, the Anglo-American novelist and playwright, was born in England. He deliberately failed in his tripos and left Cambridge without a degree in 1925. For the next few years he lived in the home of the violinist Andre Mangeot while working as secretary to Mangeot’s string quartet. With his first two novels, All the Conspirators (1928) and The Memorial (1932), Isherwood gained a measure of recognition. During the 1930s he collaborated with his friend W.H. Auden, the Anglo-American poet, on three verse dramas. He immigrated to the United States in 1939, settled in Southern California and was naturalized in 1946. For several years during the 1950s and early 1960s, Isherwood taught in a creative writing course at Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles). In Hollywood he met Gerald Heard, a mystic-historian. Through Heard he had his first contact with the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and eventually with the Ramakrishna Movement through Swami Prabhavananda. With Swami Prabhavananda he produced a fine translation of the Hindu religious classic The Bhagavad Gita (1944) and a collection of the aphorisms of Patanjali. He wrote, Sri Ramakrishna and His disciples and Vedanta for the Western World.

This is the story of a phenomenon.

I will begin by calling him simply that, rather than ‘holy man’, ‘mystic’, ‘saint’, or avatara ; all emotive words with mixed associations which may attract some readers, repel others.

A phenomenon is often something extraordinary and mysterious. Ramakrishna was extraordinary and mysterious; most of all to those who were best fitted to understand him. A phenomenon is always a fact, an object of experience. That is how I shall try to approach Ramakrishna.

Modern advertising has inflated our value-judgements until they are nearly worthless. Every product and person is said by its publicist to be the best. I want to avoid the competitive note here so I will say only this : Ramakrishna’s life, being comparatively recent history, is well documented. In this respect, it has the advantage over the lives of other, earlier phenomena of a like nature. We do not have to rely, here, on fragmentary or glossed manuscripts, dubious witnesses, pious legends. What Ramakrishna was or was not the reader must decide for himself ; but at least his decision can be based on words and deeds Ramakrishna indubitably spoke and did. ...

I myself am a devotee of Ramakrishna ; I believe, or am at least strongly inclined to believe, that he was what his disciples declared that he was : an incarnation of God upon earth. Nevertheless, I am not writing this book primarily for confirmed believers or unbelievers. The sort of reader I am writing for is the one who is not afraid to recognize the marvellous, no matter where he finds it ; the sort of reader who is always on the lookout for a phenomenon.

I only ask you approach Ramakrishna with the same open-minded curiosity you might feel about any highly unusual human being : a Julius Caesar, a Catherine of Siena, a Leonardo da Vinci, an Arthur Rimbaud. Dismiss from your mind, as far as you are able, such categories as holy-unholy, sane-insane, wise-foolish, pure-impure, positive-negative, useful-useless. Just say to yourself as you read : this, too, is humanly possible. Then later, if you like, consider the implications of that possibility for the rest of the human species.13