Friedrich Max Muller was a German by birth. He became the greatest of the European Indologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Max Muller was one of the first to evaluate properly the greatness of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and give wide publicity of his warm admiration for Ramakrishna in the West.
Many times the question has been asked of late, what is a Mahatman, and what is a Sannyasin ? Mahatman is a very common Sanskrit word, and means literally great-souled, high-minded, noble. It is used as a complimentary term, much as we use noble or reverend; but it has been accepted also as technical term, applied to what are called Sannyasins in the ancient language of India. Sannyasin means one who has surrendered and laid down everything—that is, who has abandoned all worldly affections. ‘He is to be known as a Sannyasin,’ we read in the Bhagavad-Gita, v.3, ‘who does not hate and does not desire.’ As the life of a Brahmana was, according to the laws of Manu, divided into four periods, or asramas—that of a pupil, of a householder, of a hermit, and of an independent sage—those who had reached the fourth stage were called Sannyasins, a word difficult to render in English, but perfectly familiar to everybody in India. ... It has been denied that there are any Sannyasins left in India, and in one sense this is true. If the scheme of life traced out by Manu was ever a reality, it has long since ceased to be so. ...[But] we meet at all times, both before and after the Buddhist reform, with men who had shaken off all social fetters; who had retired from their families and from society at large, lived by themselves in forests or in caves, abstained from all enjoyments, restricted their food and drink to the very utmost, and often underwent tortures which makes us creep when we read of them or see them represented in pictures and photographs. Such men were naturally surrounded by a halo of holiness, and they received the little they wanted from those who visited them or who profited by their teachings. Some of these saints—but not many—were scholars, and became teachers of their ancient lore. Some of course, were impostors and hypocrites, and have brought disgrace on the whole profession. But that there were Sannyasins, and that there are even now, who have really shaken off the fetters of passion, who have disciplined their body and subdued their mind to a perfectly marvellous extent, cannot be doubted. ... It is generally supposed that these same persons, these so-called Sannyasins, are also very learned and wise persons. ...[But] in the case of Sannyasins of the present generation we look in vain either for great learning, even learning by heart, or for original thought and profound wisdom. ... There was, for instance, Dayananda Sarasvati, who tried to introduce some reforms among the Brahmanas. He was a scholar in a certain sense. He actually published a commentary in Sanskrit on the Rig-Veda, and was able to speak Sanskrit with great fluency. It is supposed that he was poisoned because his reforms threatened to become dangerous to the Brahmanas. But in all his writings there is nothing that could be quoted as original beyond his somewhat strange interpretations of words and whole passages of the Veda.
The late Ramakrishna Paramahansa was a far more interesting specimen of a Sannyasin. He seems to have been, not only a high-souled man, a real Mahatman, but a man of original thought. Indian literature is full of wise saws and sayings, and by merely quoting them a man may easily gain a reputation for profound wisdom. But it was not so with Ramakrishna. He seems to have deeply meditated on the world from his solitary retreat. Whether he was a man of extensive reading is difficult to say, but he was certainly thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Vedanta philosophy. His utterances which have been published breathe the spirit of that philosophy; in fact are only intelligible as products of a Vedantic soil. And yet it is very curious to see how European thought, nay a certain European style, quite different from that of native thinkers, has found an entrance into the oracular sayings of this Indian saint....
In the extracts from Ramakrishna’s teachings, some of which have been published by his pupils in their journal, the Brahmavadin, these ancient metaphors have for the first time been blended with European thought; and from all that we learn of his personal influence, this blending had a most powerful effect on the large audiences that came to listen to him. He has left a number of pupils behind who after his recent death are carrying on the work which he began, and who are trying to secure, not only in India, but in Europe also, a sympathetic interest in the ancient philosophy of India, which it deserves as fully as the philosophy of Plato or Kant....
It was not easy to obtain any trustworthy information about the circumstances of the Mahatman’s life, a life singularly uneventful in his relations with the outer world, though full of stirring events in the inner world of his mind....
Protap Chandra Mozoomdar, the leader of the Brahmo Samaj, and well known to many people in England, tells me of the extraordinary influence which the Mahatman exercised on Keshub Chunder Sen, on himself, and on a large number of highly educated men in Calcutta. A score of young men who were more closely attached to him have become ascetics after his death. They follow his teachings by giving up the enjoyment of wealth and carnal pleasure, living together in a neighbouring Matha (College), and retiring at times to holy and solitary places all over India even as far as the Himalayan mountains. Besides these holy men, we are told that a great number of men with their families are ardently devoted to his cause. But what is most interesting is the fact that it was the Mahatman who exercised the greatest influence on Keshub Chunder Sen during the last phase of his career. It was a surprise to many of Keshub Chunder’s friends and admirers to observe sudden change of the sober reformer into the mystic and ecstatic saint, that took place towards the end of his life. But although this later development of the New Dispensation, and more particularly the doctrine of the motherhood of God, may have alienated many of Keshub Chunder Sen’s European friends, it seems to have considerably increased his popularity with Hindu Society. At all events we are now enabled to understand the hidden influences which caused so sudden a change, and produced so marked a deviation in the career of the famous founder of the Brahmo Samaj, which has sometimes been ascribed to the breakdown of an overexcited brain.
It is different with a man like Ramakrishna. He never moved in the world, or was a man of the world, even in the sense in which Keshub Chunder Sen was. He seems from the very first to have practised that very severe kind of asceticism (yoga) which is intended to produce trances (samadhi) and ecstatic utterances. We cannot quite understand them, but in the case of our Mahatman we cannot doubt their reality, and can only stand by and wonder, particularly when so much that seems to us the outcome of a broken frame of body and overwrought state of mind, contains nevertheless so much that is true and wise and beautiful. ...
The state of [his] religious exaltation...has been witnessed again and again by serious observers of exceptional psychic states. It is in its essence some thing like our talking in sleep, only that with a mind saturated with religious thoughts and with the sublimest ideas of goodness and purity the result is what we find in the case of Ramakrishna, no mere senseless hypnotic jabbering, but a spontaneous outburst of profound wisdom clothed in beautiful poetical language. His mind seems like a kaleidoscope of pearls, diamonds, and sapphires shaken together at random but always producing precious thoughts in regular, beautiful outlines. To our ears, no doubt, much of his teaching and preaching sounds strange, but not to Oriental ears, or to ears accustomed to the perfervid poetry of the East. Everything seems to become purified in his mind. Nothing, I believe, is so hideous as the popular worship of Kali in India. To Ramakrishna all that is repulsive in her character is, as it were, non-existent, and there remains but the motherhood of the goddess. Her adoration with him is a childlike, whole-souled, rapturous self-consecration to the motherhood of God, as represented by the power and influence of woman. Woman in her natural material character had long been renounced by the saint. He had a wife, but never associated with her. ‘Woman’, He said, ‘fascinates and keeps the world from the love of God.’ For long years he made the utmost efforts to be delivered from the influence of woman. His heart-rending supplications and prayers for such deliverance, sometimes uttered aloud in his retreat on the riverside, brought crowds of people, who bitterly cried when he cried, and could not help blessing him and wishing him success with their whole hearts. And he succeeded, so that his mother to whom he prayed, that is the goddess Kali, made him recognize every woman as her incarnation, and honour each member of the other sex, whether young or old, as his mother. In one of his prayers he exclaims: ‘O Mother Divine, I want no honour from man, I want no pleasure of the flesh; only let my soul flow into Thee as the permanent confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna. Mother, I am without bhakti (devotion), without yoga (concentration); I am poor and friendless. I want no one’s praise, only let my mind always dwell in the lotus of Thy feet.’ But what is the most extraordinary of all, his religion was not confined to the worship of Hindu deities and the purification of Hindu customs. For long days he subjected himself to various kinds of discipline to realize—the Mohammedan idea of an allpowerful Allah. He let his beard grow, he fed himself on Moslem diet, he continually repeated sentences from the Qur’an. For Christ his reverence was deep and genuine. He bowed his head at the name of Jesus, honoured the doctrine of his sonship, and once or twice attended Christian places of worship. He declared that each form of worship was to him a living and most enthusiastic principle of personal religion; he showed, in fact, how it was possible to unify all the religions of the world by seeing only what is good in every one of them, and showing sincere reverence to every one who has suffered for the truth, for their faith in God, and for their love of men. He seems to have left nothing in writing, but his sayings live in the memory of his friends. He would not be a master or the founder of a new set. ‘I float a frail half-sunk log of wood through the stream of the troublous world. If men come to hold by me to save their lives, the result will be that they will drown me without being able to save themselves. Beware of Gurus!’18
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I am quite aware that some of his sayings may sound strange to our ears, nay even offensive. Thus the conception of the Deity as the Divine Mother is apt to startle us, but we can understand what Ramakrishna really meant by it, when we read his saying :
‘Why does the God-lover find such pleasure in addressing the Deity as Mother? Because the child is more free with its mother, and consequently she is dearer to the child than anyone else.’
How deep Ramakrishna has seen into the mysteries of knowledge and love of God, we see from the next saying :
‘Knowledge and love of God are ultimately one and the same. There is no difference between pure knowledge and pure love.’
The following utterances also show the exalted nature of his faith:
‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, that he who yearns for God, finds Him.’
‘He who has faith has all, and he who wants faith wants all.’
‘So long as one does not become simple like a child, one does not get Divine illumination. Forget all the worldly knowledge that thou hast acquired and become as ignorant about it as a child, and then thou wilt get the knowledge of the True.’
‘Where does the strength of an aspirant lie? It is in his tears. As a mother gives her consent to fulfil the desire of her importunately weeping child, so God vouchsafes to His weeping son whatever he is crying for.’
‘As a lamp does not bum without oil, so a man cannot live without God.’
‘God is in all men, but all men are not in God : that is the reason why they suffer.’
From such sayings we learn that though the real presence of the Divine in nature and in the human soul was nowhere felt so strongly and so universally as in India, and though the fervent love of God, nay the sense of complete absorption in the Godhead, has nowhere found a stronger and more eloquent expression than in the utterances of Ramakrishna, yet he perfectly knew the barriers that separate divine and human nature.
If we remember that these utterances of Ramakrishna reveal to us not only his own thoughts, but the faith and hope of millions of human beings, we may indeed feel hopeful about the future of that country. The consciousness of the Divine in man is there, and is shared by all, even by those who seem to worship idols. This constant sense of the presence of God is indeed the common ground on which we may hope that in time not too distant the great temple of the future will be erected, in which Hindus and non-Hindus may join hands and hearts in worshipping the same Supreme Spirit—who is not far from every one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being.19