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Ramakrishna

(1836—1886) Hindu religious leader


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(1836–1886)

A highly influential Bengali guru and religious exemplar, frequently described as a ‘mystic’, because of his assertion, derived from numerous, and diversely inspired, ecstatic experiences, that all religions represent aspects of a single truth. Born into a rural family of poor Vaiṣṇava brahmins (as Gadadhar Chatterji), after a minimal education, he moved to Calcutta in 1855, and, alongside his elder brother, became a priest at the new Kālī temple at Dakṣineśvara. It was there that he showed an increasingly emotional devotion to the Goddess, culminating in a series of visions and trances which effectively incapacited him for worldly purposes. Thereafter, he lived at the temple as a spiritual practitioner and ascetic. In 1859, his family married him to a five-year-old girl, Śāradā Devī. Once she was 17, she joined him in Calcutta, where, rather than being a wife in any conventional sense, she acted as his disciple, and he worshipped her as an incarnation of the Goddess. Taking their cue from this, his other followers subsequently revered her as the ‘Holy’ or ‘Divine Mother’, Rāmākṛṣṇa's name for Kālī. For some years, under the influence of a female brahmin initiate, he followed a form of Tantric practice. This was succeeded by a time as the pupil of an Advaita saṃnyāsin called Totapuri, under whom he achieved nirvikalpa samādhi (non-differentiation from brahman). It was this aspect of their master's experience and teaching which was ultimately taken up by Vivekānanda and the Rāmakṛṣṇa Mission, but Rāmakṛṣṇa himself continued to experience ecstatic trances and visions, notably of Kṛṣṇa-Gopāla, Mohammed, and Jesus. The perception that his wide variety of methods all led to the same experience, caused him to conclude that all paths converged on the same goal. He was highly celebrated in Calcutta, where large crowds gathered to see and hear him, and also eventually in the Western world as well. Rāmakṛṣṇa wrote down nothing himself, but his followers recorded many of his sayings and conversations. These later became the basis of texts such as The Gospel of Ramakrishna, and he was a catalytic influence on the intellectuals and teachers who came to propound Neo-Vedānta and other forms of Neo-Hinduism.

Subjects: Hinduism.


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