THE EXISTING BODY OF LITERATURE on the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition is vast and spreads across several generations. Certain aspects of this tradition have come under close and increasingly critical scrutiny by academic scholars. This essay examines one of the major points of scholarly criticism: the pervasive claim that Swami Vivekananda’s teachings marked a distinctive break from those of his master, Sri Ramakrishna.


The Problematique

There are many aspects of this assertion. It is claimed that Sri Ramakrishna is more tantric than Advaitin and that his teachings could be understood, ‘more adequately in the categories of tantric thought and practice than in the concepts of Shankara’s advaita’;1 that he was a vijnani—an individual with special knowledge of the Absolute, in which the universe is affirmed and seen as the manifestation of Brahman—which is quite distinct from the Advaita Vedanta of Acharya Shankara; was primarily a bhakta and did not emphasize the path of jnana or karma, while Swami Vivekananda’s focus had been on the latter; or that although his teachings had a basis in Advaita, ‘he rarely prescribed this to his followers.’2


It is at times granted that at best Vedanta represented one of the many strands of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings but cannot be satisfactorily called his fundamental teaching. In his exposition of Advaita Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda is also considered by some to be closer to Acharya Shankara than to Sri Ramakrishna. Further-more, some studies claim Swami Vivekananda, and the institutionalization of the movement that took place under his influence, projected the image of an Advaitin onto Sri Ramakrishna. However, one scholar, Gwilym Beckerlegge, has pointed out it is difficult to accept that: ‘Vivekananda accomplished his task with either the connivance of, or a lack of effective opposition from, disciples who had been every bit as close to Ramakrishna, and who could claim to speak with authority on the basis of this intimacy.’3


To be fair there are layers of analysis and interpretation in the works of scholars and the subject is so complex that no two scholars say exactly the same thing. They may agree on some points and disagree on others. Even in two seemingly similar opinions there is usually a shade of difference. To give an illustration, Amiya P Sen concedes Vivekananda’s ideal of service is not helping others but helping oneself and this ‘moral monism’ is derived from his guru. 4 However, according to Sen, while the Master and the disciple were similar in their Advaitic basics, they were different in the conclusions each derived from such a stance. Sen writes: ‘Whereas the social implication of Vedantic non-dualism would indicate a strong sense of altruism and the ability to rise above rigid social classifications, none of these significantly, were pronounced in Ramakrishna.’5


To take another example, Walter G Neeval Jr had also acknowledged that while factors like ‘Western and Christian realism and ethical concern’ had a major role to play in ‘the continued development and reinterpretation of this tradition’, and ‘if we can view Sri Ramakrishna in his own terms rather than those of Shankara’s Advaita, we can accept at face value Swami Vivekananda’s claim that his social concern was inspired directly by the Master.’ 6


The assertion that Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna gave two different messages to the world is based on a claim that Swamiji’s projection of service as a cornerstone of the institutional programme was a radical upturning ofthe teachings of his Master who was supposedly sceptical of organized human endeavour of service. It has also been pointed out that Swamiji claimed karma yoga to be an independent path to liberation, without necessarily grounding itself in a belief in God, and that this is an essential difference between the guru and his foremost disciple.


In trying to locate the source of Swamiji’s ideal of service, scholars have gone far and wide and tried to situate it in various factors. Arguments trace the roots of this ideal in general terms to: Vivekananda’s direct exposure to Western society; various experiences and influences—both spiritual and social—during his parivrajya, monastic wandering, in India; the social reality of abject poverty coupled with the immediate context of colonial critique and European orientalism; and in more specific terms, to a possible influence of the Swami narayan movement of Western India. In brief, scholars mostly locate the source of Swamiji’s ideal of service everywhere else, except in Sri Ramakrishna!


Not all of these claims are entirely wrong. There was a lot that went into the making of the swami, but no matter how big a circumference was drawn by his life and experiences, the centre point was laid down by Sri Ramakrishna. By examining the teachings of both Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, this article will demonstrate Swamiji’s main influence was his guru, Sri Ramakrishna.


Regarding these claims, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi resolved potential controversy once and for all in two powerful strokes. The first instance was when someone expressed doubts about Swamiji’s injunction that prohibited image worship at the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, she exhorted him to always remember that the Master was undoubtedly Advaita. In another situation that took place in the hospital of the Kashi Sevashra ma, she claimed she saw the Master abiding in the Sevashrama and that the boys were worshipping him wholeheartedly by serving the patients. Holy Mother had also maintained resolutely that sannyasins should engage in karma related to service, for whose work it is if not the Lord’s? 7


Scholars have approached Swamiji’s alleged construction of a particular representation of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings from two points of departure. The first is through an examination of the actual, empirical history of the development of the tradition and its institutions. The second is through an analysis of the principal teachings of the Master and the disciple. While there have been elaborate studies of the first, a close and rigorous comparison of the teachings of the Master and his foremost disciple has been rarely undertaken. Even while scholars have tried to relate the two sets of teachings, they have either concentrated on a close examination of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings alone with only broad references to Swamiji or drawn broad conclusions on the teachings of both without closely comparing the two. This article concentrates on analysing the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda as it is the most direct method of approaching the issue.


Without going into the existing debate on the reliability of the sources for this tradition, this essay relies on two conventional sources: (i) the Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita by M, translated into English as The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna; and (ii) The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. This choice is guided by the understanding that the content of these basic sources has been only partly understood, misunderstood outside their context and the larger picture of teachings, or even misrepresented by some scholars. By relying on these sources it is possible to get a different picture compared to what has been understood by scholars so far.


Prologue: Three Attitudes of Mind

Girishchandra Ghosh reported: ‘When I wrote the play Vilwamangal, several of his [Sri Ramakrishna’s] disciples questioned me about it. I told them that I had learned the art of playwriting from Sri Ramakrishna. Narendra [Swami Vivekananda] has said that he learned science from Sri Ramakrishna, and Mahendra [‘M’] says Sri Ramakrishna taught him the art of teaching. How is it possible to express Sri Ramakrishna’s many moods and aspects? How can one say what they are?’8


Sri Ramakrishna’s own teachings reflect this point well:
You have no doubt heard the story of the chameleon. A man entered a wood and saw a chameleon on a tree. He reported to his friends, ‘I have seen a red lizard.’ He was firmly convinced that it was nothing but red. Another person, after visiting the tree, said, ‘I have seen a green lizard.’ He was firmly convinced that it was nothing but green. But the man who lived under the tree said: ‘What both of you have said is true. But the fact is that the creature is sometimes red, sometimes green, sometimes yellow, and sometimes has no colour at all.’ 9
In another situation, Sri Ramakrishna said: ‘A man had a tub of dye. Such was its wonderful property that people could dye their clothes any colour they wanted by merely dipping them in it. A clever man said to the owner of the tub, “Dye my cloth the colour of your dye-stuff ”’ (538). Sri Ramakrishna even summarized the issue by stating : ‘Everyone speaks of me according to his comprehension’ (593).


Sri Ramakrishna often spoke of three different attitudes of mind. There are numerous conversations that record this difference and attest the truth claim of all these apparently dissimilar positions. For example, he states:
But, my dear sir, I am in a peculiar state of mind. My mind constantly descends from the Absolute to the Relative, and again ascends from the Relative to the Absolute. … The manifold has come from the One alone, the Relative from the Absolute. There is a state of consciousness where the many disappears, and the One, as well; for the many must exist as long as the One exists. Brahman is without comparison. … Again, when God changes the state of my mind, when He brings my mind down to the plane of the Relative, I perceive that it is He who has become all these—the Creator, maya, the living beings, and the universe. Again, sometimes he shows me that He has created the universe and all living beings. He is the Master, and the universe His garden (307).
Sri Ramakrishna also said: ‘No one else is here, and you are my own people. Let me tell you something. I have come to the final realization that God is the Whole and I am a part of Him, that God is the Master and I am His servant.Furthermore, I think every now and then that He is I and I am He’ (572).


In another situation, he stated: ‘Once Rama asked Hanuman: “How do you look on Me?” And Hanuman replied: “O Rama, as long as I have the feeling of ‘I’, I see that Thou art the whole and I am a part; Thou art the Master and I am Thy servant. But when, O Rama, I have the knowledge of Truth, then I realize that Thou art I, and I am Thou”’ (105).


The allusion to the three different mental states of Hanuman appears repeatedly in the Kathamrita. In these utterances Sri Ramakrishna articulated three distinct bhavas, mental attitudes, all of which are equally true depending on the state of one’s mind. The validity of any one does not nullify the validity of another. Despite their apparent contradictoriness they are not a forced and unsystematic synthesis of different things. They are the articulation of spiritual realizations vividly experienced by Indian mystics. Swamiji also articulated the same point as his guru:
When Prahlada forgot himself, he found neither the universe nor its cause; all was to him one Infinite, undifferentiated by name and form; but as soon as he remembered that he was Prahlada, there was the universe before him and with it the Lord of the universe … So it was with the blessed Gopis. So long as they had lost sense of their own personal identity and individuality, they were all Krishnas, and when they began again to think of Him as the One to be worshipped, then they were Gopis again, and immediately—‘Unto them appeared Krishna with a smile on His lotus face, clad in yellow robes and having garlands on, the embodied conqueror (in beauty) of the god of love.’10
It is the Man [ Jesus Christ] who said, ‘I and my Father are one,’ whose power has descended unto millions … we know that the same Man, because he was a non-dualist, was merciful to others. To the masses who could not conceive of anything higher than a Personal God, he said, ‘Pray to your Father in heaven.’ To others who could grasp a higher idea, he said, ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches,’ but to his disciples to whom he revealed himself more fully, he proclaimed the highest truth, ‘I and my Father are one’ (2.142–3).


Jnana and Vijnana

Despite appearing contradictory, the thread running through the Kathamrita is that Reality is singular. Brahman and Shakti are inseparably one much like ‘water and its wetness’, and ‘fire and its power to burn’ are inseparably one.11 The Absolute has become the relative, and divine Consciousness pervades everything down to the worm and the most inert matter. Now, let us examine closely an excerpt from a lecture in Jnana Yoga delivered by Swami Vivekananda at London in 1896, ten years after the passing away of the Master:
Here I can only lay before you what the Vedanta seeks to teach, and that is the deification of the world. The Vedanta does not in reality denounce the world. The ideal of renunciation nowhere attains such a height as in the teachings of the Vedanta. But, at the same time, dry suicidal advice is not intended; it really means deification of the world—giving up the world as we think of it, as we know it, as it appears to us—and to know what it really is. Deify it; it is God alone. We read at the commencement of one of the oldest of the Upanishads, ‘What ever exists in this universe is to be covered with the Lord.’

We have to cover everything with the Lord Himself, not by a false sort of optimism, not by blinding our eyes to the evil, but by really seeing God in everything. Thus we have to give up the world, and when the world is given up, what remains? God. What is meant? You can have your wife; it does not mean that you are to abandon her, but that you are to see God in the wife. Give up your children; what does that mean? To turn them out of doors, as some human brutes do in every country? Certainly not. That is diabolism; it is not religion. But see God in your children. So, in everything. In life and in death, in happiness and in misery, the Lord is equally present. The whole world is full of the Lord. Open your eyes and see Him.12

With Sri Ramakrishna it was ‘a case of negation and affirmation’.13 This was also the case with his foremost disciple:
We have to go through the negation, and then the positive side will begin. We have to give up ignorance and all that is false, and then truth will begin to reveal itself to us. When we have grasped the truth, things which we gave up at first will take new shape and form, will appear to us in a new light, and become deified. They will have become sublimated, and then we shall understand them in their true light. But to understand them, we have first to get a glimpse of truth; we must give them up at first, and then we get them back again, deified.14
Sri Ramakrishna illustrates the process of negation via an analog y of climbing the stairs, claiming one uses the process of ‘neti, neti; not this, not this’ to leave each step behind. The process of affirmation is the realization after reaching the terrace that the terrace and the stairs are made of the same stuff. To think of the terrace and stairs as made of different material is ignorance, to know them as made of the same stuff is knowledge: ‘To know many things [as many] is ajnana, ignorance. To know only one thing [as One] is jnana, Knowledge—the realization that God alone is real and that He dwells in all. And to talk to Him is vijnana, a fuller Knowledge. To love God in different ways, after realizing Him, is vijnana.’15 Thus, to explain vijnana, Sri Ramakrishna uses the following analogies: the stairs and the roof (604), the bel-fruit (851), the butter and butter-milk (477), the dialogue between Rama and the sage Vashishtha (648), and the story of Kacha coming down from nirvikalpa samadhi (851).


Since God is everywhere, he is both ‘inside and outside man’ (521); inside he resides as ‘our Inner Guide’ (80), and outside he pervades his own creation (545). Thus Sri Ramakrishna said: ‘Does God exist only when I think of Him with my eyes closed? Doesn’t He exist when I look around with my eyes open?’ (561). And Swamiji taught: ‘The whole world is full of the Lord. Open your eyes and see Him.’16


According to Sri Ramakrishna, ‘After attaining vijnana one can live in the world as well. Then one clearly realizes that God Himself has become the universe and all living beings, that He is not outside the world.’17 Swami Vivekananda may not have spelt out the word vijnana, but what he taught was really a re-statement of his Master’s teachings in merely a different language. Sri Ramakrishna’s definition of a vijnani was one who could easily commute between the ‘Nitya, the Absolute’ and ‘Lila, the Relative’ (523). Freda Matchett points out that the words Brahman and Shakti rarely appear in the public teachings of Swamiji. It is true that the words do not but the concepts do. He simply calls them by a different set of terms, the Absolute [God] and the Relative [world]. Matchett further claims that in Swamiji’s teachings the ‘impersonal Absolute is always supreme and there is little trace of Rāmakrishna’s affirmation of the value of the individual ego and the phenomenal world’.18 The above lecture on jnana yoga runs counter to such a claim. In the teachings of both the Master and the pupil, the impersonal Absolute has become the phenomenal world. When existence-knowledge-bliss Absolute becomes relative, we see it as the world. So much so that Swamiji took Sri Ramakrishna’s insistence on the value of the phenomenal world one step further and reached its logical conclusion in his ideal of service of a human being as God.


Moreover, according to Matchett, Sri Ramakrishna suggested that ‘apparently lower states of consciousness have a value of their own and can reflect Reality just as much as the “highest” state’ (ibid.). She contrasts it with Swamiji’s attitude, which, according to her, is that the value of lower states ‘lies entirely in furnishing a ladder to the highest state’ (ibid.).


Firstly, Sri Ramakrishna had declared unequivocally that: ‘Attainment of Chaitanya, Divine Consciousness, is not possible without the knowledge of Advaita, Non-duality.’19 Sri Ramakrishna’s emphasis on the knowledge of non-duality comes out clearly in his statement, which we find in the reminiscences of his direct disciple, Swami Turiyananda: ‘First tie the knot of non-dual knowledge in the corner of your cloth; then do as you please.’20 The goal to be attained was the highest state without any compromise. It was after the attainment of this highest state that the lower states, now seen in the light of God-realization, acquired a new value.


One could come down to a lower plane or as Sri Ramakrishna described it: ‘come down again by the stairs and move about on a lower floor’ after having climbed the terrace.21 ‘After a man is firmly established in the ideal of “I am He”, he can live as God’s servant’ (791). But Sri Ramakrishna always insisted on the absolute necessity of climbing up the terrace: ‘The important thing is for a man somehow to climb to the roof ’ (604). The realization that the roof and the stairs are made up of the same stuff cannot be preempted on the basis of hearsay, without climbing up to the terrace. One has to first climb and only then arrive at first-hand knowledge of the oneness of the material out of which the stairs and the terrace are made.


Sri Ramakrishna reported that once Keshab Sen, Pratap Mazumdar and others said to him: ‘Sir, we follow the ideal of King Janaka’ (626). Sri Ramakrisha replied: ‘Mere words don’t make a King Janaka. How many austerities King Janaka first had to perform in solitude—standing on his head, and so on! Do something first; then you may become a King Janaka’ (626). He also said elsewhere: ‘One cannot be a King Janaka all of a sudden. Janaka at first practised much austerity in solitude’ (139).


Secondly, while on the one hand, after attaining the ‘highest’ stage, the ‘lower’ stages acquire a different value. On the other hand, ‘lower’ stages are also a step in attaining the ‘highest’ stage. The steps are as important as the means despite not being an end in themselves. This point is aptly illustrated by the conversation that took place between Sri Ramakrishna and Pratap Chandra Hazra, where the Master said that the ‘aim of spiritual discipline, of chanting God’s name and glories, is to realize just that’ that the ‘devotee really prays to his own Self ’, that God ‘is both inside and outside’, and that God has become everything ; but one ‘needs the clay mould as long as the gold image has not been cast; but when the image is made, the mould is thrown away’ (521). On another occasion when Hazra criticized Narendra’s offering of sweets to God and singing of devotional songs, saying that God was Infinity to whom all these did not matter, Sri Ramakrishna observed that this made Narendra ‘sink ten fathoms’ and he reprimanded Hazra and said, ‘How can a man live if he gives up devotion? No doubt God has infinite splendour; yet He is under the control of His devotees’ (792).


Jnana and Bhakti

Matchett concluded that Vivekananda was closer to Acharya Shankara than his own Master. However, she does not provide any close comparative textual evidence in support of her argument. She concludes: ‘As in Śankarā bhakti belongs to a lower stage of spiritual development than jnanā since “the Personal God and all that exists in the universe are the same Impersonal Being seen through our minds.”’22 First of all, Sri Ramakrishna maintained the personal God is but a manifestation of the Impersonal Being, that Satchidananda was like an infinite ocean and the various forms of God were really the freezing of the water of this ocean into ice under the cooling effect of bhakti (191). Secondly, in the above quotation from Swamiji that Matchett cites, there is really no suggestion of subordi-nating bhakti to jnana. Claiming that a personal God is a particular manifestation of the impersonal Being does not logically establish that the swami is trying to put bhakti on a lower footing than jnana. One may also consider the following extract from the Complete Works. There is no suggestion of superiority or inferiority, only a plain statement of facts:


Brahman is as the clay or substance out of which an infinite variety of articles are fashioned. As clay, they are all one; but form or manifestation differentiates them. Before every one of them was made, they all existed potentially in the clay, and, of course, they are identical substantially; but when formed, and so long as the form remains, they are separate and different; the clay-mouse can never become a clay-elephant, because, as manifestations, form alone makes them what they are, though as unformed clay they are all one. Ishvara is the highest manifestation of the Absolute Reality, or in other words, the highest possible reading of the Absolute by the human mind.23


What was Sri Ramakrishna’s freezing of water to take the form of ice, is his disciple’s clay elephant. On the other hand, according to Swamiji: ‘There is not really so much difference between knowledge ( Jnana) and love (Bhakti) as people sometimes imagine. We shall see, as we go on, that in the end they converge and meet and end at the same point’ (3.32). Elsewhere, he says:
The Jnanis hold Bhakti to be an instrument of liberation, the Bhaktas look upon it both as the instrument and the thing to be attained. To my mind this is a distinction without much difference. In fact, Bhakti, when used as an instrument, really means a lower form of worship, and the higher form becomes inseparable from the lower form of realisation at a later stage. Each seems to lay a great stress upon his own peculiar method of worship, forgetting that with perfect love true knowledge is bound to come even unsought, and that from perfect knowledge true love is inseparable (3.34).
Swamiji’s analog y of jnana and bhakti as two wings certainly does not indicate that he held bhakti to be of less consequence than jnana, as two wings in a bird must always be equal. He was definitely not in concurrence with the view that bhakti had no value beyond being an instrument.


Swamiji distinguished between two stages of bhakti: gauni, preparatory, dwelling mostly on rules and rituals, where love is an instrument to reach God; and para, supreme, where the devotee experiences extreme love for God. In such a state one verily sees God everywhere and reaches a stage where ‘love, lover, and beloved become one’ (6.77). The purpose of the first stage of bhakti is to lead to the second and ‘the highest expression of love is unification’ (7.30). Swamiji verily equated the higher form of jnana with the higher form of bhakti: ‘Extreme love and highest knowledge are one’ (7.9). Sri Ramakrishna had made exactly the same distinction between two stages of bhakti: vaidhi bhakti, dwelling on rules and rituals, and prema bhakti or raga bhakti, intense love for God. The names the Master and the disciple used were different, but the essence of the definitions was the same. The former is comprised of ceremonies, and in ordinary souls, its practice over a long time leads to the latter. Whereas, the latter is characterized by extreme love and longing for God. Sri Ramakrishna insisted God is unattainable without raga bhakti.24


Like his master, Swamiji believed that the ‘one great advantage of Bhakti is that it is the easiest and the most natural way to reach the divine end in view.’25 The sheer naturalness of the path of bhakti makes all worldly desires fall off as the dry scales of a snake. As Swamiji states: ‘Love concentrates all the power of the will without effort’ (7.44). Furthermore, ‘Bhakti is not destructive; it teaches that all our faculties may become means to reach salvation. We must turn them all towards God and give to Him that love which is usually wasted on the fleeting objects of sense’ (7.83). This clearly reminds us of Sri Ramakrishna’s advice to divert our desires and passions towards God, thereby sublimating them. The swami was also aware of the difficulty of jnana yoga for the lay person:

Talk of reason! Very few people reason, indeed. You hear a man say, ‘Oh, I don’t like to believe in anything ; I don’t like to grope through darkness. I must reason.’ And so he reasons. But when reason smashes to pieces things that he hugs unto his breast, he says, ‘No more! This reasoning is all right until it breaks my ideals. Stop there!’ That man would never be a Jnani. That man will carry his bondage all his life and  his lives to come. Again and again he will come under the power of death. Such men are not made for Jnana. There are other methods for them—such as Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, or Raja Yoga—but not Jnana Yoga (9.215).
Scholars tend to characterize Swamiji as a jnani perhaps on account of his emphasis on Advaita Vedanta. They seem to consider his preaching of Advaita as preaching the jnana marga, path of knowledge and discernment. But Advaita cannot be explained in terms of jnana alone. Its essence is the divinity of humans, which Sri Ramakrishna also taught when he repeatedly declared that God has verily become everything, a precept better known in the Ramakrishna literature as vijnana. Advaita Vedanta is the basic underlying principle because, as Swamiji states: ‘This philosophy preaches a God who is a sum total. If you seek a universal religion which can apply to everyone, that religion must not be composed of only the parts, but it must always be their sum total and include all degrees of religious development. This idea is not clearly found in any other religious system’ (2.141). Especially in the context of the West, Swamiji knew that their salvation depended on a ‘rationalistic religion’ (2.139), but by ‘rationalistic religion’, the jnana marga alone is not meant. It means a religion whose premises and precepts can be explained rationally and logically with evidence. For example, it can explain rationally why we should not hurt our neighbour because our neighbour is our own self in just another form. Swamiji explained:
Though all religions have taught ethical precepts, such as, ‘Do not kill, do not injure; love your neighbour as yourself,’ etc., yet none of these has given the reason. Why should I not injure my neighbour? To this question there was no satisfactory or conclusive answer forthcoming, until it was evolved by the metaphysical speculations of the Hindus who could not rest satisfied with mere dogmas. So the Hindus say that this Atman is absolute and all-pervading, therefore infinite. There cannot be two infinites, for they would limit each other and would become finite. Also each individual soul is a part and parcel of that Universal Soul, which is infinite. Therefore in injuring his neighbour, the individual actually injures himself. This is the basic metaphysical truth underlying all ethical codes (1.384–5).

Not just jnana yoga, but all the four yogas are premised on this reason. Advaita is not the antithesis of bhakti. A personal God is perfectly explicable within the framework of Advaita as ‘the highest possible reading of the Absolute by the human mind’ (3.37). Again, after bhaktas realize God, they know God dwells inside all, including oneself. As Sri Ramakrishna said: ‘Most advanced devotees say that He Himself has become all this—the twenty-four cosmic principles, the universe, and all living beings.’26 The Holy Mother explained: ‘When one attains true knowledge, God Himself ceases to exist separately. One calls upon the eternal Mother and in the end finds Her in all creation. Everything then becomes One. That is all.’ 27 Sri Ramakrishna gave the example of Prahlada, the quintessential bhakta, to illustrate the Advaitic point that Hari dwells in all. He explained:

There are three kinds of devotees: superior, me-diocre, and inferior. The inferior devotee says, ‘God is out there.’ According to him God is different From His creation. The mediocre devotee says: ‘God is the Antaryami, the Inner Guide. God dwells in everyone’s heart.’ The mediocre devotee sees God in the heart. But the superior devotee sees that God alone has become everything ; He alone has become the twenty-four cosmic principles. He finds that everything, above and below, is filled with God. Read the Gita, the Bhagavata, and the Vedanta, and you will understand all this. Is not God in His creation? 28
It is worthwhile to note that he cites the Bhagavadgita, the Bhagavata, and Vedanta as stating the same truth of God being ever-present in creation. Sri Ramakrishna used to cite from the Bhagavata, the crest-jewel text of the path of devotion, the fourfold outward signs of a person who has had the vision of God. One ‘behaves sometimes like a child, sometimes like a ghoul, sometimes like an inert thing, and sometimes like a madman’ (451). Incidentally, Acharya Shankara’s Vivekachudamani lists similar outward signs of a knower of the Atman: ‘He wanders in the world, sometimes like a madman, sometimes like a child and at other times like a ghoul.’29


On the other hand, vijnana is not bhakti alone. Sri Ramakrishna defined a vijnani as having both ‘ripe knowledge and devotion.’ 30 One of his favourite scriptures was the Adhyatma Ramayana, from which he was very fond of quoting and that he considered a fusion of jnana and bhakti.


Some scholars have approached this issue from a different perspective, distorting evidence and putting forth flimsy arguments based on superficial understanding. N P Sil has misconstrued Swamiji’s apparent reservations about the dissemination of the Radha-Krishna ideal as his sharp divergence from his guru. Swamiji’s statement in the concerned letter written to Swami Ramakrishnanand a and cited by Sil was in the context of a particular devotee, Biligiri Iyengar, a worshipper of Rama. The full citation is: ‘There is not the least necessity for teaching the divine Love of Radha and Krishna. Teach them pure devotion to Sita-Ram and Hara-Parvati. See that no mistake is made in this respect. Remember that the episodes of the divine relationship between Radha and Krishna are quite unsuitable for young minds. Specially Biligiri and other followers of Ramanujacharya are worshippers of Rama; so see to it that their innate attitude of pure devotion is never disturbed.’31


Sil has erased the context of Rama worship and of Biligiri Iyengar and in support of his argument has only cited: ‘Remember that the episodes of the divine relationship between Radha and Krishna are quite unsuitable for young minds’. Sil omitted Swamiji’s emphasis on preserving a devotee’s innate devotion towards his Ishta Devata, Chosen Ideal, and distorted his qualifications about the difficulty of grasping the meaning of the divine love of Radha and Krishna. Sil quoted Swamiji out of context to claim that he was preaching ‘against Radha-Krishna worshi—something that would have sorely troubled his master.’32


Contrary to such assertions, the truth is that it is generally believed one of young Narendranath’s first vision of God with form was of Sri Radha. Sri Ramakrishna mentioned that Narendranath respected Radha: ‘He says that if anyone wants to know how to love Satchidananda, he can learn it from her.’33 His brother disciples testify that Swamiji used to say: ‘Radha was a froth in the Ocean of Love. She was not of flesh and blood.’34 On the other hand, Swami Brahmananda explained the reason behind Swamiji’s reservations regarding a free preaching of the Radha-Krishna ideal:
Swamiji has said, ‘A little awakening of the Kundalini is dangerous.’ Unless the Kundalini rises to the higher planes, lust, anger, and other low passions become very powerful. That is why the Vaishnava practices as a lover or friend are dangerous. Constantly dwelling on the love-relations between Shri Krishna and Shri Radha, they cannot control their lust and are degraded. I know of one who practised this way for a long time, but afterwards married a bad woman. One, therefore, should not in the beginning study books on Shri Krishna’s love-relations with the Gopis. 35


Therefore, the distinction identified by scholars between Sri Ramakrishna’s bhakti and Swami Vivekananda’s jnana is superficial. Bhakti and jnana are not mutually exclusive opposites. How is it possible to love God without knowing that God alone is real? Sri Ramakrishna pointed this out: ‘How can you love someone unless you know him?’36 True bhakti is premised in jnana. This stance has been repeatedly maintained, as Swamiji stated: ‘Existence without knowledge and love cannot be; knowledge without love and love without knowledge cannot be.’37 Swamiji also said: ‘Real existence, real knowledge, and real love are eternally connected with one another, the three in one: where one of them is, the others also must be; they are the three aspects of the One without a second—the Existence-Knowledge-Bliss’ (1.58).


Sri Ramakrishna trained his householder and future monastic disciples according to his innate temperament and stage of development. That is the reason why his different teachings appear contradictory at times. But the basis of all his teachings was that God pervades his own creation down to inert matter. As for Swamiji, his lectures were mainly public but even therein he gave broad options to everybody to choose from, depending on their temperament and aptitudes, while keeping Advaita as the basis. In his personal life Swamiji had a curious quality, which had been observed by several people close to him. One testimony is that of Josephine MacLeod who notes in her reminiscences: ‘He had a curious quality that when he was a bhakta, a lover, he brushed aside karma and raja and jnana yogas as if they were of no consequence whatever. And when he was a karma-yogi, then he made that the great theme. Or equally so, the jnana. Sometimes, weeks, he would fall in one particular mood utterly disregardful of what he had been, just previous to that.’38 One should note that similar observations have been made about Sri Ramakrishna as well. Swami Brahmananda has noted: ‘When he talked about knowledge [jnana], he did not talk about anything else. Again, when he talked about devotion [bhakti], he spoke of nothing but devotion.’39


We get a clue to the real meaning of such changeable attitudes of mind in an observation by Sister Nivedita. In reference to a certain incident she said: ‘Swami is all against bhakti and emotion now—determined to banish it, he says. But how tremendous is that unity of mind and heart, from which he starts. He can afford to dispense with eithe—since both are fully developed.’40 Swamiji was the embodiment of the perfect harmonious development of human personality, the perfect joining of the ‘hand, head and heart’ on which he harped all the time. Swami Saradananda recorded: ‘It was characteristic of Naren that though jnana was so strong in him and he was so manly in every respect, still he was very gentle and full of devotion. Sri Ramakrishna often remarked on this, and once he said, looking at Naren’s face: “Could one who is only a dry jnani have such eyes? You have, along with jnana, all the tender feelings of the devotee. You have the strength of a man and the devotion of a woman.”’41


(To be continued)


(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha Special Edition January 2014)



1. Walter G Neeval Jr, ‘The Transformation of Sri Ramakrishna’ in Hinduism: New Essays in the History of Religions, ed. Bardwell L Smith (Lei­den: E J Brill, 1976), 76.
2. Amiya P Sen, Hindu Revivalism in Bengal 1872-1905: Some Essays in Interpretation (Delhi: Oxford University, 1993), 298.
3. Gwilym Beckerlegge, Swami Vivekananda’s Legacy of Service (New Delhi: Oxford University, 2006), 6.
4. See Amiya P Sen, Explorations in Modern Bengal c.1800-1900: Essays on Religion, History and Culture (Delhi: Primus, 2010), 104.
5. Hindu Revivalism in Bengal 1872-1905: Some Essays in Interpretation, 317.
6. Hinduism: New Essays in the History of Religions, 56.
7. Dushyanta Pandya, The Universal Mother (Delhi: Roadworthy, 2008), 140.
8. Swami Chetanananda, Girish Chandra Ghosh: A Bohemian Devotee of Sri Ramakrishna (Kolkata : Advaita Ashrama, 2009), 27.
9. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 559.
10. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997) 3.40–1.
11. Gospel, 287.
12. Complete Works, 2.145–53.
13. Gospel, 562.
14. Complete Works, 2 . 1 6 7.
15. Gospel, 598–9.
16. Complete Works, 2.146.
17. Gospel, 418.
18. Freda Matchett, ‘The Teachings of Ramakrishna in Relation to the Hindu Tradition and as Interpreted by Vivekānanda, Religion, 11/2 (April 1981), 177.
19. Gospel, 308.
20. Swami Chetanananda, Ramakrishna As We Saw Him (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2008), 210.
21. Gospel, 562.
22. ‘The Teachings of Ramakrishna in Relation to the Hindu Tradition and as Interpreted by Vivekānanda’, 178.
23. Complete Work, 3.37.
24. Gospel, 172–3, 196, 588.
25. Complete Works, 3.32.
26. Gospel, 133.
27. In the Company of the Holy Mother (Kolkata : Advaita Ashrama, 2006), 51.
28. Gospel, 909–10.
29. Acharya Shankara, Vivekachudamani, trans. Swami Madhavananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1978), 540.
30. Gospel, 523.
31. Complete Works, 8.398.
32. Narasingha P Sil, ‘Vivekānanda’s Rāmakṛṣṇa: An Untold Story of Mythmaking and Propaganda’, Numen, 40/1 (January 1993), 38.
33. Gospel, 786.
34. Smritir Aloye Swamiji, ed. Swami Purnatma­nanda (Kolkata: Udbodhan Karyalaya, 2001), 17.
35. Spiritual Talks by the First Disciples of Sri Ramakrishna (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2008), 37–8.
36. Gospel, 718.
37. Complete Works, 2.143.
38. His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2004), 234.
39. Ramakrishna As We Saw Him, 77.
40. Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, 289.
41. Ramakrishna As We Saw Him, 185.