Ramakrishna, the Personal God, and the Problem of Suffering

by Pravrajika Shuddhatmaprana

This article was originally published in a slightly shorter form in Purushottama, a souvenir publication by Sri Ramakrishna Sarada Sangha, Kolkata, in celebration of the 175th birth anniversary of Sri Ramakrishna.

In The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna we find recorded a very important conversation between Ramakrishna and his young disciple Hari (Swami Turiyananda). We don’t know what motivated the young man to ask the question he did at that time, but we do know that there is hardly a person in the history of the world in whose mind this very question has not arisen at least once. So, to have Ramakrishna’s answer to it recorded by M. is amazing. Hari’s question was, “Why is there so much suffering in this world?” As this is a serious question that concerns a subject affecting all of us very deeply, we naturally expect that Ramakrishna would have a serious, or even poignant, reply. But on the contrary, his reply seems—on the surface, anyway—rather light-hearted. He said:

     This world is the lila of God. It is like a game. In this game there are joy and sorrow, virtue and vice, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil. The game cannot continue if sin and suffering are altogether eliminated from the creation.

     In the game of hide-and-seek one must touch the “granny” in order to be free. But the “granny” is never pleased if she is touched at the very outset. It is God’s wish that the play should continue for some time. Then—

            Out of a hundred thousand kites, at best but one or two break free;

            And Thou dost laugh and clap Thy hands, O Mother, watching them!

     In other words, after the practice of hard spiritual discipline, one or two have the vision of God, through His grace, and are liberated. Then the Divine Mother claps Her hands in joy and exclaims, “Bravo! There they go!”[1]

Did Ramakrishna not hear right? Did he not understand that this was suffering Hari was talking about? Hari could not help but protest, as we probably would too: “But this play of God is our death.”

M. says that Ramakrishna smiled here as he dropped his next bomb. “Please tell me who you are,” Ramakrishna replied. “God alone has become all this—maya, the universe, living beings, and the twenty-four cosmic principles.”

Then, first quoting from the Bengali Ramayana written by Krittivasa, Ramakrishna adds: “‘As the snake I bite, and as the charmer I cure.’ It is God Himself who has become both vidya and avidya. He remains deluded by the maya of avidya, ignorance. Again, with the help of the guru, He is cured by the maya of vidya, Knowledge.”

Finally, summing up, Ramakrishna covers all the bases, speaking first from the standpoint of a jnani, then from that of a vijnani, and last from that of a bhakta:

     Ignorance, Knowledge, and Perfect Wisdom. The jnani sees that God alone exists and is the Doer, that He creates, preserves, and destroys. The vijnani sees that it is God who has become all this.

     After attaining mahabhava and prema one realizes that nothing exists but God. Bhakti pales before bhava. Bhava ripens into mahabhava and prema.[2]

M. does not give us Hari’s reaction to all this. Hari had been studying Shankara and Vedanta philosophy at that time, so this was most likely the answer the young disciple needed. For most of us, however, this is a difficult teaching to swallow—no matter how true we recognize it to be. Even the Bengali writer Krittivasa could not stay on that note for long. Immediately after describing Rama as both “the snake who bites and the physician who cures the snakebite”, he reminds the Lord that He is the Savior of the down-trodden (patita-pavana), such as the writer (Krittivasa) himself. Again, he also reminds Rama of how He had rescued Ahalya, the sage Gautama’s wife, who had been turned to stone. And then he describes how the stream of the Lord’s compassion is ever flowing.[3] So, like Krittivasa, we expect the Lord to be compassionate and save us—to recognize our suffering and remove our difficulties—not to play games with our lives.

It’s not that Ramakrishna did not understand what human suffering was. Once he said: “Suffering is inevitable when one assumes a human body. Every now and then I say to myself, ‘May I not have to come back to earth again.’ But there is something else. After enjoying sumptuous feasts outside, one does not relish cheap home cooking. Besides, this assuming of a human body is for the sake of the devotees.”[4] Though this statement was made later, when Ramakrishna was suffering from throat cancer, it is obvious that this was not a new trend of thought. Another day, when Ramakrishna was talking to M. about his nephew Hriday, M. was stunned to hear him say: “One day he [Hriday] tormented me so much that I stood on the embankment ready to give up my body by jumping into the Ganges, which was then at flood-tide.”[5]

Again, we also know that Ramakrishna had to suffer much humiliation from the staff of the Kali Temple, most of whom regarded him as a madman. And this was not just at the beginning of his sadhana at Dakshineswar. This was throughout his life. Even Trailokya, Mathur Babu’s younger son who eventually became the manager of the temple, was sometimes very disrespectful in his behaviour towards the Master. In Swami Chetanananda’s new book on M., it is mentioned that when the doctors realized Ramakrishna’s cancer was not curable, they suggested that he be taken away from the polluted city. This was when he was staying at the Shyampukur house. The natural solution then was to return to the Dakshineswar temple garden. Although Ramakrishna did not like the idea, the disciples decided to ask Trailokya for permission for the Master to come back. At first Trailokya would not meet with them at all, but then he finally refused permission. He would not allow Ramakrishna to come back there. This is why the disciples rented the house in Cossipore.

Regarding the suffering of an Incarnation of God, Ramakrishna often gave the example of Ramachandra. He said: “Everyone is under the authority of the Divine Mother, Mahamaya, the Primal Energy. Even the Incarnations of God accept the help of maya to fulfil their mission on earth. Therefore they worship the Primal Energy. Don’t you see how bitterly Rama wept for Sita? ‘Brahman weeps, ensnared in the meshes of maya.’”[6]

So we can understand from these statements that for Ramakrishna also, as with other Incarnations, suffering was definitely there with the assumption of a body. Yet the difference is that, with a slight turn of their mind, the Incarnations can rise above it. Moreover, they willingly take on this suffering in order to remain in this world for the sake of the devotees.

But what about us? For us suffering is very real, but unlike him, we cannot rise above it with a slight turn of our mind. So, where is the Personal God—God with all the auspicious attributes—in all this? Isn’t He supposed to save us? As said before, we expect that the Lord will be there for us—that He will be compassionate, remove our difficulties, and rescue us.

Again and again we read in the Puranas stories of how the Lord heard the distressed cries of his devotees and came to their rescue. In the Markandeya Purana the Devi came to the rescue of the devas twice at their call. In the Srimad Bhagavatam we read that Vishnu came at the call of Dhruva, Prahlada, and even the elephant Gajendra, and He rescued them all. Yet we find that in Ramakrishna’s life some of his closest disciples suffered terribly, while the Master did nothing to intervene.

For example, not long after M. brought his eldest son to Dakshineswar to meet Ramakrishna, the boy died. Ramakrishna had warned M. then not to refer to the boy as “my son”, as, he said, the boy belonged to the Lord. So it seems Ramakrishna knew the boy was short-lived. Yet he did not try to save the boy, in spite of the suffering he knew it would bring to M. and his wife. Many years earlier, when Mathur Babu’s wife, Jagadamba, was close to death, Mathur begged Ramakrishna to save her, and the Master did. Now, M. was just as dear to him—if not more. There is no question about Ramakrishna’s love for him. Yet, for reasons known only to himself, he did nothing to stop the death of M.s son.

It’s interesting that—unlike the Puranas, which are full of stories of God Himself coming to the rescue of His devotees—Ramakrishna does not talk about God intervening in devotees’ lives to remove their suffering. When he talks about God, it is to encourage devotees to have yearning for God, to have love for God free from all motives—including the motive of being free from suffering.

For example, once M. described a conversation he had had earlier with Vidyasagar in which Vidyasagar had questioned the usefulness of calling on God. Vidyasagar said to M.: “Just think of this incident: At one time Chenghiz Khan plundered a country and imprisoned many people. The number of prisoners rose to about a hundred thousand. The commander of his army said to him: ‘Your Majesty, who will feed them? It is risky to keep them with us. It will be equally risky to release them. What shall I do?’ Chenghiz Khan said: ‘That’s true. What can be done? Well, have them killed.’ The order was accordingly given to cut them to pieces. Now, God saw this slaughter, didn’t He? But He didn’t stop it in any way. Therefore I don’t need God, whether He exists or not. I don’t derive any good from Him.”

In reply to M., the Master said: “Is it possible to understand God’s action and His motive? He creates, He preserves, and He destroys. Can we ever understand why He destroys? I say to the Divine Mother: ‘O Mother, I do not need to understand. Please give me love for Thy Lotus Feet.’ The aim of life is to attain bhakti. As for other things, the Mother knows best. I have come to the garden to eat mangoes. What is the use of my calculating the number of trees, branches, and leaves? I only eat mangoes; I don’t need to know the number of trees and leaves.”[7]

It’s not that Ramakrishna did not believe that God was compassionate. Once when Ramakrishna was talking with some Sikhs, they said to him, “God is compassionate.” Ramakrishna replied: “We are His children. Does compassion to one’s children mean much? . . . Well, won’t those who say that God is compassionate ever understand that we are God’s children and not someone else’s?”[8]

So this is what Ramakrishna put stress on: We are God’s very own. This is how we should think of Him, and this is how we should relate to Him in all our thoughts and actions. This is what really matters. Pain and suffering come and go, as in a game. They are transitory. But God is our own forever. He alone is real.

Suppose we continually pray to God to remove our sufferings, and suppose God answers all our prayers. Then we would forever be praying to Him for more and more petty things. And we would never grow up. So Ramakrishna’s idea is, we should surrender everything to Him. We are His children, so He is bound to take care of us in the manner He sees fit. But—especially in times of extreme suffering—it takes a lot of faith and mental strength to do this. Here, Ramakrishna’s story of the weaver and “the will of Rama” is the perfect paradigm for us.8

This is a very important parable of Ramakrishna. Again, it’s hard to say whether this is a true story or not—that is, a story of an actual person that Ramakrishna knew or heard about. But this doesn’t matter. Even if the actual circumstances never happened, many people in India would have been familiar with the type of person Ramakrishna was talking about. At least, they would think they were familiar with him. We should keep in mind, however, that the simplicity of the weaver is deceptive.

A pious weaver took everything that happened to him to be the will of Rama, and was well loved by the villagers for his piety. Once when he was sitting in his worship room repeating the name of the Lord, he was kidnapped by some robbers and forced to carry their bundle of stolen goods. Just then the police arrived at the scene. The robbers ran, but the weaver remained behind with the bundle. Naturally the police took him to be a robber also and put him in jail. The next day he was brought before the judge, who asked him to tell his story. At each point in the story, the weaver said that what happened then was “by the will of Rama.” The judge soon realized that he was a pious man and released him. “On his way home, the weaver said to his friends, ‘By the will of Rama I have been released.’”[9]

At first glance this sounds very easy, and the weaver sounds like a very ordinary person. But we should not be fooled. As said before, it takes a tremendous amount of faith and mental strength to really live this type of surrender.

For those of us who are not at this level yet, Ramakrishna asks us to practice this surrender and give God the power of attorney. Through practice we shall attain this state. As Ramakrishna says, this is the “Granny’s” game, so there is nothing else we can do anyway but to surrender to Her and play with Her. So this gets us closer to Ramakrishna’s idea. This much is from the level of the Personal God.

But Ramakrishna is not finished yet. There is something more he wants to add. He next turns the problem completely around and puts it squarely on us: “Please tell me who you are,” he says. So who are we? And who is it that we want to be? With whom do we want to identify ourselves? Do we want to identify ourselves with our body and ego? Or do we want to identify ourselves with our blissful divine nature within?

In the Gospel, we frequently find Ramakrishna saying something like, “All our suffering is due to this ‘I’.”[10] Just from a psychological standpoint—not a spiritual one—it’s interesting to look at Ramakrishna’s answer again in this light. Whether or not God is behind this universe—for instance, as the snake, as the physician, as the victim, and even as the witness of all this—we have a choice how we will identify ourselves. Do we want to identify ourselves as being a victim? Or as a tormentor, like the snake? Wouldn’t we rather remove our ego from such a situation and remain a witness of it? Or even turn the ego into a resolver or healer of a hurtful situation, such as the physician?

Again from the psychological standpoint, how many times have we seen the ego shift in one and the same person? For instance, a cruel terrorist might be an extremely devoted son to his parents. And how many times have we heard about prisoners in Nazi concentration camps who, rather than succumbing to despair at their situation, became pillars of strength for their fellow prisoners? So we can change the ego. And that’s what Ramakrishna is saying—like the weaver, or like the playmate of the “Granny”, we don’t have to identify with a “victim” ego. There are other options.

In Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, the Dalai Lama gives the story of Lopön-la, a monk who had previously been in the Namgyal monastery in the Potala Palace before the Communist takeover of Tibet. As the Dalai Lama wrote:

     He had spent eighteen years in a Chinese prison after the fall of Tibet in 1959, but was able to come to India in 1980. Since we had known each other in Tibet, we occasionally had tea and a chat once he got to India. During one of these conversations, quite casually, Lopön-la said that there had been two or three occasions when he felt in real danger. I naturally thought he was in fear for his life and asked, “What kind of danger?” He answered, “The danger of losing my compassion for the Chinese.” When I heard this response, I simply bowed.[11]

How is this done? Ramakrishna says that there are three stages here—ignorance, Knowledge, and Perfect Wisdom. At the level of suffering we are in ignorance, avidya. We are deluded by maya and think we are the body-mind complex, and that whatever happens to the body and ego happens to us. We cannot see any further than this. And this is where most people are stuck.

But fortunate are those who find an illumined guru to cure them of the snakebite of ignorance. That guru is the charmer, or physician, who provides just the right medicine to act as an antidote to this ignorance. In reality, that guru is the Lord Himself, and He is also our inner Guide, the Soul of our soul. But we can only understand this after the medicine starts to work. What is that medicine? Ramakrishna calls it “the maya of vidya, Knowledge”. Knowledge, of course, is right-understanding—the understanding “that God alone exists and is the Doer, that He creates, preserves, and destroys” the universe. Moreover, the jnani sees, like the weaver in the story, that everything happens by God’s will. Happiness and misery, joy and sorrow—all are in the hands of God.

But here Ramakrishna says that even this Knowledge is still within maya. It is still in the realm of duality. To attain Perfect Wisdom, or vijnana, the disciple must nourish that medicine of Knowledge within and bring it to perfection. This is done through “hard spiritual discipline,” as Ramakrishna says—that is, through constant discrimination, spiritual practice, and tapasya, austerity—until at last the disciple “sees that God has become all this”—even maya. Where is there any happiness and misery, or joy and sorrow then? God—that Absolute Bliss—is everywhere, within and without. The Gita describes this realization thus: “Obtaining which one does not think of any other acquisition to be superior to that, and being established in which one is not perturbed even by great sorrow.”[12]

This realization is not just for the vijnani, however. Ramakrishna says here that the bhakta, or lover of God, also gradually attains this same state through deeper and deeper love for God. As he says: “Bhakti pales before bhava. Bhava ripens into mahabhava and prema.” Again: “After attaining mahabhava and prema one realizes that nothing exists but God.”

It is interesting that Ramakrishna includes the path of devotion here, as most Vedantists think of this realization as strictly for those following the path of Knowledge, or discrimination. In this path one continually discriminates that the One Reality alone is real, and this world is unreal, like a dream. How can people who worship the Personal God in a loving relationship have the knowledge that there is nothing but that One? Because the bhaktas, the devotees, also do not like to be separated from God. The devotees want to serve the Lord, yes, but they also want to be close to Him—and closer and closer. And when it comes to suffering, the devotees know that behind all their suffering is really their feeling of separation from that One.

We can give one example in this connection. It is of the great yogi and devotee Pavhari Baba, the “air-eating” saint, whose marvelous life was written by Swami Vivekananda. Initiated as a boy by his uncle into the Srivaishnava sect of Ramanuja, Pavhari Baba later studied yoga, Advaita, and other systems of Indian philosophy under a few other gurus. But all along he remained very devoted to the worship of his ishta, Ramachandra. Pavhari Baba lived most of the time in a cave attached to his ashrama in Ghazipur. As Swami Vivekananda wrote: “[O]nce he was bitten by a cobra; and though he was given up for hours as dead, he revived; and when his friends asked him about it, he only replied that the cobra ‘was a messenger from the Beloved’. . . . All sorts of physical illness were to him only ‘messengers from the Beloved’, and he could not even bear to hear them called by any other name, even when he himself suffered tortures from them.”[13]

One night a thief came into the ashrama and began putting things into a bundle. Seeing Pavhari Baba appear before him, the thief became frightened, dropped the bundle, and ran away. But to Pavhari Baba, this was the Lord Himself, Narayana, who had come to his ashrama, and he could not allow Narayana to leave without taking His own belongings. So he ran after the thief until he eventually caught up with him. Laying the bundle at the feet of the thief, Pavhari Baba begged him to take the things, as he was Narayana, and they rightfully belonged to Him. During Swami Vivekananda’s days as a wandering monk, he once met a wonderful sannyasi whom he was surprised to learn was that very thief who had come to Pavhari Baba’s ashrama. Overwhelmed by the saintly Pavhari Baba’s love and blessings, the man had repented, renounced everything, and become “a sannyasi of luminous realization”.[14]

If we can have that vision of Pavhari Baba—that everything and everyone is “a messenger from the Beloved”—then there will be nothing but love in our hearts. And this love is nothing other than God Himself. So instead of being the victim, we will automatically be the physician, the healer, as was Pavhari Baba, who completely changed the course of life of the thief.

But if we cannot do that yet, then we must remember, as Sri Ramakrishna says, that we are living in the world of duality, so there will always be the dual experience of good and bad, happiness and misery, and joy and sorrow. We cannot escape it. If something exists that is good, then it is because there is something else that is bad which is related to it. This is the world we live in, the world of maya. And, as Sri Ramakrishna says, “The game cannot continue if sin and suffering are altogether eliminated from the creation.” Only that blessed vision of the vijnani or para-bhakta can take us out of the game. This is the vision that says: We are that Blissful Reality.

In the mean time we should surrender everything to the “Granny”—that is, to God, as the weaver did. Like the jnani and the weaver, we will understand that God alone “is the Doer”, that everything happens by His will.

But if even that is too hard, then in times of sorrow we must turn again and again to God as our support. The more we turn to Him and think of Him, the more our lives will become filled with Him. And the more our lives become filled with Him, the more our “I” disappears and the less we fall victim to a suffering mentality.

As Ramakrishna says, “All our suffering is due to this ‘I’.”[15]

[1] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. by Swami Nikhilananda (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1986), p. 436.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Krttivasa Ramayana, trans. by Shantilal Nagar (Delhi: Eastern Books, 1997), vol. II, p. 8-9; Lanka Kanda, 8.19.

[4] Gospel, p. 943.

[5] Ibid., p. 644. Of course, Ramakrishna knew that, as he was a realized soul, nothing adverse would happen to him if he took his life.

[6] Ibid., p. 226.

[7] Ibid., p. 160-61.

[8] Ibid., p. 791.

[9] For the complete parable, see Ibid., p. 648-49.

[10] Ibid., p. 105.

[11] Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, by His Holiness The Dalai Lama (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2010), p. 120.

[12] Bhagavadgita, with the Commentary of Sankaracarya, trans. by Swami Gambhirananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1991. V. 6.22).

[13] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989), v. IV, pp. 293-94.

[14] The Life of Swami Vivekananda, by His Eastern and Western Disciples (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989), v. I, p. 355.

[15] 15. Gospel, p. 105.


PRAVRAJIKA SHUDDHATMAPRANA, a monastic member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, is a resident member of the Vivekananda Retreat, Ridgely. She is the author of The Divine World of the Alvars and Indian Saints and Mystics. Email: shuddhatmaprana@gmail.com

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