Ramakrishna’s Realization and Integral Vedanta

by Sister Gayatriprana

a. Introduction

 This article was inspired by an essay in the summer-fall edition of American Vedantist: “Ramakrishna’s Highest Realization: Original Insights from Swami Siddheshwarananda” by Professor Steven Walker. This swami, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda, was known as an original thinker and was actively involved, first in the élite Mysore Study Circle in the nineteen thirties (where several of the early seminal thinkers of the Ramakrishna Order sharpened their wits); and as spiritual head of the Gretz Vedanta Center near Paris, France, in the intellectual life of Paris in the nineteen forties and fifties, gaining considerable respect for his forcefully presented views. Like the author (who also translated from the French the swami’s essay, From Anxiety to Union, or Ramakrishna’s Spiritual Experience on which the article is based) I found the swami’s insights “startlingly original” (p.31). I found they resonated with and provided an authoritative basis for what I am increasingly inclined to call Integral Vedanta, a whole new idea in the Vedanta “universe”. This is a view that integrates, or makes whole or entire, all of the possible views of Vedanta, in particular including the contemporary views of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Ramana Maharshi and others that can serve as bridges between India and the West, religion and science, reason and emotion, work and meditation, all of the world religions—between any previous dichotomies or series of stumbling blocks whatever.

b. “Modernization” of Vedanta by Digesting the Subconscious through the Symbol of Kali

 One of the basic ideas that I found resonated with Integral Vedanta was the swami’s statement (as reported by Professor Walker) that Ramakrishna’s profound relationship with Kali (the black Tantric goddess of considerable notoriety in traditional Vedanta) is the key, not only to the validity of Indian myth, but also to Ramakrishna’s claim to having “a startlingly modern view of the problems of life” (p.31). This view is based on the idea that it is only a grasp of the unconscious (or subconscious?) that can enable us to master the irrational side of life, a notion that jibes with most of modern Western psychology from Mesmer and Freud onward, thus forging an important link with the contemporary Western paradigm, while opening out Vedantic psychology to a domain that has for the most part been ignored in favor of transcendental metaphysics, sometimes leading to baffling inconsistency between the ideas and behavior of adherents of the older system.

The idea that Kali is the door to the subconscious may be a new way of thinking about the black goddess for many Vedantic devotees, but there is some precedent for it in the Indian tradition. Her black color alone suggests that she is chthonic, i.e. arising from the ground and all that lies below us and our much cherished and protected conscious “upper” world. Then again, the terrifying traditional images of Kali and the fearsome rites traditionally performed in her name also suggest the impact of the non-rational subconscious on those who have not faced their own darkness and who fear it so totally. But as we go deeper into Kali, we find that traditionally she is one of the ten wisdom goddesses of Tantra, who lead us to liberation. She symbolizes transcendence of time through non-attachment and self-sacrifice, which leads to an ability to “eat up the universe”[1], surely a metaphor for the ability to digest and assimilate our subconscious. We learn from Jungian and other contemporary psychologies that, if properly approached, the subconscious is the rich, apparently subterranean source of our psyche that in its turn is the ultimate basis of the universe itself. Such psychologies encourage us to face our “darkness”, see what is within the “cave” and learn not only to face it but also to know it, learn about it and use its contents to promote our own growth and ability to integrate all of our competing aspects and also all such aspects of the universe we see externally.

Swami Vivekananda was a contemporary of Freud who was promulgating his theories of the subconscious even as the swami was teaching in the West. Vivekananda drew our attention to the facts about ourselves:

Only an infinitely small percentage of our conscious mind is on the sensuous plane. We have just a little bit of sensuous consciousness and imagine that to be our entire mind and life; but as a matter of fact, it is but a drop in the mighty ocean of subconscious mind.[2]

He elaborates further:

Deep down in the subconscious mind are stored up all the thoughts and acts of the past. Each one of these is striving to be recognized, pushing outward for expression, surging, wave after wave, out upon the objective mind, the conscious mind. These thoughts, the stored-up energy, we take for natural desires, talents, etc. It is because we do not realize their true origin. We obey them blindly, unquestioningly; and slavery, the most helpless kind of slavery, is the result.[3]

Vivekananda’s nostrum for this “world disease” is the same as that of the Western psychologists:

To control the mind you must go deep down into the subconscious mind, classify and arrange in order all the different impressions, thoughts, etc. stored up there, and control them. This is the first step. By the control of the subconscious mind you get control over the conscious.[4]

But this is a daunting project, so say the least; and the Indian tradition has given us guides like Kali to see us through. Her role as a wisdom goddess is as “a force that removes all inner and outer obstacles, especially spiritual blindness, and grants the highest realization beyond space and time.”[5] This is the life-belt that gets us through the surging waves of our subconscious and draws us to shore.

And just what such a “deep dive” into the subconscious means we learn from Vivekananda himself. Knowing he would be dead within five years, facing almost superhuman obstacles to his work in India, and fearing he would not accomplish his work for Ramakrishna there, he turns to his beloved “Terrible”, the energy behind the world (that does not yield to us, no matter how we may wish it to)

A load of misery, true though it is—
This Becoming [the world]—know this to be your God!
His temple the burning-ground among corpses
And funeral pyres; unending battle—
That verily is his sacred worship.
Constant defeat—let that not unnerve you;
Shattered be little self, hope, name and fame.
Set up a pyre of them and make your heart
A burning-ground.
And let Shyama [Kali] dance there.[i]


[i] CW, Vol.4: And Let Shyama Dance There, p.506.

Here we see Vivekananda’s heroic struggle to rise above the surging waves of the world, which is the projection of all of our undigested subconscious urges. He sees and follows the path through it all, but what gives him the light and the strength to do so is the dancing form of the Black One, Kali.

For his part, Ramakrishna worked out a “formula”  that places Kali in the overall scheme of things:

That which is the Absolute has also its relative aspect, and that which is the relative has also its absolute aspect. You cannot set aside the Absolute and understand just the relative. And it is only because there is the relative that you can transcend it step by step and reach the Absolute.[7]

The “relative” here is Kali, that which balances and completes Brahman, the Absolute, and also that which makes Brahman visible to us. In this scheme of things, Kali has her role as our guide through the ocean of our subconscious, leading us to consciousness and beyond that to the superconscious. This is a very different worldview than the old Vedanta that denies reality to the world and, along with it, the subconscious from which it arises and takes form.

c. Ramakrishna’s Inclusion of Kali in the Vedantic Worldview

 According to Professor Walker, Swami Siddheshwarananda contends that Ramakrishna’s direct line to the subconscious through Kali “enabled him to deal with life and its problems across the full spectrum of its rational and irrational dimensions” (p.31). The swami elaborates on the meaning of Kali as “the totality of cosmic energy” and that through her Ramakrishna discovered “the secret of the entire created universe” (p.32). But Swami Siddheshwarananda’s conclusion (as reported by Professor

Walker) that “this realization surpassed all other types of realizations, even nirvikalpa samadhi”—which has been assumed in traditional Vedanta to be the last and highest realization (p.32)—makes us sit up and pay attention even more. It is beautifully put, apparently by the swami himself that “if nirvikalpa samadhi is seeing Brahman with eyes closed, Ramakrishna’s ultimate realization included seeing Brahman with eyes open.” And the outcome of this new realization is that Ramakrishna saw the divine, not simply as present in the totality of the universe, but also as the universe, and therefore, in Swami Siddheshwarananda’s words, he was “allowed to identify completely with those who approached him, to feel their anxiety as though it was his own” (p.32).

These are ideas that we hear all the time if we study the life of Sarada Devi and the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, which are simply saturated with them through and through. If we are not aware of classical Vedanta, we tend to think that the Ramakrishna tradition is Vedanta, not realizing that in fact this is a very original and exciting way of seeing things, not calling the world unreal, running off to monasteries to get away from it, and demonizing all of its activities like the medieval Vedantins for whom classically nirvikalpa samadhi was the absolute end of the spiritual line. Ramakrishna’s new Vedanta relates to a state in which we embrace the whole world as our own, and see even in the most menial work, in family life—in any activity whatsoever—the divine, and the possibility of bringing it out in its fullest flowering. This vision had a lot to do with Vivekananda’s insisting that his monks engage themselves with what had before then been considered “unspiritual” and “demeaning” work. We in the West cannot understand just what a huge step this was, in terms of traditional Vedanta, whose guardians denounced the Ramakrishna Order swamis as “scavenger swamis”, comparing them to the despised outcastes to whom the most unsanitary and menial tasks had been assigned for millennia, along with a subordinate rank that can only be compared with the lot of African and Native Americans at certain stages of American history.

d. Vijnana, Consciousness that Embraces the Totality of Existence

 But, though all of this seems “original” and “new” to some of us, in fact this kind of realization has been talked about and experienced in India since at least the sixth or seventh century, mostly among Tantrics and Buddhists, some of whom called it turiyatita, or “beyond the fourth”. This name refers back to the turiya or fourth state that was said to be realized in nirvikalpa samadhi. Another name for this new state in Vedanta was vijnana, knowledge fuller and more complete than the kind of knowledge that saw the world as unreal and treated it with disdain. This was the term that both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda called it by. Ramakrishna said of it:

Vijnana [is] special knowledge of God. To know many things is ignorance. To know that God dwells in all beings is knowledge. And what is vijnana?  It is to know God in a special manner, to converse with him and feel him to be one’s own relative. . . . To know that there is fire in wood is knowledge. But to make a fire with that wood, cook food with that fire, and become healthy and strong from that food is vijnana.[8]

In the West Vivekananda said of this state:

Knowledge Absolute means not the knowledge we know, not intelligence, not reason, not instinct, but that which when it becomes manifested we call by these names. When that Knowledge Absolute becomes limited we call it intuition, and when it becomes still more limited we call it reason, instinct, etc. That Knowledge Absolute is vijnana. The nearest translation of it is all-knowingness. There is no combination in it. It is the nature of the Soul.[9]

The idea is that a person who lives in vijnana has gone beyond the “knowledge” imparted by turiya to a state in which he or she remains always embedded in the state of turiya, no longer a mere witness asserting the unreality of the world, but now a deeply engaged and loving participant with it.[10] There is no longer any fear of “losing it”, because, as Ramakrishna used to say, we are holding on to the central pole of Mother, the direct access to the subconscious and therefore she who gives freedom from fear. Doesn’t fear arise because we are afraid that our irrational side will burst out and overcome us? In terms of what we are thinking about here, that would seem to have been the fear of the “turiya folks”, who had taken refuge in the Absolute, but were still scared of the surging sea of the subconscious mind. Kali, however, is the formidable energy of the universe who, if we approach her with the proper frame of mind, gives us the password to get through it all and use the operating system very creatively and productively without any virus attacks.

For Ramakrishna and those close to him, Brahman was not simply you, I, the Atman, or Cosmic Intelligence (as the classical four great sayings of Vedanta tell us), but literally everything. One of the most ancient Upanishads, the Chhandogya Upanishad (3.14.1), tells us: Sarvam khalvidam brahma: all this is verily Brahman; and in a sense this was the great saying that Ramakrishna made his own. There is nothing that is not Brahman, and therefore there cannot be any reality to the ideas that the spirit is “superior” or the world “inferior”: the whole universe and all of its components are to be equally embraced as divine.

Just how completely Sri Ramakrishna embraced the truth of the Upanishadic dictum “All this [including the physical world] is verily Brahman” was dramatically illustrated on March 15, 1886. At that time Sri Ramakrishna was emaciated from his inability to swallow on account of his advanced throat cancer. Moreover, the cancer was eroding his neck and causing him excruciating pain. Was that less than a crucifixion, dragged out month after painful month?  In the face of such torture and frustration, any mortal would readily lose faith in God. But what did Narendranath and the devotees see? “His face shone with heavenly joy”, [not] showing “the slightest trace of the agonizing pain of his illness.”[11] Moreover, he himself revealed to them how he saw the whole situation: “I see that it is God himself who has become the block, the executioner, and the victim for the sacrifice.”[12]

What more conclusive proof can there be that the vision of all phenomena—including bodily suffering and death—as Noumenon or Spirit is the true freedom? To be able to rise above such physical suffering and enunciate the principle behind that very transcendence is given only to integral seers. This event impacted the well-known American composer Philip Glass so profoundly that he recently wrote a cantata on the death process of Ramakrishna that struck him as beyond anything he had heard of. In such ways integral living is reaching our shores!

Swami Vivekananda’s works simply overflow with this holistic or integral vision, but perhaps it is most succinctly expressed in his moving lines:

From highest Brahman to the yonder worm,
And to the very minutest atom,
Everywhere is the same God, the All-Love;
Friend, offer mind, soul, body at their feet.[13]

e. Aurobindo, Integral Vedanta, and the West

 This, in a short compass, is the essence of Integral Vedanta as manifested by Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Vivekananda brought it to the West, which he took by storm, but in some ways it was introduced there in a more systematized way, and certainly more widely into the Western mainstream by the disciples of Aurobindo.

Aurobindo was remarkable in that, brought up in England to be an Englishman, on his return to India he plunged into Vedanta, inspired by the example of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Like both of them he embraced Kali and the active renunciation and self-sacrifice he understood her to stand for. In her name he plunged into the Indian struggle for freedom from the British and, naturally, wound up in jail. While rotting there with the threat of execution hanging over his head, he had a visitation from Vivekananda, by then six years dead. Vivekananda remained with Aurobindo for two weeks and transmitted to him the understanding of something previously unknown to Aurobindo, and what he later called Supermind:

The fundamental nature of this Supermind is that all its knowledge is originally knowledge by identity and oneness. . . Even when it makes numberless apparent divisions and discriminating modifications in itself, still all the knowledge that operates in its workings even in these divisions is founded upon and sustained and lit and guided by this perfect knowledge by identity and oneness.[14]

Supermind was, in effect, a state of consciousness in which all possible things, events, ideas, etc. were integrated with each other and able to relate to each other without conflict. How this differed from what Aurobindo called Intuitive Mind is that the Oneness experienced in Supermind is capable of engaging itself with any and all things and actions without any risk of losing its grasp on Oneness, precisely the difference between turiyatita (vijnana) and the classical turiya. And, unlike turiya-related behavior, there is no exclusion or constriction of anything.

This revelation totally transformed Aurobindo, who retired from political activities and devoted the rest of his life to understanding and working out how Supermind can be realized and actualized in everyday human living. His works were popular in the West, and his terminology of Integral Yoga (an integration of the four yogas similar to that advocated by Vivekananda) became well-known and taken up by Western practitioners and scholars. Soon the term integral became embedded in the name of an institution in San Francisco founded by his followers: the Californian Institute of Integral Studies or CIIS; while Ken Wilber, the popular American theorist and practitioner, has now launched his influential Integral Studies movement. What makes the activities of these organizations integral is precisely their allegiance to a state of consciousness and the lifestyle that goes beyond the old, hierarchical, exclusive system that was traditional non-dual Vedanta in India and the Perennial Philosophy as understood in the West.

It seems that this is indeed the new wave in spirituality, but in many ways Ramakrishna and Vivekananda were two of the notable practitioners and teachers of it, living and teaching it to a degree that is really remarkable. Vivekananda’s link with Aurobindo and through him the West is particularly relevant, I believe, because I see it as a channel through which Western adherents of Ramakrishna’s vijnanadvaita, as the scholar Arvind Sharma[15] suggested it be called, can start to make common cause with the cutting edge of spiritual thinking in the West.

f. Understanding Ramakrishna through the Lens of Integral Vedanta

 But it is “new” for most of us, who have heard mostly about turiya and nirvikalpa samadhi as the acme of spiritual life. And I believe that in some ways how it works eludes even Swami Siddheshwarananda, whose next set of ideas seems at first to be quite a put-off. We learn that his view was “[Ramakrishna’s] realization was not the result of any spiritual discipline” (p.32). The author walks us through the swami’s logic behind this, mainly that the “highest realization cannot be the result of any causal chain, since all cause and effect relationships exist only within the world of illusion; the highest realization is on another plane altogether” (p.32). The swami apparently regarded the various states of consciousness as disconnected from each other, without any meaningful passage from one to the other, because they are not related to time, space, or causation. From this standpoint, even Ramakrishna’s intense anxiety to realize Kali had no bearing on his amazing realizations. This raises the question: If this was the case with Ramakrishna, why should the rest of us bother with spiritual practices? The answer we salvage from the swami’s article is that in some way our spiritual anxiety compels us to act spiritually, and thus negotiate through at least the “lower” forms of spiritual attainment. But for the swami the “highest” is ineluctably other, divorced from human effort.

To some extent the swami offers some solace: can the term “highest” actually be applied to Ramakrishna’s realization? The line of thought is this: Ramakrishna’s effort was special in that he identified not only with the heights of spiritual knowledge, but also with the depths of cosmic ignorance. In that sense, his supreme realization can be said to be, not the highest, but rather beyond all measure. The swami states, “In the manifested world, beings like Ramakrishna, who have the unique gift of identifying themselves with our states of ignorance, are much greater than those who have left the state of ignorance and remain in a state of bliss” (p. 34). Just the difference between turiya folks and turiyatita, vijnana folks, I would add. The swami has done a great service in clarifying the difference.

But this line of thought can be applied in a number of ways. Probably the most immediate is to point out that to a person like Ramakrishna the notion of the unreality of the world and the lack of connection between effort and realization belongs to the old turiya mindset. To a mind that can effortlessly connect “the highest” and the “lowest”, disconnects such as permeate the old Vedanta no longer apply. Turiya is based on the idea that Brahman (the “highest”) is real (satyam) and the world is unreal (mithyam), and the goal is to attain the real by denying the unreal and leaving it behind. This clearly sets up a linear discontinuity. But, as we have already seen, for vijnanins like Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, and Vivekananda, all this is verily Brahman, not in theory, but in fact. That is why nothing is “unreal”, to be rejected or despised, but rather everything is to be seen in terms of its spiritual potential and every effort made to bring out that potential by whatever means work. For some it is working in the physical world altruistically; for others loving and serving others; for others learning what is one’s inner identity and that is it shared with all other beings; and for others seeing the entire universe and its infinite interconnections as divinity itself. For Vivekananda and Aurobindo the best is to practice all four ways and thus integrate them fully.

Another outcome of this mindset is that the old separation between religions based on purely subjective state experience (essentially the Asian religions) and the more objective, intellectual structures we build on such experience (mainly the Western religions) is no longer tenable. Neither state experience nor structural explanations alone will suffice. We need to honor and respect both and work with them together.

Another way of putting this idea is that within this mindset there is a place for cause and effect as well as grace, and any indeed any other explanation, provided it is genuine and serious. It is all a matter of where you are and what works for you. My own researches have shown that Ramakrishna, far from being merely a simple, amiable devotee, was capable of the most trenchant and sustained lines of thought, particularly as evoked by the tenacity and sometimes impudence of Vivekananda, the intellect to end all intellects. If we study only Ramakrishna’s exchanges with the young Vivekananda, we find that Ramakrishna not only transmitted the ability to move along the traditional state experience so prized in Eastern religions, but also gave Vivekananda five intellectual structures with which to express them in words and actions in ways that not only changed the face of India but created the powerful lines of thought that conquered the West and helped it open up to state experience in ways theretofore unimaginable.

The radical empowerment of human beings by vijnana also means that no longer do we have to go along with old dogmas and formulas and try to force our feet into brahmanic glass slippers, like the ugly sisters in the Cinderella story. Nor can we justify state experiences without demonstrating their relevance to the “ordinary world.” We cannot be “holy” without being ethical and good, a feature that often bedeviled those who blithely declared the world and its injunctions to be “unreal”, and went ahead to do whatever they liked, regardless of the impact on others.

Vivekananda’s message made all of this very, very clear. He wanted us to become so strong in our own conviction of our innate divinity that we could find out for ourselves what works for us and fearlessly follow it to the end, without losing our moral and ethical compass. This, I think, is the meaning of his idea that every person should have his or her own religion. But because all others are equally divine we must respect their efforts and give them the same space we ourselves need. This, I think, is the idea behind the acceptance of all religions, whether they are organized or the result of the serious work of an individual on him- or herself.

Certainly, the works of Vivekananda are nothing but the expression of vijnana, or what I like to call Integral Vedanta, as this term includes East and West, and all manner of genuine experiences (states) and forms (structures) arising from those experiences, as well as all possible religions, including science, and on out into infinity. It is for us to wake up to this wonderful new way of seeing and responding to the world, to get involved and, I believe, to help to radically transform the old paradigm that is so clearly ragged around the edges and urgently needing to be revisioned and expanded into a total embrace of everything as divine.


[1] Frawley, David (1992). Tantric Yoga and the Ten Wisdom Goddesses: Spiritual Secrets of Ayurveda. Salt Lake City, Utah: Passage Press, c1994, p.66.

[2] Complete Works, Vol.6: The Importance of Psychology, p.28.

[3] Ibid., pp.29-30.

[4] Ibid., p.32.

[5] Feuerstein, Georg. (1998). Tantra, the Path of Ecstasy. Boston: Shambhala, p.38.

[6] CW, Vol.4: And Let Shyama Dance There, p.506.

[7] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, October 18, 1885, p.851 [Hereafter Gospel].

[8] Gospel, October 29, 1885, p.911.

[9] Swami Vivekananda. “Sankhya and Advaita” in Jnana-Yoga, Part II. New York: Baker and Taylor, 1907, pp.83-84.

[10] Lakshman Jee. (1988). Kashmir Shaivism: The Secret Supreme. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, pp.82-83.

[11] Gospel, Tuesday, October 27, 1885, p.899.

[12] Ibid., Monday, March 15, 1886, p.942.

[13] CW, Vol. 4: To a Friend, p.496.

[14] Aurobindo Ghosh: Synthesis of Yoga, Chapter XIX: The Nature of the Supermind (July, 1920), p.3. http://surasa.net/aurobindo/synthesis/

[15] Arvind Sharma. Ramakrishna and Vivekananda: New Perspectives. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt., Ltd., 1989.

SISTER GAYATRIPRANA is a writer on Vivekananda Vedanta, with a background in the neurosciences. Formerly a monastic member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, she retired to Santa Fe, NM. Email: gayatriprana@msn.com

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