by Swami Chetanananda
Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 2011; 590 pp., hardback $29.95, paperback $19.95
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna might be compared to a documentary film, in which the camera is focused on the main character. Chetanananda’s book, by contrast, might be compared to a film about the making of this documentary, in which the camera has been turned towards the director and the cameraman, M. himself. The shift in focus makes for a fascinating book, which will allow the reader familiar with the Kathamrita to enjoy a new and fresh perspective, as well as to become better acquainted with an author who mainly hid himself in his text.
M.’s originality is, of course, uncontested, and yet it is hard to imagine that he, as an English educated schoolmaster, would not have been familiar with James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), with its vivid portrayal of the eccentric and brilliantly opinionated English philosopher and author—a book that in some ways may be said to have been more successful than Johnson’s own published works in establishing this creative and brilliant English curmudgeon’s image in readers’ hearts and minds, with all his thoughtful remarks, colorful bluster and lively exclamations. In similar fashion, M.’s vivid portrayal of Ramakrishna and his conversations with the many people who came to see him (what a social extrovert he was!) has probably done more for Ramakrishna’s worldwide reputation than all the other books and essays about him put together.
So, what shall we say: salutations to M., the Boswell of Bengal? Of course, a more fitting comparison would be with the Christian Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Without these four, how could the words of Christ—his conversations with various people at various times and places—as well as the memorable scenes of his life, have been passed on to posterity? The apostle Paul was a great realized soul and a powerful teacher, but, although he created a religious vehicle for the essence of Christ’s teachings that guaranteed its survival, he had very little to say about Christ’s actual words or the events of his life. In both these respects Vivekananda may be said to have been like Paul; if all we had were Swamiji’s talks, letters and conversations, what would we know about his teacher Ramakrishna’s words and life, except for a few allusions here and there? So, once again: salutations to M.: four Gospel writers rolled up into one!
We know next to nothing about the personal lives of the four Christian evangelists. They must have been wonderful, saintly people—a shame we know so little about them! James Boswell, by contrast, is someone we know all too well: he was, for all his genius and devotion to Dr. Johnson, more than a bit of a scamp. But now, with Chetanananda’s detailed and fascinating portrait of the portraitist, we can easily get to know a lot about M.—not as a scamp, to be sure, but, at least initially, as a very troubled individual. By the end of his twenties he had found the life of a householder difficult and distressing. Things had gotten to the point where the “nastiness and pettiness” (25) of life in a joint family had become intolerable to him.
At that time I could not get along with my father and brothers at home. Though I tried my best to serve them, they mistreated me very much. Unable to bear the mental agony any longer, I decided to leave home and commit suicide. One night at ten o’clock I left with my wife in a hired carriage. I asked the driver to take us to Baranagore, where my sister lived. (27)
Shortly thereafter he went with his nephew to Rani Rasmani’s temple garden, and then entered Sri Ramakrishna’s room and met the sage of Dakshineswar for the first time. He was then twenty-eight years old, and his life was about to be transformed.
But Ramakrishna did not ask him to leave the travails of a householder’s life and become a monk, even though M. might have preferred that. So his suicidal mood continued for a while.
Seven or eight days after my first meeting with the Master, he was walking through the courtyard of the Kali temple, and I said to him, “It is better to take one’s life than to suffer such terrible pain.” At once he replied: “Why do you say so? You have a guru. Why do you worry? Your guru is always behind you. . . . Don’t worry. The guru will remove all your obstacles.” What agony I was suffering, but I had found the Master. How he guided my life! Later my father came. We were reconciled with love and affection, and he took me back home. In retrospect we see that God is all-auspicious, but we judge things superficially. It was my family problems and my desire to commit suicide that led me to God. (40)
Swami Chetanananda has made available in this book in English a number of such inspiring examples of M.’s faith and devotion, many of which have until now been available only in Bengali, such as sections of M.’s diary that never found their place in the Kathamrita. He has investigated his sources and weighed their value carefully. His scholarly energy and dedication deserves the highest praise, as well as the gratitude of readers, who will find renewed spiritual inspiration in the many new things they will discover. His book is in many ways a series of smaller books bound within the same cover, all of which can be consulted profitably and dipped into as the spirit moves. Thus there is a tour of M.’s Calcutta, including of course the temple garden at Dakshineswar (pp. 108-124) and the garden house at Cossipore (144-193); the devotee on a pilgrimage to these sites would do well to carry along a xerox of these sections (including pp. 365-381). There is a short list of Ramakrishna’s sayings in transliterated Bengali with facing English translations (pp. 247-8), that hopefully could become the nucleus for a longer text with a CD providing the correct Bengali pronunciation of the Master’s precious words. The chapter “An Ideal Householder Devotee” (pp. 332-345) constitutes an inspirational pamphlet that can bring spiritual consolation to many who suffer from the inevitable ills of life in the world, since M. is shown to have suffered there before them, as for example in the following instance:
One day M. introduced his eldest son, Nirmal, to the Master, saying, “My son.” Immediately the master affectionately cautioned him: “Never say, ‘My son.’ You should think that he is God’s child and that he has kept him with you to receive your service. Why? Because if something happens to the boy or God takes him away, you will be beside yourself with grief.” This actually happened. Nirmal died and both M. and Nikunja Devi [his wife] suffered terribly from grief. Through his guru’s grace, M. recovered, but his wife suffered for the rest of her life.” (341)
M.’s close relationship with Holy Mother and Swami Vivekananda are evoked in wonderful detail (pp. 300-331). The final section of Chetanananda’s book brings together a number of reminiscences of M. by fellow devotees, monks and spiritual seekers (pp. 441-542), and an appendix provides the fascinating correspondence between M. and Romain Rolland, who was in the process of writing his Life of Ramakrishna.
M.’s magnum opus, we discover, was based originally on his private diaries, made initially only for his own personal spiritual delectation, and only later (and gradually: 1902-1932) revealed to the general public. But M. was always ready to tell anyone who approached him directly something that he remembered about his association with the Master. In many ways he had become a kind of “mirror” of Ramakrishna—a “magic mirror” that always showed some aspect of the divine play in which M. had frequently participated. In retrospect, it might be tempting to compare M.’s devotion to the memory of Ramakrishna with Plato’s lifelong dedication to recreating the daily life and conversations of his master Socrates. However, such a comparison would not be quite apt. It was Vivekananda who made the distinction when, having received one of M.’s first published reminiscences of Ramakrishna, he wrote back to him, stating that “the move is quite original and never was the life of a great Teacher brought before the public untarnished by the writer’s mind as you are doing,” but adding, significantly, that the “Socratic dialogues are Plato all over. You are entirely hidden” (p. 237). This is a good point. Unlike the case with Plato, who increasingly had used Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own philosophical speculations, M.’s magical mirror mind was, for the most part, hidden in his text—at least it was, until Swami Chetanananda pulled M. out of the shadows, if only in order to show how thoroughly his mind was colored by its reflection of his vivid memories of his master Ramakrishna.
STEVEN F. WALKER has been associated with Vedanta centers in Boston and New York for nearly forty-five years. He teaches comparative literature at Rutgers University.