Essays for the 175th Birth Anniversary of Shri Ramakrishna
By Swami Tathagatananda
Vedanta Society of New York, 2011, 260 pp., paperback.
Review by Bill Davis
I am a devotee at the Vedanta Society of New York where Swami Tathagatananda presides and we are very fond of each other. He asked me to write this review. Thus, I want to alert readers that I am not an impartial reviewer. This, his latest book, is a collection of 19 of his essays and one reminiscence written by a devotee of Holy Mother. The first 7 essays are about Sri Ramakrishna; the next four about Holy Mother (including the reminiscence); the next two are devoted to Swami Vivekananda, but actually Swamiji’s words are found throughout this work. The final seven are on different topics related directly or indirectly to Sri Ramakrishna.
My overall impression of this book is that it is the work of a great devotee. The author’s love for Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother, Swamiji and Vedanta can be felt on every page. He brings before our eyes the love of each of them for the common person—Advaita in practice. One also encounters his conviction that the solution to human problems lies in accepting the universal character of religion as illustrated in their lives and Vedanta. In the preface he humbly calls this book a “rambling excursion into the realms of universal ethics, perennial philosophy and the fundamental universal themes of religion.”
The first essay is really a presentation of the August 9, 1885 entry from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, where Sri Ramakrishna talks about himself. He declares that he is not merely a realized soul, that there is some “specialty” to it. He then goes on to describe his unique experiences. I have read this chapter, before but I found it useful to have these statements highlighted, as it were. The second essay is a reprint of a talk by Swamiji entitled “What I learned from My Master.” In it he underlines 4 important Ramakrishna teachings: 1. Religion consists in realization. 2. The religions of the world are not contradictory. 3. Purity and renunciation are the secrets of spirituality. 4. His life illustrated intense love for others. The third essay is a collection of further statements that Swami Vivekananda made about Sri Ramakrishna. Each of these quotes is inspiring.
The fourth is an interesting essay describing the relationship between Sri Ramakrishna and Mother Kali. It is a wonderful primer on Mother worship. In the fifth essay the author discusses important topics in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. For instance, to take one, the importance of prayer as a means of realization. Another: Sri Ramakrishna could not bear the word “sin.” The sixth essay is about the impact of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. In it the author quotes the reaction of various prominent thinkers both within and outside the Ramakrishna movement. The seventh gives a multitude of anecdotes of Sri Ramakrishna interacting with common, humble people. I particularly enjoyed this essay since I prefer the concrete to the abstract.
The eighth essay, giving a brief but loving profile of the Holy Mother, begins the section on Holy Mother. The next essay, the ninth, discusses the significance of Holy Mother’s life. Among other things, the author dwells upon her importance in supporting the Ramakrishna Mission and Swamiji. The tenth is the reminiscence of a devotee of Holy Mother who lived in the area that is now Bangladesh. He had a two-fold miraculous experience involving the Holy Mother which he describes in a letter to his brother. This is a beautiful story and I am grateful to Swami Tathagatananda for presenting the translation to western readers. In the 11th essay the author presents engaging anecdotes which illustrate Holy Mother’s divine love for one and all.
The 12th essay presents in detail a little known aspect of Swamiji’s life: his intense devotion to his mother. It is like a door into his private rather than public life. But there he is with the same bleeding heart. Also we learn what intense sadhana his mother did throughout her life. Swamiji is a chip off the mother block. The 13th essay gives anecdotes illustrating Swamiji’s love for the common man. It is a companion essay to the previous ones on this topic regarding Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother. In this regard he seems like a manifestation of Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother rolled into one.
The 14th describes the genesis of the Ramakrishna brotherhood by giving the story of the Baranagore Math.
We learn in the 15th essay how the influential books on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda by Romain Rolland came about. Rolland read The Face of Silence (published 1926) by Dhan Gopal Mukerji — a best seller at the time — and felt he had to learn more about Ramakrishna. Mukerji had been in this country searching for God and came across Josephine MacLeod who told him what she knew about Swamiji and Sri Ramakrishna. He then met M. who seemed to urge him to write about the legend of Ramakrishna. This he did and it became The Face of Silence.
A sketch of Bhisma in the 16th essay presents the author’s view of an ideal man.
Cesar Chavez is a modern noble soul. In learning about Gandhi he was inspired to embrace non-violence. This story is told in the 17th essay. By employing non-violence he was able to better the lot of migrant workers in this country.
In the last three essays the author quotes numerous modern thinkers to make his point that Vedanta has a vital message for modern man. The titles of these essays are “The Global Village and Vedanta,” “Vedanta and Christianity,” “Indian Culture, Its Heights and Lights.”
This book contains many inspiring incidents and thoughts. In the preface, the author expresses the hope that it will be beneficial to those who read it. It was beneficial to me and I’m sure others will also be benefited.
BILL DAVIS, a disciple of Swami Pavitrananda, came to The Vedanta Society of NY in 1972. After a career as a psychologist, he retired in 2007. Bill now lives at Vivekananda Retreat, Ridgely and serves as a handyman; he also still helps out monthly at the Vedanta Society of NY.