Elva Nelson, Editor
Vedanta Press, Hollywood, CA Paperback $9.95 2009 96 pp.
Review by Sister Gayatriprana
This little booklet came to my hand from the author a couple of years ago. A very informed and special book, this is a compilation of choice sayings of Ramakrishna selected by a very long-time Vedantist who has worked for decades as a librarian at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Boston and is herself a published writer on the history of Vedanta in America. Swami Chetanananda tells us in his introduction that the author “read, meditated and visualized those words of the Master, and tried to express their beauty in free verse,” clearly an act of love from someone who has made the insights and teachings in it her own. I therefore wanted not just to review it, but to savor it and imbibe it—and that is what I did, not noticing the passing of time. Only an inquiry from the author brought me back to dharma and today I sit down to share with all of you my impressions of this heartfelt little gem.
In her First Word the author reminds us that Ramakrishna mentioned to his Indian devotees that he had “visited” the land of the white people. He said, “Their skin is white, their hearts are white and they are simple and sincere. . . . I think I shall go there.” No doubt this booklet is intended as a “visit” from Ramakrishna, his dropping in for afternoon tea, perhaps, and remaining to share with us some of his deepest insights. The author’s Preface gives us a glimpse of M., the author of the Gospel of Ramakrishna, from which the material comes, and the very Western idea that in reading these pages we “might say that Ramakrishna is asking us to assist in our evolutionary process.” Swami Chetanananda’s introduction deals especially with the language used by Ramakrishna, its simplicity, poetry and pithiness, through which he shared with all of us the infinite storehouse of wisdom revealed to him by the Divine Mother. This is what makes all that he says direct, living scripture, thankfully available to us in English translation, from which the author has distilled the very essence.
The actual quotes are divided into forty-six chapters of about two pages apiece. Most of the chapters deal with love and devotion under headings such as Divine Grace, Faith, Sincerity, etc. This is perhaps the best known side of Ramakrishna, who in the Gospel was talking mainly with Bengali devotees who sought to develop bhakti.
But as Swami Vivekananda said, Ramakrishna spoke to many or most about devotion, but to Vivekananda about knowledge. The author has found and included from the Gospel the topics of Truth, Knowledge, the Infinite, Oneness and others which will speak to the jnanis among us, and also Consciousness, Meditation, Japa which addresses the needs of the meditators.
There is not a specific chapter for work, which at least in my vision of Ramakrishna has quite an important place. It was he, after all, who inspired Vivekananda to emphasize work very specially as a spiritual path—and of course Ramakrishna was himself a tireless worker for the good of others, essentially giving up his life to throat cancer in order to speak unceasingly to those who came to him for solace and wisdom. This was the aspect of Ramakrishna’s life that inspired the American composer Philip Glass to write his magnificent cantata The Passion of Ramakrishna. But this emphasis is perhaps not stressed so much in the Gospel, which, as I say, is largely addressed to pious Bengali men, who were focused on the traditional Vaishnava path of bhakti. In many ways, it was Swami Vivekananda who brought out the work aspect of Ramakrishna’s message, linking it to the Bhagavad Gita and the Isha Upanishad.
I sought to find one passage that especially appealed to me, and that I could quote as the “essence”; but of course Ramakrishna is so many-sided it is really not possible to nail him with just one quote. This sampling, however, seemed to me to give an idea of the “operating system” behind his protean nature as well as an idea of the poetic presentation of this work:
Form and formlessness belong to one and the same Reality.
Meditating on the formless God is like swimming joyfully like these fish
In the ocean of Bliss and Consciousness. . . . .
God reveals himself to his devotees in a tangible form
Which is the embodiment of Spirit:
At the sight of that incomparable beauty of God’s form,
One becomes intoxicated and rushes forth to touch and embrace it.
If the devotee but once feels this attachment and ecstatic love for God. . .
Then he sees God in both his aspects, with form and without form.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org