Dear Br. Shankara,
I think the time has come to share the results of a project that has been on slow simmer in my mind for many years.
As you know, I lived at the Belur Math for three years (1971 to 1974) and took advantage of the opportunity to learn Sanskrit. This became a gift that kept on giving — especially when I realized that half of all Bengali words derive from Sanskrit. The unexpected gift was that I soon was able to read Sri Ramakrishna’s words just as he spoke them in Bengali.
A young Winston Churchill remarked: “Words are the only things which last forever.” This thought was mirrored by Mahendranath Gupta (M.) when he decided to name the words of Sri Ramakrishna as Kathamritam: literally. words (katha) of immortality (amrita).
In his Kathamritam, M. once observed that the young, educated disciples of Sri Ramakrishna would be greatly amused whenever the Master would utter in his rustic voice one of his “half dozen” English words.
Yet, reading the five volumes of the Kathamritam in Bengali, one immediately becomes aware that M. recorded much more than a half dozen English words — so I began to underline every time M. records Sri Ramakrishna speaking an English word. This complete compilation I refer to as “An Avatar’s Dictionary: English Words and Lessons of Sri Ramakrishna.” This list is by no means intended to be comprehensive.
The author of a recent biography of M. listed a sample of nine English words spoken by Sri Ramakrishna. One of the words is FRIEND, yet nowhere does the word FRIEND appear in the Gospel. Again, in the Life of Swami Adbhutananda, Latu Maharaj mentions that Sri Ramakrishna may have spoken the word WHISKEY — which is not, however, recorded in the Kathamritam.
It is quite likely that Sri Ramakrishna may have had an English vocabulary running into several hundred words. Our search, however, is strictly limited to the hundred or so that occur in the Gospel.
Is it possible that Sri Ramakrishna offers us his own summary of his teaching in these hundred English words? Readers of the Gospel know that God laughs twice: when two brothers divide land with a fence, and when a doctor tells a mother that he will cure her child who is destined to die that evening.
Readers of the Avatar’s Dictionary will have the clue to answer why Sri Ramakrishna laughs three times. The answer is revealed when we discover that Sri Ramakrishna used the word LECTURE twenty-seven times (far more often than any other English word). So, whenever Sri Ramakrishna Googles the web site of any ashram or center founded in his name, the first thing he will read is that there will be a LECTURE at 11:00 every Sunday morning. And so Sri Ramakrishna laughs for the third time
One interesting feature of this list is that all the words have a strictly secular meaning, yet Sri Ramakrishna manages to infuse each word with a spiritual meaning. For example when we hear the word CIRCUS we are reminded more of entertainment than enlightenment. When Sri Ramakrishna used the word CIRCUS he referred specifically to the woman acrobat who, riding barefoot on the back of a prancing horse, could jump through a hoop. He called this a wonderful demonstration of the Sanskrit word “abhyasa” or practice.
For my own satisfaction I made a fresh English translation of the Bengali explanations connected with each English word. And now a teaser. We shall begin our first installment with the word MARKEEN, which Sri Ramakrishna used as an adjective rather than a noun.
Well Shankara, as you can see, my letter to you is really a letter to the editor of American Vedantist, inviting your readers to a perusal of this Avatar’s Dictionary. I have so far translated ⅔ of the words (sixty pages so far), and needed this prodding to finish the job.
One thing I promise: As far as possible we will let Sri Ramakrishna explain what he means in his own words. One thing is for sure, if I began to insert my own explanations and interpretations, then we would cause Sri Ramakrishna to laugh for a fourth time.
Dhruva (Bill Gootjes)
Editor’s note: Mother willing, we plan to start publishing Dhruva’s Avatar’s Dictionary in installments, beginning with our next issue (AV#73).
Dhruva (Bill Gootjes) studied with Swami Bhashyananda, in the Chicago IL and Ganges MI centers of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society, during the 1960s and 70s. He served as a monk at the Belur Math from 1971 to 1974. Dhruva now spends much of his time in South Georgia; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.