by Bill Davis
Swami Vivekananda: There is no sweetness but He. Thus says Yajnavalka. When you come to that state and look upon all things with the same eye, when you see even in the drunkard’s pleasure in drink only that sweetness, then you have got the truth, and then alone you will know what happiness means, what peace means, what love means. 1
Ramakrishna, being who he is, could see in the drunkard’s pleasure the sweetness of the Atman. In fact he seemed to have a soft spot in his heart for drunkards and drinking.
One evening as he was traveling through the streets of Calcutta, the carriage passed a tavern and a loud uproar could be heard. The Master leaned out the window and shouted, “Well done. Well done.” Or “Bravo, Bravo.” With difficulty the other passengers persuaded him to come back inside.
Once late at night Girish with two friends showed up intoxicated in Sri Ramakrishna’s room. They had just left a brothel. What was the Master’s reaction? Girish said, “Ramakrishna grasped both my hands and began to sing and dance in ecstasy.” 2
When Kalipada Ghosh first came to the Master, the Master asked him what he wanted. Shamelessly he replied, “Can you give me a little wine?” The Master said, “Yes I can. But the wine I have is so intoxicating that you will not be able to bear it.” 3
Ramakrishna once asked Holy Mother, “Why do I stagger then? Why can I not speak? Am I drunk?” Holy Mother replied, “No, No; why should you drink wine? You have drunk the nectar of Mother Kali’s love.” Ramakrishna: “You are right!” 4
The Sufis would compare drunkenness with wine to drunkenness with the divine spirit. Why is it that another name of liquor is spirits? My theory: alcohol, at a certain stage, brings out the spiritual qualities of generosity, love for one and all, and a joy that is unaccountable. Then at the next stage you think you’re omnipotent and want to fight or say nasty things. Swami Chetanananda states: “When Girish was drunk he had little control of his speech and behavior. Seeing him in this condition, even the girls of the brothels hesitated to open their doors to him.” 5 However, at the magic touch of the Master, he became a saint.
But Sri Ramakrishna did understand that alcoholism was destructive. To hard-drinking Surendra he said, “Well, Suresh, why should you drink wine as wine? Offer it to Kali and take it as her Prasad. But see that you do not get intoxicated. Your gait must not falter, nor your thoughts wander. At first you will feel ordinary excitement, but soon it will lead to spiritual felicity.” This advice worked like magic. 6
Girish, as an old man, would say to visitors, “I have drunk so many bottles of wine, that if you were to place one bottle on top of another they would reach the height of Mt. Everest.” 7 A few years ago, a swami in an article commented that Girish, being a poet, was speaking poetically when he made this claim. Christopher Isherwood expresses the opinion that Girish was speaking melodramatically, in other words, in an exaggerated way. 8
Inspired poets sometimes intuit the exact truth. Is this poetic exaggeration or is it more or less accurate? Girish was truly an alcoholic and for this reason I think his statement about Everest is actually quite accurate. Why does it matter? I don’t want to see Girish painted with a soft brush and make him less outrageous than he was. He was a full-blown alcoholic. The incident in which he needs a drink in the morning proves this. 9 (See CAGE in Postscript). But by Ramakrishna’s grace his addiction to alcohol was conquered.
I worked with alcoholics for many years as a therapist. I would always ask each patient how much he drank on the average. Most of the patients were men. The usual answer was a fifth of liquor a day, every day, or even a quart for some. Some only drank a pint. Some were wine drinkers, some beer. Some were not daily drinkers but binge drinkers. But of the daily drinkers, I remember more clearly what the liquor drinkers answered to this question.
As an aside, many alcoholics would use a Higher Power in order to achieve recovery. As a Vedantist, this was to me a very congenial fact. The 12 Steps of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) are very Vedantic. 1st Step: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable. 2nd Step: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3rd Step: Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Doesn’t the third step sound amazingly like giving the power of attorney? Certainly Girish used a Higher Power, the Master, in order to recover.
Let’s assume that Girish drank the amount of alcohol that full-blown alcoholics typically drink, so the equivalent of a fifth of liquor a day. But he drank wine, not liquor. Now, liquor is usually 86 proof, that is, 43% alcohol. Naturally fermented wine, on the other hand, varies a bit but, on average, is about 13%. A “fifth” refers to a fifth of a gallon or 25.6 ounces. 43% of a fifth, 25.6 ounces, is 11.008 ounces of pure ethanol, the name for the kind of alcohol found in beverages. A typical alcoholic consumes 11 ounces of pure ethanol a day. A heavier drinker, drinking a quart, consumes 13.76 ounces. Every day. They are addicted. They have to drink. They need a drink in the morning to steady their nerves. If they don’t drink they go into withdrawal – a very unpleasant state with shakes and sometimes hallucinations or worse, DTs (Delirium tremens), which can be fatal.
Now Girish was a big guy. In a group photo he is much larger than the other devotees. He was probably putting away an amount equivalent to a heavier drinker. However, to be conservative, let’s stick with a fifth a day. How many bottles of 13% wine do you have to drink to consume that much alcohol? Well a bottle of wine is about 25 ounces (nowadays, 750 ml.). One bottle contains 13% of 25 ounces and this is 3.25 ounces of pure ethanol. Divide 11 (the ethanol in a fifth) by 3.25 and you get 3.38. So just over three. Let’s call it three. So Girish, as a full-blown alcoholic, could easily have been consuming three bottles of wine a day, daily.
You might ask, how could he possibly get his plays written, his parts acted or his plays directed if he was stoned on three bottles of wine a day? Alcoholics develop tolerance. An amount that would put you or me under the table doesn’t faze an alcoholic. He (or she) can hold his liquor (or wine or beer). Also, he’ll sip during the day when he needs to get things done and then after work really put away his/her beverage of choice.
Let’s assume that Girsh started doing this at age 20, a very common age for heavy daily drinking to commence. He came to Sri Ramakrishna in 1884, when he was 40, but he continued to drink until 1892 10. I don’t know anything about how Girish weaned himself from alcohol, but one cannot go from 3 bottles of wine a day to nothing all at once. One has to gradually taper down or go through a procedure called detoxification, which is virtually always an inpatient procedure. This probably didn’t exist in Girish’s day. So let’s say his drinking of 3 bottles a day went on for only 27 years and that in the last year of his drinking he gradually tapered off. Then, in his old age, he made his sad boast about Mt. Everest. Mt. Everest is 29,029 feet above sea level. A bottle of wine, particularly in those days was either 11 or 12“ high. For convenience let’s say 12” or 1 foot. Did he, in the course of his life, consume 29,029 bottles of wine? Multiply 365 days per year by 27 years and by 3 bottles a day and this equals 29,565 bottles of wine or 29,565 feet high. Thus his bottles are towering 536 feet above the peak of Everest. If he were drinking 4 bottles a day (which I think is likely) he’d be 10,000 feet above Everest. His self-deprecating boast was probably an understatement.
Jai Sri Girish, one of Sri Ramakrishna’s miracles.
For readers who are curious about whether their own drinking is at a problem level, I’ve included this postscript. Alcoholism is not defined by how much you drink but by how your drinking is affecting your life. You don’t have to be drinking at the levels mentioned in this article to be having a problem with alcohol. If your drinking causes problems and you continue to drink that’s problem drinking. The Following is the CAGE scale of alcoholism 11. It is in the public domain.
|Problem Drinking Scale:|
|Have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?|
|Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?|
|Have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?|
|Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover (Eye opener)?|
If you answered yes to two or more questions, you may well have an alcohol problem. One yes, if it’s to the “eye opener,” question. If there is this positive indication of a problem, go to an AA meeting and see how it feels to be there. Look online for local meetings. Or talk confidentially to your primary care provider. He or she can help you sort out whether you have an alcohol problem and refer you for professional help if it appears that you do.
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, where he serves as a handyman. He also still offers service at the Vedanta Society of NY. Email Bill at email@example.com.
- Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works (Yajnavalka And Maitreyi), Vol. 2, 1989, Mayavati, p. 421
- Swami Chetanananda, They Lived With God, Vedanta Society of St. Louis (St. Louis, 1989) p.273.
- They Lived with God, p 294.
- Sri Ramakrishna, The Great Master, Swami Saradananda, translated by Swami Jagadananda, fourth edition, 1952, Mylapore, Madras, p 536.
- They Lived with God, p 273.
- Life of Sri Ramakrishna. Advaita Ashrama, (Mayavati 1971), p.260
- Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Methuen & CO. (London, 1965) p. 252.
- They Lived With God, p.283.
- Ewing, John A. “Detecting Alcoholism: The CAGE Questionnaire” JAMA 252: 1905 -1907. 1984.