Sitting on the rug-covered marble floor on a Tuesday afternoon with six strangers, I was inside the prayer hall of Jogodyan, the Ramakrishna Mission monastery at Kankurgachi in Kolkata.
Inside a glass-encased room in front of us was a larger-than-life white statue of the 19th century mystic and priest of the Dakshineshwar Kali temple, Ramakrishna. The large room was silent and felt like a library without books, a remarkable feat in this noise-wracked part of the city.
Less than an hour before, I had considered meditating in a bar over a book and beer. And yet, here I was at Jogodyan, a garden house owned by one of Ramakrishna’s disciples that the mystic had visited on December 26, 1883, infiltrating a bunch of people who liked the mystic in a religious way that I can’t.
I was here for a different reason: to remember my visits as a boy with my grandmother to this oasis of cleanliness and quietness some 30 years later.
I was also here because I liked the historical figure of Godadhor Chattopadhyay, who would later go on to become Ramakrishna, about whom I used to tease my grandmum as being her boyfriend.
The bearded mystic was unlike the other mumbo-jumbo lot who took everything including themselves too seriously, groaning on about god and the goodness of being good.
This man would swear like a sailor, speak bluntly, revel in nonsense, and break into rock’n’rollesque states of ecstasy that I have come to know myself when inebriated by drink and listening to music.
Ramakrishna was a subversive force in an otherwise sombre flatline of household religious practice. As a Kali-worshipper, he described himself as struck by ‘a divine madness’.
Despite having serious differences with him — his belief in god and a fear of, and distaste for, women being right on top of the list — I’ve always been fascinated by his ‘case study’ craziness and rejection of the proverbial ‘herd’ despite being the centre of a religious cult that was really a 19th century Kolkata boys’ club.
So how did this guy — a mad poet without poems, whose oeuvre was his state of mind, his throwaway utterings and his belief in this world being nothing else but “a mansion of mirth” where god is as accessible as a playmate, a mother or a child — turn out to be an object of quiet veneration and a photo-framed talisman in Bengali households?
The answer lies in Narendranath Datta, a young, headstrong disciple of Ramakrishna, who would later become better known as Swami Vivekananda.
In Cosmic Love and Human Apathy (HarperCollins), a fabulous investigation of Vivekananda’s radical yet seemingly-seamless overturning of Ramakrishna’s belief system, political scientist and historian of ideas Jyotirmaya Sharma contrasts the master and his beloved disciple.
“Ramakrishna wants true spiritual seekers wanting to develop a yearning for God to give up intellectual ideas like, for instance, karma being the cumulative result of one’s actions.”
Sharma shows, with all the inherent contradictions, how a karma-driven Vivekananda instead put “emphasis on ‘work’, and more significantly, the importance of ‘work’ for a sanyasi.... [he] not only seeks to restate the ideal of renunciation, but also attempts to redefine the role of religion in relation to the world.”
The only other quiet rehauling by a disciple of a master’s ideas on such a scale I can think of is Nehru’s ‘refashioning’ of Gandhi’s notion of India as a religions-infused collective of traditional villages into a ‘scientific’, secular Nation-State.
It’s eerie how despite finding myself agreeing with Vivekananda on most fronts — the supremacy of Man (over god), on social service and uplift being the marker for goodness, and the value in human enterprise and self-worth — I’m drawn to Ramakrishna’s sociopathic insularity.
In a way, this is also the paradox of modern India: an India that mirrors Ramakrishna’s state of grace where society is an obstruction between the individual and something poetic and anti-worldly; and an India that wants to heed Vivekananda’s call of a socialistic project to create a strong, self-sustaining, proud and materially-rich society. It is essentially a choice between play and work.
Vivekananda’s project is a political one, in the line of manifestos and self-help manuals. It’s no surprise that across Bengal, ‘Swamiji’ who died at 39 (four years younger than Rahul Gandhi) is seen as a youth icon, the arms-folded dude-monk who is the patron saint of so many ‘sporting clubs’.
It is also no surprise that in other parts of India where the contrary pull of Ramakrishna is absent, he is the brand logo of a form of nationalism whose origins can be traced back to a reaction to deep-seated ‘colonised race shame’. Sharma rightly rejects “the claim that Hindu nationalists have appropriated Vivekananda’s ideas”. He is the Big Daddy of Hindu nationalism.
Sitting there at Jogodyan as the country celebrates one Narendra’s 150th birth anniversary while it chatters about another Narendra’s future, I couldn’t help but marvel at Ramakrishna’s rejection of engaging in anything other than his love-object that excluded society wholesale.
Just for a while, I could feel envy towards those who, in their madness, are able to find pleasure in just believing in god.