Open Essay

Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi: Their Pristine Example

Arun Shourie, scholar, former editor and minister, is a distinctive voice in India’s public discourse
Page 1 of 1

What the mystic experience of Sri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi tells us in the age of wealthy gods and godmen

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa & Ramana Maharshi | Arun Shourie | HarperCollins | Rs 699 | 483 pages

THE BOYS HAVE started visiting Sri Ramakrishna. But they are boys. For them as yet he is an eccentric. They argue among themselves— about what he says, about what he is. They have heard that he cannot even touch money, that he is repelled by it. One day, when he is out of his room, they slip a coin under his mattress. As Sri Ramakrishna returns, he goes to his cot. He has barely sat down that he shoots up as if an electric current has shocked him. The boys feel ashamed to have to put him to a test.

On another occasion, under similar circumstances, Swami Premananda sees a person secretly slip money under the mattress; when Sri Ramakrishna returns to the room, he is not able to even approach the bed.

1885: Sri Ramakrishna is taken to the festival at Panihati. At the festival, crowds gather around him. He dances in ecstasy. He is offered five rupees by the manager of the festival. He does not accept the money. The manager secretly gives the money to Rakhal, Swami Adbhutananda who was with Sri Ramakrishna at the time, tells us. Rakhal buys mangoes and a packet of sweets for Sri Ramakrishna with the money. When Sri Ramakrishna learns of this, he is angry with Rakhal, and warns him: ‘Never do anything like that again. Your acceptance means my acceptance. A monk must be like the birds and not lay things up for the future.’

‘Once when the Master was sick,’ Swami Adbhutananda tells us in the same account, ‘Doctor Mahendranath Paul came to see him. Before leaving, he gave five rupees to Ramlal Dada for the Master. The Master did not know this. That night he tossed and turned in bed. I fanned him for a long time, but still he was restless. Finally, he said to me: “Please call Ramlal. That rascal must have done something—otherwise why am I not able to sleep?” It was then one or two o’clock in the morning. As soon as Ramlal Dada arrived, the Master said: “You rascal. Go and return the money to the man who gave it to you in my name.” Then Ramlal Dada told the Master the whole story. That very night I accompanied him to Mahendranath Paul’s house, where he roused the doctor from his sleep and returned the money.’

A Marwari businessman, Lakshminarayan, sees the soiled coverlet on Sri Ramakrishna’s bed. He offers to put ten thousand rupees in a bank account so that Sri Ramakrishna’s expenses may be met. Sri Ramakrishna falls unconscious, Swami Turiyananda tells us. The businessman says that he will give it to Hriday who is looking after Sri Ramakrishna so that he may have money for Sri Ramakrishna’s expenses. ‘Oh no!’ Sri Ramakrishna exclaims. ‘He will accept it in my name, and I can’t bear the thought of possessing money!’ ‘Ah, I see,’ says the businessman as if to tease and corner him. ‘You have not yet overcome the idea of acceptance and rejection.’ ‘No, I haven’t,’ Sri Ramakrishna replies. Swami Nikhilananda reports that as the businessman was not yielding to argument, Sri Ramakrishna cried out, ‘O, Mother, why dost Thou bring such people here, who want to estrange me from Thee?’ Sri Ramakrishna later said, ‘At the offers of Mathur and Lakshminarayan, I felt as if somebody was sawing through my skull.’

Sri Ramakrishna requests Mahendranath to bring two pieces of cheap cloth that he can use for drying himself after a bath. Mahendranath brings two pieces of unbleached and two pieces of washed cloth. Sri Ramakrishna has him take back the washed pieces. You see, I cannot store anything for the future, he tells Mahendranath.

That is a point that is brought into relief in instance after instance—not just that he had overcome all desire for worldly things but, in addition, that he could not store things up on the assumption that they may come in handy someday.

Sri Ramakrishna’s aversion towards worldly honours was no less than for money, fancy clothes, and other worldly trinkets. The aversion had lodged in his subconscious, it had become his second nature

The final illness has set in. A doctor has come to examine Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna is telling him that medicines do not agree with him, that his system is different. ‘Well, what do you think of this?’ he asks the doctor to illustrate the difference. ‘When I touch a coin my hand gets twisted; my breathing stops. Further, if I tie a knot in the corner of my cloth, I cannot breathe. My breathing stops until the knot is untied.’ He asks for a coin and places it in his hand. ‘When Sri Ramakrishna held it in his hand, the hand began to writhe with pain,’ Mahendranath recorded. ‘The Master’s breathing also stopped. After the coin had been taken away, he breathed deeply three times and his hand relaxed. The doctor became speechless with wonder to see this strange phenomenon…’

‘I get into another state of mind,’ Sri Ramakrishna explains to the doctor. And continues,

It is impossible for me to lay up anything. One day I
visited Sambhu Mallick’s garden house. At that time I
had been suffering badly from stomach trouble. Sambhu
said to me: ‘Take a grain of opium now and then. It will
help you.’ He tied a little opium in a corner of my cloth.
As I was returning to the Kali temple, I began to wander
about near the gate as if unable to find the way. Then I
threw the opium away and at once regained my normal
state. I returned to the temple garden.

One day at Kamarpukur I picked some mangoes. I
was carrying them home. But I could not walk; I had to
stay standing in one place. Then I left the mangoes in a
hollow. Only after that could I return home. Well, how do you explain that?

His aversion for things worldly was absolute. And it extended to everything, not just money. Once, Mathur gave him an expensive shawl. ‘He took it cheerfully,’ Swami Nikhilananda wrote, ‘and like a boy showed it to others.’ But soon, his mind went to the evil temptations that the shawl could lead him into. He threw the shawl on the ground, ‘and began to trample and spit on it. Not content with this, he was about to burn it when someone rescued it.’ The same sort of thing happened another day. He had gone to Hriday’s house. He came out to leave. He was wearing a scarlet silken cloth, had a gold amulet on his arm, and his mouth was crimson from chewing paan. People had gathered to see him. But they see me every day, he said. Why have so many gathered? he inquired. Hriday said that they had come to see him specially because he looked so handsome in that particular dress. That was enough to shock Sri Ramakrishna. ‘What, people crowding to see a man! I won’t go. Wherever I may go, people will crowd like this.’ ‘He returned to his room and took off the robe in utter disgust,’ Swami Nikhilananda tells us. ‘In spite of the entreaties of Hriday and others, he would not go out that day…’

This aversion cost him an invitation once! He had gone to meet the father of Rabindranath Tagore, Devendranath Tagore—rich, father of eight children, the moving spirit and leading light of the Brahmo Samaj, with a retinue of attendants, an aristocrat, learned, but, in Sri Ramakrishna’s discerning eye, vain, and one given to both—religion and this world.

Their sterling qualities must not discourage us. Of course, we cannot even dream of being like them. But, as we were taught at school in the context of Gandhiji, we can strive to be ten-paisa Ramakrishnas–Ramanas

‘At the outset I noticed a little vanity in Devendra,’ Sri Ramakrishna remarked later. ‘And isn’t that natural? He had such wealth, such scholarship, such name and fame! Noticing that streak of vanity, I asked Mathur: “Well, is vanity the outcome of knowledge or ignorance? Can a knower of Brahman have such a feeling as, ‘I am a scholar; I am a Jnani; I am rich?’”’

They converse for a long time. Devendranath tells Sri Ramakrishna that he must come to their Brahmo festival. Sri Ramakrishna demurs. ‘That, depends on the will of God,’ he says. ‘You can see the state of my mind. There’s no knowing when God will put me into a particular state.’ Devendranath insists: ‘No, you must come. But put on your cloth and wear a shawl over your body. Someone might say something unkind about your untidiness, and that would hurt me.’ ‘No,’ Sri Ramakrishna says. ‘I cannot promise that. I cannot be a babu.’ Devendra and Mathur, who has taken Sri Ramakrishna to the house, laugh.

‘The very next day Mathur received a letter from Devendra forbidding me to go to the festival,’ Sri Ramakrishna told his devotees later. ‘He wrote that it would be ungentlemanly of me not to cover my body with a shawl.’ This time it was the devotees who laughed.


Of course, Sri Ramakrishna had high regard for Devendranath Tagore, and many were the encomiums that he showered on him— on his scholarship and all. But what he said about Devendranath has triple lessons for us—for our glib belief that we are clever enough so that we will be able to combine both immersion in the affairs of the world and the inner quest; for the way we convince ourselves over the years that we are advancing on the path; and, for the way we judge men to be great, including, and especially the godmen to whom we flock.

A deputy magistrate has come to visit Sri Ramakrishna. They are involved in animated exchanges. They are talking about affairs of the world, and of the inner search. Sri Ramakrishna is explaining the difficulties of combining the two. As if to suggest that Sri Ramakrishna is positing an impractical ideal, the magistrate remarks, ‘I can tell you truthfully, sir, that not more than six or seven persons like you have been born since the creation of the world.’ ‘How so?’ Sri Ramakrishna asks. ‘There certainly are people who have given up everything for God. As soon as a man gives up his wealth, people come to know about him. But it is also true that there are others unknown to people. Are there not such holy men in upper India?’

The magistrate says, ‘I know of at least one such person in Calcutta. He is Devendranath Tagore.’

‘What did you say?’ Sri Ramakrishna demands. ‘Who has enjoyed the world as much as he? Once I visited him at his house with Mathur Babu. I saw that he had many young children. The family physician was there writing out prescriptions. If, after having eight children, a man doesn’t think of God, who will? If, after, enjoying so much wealth, Devendranath hadn’t thought of God, people would have cried shame upon him.’

We must hold the guru/godman as well as ourselves to the highest standard. Ever so often when a godman is exposed for what he is, I hear the cry go up, ‘It is all a Christian conspiracy’

A person butts in: ‘But he paid off all his father’s debts.’

‘Keep quiet! Don’t torment me any more,’ Sri Ramakrishna cuts them short. ‘Do you call anyone a man who doesn’t pay off his father’s debts if he is able to? But I admit that Devendranath is infinitely greater than other worldly men, who are sunk in their worldliness. They can learn much from him.’ ‘There is an ocean of difference between a real all-renouncing devotee of God and a householder devotee,’ Sri Ramakrishna continued. ‘A real sanyasi, a real devotee who has renounced the world, is like a bee. The bee will not alight on anything but a flower. It will not drink anything but honey. But a devotee leading the worldly life is like a fly. The fly sits on a festering sore as well as on a sweetmeat. One moment he enjoys a spiritual mood, and the next moment he is beside himself with the pleasure of “woman and gold”.’

Years pass. Keshab Chandra Sen has come to visit him. Sri Ramakrishna is alerting him to the impossibility of immersing oneself in devotion even as one is immersed in affairs of the world.

‘Keshab, once I went to your temple,’ Sri Ramakrishna tells him. ‘In the course of your preaching I heard you say, “We shall dive into the river of devotion and go straight to the Ocean of Satchidananda.” At once I looked up (at the gallery where Keshab’s wife and the other ladies were sitting) and thought, “Then what will become of these ladies?” You see, Keshab, you are householders. How can you reach the Ocean of Satchidananda all at once? You are like a mongoose with a brick tied to its tail. When something frightens it, it runs up the wall and sits in a niche. But how can it stay there any length of time? The brick pulls it down and it falls to the floor with a thud. You may practise a little meditation, but the weight of wife and children will pull you down. You may dive into the river of devotion, but you must come up again. You will alternately dive and come up. How can you dive and disappear once for all?’

Keshab asks: ‘Can’t a householder ever succeed? What about Maharshi Devendranath Tagore?’

‘Twice or thrice the Master repeated softly, “Devendranath Tagore—Devendra-Devendra” and bowed to him several times,’ we learn in The Gospel.

‘Let me tell you a story,’ Sri Ramakrishna says. ‘A man used to celebrate the Durga Puja at his house with great pomp. Goats were sacrificed from sunrise to sunset. But after a few years the sacrifice was not so imposing. Then someone said to him, “How is it, sir, that the sacrifice at your place has become such a tame affair?” “Don’t you see?” he said. “My teeth are gone now.” Devendra is now devoted to meditation and contemplation. It is only natural that he should be, at his advanced age. But no doubt he is a great man.’

As the vices desert us, the aphorist says, we convince ourselves that we have become virtuous. That won’t do, Sri Ramakrishna warns us.


Sri Ramakrishna’s aversion towards worldly honours was no less than for money, fancy clothes, and other worldly trinkets. Indeed, the aversion had lodged in his subconscious, it had become his second nature. You will recall how a disciple who was sleeping in the room once found Sri Ramakrishna pacing up and down in the dead of night. ‘At every turn he spat on the floor, remarking in a tone of utter disgust, “Fie! I spit on it! I don’t want it, take it back, Mother! Don’t tempt me with this trifle.”’ When Sri Ramakrishna regained some awareness, he told the disciple, ‘At dead of night I suddenly awoke from sleep to find the Divine Mother approaching me with a basket in Her hand. She held it out to me and asked me to accept the contents, which were mine. At a glance I found that the Mother had brought me worldly honours. They looked so hideous that I turned my face in disgust and prayed to Her to take back Her allurements. Thereupon, She disappeared with a smile.’

Nor was all this just a shrinking away from worldly things. There was the positive side—utter humility. So sincere and spontaneous was it that it disarmed everyone. The Brahmos were a proud lot—after all, they were the bearers of the ‘New Dispensation’. They would not bow before Sri Ramakrishna. But every time they came to him or Keshab Chandra Sen came, Sri Ramakrishna would spontaneously greet them with deep bows. Soon, they, including Keshab were touching the ground with their foreheads when they came into Sri Ramakrishna’s presence! A Muslim notable and his companions came to call on Sri Ramakrishna. This is how the distinguished gentleman described what happened:

When we arrived, Sri Ramakrishna was not in his
room. We waited for him at the Panchavati. When Sri
Ramakrishna came there, Ram Babu bowed down to
him. We decided not to bow down, as according to our
religious tradition, we are not supposed to bow down
to anyone other than Allah. We were, however, willing
to pay proper respect to him. But as soon as he came
near he bowed down to us. We were puzzled and were
compelled to bow down to him.

‘We saw with our own eyes the incarnation of perfect humility,’ Swami Premananda wrote. ‘When the beggars finished their meals at the Dakshineswar temple garden, the Master carried their dirty leafplates on his head. And in order to eradicate any sense of superiority over the untouchable sweepers, he cleaned the toilets of the temple garden with his long hair…’


Today we have godmen presiding over empires—of money, of real estate. We have godmen adding prefixes upon prefixes to their name. We have godmen on whose behalf the boast is carefully orchestrated about the throngs that flock to them. We have godmen who make sure that everyone notices the VIPs who come and sit at their feet. We have godmen whose real accomplishment is that they can outdo the best advertising guru and event manager.

And not just godmen. We have temples that are known by the amount of money that they garner per day. We have idols whose power is judged by the number of diamonds that are studded in their crowns.

Do you remember what happened when Guru Nanak reached the Jagannath temple at Puri to pray, and, disconcerted by the ostentation, left to pray under the open sky? There he sang that beautiful aarti:

The sky is the platter
The sun and moon the lamps
And the stars the jewels
Sandalwood’s fragrance is the incense
The wind is the flywhisk
And all the trees in the forest are Your flowers
How wonderful an aarti, O Lord, is Your aarti…

But the godmen and the controllers of temples and maths alone are not responsible for the resulting debasement. We are. Most often because of our desperation, often because of our greed. We are stricken by an illness, someone dear to us is stricken. We are desperate, and look for miracles. We flock to the latest godman. Often we just want a boost in our careers, we want a project to succeed, a business deal is stuck and we want it to turn in our favour. How I remember what a guru told me when, desperate, I was visiting him for help with Anita’s condition. ‘Do you know…?’—he asked as he raised his gaze in the direction of a big businessman who was sitting nearby. ‘The other day, I told him, “Ask for anything. I will give you anything you ask for today.” And do you know what he asked me to do? Can you even guess? He said, “Guruji, a godownfull of cotton bales is lying. I have not been able to sell them for a year. Bless me so that those bales get sold.” Here I was, prepared to give him anything, anything at all. And what did he want—that I sell his bales!’

We don’t even notice the incongruity. We pride ourselves at the weight of gold in the ornaments that we have donated for the idol. And simultaneously we sing that beautiful aarti of Sri Guru Nanak.


The Buddha said—not about some sundry godmen, but about himself—do not accept something because I have said it; test it on the anvil of your experience. Both in the Buddhist tradition as well as in that of Hinduism—for instance, in regard to being initiated into sanyas—the teacher as well as the aspirant were to assess each other for twelve years.

That implied both things: that each must judge the other, and that she or he must do so over an extended time—for, after all, the two were not to judge each other by what the person said, but by her or his conduct. And while that conduct too could be faked for a short while, it could not be faked over twelve years...


We must hold the guru/godman as well as ourselves to the highest standard. Ever so often when a godman is exposed for what he is, I hear the cry go up, ‘It is all a Christian conspiracy.’

Firstly, so what if the exposure has come about as the result of a conspiracy? The question is, ‘Are the charges correct or not?’

Second, it is vital that these personages measure up to the highest standard—to the Ramakrishna–Ramana standard. The one ‘pearl of great price’ that we have, the one treasure that our culture can still give to the world is what our rishis discovered about the inner directed search. And these persons are either the bearers of that treasure or ones trading in it. When they stray from the strictest standard, they don’t just fool a few persons, they endanger that singular tradition.

As for us, we too must remember that that tradition is about the inner-directed search. Ever so often, we depart from that search. We flock to these persons for miracles. But, as Gandhiji said, there are no miracles contrary to the laws of nature. If we do come across an occurrence that is incomprehensible, we should look for the natural explanation and see how far that will carry us before lunging for the supernatural one.

Beyond this futile search for miracles, as far as the inner- directed search is concerned, if I may be so bold as to report my own experience, the vicissitudes of life are an adequate guru. We do not need the godmen of today. The ups and downs of our lives hurl us this way and that. As they buffet us, we have but to observe our mind, and we would have put them to work.


As for the great mystics, there are three conclusions.

The real miracle in their case was their goodness, their compassion, the complete consistency of their teachings and their life. Their sterling qualities must not discourage us. Of course, we cannot even dream of being like them. But, as we were taught at school in the context of Gandhiji, we can strive to be ten-paisa Ramakrishnas–Ramanas.

Second, many of the peripheral experiences that were reported about these great mystics, and which are often taken to be marks of their divinity, were incidentals. There are probably several this worldly explanations for those phenomena.

Finally, their real attainment was the peak, mystic experience. Having set the peripherals aside, we are better prepared to try and understand that experience.

So, should we begin?

(This is an edited excerpt from Arun Shourie's new book, Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa & Ramana Maharshi | HarperCollins | Rs 699 | 483 pages)