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PRABUDDHA BHARATARamakrishna Vedanta in the West: New Interfaces and Challenges  





             Ramakrishna Vedanta in the West:

               New Interfaces and Challenges




               Dr. M. Sivaramkrishna




     The power and ideas that are within this body will automatically spread all around in course of time. Hundreds of Hi­malayas will not be able to suppress that power. - Sri Ramakrishna to Keshab Chandra Sen. (1)


     Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was a very unusual person. It is good to remember our ‘past masters’ to re-examine their teachings in order to apply them to our present-day problems. (2)




     The Nineteenth-century Ethos of the Sacred




     In his incisive study of the state of oriental religions (particularly Theosophy) and the cult of the gurus in the West, Peter Washington observed, ‘… towards the end of the nineteenth century it was becoming clear that an enduring public appetite existed in the West for new and exotic forms of religious belief to supplement or even replace orthodox forms of Christianity. Swedenborg has shown one possible way forward by uniting religion and science. Mesmer and the spiritualists had demonstrated another by opening doors to the spirit world.’ (3)


     Pointing out further facets of what Frank Kermonde has called ‘a neglected story of serious frauds and delusions that had no small influence on modern art and thought’, Peter Washington adds that in this ethos, ‘Hinduism drew doctrinal subtlety and sheer exoti­sm.’ And he devotes a chapter to Vedanta as exemplified by Swami Prabhavananda and his writer devotees, notably Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, commenting that Swami Prabhavananda ‘managed to stay above the temptations of Hollywood, where more adeptly self-dramatizing gurus were constantly in continuous demand. People were impressed by his ability to live chastely in a notoriously corrupting world.’




     The New Mystical Renaissance




     Obviously the role of the Ramakrishna Vedanta movement has been to steer clear of all the fads gaining ground in this ethos. Neither esoteric nor messiah-based, it advocated the way of Vedanta not theorized and mystified but lived in the lives of Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi and Vivekananda. By the 1960s when the ‘Eastern masters made a concerted Westward push’ the Ramakrishna Vedanta movement was a quietly authoritative and authentic one.


     The result is evident today in what ‘analysts’ are pointing to as a new spiritual renaissance, the novelty lying in the integration of spiritual rhythms in everyday living. As Peter Ochiogrosso, in his study of ‘a small but representative sample of those transformative experiences’ (the sampler includes Lex Hixon) says, ‘Somewhere between the hard edge of Christian fundamentalism and the self-satisfaction of secular humanism, each of which in its own way seems to threaten dominance of American life at times, a whole world of spiritual growth and transformation is taking place.’ (4) While Lex Hixon calls this ‘the General Theory of Relativity of Religions’, it seems to signal for Andrew Harvey ‘the new mystical renaissance that is struggling to be born against terrible odds in the rubble of our living civilization.’ (5)




     On ‘The Edge of One of the Megatrends’




     The quiet but crucial role of Ramakrishna Vedanta in ushering this new renaissance can hardly be exaggerated. As Carl T Jackson, the cultural historian of oriental religions in the USA, has declared, ‘One hundred years in the United States has given the movement a visibility and degree of acceptance unequalled by any Asian group.’ Identifying the reasons he says, ‘the Ramakrishna movement’s obvious commitment to present Vedanta at a high level, the swamis’ strong intellectual qualifications, and an ecumenical attitude toward other religious bodies have won over most critics.’ Finally, ‘predicting’ the future he says, ‘As a pioneer in paving the way for introduction of Asian religious perceptions in the West, the Ramakrishna movement may be said to stand on the edge of one of the “mega­trends” of modern world history.’ (6)


     More or less, the same view is validated by Diana L Eck in her study of the pluralistic, inclusivist religious situation today: ‘Vivekananda’s perception that the crying need of the West was something he called “spirituality” has been borne out in the one hundred years since the Parliament.’ (7)


     Similarly in a recent study of world religions, Peter Ochiogrosso says, ‘The … yogic practices taught by the succeeding waves of Indian gurus to come West are all more or less descendants of the Vivekananda approach and in one form or other were appropriated by the Beat culture of the 1950s, the counter-culture of the 60s and the current New Age movement.’ (8)


     The ‘perception’ to which both Jackson and Eck refer is, indeed, far-ranging, deeply interior and coextensive with the other prophets. A deeply moving example is evident in Henri Nouwen. This widely respected father reports, ‘Over the years many new pictures have appeared on my inner walls. Some show words, some gestures of blessing, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. Many show faces: the faces of Jesus and Mary, the faces of Therese of Lisieux and Charles de Foucould, the faces of Ramakrishna and the Dalai Lama.’ (9) (From our forthcoming bibliography of writings on Ramakrishna, a random survey reveals nearly 250-300 citations during the last two years alone.)




     Movement versus Message/Ideology




     The Ramakrishna Vedanta movement will still face institutional challenges which increasing acceptance and visibility engender. The Asian groups may become larger in patronizing and may, by sheer numbers, make Vedanta centres extensions of ethnic religiosity. Islands of ‘India’, the ‘motherland’, may build themselves up with the swami as the nucleus. This, if it becomes persistent, may overshadow the interiority and inwardness of the characteristically Western responses to Rama­kri­shna Vedanta. Whatever one may say to the contrary, Ramakrishna Vedanta needs mediation in terms of what Andrew P Tuck called ‘isogesis’. This is employing one’s ‘personal cultural perspectives’, to make appropriation of the ‘other’ ‘intelligible’. The ‘act of productive understanding-isogesis - is an integral part of the interpretive process.’ The Western appropriation of Ramakrishna Vedanta has to be in the logic of its own historical/cultural frames.


     The challenge here is to respect the autonomy of Western interpretations and not overly ‘Hinduize’ Ramakrishna, however dominant Hindu paradigms and symbolic forms are in his life and message. One may have to balance what the paramaguru of post­modernism, Jacques Derrida, called ‘philosophy proper’ and ‘exemplary philosophy’, signifying respectively cultural specifics, and areas that ‘transcend’ these cultural specifics by offering an idiom translatable across boundaries.


     The movement has to face, consequently, the legitimating of autonomy for the Western exponents of Ramakrishna Vedanta. The considerable growth of the Western counterpart - far flung in its centres in Europe (even Russia), the Far East, the USA, the UK and so on - necessitates that the movement recognize in terms, strictly, of autonomy. The Great Swan’s wide waters can no longer be contained in the Ganga alone. New rivers are ready to receive Ramakrishna but in their own spiritually individualistic territorial waters! The movement’s greatest challenge is to consider how far to let the ‘Western’ Ramakrishna Vedanta movement go its own way. Perhaps increasing insurgency may be the outcome if imaginatively conceived checks and balances are not voluntarily worked out. Institutional challenges are relatively manageable but they are linked to the more formidable ideological ones. Interfaces counterpoint challenges.




     Interfaces: Bhavamukha




     Bhavamukha seems to be, what Western seekers are calling ‘ordinary magic’, the perception of everyday life itself as a spiritual path. What Pema Chodron says - ‘self-liberate even the antidote’ - seems approximate to this. ‘The ultimate perfection,’ she says, ‘must be some sense of completely realizing that samsara and nirvana are one, not preferring stillness or occurrence but being able to live fully with both.’ In this balancing vision, even the despised ritual dimension finds a paradigmatic place. ‘When things are properly understood, one’s whole life is like a ritual or ceremony. Then all the gestures of life are mudra and all the sounds of life are mantra - sacredness is everywhere.’ (10)


     Similarly, in his careful (though not always defensible) analysis of the implications, Timothy A Jensen says that bhavamukha is ‘a crucial element in … the transforming experiences’ of Ramakrishna. ‘Both the literal meaning of bhavamukha and the discussions by the hagiographers point toward a resolution of the problems of identity and vocation,’ he says, adding that through bhavamukha Ramakrishna ‘could … see the possibility of living … in close contact with the world yet without clinging to it.’ (11)


     This is making everything sacred not as a pious, static axiom but as a vibrant, live transfiguration of the world. The Master himself pins it down: ‘… I see it is He who is moving about in different forms, now as an honest man, now as a cheat and again as a villain.’ ‘Try to know the nitya,’ he commanded, ‘through the lila’, and ‘the Eternal is to be reached by means of the non-eternal, the Real through the help of the unreal, and the Nou­me­non through the help of the phenomenon.’ (12)


     Interpreting this in terms of Christian faith, Beatrice Bruteau (who notes that she learnt the synthesis of the four yogas ‘mainly from the swamis of the Ramakrishna Order’) says, ‘In the Christian vocabulary … the liberating spiritual death is not the end of the path of growth. It must be followed by resurrection, the return to embodied life which itself is a developmental state. … In resurrection, we experience unity in differentiation, we see the Absolute in every differentiated being.’ (emphasis added) Citing Ramakrishna specifically, Bruteau notes that he ‘pointed out … the state in which to abide for ordinary daily life, … the coming back into consciousness from the absolute unity and formlessness of samadhi. In his tradition this state is called bhavamukha, and in the symbology of his spiritual life, he heard Divine Mother tell him, “Remain in bhavamukha.”’ ‘We might say,’ adds Bruteau, ‘this means … he was told “Be true God and true man.”’ (13)


     Finally, Hans Torwesten brings out the uniqueness of bhavamukha and states, ‘Many - as perhaps Teilhard de Chardin - have “dreamed” of that other state in which the whole world is transformed in a trice. Ramakrishna did not dream of it; he lived in that state every day. It was not just poetry, not a vague pantheism - he simply saw God with eyes open, wherever he looked.’ (14)




     The ‘New’ Celibate




     Abiding in ordinary life with strong spiritual bases is fraught with several challenges of which, for the West (and through increasing exposure of its media for the East, too), is love in the context of marriage. This implies what John Welwood calls ‘challenge of the heart’, ‘the need to be pioneers in territory that has never been fully and consciously explored. Men and women have never had to face each other with such honesty and awareness.’ (15) Many are inclined to see marriage as a sacrament, and it needs, as Henri Nouwen holds, celibacy not only ‘for physical, mental or spiritual reasons, but also because intimacy of marriage in itself is based on the common participation in a love greater than the love two people can offer each other.’ (16)


     Ramakrishna advised that after the birth of two or three children, husband and wife should live as brother and sister and ‘fight’ for realization ‘from within the fort of samsara’. This is a paradigm increasingly being held as inevitable for inner growth. Paradoxically, the very excesses of eroticism evident everywhere are reinforcing the vitality of celibacy within marriage. Indeed, as Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig tersely puts it, ‘the central issue of marriage is not well-being or happiness; it is salvation. Marriage involves not only a man and a woman who happily love each other and raise offspring together, but rather two people who are trying to individuate, to find their soul’s salvation.’ (17)








     A related interface (with Ramakrishna Vedanta) is the figuring of Sarada Devi as an exemplar of what Diane Mariechild calls ‘the lineage of feminine wisdom’. Equating ‘mindfulness’ itself with feminism she says that both suggest ‘pay attention, explore and check it out for yourself’. Choosing two of Sarada Devi’s sayings (‘I am the Mother of the virtuous … say to yourself: I have a mother’ and ‘If you want peace … the whole world is your own’), Mariechild regards Sarada Devi ‘as a human being who has fully manifested her godliness and goddessliness’. The ‘embodiment of divine love’ Sarada Devi’s words ‘indicate that her love is impersonal; it is given to all, regardless of their behaviour. The Holy Mother is there reaching out to every individual, whoever and wherever they are.’ Consequently ‘the edges will soften more easily without the attitude of criticism and faultfinding.’ (18)


     Viewed thus, Beatrice Bruteau’s contention that ‘a second challenge that still seems to threaten the West is the popularity in the East of feminine images of God’, finds an interface in the attitude and practice of Ramakrishna Vedanta towards woman as the potential of Shakti as an imperative for interior illumination (exemplified gloriously in Sarada Devi’s life). This brings us to another challenge emerging again, from ‘desire’ as embodied woman.




     Challenges: Tantra




     The most formidable challenge to the interpretation of Ramakrishna as a sadhaka and Ramakrishna Vedanta as a path of sadhana now seems to stem from the larger Western landscape of Tantra studies in general and the focusing on Ramakrishna in particular. The work by scholars such as Mircea Eliade, Erich Neuman, Ken Wilber (notably his recent Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality), Georg Feurstein, Julius Evola, Herbert Guenther, Indra Sinha and Gunter Nitschke has focused on what they contend as sexual origins and foregrounding of spirituality. They seem to strongly endorse Paul Ricoeur’s assertion that ‘it is not possible, in point of fact, to understand the adventurous history of sexuality apart from that of the sacred among men.’


     One can see this as, also, an important aspect of the ‘feminist’ discourse of desire ‘interwoven with gender issues and values’. To be more precise, as Kim Power in her remarkable study of St Augustine’s writings on women observed, ‘The Christian discourse of desire sets up a choice between woman and God, wherein the sexually desirable woman is represented as being in direct conflict with God for the hearts of men. The other side of the coin is that properly ordered desire for God will eradicate disorderly desire for women.’ (19)


     Tantra - specially, the left-handed one - is seen by many as a way out of the paradox. Yati calls it ‘perhaps the most exotic and at its initial ritual levels certainly the most erotic of all the methods arousing the evolutionary sleeper’. (20) Julius Evola notes that ‘the idea of arising and assuming the forces of desire’ in order to make them ‘self-consuming, that is, to transform or, better, to destroy their original nature finds its most classical expression’ in Tantra. (21) He goes a step further and claims, interestingly, that Tantra is more Western than Christian: ‘Tantrism, in its spirit - leaving out of consideration the framework of local traditions - should be considered distinctly Western. It is more conspicuously Western than Christian soteriology, is looked upon as a “vale of tears” and contemplates the destiny of a human nature that has been infected with sin and that stands in need of redemption …’ (158) Commenting on the implications, Evola adds that ‘the password of Tantrism is not the incompatibility but rather the unity of spiritual discipline (sadhana) and enjoyment (bhoga) …’ (158)




     (To be continued)







     1. Swami Chetanananda, Ramakrishna as We Saw Him (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1992), 287.

     2. Bimal Krishna Matilal, The Collected Essays: Ethics and Epics (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), 14.

     3. Peter Washington, Madam Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru (London: Secker & Warburg, 1993), 9.

     4. Peter Ochiogrosso, Through the Labyrinth: Stories of the Search for Spiritual Transformation in Everyday Life (New York: Viking/Penguin, 1991), 18.

     5. Andrew Harvey, The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi (London: Souvenir Press, 1995), 2.

     6. Carl T Jackson, Vedanta for the West: The Ramakrishna Movement in the United States (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 144-5.

     7. Diana L Eck, Encountering God (New Delhi: Penguin, 1995), 152.

     8. Peter Ochiogrosso, The Joy of Sects: A Spiritual Guide to the World’s Religions (New York: Image Books, 1996), 63.

     9. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit (London: Darton, Longman, Todd, 1994), 84.

     10. Pema Chodron, ‘Not Preferring Samsara or Nirvana’ in Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path, ed. John Welwood (Boston: Shambhala, 1992), 44-5.

     11. Timothy A Jensen, ‘Madness, Yearning and Play’ (Doctoral Dissertation; Chicago, 1978), 125-6.

     12. Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1993), 279.

     13. Beatrice Bruteau, What We Can Learn from the East (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 71-2.

     14. Hans Torwesten, ‘Ramakrishna and Christ’ in Vedanta for East and West (Bourne End: Ramakrishna Vedanta Centre) September-October 1996, 227-8.

     15. John Welwood, Challenge of the Heart: Sex, Love and Intimacy in Changing Times (Boston: Sham­bha­la, 1985), xiii.

     16. Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, ed. Robert Durback (New York: Bantam, 1990), 15.

     17. Challenge of the Heart, 158.

     18. Diane Mariechild, Open Mind (San Francisco: Harper, 1995), 11 April.

     19. Kim Power, Veiled Desire: St Augustine’s Writings on Women (London: Darton, Longman, Todd, 1995), 3.

     20. Yati, The Unknown Man: The Mysterious Birth of a New Species (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1988), 158.

     21. Julius Evola, The Yoga of Power: Tantra Shakti and the Secret Way (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1992), 158.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015







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