“Sri Ramakrishna – The bridging of two cultures” (Lecture)

Visva-Bharati Study Circle, Santiniketan

21st January 2013

Sri Ramakrishna – The bridging of two cultures

by Martin Kämpchen

Sri Ramakrishna has been an early inspiration. During my first stay in India in 1971, I visited the Ramakrishna Missions of Bombay, Kolkata, Narendrapur, Madras and Coimbatore. From 1973 to 1976 I stayed at Narendrapur which shaped my views on modern-day Hinduism and my vision for India’s future. Although I felt and continue to feel an urge to visit the ashram temples and bow down before the images or statues of Sri Ramakrishna, and to sit in their presence to meditate, I never became a “devotee” in the special Indian sense. Initiation, diksa, was a distinct possibility, but after I had spurned the prisons of employment, how could I accept being caged in by a formulated spirituality through the rite of initiation? I needed to be free here, too.

The figure of Sri Ramakrishna, the rustic Bengali saint among the bhadralok of Kolkata, captivated me because he is a Schwellenfigur, a figure on the borderline of two ages. His roots reach deep down into traditional Hinduism with its ritualism, caste-system, its family-values and ascetic ethos. The tales of Ramakrishna’s youth are charming in their fresh revelation of religious emotions; they portray a man who securely lived his life in an age-old mould. Yet, as a mature man, he unfolded into the saint of Dakshineswar who enthralled and shocked his middle-class surroundings with his daring ecstasies and risky statements, thus breaking the mould which had shaped him. By this, he inspired and partly fashioned the beginnings of modern Hinduism, that is of a Hinduism which strives to come to terms with the thoughts and experiences of the occident.

I could never take quite seriously the attempts at bringing Ramakrishna’s off-the cuff remarks and spontaneous actions into a theological frame-work. These attempts began soon after Ramakrishna’s life ended. They started with Swami Saradananda’s book Sri Sri Ramakrishna Lila-prasanga (“Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master”). To me, Ramakrishna was a free soul who revelled in paradoxes and statements which sounded outrageous. He was forced into them by an urge to reveal his inexpressible inner experiences. This inner freedom which made Ramakrishna childlike and spontaneous and outrageous is one reason why I began to love him.

Saints of other religions have been similarly subjected to a process of being straight-jacketed into a theological system by their immediate followers. It is only understandable that love and admiration for the guru prompt his devotees to broaden the base of his acceptance by explaining away the guru’s sharpness und shrillness, his psychic agony, his revolt against human mediocrity, his contradictions and paradoxes, his anger and his various madnesses. Ordinary folk cannot easily see through a greatness which appears with such angularities. They need to see a smooth surface to believe in a saint. In reality though, saints are probably never very comfortable people.


Two Cultures

In my Ph.D. thesis written for Visva-Bharati[i], I attempted to compare the life of Sri Ramakrishna with that of another saint – with Francis of Assisi, an Italian Christian saint of the Middle Ages.

When I submitted my thesis in 1985, the academic countermove aimed at portraying the life of Sri Ramakrishna in its historical and social context had only just begun. With this emerged the two “cultures” or “camps” in the study of Sri Ramakrishna: On the one hand we have the culture of bhakti which aims at projecting Sri Ramakrishna as a model saint and avatar and remains content with the biographical information and theological frame-work provided by the immediate bhakta followers, presenting and interpreting them again and again with the purpose to edify and inspire. On the other hand we have the culture or “camp” of scientific, i.e. historical-critical research into the life of Sri Ramakrishna. He is viewed as the historical human being he was within the social context of his time. In this lecture I argue that these two cultures ought to be bridged and merged, one culture learning from the other, in the interest of historical truth as well as in the interest of an honest, truthful bhakti to Sri Ramakrishna.

Soon after Sri Ramakrishna’s death in 1886, the monks of the Ramakrishna Order and the devoted lay disciples of Sri Ramakrishna took up the work of recording his utterances, compiling the facts and stories of his life into a biography and interpreting both in the context of the Hindu Renaissance movement. Their work was basically the work of bhaktas, and the work itself an act of bhakti for the man they revered as an avatar.

For about a hundred years, this situation did not change. Although the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna had all died, the literature of the Order continued the devoted work of bhakti with numerous renditions of the once stated positions and the once accumulated facts of Ramakrishna’s life. His life, in fact, obtained a legendary colour, when certain miraculous occurences or words were given special emphasis. In this way, the life of Ramakrishna has almost unfolded into a contemporary myth.

But historical research in India as well as outside, could not bypass the times as well as the figure of Sri Ramakrishna. He is, after all, far too important for the political and social climate of nineteenth century Bengal. Surprisingly late, I would say, Sri Ramakrishna began to be scrutinised by the objective minds of historians, who were not bhaktas – or if they were, would not employ their bhakti in order to obtain more or better research results. Thus arose a second culture of Ramakrishna Study which was positioned rather opposite to the first one. The first culture is basically meant to arouse bhakti and set up an example to religious-minded persons in search of an ideal model to follow. The second culture is aimed at historical truth and its proper interpretation. As such, they are not opposed or inimical to each other. A bhakta may pursue science, and a historian may be a believer in God.

Yet, what the second culture had to accept was, that a basic element of what Sri Ramakrishna’s image is made of, had to be renounced: his avatarhood. While Sri Ramakrishna’s bhaktas worship him on the strength of him being an avatar, such a category does not exist for the historian. He looks at the man and his historically verifiable deeds, not at his holy image. As a result, a strong element of opposition between the two cultures of study is indeed in-built and has kept the two “camps” apart until today.

Sri Ramakrishna and bhadralok-society

In the last almost three decades, Sri Ramakrishna has been the subject of scholarly research by several historians, psychologists and sociologists. The first such study was written by Sumit Sarkar, professor of history at Delhi University. In 1985, he published a paper called The Kathamrita as a Text: Towards an Understanding of Ramakrishna Paramhansa. It was a typed and cyclostyled publication, brought out by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi as one of its “Occasional Papers on History and Society”. The lines Sarkar has chosen to open his deliberations, are indicative; he writes:

“The study of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the rustic Brahman who cast a spell on the Calcutta bhadralok and inspired an important religious movement, has been left almost entirely so far to disciples or admirers. The entry of a historian who happens to come from a Brahmo background and – further cause for surprise or indignation – is an atheist, is bound to raise eyebrows among some and perhaps be resented by others.”[ii]

Here the Kathamrita is not treated as a text inspired by a supremely spiritual man, but as a text which tells us about a particular time and place and their people. Sarkar especially examines the reaction of the Bengali bhadralok-class to Ramakrishna. As Sarkar writes:

Ramakrishna would hardly have been admitted to polite urban society in normal circumstances. Ramakrishna was neither a traditional Brahman Pandit, nor even in attire and behaviour a conventional sadhu. In appearance and even more in language he remained a humble villager, almost, though not quite, a peasant.[iii]

Sarkar examines the qualities of Ramakrishna – in sociological terms – which provided him an entry into the bhadralok-households. His general conclusion is that “… the Kathamrita is a valuable text for probing into the basic relationships of power, of domination and subordination.”[iv]

Some of the other foci of Sarkar’s research may be mentioned:

  • What kind of society is reflected in the numerous parables Ramakrishna tells to his disciples? What are the roles of caste and class in them? Are these parables derived from the urban or the rural milieu?
  • Sarkar examines Ramakrishna’s astonishing near-total rejection of organised social service and charity and the possible historical and social roots of such a rejection. It is for example highly significant that in a conversation with Sambhu Mallik, the Kathamrita repeats Ramakrishna’s rejection six times. But this is eclipsed from the authorative biography, Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master. The obvious reason is that in the post-Ramakrishna period the Order made organised social service its main thrust under Vivekananda.[v]
  • This leads to the interesting question of how true Vivekananda’s claim was to follow his Master in everything. Sarkar feels that the Swami “virtually inverted” Sri Ramakrishna’s teaching.
  • Finally, according to Sarkar, Sri Ramakrishna’s catholicity or universalism requires careful scrutiny. Ramakrishna is projected as the harmoniser of all religions by his biographers. This, however, has to be viewed in its socio-historical context. Only then we can determine, firstly, how deep his knowledge of and insight into other faiths was, secondly, whether this catholicity was indeed all-embracing.

In the ensuing years, Sumit Sakar returned to the same topic. From the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, he published a booklet, An Exploration of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Tradition[vi] which posed very similar questions of how the village holy man could succeed socially in a bhadralok-world polarised by chakri and bhakti.

The divine madness of the saints

Sudhir Kakar is a highly respected Indian psychoanalyst and author of psychological books. In his essay, Ramakrishna and the Mystical Experience[vii], Kakar examines Sri Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences, as related in numerous places of the Kathamrita, from the point of view of psychology. That is, he does not search for meanings useful to a spiritual seeker, but he uncovers generally accepted patterns of behaviour known to psychology.

Sudhir Kakar returned to Ramakrishna in a book which first came out in French and was then translated into German, but unfortunately never had an English edition.[viii] This is the comparison of two saints, one of Hinduism, Sri Ramakrishna, and one of Christianity, an unknown French woman, Madeleine Le Bouc, born in the nineteenth century, in the same age when Ramakrishna lived in Bengal. Kakar wrote this book together with the French author Catherine Clément who had lived in India for several years. Kakar introduces Ramakrishna, Clément does the same with Madeleine. Thereafter, the two record a number of conversations in which they compare the lives of these two extraordinary people.

Their main observation is: Here are two persons, one a man, the other a woman, one a Hindu, the other a Christian, one an Indian, the other a French woman, who in spite of their opposite identities and backgrounds had largely similar religious experiences. They are both overcome by visions, are shaken by ecstasies, often very painful ones, they identify themselves with the idols of their religion – Sri Ramakrishna with Kali, Krishna or Chaitanya, Madeleine with Mother Mary. They describe their ecstasies in rather similar terms, and they are both considered “mad” by their contemporaries. But with their perceived “madness” begins a striking and disturbing difference between these two lives: Sri Ramakrishna’s “madness” was accepted by his contemporaries as divine, as a sign that God lived in him and worked through him. Madeleine’s “madness”, however, was denounced as a disease, as a psychopathic state, as hysteria. She had to spend long periods in prisons, hospitals and mental asylums. At other times, she was a wanderer, a roving pilgrim. Neither in her life-time nor later did she have any impact on society. We know of her life through the recorded conversations she had with her physician in a mental asylum. He took her to be a medically interesting case. What a difference to the chronicler of Sri Ramakrishna’s conversations, Mahendranath Gupta!

While Sri Ramakrishna’s social status rose due to his “divine” madness and he became fit to socialise with the bhadralok society of Kolkata, Madeleine Le Bouc’s status declined and she became a despised and ridiculed woman. Why? The conclusion of the authors is that Bengal, or Indian, society was prepared for Ramakrishna’s behaviour because he conformed to certain archetypes of madness implanted in Hinduism. Madeleine, however, could not fall back upon such archetypes in her own Catholic Christian tradition. True, there are divinely mad saints in Christianity, too. We may mention Francis of Assisi. But during her time in France the population was unaware of such saints. Hence she was not revered, not accepted as a saint, but seen as a criminal and a psychic case.

Incidentally, Sudhir Kakar returned to Ramakrishna again in 2001 when he published his second novel, Ecstasy[ix] which is avowedly cast in the mould of Sri Ramakrishna’s life. Here we find a curious bringing together, perhaps even forcing together, of bhakti culture and scholarly culture. On the one hand, as a novelist, Kakar takes liberties with his sources, imagining situations and conversations, and that means he participates in treating Sri Ramakrishna’s life as a myth. On the other hand, Kakar has written this novel clearly in order to give stress to the many sides of Sri Ramakrishna’s character and the deeds which tend to be ignored or neglected in the biographies written by his bhaktas. That means, Kakar wishes to restore Ramakrishna’s life to its true complexity. The same features Kakar dwelt on in his academic writing on Sri Ramakrishna were, of course, emphasised in his novel as well. It is surprising that this book has incited comment neither from the devotees nor from academic circles so far.

The stages of a saintly life

In my doctoral research I have attempted a perspective on Sri Ramakrishna which is similar: I have drawn a comparison between Sri Ramakrishna and the Christian saint Francis of Assisi. Naturally, I have mainly referred to the Kathamrita. As to Francis, I have used the early – legendary – hagiography as well as the later scholarly biographies. My purpose was not socio-historical as in the case of Sumit Sarkar, nor psychological, as in the case of Sudhir Kakar, rather I tried to see the holy careers of these two persons from a phenomenological perspective. I have explored where their life-styles converge, and where they differ. I was not concerned with their “works”, both Sri Ramakrishna and St Francis were not poets or writers anyway. Instead, I enquired whether by virtue of their sanctity they shared certain features related to their personal development. Consequently I discovered that both their lives were moulded according to a common model which followed these five stages of life:

  1. Worldly Life
  2. Conversion
  3. Withdrawal from worldly Life
  4. Spiritual Fulfilment
  5. Return to Society

I described their biographies stage by stage comparatistically to demonstrate these striking similarities.[x]

Such a comparative study serves to place Sri Ramakrishna in an objective frame-work of world religions. Undertaken according to critical methods I repeat, such an academic exercise makes sense only if the avatarhood of Ramakrishna is renounced and we see him – for the purpose of scholarly comparison – simply as a human being.

As far as I can see, Ramakrishna is the first Hindu saint to have been the subject of such historical-critical research. I do not see such research being conducted on, for example, Sri Aurobindo or Ramana Maharshi. I suspect that the conviction of the bhaktas is that Sri Ramakrishna can be truly understood only with the heart and mind is filled with bhakti and after extensive sadhana. “Understanding” here has little to do with biographical details. It is an intuitive understanding at the level of meditation and austerity. Similarly, Ramakrishna said he “realized” Christ, without having studied his words in the Gospels, solely by having a vision of Christ. Devotees will probably confirm that they, too, “understand” Sri Ramakrishna by feeling his presence, by feeling “one with him” in meditation, conversation, and singing. All they seek is to be more and more aware of his divine presence. They do not hope for a more detailed and contextualized understanding of his biography.

When I conveyed my disappointment to a devotee about these two separate cultures having developed, he wrote back: “Please note that I am not interested in this type of research work… One interesting feature in all these works is to raise some controversial issues and to thrust some preconceived notion of the author to resolve the controversy.” Obviously, this gentleman does not accept that scholarship is not meant to rake up controversies, but rather it aims at dismantling preconceptions and discovering the factual truth. Scholars who conduct historical-critical research on Sri Ramakrishna do not intend to support or weaken the faith-commitments of devotees. This research has no purpose but the increase of historical, psychological, sociological knowledge and the knowledge of religion.


The Kathamrita and the “Gospel”

A number of times we have referred here to the Srisri Ramakrishna Kathamrita, the conversations of Sri Ramakrishna with his disciples, as recorded by Mahendranath Gupta in the last four years of Sri Ramakrishna’s life. These five volumes of diary are essential for the reconstruction of  Ramakrishna’s life – and of his legend as well. Realizing the importance of Sri Ramakrishna as a saint and avatar, his early disciples have tried to make him known beyond their own circle in India and even abroad. Mahendranath Gupta began to publish his diary in his own English translation first, until he switched to Bengali, the language Ramakrishna spoke. This was obviously to bring him to the notice of non-Bengali-speaking Indians and to foreigners. About sixty years after Sri Ramakrishna’s death, in 1942, the Kathamrita was first published in English translation as The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. The translator was a reputed monk of the Ramakrishna Order, Swami Nikhilananda. As such, this translation, running into over one thousand pages, is a monumental work, executed with enormous diligence and patience. This book has been the source for tens of thousands of people outside Bengal to know, appreciate and love Sri Ramakrishna. Hence the book has a historic responsibility in projecting Ramakrishna to the world. In his Preface, Swami Nikhilananda calls the The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna a “literal translation”. But this is exactly what it is not!

As a translator, Nikhilananda takes enormous liberties with the original text. His intentions are noble. He wishes to fashion his translation in such a manner that it can be easily comprehended by Western readers. So he adds explanations – however not in the form of footnotes, but as if they were Ramakrishna’s own words; Nikhilananda suppresses words, whole sentences, even entire passages which he believes to be controversial and may therefore mar Sri Ramakrishna’s saintly image. Ramakrishna had his own rustic, fun-loving, quirky way of expressing himself without shying away from the sphere of excreta, sexuality, and from swear-words. This is part of his nature as a rural, simple Bengali. With such inborn deftness of language he could, by the way, evoke images and similes of great force. Nikhilananda polishes away most of these allusions. Further, Nikhilananda changes the text in an effort to bring out certain meanings more strongly. Or he waters down the meaning, he makes it more general and by this less colourful and concrete. Allusions to myth and particular stories are omitted as they would need an explanatory footnote.

Finally, Nikhilananda translated into a language which was not his mother-tongue. He translated with an eye on the meaning of the text, but without making an attempt at bringing out the style and atmosphere of the original. Ramakrishna speaks in a crisp, curt, lively, sententious, often humorous language. I consider his manner of speaking as much part of his “message”, of his spiritual and human appeal to us, as the meaning of his words. In Nikhilananda’s translation, Ramakrishna’s speech becomes rather wooden. His words have lost their sparkle and spiritual beauty. Where Sri Ramakrishna can do with three Bengali words to express something, the translator often feels the need of a whole sentence.

It is a sad thought that so many devotees outside Bengal, in India and abroad, base their appreciation of Sri Ramakrishna on this flawed text. And it is even sadder to realise that now, at a time when philologically inadequate translations are no longer acceptable by the educated and increasingly more discerning public, no new translation seems to be forthcoming. We are sorely in need of a philologically correct translation by a talented native English speaker with adequate knowledge of the Bengali language and of modern Hinduism. It surprises me that this issue of translation is not being discussed anywhere in India. Why do we not see the urgency for such a project?

This situation prompted me to attempt a German translation of the Bengali text from very early on. I began translating the five volumes of the Kathamrita in the early 1980s and published the first three volumes[xi] in 1984 and 1988. The remaining two volumes, combined with the already published three earlier volumes have come out in one volume of German translation in 2008[xii]. I aimed at philologically correct translation, neither adding nor suppressing a single word, yet bring out the characteristic flavour of Ramakrishna’s language. It is a work which has absorbed me for two decades; it has been partly responsible for my continued stay in West-Bengal.

A new English translation could be the first project aimed at bringing the devotee and the scholar and their separate mindsets together. The demand that Ramakrishna’s words deserve to be correctly and truly represented in English – and in any other language – is easy to understand and can be accepted by any devotee as well. Translation has since antiquity been a labour of love for the devotee, especially for the monk.

A further necessary step is to subject the Kathamrita to textual research. We do not know at all how the author, Mahendranath Gupta, has transformed the scrappy notes which he made at the end of the day’s conversation with Sri Ramakrishna, into the diary which he then published. Many of these notes still exist in Kolkata. Why are they not claimed for systematic research?

I am pleading in favour of nothing less than what India’s late Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, called “scientific temper”. This urge to uncover the historical truth of our devotional books and sacred scriptures should gradually lead us to historical-critical studies of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and other sacred texts. The bulk of literature written on the sacred scriptures so far is spiritual interpretations. Historical-critical research is a different approach to texts altogether. I reiterate, it is not aimed at weakening or destroying the faith-commitment of believers. Rather, historical-critical research hopes to overcome biases and prejudices, arbitrary interpretations and the misuse of religion for sectarian and political ends. I am sure you agree that it is imperative to introduce more and more the exactness and objectivity of the natural sciences into the field of the humanities, including religious studies. Sri Ramakrishna is excellent “material” with which to attempt this bridging of the two cultures – the devotional and the academic.

This lecture was given, in a seminal form, at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Chennai and at the Asiatic Society in Kolkata. The ensuing discussions with my learned listeners helped me to give a final shape to my text which I read out at the IIT Kharagpur as the Tagore Memorial Lecture 2002.  A full version of this lecture was published in The India International Centre Quarterly 30 (2003) 1, pp. 43-58.


[i]           See Martin Kämpchen: Concept of Holiness in Hinduism and Christianity exemplified by the lives of Sri Ramakrishna and Francis of Assisi. Ph.D. thesis. Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan 1985.

[ii] Sumit Sarkar: The Kathamrita as a text: Towards an understanding of Ramkrishna Paramhamsa. Occasional Papers on History and Society Number XXII. Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi [no year] p.2.

[iii] Op.cit., p.3.

[iv] Op.cit., p5.

[v] See op.cit. p.101.

[vi] See Sumit Sarkar: An Exploration of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Tradition. Occasional Paper 1. IIAS, Shimla 1993. First published as ‘Kaliyuga’, ‘Chakri’ and ‘Bhakti’. Ramakrishna and His Times in Economic and Political Weekly 18th July 1992.

[vii] See in: Sudhir Kakar: The Analyst and The Mystic. Viking Penguin Books India, New Delhi 1991.

[viii] Catherine Clément / Sudhir Kakar:  Der Heilige und die Verrückte. Religiöse Ekstase und psychische Grenzerfahrung. Verlag C.H. Beck, München 1993.

[ix] See Sudhir Kakar: Ecstasy. A novel. Viking-Penguin Books India, New Delhi 2001.

[x] See op.cit. Part II “Sri Ramakrishna and Francis of Assisi: A Study of two Exemplary Saints”. p. 124-152.

[xi] See Sri Ramakrishna: Setze Gott keine Grenzen. Gespräche des indischen Heiligen mit seinen Schülern. Transl. from Bengali and edited by Martin Kämpchen. Herderbücherei 1165. Herder Verlag, Freiburg 1984 (This contains the 1st volume oft he Bengali original.); Sri Ramakrishna: Ein Werkzeug Gottes sein. Gespräche mit seinen Schülern. Transl. from Bengali and edited by Martin Kämpchen. Verlag Benziger, Zürich 1988, 2nd ed. 1997 (This contains volumes 2 and 3 of the Bengali original.).

[xii] Shrī Rāmakrishna: Gespräche mit seinen Schülern. Transl. from Bengali and edited by Martin Kämpchen. Verlag der Weltreligionen, Frankfurt 2008.

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