This is my latest post for the Homophilosophicus blog.
In Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master, the English translation of Swami Saradananda’s definitive biography of Sri Ramakrishna, the author relates an incident between Narendra — the future Swami Vivekananda — and Sri Ramakrishna during a time of desperation and impoverishment for Narendra and his family. Sri Ramakrishna was a great devotee of the goddess Kali, so Narendra begged his guru to pray to Kali for the relief of his family’s suffering. Sri Ramakrishna refused, telling Narendra to go to the temple and pray to Her himself. Eventually, Narendra heeded the Master’s advice and entered the temple. Immediately he was overwhelmed with ecstatic emotion. His family’s troubles forgotten, he worshipped Mother Kali and returned to the Master.
Three times Narendra returned to the Master, who inquired as to how the boy’s prayers had gone, and three times, the Master sent Narendra back to the temple to pray for his family. Never was Narendra able to maintain his presence of mind, so deep in ecstasy did he fall at the sight of the Goddess’s image. At last, Sri Ramakrishna himself granted Narendra the boon that his family would never go without the basic necessities of life.The whole thing had been a charade and a lesson.
A special aspect of Sri Ramakrishna’s teaching is the idea that the aim of all religion is God realization. One may receive benefits from simple piety, from occasional prayers or erratic spiritual practices, and these may bring some happiness, some relief of suffering, and a more auspicious set of circumstances in one’s future life, but God realization alone will bring a permanent end to suffering and the cycle of rebirth.
For those not familiar with the term, God realization, in brief, is the realization that God alone is real and eternal, all other things, including our perceived identities, will pass away and are, therefore, unreal. This is not an intellectual understanding that we can acquire through study, but a direct knowledge acquired through the renunciation of desires and the elimination of the ego. God realization results in an intimate, direct and permanent experience of the divine in this life. It is the same experience as Self realization, nirvana, entering into the Kingdom of Heaven within, and so on. These are all limited ways of describing the experience of the Limitless.
Sri Ramakrishna pulled no punches. Lust and greed keep us bound up in desire, ignorant of our true, divine nature and our oneness with God. For a sincere aspirant who wants to reach the ultimate goal, anything that does not bring one closer to God realization is a waste of time. Once one attains the goal, life’s problems cease to be problems, experiences are neither good nor bad but simply experienced, and one knows the endless bliss of divine wisdom.
Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings seem to beg the question of what use the simple practice of prayer can be to someone with such a lofty goal. Will I bring myself closer to the Lord by asking for a better job, or healing of my child’s illness, or for the safety of victims of a natural disaster? Sri Ramakrishna once had a conversation about God with some Sikhs who said that God’s great compassion was evident in his giving us all we need for survival. Sri Ramakrishna seemed to think this view arose from missing an essential point. Here is an excerpt of the conversation from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
Master: “God is the Father of us all. Who will look after the child if the father doesn’t? Do you mean to say that the people of the neighbouring village should look after the child?”
Narendra: “Then shouldn’t we call God kind?”
Master: “Have I forbidden you to? What I mean is that God is our very own. He is not a stranger to us.”
We may pray to God for the necessities of life. No matter how far along the spiritual journey we have traveled, we will always be in need of certain material things, and it is likely for most of us that they will not always be easily come by. That being said, we must trust that the Lord anticipates our needs and will provide for them. He is not some distant entity. He is our very own. We can put our faith in Him, and, in order to realize Him, we must do so. So long as our prayer supports our faith in God, we can not only ask Him for what we need, we can expect it.
But what place does prayer have in the quest for God realization? Are not strenuous austerities called for? Must we not fast for days, meditate for hours, and count millions of mantras? In fact, such tortuous practices are counter-productive. Sri Ramakrishna often said that, in the Kali Yuga — that is, our current age — truthfulness itself is an austerity. He himself took part in very difficult spiritual practices, but he did not urge his devotees to do the same.
“I have done sixteen annas of sadhana. It is enough even if you did one anna.”
The principle spiritual practice Sri Ramakrishna called for was devotion to God. This, he said, was the way for the Kali Yuga. He called it the easy path, which leads one directly to God realization. He encouraged his disciples to cultivate love for God, chant God’s name and sing His glories. He also encouraged prayer.
Sri Ramakrishna frequently asked his disciples, “Who cries for God?” People, he would say, cry for family and friends, over loss and misfortune, but how many people shed tears for lack of the vision of God? Who weeps with longing for God realization? Who so intensely feels the need to know God intimately that they bawl at His feet?
“You must reach God somehow or other. Call on Him in solitude and pray to Him, ‘O Lord! reveal Thyself to me.’ Weep for Him with a longing heart.”
Time and again, the Master encourages his students to “weep for God,” to “be a little mad for God,” to “cry…with a real cry” to God. According to Sri Ramakrishna, prayer can certainly lead to the realization of God, but it must be the most sincere prayer, fueled by a deep yearning for God. He illustrates this yearning through one of his many parables.
A student once said to his guru, “I have been practicing spiritual disciplines for some time. When will I realize God?”
The teacher said, “Come with me,” and led his student to a pond, where the two of them waded in until the water reached their chests. With no warning, the guru grabbed the young man by the hair of his head and dunked him under the water. He held him there for some time until the boy was thrashing about violently. The student rose from the water, spluttering and gasping for breath, and the teacher asked him, “How did you feel while I was holding you under?”
“My chest was burning!” said the student. “I was dying for a breath!”
“When you feel such a desire for God,” said the guru, “then alone will you realize him.”
So this is Sri Ramakrishna’s message about prayer. Not only must it be done with regularity —
“At dusk put aside all duties and pray to God.”
— but with earnestness and, above all, great longing. This longing we can cultivate, and, in fact, we can pray to God for the devotion we need to accomplish our goal.
“I prayed to the Divine Mother for pure love. I said to Her: ‘Here is Thy righteousness, here is Thy unrighteousness. Take them both and give me pure love for Thee. Here is Thy purity, here is Thy impurity. Take them both and give me pure love for Thee. O Mother, here is Thy virtue, here is Thy vice. Take them both and give me pure love for Thee.”
Sri Ramakrishna assures us that God hears our prayers, and will answer them if we but make a little effort.
 All quotes from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna may be found here.
 In Sri Ramakrishna’s time, sixteen annas made one rupee in Indian currency.