Among Hindu religious institutions, the Ramakrishna Mission has an especially influential place in the life of Bengal. It is an organisation founded by Swami Vivekananda, who was born to a Bengali family in Kolkata in 1863 and, before his initiation into monkhood, was known as Narendranath Dutta.
Vivekananda is the most renowned among the many disciples of the mystic Sri Ramakrishna after whom the Ramakrishna Mission is named. Ramakrishna himself was a temple priest in the Kali temple at Dakshineshwar on the banks of the Hooghly river in Kolkata. The patron of the temple was Rani Rashmoni, a woman from a low caste, a widow, and a formidable and wealthy zamindar.
In those days in the early 1800s, it was practically unheard of for a woman, and a low caste widow at that, to wield such power and authority. Those were the times when the Brahmin orthodoxy still considered it pious for widows to be burnt on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands. Caste segregation, too, was rigidly observed. The story of Rani Rashmoni and Sri Ramakrishna was therefore one of constant struggles against the orthodoxy of Brahmins, who were aghast at age-old rules of caste and gender hierarchies being broken. It is a story that is widely known to people from Bengal, and the subject of a popular Bengali TV serial.
In the recent past, the Mission has come into prominence for another reason. Around 10-11 years ago, Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat, began making frequent references to Vivekananda in his speeches and on social media. In 2013, Modi made a highly visible trip to Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission in Howrah, a short distance from the Dakshineshwar Kali temple. The legend of his association with the Mission began to grow. In 2020, with the country in turmoil over the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, Modi was back at Belur Math, this time to stay overnight. He made a public speech on the occasion defending the CAA, for which he and the Mission’s leadership came under criticism from many followers of the Mission itself. This is because the Mission has always been strictly apolitical. Its monks, who become monks by renouncing worldly attachments, do not even vote, lest it lead to attachment to parties and politics.
A high-voltage election campaign is now on across the state of Bengal, and hoardings and banners with the faces of Modi and the person he is trying to overthrow, incumbent chief minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, are everywhere. The narrow lanes of Howrah are festooned with party flags of the BJP and Trinamool Congress, with occasional dashes of red marking the presence of the CPIM in pockets. The flags, banners, posters, hoardings, and wall paintings all stop some distance from the Belur Math. No sign of the ongoing elections is visible within the gates. The campus itself was quiet and practically deserted when I walked in there shortly after dusk to meet with Swami Suvirananda, the general secretary of the Mission. Eventually, I was ushered into his office where he was still at work looking through files and signing papers. The Mission has more than 200 branches in India and abroad – of which Swami Suvirananda is the chief executive – and a considerable roster of activities, mainly in the fields of education, relief and rehabilitation, and healthcare.
With Hindutva a dominant theme in Indian politics, and a rising force in Bengal, the Mission’s position on Hindu culture is one that holds great significance. A litany of polarising outrages surrounding Hindu Right politics, all rooted in a particular understanding of Hindu traditions, appear routinely on the news. Sometimes it’s just a minister, MP or MLA advocating drinking cow urine to cure anything from Covid to cancer, or someone claiming the internet or aeroplanes or atomic bombs existed during the Mahabharata era a few thousand years ago. At other times it’s a Muslim child being beaten up for entering a temple to drink water one day, a municipality forcing meat shops to close on Tuesdays on another, or someone being lynched on suspicion of eating the wrong meat. It may be a union minister raising slogans of “goli maro salon ko”, or a comedian being jailed for a joke he did not crack, or a university seen as a liberal bastion being ransacked live on television while police stand guard outside, or communal carnage, or a Dalit rape victim’s body being burnt by state authorities allegedly without her family’s consent, thus destroying evidence. How does all of this, typically done by those who profess to be followers of Modi, square with the Ramakrishna Mission’s beliefs and ethos that Modi himself claims to follow?
To understand this, I asked the Mission’s head about its core teachings.
“Sri Ramakrishna was a prophet of harmony,” said Swami Suvirananda. “The famous litterateur Christopher Isherwood described him in these very words, as a prophet of harmony. Naturally, Sri Ramakrishna is our master, and his basic tenet being harmony, it goes without mention that we absolutely do not make any distinction between genders, castes, creeds, communities, high or low.”
The principle of not discriminating extends, barring the distinction of gender, to membership of the monastic order which accepts as monks young men who must be “at least a graduate if not post graduate, doctorate and so on, from 18 years to 30 years old”. Those who join before completing their graduations have to do so after joining. Celibacy is an important condition; only those “determined to lead a celibate life” need apply. Religion and caste, however, are immaterial. “We are the only order of monks in the world which has monks from all the major communities that exist in the world today. You name a religion and I will react to it,” said Suvirananda. I named Islam and Christianity.
They have Muslim monks from Iran and Iraq, he said, including one at Belur Math who is now 84 years old.
And is he still Muslim?
“We do not convert”, replied Suvirananda. “But he must inculcate the ethos of Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna stands for universality of religion, for inclusiveness, harmony, not only tolerance but acceptance...He rejects none, accepts everyone, which is why everybody has a place here, and we are all evolving, we are spiritual brothers, we are more brotherly than brothers born from the same parents, be he from Iraq, or America, or any country in the world.”
The only conditions for membership are sacrifice of what he calls “kama kanchana”, which he translates as “lust and gold”.
There is no taboo on eating non-vegetarian food at the Mission’s institutions. “Most of the pupils at most of the ashramas have a practice of eating vegetarian food but from the headquarters we do not issue any specific instruction that one ashrama should be vegetarian or another should be otherwise”, says Suvirananda. “We have absolutely no problem with the traditional food that is cooked in any Hindu family in Bengal.”
Fish and rice are the staple diet of Hindu Bengalis. Egg and two kinds of meat, chicken and mutton, are also popular parts of the traditional food.
The Ramakrishna temple at Belur Math. Photo courtesy Ramakrishna Mission
All this might sound socially progressive even now in the India of 2021, considering the culture wars being waged by Hindu Right-wingers over issues such as taboos against non-vegetarian food and temple entry by members of other communities. It was radical given the prevailing social mores in 1897 when Swami Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission. “Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda were certainly progressive for their times”, says Suvirananda. “It is not only them. All the great thinkers, the saints and seers are always ahead of their times. Which is why if you read the biography of Vivekananda you will find that he had to go through lots of persecution, misunderstanding, torture, humiliation, even false canards were spread about him in many places, because it is very difficult to understand a prophet of an age in his time. It always happens. Christ was misunderstood, Chaitanya was misunderstood, Krishna was misunderstood, Rama was misunderstood, Ramakrishna was misunderstood, and Vivekananda was misunderstood.”
When Vivekananda came to Dakshineswar temple after returning from the West, he was not allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum because he had crossed the “kala pani” and become a “mleccha” (outcaste or barbarian), says Suvirananda.
The Mission continues to uphold its progressive traditions. Its motto is “Atmano mokshartham jagat hitaya cha”, which means “for one’s own salvation and for the welfare of the world”. There is an emphasis on education and learning. Suvirananda holds up as examples of the Mission’s monks Swami Vidyanathananda or Mahan Maharaj, a globally renowned mathematician who is a graduate of IIT Kanpur and a PhD from the University of California in Berkeley, and the team at the Vedanta Society of New York, which houses outstanding exponents of the philosophy of Vedanta.
“Swamiji [Vivekananda] wanted Vedanta to speak in the language of science and he wanted science to speak in the language of human welfare. Naturally there is absolutely no contradiction between science and religion”, says Suvirananda. “Vivekananda said, throw the religious theories into the laboratory of science and test it. If it stands the test, accept it, otherwise throw it into the dustbin of history. A religion which cannot answer science or the scientific process is no religion. A religion which doesn’t have a scientific temper is no religion. It is superstition.”
What then is religion? Religion, he says, has two facets. “One is the dharma which advocates performance of rituals...bilva leaves, tulsi leaves, sandalwood and mantras and worship to propitiate a particular form of god or goddess. Another is spirituality. No ritual...It is the elevation of the ego”.
Ego, he says, “is the rascal in our lives...Whatever the problem, at individual level, national level, international level, micro or macro level, every problem has its roots in ego, and that is raw ego. It has to be elevated to ripe ego. Take ‘I’ and cross it, and you are Jesus. That is why the elevation of the raw ego to the ripe ego is the pilgrimage of spirituality. That is why Swamiji says each soul is potentially divine. You may be Ram, Rahim or Joseph, doesn’t matter, you are sparks of the same divinity.” Sanatan dharma, he says, is the dharma which preaches acceptance and tolerance. It says “ekam sat, vipra vahuda vadanti”. The truth is one but sages call it by various names.
Or, as Sri Ramakrishna said, "Joto mot, toto path.” There are as many paths as there are opinions.
This is a definition of Sanatan Dharma that few of the trolls advocating hate in its name, drunk on what Swami Suvirananda calls “raw ego”, would appear to live by.