Math - the Evolution of Monastic Community Life
contemplative tradition in the Ramakrishna Order of monks
is a living tradition. Here we want to carefully consider
the beliefs and practices that are in the community’s consciousness,
as also the ideas that have been passed down from earlier
days, along with their modern interpretations, if any. We
also need to get an understanding of the source and growth
of the tradition.
Ramakrishna initiated his monastic disciples - most of them
still in their teens - into the mysteries of spiritual life,
and from then on they devoted themselves heart and soul to
practising the disciplines prescribed by him. The Cossipore
garden house then became the crucible for the formation of
the Ramakrishna Order. Later, after the Master’s passing away,
the disciples banded together under the leadership of Narendranath
in a dilapidated house in Baranagore, not far from the Dakshineswar
temple. There they took formal vows of sannyasa, and engaged
in intensive japa and meditation. The whole life of the monastery
centred round the shrine, where the sacred remains of Sri
Ramakrishna (reverentially referred to as Sriji) were installed
and worshipped. Recalling those blessed days, Swami Vivekananda
used to get up at 3 a.m. and after washing our face etc.
- some after bath, and others without it - we would sit
in the worship room and become absorbed in Japa and meditation.
What a strong spirit of dispassion we had in those days!
We had no thought even as to whether the world existed or
not. … It was he (Sashi) who would procure, mostly by begging,
the articles needed for the Master’s worship and our subsistence.
There were days when Japa and meditation continued from
morning till four or five in the afternoon. Sashi waited
and waited with our meals ready, till at last he would come
and snatch us from our meditation by sheer force. (3)
describing the severe austerities of those days, Swamiji said:
were days at the Baranagore Math when we had nothing to
eat. If there was rice, salt was lacking. Some days that
was all we had, but nobody cared. Boiled bimba leaves, rice
and salt - this was our diet for months! Come what might,
we were indifferent. We were being carried along on a strong
tide of spiritual practices and meditation. Oh, what days!
Demons would have run away at the sight of such austerities,
to say nothing of men. (62–3)
saga of the first six years of austerities at the Baranagore
monastery greatly inspired the members of the Order in later
years. In fact, it continues to be thought of by the members
as their model.
Alambazar Math - a Turning Point
the Gita (13.24) it is said, ‘Some by meditation perceive
the Self in themselves through the mind, some by devotion
to knowledge, and some by devotion to selfless work.’ But
post-Shankara monasmonasticism built a tradition of its own
that was plainly opposed to ‘devotion to work’. Following
this tradition, monks led a life of prayer, worship, meditation,
some time after the monks of the Ramakrishna Order had shifted
their Math to Alambazar, some changes took place in their
lifestyle that created agitation in their minds. In fact,
the changes occurred on both the ideational level and the
physical level. When Swami Vivekananda returned from his first
visit to the West, he said one day, ‘I shall revolutionize
the monastic order.’ Previously, ‘liberation for oneself ’
was the ideal of the monks. Now, at the Alambazar Math, Swamiji
added the ideal ‘and also doing good to the world’. While
this new ideal appealed to some of the monks, as also to the
novices who had recently joined, other senior monks disagreed
with it, as they were apprehensive of its affect on the future
of the monastic Order. But Swamiji ignored all opposition.
doubt, it was a sharp turning point in the life of the Math.
And it is doubtful if either the senior or the junior members
of the Order could grasp at that time the import of Swamiji’s
revolutionary move in the larger context of the Ramakrishna
Movement. Even later, occasional changes were made when necessary.
However, history shows that the monastic community was able
to maintain a balance between continuity and innovation, maintaining
both a progressive outlook and faithfulness to the tradition.
owing to the dynamic vision of Swami Vivekananda, the sadhana
of service was given a very prominent place in the activities
of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. According to Gwilym Beckerlegge:
‘The fact that the systematic practice of the sadhana of social
service has come to occupy such a place in the institutional
life of the Ramakrishna movement might be attributable to
Vivekananda’s own foresightedness and astuteness; his appeal
to Hindu paradigms, his reliance upon the symbol of the sannyasi
and his rejection of “reform” rooted in
criticism and condemnation of Hindu norms.’ (4)
the past one hundred years, the Ramakrishna Movement - with
the Ramakrishna Order at its centre - has moved forward, and
has witnessed the interplay of several historical forces.
We shall mention just a few here:
The religious nationalism generated by Swami Vivekananda raised
the national awareness of Indians and ultimately led to the
political liberation of the country. Though the Ramakrishna
Mission incurred the British Government’s wrath for allegedly
sheltering freedom fighters, it also faced criticism from
the public for not actively participating in politics.
In post-independence India the Mission has had a share in
the national reconstruction programme, in keeping with Swami
Vivekananda’s general directive.
In recent times socio-economic changes have brought some prosperity
to the monastic community, while progress in science, technology,
and management skills have brought changes in outlook. In
addition, the increased expansion of the Mission’s activities
has compelled the limited number of monks to switch from direct
service activities to administrative and supervisory jobs.
Last but not least, recent advances in mass communication
and globalization have also affected to a great extent the
lifestyle and vision of the monastic community.
net impact of these things can be seen - in the language of
A Gidden, an authority on Western political science and philosophy
- in the form of detraditionalization and re-traditionalization
of the monastic community’s sacred tradition. (5) Through
these processes customs, beliefs, and traditions are scrutinized
and gradually reconstituted in different forms. This process
of reconstituting new values and traditions has been taking
place in the Ramakrishna Order, giving rise to new procedures.
these hitherto unforeseen socio-political pressures on the
monastic organization, there are several other dangers and
stumbling blocks to living a contemplative life in a world
of action. The most powerful among them are lust and greed,
which more often than not appear in various disguises. Lust
appears in two forms - physical and mental. But comparatively
speaking, the second is the more difficult, for it manifests
as a craving for social recognition, praise, honour, etc.
Both of these have deluded many advanced souls and ruined
their spiritual life. Increased exposure today to a larger
section of society that is steeped in rampant materialism
has made the situation for monastics more complex.
doubt, with the heavy load of responsibilities and the organization’s
many social commitments, the monks are engaged in various
kinds of mundane activities. The responsibilities of their
work also press upon them more and more. In such a challenging
situation a monk must perforce learn to strike a balance between
contemplation and action - which are, in fact, intimately
related. And this balance needs to be sought both ideationally
and through proper allotment of available time. But even in
very strenuous situations, many monks succeed in keeping the
lamp of their inner spiritual life burning.
Study of the Inner Life of Monks
decades after India had achieved political independence, when
the Math and Mission had taken up a large number of developmental
activities in education and health care, many monks began
to wonder if we might lose the great spiritual legacy handed
down to us by our pioneers. At that time I had a chance to
make an objective study of the inner life of some of the monks
of the Order. In the early 70s I was serving as the Assistant
Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission Seva Pratishthan in Kolkata,
a 55 0-bed general hospital. As it is the largest hospital
of the Mission, monks from all centres are admitted there.
For more than four years I had the opportunity to be at the
bedside of monks as they were dying, and my observation of
them at these last moments was quite revealing.
dying person cannot hide his true nature. Seeing how these
dying monks faced the hour of death with grace and dignity,
I was thrilled. And when I compared their dying moments with
those of other people, I was convinced that the disciplined
and spiritually-oriented life of the monks helped them face
death without fear, frustration, worry, or anxiety. Moreover,
some of them correctly predicted their time of departure,
while others gave expression to their spiritual visions, and
again others had nothing but blessings for those around them.
This simple study convinced me that the current of our spiritual
tradition is quite strong among the members of the monastic
Merton (1915–68), a revered American Trappist monk, once wrote:
‘Without this contemplative orientation we are building churches
not to praise Him but to establish more firmly the social
structures, values and benefits that we presently enjoy. …
Without true, deep contemplative aspirations, without a total
love for God and an uncompromising thirst for his truth, religion
tends in the end to become an opiate.’ (6)
other monastic traditions in India, the new type of monasticism
of the Ramakrishna Order puts emphasis on the life of contemplation,
which stresses the inner life. But nowadays, with their heavy
workload and comfortable living conditions, the monks need
to adjust their perspective on their life as a whole in order
to keep their inner life intact. They may also need to adjust
their living habits. Here especially, Sri Ramakrishna is their
guide. According to him, one should mix with people as much
as possible and love all, but then one must dwell by oneself
in one’s own chamber. In this regard, he gave the example
of the cowherd boys and their cows. He said: ‘You can see
your true Self only within your own chamber. The cowherds
take the cows to graze in the pasture. There the cattle mix.
They all form one herd. But on returning to their sheds in
the evening they are separated. Then each stays by itself
in its own stall. Therefore I say, dwell by yourself in your
own chamber.’ (7)
their daily life the monks need to attend to their duties
skilfully and efficiently, but at the same time they must
fervently enter the chamber of their heart and remember their
spiritual goal. As Sri Ramakrishna often sang: ‘Lighting the
lamp of Knowledge in the chamber of your heart, / Behold the
face of the Mother, Brahman’s embodiment’ (ibid.). If the
monks keep this advice in mind, it will unfailingly guide
them like the needle of a compass.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 3.447.
Dom Cuthbert Butler, Western Mysticism (London:Constable,
Swami Prabhananda, The Early History of the Ramakrishna
Movement (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2005), 52.
Gwilym Beckerlegge, Swami Vivekananda’s Legacy of Service
(New Delhi: Oxford, 2006), 259.
A Gidden, Cited by Thauh-Dam Truong, ‘Asian Values and the
Heart of Understanding: A BuddhistView’, in Asian Values:
Encounter with Diversity (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2000),
Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York:Image,
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 637.
seems to be the invariable rule that every newly started
movement should pass through the two stages of opposition
and indifference before its principles are accepted by society
and humanity at large. … at the end of this second stage
we find it accepted by a consensus of public opinion, as
it were, and the ranks of its votaries, henceforth, swell
speedily. … But this third stage of public acceptance is
not to be regarded as the millennium. … For, security of
position brings a relaxation of spirits and energy, and
a sudden growth of extensity quicklylessens the intensity
and unity of purpose that were found among the promoters
of the movement. Hence in place of outside opposition we
find the budding forth in it of an internal opposition due
to the varied opinions of its members, and later, in place
of the former spirit of sacrifice for truth, of a struggle
to maintain the secure social position by compromising truth
with half-truths and a clinging more to the appearance than
to the spirit
- Swami Saradananda