"Unselfishness is God. One may live on a throne, in a palace, and be perfectly unselfish; and then he is in God. Another may live in a hut and wear rags, and have nothing in the world; yet if he is selfish, he is intensely merged in the world." - Swami Vivekananda
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PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | January 2007  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Baranagore Math - the Evolution of Monastic Community Life

 

 

     The 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 communitys 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.

 

     Sri 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 Masters 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 later said:

 

     We 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 Masters 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)

 

     Again, describing the severe austerities of those days, Swamiji said:

 

     There 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. (623)

 

     The 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.

 

 

 

     The Alambazar Math - a Turning Point

 

 

     In 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, and study.

 

     But 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.

 

     No 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 Swamijis 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.

 

     Thus, 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 Vivekanandas 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)

 

     During 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 Governments 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 Vivekanandas 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 Missions 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.

 

     The 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 communitys 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.

 

     Besides 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.


     No doubt, with the heavy load of responsibilities and the organizations 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.

 

 

     A Study of the Inner Life of Monks

 

 

     Two 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.

 

     A 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 community.

 

 

     Conclusion

 

     Thomas Merton (191568), 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)

 

     Like 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 ones 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)

 

     In 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, Brahmans embodiment (ibid.). If the monks keep this advice in mind, it will unfailingly guide them like the needle of a compass.

 

 

     References

 


     1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 18, 1989; 9, 1997), 3.447.
     2. Dom Cuthbert Butler, Western Mysticism (London:Constable, 1966), 221.
     3. Swami Prabhananda, The Early History of the Ramakrishna Movement (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2005), 52.
     4. Gwilym Beckerlegge, Swami Vivekanandas Legacy of Service (New Delhi: Oxford, 2006), 259.
     5. 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), 43.
     6. Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York:Image, 1971), 118.
     7. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 637.

 

 

     It 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
of things.

 

- Swami Saradananda

 

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Purushakara yantra. Painting. Rajasthan. C. 18th century A.D.
Purushakara yantra. Painting. Rajasthan. C. 18th century A.D.


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