THE HISTORY of the arts, genius is a thing of very rare occurrence.
Rarer still, however, are the competent reporters and recorders
of that genius. The world has had many hundreds of admirable
poets and philosophers; but of these hundreds only a very
few have had the fortune to attract a Boswell or an Eckermann.
we leave the field of art for that of spiritual religion,
the scarcity of competent reporters becomes even more strongly
marked. Of the day-to-day life of the great theocentric saints
and contemplatives we know, in the great majority of cases,
nothing whatever. Many, it is true, have recorded their doctrines
in writing, and a few, such as St. Augustine, Suso and St.
Teresa, have left us autobiographies of the greatest value.
But, all doctrinal writing is in some measure formal and impersonal,
while the autobiographer tends to omit what he regards as
trifling matters and suffers from the further disadvantage
of being unable to say how he strikes other people and in
what way he affects their lives. Moreover, most saints have
left neither writings nor self-portraits, and for knowledge
of their lives, their characters and their teachings, we are
forced to rely upon the records made by their disciples who,
in most cases, have proved themselves singularly incompetent
as reporters and biographers. Hence the special interest attaching
to this enormously detailed account of the daily life and
conversations of Sri Ramakrishna.
as the author modestly styles himself, was peculiarly qualified
for his task. To a reverent love for his master, to a deep
and experiential knowledge of that master's teaching, he added
a prodigious memory for the small happenings of each day and
a happy gift for recording them in an interesting and realistic
way. Making good use of his natural gifts and of the circumstances
in which he found himself, "M" produced a book unique,
so far as my knowledge goes, in the literature of hagiography.
No other saint has had so able and indefatigable a Boswell.
Never have the small events of a contemplative's daily life
been described with such a wealth of intimate detail. Never
have the casual and unstudied utterances of a great religious
teacher been set down with so minute a fidelity. To Western
readers, it is true, this fidelity and this wealth of detail
are sometimes a trifle disconcerting; for the social, religious
and intellectual frames of reference within which Sri Ramakrishna
did his thinking and expressed his feelings were entirely
Indian. But after the first few surprises and bewilderments,
we begin to find something peculiarly stimulating and instructive
about the very strangeness and, to our eyes, the eccentricity
of the man revealed to us in "M's" narrative. What
a scholastic philosopher would call the "accidents"
of Ramakrishna's life were intensely Hindu and therefore,
so far as we in the West are concerned, unfamiliar and hard
to understand; its "essence", however, was intensely
mystical and therefore universal. To read through these conversations
in which mystical doctrine alternates with an unfamiliar kind
of humour, and where discussions of the oddest aspects of
Hindu mythology give place to the most profound and subtle
utterances about the nature of Ultimate Reality, is in itself
a liberal, education in humility, tolerance and suspense of
judgment. We must be grateful to the translator for his excellent
version of a book so curious and delightful as a biographical
document, so precious, at the same time, for what it teaches
us of the life of the spirit.