Monday, March 21, 2011

Historical Sri Ramakrishna — I

Historical Sri Ramakrishna — I
March 18, 2011, 4:51 pm

By Martin Kämpchen
MANY years ago, I gave a lecture in Kolkata on Rabindranath Tagore’s visits to Germany in the 1920s. I described the enthusiastic response he received as well as the criticism his books and he himself had to face. Some of the criticism was due to envy, some to the strangeness of his exotic appearance, and because of the softness of his lyrical prose which these critics misjudged as weakness. After the lecture an elderly gentleman got up and said, sadly: "I am very sorry that you do not like Rabindranath." It took me a while to clarify that I was merely reporting some historical facts and had not revealed my personal likes or dislikes at all.

Another time, I was requested by a college teacher to find out the full text of the remarks the German Indologist, Paul Deussen, had made of Swami Vivekananda in his autobiography. Excerpts available in India showed omissions indicated by three dots. It took me some effort to get the book and find the quotation. The omitted sentences happened to be critical of the Swami. I wrote down the German text and added a verbatim English translation and sent both to my elderly friend. This was the last I heard of him; he cut off our relationship of many years.

These examples are typical. We in India find it difficult to distinguish between historical facts surrounding a historical figure and our own subjective attitude to such a figure. We tend to hero-worship and, in the process, to block out any traits that do not happen to conform with the venerable image we have conceived. The full facts of history are being suppressed because we refuse to accept a larger, more complex and contextual view of the figure we venerate. Whoever this figure is, he or she was part of history and thus part of the positive and negative processes and attitudes of the time. This does not detract from that person’s heroic traits. In fact, I see heroism more truly exhibited in the ability to strictly follow a chosen path by conquering the hindrances and the opposition within oneself and in society.

This penchant to idealize and thus lift a person beyond history is responsible for why many saints of India have not yet been studied as figures of history. Myth and legend are being confused with history as verifiable by genuine records.

In the 1980s, I wrote a doctoral thesis at Santiniketan comparing the life of Sri Ramakrishna with the life of Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint. It was not well accepted by some devotees of Sri Ramakrishna who argued: How is it possible to compare an avatar with a mere saint? However, cannot Sri Ramakrishna, as a man of history, be compared with Francis, as a man of history? Their common ground is their historicity as human beings. Whether or not Ramakrishna was an avatar, and whether or not I as the author believe this, must not be part of an academic debate. It is an article of faith. By the way, personally, I have every respect for my friends who worship Sri Ramakrishna as their ista debatar. But again, this is outside academics.

As regards Sri Ramakrishna, the result of this idealizing predisposition, is that research on him has led into two directions. One path is taken by his devotees, especially by the learned monks of the Ramakrishna order and its followers. Scholarly rigour, spiritual and missionary zeal will have been invested in describing and interpreting Ramakrishna’s life and translating the conversations with his disciples into English. This is hagiography, intended not only to acquaint its readers with the avatar, but also to inspire in them the love and veneration.

The second path is taken by academics who research on the historical time in which Sri Ramakrishna lived. They study him as historians, psychologists and scholars of religious studies. They are Indians, Europeans and Americans. As it always happens, some of the research is weak or slanted, even erroneous, and other works are original and brilliant. Unfortunately, most men and women of the first path reject these academic offerings wholly, the weak along with the brilliant. Probably, they consider academic research unhelpful in their spiritual quest.

I have felt grieved by this gulf in understanding and interpreting Sri Ramakrishna, feeling close to the ideals of the order, and at the same time, trying to be a true scholar. Why don’t educated worshippers of Sri Ramakrishna desire to know more and ever more about the life of their chosen ideal? Is this not a natural yearning? Why do they fear that seeing Sri Ramakrishna as a historical figure would weaken their faith in him? This fear, I assume is one motivation for rejecting historical scholarship. Speaking for myself, scholarly enquiry has not dampened my enjoyment of Sri Ramakrishna’s childlike, spiritual exuberance and his inspiring conversations. On the contrary, I have grown more appreciative of his enormous spiritual struggles after understanding the complex historical context in which he lived.

Probably the central question of this debate is: Can men and women who are not worshippers of Sri Ramakrishna truly understand him as what he is? Does it need a deep spiritual love for him to appreciate his essence? In other words, do academics miss his essence when they look at him as a figure of 19th century Kolkata middle-class society? This is an intricate question. Those who follow the first path would, I assume, reply that Sri Ramakrishna can be understood best by meditating on him, by devotedly loving him ~ not through history books. And this is the argument why they turn away from the scholarship of the historians as a waste of time.

My reaction to this is that educated persons looking at Sri Ramakrishna are obliged, by dint of their education, to gather all the facts of his spiritual and earthly journey. Such persons cannot afford to ignore the Sri Ramakrishna of history. Genuine modern education is bound to create a wish to understand an object of knowledge on all levels ~ rationally, emotionally and spiritually. Education teaches us that we are intelligent as well as spiritual beings and that we are whole only when we allow our various powers to interact with each other. We cannot but accept history as a necessary complement to our faith life.

(The Statesman/ANN)

The writer is a German scholar, based in Santiniketan

(To be concluded)

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