Book Reviews - Chronicle Of An Extraordinary Life
by Suma Varughese
The life of Sri Ramakrishna is well-known. Quite apart from his disciple M's detailed chronicles of his last days, there is Romain Roland's well-known biography, redolent with insight and enthusiasm.
What does Rajiv Mehrotra, better known for his television interviews with spiritual greats and for his close association with the Dalai Lama, bring to the task?
Quite a lot, actually. For one he is an excellent writer and it is a pleasure to read his measured, elegant prose. For another, his knowledge of spirituality is considerable and he is able to follow Sri Ramakrishna's tortuous spiritual journey with understanding and make it intelligible to the rest of us. Thirdly, as a seeker himself he pours a great deal of heart and sympathy into this tale of an illiterate village priest who became one of the greatest spiritual masters of our times.
Like many, he is most drawn to Sri Ramakrishna's catholicity of spirit that led him to personally explore the paths of Islam and Christianity until he could say with calm confidence that they too led to God as did the many paths of Hinduism. Mehrotra calls him "one of the greatest explorers of the inner realm that the world has known" and who can argue with him?
This sympathetic narration of Sri Ramakrishna's fascinating life does not fortunately labour at the details. In swift sketches we move through his childhood and on to his priesthood in the Kali temple of Dakshineshwar, where his spiritual life unfolds. Mehrotra writes about his spiritual odyssey with all its emotional frenzy and strange transports in great detail, offering an indepth look at the enormous complexity of the phenomenon of self-realisation. What is unique about Sri Ramakrishna is that despite having attained the advaitic state of complete unity with Source, he still maintained a dualistic relationship with his beloved Mother. Indeed, he often implored the Mother to keep him in touch with human life, and not allow him to be lost in unity consciousness, far from the swell of human fellowship.
The narration is full of incidents and anecdotes and enlivened by Ramakrishna's penchant for humour. At the height of his spiritual intensity, when all the world had concluded that he was mad, he paid a visit to his village home. His maid met him and quite frankly told him, "Well, you seem to be quite sane," leading him to quip, "How can anyone brought up by you be sane?"
One is as struck by his child-like nature and humility as by his wisdom. For instance, when a pompous follower of Brahmo Samaj denigrates his call for renunciation and tells him that he would be better off telling his followers to uplift society, he shrivels him with the following words, "God alone looks after the world. Let a man first realise Him. Let a man get the authority from God and be endowed with His power; then, and then alone, may he think of doing good to others. A man should first be purged of all egotism. Then alone will the blissful Mother ask him to work for the world."
A fine, intelligently written book that explores a complex subject with subtlety and skill.