Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and Kali in the West
by Swami Bhajanananda Saraswati
“Sisters and brothers of America.” These words changed the world. Swami Vivekananda’s famous speech, given in 1893 at the Parliament of Religionsin Chicago, was one of the modern world’s earliest formulations of what is now known as Hinduism. Swamiji became one of the most popular speakers at the Parliament, and his success propelled him onto the American stage and then into international renown. This allowed him, along with his brother disciples and followers, to spread yoga and Vedanta in the West and to establish the dynamic work of Ramakrishna Math and Mission in the East.
But the story does not truly begin with Swamiji’s stirring words at the Parliament. It does not even begin with the life of Vivekananda. The story begins with the heart of the Divine Mother responding to the crying need of the age. The story begins with Sri Ramakrishna.
Sri Ramakrishna is considered by many as the central force behind the spiritual awakening of this age. The heart yearns for an infinite love. Through his extraordinary purity and devotion and his unprecedented spiritual disciplines and experiences, Sri Ramakrishna released a spiritual current of grace, making the divine mystery accessible to all.
Avatar of the Age
Sprung from the direct experience of ancient sages, Indian culture had always been rooted in spiritual truth, which pervaded daily life. Invasion after invasion by foreign looters had cost India much, but its spiritual core remained strong, its eternal foundations resilient and adaptable to the ever-changing details of history. However, when the Europeans arrived in India, they quickly realized that in order to gain control of her wealth, they had to conquer her heart and soul as well. Many lands across the globe had fallen to European colonists, not only because of military strength but because of the introduction of European diseases such as smallpox and plague, to which the local populations had no hereditary resistance. In such weakened conditions, conquest became comparatively easy. In the case of India, what was the disease that weakened society, making it possible for a handful of Europeans to control two hundred million people? It was a materialistic worldview that values wealth above people, and people above God.
At the time of Sri Ramakrishna’s advent India’s ancient system of education and training was disappearing. The youth brought up in an occupied land began to identify with their occupiers and to doubt the religion and traditions that, to them, had led to such subjugation. They began imitating the West and saw India’s religious traditions as obstacles to their entering the modern world. But all attempts to revitalize India by destroying the traditions that had sustained her were bound to fail.
Swami Saradananda asks: “How can India, whose soul is religion, survive if her religion is not restored to life? How is it possible for the atheistic West to eradicate the religious degradation that resulted from its own materialism?”2
We read in the Bhagavad Gita that the blessed Lord incarnates in every age, when there is a decline in dharma, for the protection of the righteous and the destruction of the wicked. Devotees of Sri Ramakrishna recognize in him the latest incarnation who came to restore the soul of India in her darkest hour, to restore her ancient dignity and spiritually uplift the world.
Kali, the Mother
Born in 1836, the very year that the British system of education was adopted in India, Sri Ramakrishna grew up in an orthodox brahmin family in the village of Kamarpukur. Although only some sixty miles from the urban center of Kolkata, the seat of English colonial power, Kamarpukur was not influenced by Western culture and thought. In 1852 Sri Ramakrishna moved to Calcutta, joining his older brother Ramkumar. This move was not only across space, but across time as well, for with this move Sri Ramakrishna encountered the nineteenth century.
Two years later he accepted to officiate as a priest (pujari) at Rani Rasmani’s newly-built Kali temple in Dakshineswar, which would become the stage of his unprecedented spiritual practices and realizations. As Kali’s priest he began to ask himself if the goddess he was sincerely serving was real or not. If she was real, could one experience her directly? His intense longing for the vision of Mother Kali became so great, so overwhelming, that the Mother could not keep herself hidden from him any longer. The Master related his first vision of Kali to his close disciples:
I had a marvelous vision of the Mother and fell down unconscious.... Within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss that I had never before experienced, and I felt the immediate presence of the Divine Mother.3
Even after this beatific vision Sri Ramakrishna was not satisfied and longed to have unbroken communion with her, sometimes rolling on the ground crying, “Mother, be gracious unto me! Reveal Yourself to me!”
The Master later recounted:
Sometimes I would lose outer consciousness from that unbearable agony. Immediately after that I would see the Mother’s luminous form bestowing boons and fearlessness! I used to see Her smiling, talking, consoling, or teaching me in various ways.4
The Divine Mother also sent him teachers to initiate him into the complicated practices of Tantra, the difficult abstractions of Vedanta, the varied devotional moods of Vaishnavism, and even the ‘foreign’ faiths of Islam and Christianity. Each he practiced with full sincerity. And the goal presented in each opened up to him as direct experience. In the heart of every tradition he saw his Mother Kali shining. Sri Ramakrishna’s famous declaration “as many faiths, so many paths” (yato mat, tato path) was not the result of intellectual comparison or of a modern open-mindedness. It came from his own realization, a gift of Goddess Kali to the world. The Master realized that his liberal view was singularly unique. He came to understand that the Divine Mother was working through his body and mind. She is the reality that Sri Ramakrishna incarnated. It was Her message that Sri Ramakrishna revealed.
Vivekananda and Kali
Mother Kali was Sri Ramakrishna’s overwhelming reality. He sang to her, had visions of her, spoke intimately to her, and heard her voice. It was only by accepting Mother Kali that Swami Vivekananda could fully accept Sri Ramakrishna and become his pure instrument. The Master had already seen Narendra’s (Vivekananda’s pre-monastic name) future in a vision. He understood that it was Narendra who would lead his disciples and devotees to accomplish the Mother’s mission in the world. But the young Narendra, like much of young Bengal, had been swayed by the persuasive teachings of Keshab Chandra Sen and the Brahmo Samaj. The Samaj and the other socio-religious groups of the day, responded to the challenge of the West, not with atheism, but with a Christianized form of Hinduism. In their attempt to purify Hinduism of what they saw as superstition, they preached that the various deities were false, and its members even signed loyalty oaths vowing not to bow down before images. Thus Narendra’s close association with Sri Ramakrishna created a great dilemma for him, for he had witnessed the Master’s power, purity, and devotion, but could not accept the Hindu world that the Master lived in: a world of gods and goddesses, of “graven images,” of visions and ecstasies. Swamiji later said of this time:
How I used to hate Kali! … and all Her ways! That was the ground of my six years’ fight — that I would not accept Her. … I loved him [Sri Ramakrishna], you see, and that was what held me. I saw his marvelous purity. … I felt his wonderful love. … His greatness had not dawned on me then. All that came afterwards when I had given in. At that time I thought him a brain-sick baby, always seeing visions and the rest. I hated it. And then I too had to accept Her!5
Like many major breakthroughs in life, Swamiji’s ‘accepting’ Kali came as the result of a personal crisis. With the death of Narendra’s father, his once affluent household was thrown into deep poverty. The young Narendra, although employable and qualified, could not secure any work to relieve his family’s suffering. He reached the point of despair. Perhaps all this was the arrangement of the Divine Mother, for in times of great need she manifests. The Swami recounts:
It occurred to me that God grants the Master’s prayers, so I should ask him to pray on my behalf that my family’s financial crises would be overcome. I was sure that he wouldn’t refuse, for my sake. I rushed to Dakshineswar and importuned him, saying, “Sir, you must speak to the Divine Mother so that my family’s financial problems can be solved.”
The Master replied: “I can’t make such demands. Why don’t you go and ask the Mother yourself. You don’t accept the Mother—that is why you have all these troubles.” I replied: “I don’t know the Mother. Please tell the Mother for me. You have to, or I won’t let you go.”
The Master said affectionately: “My boy, I’ve prayed many times to the Mother to remove your suffering. But She doesn’t listen to my prayers because you don’t care for Her. All right, today is Tuesday, a day especially sacred to Mother. Go to the temple tonight and pray. Mother will grant whatever you ask for, I promise you that. My Mother is the embodiment of Pure Consciousness, the Power of Brahman, and She has produced this universe by mere will. What can She not do, if She wishes?” When the Master said that, I was fully convinced that all my suffering would cease as soon as I prayed to Her. I waited impatiently for night. At 9.00 p.m. the Master told me to go to the temple. On my way, I was possessed by a kind of drunkenness and began to stagger. I firmly believed that I would see the Mother and hear Her voice. I forgot everything else and became absorbed in that thought alone. When I entered the temple, I saw that the Mother was actually conscious and living, the fountainhead of infinite love and beauty. Overwhelmed with love and devotion, I bowed down to Her again and again, praying, “Mother— grant me discrimination, grant me detachment, grant me divine knowledge and devotion, grant that I may see You without obstruction, always!” My heart was filled with peace. The universe disappeared from my mind and the Mother alone occupied it completely.6
Two more times Sri Ramakrishna sent him back to the temple, and all three times Swamiji forgot to ask for his family’s financial relief. The Master then granted that his family would not lack plain food and clothing. On Swamiji’s request, that very night the Master taught him a song, which Swamiji sang until dawn:
Mother, Thou art our sole Redeemer,
Thou the support of the three gunas,
Higher than the most high.
Thou art compassionate, I know,
Who takest away our bitter grief.
Thou art in earth, in water You;
Thou liest as the root of all.
In me, in every creature,
Thou hast Thy home;
though clothed with form,
Yet art Thou formless Reality.
Sandhya art Thou, and Gayatri;
Thou dost sustain this universe.
Mother, the Help art Thou
Of those who have no help but Thee,
O Eternal Beloved of Shiva!
The Master was so happy that he kept telling people over and over again: “Narendra has accepted the Mother Kali. That’s very good, isn’t it?”7
During the years of his training, Narendra kept asking Sri Ramakrishna for an experience of nirvikalpa samadhi, the complete absorption of the self in the Divine. The moment came at Kashipur, during the Master’s final illness. Sri Ramakrishna was lying awake in his bed while Narendra was downstairs in another room absorbed in deep meditation. He felt as if a lamp was burning at the back of his head when his sense of individual existence drowned in the bliss of pure Being.
When he regained normal consciousness, Sri Ramakrishna told him: “Now the Mother has shown you everything. But this revelation will remain under lock and key, and I will keep the key. When you have accomplished the Mother’s work you will
find the treasure again.”8
Even the realization of the non-dual Brahman comes as a gift from the Divine Mother.
Vivekananda did not often mention Sri Ramakrishna in his public talks in the West. Even less did he reveal the centrality of Mother Kali in his life and thought. He focused instead on the message of the Master by presenting the broad underlying principles of religion, lecturing on the Upanishads, and preaching “what is good for universal humanity.” Though not openly preached, the swami could not keep his love for the Divine Mother hidden from his intimate disciples.
“You see,” he once said, “I cannot but believe that there is somewhere a great Power that thinks of Herself as feminine, and called Kali, and Mother.”9 Upon his return to India, he started the yearly observance of Durga Puja and Kali Puja at Belur Math, along with the daily worship of Sri Ramakrishna.
Swamiji did, in fact, on occasion speak about the Mother:
Mother is the first manifestation of power and is considered a higher idea than father. With the name of Mother comes the idea of Shakti, Divine Energy and Omnipotence, just as the baby believes its mother to be all-powerful, able to do anything. The Divine Mother is the Kundalini (“coiled up” power) sleeping in us; without worshiping Her we can never know ourselves. All-merciful, all-powerful, omnipresent are attributes of the Divine Mother. She is the sum total of the energy in the universe. Every manifestation of power in the universe is “Mother.” She is life, She is intelligence, She is Love. She is in the universe yet separate from it. She is a person, and can be seen and known (as Sri Ramakrishna saw and knew Her). Established in the idea of Mother, we can do anything. She quickly answers prayers. She can show Herself to us in any form at any moment. Divine Mother can have form (Rupa) and name (Nama) or name without form; and as we worship Her in these various aspects we can rise to pure Being, having neither form nor name.10
Just as Sri Ramakrishna incarnated at a time when Indian culture was being threatened by materialism, so also Swamiji arrived in the United States at a cusp in Western culture, when simple religious beliefs were being undermined by the scientific method, the evolutiontheory of Charles Darwin, and the Industrial Revolution. The doctrines of the Church no longer satisfied the educated classes, who became Swamiji’s audience. To them he spoke his Master’s liberal and liberating message: that God not only exists but can be realized as a personal fact; that the religions of the world, including Christianity, are paths leading the sincere to this ultimate goal; that the truths of the Upanishads and methodologies of yoga were not antagonistic to rational inquiry or scientific scrutiny.
As we celebrate Swamiji’s 150th birth anniversary, we look up to his legacy. In India he is a national hero, the prophet of the modern Hindu renaissance. We can see practically the transformative influence he has had on his motherland by inspiring
generations of his monastic and lay followers to spread education, empower women, uplift the poor, serve the distressed, and distribute spiritual knowledge—all in the name of Sri Ramakrishna, the Avatar of the Age.
But what is his enduring legacy outside of India? As the first Hindu sannyasin to preach in America, Swamiji prepared the stage for today’s interest in yoga, meditation, ayurveda, kirtan, and the many Hindu-based religious movements that are thriving. But we also see the more subtle effect of Swamiji’s work, the effect he has had on the intellectual and spiritual culture of the world. Sri Ramakrishna’s realization, “As many faiths, so many paths” was first declared to the West by Swamiji during his opening address at the Parliament of Religions:
As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.11
This once revolutionary idea is now widely accepted, even by many Christians. Although “Vivekananda” is not a household name, his influence has acted as a leavening agent, fundamentally lifting the world-view of millions.
Kali in the West
While in India this universal message has never been separated from the person of Sri Ramakrishna, in the West, we are only beginning to recognize the person behind the principles, the giver of the gift. As Swami Saradananda writes in his masterpiece Sri Sri Ramakrishna Lilaprasanga:
Will people come on their own to accept the Divine Mother’s liberal message ‘As many faiths, so many paths,’ or will they accept it through that person who became the instrument of the Mother and brought that message to the world? The answer to this question, as we understand it, must be determined by the questioner after seeing the result of the full realization of this doctrine either within themselves or in others. Until that realization dawns, silence is the best answer. But if the reader asks what we believe, we say that along with an authentic experience of this liberal attitude, one must have a vision of that person whom the Divine Mother, for the first time, sent to embody that doctrine for the good of the world. And one must pour out heartfelt love and respect for him who was free from ego and delusion. The Master will not demand this; no one else will prompt it; love for the Divine Mother will drive one to it spontaneously.”12
Swamiji arrived in America in 1893. Within seven short years he established a network of societies to promote the teachings of Vedanta. Since then, these have spread to hundreds of centers, ashramas, monasteries, convents, study groups, and home shrines— all dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna.
Swamiji once told Sister Nivedita: “The future, you say, will call Ramakrishna Paramahamsa an Incarnation of Kali? Yes, I think there’s no doubt that She worked up the body of Ramakrishna for Her own ends.”13
When you love someone, you want to love what they love, who they love. Sri Ramakrishna and Mother Kali cannot be separated. Though it has been 120 years since Swamiji first addressed his American sisters and brothers, Mother’s work in America is just beginning. She must have a special plan, for She not only sent Vivekananda, but also other direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, companions of the avatar, such as Swamis Saradananda, Turiyananda, Abhedananda, Trigunatitananda, and Nirmalananda—all great saints and knowers of God.
As far as we know, the first traditional worship of Kali in America was performed in the 1940s by Swami Prabhavananda, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda, at Vedanta Society in Hollywood, California. Initially only very close devotees of the society were allowed to attend, for fear of upsetting the puritanical sentiments of their neighbors, or of provoking the cultural biases and prejudices of even some of their own members. But over the years the annual all-night Kali Puja has become more and more popular, a highlight in the devotional lives of both Indian and Western devotees.
Another example of Swamiji’s legacy is Kali Mandir in Laguna Beach, California. In 1993 Elizabeth Usha Harding, author of Kali, the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar, arranged for a beautiful Kali image to be brought from India, which was ritually awakened by the late Sri Haradhan Chakraborti, the main priest of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. He named her Sri Ma Dakshineswari Kali and explained that because the image was now ‘alive’, she needed to be worshiped every day. And Mother arranged for her worship, as devotees who had very little background in the intricacies of India’s temple puja standards now found themselves gradually adopting this vastly rich devotional tradition one detail at a time—out of a simple love and desire to please Mother. Haradhanji and his assistant Sri Pranab Ghosal came annually for seventeen years, teaching the devotees Kali puja as practiced in Dakshineswar since the time of Sri Sri Ramakrishna and Kali in the West 17 Ramakrishna. There was never an intention to start a temple or establish a monastery. Over time this simple daily worship grew organically and slowly took on the form of a fully-functioning Hindu temple, where devotees, young and old, Western and Indian, householder and renunciant, can pour forth their hearts’ yearning to the Great Mystery at the center of existence.
The Path of Love
Sri Ramakrishna’s life and teachings point unequivocally towards spiritual freedom. It is not birth, not upbringing, not culture that decides your path. It is yearning. With yearning for the Divine, it does not matter what path you walk; and without yearning, you will not be able to walk any path. Sri Ramakrishna reveals the purest and safest approach to an often misunderstood goddess. There are many ways of worshiping Kali. While many may be authentic, not all are safe. Sri Ramakrishna mastered the sixty-fourbranches of tantra—many difficult and controversial. But when the time came to train his own disciples, he made the path to God simple and beautiful. He said:
Call out to Ma with yearning. When you have Her vision, the taste for worldly objects dries up; all attachment to the objects of lust and greed (kamini-kanchan) goes away, far into the distance. If you have the feeling that She’s your own Mother, it happens immediately. She’s not your Godmother. She’s your very own Mother!” 14
When Swamiji was in Kashmir, he performed severe austerities. After many nights of intense sadhana at Kshir Bhavani, he had the vision of Mother. Returning to the houseboat that he and his companions were renting, he raised his hands in benediction and placed the marigolds that he had offered to the goddess on the heads of all of the disciples saying, “No more ‘Hari Om!’ It is all ‘Mother’ now! … I am only a little child!”15
Today, more than 150 years after his birth, we are still calculating the tremendous impact this ‘little child’ has had on the world. Sri Ramakrishna held the key to the Mother’s treasure, and Swami Vivekananda,in his brief, blazing life of service, accomplished her work, without a doubt. But Mother’s great miracle is that he then left the key for any one of us to find, if we but surrender to her.
“This attitude of regarding God as Mother,” Sri Ramakrishna said, “is the last word in sadhana. ‘O God, Thou art my Mother and I am Thy child’ — this is the last word in spirituality.”
1 First published as “Vivekananda and the Worship of Kali in the West” in
Prabuddha Bharata, January 2013.
2 Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, trans. Swami
Chetanananda (Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 2003), p. 80.
3 Ibid., p. 212.
4 Ibid., p. 213.
5 Sister Nivedita, The Master as I Saw Him, (Udbodhan, Kolkata, 2005), pp.
6 Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, pp. 842-3.
7 Ibid., p. 844. Sri Ramakrishna and Kali in the West
8 M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, 2002), p. 79.
9 Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 Vols.,
(Advaita Ashram, Kolkata, 1989), p. 523.
10 Ibid., 7.26-7.
11 Ibid., 1.4.
12 Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, p. 562.
13 The Master as I Saw Him, p. 140.
14 Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita, 1.12.5, trans. by Swami Ambikananda Saraswati.
15 His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2
Vols., (Advaita Ashram, Kolkata, 2008), 2.381-2.