Ramakrishna: Did he Really Practice Other religions?

The central argument of the RK Mission for its non-Hindu character was that, unlike Hinduism, it upheld the ‘equal truth of all religions’ and the ‘equal respect for all religions’. The latter slogan was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi as sarva-dharma-samabhâva, a formula officially approved and upheld in the BJP’s constitution.n 1983, RK Mission spokesman Swami Lokeshwarananda said: ‘Is Ramakrishna only a Hindu? Why did he then worship in the Christian and Islamic fashions? He is, in fact, an avatar of all religions, a synthesis of all faiths.

The basis of the Swami’s claim is a story that Swami Vivekananda’s guru Paramahansa Ramakrishna (1836-86) once, in 1866, dressed up as a Muslim and then continued his spiritual exercises until he had a vision; and likewise as a Christian in 1874. If at all true, these little experiments shouldn’t be given too much weight, considering Ramakrishna’s general habit of dressing up a little for devotional purposes, e.g. as a woman, to experience Krishna the lover through the eyes of His beloved Radha (not uncommon among Krishna devotees in Vrindavan); or hanging in trees to impersonate Hanuman, Rama’s monkey helper.

But is the story true? Author Ram Swarup finds that it is absent in the earliest recordings of Ramakrishna’s own talks. It first appears in a biography written 25 years after Ramakrishna’s death by Swami Saradananda (Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master), who had known the Master only in the last two years of his life. Even then, mention (on just one page in a 1050-page volume) is only made of a vision of a luminous figure. The next biographer, Swami Nikhilananda, ventures to guess that the figure was ‘perhaps Mohammed’. In subsequent versions, this guess became a dead certainty, and that ‘vision of Mohammed’ became the basis of the doctrine that he spent some time as a Muslim, and likewise as a Christian, and that he ‘proved the truth’ of those religions by attaining the highest yogic state on those occasions.7

It is hard not to sympathize with Ram Swarup’s skepticism. In today’s cult scene there are enough wild claims abroad, and it is only right to hold their propagators guilty (of gullibility if not of deception) until proven innocent. In particular, a group claiming ‘experimental verification of a religious truth claim as the unique achievement of its founder should not be let off without producing that verification here and now; shady claims about an insufficiently attested event more than a century ago will not do. It is entirely typical of the psychology behind this myth-making that a researcher can testify: Neither Swami Vivekananda, nor any other monk known to the author, ever carried out his own experiments. They all accepted the truth of all religions on the basis of their master’s work. This is the familiar pattern of the followers of a master who are too mediocre to try for themselves that which they consider as the basis of the master’s greatness, but who do not hesitate to make claims of superiority for their sect on that same (untested, hearsay) basis.

Ramakrishna Coexist

The popular image of Ramakrishna. But did he practice other religions? Koenraad Elst argues probably not.

For some more polemical comment, let us look into one typical pamphlet by a Hindu upholding the Hindu character of the Ramakrishna Mission: The Lullaby of ‘Sarva-Dharma-Samabhâva’ (‘equal respect for all religions’) by Siva Prasad Ray. The doctrine of ‘equal respect for all religions’ (in fact, even a more radical version, ‘equal truth of all religions’, is one of the items claimed by the RK Mission as setting it apart from Hinduism.

This doctrine is propagated by many English-speaking gurus, and one of its practical effects is that Hindu girls in westernized circles (including those in overseas Hindu communities) who fall in love with Muslims, feel justified in disobeying their unpleasantly surprised parents, and often taunt them: ‘What is the matter if I marry a Muslim and your grandchildren become Muslims? Don’t these Babas to whom you give your devotion and money always say that all religions teach the same thing, that Islam is as good as Hinduism, that Allah and Shiva are one and the same?‘

When such marriages last (many end in early divorce), a Hindu or Western environment often leads to the ineffectiveness of the formal conversion of the Hindu partner to Islam, so that the children are not raised as Muslims. Yet, Islamic law imposes on the Muslim partner the duty to see to this, and in a Muslim environment there is no escape from this islamizing pressure. Thus, after the Meenakshipuram mass conversion to Islam in 1981, non-converted villagers reported: ‘Of course, there have been marriages between Hindu harijans and the converts. Whether it is the bride or the groom, the Hindu is expected to convert to Islam.‘

Even when the conversion is an ineffective formality, such marriages or elopements which trumpet the message that Hindu identity is unimportant and dispensible, do have an unnerving effect on vulnerable Hindu communities in non-Hindu environments. They also remain an irritant to Hindus in India, as here to writer Siva Prasad Ray. More generally, the doctrine that all religions are the same leaves Hindus intellectually defenceless before the challenge of communities with more determination to uphold and propagate their religions.



To counter the facile conclusion that Ramakrishna had practised Christianity and Islam and proven their truth, Siva Prasad Ray points out that Ramakrishna was neither baptized nor circumcised, that he is not known to have affirmed the Christian or Islamic creed, etc. Likewise, he failed to observe Ramzan or Lent, he never took Christian or Islamic marriage vows with his wife, he never frequented churches or mosques. This objection is entirely valid: thinking about Christ or reading some Islamic book is not enough to be a Christian or a Muslim.

Equally to the point, he argues: ‘Avatar’ or incarnation may be acceptable to Hinduism but such is not the case with Islam or Christianity. In Christianity, one might say that the notion of divine incarnation does exist, but it applies exclusively to Jesus Christ; applying it to Ramakrishna is plain heresy. Sitting down for mental concentration to obtain a ‘vision’ of Christ or Mohammed is definitely not a part of the required practices of Christianity or Islam. Neither religion has a notion of ‘salvation’ as something to be achieved by practising certain states of consciousness. In other words: before you claim to have an agreement with other people, check with them whether they really agree.

The same objection is valid against claims that Swami Vivekananda was ‘also’ a Muslim, as Kundrakudi Adigalar, the 45th head of the Kundrakudi Tiruvannamalai Adhinam in Tamil Nadu, has said: He had faith and confidence in Hinduism. But he was not a follower of Hinduism alone. He practised all religions. He read all books. His head bowed before all prophets. But ‘practising all religions’ is quite incompatible with being a faithful Christian or Muslim: as the Church Fathers taught, syncretism is typical of Pagan culture (today, it is called ‘New Age’). Leaving aside polytheistic Hinduism, the mere attempt to practise both Islam and Christianity, if such a thing were possible, would have stamped Ramakrishna as definitely not a Christian nor a Muslim.

Moreover, it is simply untrue that Swami Vivekananda ever ‘practised’ Christianity or Islam: he was not baptized or circumcised, did not attend Church services or Friday prayers, never went to Mecca, never observed Ramzan or Lent. But he did practise vegetarianism (at least in principle) and celibacy, which are both frowned upon in Islam. Worst of all, he did worship Hindu Gods, which by definition puts him outside the Islamic fold, Islam being based on the rejection of all Gods except Allah.

Ramakrishna was quite satisfied worshipping Goddess Kali, but: ‘There is no respectful place for deities in female form in Islam. Rama Krishna engaged in the worship of Kali was nothing but an idolater in the eyes of the Muslims. Islam says that all idolaters will finally end up in Islam’s hell. Now, I want to ask these egg-heads of sarva-dharma-samabhâva if they know where exactly is the place for Rama Krishna in Islam? The fact is that Rama Krishna never truly worshipped in the Islamic fashion, neither did he receive Islamic salvation.

Ray challenges the RK Mission monks to try out their assertions on a Muslim or Christian audience: ‘All this is, thus, nothing but creations of confused and boisterous Hindu monks. No Christian padre or Muslim maulvi accepts Rama Krishna’s salvation in their own religions. They make snide remarks. They laugh at the ignorance of the Hindu monks.Ray makes the snide insinuation explicit: ‘Only those Hindus who do not understand the implications of other religions engage themselves in the propagation of sarva-dharma-samabhâva; like stupid and mentally retarded creatures, such Hindus revel in the pleasures of auto-erotism in their wicked pursuit of the fad. This rude comparison means that they pretend to be interacting with others, but it is a mere fantasy, all inside their own heads, with the assumed partners not even knowing about it.

Finally, Ray wonders what happened to the monks, those of the RK Mission and others, who talked about ‘equal truth of all religions’ and chanted ‘Râm Rahîm ek hai’ (‘Rama and Rahim/Allah are one’) and ‘Ishwar Allâh tere nâm’ (‘both Ishwara and Allah are Your names’) in East Bengal before 1947. As far as he knows, they all fled across the new border when they suddenly found themselves inside Pakistan, but then: ‘Many a guru from East Bengal [who] has been saved by the skin of his teeth, once in West Bengal, resumed his talk of sarva-dharma-samabâva. But the point still remains that if they really had faith in the message of sarva-dharma-samabhâva, they would not have left East Bengal. As so often in Indo-Pakistani and Hindu-Muslim comparisons, the argument is reminiscent of the inequality between the contenders in the Cold War: you could demonstrate for disarmament in the West, but to demonstrate for this in the East Bloc (except if it were for unilateral disarmament by the Western ‘war-mongers’ would have put you in trouble.

Siva Prasad Ray also mocks the RK Mission’s grandiose claim of having evaluated not just a few popular religions, but all religions: ‘Did Rama Krishna ever worship in accordance with Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Saurya or Ganapatya principles? No, he did not. Neither did he worship in accordance with the Jewish faith of Palestine, the Tao religion of China, the religion of Confucius, or the Shinto religion of Japan. Empirically verifying the truth of each and every religion is a valid project in principle, but a very time-consuming one as well.

According to Ray, the slogan of ‘equal truth of all religions’ is nothing but a watered-down sentiment that means nothing. It is useful only in widening the route to our self-destruction. It does not take a genius to realise that not all paths are good paths in this life of ours; this is true in all branches of human activity. Unlike the RK Mission monks, Ray has really found some common ground with other religions and with rationalism too: they all agree on the logical principle that contradictory truth claims cannot possibly all be right; at most one of them can be right.

To sum up, Ray alleges that the RK Mission stoops to a shameful level of self-deception and ridicule, that it distorts the message of Ramakrishna the Kali-worshipping Hindu, and that it distorts the heritage of Swami Vivekananda the Hindu revivalist. Yet, none of this alleged injustice to Hinduism gives the Mission a place outside Hinduism. After all, there is no definition of ‘Hindu’ which precludes Hindus from being mistaken, self-deluding or suicidal. Regardless of its fanciful innovations, the RK Mission remains a Hindu organization, at least by any of the available objective definitions. Alternatively, if the subjective definition, ‘Is Hindu, he and only he who calls himself ‘Hindu’, is accepted, then of course the RK Mission, unlike its founders, is no longer Hindu,-but then it is no longer Ramakrishna’s mission either.

The larger issue revealed by the incident with the RK Mission is a psychology of self-repudiation which is fairly widespread in the anglicized segment of Hindu society, stretching from actual repudiation of Hinduism to the distortive reformulation of Hinduism itself after the model of better-reputed religions. In a typical symptom of the colonial psychology, many Hindus see themselves through the eyes of their once-dominant enemies, so that catechism-type books on Hinduism explain Hinduism in Christian terms, e.g. by presenting many a Hindu saint as ‘a Christ-like figure’ modern translations of Hindu scriptures are often distorted in order to satisfy non-Hindu requirements such as monotheism. This can take quite gross forms in the Veda translations of the Arya Samaj, where entire sentences are inserted in order to twist the meaning in the required theological direction. The eagerness to extol all rival religions and to be unsatisfied with just being Hindu is one more symptom of the contempt in which Hinduism has been held for centuries, and which numerous Hindus have interiorized.

‘various creeds you hear about nowadays have come into existence through the will of God and will disappear again through His will ‘Hindu religion’ alone is Sanâtana dharma’ for it ‘has always existed and will always exist’ …Ramakrishna

koenraad_elstKoenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he began fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. He regularly blogs at koenraadelst.blogspot.com on issues pertaining to Hinduism today. The above article was reprinted by Hindu Human Rights from Koenraad Elst: Who Is a Hindu?, Delhi 2002.