Sri Ramakrishna, who was born in 1836 and passed away in 1886, represents the very core of the spiritual realizations of the seers and sages of India. His whole life was literally an uninterrupted contemplation of God. Sri Ramakrishna is now regarded as the Prophet of the Modern Age by a large number of people in different parts of the world. Nobody can deny the fact that he is the greatest spiritual personality born in the modern age. No other religious leader has exerted so profound and pervasive influence on modern thought as Sri Ramakrishna did, although much of that influence has been indirect and unrecognized as such. Among the contributions that Sri Ramakrishna has made to modern thought, three need special mention. They are: re-establishment of the supremacy of the spiritual ideal, harmony of religions, and spiritualization of the humanistic impulse.
The modern world is characterized by the dominance of the materialistic outlook and the multiplication of the objects of enjoyment. Mechanization of life’s activities and the endless quest for material enjoyment has alienated man not only from nature but also from the source of power and joy in the soul within him. As a result, modern man’s life has come to be characterized by a sense of futility, meaninglessness and boredom. There is also an enormous increase in acts of violence, crime, immorality and strange new diseases. It is in this context of the predicament of modern man that we can understand the true import of Sri Ramakrishna’s central teaching, Ishvar-Iabh-i manush jivaner uddeshya “God-realization alone is the great purpose of human life”. By God, Sri Ramakrishna meant the Supreme Self, the Ultimate Reality, of which the individual Selves are parts of reflections. This means, as Swami Vivekananda put it, each soul is potentially Divine; every person has in him or her the power to attain Supreme Knowledge, power and happiness. Religion is a discipline, which enables a person to unfold and manifest the infinite possibilities that he holds in his soul. Thus, religion for Sri Ramakrishna is not mere subservience to certain social customs and external observances but a process of inner growth known as spiritual development, which enables man to overcome his limitations, solve the problems of life, and attain supreme fulfillment and immortally. This is actually the central principle of Vedanta, the ancient system of philosophy and spirituality, which forms the foundation of Indian culture. Sri Ramakrishna reestablished this ancient ideal through his life and teachings.
Sri Ramakrishna rediscovered forgotten spiritual paths and revalidated the authenticity and practicability of the spiritual traditions of India. Not only that. By following the spiritual paths of other religions, Sri Ramakrishna, revalidated the spiritual authenticity of the other world religions as well. This has enabled millions of people to recover faith in God and eternal verities. No less a person than Mahatma Gandhi has borne testimony to this fact. ‘The story of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s life, wrote Gandhiji, ‘is a story of religion in practice. His life enables us to see God face to face.’ Through his God-intoxicated life Sri Ramakrishna proved that the revelation of God takes place at all times and that God-realization is not the monopoly of any particular age, country, or people.
The second major contribution of Sri Ramakrishna to world thought, for which he is more famous, is the principle of harmony of religions. This principle was derived from the profound realization of the oneness of the Ultimate Reality, which Sri Ramakrishna attained by actually following the spiritual paths of different religions. He did not subscribe to the popular notion that all religions are the same. On the contrary, he recognized the differences among religions, but held that, in spite of these differences, every religion has an essential core of spirituality, which constitutes the common ground of all religions. The differences among religions pertain to their nonessential aspects. As regards the Ultimate Reality, just as the same water in a pond is called pani, jal, etc, by different linguistic groups, so the same God is known by different names.
This idea had been expressed more than four thousand years ago by the Vedic sages in the dictum, ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti, ‘Truth is one; sages call it by various names’. What Sri Ramakrishna did was to validate this ancient Truth through personal experience and apply it in the field of inter-religious relations. Thus he declared, “As many faiths, so many paths.” The paths vary, but the goal remains the same. Harmony of religions is not uniformity; it is unity in diversity. It is not a fusion of religions, but a fellowship of religions based on their common goal — communion with God. This harmony is to be realized by deepening our individual God-consciousness. In the present-day world, threatened by nuclear war and torn by religious intolerance, Sri Ramakrishna’s message of harmony gives us hope and shows the way.
Yet, another important contribution of Sri Ramakrishna to world thought is the spiritualization of human relationships. He saw God in all people-in the poor, the sinner, and the suffering as well as in the rich, the virtuous and the joyful. He treated all with respect. He did not like the idea of showing compassion to people, which implied an attitude of condescension. Instead, he taught that man should be served as God. It was this idea of service as worship that Swami Vivekananda later on developed into his famous Gospel of social service and made it the basis of all social service activities carried on by the different institutions of the Ramakrishna Movement.