Religion & Beliefs

Why Ramakrishna Matters

Ramakrishna (1836-1886) was the Baal Shem Tov of Advaita Vedanta, the foremost nondual tradition of Hinduism.  He was a highly influential religious innovator, but one who did not write down or systematize his teachings; what we possess today are the … Read More

By / November 28, 2008

Ramakrishna (1836-1886) was the Baal Shem Tov of Advaita Vedanta, the foremost nondual tradition of Hinduism.  He was a highly influential religious innovator, but one who did not write down or systematize his teachings; what we possess today are the copious notes of conversations with him.  He was a historical figure, but one whose life is shrouded in hagiography.  And his work birthed a revitalization of Vedanta philosophy which, primarily through his student Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), helped create the underlying metaphysics of the 1960s and the New Age. For these reasons alone, Ramakrishna matters to those Jews who are interested in the roots of their spiritual traditions.  "All is one" may seem like an obvious, or even trite, religious view, but it has a history, and in large part, that history begins, in the modern period, with Ramakrishna.  However, Ramakrishna matters much more than that.  In my research of his work (conducted as part of the writing of my next book, Nondual Judaism), I have come to believe that he is a religious figure who ought to be far better known than he is, particularly in the Jewish community, because he explains religious practice in a way that is valuable for all of us semi-believers, non-believers, and closeted believers. God as All, or God as Beloved? To those who know it, Vedanta is known for its radical understanding of the scriptural teachings of unity: that You are That, that there is no essential difference between subject and object, self and other.  These teachings are encapsulated in the "Mahavakyas" (great sayings) of the Upanishads: Prajñ?nam brahma ("Consciousness is Brahman,"),[1] Ayam?tm? brahm? ("Atman is Brahman"),[2] Tat Tvam Asi ("You are that")[3] and Aham brahm?smi ("I am Brahman").[4]  On the face of it, these teachings are rigorously pantheistic, monistic, and nondualistic.  However, as is well known, and as I have written about in these pages before, Hinduism has many branches, some of which emphasize the fact that all is one, others the many deities of the Hindu pantheon. Advaita, in general, is of the former type, and its pronouncements, though radical, are compatible with atheism, or the pantheism of Spinoza.  One may believe that "all is one" or even that "all is God" without having any notion of a historical God, a personal God, or the other forms of God that are familiar to Western and Eastern religious traditions. For many spiritual Jews today, this presents a problem.  On the one hand, we are taught and, on retreats, have experiences of the great All that encompasses everything.  On the other hand, we also have experiences — and a tradition — of a personal God that hears us, comforts us, even speaks to us.  These are basically incompatible.  On the one hand, the Ein Sof is everything: The essence of God is in every thing, and nothing exists outside of God.  Because God causes everything to be, it is impossible that any created thing exists except through Him.  God is the existence, the life, and the reality of every existing thing.  The central point is that you should never make a division within God…  If you say to yourself "The Ein Sof expands until a certain point, and from there on is outside of It," God forbid, you are making a division.  Rather you must say that God is in found in every existing thing.  One cannot say "this is a rock and not God," God forbid.  Rather, all existence is God, and the rock is a thing filled with God… God is found in everything, and there is nothing besides God.[5] On the other hand, there’s some vague notion that this Everything has a voice, or a personality, or something. Ramakrishna faced a similar problem.  On the one hand, he affirmed the monism of Vedanta.  On the other hand, he was himself a bhakta, or devotee.  Ramakrishna was both an ascetic and an erotic-mystic, often experiencing the Divine in powerful, devotional, and sensual ways.  He was powerfully and mystico-erotically devoted to Shakti, the Divine Mother, in all her forms.  But he was also mystico-erotically devoted to Vishnu in His many forms, and in order to achieve mystical union with Him (whether as Krishna, Christ, or even Allah), would take on feminine attributes in order to unite with his male Beloved. (Here it may seem that Ramakrishna and the Baal Shem Tov permanently part ways.  However, as I have argued elsewhere, Jewish mystics took on similar "feminine attributes" to unite with the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the male aspect of the Divinity.  And there are many Hasidic teachings with nearly the erotic force of Ramakrishna’s.) As reflected in the collection of his oral teachings known as the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Ramakrishna wanted it both ways.  His mind soared to the abstract heights of Advaita Vedanta and his heart loved the Divine personalities.  Both perspectives are essential: When I think of the Supreme Being as inactive — neither creating nor preserving nor destroying — I call him Brahman or Purusha, the Impersonal God.  When I think of Him as active — creating, preserving, and destroying — I call Him Shakti or Maya or Prakriti, the Personal God.  But the distinction between them does not mean a difference.  The Personal and the Impersonal are the same thing, like milk and its whiteness, the diamond and its lustre, the snake and its wriggling motion… The Divine Mother and Brahman are one.[6] In other words, "God" and "the world" are two ways of speaking about the same thing, depending on how we think of them.  God-as-Being is the Ein Sof; God-as-Active is YHVH.  But Ramakrishna goes a step further. God with form is as real as God without form.  Do you know what describing God as being formless only is like?  It is like a man’s playing only a monotone on his flute, though it has seven holes.  But on the same instrument another man plays different melodies.  Likewise, in how many ways the believers in a Personal God enjoy Him!  They enjoy Him through many different attitudes: the serene attitude, the attitude of a servant, a friend, a mother, a husband, or a lover.[7] That is to say, to imagine God only without form — only the One, only the philosophical God, or only the Ein Sof — is to miss the richness of life itself.  Because God/dess takes on many forms, many appearances, and we can delight in them.  Sometimes God is master, sometimes mother, sometimes husband, sometimes lover.  As Lou Reed sang in a different context, "The possibilities are endless/And for me to miss one, would seem to be groundless." Moreover, as with images of God, so with the reality of the world:


Brahman is neither ‘this’ nor ‘that’;  It is neither the universe nor its living beings…  What Brahman is cannot be described… This is the opinion of the jnanis, the followers of Vedanta philosophy.  But the bhaktas [devotees] accept all the states of consciousness.  They take the waking state to be real also.  They don’t think the world to be illusory, like a dream.  They say that the universe is a manifestation of God’s power and glory.  God has created all these — sky, stars, moon, sun, mountains, ocean, men animals.  They constitute His glory.  He is within us, in our hearts. … The devotee of God wants to eat sugar, not to become sugar.[8] What a liberation!  Now nonduality embraces not just polytheism, monism, and monotheism, but paganism as well.  To eat the sugar of life — that is the ethos of carpe diem, of sucking the marrow out of life, of poetry and sex and dance.  To be sure, Ramakrishna himself was an ascetic, not a pagan.  But as I read him, he re-affirms the world (where monism slides to acosmism), and invites us to taste the sugar. Judaism Is Devotion For Ramakrishna, and for Kabbalah, the unspeakable is only one half of the faces of God.  In Kabbalistic language, it is the ein sof in itself: nothingness, unknowable.  But recall that the boundless nondual is-ness and nothing-ness of Being is the starting point, not the endpoint.  The Ein Sof births the Sefirot, the God of attributes and characteristics.  Like Ramakrishna, the Kabbalah insists that "God with form is just as true as God without form."[9]  That All is One is only the beginning.  In Chabad language, pure ayin is only one half of the path of unification.  Its complement is the return to the "lower" from the perspective of the "higher," the samsara that is one with nirvana, the multiplicity that is one with unity, the manifestation that is a manifestation of essence.  Here’s Rabbi Arthur Green, in his primary book of theology, Seek My Face: Because we feel the relationship with God as one of great intimacy, we cannot help but depict it in images of the sorts of human intimacy that we know best: God as our spouse, God as our parent, God as our loving friend.  The process of seeking and of growing in faith requires and opening an making vulnerable of the self that usually happen to us only in the intimacy of human relations.[10] In just this way, devotional nondual Judaism complements the Ein Sof of ayin with the God of yesh, dances in manifestation, and complements contemplation and meditation with prayer, ritual, study, and more.  It provides a communal and ethical frame for how the "individual" relates to the community.  It is a language of people, spirit, righteousness, and engagement. This is Judaism as a devotional practice, understood not as some tortured theological wrangling but as a perspective of the heart.  For some of us, the heart speaks the language of God, and of Judaism.  And for us, the brain trying to make sense out of it is really secondary.  For me, reciting the Ashrei is my way of buying a bouquet of roses for the universe. After all the tragedies of the world, I can’t say what God hears and doesn’t. I just know I want to express love.  Of course, for others, a non-theistic devotional practice, through art or yoga or meditation or some other form, can better express that love. But for me, relating to God feels more fuller, from an emotional perspective, than to Being alone. Skillful religionists know that at different times in our lives, we need different faces of God.  On a meditation retreat, it is often good to discard all images of the Divine, even the notion of "Divine" itself, and approach the ineffability of nonduality.  In a hospital, this can be extremely unhelpful; there we may need God as healer, as listener, as rock of strength.  And in times of emotional pain, we may need some of each.  I love that my religious consciousness allows my heart to pine for the God of my ancestors, and connect with Him (and Her) through ritual and the body. This devotional understanding of Jewish practice avoids the pitfalls of endless and tiring Jewish godwrestling on the one hand, and reductive atheism on the other.  As I’ve written before in these pages, contemporary engaged Judaism seems obsessed with "wrestling," trying somehow to square the circle of religious belief.  This is better than fundamentalism, which layers dogma atop unexpressed desire, but it is still an exercise in false consciousness to the extent we are trying to rationalize what is fundamentally irrational. Yet if religionists layer belief atop unexpressed desire, atheists often ignore the desire entirely.  What is the meaning of the yearning of the heart? Is it really as ridiculous as it is made out to be?  Is not the question, perhaps unlike the answer, as beautiful as the appreciation of painting, dance, or music? Some atheists treat religion the way a bad junior high school teacher treats a poem: as being about the facts it seeks to convey. Whereas a connoisseur of art or of religion knows that the informational content of the myth is far less important than the way the myth functions in a self-examined life.  I don’t care about whether Abraham left Ur and came to Canaan; I care what his journey means to me, to my family, and to my people — "means" as myth, not as history. I care about what it must have been like for Isaac to submit to the violence of his father, and about his soul, so strong, so willing, so bound. I care about these sacred texts not as pseudo-science or pseudo-history, but as myth.  From a nondual perspective, these myths retain their attraction to the relative self.  They tell us nothing about the ultimate — but then, nothing can tell us anything about the ultimate.  What they do tell us about is how "I" struggle, prevail, surrender, and fail in "my" relationship with it. Ramakrishna saw clearly that devotion-practice and wisdom-practice were two different ways to the same end.  In wisdom practice, one contemplates and meditates and inquires, and arrives at the place where the self and the world melt away into vapor.  In devotion practice, one prays and dances and unites, and arrives at the place where the self and the world are radiant manifestations of God.  Sort of the same destination, but seen in very different ways, and approached from different angles. "Under what conditions does on see God?"  Ramakrishna once asked rhetorically.  "Cry to the Lord with an intensely yearning heart and you will certainly see Him."[11] To Know and to Love When Reb Zalman was just Rabbi Zalman Schachter, working as a Hillel rabbi and teacher at Camp Ramah while pursuing his Ph.D. in religion, he came across Vedanta philosophy in the library at Yale.  He told me in an interview, "I was very excited to find out how they were dealing with spirituality and the questions that Ramakrishna raised about how to deal with monism and dualism, and everything that he had to say really made a lot of sense to me.  From there I went to the upanishads." This was, Reb Zalman told me, the beginning of his own deep ecumenism and a turning point in how he understood Judaism in the context of other religious traditions.  It makes a lot of sense.  Here was someone steeped in Chabad nondual philosophy, yet who also loved his devotional path to God.  The nondual and the dual; the impersonal and the personal.  In the Jewish tradition, these were sometimes seen as either/or: either the acosmism of Chabad or the devotionalism of Polish Hasidism, either the all-is-one of Mezrich or the crying to God of Bratzlav.  In Ramakrishna, both are affirmed, but, in a way, both are also put in their place.  Don’t try to rationalize theism; that’s not what it’s for.  But also don’t remain solely in rationalism or mysticism; don’t forget that we are living human beings on a living Earth with a living God.  From one perspective. From the "perspective" of the Absolute, all of us is God because God is all there is.  But from the perspective of the relative, said Ramakrishna, "I look on myself as a devotee of Krishna, not as Krishna Himself."[12]  So, yes, you are God — but you are not God.  Got it?  It depends how you look.  As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi says, the mind is like tofu – it takes the flavor of what it marinates in.  Or as Ramakrishna put it, "The mind will take the colour you dye it with.  It is like white clothes just returned from the laundry."[13]  If you dye your mind with God/dess, you can become intoxicated with Him and Her.  If you dye your mind with pantheism, you can become One with the One. And of course, if you dye your mind with Bloomberg machines, celebrity gossip, and angry political diatribes, well, you know the rest.  We are suggestible creatures, and ultimately, you are what you eat: the kind of media you consume conditions the kinds of thoughts you have.  Garbage in, garbage out.  Anger in, anger out.  Sorry, but there’s no way around it. Judaism needs Ramakrishna, and in its own way, it is reinventing him.  Conservative Movement theologian Elliot Dorff’s new book For the Love of God and People essentially makes the same point: that Jewish law is an expression of love, not reason.  All these pseudo-arguments one often hears, about covenant and chosenness and whatever, are increasingly falling on deaf ears.  What works, in terms of Jewish continuity and Jewish authenticity, is an affirmation of the emotive core of Jewish life.  There’s an energy there, underneath all the claptrap about ideology, myth, and the rest.  Let’s give each part of ourselves its due.  The mind has science, reflection, philosophy, ethics, history.  The heart has art, religion, relationship, earth.  What a miracle that we are born, it seems, both to know and to love.


[1] Aitareya Upanishad 3.3, Rig Veda.

[2] Mandukya Upanishad 1.2, Atharva Veda.

[3] Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7, Sama Veda.

[4] Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10, Yahur Veda.

[5] Moshe Cordovero, Helek Shiur Komah, Modena ms, p.206b, in Bracha Zack, "Moshe Cordovero’s Doctrine of Tzimtzum," Tarbiz 58 (1989), p. 213-14.  Translation mine.

[6] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 32.

[7] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 217

[8] Id. at p. 133.

[9] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 80.

[10] Green, Seek My Face, p. 25.

[11] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 32.

[12] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 842.

[13] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 138.