Cambridge, MA. Recently I’ve blogged several times on New Testament passages, including the transformation of Peter in Acts 10, and the question that Pentecost poses to our Catholic identities. But my real job for America is, as you probably know, to explore the interreligious realm, sometimes in current events but more often – being who I am – with reference to texts ancient and modern. So, before Pentecost arrives and then slips away, here is another such venture into Hindu tradition. For your meditation, I offer an account of a text that very much reminds me of the Pentecost experience — namely, when the nineteeth century mystic Ramakrishna, shortly before his death, seems clearly to communicate his spirit/Spirit to his disciples. I suggest that we can learn from this scene, even if we steer clear of equating the event with Pentecost, or this spiritual energy entirely with the Spirit.
It is from Swami Saradananda’s Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play. (Since I do not know Bengali, I draw on the 2003 translation by Swami Chetanananda of the Vedanta Society in St. Louis. In the Bengali, it is the Lila Prasanga, known in its earlier translation as The Great Master.)
At the beginning of 1886, suffering from cancer, the fifty year old Ramakrishna is staying in a house in Cossipore, near Calcutta. When he goes out for his daily walk in the garden on January 1, he asks Girish, a disciple, “What have you seen and understood (about me) that makes you say all these things (that I am an avatar, and so on) to everyone, wherever you go?” Girish answers simply, seemingly more to himself than to his master: “What more could I say of Him? Even the sages Vyasa and Valmiki could find no words to measure His glory!” Since Vyasa and Valmiki are seers symbolic of the whole of the tradition — in a way like Moses and Elijah from a Christian perspective — Girish’s words add up to a very strong confession of faith. It is a response that may remind us of Peter’s words to Jesus, when asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and “Will you also go away?”
Ramakrishna responds to this testimony directly: “What more need I tell you? I bless you all. May you all be illumined!” He then goes into ecstasy, as he often did, but this time his disciples do as well: “That selfless and profound blessing touched the devotees deep within their hearts and they became mad with joy. They forgot time and space; they forgot the Master’s illness; they forgot that they had vowed not to touch the Master until his recovery.” Feeling that now they recognized him fully as “a wondrous divine being” who took upon himself their suffering and offered them “shelter as selflessly as a loving mother,” they bowed down to him and touched the dust at his feet, and as they did, “the ocean of the Master’s compassion burst through all bounds and created an astonishing phenomenon.” In turn, the Master touched each of them and seems to have unleashed his grace within them.
The effect on the gathered disciples was intense: “They had no doubt that from now on all sinners and sufferers — despite their shortcomings, lack of spirituality, and feelings of inadequacy — would find shelter at his blessed feet. Seeing the Master in that unique and exalted state, some became speechless and could only watch him as if bewitched. Some called out loudly to everyone inside the house to come and be blessed by the Master’s grace. Others picked flowers from the garden and began to worship him, uttering mantras and showering him with flowers.” It was only when his ecstasy ended, that they too came back to a normal, quiet state — perhaps like the disciples, at the end of that Pentecost day?
Saradananda reports the effect of all this on the meditation practices of one devotee, Ramlal Chattopadhyay. As soon as the Master touched him with his foot — in that context, a sign of special favor — Ramlal said, “Before this, when I meditated I could see only part of my Chosen Deity with my mind’s eye. When I saw HIs feet I couldn’t see His face, and when I saw His form from His face to His waist, I couldn’t see His feet. Moreover, whatever I saw never seemed to be alive.” That is, he was accustomed to meditate on the divine reality in a particular form as his “chosen deity” (ista devata) a form suited to his temperament and spiritual state, and was struggling to advance to a fuller and more real vision of the divine. This day, finally, there was a change: “No sooner had the Master touched me that day than the whole form of my Chosen Deity appeared in my heart as a living presence, benign and effulgent.” Perhaps such an awakening happened also to the disciples gathered in the upper room?
Another devotee, Vaikuntha, reports an even more powerful effect: “Consequently, a wonderful change came across my mind. I began to see the Master’s gracious, smiling, and luminous form in the sky, the houses, the trees, all human beings, and in everything else I saw in all directions. I was overwhelmed with extreme bliss.” This became a quasi-permanent state for Vaikuntha over the next days, and he had finally to beg Ramakrishna to allow him to return to normal, that he might carry on his daily duties. Strikingly, it is with this account, and not the death of Ramakrishna (eight months later) that Saradananda finishes the Divine Play. The spirit of Ramakrishna had entered deep into the lives of those who would outlive him.
I dare not guess what you will think of all this, but the account reminds me of Pentecost: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2) We of course do not have first-hand accounts of those first men and women touched by the Spirit that day. Acts does not offer us any direct insight into their personal experience or how the descent of the Spirit upon them changed their lives from the inside out. But we can and should use our imaginations, to open the way for us to share the experience. Where there are parallels, even imperfect ones, we should take advantage of them. In this light, the event recounted in the Divine Play should be able to help us to expand our imaginations and see differently what that first Pentecost must have meant to those upon whom the Spirit came.