Ramakrishna was one of the most remarkable Indian saints of recent history (1836 - 1886). He is chiefly known for his high attainments in approaching God along many different paths. Most saints have one path, one line of attainment in reaching the goal. He explored each in its turn. He was a lively and likable human and made a deep impression on all that came into his sphere. He left behind innumerable devotees and helped many to follow the ultimate goal in his footsteps. One of his most noteworthy devotees was Vivekananda who eventually made his way to America where he helped to form a bridge between Eastern and Western thought and culture.
The offshoot of Vivekananda's teachings on Vedanta are still being propagated today by the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Ramakrishna was a highly unorthodox and controversial figure in his time. He did everything straight from the heart and with great enthusiasm. He wasted no time or energy on earthly pursuits but showered all his love and energy on the Divine in the various roles that were cast in his life. As a young man he was given the job of priest in a Kali temple to carry out the daily rites conferred on the statue of the Divine Mother. To Ramakrishna it was not a statue but the Mother herself and he carried out all the prescribed rites with full devotion and love for the Mother and an intense longing for a vision of her real form. His attachment grew to the Mother Kali behind the stone form and he more and more desired to directly see what he knew to be the living presence depicted in the statue.
After this event Ramakrishna was constantly seeking a repetition of the vision of the Mother's form and She began to reveal herself to him, first in his trance states and later in ordinary consciousness.
...the moment I lost outward consciousness in a paroxysm of pain at separation from the Mother, I would feel her standing before me in Her matchless radiant form, granting boons to Her devotees and bidding them to be of good cheer! I used to see her smiling, talking, consoling, or teaching in various ways
As time went on, the presence of the Mother became the centerpiece of his life.
"O Mother." he would pray day and night. "I have taken refuge in you. Teach me what to do or say. Thy will is paramount everywhere and is for the benefit of Thy children. Merge my ego in Thy will and make me Thy instrument." As his realization deepened, the vision of the Mother became continuous. Formerly at the time of meditation it was with difficulty that he gained a glimpse of Her beautiful hand, feet, or face; now he saw Her entire form as She spoke to him, and directed him in his day's work. Heretofore, while offering food to Her, a luminous ray from Her eyes would touch it, merely taking its essence; now he saw Her partake of the food even before it was offered in the regular way. Formerly he regarded the stone image of Kali as possessed of consciousness; now the image disappeared and in its stead there stood the Living Mother Herself, smiling and blessing him.
It is said that:
In whatever form the devotee worships God,
God will assume that form to bless his earnest devotee
In this phase of his spiritual journey, Ramakrishna saw God as the Divine Mother, but his spiritual journey was never static. Next he took up devotion to the form of the Avatar Rama who lived thousands of years ago and after attaining a vision of Rama, he next fixed his goal on Krishna, another divine incarnation. In this way Ramakrishna spent his whole life seeking God in many different ways.
One of his young charges had a bible and used to read to Sri Ramakrishna stories from the bible. He became enamored of the wonderful stories of the life of Christ and of the beautiful picture of the Madonna with the Divine Child and fully immersed his mind in the Christian images for three days. On the fourth day as he was walking he saw an extraordinary looking person of serene aspect approaching him with his gaze intently fixed on him. Presently the figure drew near and from the inmost recesses of Sri Ramakrishna's heart there came the realization: "There is the Christ who poured out his heart's blood for the redemption of mankind and suffered agonies for its sake. It is none else but the Master-Yogin Jesus, the embodiment of Love!" In his divine vision the Son of Man embraced Sri Ramakrishna and became merged in him. The Master lost outward consciousness in Samadhi, realizing his union with Brahman with attributes. Thus was he convinced that Jesus Christ was an Incarnation of the Lord.
In addition to being a Devotee (an inherently dualistic relationship), Ramakrishna also attained to mergence in the absolute (ie complete non dualism). This came through a meeting with an advanced practitioner of Advaitha (Oneness with God) by the name of Totapuri. The wandering monk had attained the ultimate mergence in Nirvikalpa Samadhi after strenuous meditation extending over 40 years. After mergence he wandered freely seeing Brahman everywhere, oblivious to the joys and sorrows of the world. Totapuri saw only the formless and impersonal Absolute. He was not a devotee of God in the sense Ramakrishna was.
On meeting Ramakrishna he recognized a man of some spiritual attainment and he asked him if he would like to learn Vedanta. Ramakrishna replied in his simple way that he would have to go "ask his Mother" and in a subsequent conversation with the Divine Mother she said, "Yes, my son. That is why I have brought him here". So Totapuri initiated him and began to teach him Advaitha philosophy
Then Totapuri asked Ramakrishna to withdraw the mind completely from all objects and dive into the Atman. This he was used to doing to have ecstatic communion with the Divine Mother. But when he tried to go to a still higher plane, there was She always, blocking his way to a vision of the formless absolute by presenting Her own charming form to his sight. Totapuri pressed a pointed piece of glass between his eyebrows and told him to concentrate all his energies at that point. Sri Ramakrishna once again concentrated intensely and when the vision of the Mother appeared before him he used his discrimination as a sword to severe the image in two and soared into the heights of Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Totapuri closed the doors and left him in that state and to his utter amazement, he remained rigid and lost to the outer world for three days. At the end, in disbelief Totapuri reentered and slowly began to bring his disciple back into waking consciousness by chanting a sacred mantra - Hari OM. He was astonished that Ramakrishna had attained in one day what it had taken him forty strenuous years to accomplish.
Throughout the latter part of his life, Ramakrishna floated in and out of Samadhi throughout the day. It seemed as if only a small part of him was grounded in the Earth plane. If someone sang a devotional song with fervor, or mentioned an aspect of God, off he would float, oblivious to his surroundings while his ecstatic trance lasted. Many of India's spiritual lights came to visit him and were impressed with his glowing countenance, his flights of Samadhi, and the wisdom that floated from his lips, at times almost subconsciously as if directed by the Mother. Often the conversation would pause and his visitors would wait patiently and watch the serene look on his face as he hovered far above human consciousness.
Nearing 50 he developed cancer of the throat and as it got worse, his disciples had to force him to eat, though he was mostly unaware of the body in his higher state. When his condition worsened, his disciples pressed him to ask the Mother to cure him. But he was content with his state saying:
"Let the body and its pain take care of one another.
Thou, my mind, be always in bliss."
He resisted them at first but later thought that for their sake he would ask her for healing. Ramakrishna recounts:
"I said to Her, 'I cannot eat anything for this pain. Please so arrange that I may eat a little'. She showed me a vision of ALL and said, 'Why, you are already eating through so many mouths, why be concerned with this one!'. I was ashamed and could not utter another word."
Throughout his life he transformed many a struggling disciple with a touch from his hand, imparting a fraction of his own bliss to them through his contact. Before his passing he spiritually charged his closest devotees with a touch of his hand on their head or chest. They all experienced inexpressible bliss and a vision of the work to be done after his passing. Said one "Formerly I could see in meditation only portions of my Chosen Ideal's form. But that day, His entire form flashed before my vision, and I saw Him seated in my heart as a distinct living presence. Another disciple said "He lightly touched my chest. That worked a strange transformation within me. I saw the blissful form of the Master in everything I saw. I was besides myself with joy and shouted to all to come and share in the blessing. After a few days, being unable to do any work, I had to ask Sri Ramakrishna to lessen its intensity, after which it became intermittent."
His closest disciple Narendra (Vivekananda) attained the highest state through meditation after receiving the blessing of the master. At first he felt as if a light had been placed behind his head. Then he passed beyond all relativity and was lost in the Absolute, in Nirvikalpa Samadhi. When he regained a little consciousness of the world, he found only his head but not his body. He cried out, "Ah, where is my body!" The master laughed and only said "Let him stay in that state for a while! he has teased me long enough for it."