The Contemplative Tradition in the Ramakrishna Order

 Swami Prabhananda

     The period of eight and a half months that Sri Ramakrishna lived at the Cossipore garden house is popularly considered to be the beginning of the monastic community that later became known as the Ramakrishna Order of monks. What began with a handful of fiery young men gradually became a religious community belongingto the Puri sect of the Dashanami tradition. These monks then took up the mission of living theideal that Sri Ramakrishna had placed before them and also of spreading his teachings – teachings that their leader, Swami Vivekananda, believed to be the gospel for the modern world.

     Sri Ramakrishna’s own sadhana was rooted in renunciation – spontaneous renunciation. And renunciation formed the heart of the monastic community that he founded. When Sri Ramakrishna chose Narendra (Swami Vivekananda) as the leader of this group, he also made him its role model. For Sri Ramakrishna recognized that Narendra was a dhyana-siddha (an adept in meditation), that he was never attached to lust and gold, that he was free from ignorance and delusion, and that he belonged to the class of ever-free souls. Moreover, he knew that renunciation was the very soul of Narendra’s life.

     Even when Swamiji was in the West, spreading his master’s message, he kept the inner flame of renunciation burning in the hearts of the monks of the Order with his fiery letters. Later, after he returned to India, he inspired them even more with his own life and words. In one address to the monastic community, he described renunciation as “love of death”. But he also told them that they must adapt themselves to a changing world. Further, he said, You must try to combine in your life immense idealism with immense practicality.(1) He wanted the members of the Order to be no less than the great rishis of ancient India. He also gave them the motto Atmano mokshartham jagaddhitaya ca; For one’s own liberation and for the good of the world to guide them in their life. Thus we find that Swami Vivekananda’s life is the perennial guide for the Ramakrishna Order, inspiring its members in all their activities.

     Some Personal Recollections


About a hundred and twenty years have passed since the founding of the Order. Before looking ahead to the future, let us take a look back. My strong curiosity about the mystery of contemplative life brought me in touch with some great souls of the Order. Following are a few brief accounts of some meetings with them:

     – In the winter of 1959, when I was a young brahmacharin, I went to the Ramakrishna Mission TB Sanatorium at Dungri, Ranchi. Soon after I arrived, I found a senior swami sitting alone in the courtyard of the monks quarters. After I prostrated at his feet, he looked at me and said, “Do you hear the anahata sound?” Anahata means “unstruck”. It is the primordial spiritual vibration. Startled by such a question, I could only utter, “What?” He quietly asked again, “Do you not hear the sound of omkar?” “What do you say, Maharaj?” I replied. At this he said, “Why? I hear it continuously.” Then he straightened his back, shut his eyes, and dived deep within his heart. His woollen wrapper dropped from his back, and his partly unbuttoned shirt showed his chest. Before my amazed eyes, the flush on his face spread to his chest, and an ethereal smile spread over his countenance. Four or five minutes passed. Then he said softly, “When I sit straight I hear the sound quite distinctly.” After a moment he said, “I first heard this holy sound in 1911 . Since then I have heard it continuously. This sound does not come from outside. It emanates from the core of the heart and merges back into it. Japat siddhi – one attains it through japa.

     This was Swami Shantananda (1884 – 1974 ), a disciple of Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi. Once he gave me his personal diary to read, and in it I found some of his spiritual experiences recorded. Later he again asked me several times if I had experienced the anahata sound, and I said no. But he encouraged me to practise intense japa. When I was leaving for the Himalayas for six months of tapasya, he reminded me to strive for this experience. He also gave me some money to get milk regularly, for such meditation requires strenuous brainwork. On my return, the first question he asked was if I had heard the sound of omkar. When I said no, he encouraged me to continue striving for the experience.

 – I first met Swami Premeshananda (1884 – 1967), also a disciple of Holy Mother, in 1948 or 49 at the Sargachhi Ashrama, and I began visiting him regularly. He was a charming man. Every day after his bath he would go to the shrine upstairs and meditate for about half an hour. I watched him closely. Soon after he sat for meditation he would undergo a strange transformation. His face brightened with a flush, which gradually spread to his chest. Later, when he went down the stairs, I noticed that his steps were unsteady. I was sitting by his side when he was eating his noon meal, and I began to ask him some questions. But I quickly realized that I should not have done so, for I clearly observed that until he had eaten a little food, he could not talk distinctly. I understood that he was still overwhelmed with a spiritual mood from his meditation in the shrine, and naturally it took some time for him to regain his normal state. This happened every day.

     – During the summer of 1964 I spent two weeks in the holy company of Swami Atulananda (formerly Cornelius J Heijblom of Amsterdam), a disciple of Holy Mother. He was then staying at Sri Sarada Kutir at Barlowgunj, in the foothills of the Mussoorie Hills. Normally indrawn, he was a typical contemplative. When he sat for meditation, his face seemed to get bright with a light. His answers to our questions revealed something of the richness of his spiritual experiences. These things have been recorded in the book Atman Alone Abides. Whenever he spoke of Swami Turiyananda, a change came over him. Swami Atulananda passed away at the age of 97 on 21 August 1966. During the last three or four days of his life he was repeating “Jai Ma“. And the last words he uttered were “Om Ma” and “Hari Om“.

     In the tradition of the Ramakrishna Order, the outward expression of spiritual experience is scrupulously avoided, for often such expression betrays a desire for special recognition. This obstructs one’s progress and even leads one astray. Yet we have seen few swamis – such as Swami Gadadharananda, a disciple of Swami Shivananda – who could not control their spiritual ecstasies. Swami Gadadharananda passed away in 1971. His experiences accorded with the signs of genuine spiritual experience as they could be experienced by others also and they did not contradict reason.

     – Swami Yatiswarananda and Swami Premeshananda were not public speakers as such, but their talks before groups of devotees always touched the core of one’s heart. These talks were unforgettable. Though some of the previous incidents were rare, there was another kind that was quite common. For example, I lived with Swami Purnatmananda, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda, at Almora – once for five months and another time for two months. As head of the Almora centre, he had many duties. But throughout the day, whenever he had any time, he would sit with his back straight telling his beads. There would be a glow on his countenance that would bring joy to my heart. It reminded me of something “M” had said: “You have to see a monk at his best, when he is meditating.”

     – Swami Saswatananda (1894 -1963) was known as a staunch Vedantin. He taught another young swami and me the Mandukya Karika. His words had such conviction and were so powerful that they went deep in our hearts. Once he said: “All that you see is apparent and illusory. It is only the all-pervading Brahman that you really see.” There was so much force and conviction in these words that for about three days I strongly felt that what he said was true.

     – Swami Hitananda (d. 1984) was a disciple of Swami Shivananda. As soon as he would begin performing the worship in the shrine at Belur Math, he would become an altogether different person. He would seem to radiate spirituality.

     In October 1958 I met Swami Sadashivananda (d. 1960), a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, at the Varanasi Sevashrama. As I made pranams to him, he lovingly embraced me and showered his blessings on me. He repeatedly told me how happy Swami Vivekananda would have been to see a young man like me. I was verwhelmed by his personality, but I could hardly understand him. He tried to impress upon me that Swamiji was all love. Swami Sadashivananda would become a changed person in the presence of bright young men. Later I met
him again and had a similar experience.

     One sweltering summer afternoon in May, 1963, I went by bus to Belur Math. I was to hand over an envelope given by Swami Lokeswarananda to the General Secretary, Swami Vireswarananda (1892-1985). When I reached the General Secretary’s office it was 2.30 p.m., and I was perspiring. Swami Vireswarananda was then going through the mail, and he quietly asked me to sit down on a chair. Then he went over to a cupboard and began preparing a glass of sherbet. Assuming that he was preparing it for himself, I immediately offered my services. But the swami bade me sit quietly. In those days there was only one office assistant in the headquarters office. The swami sent that boy to Belur Bazaar to bring some ice and gave him two paise. Then he returned to his mail. After some time the boy returned. When the Swami was satisfied that the pieces of ice were clean, he put them in the tumbler of sherbet and offered it to me. Overwhelmed at this development, I quietly drank the sherbet with tears rolling down my cheeks.

     Swami Nrisimhananda (d. 1992), a disciple of Swami Nirmalananda, served leprosy patients in the village of Adur in Kerala for forty years. The patients there did not want him to leave them. I went to see him in the company of a senior swami. It was a winter morning, and Swami Nrisimhananda, who was then over seventy years old, was in tattered gerua robes. I humbly offered him my woollen wrapper, but he refused to accept it. I talked with him for some time about his experiences, and later I corresponded with him. He repeatedly assured me that he had realized the truth that our yogis aspire to achieve through japa and meditation. I was deeply impressed by his experiences.

     All these incidents, and many more, touched my heart. Such things are not seen in mundane life. They hinted at the joy of spiritual illumination and seemed to invite me to enter the inner chamber of spiritual life.

The Foundation of Contemplative Life

     Contemplation is a traditional part of Indian monastic life. Acharya Shankara was the first to organize and systematize Hindu monasticism, and he enjoined the abbots of the monasteries to keep the spirit of tapas (austerity) and jnana (learning) burning in the lives of monks, and also to undertake pravasa (tours) to disseminate religious teachings. These things then naturally became a part of the Ramakrishna Order of monks, but with the added inspiration of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings they took on fresh vigour and a new outlook. This new outlook demanded that the monks live together in groups and forge a community. Such a life itself is a great discipline; especially since Hindu monks have always maintained a fiercely independent spirit.

     The mystical tradition in Hindu religious life has its roots in the Upanishads. For example, the Katha Upanishad (2.1.1) says: “God made people’s senses directed outward from their very birth; so they always look outside and never within. Rare is the wise person who, desiring immortality, directs his senses inward and perceives the truth of his own innermost Self.”

     Accordingly, the Indian mystics took up the study of the inner life and succeeded in penetrating some of the great mysteries of life. But this calls for living an inward life. It requires a shift from the external world to the internal world and demands a reorientation of one’s lifestyle, attitudes, and values. The Mundaka Upanishad (3.2.4) makes it clear that one cannot attain the Atman without sannyasa. Naturally then, spiritual seekers chose secluded places to concentrate their minds, and they practised detachment from everything material.

     Tradition, Contemplation, and Meditation

     Let us take a fresh look at the terms “tradition”, “contemplation”, and “meditation”. The word “tradition” comes from the Latin noun traditio (handing over), which is derived from the verb tradere (hand over, deliver). Tradition then is something that is handed down from one generation to another and is generally accepted by the latter. If it were not accepted it would cease to be a tradition. Something that is a heritage can be preserved as a remembrance of the past, but a tradition is something that continues into the present. It is a standard or set of standards consisting of established beliefs, customs, practices, and even patterns of thought and behaviour. But this does not mean that these standards are passed down intact in their form, meaning, or spirit. Again, sometimes apparent breaks in a tradition are actually a kind of transformation engendered by circumstances.

     Meditation and contemplation are closely connected, and these words have different meanings and interpretations in different religious systems. When these words are used interchangeably, confusion arises. According to the Western tradition, meditation involves concentration – that is, the focusing of the conscious mind on a single idea, system, doctrine, etc. At the same time, it remains a cognitive and intellectual process. The English word “meditate” comes from the Latin meditari, which connotes deep and continued reflection – that is, concentrated and sustained thinking.

     The word “contemplation” is derived from the Latin cum (with) and templum (a consecrated place). Contemplation is considered by some to be the end of an ascetic quest, but it is also considered to be a spiritual stage in itself. Dom Cuthbert Butler pointed out two distinct meanings in the Western contemplative tradition – that is, the objective meaning and the subjective meaning. (2) Indian mysticism, however, does not admit any such distinction.

     According to the Hindu tradition – especially in the Yoga and Vedanta systems – meditation is of a higher order than contemplation. It is different from reflective reasoning, and its goal is to attain direct perception of something. While contemplation is thinking about the Divine, meditation is a spontaneous flow of the mind towards the Divine. At the outset, meditation may proceed through an effort of the mind; but with the help of a symbol or image, and strengthened by faith, it should end in absorption in the Divine. Again, contemplation means thinking about the form of and stories about the Divine or an Incarnation, while meditation means keeping the mind fixed uninterruptedly on him or her.

     Prayer and japa are also practices that help deepen one’s spiritual life. Japa means repetition of the divine name. Prayer uses words, images, and thoughts to communicate with God, but contemplation and meditation use fewer of these or even dispense with them entirely. Japa, prayer, contemplation, and meditation are all important tools in spiritual life that help us develop and use a mystical mind and heart.

     A contemplative is one who practises contemplation. And contemplative life means a life characterized by contemplation. The contemplative mind is sometimes compared to a bee hovering and buzzing around a flower and the meditative mind to the bee which is already seated on the flower and sipping the honey.

 Baranagore Math – the Evolution of Monastic Community Life

     The contemplative tradition in the Ramakrishna Order of monks is a living tradition. Here we want to carefully consider the beliefs and practices that are in the community’s consciousness, as also the ideas that have been passed down from earlier days, along with their modern interpretations, if any. We also need to get an understanding of the source and growth of the tradition.

     Sri Ramakrishna initiated his monastic disciples – most of them still in their teens – into the mysteries of spiritual life, and from then on they devoted themselves heart and soul to practising the disciplines prescribed by him. The Cossipore garden house then became the crucible for the formation of the Ramakrishna Order. Later, after the Master’s passing away, the disciples banded together under the leadership of Narendranath in a dilapidated house in Baranagore, not far from the Dakshineswar temple. There they took formal vows of sannyasa, and engaged in intensive japa and meditation. The whole life of the monastery centred round the shrine, where the sacred remains of Sri Ramakrishna (reverentially referred to as Sriji) were installed and worshipped. Recalling those blessed days, Swami Vivekananda later said:

     We used to get up at 3 a.m. and after washing our face etc. – some after bath, and others without it – we would sit in the worship room and become absorbed in Japa and meditation. What a strong spirit of dispassion we had in those days! We had no thought even as to whether the world existed or not. It was he (Sashi) who would procure, mostly by begging, the articles needed for the Master’s worship and our subsistence. There were days when Japa and meditation continued from morning till four or five in the afternoon. Sashi waited and waited with our meals ready, till at last he would come and snatch us from our meditation by sheer force. (3)

     Again, describing the severe austerities of those days, Swamiji said:

     There were days at the Baranagore Math when we had nothing to eat. If there was rice, salt was lacking. Some days that was all we had, but nobody cared. Boiled bimba leaves, rice and salt – this was our diet for months! Come what might, we were indifferent. We were being carried along on a strong tide of spiritual practices and meditation. Oh, what days! Demons would have run away at the sight of such austerities, to say nothing of men. (62-3)

     The saga of the first six years of austerities at the Baranagore monastery greatly inspired the members of the Order in later years. In fact, it continues to be thought of by the members as their model.

     The Alambazar Math – a Turning Point

     In the Gita (13.24) it is said, “Some by meditation perceive the Self in themselves through the mind, some by devotion to knowledge, and some by devotion to selfless work.” But post-Shankara monasticism built a tradition of its own that was plainly opposed to “devotion to work”. Following this tradition, monks led a life of prayer, worship, meditation, and study.

     But some time after the monks of the Ramakrishna Order had shifted their Math to Alambazar, some changes took place in their lifestyle that created agitation in their minds. In fact, the changes occurred on both the ideational level and the physical level. When Swami Vivekananda returned from his first visit to the West, he said one day, “I shall revolutionize the monastic order.” Previously, “liberation for oneself ” was the ideal of the monks. Now, at the Alambazar Math, Swamiji added the ideal – and also doing good to the world. While this new ideal appealed to some of the monks, as also to the novices who had recently joined, other senior monks disagreed with it, as they were apprehensive of its affect on the future of the monastic Order. But Swamiji ignored all opposition.

     No doubt, it was a sharp turning point in the life of the Math. And it is doubtful if either the senior or the junior members of the Order could grasp at that time the import of Swamiji’s revolutionary move in the larger context of the Ramakrishna Movement. Even later, occasional changes were made when necessary. However, history shows that the monastic community was able to maintain a balance between continuity and innovation, maintaining both a progressive outlook and faithfulness to the tradition.

     Thus, owing to the dynamic vision of Swami Vivekananda, the sadhana of service was given a very prominent place in the activities of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. According to Gwilym Beckerlegge: “The fact that the systematic practice of the sadhana of social service has come to occupy such a place in the institutional life of the Ramakrishna movement might be attributable to Vivekananda’s own foresightedness and astuteness; his appeal to Hindu paradigms, his reliance upon the symbol of the sannyasi and his rejection of “reform” rooted in
criticism and condemnation of Hindu norms.”(4)

     During the past one hundred years, the Ramakrishna Movement – with the Ramakrishna Order at its centre – has moved forward, and has witnessed the interplay of several historical forces. We shall mention just a few here:

     – The religious nationalism generated by Swami Vivekananda raised the national awareness of Indians and ultimately led to the political liberation of the country. Though the Ramakrishna Mission incurred the British Government’s wrath for allegedly sheltering freedom fighters, it also faced criticism from the public for not actively participating in politics.

     – In post-independence India the Mission has had a share in the national reconstruction programme, in keeping with Swami Vivekananda’s general directive.

     – In recent times socio-economic changes have brought some prosperity to the monastic community, while progress in science, technology, and management skills have brought changes in outlook. In addition, the increased expansion of the Mission’s activities has compelled the limited number of monks to switch from direct service activities to administrative and supervisory jobs.

     – Last but not least, recent advances in mass communication and globalization have also affected to a great extent the lifestyle and vision of the monastic community.

     The net impact of these things can be seen – in the language of A Gidden, an authority on Western political science and philosophy – in the form of detraditionalization and re-traditionalization of the monastic community’s sacred tradition. (5) Through these processes customs, beliefs, and traditions are scrutinized and gradually reconstituted in different forms. This process of reconstituting new values and traditions has been taking place in the Ramakrishna Order, giving rise to new procedures.

     Besides these hitherto unforeseen socio-political pressures on the monastic organization, there are several other dangers and stumbling blocks to living a contemplative life in a world of action. The most powerful among them are lust and greed, which more often than not appear in various disguises. Lust appears in two forms – physical and mental. But comparatively speaking, the second is the more difficult, for it manifests as a craving for social recognition, praise, honour, etc. Both of these have deluded many advanced souls and ruined their spiritual life. Increased exposure today to a larger section of society that is steeped in rampant materialism has made the situation for monastics more complex.

     No doubt, with the heavy load of responsibilities and the organization’s many social commitments, the monks are engaged in various kinds of mundane activities. The responsibilities of their work also press upon them more and more. In such a challenging situation a monk must perforce learn to strike a balance between contemplation and action – which are, in fact, intimately related. And this balance needs to be sought both ideationally and through proper allotment of available time. But even in very strenuous situations, many monks succeed in keeping the lamp of their inner spiritual life burning.

     A Study of the Inner Life of Monks

     Two decades after India had achieved political independence, when the Math and Mission had taken up a large number of developmental activities in education and health care, many monks began to wonder if we might lose the great spiritual legacy handed down to us by our pioneers. At that time I had a chance to make an objective study of the inner life of some of the monks of the Order. In the early 70s I was serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission Seva Pratishthan in Kolkata, a 55 0-bed general hospital. As it is the largest hospital of the Mission, monks from all centres are admitted there. For more than four years I had the opportunity to be at the bedside of monks as they were dying, and my observation of them at these last moments was quite revealing.

     A dying person cannot hide his true nature. Seeing how these dying monks faced the hour of death with grace and dignity, I was thrilled. And when I compared their dying moments with those of other people, I was convinced that the disciplined and spiritually-oriented life of the monks helped them face death without fear, frustration, worry, or anxiety. Moreover, some of them correctly predicted their time of departure, while others gave expression to their spiritual visions, and again others had nothing but blessings for those around them. This simple study convinced me that the current of our spiritual tradition is quite strong among the members of the monastic community.


     Thomas Merton (1915 – 68), a revered American Trappist monk, once wrote: “Without this contemplative orientation we are building churches not to praise Him but to establish more firmly the social structures, values and benefits that we presently enjoy. Without true, deep contemplative aspirations, without a total love for God and an uncompromising thirst for his truth, religion tends in the end to become an opiate.” (6)

     Like other monastic traditions in India, the new type of monasticism of the Ramakrishna Order puts emphasis on the life of contemplation, which stresses the inner life. But nowadays, with their heavy workload and comfortable living conditions, the monks need to adjust their perspective on their life as a whole in order to keep their inner life intact. They may also need to adjust their living habits. Here especially, Sri Ramakrishna is their guide. According to him, one should mix with people as much as possible and love all, but then one must dwell by oneself in one’s own chamber. In this regard, he gave the example of the cowherd boys and their cows. He said: “You can see your true Self only within your own chamber. The cowherds take the cows to graze in the pasture. There the cattle mix. They all form one herd. But on returning to their sheds in the evening they are separated. Then each stays by itself in its own stall. Therefore I say, dwell by yourself in your own chamber.” (7)

     In their daily life the monks need to attend to their duties skilfully and efficiently, but at the same time they must fervently enter the chamber of their heart and remember their spiritual goal. As Sri Ramakrishna often sang: “Lighting the lamp of Knowledge in the chamber of your heart, / Behold the face of the Mother, Brahman’s embodiment” (ibid.). If the monks keep this advice in mind, it will unfailingly guide them like the needle of a compass.


     1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 3.447.
     2. Dom Cuthbert Butler, Western Mysticism (London:Constable, 1966), 221.
     3. Swami Prabhananda, The Early History of the Ramakrishna Movement (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2005), 52.
     4. Gwilym Beckerlegge, Swami Vivekanand’s Legacy of Service (New Delhi: Oxford, 2006), 259.
     5. A Gidden, Cited by Thauh-Dam Truong, “Asian Values and the Heart of Understanding: A BuddhistView”, in Asian Values: Encounter with Diversity (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2000), 43.
     6. Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York:Image, 1971), 118.
     7. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 637.

     It seems to be the invariable rule that every newly started movement should pass through the two stages of opposition and indifference before its principles are accepted by society and humanity at large. at the end of this second stage we find it accepted by a consensus of public opinion, as it were, and the ranks of its votaries, henceforth, swell speedily. But this third stage of public acceptance is not to be regarded as the millennium. For, security of position brings a relaxation of spirits and energy, and a sudden growth of extensity quicklylessens the intensity and unity of purpose that were found among the promoters of the movement. Hence in place of outside opposition we find the budding forth in it of an internal opposition due to the varied opinions of its members, and later, in place of the former spirit of sacrifice for truth, of a struggle to maintain the secure social position by compromising truth with half-truths and a clinging more to the appearance than to the spirit
of things.

– Swami Saradananda

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