For a mass movement to be successful and sustainable, three mutually complementary things are essential. These are Samgathana (organization), Samannaya (harmony) and Samhati (unity). It rests firmly on them and flourishes despite the ravages of time. But how does it resist the shocks of the capricious world? The answer lies in the intrinsic power instilled in him by his impeccable leader.
Unless its leader is an object lesson of the three necessary prerequisites, the organization is likely to be weak and short-lived. This applies specifically to a spiritual movement with a specific humanitarian purpose. The Ramakrishna movement was started by Sri Ramakrishna in the second half of the 19th century. He had prodigious power within. Its novelty and nuance were not bothersome at first. Sri Ramakrishna was a phenomenal organization in himself. People from all walks of life, castes and communities had free access to him and felt a natural sense of belonging. It was, in fact, infinitely inclusive and innovative. Those who clung to him knew he was their ultimate refuge and scout and there was no one to match him. Amorphous elements, they were nevertheless only one in him. He exuded a sublime charisma that was hard to stay away from. It was this mold that he skilfully recast and bound the sincere among them. Thus, the legacy they imbibed and carried forward was his alone.
There was no confusion in them as to what they were doing at his request. Sri Ramakrishna chose Narendranath from among them and took exceptional care of him. Narendranath later acknowledged that Sri Ramakrishna took him in his hand and like a piece of clay shaped him again. Sri Ramakrishna handed him the leadership of the Ramakrishna movement shortly before his demise, obtaining a promise from him that he would take care of it at all costs. The beginning that he had thus given him during his lifetime was indeed its foundation.
With the passing of Sri Ramakrishna came the Ramakrishna Math. Leaving hearth and home, a handful of young men gathered around Narendranath. They stayed in an abandoned house and lived the life of reclusion, as Sri Ramakrishna had taught and demonstrated. Yet it was a zealous journey for them. Under Narendrath’s stewardship, they formally initiated into Sannyasa, changing their names to monastic ones. It was an unspeakably difficult time for them. But nothing could deter them. Insurmountable privations had no effect on them. They resolutely pursued their goal of not stopping until God-realization.
The weight of service to the poor and ignorant imposed on Swami Vivekananda by his Master rested heavily on his heart and mind. He had to carry his burden, but without asking himself why. While he conveyed Sri Ramakrishna’s message to everyone across the country practically without mentioning his name, people hardly knew that he was doing so with the aim of rejuvenating the country with the modern ideas of human progress given by Sri Ramakrishna. He even had the idea of writing a new Smriti (book of social laws) based on them. He must have remembered that Sri Ramakrishna had said that a coin from the Mughal period did not work in the British period. He could, amazingly, translate every thought of Sri Ramakrishna into action. His determination to accomplish this arduous task gave birth to the Ramakrishna Order with its two vigorous wings ~ the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission ~ for its navigation.
It has been almost 125 years now that the Ramakrishna Mission has existed with its particularities. And the secret behind it is the truth in which Sri Ramakrishna persisted, with Swami Vivekananda as the driving force. It was officially created by him more than a decade after the creation of mathematics. He served in a dual capacity during this period. He had to keep his fellow disciples together and travel across the country to simultaneously prepare the ground for his work.
As an itinerant monk, Swamiji came into close contact with the masses. He lives intimately their abyssal sufferings and sympathizes with their miseries. His deep feelings found touching expression in his letters. Coercion, oppression, caste and gender discrimination, communal prejudice, poverty, illiteracy, superstition and the like, he observed, were the causes of their downfall. He took it upon himself to work for the people until he died, which he did. He died in harness young. It was cut to the quick that India was sinking because of their neglect. He said, “Religion’s terrible mistake has been to interfere in social affairs”, noting “that religion should not be a social reformer”.
Swamiji worked with perfect planning. For example, before going to the West, in 1892, he met a select group of 100 educated members of the upper classes at the Triplicane Litarary Society in Madras. His speech from this meeting was published in “The Social Reformer” of Madras. According to a later newspaper report compiled from it, he stated that Hindus are bound by the essential part of the Vedas, not their optional part. The Rishis modified the optional aspects earlier for the needs of the times. Brahmins were cow eaters and married Sudra women in the past. To please their guests, they employed Sudra cooks. If Brahmin men cooked anything, it was considered polluted. But we have changed these customs to suit our needs. Although we have transformed the racial and caste standards after the era of Manu, if Manu comes among us now, he will call us only Hindus. Caste is a social matter, not a religious matter. It was created due to a natural evolution of our society. His need was there once and then he fulfilled his purpose. Today, this is no longer necessary. It could therefore be discarded. There is no need for Hinduism to follow the caste system currently. A Brahmin can eat with anyone these days, even with an outcast. By this, he will not lose his spirituality. The spirituality that is lost in contact with an outcast is indeed of inferior quality.
With regard to food, the ancient Rishis maintained no restrictions; they didn’t discriminate about it. It is not necessary to go to someone whose spirituality is so fragile that he thinks it will disappear as soon as he sees another of low caste and birth. Among many of these things, he said caste discrimination, early marriage and other similar social practices that are barriers to education must be eliminated.
Our exorbitant enthusiasm for the guardianship of women shows that we Hindus have lost our national qualities and reduced ourselves to the condition of beasts. Women should have the same right to pursue studies and acquire an education as men enjoy. An individual’s progress can never take place in ignorance and slavery. Swamiji’s commanding voice and fearless action had a positive effect on those who attended his lecture. Its impact was immediately noticeable. They were in contact with Swamiji abroad. He wrote to them: “My idea is to carry to the door of the wickedest, the poorest, the noble ideas which the human race has developed inside and outside India, and to let them think for themselves. Whether there is caste or not, whether women are perfectly free or not, that does not concern me. “Freedom of thought and action is the only condition of life, growth and well-being. Where it does not exist, the man, the race, the nation must fall. He asked them to remember “that the nation lives in the cottage”. He said “the fate of a nation” depends on the “condition of the masses”.
With absolute urgency, he interrogated them to rekindle their spirit of selfless service. “Can you raise them? Can you give them back their lost individuality without causing them to lose their innate spiritual nature? Can you become a Westerner of Westerners in your spirit of equality, freedom, hard work and energy, and at the same time a Hindu in the backbone of culture and religious instincts? Then he urged them as their committed leader: “It must be done, and we will do it. You were all born to do this. Likewise, he wrote constantly to his fellow monks who were traveling at the time. He told them that “no distinction should be made between heads of families and sannyasins”. He instructed them in a definite program to serve the poor and oppressed, regardless of caste and community. He was especially happy that one of them worked in a village made up mostly of poor Muslims. Of all things, the issue of communal tension bothered him exceptionally.
The conflict between Hindus and Muslims was fueled by political interests. He knew that Muslims in India were children of his soil and were once low caste Hindus only. Oppression and ostracism forced them to leave Hinduism and take refuge in Islam. He considered the feud between Hindus and Muslims as one of the worst threats before India.
On the other hand, the Christians of India were all converted because of missionary activities which he deeply condemned. The missionaries converted myriads of the remaining backward classes, especially the forest and hill dwellers, taking advantage of their ignorance and poverty. He believed that the peaceful coexistence and cooperation of these three great communities was absolutely necessary for the rise and progress of India. Therefore, his message was filled with laudatory words of community harmony as well as a composite culture. The practical ideas of work which Swamiji has thus launched and pushed throughout the country have crystallized into a mission waiting to be formally known.
After returning from the West, he completed his task on May 1, 1897 and called it the Ramakrishna mission, meaning it would discharge as Sri Ramakrishna wanted. Inclusiveness was the hallmark of the Ramakrishna movement. With its twin organizations, it was consolidated by the active participation of heads of families and sannyasins from various communities and experienced spectacular growth. His role model has helped those who sincerely wished to serve suffering humanity in modern times. Today, there are countless organizations that follow in his footsteps and provide exceptional service to the needy in our society.
(The author is with the Ramakrishna Mission, Narendrapur)