Among Hindu religious institutions, the Ramakrishna Mission occupies a particularly influential place in the life of Bengal. It is an organization founded by Swami Vivekananda, who was born into a Bengali family in Kolkata in 1863 and, before his initiation into monastic life, was known as Narendranath Dutta.
Vivekananda is the most renowned among the many disciples of the mystic Sri Ramakrishna after whom the Ramakrishna Mission is named. Ramakrishna himself was a priest of Kali temple at Dakshineshwar on the banks of Hooghly river in Kolkata. The patron of the temple was Rani Rashmoni, a woman of a low caste, a widow and a formidable and wealthy zamindar.
At that time, in the early 1800s, it was virtually unheard of for a woman, and a low-caste widow, to wield such power and authority. This was the time when Brahmin orthodoxy still considered it pious that widows be burned at the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands. Caste segregation was also strictly observed. The story of Rani Rashmoni and Sri Ramakrishna was therefore one of constant struggles against the orthodoxy of the Brahmins, who were appalled at the violation of age-old caste rules and gender hierarchies. It is a widely known story among the people of Bengal and is the subject of a popular Bengali television series.
In the recent past, the Mission has grown in importance for another reason. About 10-11 years ago, Narendra Modi, who was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, started making frequent references to Vivekananda in his speeches and on social media. In 2013, Modi made a highly visible trip to Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna mission in Howrah, a short distance from the Dakshineshwar Kali temple. The legend of his association with the Mission began to grow. In 2020, as the country was turned upside down by the National Citizens Register and the Citizenship Amendment Act, Modi was back at Belur Math, this time to spend the night there. He gave a public speech on occasion in defense of the CAA, for which he and the Mission’s leadership were criticized by many supporters of the Mission itself. This is because the Mission has always been strictly apolitical. Its monks, who become monks by renouncing worldly attachments, do not even vote, lest it lead to attachment to parties and politics.
A high-tension election campaign is now underway across the state of Bengal, and billboards and banners with the faces of Modi and the person he is trying to topple, outgoing Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of Congress of Trinamool, are everywhere. The narrow lanes of Howrah are adorned with BJP party and Trinamool Congress flags, with occasional dashes of red marking the presence of the CPIM in the pockets. Flags, banners, posters, billboards and murals all stop at some distance from Belur Math. No signs of the current elections are visible inside the gates. The campus itself was quiet and virtually deserted when I entered shortly after dusk to meet Swami Suvirananda, the general secretary of the Mission. Eventually I was ushered into his office where he was still at work going through files and signing papers. The Mission has more than 200 branches in India and abroad – of which Swami Suvirananda is the managing director – and a considerable list of activities, mainly in the fields of education, relief and rehabilitation, and health care. health.
With Hindutva being a dominant theme in Indian politics and a rising force in Bengal, the Mission’s stance on Hindu culture is of great importance. A litany of polarizing outrage around right-wing Hindu politics, all rooted in a particular understanding of Hindu traditions, regularly appears on the news. Sometimes it’s just a minister or MP or MP advocating drinking cow urine to cure anything from Covid to cancer, or someone claiming that the internet, planes or bombs atomics existed at the time of the Mahabharata a few thousand years ago. Other times it’s a Muslim child beaten up for going into a temple to drink water one day, a municipality forcing meat shops to close on Tuesday another, or someone having him lynched because he was suspected of eating the wrong meat. It may be a trade union minister brandishing slogans of “goli maro salon ko“, or a comedian jailed for a joke he hasn’t cracked, or a university seen as a liberal stronghold ransacked live on TV as police stand guard outside, or community carnage, or the body of a Dalit rape victim burned by state authorities allegedly without the consent of her family, thus destroying evidence How does all this, usually done by those claiming to be Modi followers, fit in? it with the beliefs and philosophy of the Ramakrishna mission that Modi himself claims to follow?
To understand this, I asked the head of the Mission about his basic teachings.
“Sri Ramakrishna was a prophet of harmony,” said Swami Suvirananda. “The famous writer Christopher Isherwood described him in these very terms, as a prophet of harmony. Naturally, Sri Ramakrishna is our master, and his basic principle being harmony, it goes without saying that we make absolutely no distinction between sexes, castes, creeds, communities, high or low.
The principle of non-discrimination extends, except for distinction of gender, to membership of the monastic order which accepts as monks young men who must be “at least licensed if not postgraduates, doctoral students and so on, from 18 years to 30 years”. ”. Those who register before graduating must do so after they join. Celibacy is an important condition; only those “determined to lead a life of celibacy” should apply. Religion and caste, however, are irrelevant. “We are the only order of monks in the world that includes monks from all the main communities that exist in the world today. You name a religion and I will respond to it,” Suvirananda said. I named Islam and Christianity.
They have Muslim monks from Iran and Iraq, he said, including one at Belur Math who is now 84.
And is he still a Muslim?
“We don’t convert,” Suvirananda replied. “But he has to inculcate the ethos of Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna represents universality of religion, inclusiveness, harmony, not only tolerance but acceptance… He rejects none, accepts everyone, that’s why everyone has his place here, and we are all evolving, we are spiritual brothers, we are more brotherly than brothers born of the same parents, whether he is from Iraq, America or any country in the world.
The only membership conditions are the sacrifice of what he calls “kama kanchana”, which he translates as “luxury and gold”.
There are no taboos on the consumption of non-vegetarian foods in Mission institutions. “Most students in most ashramas are used to eating vegetarian food, but from headquarters we don’t give any specific instructions that one ashrama should be vegetarian or another should be otherwise. “, explains Suvirananda. “We have absolutely no problem with traditional food which is cooked in any Hindu family in Bengal.”
Fish and rice are the staple diet of Hindu Bengalis. Eggs and two types of meat, chicken and mutton, are also popular elements of traditional cooking.