“The Ramakrishna Mission’s ambition to outgrow Hinduism and be “universal” is a form of hubris. In Greek religion, hubris, or man’s will to be equal to the gods, is the cardinal sin. In Christianity too, Adam and Eve committed hereditary sin, not by lust … but by hubris: initially innocent creatures, they wanted to be equal to God, who knows good and evil. In this respect, at least, many—it would be hubris to assert “all”—religions agree, and they happen to be right. So, let us stop this bad habit of making claims about “all” religions, including those that we know only hazily or not at all.” — Dr. Koenraad Elst
The Ramakrishna debate
The debate on the Ramakrishna Mission’s claim that Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Kali priest, also practised Christianity and Islam, and that he distanced himself from Hinduism to found a new universal religion called Ramakrishnaism, has taken the form of some hostile reactions from sympathizers of the Mission. They may be members or have some other status, I don’t know, so we may just focus on what they have to say.
Ramakrishna Mission is Hindu
One person scolded me for even thinking that the Ramakrishna Mission is non-Hindu. He cites the Hindu atmosphere and the many Hindu rituals and practices at the Mission centres. I might add the fact that the Mission only recruits among Hindus. No Christian or Muslim would join this Pagan outfit. That fact alone refutes the Mission’s own claim that it has somehow embraced all religions. The Mission is a typically Hindu group, and even its pompous claim of validating all world religions is a claim made by many Hindus. When Mahatma Gandhi said: “I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Sikh, I am a Christian”, Mohammed Ali Jinnah dryly commented: “That is a typically Hindu thing to say.”
But I am surprised to hear that the Ramakrishna Mission has not disclaimed Hinduism. Not only has the organization shouted from the rooftops and on all kinds of public forums that “universal Ramakrishnaism” is superior to “narrow Hinduism”, it has even gone to court to be officially recognized as a non-Hindu minority.
Then there were some who, expectedly, took the opposite position, viz. that the RKM follows its saint Ramakrishna in embracing non-Hindu religions and their founders. One of these deserves a closer and more detailed reply. Not that he had said much beyond several lengthy e-mails full of personal abuse (a poor advertisement for the effects of being a Ramakrishnaite). He belonged to a type I have become sadly familiar with on the internet: born Hindus who muster endless argumentation, often cleverly twisting issues and deploying a sophisticated discourse, all in order to defend a case that is downright silly; and that is, moreover, harmful to Hinduism.
For instance, I’ve had to face endless argumentations in favour of the belief that Jesus lived and died in India. This belief stems from a book (1887) by the Russian aristocrat Nicolas Notovich, who claimed to have found notes about Jesus’ stay in India in a monastery in the Himalaya. This manuscript was never found and the monastery’s abbot denied ever having had or seen such a text. The contents of the text which Notovich claimed to have seen was also very suspect by its contents: the themes of Jesus’ alleged controversies with Brahmins are typical for the late-colonial age, not at all for the 1st century. Although the polemic about it involved such worthies as Max Muller and yielded no proof at all, and although Notovich finally admitted to having made it all up, in 1899 Mirza Ghulam Ahmed (founder of the heretic Ahmadiyya sect of Islam) used the story to bolster his claim that prophets could just as well be native to India rather than to the Middle East, so that he could be a legitimate prophet too. And even now, the story has numerous defenders among Hindus. Passionate believers, sometimes even clever and argumentative believers, in a story that is patently false.
In the present case too, we have a learned display of rhetoric in the service of an illusion. Of course, he doesn’t try to prove his claim. Either this claim has not been proven, as we maintain, or it has been proven. In that case, it would be well worth the extra trouble to spell out this proof clearly, once and for all. But alas, this proof was not forthcoming. To be sure, this proof is not that according to a second person, Ramakrishna had “had a vision”, then according to a third person years later, this vision was “perhaps of Mohammed”, and according to a fourth person, later again, it is dead certain that he saw Mohammed. For the founding moment of a religion, “Ramakrishnaism”, one is entitled to expect proof of higher quality than testimony (?) at several removes.
Even if this very flaky and very suspect sequence were to convey the truth, such a “vision” would in no way be what the RKM now claims, viz. the “practice” of Islam/Christianity. As a Muslim commented, you cannot take a holiday and be a Muslim for a while, then revert to goddess-worshipping. Neither Christianity nor Islam consist in having a “vision” of the founder.
Nonetheless, this RKM sympathizer’s reformulation of the challenge to non-Ramakrishaites is interesting:
“The scope of my discussion is quite limited and is focused on only one thing: Ramakrishna believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ and he did practice some discipline of Christianity on the results of which his such belief was based. The same can be said of his feeling for some discipline of Islam—that he practiced it and derived divine/spiritual satisfaction from it. I think it is for Koenraad Elst to spell out his clear position on this observation once and for all.”
As a matter of walking the extra mile, I will spell out my position. However, let it be understood that I am under no obligation to explain anything or give proof for anything, as I am not putting forward any claim. I am merely skeptical of a claim made by the RKM and this fellow. Because it is he who has put forward a claim, it is up to him to prove his point. Even if nobody comes forward to offer any kind of counter-proof or refutation, the mere fact that the claim is put forward, does not annul its need for proof. As long as the claim is not proven, it was right for sterling Hindus like Ram Swarup and Shiva Prasad Ray to express scepticism of it. The burden of proof is for 100% on the maker of this challenge.
Belief in Jesus
Now, my position. If Ramakrishna had found that his own Hinduism was insufficient, if he had founded a new religion which the RKM calls Ramakrishnaism, if Ramakrishna had found Christianity and Islam to be “part” of this new religion, and if he had personally “verified the truth” of these religions by means of “visions”, then this would be such a momentous revolution that he would have spent the rest of his days discussing and elaborating it. Instead, absolute silence, and [the continued worship of] Kali. So, this already pleads against the RKM’s claim.
Now that we are discussing this, it strikes me that in the 24 years that I have followed this debate, I have not seen the RKM people come up with an actual quote from the master in which he claims Jesus’ divinity. Surely, such belief would have been big news to his Hindu and non-Christian followers. Our critic too has eloquently beaten around the bush in several replies, but he has spurned the occasion to present to us the only thing that would finish this debate, viz. proof (as opposed to mere claims) that RK worshipped Jesus as a divine being. The best proof would be a statement to this effect by Ramakrishna himself, but this time too it is not forthcoming.
But to really evaluate Ramakrishna’s beliefs about Jesus, it would be useful (from a scholarly viewpoint, even necessary) to get the facts straight about Jesus himself. I have not brought Jesus into this discussion, it is the RKM that insists Ramakrishna had a vision of Jesus and believed in Jesus’ divinity. So, let’s discuss Jesus. But let me warn you: Hindus by their upbringing may know everything about puja or other Hindu things, but their knowledge of Jesus tends to be very hazy. I, having gone through the whole Catholic education system and moreover having made a purposeful study of the character Jesus, know more about this subject than the RKM sympathizer will ever know in his lifetime. I have studied Jesus, he has not. That is not some colonial utterance, in fact two Hindus sceptical of the RKM claims set me on this path, but it is simply a fact that someone who has assimilated the scholarly findings on Jesus knows the subject better than religious types who have only interiorized some missionary sermons calculated to fool a gullible audience. Conversely, Hindus who have not made a specific study of comparative religion and especially of Christianity are ill-equipped to pontificate about Jesus.
So, what I know about Jesus, is that he was no more divine than you or me. He was a wandering healer, with his ears open for the wisdom going around, which he relayed in his own logia, sermons with parables, a few of them good—but still revered by the people mostly because of his reputation as a healer. To be sure, his friends and relatives who knew him, saw through his act, which is why he performed no “miracles” in his home town. Elsewhere, he could often pull it off, but still he was less powerful than proper medicine. Thus, he healed someone from epilepsy (“ghost-possession”), making him rise after his epileptic seizure—but such fits always subside and end in a return to normalcy. And in one case, the Gospel says in so many words that the disease later reappeared. Nothing scandalous, but nothing divine either, about false beliefs in healing powers.
Jesus had a rather big idea about himself, just like Mohammed and some other religious leaders. Thus, he believed that he was the Messiah. He repeatedly made the prediction that he himself would return within the lifetime of some in his audience. Today we are two thousand years and dozens of generations down the line, yet Jesus has not come back. Now, wrong predictions are human, in fact they are ten a penny. Jehovah’s Witnesses put their foot between your front door to predict the end of the world, but it didn’t come in 1914, nor in 1975. What makes Jesus’ wrong prediction an even worse failure is that, while the Witnesses make a prediction about someone else, Jesus did so about himself. Unlike other diviners, Jesus merely had to look in his own agenda to see when he was scheduled to return, and still he failed! So, nothing divine about wrong predictions.
But at least Jesus overcame death by his resurrection? This is the core of the Christian belief system. Now, the difference between the living and the dead is that you can run into the living, not the dead. But, like the dead, Jesus is beyond meeting. People have reported “seeing” Jesus in visions, but no one has met him in person. So his condition is the same as that of other mortals. The wages of original sin are mortality and child-bearing in pain, and it would be somewhat divine if Jesus had overcome mortality to live endlessly and still be among us. But no, he’s gone. The New Testament writers have spirited him away through the trick of the “Ascension“: though somewhat spectacular, he did the same thing as the rest of us, mortals: he went to heaven. So, nothing particularly divine about mortality.
I will of course not go through the numerous findings of Bible scholarship, about which so many books are available. But for now, I have said enough to underpin the conclusion: Jesus was not divine. If Ramakrishna was a Muslim, as the RKM claims, then he was already convinced of Jesus’ non-divine status, which is a basic belief of Islam (and in that respect, Islam is more rational than the personality cult which is Christianity). If, however, as our RKM sympathizer claims, Ramakrishna believed in the divinity of Christ, then he was badly informed, not to say that he was mistaken.
In fact, this sympathizer wants you to venerate a silly Ramakrishna who believed the sop stories of the missionaries, to the point of self-hypnotizing and seeing a vision of Jesus. By contrast, I (or rather Ram Swarup and Shiva Prasad Ray) give you a Ramakrishna who was discerning enough to keep the missionaries at a distance. He was not a Christian nor a Ramakrishnaist, but simply a Hindu, worshipping Krishna and Hanuman and most of all Kali. You too can live a happy, healthy, holy life while staying a Hindu and ignoring Jesus.
Being a Christian
The second claim is that Ramakrishna “practised a Christian discipline”, and that as a result, he found that Christianity is equally true and yields the same results that he had already reached through his Hindu sadhana. Now, “being a Christian” or “being a Muslim” has a precise definition, which Ramakrishna did not fulfil. He was not recognized as one of theirs by any known mullah or padre. The missionaries sent bulletins home in which they reported the conversions they wrought; surely they would not have neglected reporting the christianization of a leading Hindu saint? And the RKM has had more than a century to get and show the document that proved their case, viz. that Ramakrishna turned his back on “narrow Hinduism”.
Even in the different sects of Hinduism, you only become a member by going through a formal ceremony, you are given a yajnopavit (sacred thread) or you get diksha (initiation) or shaktipat (transmission of energy). Ramakrishna never went through the formal ceremonies making him a Christian or a Muslim. He was not circumcised and never uttered the Islamic creed. He was not baptised and never uttered the Christian creed. No matter what vision he had, it did not make him either Christian or Muslim.
Further, there is no such thing as “practising” Christianity or Islam. Either you are in or you are out. Imitating the behaviour of a Muslim/Christian all while remaining a Pagan does not make you a Muslim/Christian. In fact, we would like to know what these practices were. Our RKM sympathizer has repeatedly spurned the occasion to spell this out. Did he observe Ramadan, or did he prefer Lent? Did this vegetarian offer sheep sacrifice, as is prescribed for Muslims? Did he eat fish on Friday, as Christians do? Did he condemn caste, which is an intrinsic attitude of Christianity, at least according to contemporary missionaries? And again, was he baptised? Which Christian worthy accepted him as a Christian? We would like some straight answers to these questions.
Not that they would make any tangible difference. Ramakrishna may have been pure gold, but even his acceptance of the quintessential Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity would not make Jesus divine; at least not more than you and me. If, after all these years, the RKM were at last to prove that Ramakrishna did worship Jesus, we would have to conclude that he was mistaken—surely not the conclusion which the RKM would like us to draw. Fortunately, there is no indication that he did.
Some further problems with the RKM’s claim
Another problem: a Christian cannot be a Muslim, and a Muslim cannot be a Christian. Leaving aside Hinduism and “Ramakrishnaism”, please focus only on Christianity and Islam. How could Ramakrishna be a Christian while also being a Muslim? No Christian or Muslim authority would accept his being the one while also being the other. Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God, both God and man, while Muslims consider him just a man. Christians believe he was resurrected while Muslims disbelieve that he even died on the cross. How did Ramakrishna combine these mutually exclusive beliefs?
Finally, Ramakrishna is known to have died while worshipping Kali. By Christian and Islamic definition, he was a goddess-worshipper, hence an out-and-out Pagan. If he ever was a Muslim or a Christian, his dying as a Pagan meant that he was an apostate. If being an ignorant Pagan is bad enough, being a wilful apostate, who has known but rejected the truth and reverted to the false belief of Paganism, is really demonic and a sure ticket to the fires of hell. So, according to the RKM, Ramakrishna has spent the last century braving the fires of hell. For that is what Islam and Christianity (which the RKM holds to be “true”) promise to a Pagan like Ramakrishna.
The RKM professes a syncretism, combining elements from different religions. Ramakrishnaism is the syncretism par excellence, affirming “all” religions to be true. As the Church Fathers wrote, syncretism is typical of Paganism. The Roman-Hellenistic milieu in which the first Christians had to function, was full of syncreticism, with Roman matrons worshipping Isis with the babe Horus (an inspiration for the image of Mary holding the babe Jesus), legion soldiers worshipping Persian-originated Mithras, and imperial politicians worshipping the Syrian-originated Sol Invictus( . Against this syncretism, they preached religious purity: extra ecclesiam nulla salus, outside the Church no salvation. They had no problem admitting that Paganism was naturally pluralistic, but what is the use of choosing between or combining different kinds of falsehood? They as Christians had something better than pluralism, viz. the truth. And once you have the truth, you are no longer interested in any other religion. So, from the Christian viewpoint, the RKM’s dissatisfaction with “mere” Hinduism is an admission that Hinduism doesn’t have the truth.
Swami Vivekananda’s claim
The best argument in favour of the RKM’s claim is a statement apparently made by Swami Vivekananda:
“The next desire that seized upon the soul of this man [Ramakrishna] was to know the truth about the various religions. Up to that time he had not known any religion but his own. He wanted to understand what other religions were like. So he sought teachers of other religions. … He found a Mohammedan saint and placed himself under him; he underwent the disciplines prescribed by him, and to his astonishment found that when faithfully carried out, these devotional methods led him to the same goal he had already attained. He gathered similar experience from following the true religion of Jesus the Christ.”
Our RKM sympathizer wants to “point [out] to KE that the burden of proof is on him to disprove the observations of RK’s chief disciple (and official spokesman?), as otherwise, by default, they should be assumed to be true. … Would KE care to share his compelling reasons to believe that SV lied?”
Once again, he has got things backwards. It is he who makes a claim, and the burden of proof is thus for 100% on him. Swami Vivekananda was not an eye-witness and made this statement, which I will for now assume to be true (Ram Swarup was a great reader of Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works and doesn’t mention it), many years after the fact. Nothing of the above loses any of its force by this early version of a claim later made into the official line of the RKM, but for which any proof is missing.
It is no surprise that somebody ignorant of the rules of logic should use an “argument from authority” as his trump card. He plays upon the expected indignation of the Indian-born majority of the readership if I dare to say that Swami Vivekananda “lied”. But in fact, I don’t need to put it down as a “lie”. In the world of religion and the occult, I have rarely seen anyone who deliberately said something that he knew to be untrue. But I have met or witnessed or read thousands of people who spread falsehoods which they believed to be true.
Even Swami Vivekananda was just a fallible human being—a statement which may scandalize his followers but which he himself would wholeheartedly accept. The processes which have led the RKM to believe and propagate the falsehood about Ramakrishna’s visions, may have taken him in, too. Or he may simply mean that Ramakrishna had that commendable Hindu attitude of curiosity and respect for whatever other religions draw his attention. At any rate, while we don’t know which processes were at work in Vivekananda’s case, we have his naked statement and this, at least, we can evaluate. And we find it, if taken literally, to be simply false.
“Liberation“, the goal of the Upanishadic seers and of most Hindu schools since, is not the goal of Christianity. No Christian ever claimed to have achieved it, nor was he claimed by other Christians to have done so. The case applies even more bluntly to Islam: the goal of the five pillars of Islam is simply to obey God’s commandments as given in the Quran, not any “Liberation”. The goal of a Hindu sadhana will not be achieved by a Muslim or a Christian “sadhana”, and vice versa. If someone said that a Christian discipline “led him to the same goal he had already attained”, he was most certainly wrong. However, it is possible that the state of consciousness which Ramakrishna had already attained in his Hindu sadhana remained with him when he practised whatever this sheikh gave him to do. But would that state still be so easily achieved if he had practised only these Islamic cq Christian exercises?
Sita Ram Goel once said that “Hindus think they know everything about everything”. Thus, while it is hard enough to study a handful of religions, numerous Hindus routinely make claims about the equal truth of “all” religions, as if they had studied them all. In this respect, at least, the RKM monks are certainly Hindus.
The RKM’s ambition to outgrow Hinduism and be “universal” is a form of hubris. In Greek religion, hubris, or man’s will to be equal to the gods, is the cardinal sin. In Christianity too, Adam and Eve committed hereditary sin, not by lust (as many superficial people think) but by hubris: initially innocent creatures, they wanted to be equal to God, who knows good and evil. In this respect, at least, many—it would be hubris to assert “all”—religions agree, and they happen to be right. So, let us stop this bad habit of making claims about “all” religions, including those that we know only hazily or not at all. One thing that initially attracted me to the Hindu cause was the humbleness and simplicity of the ordinary Hindus I met. It would be nice if all megalomaniacs climbed down from their high horses and rediscovered this simplicity.
Secondly, I find it sad and not spelling anything good, that Hindus who are so laid back about the enemies of and challenges before Hinduism, get so worked up when their own little sect is challenged. Arya Samaj spokesmen don’t have 1% of their forebear’s concern with the Christian and Islamic threats, but they really get into the act when defending against other Hindus their pet beliefs about Vedic monotheism and non-idolatry. The ISKCON people never confront Christianity or Islam, but they get really nasty against fellow Hindus who are not as Krishna-centred (such as the pre-Krishna Vedic Rishis) as they themselves are. And here too, the RKM is alarmed when some Hindus disbelieve its pet doctrine of Ramakrishna’s visions of Jesus and Mohammed. It would be good if they shed this obsession with their sectarian “unique selling proposition” and return to a broader consciousness, one that would be recognizable to all Hindus.
Hinduism existed before Jesus and Mohammed. It was good enough for the Vedic seers and non-Vedic sadhus, and it didn’t need those two. I think Hinduism will only survive if it forgets about this false incarnation and this false prophet. The RKM ultimately has no choice but to admit that for the past so many decades, it has been spreading an erroneous and harmful belief. It should announce out loud that all struggles over its exact identity are over, because it owns up to its natural Hindu identity. Indeed, it should rediscover and second its founder, Swami Vivekanada, who declared: “Say with pride, we are Hindus!”
» Dr. Koenraad Elst is a Belgian writer and orientalist (without institutional affiliation). He was an editor of the New Right Flemish nationalist journal Teksten: Kommentaren en Studies from 1992 to 1995, focusing on criticism of Islam. He has authored fifteen English language books on topics related to Indian politics and communalism, and is one of the few western writers (along with François Gautier) to actively defend the Hindutva ideology.
The Secretary’s letter is disingenuous to say the least. He says the great rishis and acharyas of Hinduism were not Hindus but that the Ramakrishna Mission is not non-Hindu. Yet the RKM had approached to the court to argue that they were a non-Hindu minority religion called Ramakrishnaism. Eventually the court decided that the Ramakrishna Math and Mission were indeed Hindu and that there was no such religious sect called Ramakrishnaism. – IS