Perhaps the most sublime period of my life were the years when I was steeped in the study of the life of Sri Ramakrishna and his devotees. Recently a friend asked me if I would illustrate what I meant when I said that, if some Starseeds knew who they truly were, they would not remain here. I’m delighted to return to the literature of my paramguru, the saint of Dakshineswar, to illustrate that statement.
The best example of this circumstance can be found, like so many illustrations of spiritual truths, in the works of Paramahansa Ramakrishna and his circle of disciples; specifically, in the lives of Swami Vivekananda and Swami Brahmananda. Both those disciples of Sri Ramakrishna left their bodies when they remembered their true identities.
Sri Ramakrishna himself was an avatar, a descent of the formless Divine into form. He had appeared previously as Sri Rama and Sri Krishna, as he acknowledged to Narendra, later Swami Vivekananda, during the former’s final illness.
Narendra continued to have doubts about Sri Ramakrishna’s true identity even at that time. Harboring a thought on the matter to himself, he was amazed when his guru turned to him, from his bed of pain, and said: “He who was Rama and Krishna is now, in this body, Ramakrishna.” (1)
Disciples like Swamis Vivekananda and Brahmananda are what are called nityasiddhis and ishvarakotis. Nityasiddhi means eternally perfect or free and ishvarakoti means born with some of the characteristics of God.
Of them, Sri Ramakrishna said:
“Narendra, Bhavanath, Rakhal (later Swami Brahmananda), and devotees like them belong to the group of the nityasiddhas; they are eternally free. Religious practice on their part is superfluous.” (2)
He contrasted the nityasiddhi or ishvarakoti with the ordinary person, or jivakoti.
“An Incarnation of God or one born with some of the characteristics of an Incarnation of God is called an Isvarakoti. An ordinary man is called a jiva or jivakoti. By dint of sadhana a jivakoti can realize God; but after samadhi he cannot come back to the plane of relative consciousness.
“The Isvarakoti is like the king’s son. He has the keys to all the rooms of the seven-storey palace; he can climb to all the seven floors and come down at will. A jivakoti is like a petty officer. He can enter some of the rooms of the palace; that is his limit.” (3)
When God deigns to descend to Earth for the redemption of religion, he brings with him his circle of companions, as Sri Ramakrishna explains.
“When God assumes a human body for the sake of His devotees, many of his devotees accompany Him to this earth. Some of them belong to the inner circle, some to the outer circle, and some become the suppliers of His physical needs.” (4)
“A band of minstrels suddenly appears, dances, and sings, and it departs in the same manner. They come and they return, but none recognizes them.” (5)
The avatar continues:
“I came into this world secretly with a few close devotees.” (6)
“They are not just ordinary mortals; they are the companions of the Master. They come in every age with the avatar to play their respective parts in his divine drama.” (7)
There are some parallels between Starseeds and nityasiddhis, except I daresay the latter are far, far more evolved than we are. Sri Ramakrishna often gave homely metaphors, not unlike Jesus’ parables, to describe the difference between the isvarakoti and the jovakoti:
“Then there is the class of the ever-perfect. They are born in each life with their spiritual consciousness already awakened. Think of a spring whose outlet is obstructed. While looking after various things in the garden, the plumber accidentally clears it and the water gushes out. Yet probably people are amazed to see the first manifestations of an ever-perfect soul’s zeal for God. They say, ‘Where was all this devotion and renunciation and love?’” (8)
They alone could return to everyday life after having experienced the higher levels of samadhi. Sri Ramakrishna tells us. Here he speaks of the avatar, but the same could be said for the nityahsiddhis.
“None but the Isvarakotis can return to the plane of relative consciousness after attaining samadhi. Some ordinary men attain samadhi through spiritual discipline; but they do not come back. But when God Himself is born as a man, as an Incarnation, holding in His Hand the key to others’ liberation, then for the welfare of humanity the Incarnation returns from samadhi to consciousness of the world.” (9)
Swami Brahmananda here describes an advanced state called ananda samadhi and reveals what the fate of the ordinary person would be who experiences it:
“If an ordinary man attains this experience, his body and brain cannot stand the intense ecstatic joy; he cannot live more than twenty-one days.” (10)
Narendranath Gupta (Swami Vivekananda)
Sri Ramakrishna’s two chief disciples were Narendranath Gupta, later Swami Vivekananda, who was the leader of all the other disciples and the one destined to carry Vedanta to the West, and Rakhal Ghosh, later Swami Brahmananda, who was his spiritual “son” and eternal companion.
Sri Ramakrishna revealed the vision he had had in which he identified Swami Vivekananda as one of the seven sages who exist in the formless realm:
“Absorbed one day, in samadhi, Ramakrishna had found that his mind was soaring high, going beyond the physical universe of the sun, moon, and stars, and passing into the subtle region of ideas. As it continued to ascend, the forms of gods and goddesses were left behind, and it cross the luminous barrier separating the phenomenal universe from the Absolute, entering finally the transcendental realm.
“There Ramakrishna saw seven venerable sages absorbed in meditation. These, he thought, must have surpassed even the gods and goddesses in wisdom and holiness, and as he was admiring their unique spirituality he saw a portion of the undifferentiated Absolute become congealed, as it were, and take the form of a Divine Child.
“Clambering upon the lap of one of the sages and gently clasping his neck with His soft arms, the Child whispered something in his ear, and at this magic touch the sage awoke from meditation. He fixed his half-open eyes upon the wondrous Child, who said in great joy: ‘I am going down to Earth. Won’t you come with me?’
“With a benign look the sage expressed assent and returned into deep spiritual ecstasy. Ramakrishna was amazed to observe that a tiny portion of the sage, however, descended to earth, taking the form of light, which struck the house in Calcutta where Narendra’s family lived, and when he saw Narendra for the first time, he at once recognized him as the incarnation of that sage. He also admitted that the Divine Child who brought about the descent of the rishi [or sage] was none other than himself.” (11)
Swami Vivekananda was a giant of spirituality. Of him Paramahansa Ramakrishna would say:
“Look at Narendra. He doesn’t care about anyone. … He is independent even of me. He doesn’t tell all he knows, lest I should praise his scholarship before others. He is free from ignorance and delusion. He has no bonds. He is a great soul. … Narendra doesn’t come here [to Dakshineswar Temple] very often. That is good, for I am overwhelmed by his presence.” (12)
He never tired of inventing metaphors to describe Naren.
“When peasants go to market to buy bullocks for their ploughs, they can easily tell the good from the bad by touching their tails. One being touched there, some meekly lie down on the ground. The peasants recognize that they are without mettle and so reject them. They select only bullocks that frisk about and show spirit when their tails are touched. Narendra is like a bullock of this latter class. He is full of spirit within. … There are some people who have no grit whatever. They are like flattened rice soaked in milk – soft and mushy. No inner strength! (13)
“Narendra belongs to a very high plane — the realm of the Absolute. He has a manly nature. So many devotees come here, but there is not one like him. Every now and then I take stock of the devotees. I find that some are like lotuses with ten petals, some like lotuses with sixteen petals, some like lotuses with a hundred petals. Narendra is a thousand-petalled one. Other devotees may be like pots or pitchers; but Narendra is a huge water-barrel.” (14)
“Among fish, Narendra is a huge red-eyed carp; others are like minnows or smelts or sardines. Tarak of Belgharia may be called a bass.” (15)
Naren came relatively late in his master’s life, prompting the latter to exclaim:
“Ah! You have come very late. Why have you been so unkind as to make me wait all these days? My ears are tired of hearing the futile words of worldly men. Oh, how I have longed to pour my spirit into the heart of someone fitted to receive my message!” (16)
Naren was impatient for realization. He unceasingly begged for it.
“Narendra, consumed with a terrific fever for realization, complained to the Master that all the others had attained peace and that he alone was dissatisfied. The Master asked what he wanted. Narendra begged for samadhi, so that he might altogether forget the world for three or four days at a time. ‘You are a fool,’ the Master rebuked him. “There is a state even higher than that [i.e., vijnana]. Isn’t it you who sing, ‘All that exists art Thou’? First of all settle your family affairs and then come to me. You will experience a state even higher than samadhi.'” (17)
Not long after, Sri Ramakrishna bestowed the long-awaited experience on his disciple.
“One day when Narendra was on the ground floor, meditating, the Master was lying awake in his bed upstairs. In the depths of his meditation Narendra felt as though a lamp were burning at the back of his head. Suddenly he lost consciousness. It was the yearned-for, all-effacing experience of nirvikalpa samadhi, when the embodied soul realizes its unity with the Absolute. … After [a] long period Narendra regained full consciousness. Bathed in peace, he went to the Master, who said, “Now the Mother has shown you everything.” (18)
But even Naren was forced to wear blinkers. Sri Ramakrishna took the experience away from him
“Now the Mother has shown you everything. But this revelation will remain under lock and key, and I shall keep the key. When you have accomplished the Mother’s work you will find the treasure again.” (19)
However before Sri Ramakrishna passed away, he transferred his powers to Naren, the same way that Elijah did to Elishu.
“Some days later, Narendra being alone with the Master, Sri Ramakrishna looked at him and went into samadhi. Narendra felt the penetration of a subtle force and lost all outer consciousness. Regaining presently the normal mood, he found the Master weeping.
“Sri Ramakrishna said to him: ‘Today I have given you my all and I am now only a poor fakir, possessing nothing. By this power you will do immense good in the world, and not until it is accomplished will you return.’ Henceforth the Master lived in the disciple.” (20)
Sri Ramakrishna had warned Naren’s fellow disciples that the day he remembered his sagely origins, he would choose to leave the body. One day that prediction appeared to be coming true.
“His disciples and spiritual brothers were worried to see his contemplative mood. They remembered the words of Sri Ramakrishna that Naren, after his mission was completed, would merge for ever into samadhi, and that he would refuse to live in his physical body if he realized who he was. A brother monk asked him one day, quite casually, ‘Do you know yet who you are?’ The unexpected reply, ‘Yes, I now know!’ awed into silence everyone present. No further question was asked.” (21)
Within days, Swami Vivekananda took his leave of this world.
“At the end of an hour his hands trembled a little and he breathed once very deeply. There was a silence for a minute or two, and again he breathed in the same manner. His eyes became fixed in the centre of his his eyebrows, his face assumed a divine expression, and eternal silence fell. … The monks were convinced that their leader had voluntarily cast off his body in samadhi, as predicted by Sri Ramakrishna.” (22)
This then is one illustration of a sage remembering his true identity and taking leave of the body.
(Continued in Part 2.)