[to Swami Yatiswarananda’s Readings on the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Vol.I & II (English Editions) delivered at Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1934]
It is a unique background against which it was Swami Yatiswar-ananda's destiny to bring for the first time the message of Sri Ramakrishna to the Europe of 1933.
That it was just to Germany of all countries that it was brought, where the chaos following the first World War had grown to its climax, is by no means astonishing. For there, naturally, the yearning for spiritual liberation too had become most poignant.
Such an elemental upsurge towards spiritual evolution, as it will happen now and then on a larger scale in human history, could not but bring about tangible results.
Germany, after the catastrophe of the War (World War I) and the general outer and inner breakdown, was being torn asunder by a dozen or more ideologies, which, each in its own way fought for priority in people's minds. Old values had proved to be worthless and newly invented ones grew exuberantly out of the accumulated mud.
It is where the downward pressure is the greatest that the liberating reaction will one day become the most powerful.
Looking back on those years, the comparison with what is happening today (1953) irrepressibly imposes itself on the minds of our generation, and we shall possibly not be too far wrong by expecting that in some not too distant future it may again be in Germany where a new centre of spiritual realization will be established.
Like today, those who could not reconcile themselves with the general course things were taking and who had cultivated a subtler sense of understanding, felt intuitively that all that presented itself to the demoralized, post-inflation society of that time did not bear the mark of permanence and liberation which they sought.
The result was, that the louder the voices in the streets claiming some vague ‘freedom of the senses', the more silent became those whose longing went rather in the direction of a ‘freedom from the senses' and of religious realization.
Their number increased steadily and their hankering found expression when and whenever they met. Those chosen few of a country in dissolution contacted one another more or less secretly in many different places, but it was the privilege of a small and quite heterogeneous group of ardent students of Truth living in Wiesbaden, the lovely garden-town in the middle of the Taunus-hills, overlooking the Rhine,1 to receive in their midst the first messenger of the Vedantic Truth as it was taught by Sri Ramakrishna to modern mankind.
Nowadays, the complete Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, rendered into English prose from the Bengali original text,2 is being read and commented upon in innumerable lectures, readings and classes in and outside the Vedanta Centres of the Ramakrishna Order all over the world.
Those first talks in Wiesbaden however, given to a handful of people ready to receive spiritual instruction, will for ever retain the fragrance and the subtle spiritual charm of those unique early days when Swami Yatiswarananda for the first time, in the intimacy of an old-fashioned drawing-room, began to speak of the Master's teachings. None of those present there could then guess that out of this modest beginning the large centres in London and Paris would come to grow.
It was the rare good fortune of Mr. Wolfram H. Koch—the Wiesbaden scholar, now well known by his contributions to the readers of periodicals like Prabuddha Bharata and Vedanta for the West—to have become, almost twenty years ago now, the mouthpiece of this group of friends.
At the same time, favoured by outward circumstances, he could give special stress to the fervent request he had decided to place before the head of the Ramakrishna Math in India, asking him to send out a member of the Order who would be willing to give them spiritual instruction and guidance.
The request fell on fruitful soil and Swami Yatiswarananda, then already one of the most advanced members of the Order, was entrusted with the task of bringing spiritual light into a country in darkness, lacerated as it was by a host of destructive forces.
We know through Swami Yatiswarananda's own mouth that it was with a heavy heart that he stepped on board the boat that was to take him to Europe one afternoon in October 1933. He did not yet see his way quite clearly then, nor was he too optimistic as to the result of the work he was about to undertake.
Early next morning however, when he awoke in his cabin, surrounded by the infinite expanse of skies and water, the awareness of
1 25Km south-west from Frankfurt, across the Rhine from Mainz.
2 By Swami Nikhilananda, first published in 1942.
such a blissful Divine Presence came over him that all his doubts were swept away and he understood that his work would be blessed. It was.
In the meantime, the Wiesbaden group of his aspirant devotees anxiously looked forward to their guru's arrival. The house in which he was to live had been made ready to receive him, and all possible arrangements were made to make him feel comfortable.3
When finally he arrived on November 8, 1933, all the impatient Westerners immediately started bombarding him with questions concerning their personal problems and difficulties.
The Swami's reaction was quite different from that they had expected it to be, and some amusing reminiscences with respect to it are still current among the members of that first group: for the Swami observed an unbreakable silence! To all their repeated questions of ‘what to do?', for a long time his sole advice would be: ‘What to do? Pray to the Lord'.
This answer, even now after twenty years, has remained proverbial among those to whom it was given and it is still being quoted whenever the opportunity arises, accompanied by that little wistful smile with which we pathetically try to hide our nostalgia for happy times, irrevocably lost in the mist of the past.
When that past however was still a living present, Swami's students during the first days or weeks often looked helplessly at each other, wondering whether they would ever receive another answer from their teacher as far as spiritual matters were concerned. It became a puzzle to all those who had expected him to start instructing, training and initiating them right away and to question them in his turn concerning all those personal items which they considered necessary for him to know.
His, however, was another method.
Time is an important factor, he once remarked, we must wait patiently till he sees his way clearly by the grace of the Lord.
So, quietly he waited and thereby taught his devotees their first lesson: patience.
Willingly and good-naturedly they surrendered to his will, feeling not only the power of one whom one of his brother Swamis in the West used to call a ‘spiritual giant'; they also were strongly aware of his benevolent and loving interest in each of them and of the bond which had already been established between guru and disciples.
3 The building was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II.
Some of them may have suspected that in the meantime their Swami was contacting the souls and minds of those who had come within the circle of his service, using other means for coming to know more about them.
Till one day, in that same old-fashioned drawing-room, seated round the middle table, he threw open the gates and the waters of spiritual knowledge were allowed to flow.
Then, finally, in that same old-fashioned drawing-room, seated round the middle table, he acquainted them with Swami Brahm-ananda's—his guru's —Spiritual Teachings
The present material is the Swami's comments on the fifth in the series of books he read with that first group of Vedanta students and followers of the Great Master in Europe, to whom he had been found willing to bring the message of Sri Ramakrishna.
He had first introduced his German students into the basic concepts of spiritual practice by reading with them and bringing near to them the Spiritual Teachings of his own Guru, Swami Brahmananda, who, next to the world-famous Swami Vivekananda, was the closest to the Master among His direct disciples.4
After that he studied with them the profound Vedantasara as a means of conveying to their Western mind the spirit of the Vedanta in its purest and most impersonal aspect. Then followed the Narada Bhakti Sutras and the Bhagavad-Gita.
Only after this, Swami Yatiswarananda decides to acquaint them with the person of Sri Ramakrishna himself, well realizing that for these Europeans to whom Indian life and the soul of the Hindu people are as yet unknown, the figure of this ‘Guru Maharaj', this ‘King of Teachers' can only be at all properly understood if at least they have been able to assimilate and, if possible to identify themselves with the contents of the foregoing Readings.
Famous authors of the Occident have written about the unique personality and the life of Sri Ramakrishna and names like Romain Rolland and others are closely connected with him through their works. Still, it is none of these well-known books the Swami chooses although the authors succeeded in identifying themselves to a great extent with their subject. They clearly felt that the influence of this God-man on the spiritual life not only of his own generation but on
4 The first class-notes, beginning from November 21, 1933, were entitled READINGS ON THE SPIRITUAL TEACHINGS OF SWAMI BRAHMANANDA.
many more to come would bring about unforeseen transformations in peoples' minds.
Since then we have indeed witnessed the expansion of the Order of Sri Ramakrishna all over the world; we have followed the increasing hold which his teachings have got—even on modern society.
It was by the Master's greatest disciple, Swami Vivekananda, that they were brought to the United States of America and it is from there that they became world-known.
As we know, it was Swami Yatiswarananda's task to carry the newly lighted torch of ancient Indian Wisdom to an old sophisticated Europe, tired of age-old religious controversies and bloodshed in the name of God.
To those who are still devoted to the Church and the denomination into which they were born, Sri Ramakrishna, having realized God along the path of Christianity himself —as well as along other religions as a matter of fact— gives them the assurance which the Seers of old also experienced for themselves, namely that the Truth—or God—is One, no matter which are the names by which man prays and calls to Him. All inspired religions are necessarily as many paths leading to the ultimate realization of God... Who dares attempt to confine Him within the walls of one or the other religious organization? Who has the courage to maintain that the Infinite Spirit, the essence of all manifestation and the soul of all souls could ever be the exclusive privilege of one group?
The Rishis who lived in India fifteen thousand years ago had an insight into human—and divine—nature which modern scientific genius is only just on the way of approaching.
This Knowledge of the Ultimate Reality has been passed on from century to century to our own generation through the mouth of those very few who, by lifelong practice and identification, have ‘seen God' and have ‘realized the Truth'.
And this is where the ray of new light falls in for all those who want more than the often degenerated religious organizations of these days are able to give them; whose longing for a higher and more spiritual life with a positive outlook has been frustrated with all the results thereof: Sri Ramakrishna shows them the way out of sterile dogmatisms and dry theory into living practice and personal experience.
He lived the divine life for everybody to see who had eyes to do so. He gave the most efficient practical instructions in the simplest of ways to those to whom the abstract philosophical aspect was not adequate, while he would lead others who could follow him, into the thin atmosphere of the highest mountaintops of the Self.
The man of action as well as the devotee, the philosopher as well as the psychologist and the scientist are shown the way fit for them and which can take them out of all human limitation and to final liberation.
Sir Ramakrishna has laid bare again the old forgotten path of the Spirit. He has cleared away the jungle and the dust of centuries making the way free and easy for us all to follow.
Swami Yatiswarananda, his spiritual son, continues the work of the Master. He too clears away a great deal of parasitic growth from the tree of these human minds who have entrusted their spiritual welfare to his guidance, surrendering to him for training and help. He too cleans, shows and leads the way for the benefit of those who have been so fortunate as to come within the circle of his service.
Now, in order to bring the figure of Sri Ramakrishna nearer to his students, Swami Yatiswarananda does not refer to the famous Western authors who made the Master the central figure of their well-known books. No, the source of information he chooses is first hand: the diary-notes written in Bengali by ‘M', a direct and much beloved disciple of the great Teacher himself; two small volumes, rendered into English, the first by the ‘M' himself.5 They were greatly abridged, it is true, but none the less valuable for that.6
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, published by Swami Nikhilananda from New York in 1942, makes the whole of these precious documents of a saintly life so near to us in time, accessible to the greater public. Still, the original two volumes in English have undoubtedly a charm of their own and must have well conveyed the subtle spirituality of the Master's presence to the Swami's first European followers.