What geeks can learn from Ramakrishna Paramahansa

It’s not apparent, but there are several lessons the metaphysical world can teach the digital and the real worlds


R Swaminathan | May 6, 2013

Some things are never immediately evident. Like the startling parallels between the digital and metaphysical worlds. Both are constantly buffeted by the illusory consciousness created by the artificial distinction between faculties of mind and of heart. But both, in their own unique ways, scythe through that illusion to reveal the fundamental oneness of their respective worlds. It’s a oneness that’s ironically derived from the immense diversity inhabiting each of them. Ramakrishna Paramahansa came upon this oxymoronic metaphysical singularity in his own way.

One conversation with Narendranath Dutta is particularly illuminating. The young Bengali was once vehemently arguing with Ramakrishna that the beliefs of those who thought that god had many forms were blind. The older and spiritually enlightened Ramakrishna’s response was a telling comment of the different worlds each inhabited. “…you will speak of someone’s faith as blind and some other’s as having eyes; how is that?” Narendranath Dutta was later deified as Swami Vivekananda. [For an in-depth understanding of Ramakrishna, a reading of Sri Ramakrishna: The Great Master by Swami Saradananda will be helpful.]

Illusory meanings are created when only a slice of reality is displayed. Just like photographs. They are never just a faithful reproduction of the complete reality of a particular time and age. It’s a trait that they share with digital slices like Facebook and Twitter. Both are powerful tools through which perceptions, meaning and an extended hyperreality is created for future generations. Like all things malleable, there’s a thumb-rule about photographs and digital slices too. Their ability to mould perceptual power is proportionate to their age, variety and number available. The mental imagery of spirituality and mysticism singularly associated with Ramakrishna Paramahansa is derived from one black and white picture of the mystic at Dakshineswar sitting cross-legged, hands interlocked and smiling serenely into the camera. Narendranath Dutta aka Swami Vivekananda’s perceived dynamism also has similar origins. A few closely related pictures showing Vivekananda in full saffron attire and looking decisively into the yonder have been instrumental in creating an imagery of a saint who infused a certain contemporary direction and organisation into the broader philosophy of Hinduism.

Photographs, however, very rarely capture the nuances of a generational or a paradigmatic shift, just as slices of digital life lead to sweeping generalisations about an apparently pervasive Facebook and Twitter age. Ramakrishna Paramahansa was not schooled in the conventional sense. Yet he evolved into one of the foremost mystical philosophers of his generation. But contrary to his serene image he was often known to fly into blind rages where he would use the choicest of abuses, picked up from his childhood in rural Bengal. Ramakrishna can at best be described as an agnostic when it came to choosing the paths to spiritual enlightenment. He studied the Quran and Bible with equal devotion and did not shy away from entering the highly contested and taboo territory of Tantra, under the guidance of an older female ascetic Bhairavi Brahmini, in his quest for the ultimate light. The single-mindedness of his spiritual quest was such that in order to get in touch with the feminine energy he would dress himself up in a saree, put a bindi and wear bangles and go into a trance. To top it, he would suck on a parboiled sweet during the trance. All this caused discomfiture and embarrassment to several of his disciplines, especially Narendranath who called his trances “mere figments of imagination” and “hallucinations”.

Unlike Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Narendranath was born in an aristocratic Bengali family, educated at the best of schools and studied western logic, philosophy and history of European nations. His worldview, sense of propriety, aesthetics and understanding of life were shaped in a more conventional and modernist mould. It’s a mould that the current generation of middle class Indians would readily identify with. It was this worldview that made Narendranath a reluctant disciple of Ramakrishna; often angrily questioning the seer’s philosophy or summarily rejecting them. Ramakrishna would keep reminding the young Narendranath to “try and see the truth from all angles”. Despite his philosophical and paradigmatic misgivings, Narendranath intuitively knew that Ramakrishna Paramahansa had figured out the ultimate truth. By the time Ramakrishna Paramahansa passed away from throat cancer, Narendranath had positioned himself as the chosen successor, all set to imprint himself in the collective Indian consciousness as Swami Vivekananda.

By understanding the fundamental differences between Ramakrishna Paramhamsa’s freewheeling approach to discovering the ultimate spiritual truth and Narendranath’s sanitised consolidation of it – as Swami Vivekananda – for achieving a certain organised catholicity of the philosophy for an emerging socio-political context, one can arrive at a deeper conceptual, and an almost philosophical, understanding of the contradictory forces jousting in the digital world. The early pioneers of the digital world, say Louis Pouzin, Tim Berners-Lee, Ted Nelson, Vinton Cerf, Paul Baran or Jon Postel, were agnostic in their methods and approaches, much like Ramakrishna Paramahansa, when it came to reaching the digital version of spiritual enlightenment. For instance, Nelson was a sociologist and philosopher. Yet he founded a highly technical project called Xanadu with the goal of creating a computer network with a simple user interface and wrote two complex inter-related books Computer Lib/Dream Machines, often hailed as the ‘most important books in the history of new media’. We now know the philosophy built around the diverse approaches taken by the early pioneers as Open Source and Open Standards.

Using these basic philosophical foundations, and the frameworks of meaning derived from it, are systems that are more catholic in spirit and direction. They consequently have specific boundaries protected in real terms through a patents regime. A proprietary operating system like that of Microsoft, or a tethered eco-system developed by Apple’s unique combination of hardware, software and storage facilities or a Google’s combination of an open approach towards operating systems, but a closed eco-system for services and applications, successfully adopted by Facebook and Twitter too, are all specific derivatives of the broader philosophy of the digital world. With some creative liberty, one could call Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Paige and Mark Zuckerberg the Vivekanandas of the digital world. In their effort to channelise the latent energies and possibilities of the digital world, they have created worldviews with an embedded logic that invariably would lead to structured and linear approach. Quite like how Vivekananda embedded a specific linearity into Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s universal philosophy.

Ramakrishna Paramahansa is representative of a long-standing humanistic and universal worldview. It’s a perspective that was on view when Maulana Hazrat Mohani wrote devotional poems to Krishna. It’s seen in Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi realising the impermanence and deceit of an illusory world and saying that he is neither a Christian, nor a Jew nor a Zoroastrian nor a Muslim and in expressing his desire for the One. It’s also there in Kabir’s dohas and Bulle Shah’s verses, called Kafis, that was also used by Sikh Gurus. The same legacy is in full flow when Pakistani wanderer and mystic Sain Zahoor sings the soul-searing Allah Hoo or when KJ Yesudas unfailingly visits the Kollur Mookambika temple every year on his birthday to sing keerthans of Saraswati.
The real danger is not in a Vivekananda assimilating Ramakrishna’s teachings and converting them into easy-to-remember parables. If Ramakrishna had a Vivekananda, Karl Marx had a Friedrich Engels. Just as Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg will have their own successors and collaborators. The real danger is when such derivatives of a universal worldview get projected as ‘the’ right path for salvation and enlightenment, digital, metaphysical or real. Just like a photograph or a specific digital slice is often projected as ‘the’ only reality. If one eliminates the cacophony and the frenzied sound-bytes, echoes of these conflicting worldviews and philosophies can also be found in the debate about beehives, honey and mother India. There are people and institutions who want such a monolithic and limited projection for various kinds of benefits ranging from a large-scale adoption of a particular operating system to the moulding of as many minds as possible so as to create a dominant and hegemonic socio-political thought process.

Such a uni-dimensional perspective, though having a kernel of the universal worldview, will necessarily be illusory and will create artificial distinctions in the mind and heart. It’s here that philosopher Albert Camus’s quote fits like a glove. “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I am sure the natural born rebel Ramakrishna Paramahansa would have approved.



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