Lord Caitanya Mahāprabhu met Sri Rāmānanda Rāya, a great devotee of Śrī Kṛṣṇa on the banks of the River Godāvari (early 1600 AD) while he was touring South India. The meeting is considered to be a turning point in Lord Caitanya’s life; after listening to Rāmānanda, Lord Caitanya harped on Jñāna Śunya Bhakti as the means to achieve supreme perfection (Prabhupada 19). Far away from the empiric knowledge and its fruits a devotee is recommended to inhabit the world of the Lord by serving Him. And the best way to serve the Lord is suggested to be in the form of transcendental conjugal relationship with the Lord. In Śrī Rāmānanda Samvāda, we find that when Caitanya asks Rāmānanda: “eho uttama, āge kaha āro”, Rāmānanda replies: “kāntā-prema sarva-sādhya-sāra” (28). Upon further curiosity of Lord Caitanya, Rāmānanada replies that the highest form of service to the Lord is the kāntā-prema, love of the lady. Therefore, the first requisite to be an ideal devotee is to possess kāntā-prema, a paramour’s love of highest quality.
(Figure 1: Credit: Gaudiyavaishanavisim – Caitanya Mahāprabhu with Sri Rāmānanda Rāya)
Interestingly, many psychologists dismiss the binaries of gender and claims that the principles of the male and the female cannot be separated. Carl S Jung states that the anima is the unconscious feminine side of a man, transcending the personal psyche and animus as the unconscious masculinity in a woman. A more profound blurring of boundaries is seen in the concept of Ardhanāriśvara resolving the paradox of opposites into a perfect unity. B. N. Raveesh writes, “Ardhanareeshvara harmonizes the two conflicting ways of life: The spiritual way of the ascetic as represented by Shiva, and the materialistic way of the householder symbolized by Parvati. It conveys that Shiva and Shakti are one and the same. A human being is not a pure unisexual organism. Each human organism bears the potentiality of both male and female sex.” (263) He further explores the idea to find how the neurohormonal mechanisms influence our sexual behaviour to match the opposites and create a true rhythm of life. Hence, a possibility of locating the ideal paramour in a male body is both scientifically and scripturally proffered to a male devotee wishing to pursue the Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava Bhakti sādhana.
According to Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmi, Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava Sādhana is divided into two major forms, vaidhī Bhakti and rāgānugā Bhakti. Rūpa discusses the rāgānugābhakti sādhanain his book Bhakti-rasāmṛita-sindhu, and Ujjvalanīlamaṇi which involves the mimetic role-playing of the characters from Vrajaloka based on Bharata’s rasa theory. In this path, a devotee performs a particular character (chosen by a realized guru or through inner perception) to realize his or her siddha-rūpa—that is, his or her true identity as one of the characters in Vrajaloka serving the Lord. Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja refers to both these books while discussing the teachings of Śrī Caitanya in his book Caitanya Caritāmṛta. According to the modern scholar David Haberman, Rūpa Gosvāmin reinterpreted Bharata’s rasa theory to delineate the practice of rāgānugābhakti sādhana in which role-playing / acting / imitation becomes the primary means for achieving salvation / release. Haberman argues convincingly that in religious role playing, where imitation is a central mode of religious action, life becomes a divine stage for the holy actor who imitates the role of a paradigmatic religious figure (Characters from Lord Kṛṣṇa’s life), thereby “internalizing a transcendent role” and attaining salvation (151). Thereafter, Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava scholars like Rūpa Kavirāja and Viśvanātha explained the process of entering the cosmic drama and playing various roles. The nineteenth century Bengali mystic Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa (1836-1886), played the role of Rādhā and a mañjarī during his Vaiṣṇava Bhakti sādhana by dressing up as, and behaving like, a woman, and finally claimed to realize the feminine in him. Sri Ramakrishna proved to be one of the most remarkable practitioners of the complex sādhana of rāgānugā, which even Vaiṣṇava saints shy away from pursuing.
(Figure 2: Credit: Touchstone media – Rūpa Gosvāmi- mañjarī bhava)
In this paper, I shall examine Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa’s spiritual cognizance of the feminine in his body and psyche as an exemplary sādhaka who fruitfully practiced rāgānugā-bhakti sādhana and improvised it freely. I will, first, explore the method introduced by Rūpa and then investigate the major interpretations done by the later practicing scholars. Thereafter, I shall study how Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa adopted and improvised the sādhana to celebrate the immanent feminine energy.
Rāgānugā bhakti sādhana: A celebration of the cosmic femininity
In Rāgānugā bhaktisādhana, (considered to be an advanced practice than vaidhī Bhakti) the motivation shifts from following advice or injunction, to an inner longing, an intense desire, vyākulatā. A rāgānugā devotee follows the instructions of vaidhi bhakti till he develops a potent desire to experience an “innate yearning to know more or to participate fully in the divine līlā” (O’Connel 234). Rūpa states that while practicing rāgānugā bhakti, the devotee imitates the rāgātmika bhakti “that shines forth clearly in the residents of Vraja” (BRS 1.2.270). The word anugā means “imitation,” which has two probable meanings; the first is to copy, which is referred to the replica of the real and the second is a more serious process of entering a past moment or a world, as is sometimes done by psychologists and sociologists. Haberman and Donna Wulff both prefer to use the word anugā in the latter sense. Haberman calls it “sincere imitation” and Wulff translates it as “conforming (oneself) to” (Haberman 95). I too prefer to use anugā as a sincere imitation to experience the emotions of the copied character. In the context of drama it is similar to mimesis, wherein the real world or human behaviour is presented in art and literature. Mimesis means the symbolic re-enactment of a significant action and an external imitation of an internal reality. The Greeks called their priests mimos and they performed ritualistic activities known as the earliest mimesis. Plato and Aristotle both agree that the art of drama is mimetic. Hence, rāgānugā bhaktisādhana adopts the process of mimesis and develops into an aesthetic experience. To understand this sādhana one has to examine the performative elements used to express it. Haberman has deeply investigated the process in his book Acting as a Way of Salvation (1988). I shall, therefore, briefly state his claims and then explore Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa’s individual practice of this sādhana and his innovations that enriched the sādhana.
This path was developed significantly after Caitanya and is considered a specialized sādhana which is offered only by a practising guru. Lord Caitanya is described as the amalgamation of the Parama Puruṣa (Śrī Kṛṣṇa) and the Hlādini Śakti (Rādhā) by his biographers.
Rādhākṛṣṇa ek ātmā dui deha dhari/ Anyonye vilāse ras āsvādan kori /
Sei dui ek eve Caitanya goñsāi / Bhāv āsvādite doñhe hoilā ek ṭāñi.
(Rādhā and Krishna being one soul merely inhabits two bodies to savour the marvellous rasa of Lord’s playfulness. Later, these two bodies merge to be one in Caitanya to relish the bhāva [CC]).
The transformation of bodies from two opposites to one for the desire to experience bhāva and rasa is a conscious and fascinating performative aspect of gender. I purposefully use the word conscious and fascinating to contradict the much discussed assertions made by the renowned scholar Judith Butler on gender performativity. Butler claims that there is no original gender and therefore it is a special kind of imitation that gives rise to a notion of the original. The Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava world view states that there is one Puruṣa, Lord Kṛṣṇa and the rest of the creation is Prakṛti. There is an anecdote of Mirā visiting Rūpa Gosvāmi and being refused to meet because she is a woman and Rūpa is a man; however, soon he is admonished by Mirā:
Eto din śuni nāi śrīmon Vrindāvone ār keho puruṣ āche Kṛṣṇa bine
(I have yet not heard of any other male here in Vrindāvan apart from Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa [CC])
(Figure 3: Credit: pixels.com – Ultimate reality of Hladini as Maha Vidya emerging with Krishna)
Hence, there is an original male, omnipotent, omniscient all encompassing and an original expanded component of the feminine present in all that exists in this empirical world. Though the discussion deserves more in- depth analysis and substantiation, I shall try to investigate it later in another paper solely devoted to this idea of gender in Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇavism. Butler further claims, “The misapprehension about gender performativity is this: that gender is a choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts on, as one puts on clothes in the morning, that there is a ‘one’ who is prior to this gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today” (93). However, in rāgānugā bhakti sādhana, the devotees do consciously approach the metaphorical wardrobe, the characters of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, and the Guru or their inner awakening prompts them to choose the role to transcend the erotic sensuality and fleshly licentiousness to an admirable longing for the divine. Rāgātmika bhakti is of two types: Amorous (kāmarūpa) and Relational (sambandharūpa) (BRS 1.2. 273). Among these two paths, the participation in the amorous relationship of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa is considered to be the most prudent and coveted path. Kṛṣṇadās Kavirāj writes,
Rādhākṛṣṇa-līlā ei ati guḍhatara / Daasyavātsalyaādi bhaaver nā hay gocara/
Sabe ek sakhīgaṇer ihā adhikār / Sakhī hoite hay ei līlār vistār.
(The Līlā of Rādhākṛṣṇa is profoundly complex, so very rare will you find devotees practising dāsya, vātsalya or other bhāvas, because it is the sakhīs alone who have this special adeptness and the sakhīs alone expand the Līlā of the Lord [CC])
In this path, a devotee should desire to attain either of the roles of gopīs or sakhīs or mañjarīs of the Vrajaloka (also known as rāgātmikā bhakta) and should perform the act of service by imitating the original character in both the practitioner’s body (sādhaka deha) and the perfected mystical body (siddha deha), which is a transformed body (BRS 1.2.295). To achieve this state of rāgātmika bhakti, the devotee has to mentally, emotionally and spiritually adopt a mystical body (siddha deha). Siddha deha is the transcendental body of a rāgātmika bhakta as suited to the devotee’s inner being. Every devotee has a special rāgātmika bhakta from Vrajaloka as prescribed by the Guru or felt by the devotee in an intense spiritual state. The rāgātmika bhaktas are characters from Vraja in Dvāpara Yuga during the period of Kṛṣṇa as an Avatār, which are mentioned elaborately in Śrīmad Bhāgvatam, especially the sakhīs and mañjarīs as mentioned earlier. These names of rāgātmika bhaktas are also mentioned by the Vaiṣṇava scholars like Rūpa Kavirāja and Visvanātha at different occasions. The process of sādhana is similar to the process of characterization in a play or dramatic performance, which has been discussed in detail by Haberman. Haberman chose to compare the renowned theatre practitioner and theorist, Stanislavski’s, process of actor’s preparation of characters, with the methods of rāgānugā bhakti sādhana. By contrast, he investigated Bharata’s profound rasa theory as discussed by great Indian scholars like Abhinavagupta, Bhoja, and others to understand the complexity of the rāgānugā devotees’ experience.
The Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava Gopālaguru Gosvāmin gives the earliest detailed description of the siddha rūpa in his book Govindārcana-smaraṇa paddhati. There are eleven items which facilitate such sādhana and they are as follows: to know one’s mystical name, to know one’s relationship with Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā, to know one’s age, body, colour, group, dress, order, residence, service, to know under whom one serves and to have the highest desire. Bhakti-rasāmṛita-sindhu neither examines the method of choosing the right character, the rāgātmika bhakta, nor does it present limitations for imitative actions. The later Vaiṣṇava scholars Rūpa Kavirāja and Viśvanāth Cakravartin argued over the interpretation of the sādhana. The debate focused especially on the process of imitation. While Kavirāja states that the only guidance for the actions of a rāgānugā practitioner is the actions of the original characters of Vrajaloka (the actions pertaining only to siddha deha, mentally and physically), Viśvanātha insisted that both the scriptural injunctions are to be physically followed by the sādhaka deha and the imitation of Vrajavāsis in siddha deha are to be practised mentally by the devotee. Later Vaiṣṇavas adhered more to Viśvanātha’s interpretation and gradually transformed Rūpa Gosvāmin from a creator of rāgānugā bhakti sādhana to one of its paradigmatic individuals (a siddha dehī) from Vrajaloka as Rūpa Manjarī. (Haberman 114). Actually, in the practice the “accomplished practitioner” also becomes the model worthy of imitation. However, the process of imitation is extracted from Bharata’s Nāṭya Śāstra.
Sri Rūpa has adopted dramatic models from Bharata’s Nāṭya Śāstra to discuss bhāva and bhakti-rasa. He considers mādhurya bhāva to be the perfected model of loving devotion; that is mahābhāva, leading the devotee toward the supreme rasa of śṛṅgāra. Vaiṣṇava scholars state that “mahābhāva is said to have manifested only in the gopikās, sakhīs and manjarīs and in some Divine incarnations like Śrī Caitanya and Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa” (Tapasyananada 341). Rāgānugābhakti sādhana is a complicated process and requires careful monitoring by experienced gurus.
In recent times, there have been many Gauḍīya authorities who dismiss these findings because too many have misused the process and have faked the highest position of true rāgānugā sādhana, which is difficult to attain. Guru and scriptural advice are essential for rāgānugā bhakti because a guru is the experienced judge of the disciple’s advancement towards the path of sādhana. Sri Bhaktivinoda, in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, revived Śrī Caitanya’s movement by giving emphasis to vaidhī bhakti and he avoided any premature attempt of rāgānugā sādhana or any other devotional practices for which a devotee is not ready, or not quite suited. Śrī Bhaktivinoda said that the goals achieved by both the paths are exquisitely attractive despite being different (Saraswati 56). There is a significant difference between the ultimate experiences of a vaidhi bhakta and a rāgānugā bhakta. While a rāgābhakta, according to the scriptures, attains God Himself in Vraja, a vaidhī bhakta attains Vaikuṇṭha (Kabiraj 1036). While Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa practised both vaidhī and rāgānugā Bhakti, we will discuss only his rāgānugā bhakti sādhana.
Sri Ramakrishna’s Nurturing of Śringāra Rasa in Rāgānugā Bhakti Sādhana
Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa is one of the greatest spiritual personalities of modern times who has generated an overwhelming and pervasive influence in modern thought and practice. He reestablished and revalidated the authenticity and pragmatism of the spiritual traditions of India. He followed the path of many religions to establish the principle of harmony of religions. However, Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa claimed that out of all of the available paths for seeking the truth, Bhakti is the most appropriate path for modern seekers, which eradicates all differences, caste, creed, et al. Swami Vivekananda, his chief disciple, also claimed that Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa would generally teach Bhakti to his disciples and followers. He argued that the path of devotion is easier than jñāna. OIn one occasion, while discussing jñāna, he raised a question, “how can one have the consciousness that Brahman alone is real and the world is illusory” in this mortal body (KMG 233). In the Kaliyuga, it is difficult to have the feeling- “I am not the body, I am not the mind, and I am not the twenty-four cosmic principles” (KMG 233). Therefore, he proposes to work with the body and on the body. Body is the field to be ploughed for that most aspired fruit. Rāmprasād, the eighteenth century śākta poet and saint laments:
Emon mānob jomin roilo potit /Ābād korle folto sonā
(Such a fertile human body remains a fallow land/ If cultivated would have produced gold)
Hence, Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa proposes Bhakti for all and states that vyākulatā, or intense longing, is a prime necessity for Bhakti. Vyākulatā is an intense feeling which develops through the cultivation of various sentiments, which is also known as rasa, ranging from śānta to madhura. As discussed earlier, where the Caitanya School has a complete form of bhakti dedicated to the rasatatva (the idea of rasa), namely rāgānugā bhakti, it is Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa who deals with rāgā bhakti in a comprehensive way almost following all the instructions given in the Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava texts. In Līlā Prasaṅga, Saradananda writes, “The Master became attracted towards the disciplines of the Vaishnava doctrines after he had finished the Tantrik ones” (205). Saradananda feels that the reasons for Sri Ramakrishna’s attraction towards Vaiṣṇava sādhana were that firstly, Bhairavī Brahmanī was an expert in paṅcabhāvas, who was present then in Dakhineshwar and regularly met and discussed spiritual themes with Sri Ramakrishna. Secondly, Sri Ramakrishna belonged to a Vaiṣṇava family and the third and the most interesting reason proposed was that Sri Ramakrishna had a fantastic blend of male and female natures in his character. He was strong and fearless like a lion and simultaneously he was emotional and timid like a vulnerable woman.
Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa practiced all of the bhāvas and talked about them in detail. At the same time, we see that Sri Ramakrishna, during his bhāva sādhana, tries to emulate characters not only from Vraja līlā, like Rādhā and manjarīs (the rāgātmika bhaktas per se), but also divine characters from the Rāmāyaṇa like, Daśaratha (he acts like the father of Rām lālā by adopting vātsalya bhāva), Hanumān (dāsyabhāva) and Sītā (madhura bhāva). And surprisingly his Sītā bhāva generated unexpected results, which I shall discuss later. Undoubtedly, he has been a sincere practitioner of rāgānugā bhakti sādhana (knowingly or unknowingly) and he has expanded the possible range of rāgānugā bhakti by adopting divine characters from other periods (yuga/loka) and places.
(Figure 4 – Credit: Pinterest – Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa – the practitioner of all of the bhāvas)
In Kathāmṛta, M writes that when Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa was discussing about siddha of the siddhas, he states that to attain God one has to build an intimate relationship with God through love and devotion. He elucidates that in the process of developing the relationship with God the aspirant has to nurture certain sentiments more like an actor trying to play a character:
“But in order to realize God, one must assume one of these attitudes: Śānta, dāsya, sakhya, vātsalya, or madhur.
Sānta, the serene attitude. The rishis of olden times had this attitude toward God. They did not desire any worldly enjoyment. It is like the single-minded devotion of a wife to her husband. She knows that her husband is the embodiment of beauty and love, a veritable Madan.
Dāsya, the attitude of a servant toward his master. Hanumān had this attitude toward Rama. He felt the strength of a lion when he worked for Rāma. A wife feels this mood also. She serves her husband with all her heart and soul. A mother also has a little of this attitude, as Yaśoda had toward Kṛṣṇa.
Sakhya, the attitude of friendship. Friends say to one another, “Come here and sit near me.” Sridāma and other friends sometimes fed Kṛshna with fruit, part of which they had already eaten, and sometimes climbed on His shoulders.
Vātsalya, the attitude of a mother toward her child. This was Yaśoda’s attitude toward Kṛṣṇa. The wife, too, has a little of this. She feeds her husband with her very life-blood, as it were. The mother feels happy only when the child has eaten to his heart’s content. Yaśoda would roam about with butter in her hand, in order to feed Kṛṣṇa.
Madhur, the attitude of a woman toward her paramour. Rādha had this attitude toward Kṛṣṇa. The wife also feels it for her husband. This attitude includes all the other four.” (KMG 62-63)
Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa elucidates the various possible moods with simple day to day examples and he gives a comprehensive idea of the emotional content of each of the moods. Moods are bhāvas that render various rasas, according to the Nāṭya Śāstra. Rūpa elaborates the understanding of rasa in terms of Bharata’s aesthetics and posits Kṛṣṇa as the essence of all rasas (BRS 1.1.1). Thereafter, Rūpa devises a process to generate love for Kṛṣṇa, which is the prime tool of rāgānugābhakti and claims śṛṅgāra (the rasa of divine love) to be the basis of all bhakti rasas. Rupa writes, “Ātmocit vibhabādyoi….” (BRS 5.2.1). This śṛṅgāra rasa, which is the culmination of all rasas, is able to create the prime bhakti as in the case of Rādhā. Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa also prefers to give the example of Rādhā in his claim about the pre-eminence of madhura bhāva and practices the sādhana by exploring the roles of Rādhā, Sītā and a manjarī.
Like Śrīla Narottam Thakur, Rūpa also states that “the ultimate religious goal of a Vaiṣṇava is to be transformed into a character in Vraja, the Vrajaloka,” that is, one of the characters in the drama of Krsna’s life, the rāgātmika bhaktas, especially Rādhā and her young female attendants, the gopīs or the sakhīs or the manjarīs (BRS 1.4.1 and 2.5.73). Haberman observes, “The religious goal of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism—union with the ultimate Reality of Kṛṣṇa through love—is conceived of as an eternal participation in the emotional world of the Vraja-līlā” (47). Haberman also appoints the paradigmatic individuals and the relationships that they had with Kṛṣṇa or the roles that they played in Kṛṣṇa-līla. A few 18th century Vaiṣṇava saints were serious practitioners of rāgānugā bhaktisādhana as sakhīs, like Rādhāraman Bābāji and Lalitā Sakhī. Similarly, Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa also seems to choose the performative interpretation of rāgānugā bhakti sādhana and picks up characters from Bhāgavatam or Vrajaloka to elaborate the various bhāvas. In this case too he proves to be a rebel and believes in the interpretation of Rūpa Kavirāja and gets desperate to perform it in his physical body (sādhaka deha) itself (LP 152).
Realising the feminine within through the performance of the body
Further in his book, Rūpa ,mentions that, the method to be followed by the devotee is to imitate the “anubhāvas of one of the exemplary characters of Vrajaloka” (69). Rūpa defines bhakti as anuśīlana and Jīva in his commentary explains that anuśīlana includes both bhāva and ceṣṭā (a trial) which together culminates in anubhāva (BRS 1.1.11). This anubhāva is also equated with sādhana in rāgānugābhakti. The devotee loses his identity by forgetting himself in this sādhana and discovers his true self, which Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa states as attaining the “supremely perfect” state, “the siddha of the siddhas” (KMG 62). Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa adopts this method of mimesis that is similar to the western performance theories that talk about copying and use of mimetic process to create characters (as discussed by Stanislavski).
I shall quote copiously from Līlā Prasañga (LP) and Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa Puṅthi (Puṅthi) (madhur bhāvasādhana 106-118) to substantiate his sādhana. Translated in English from Bengali.
In Līlā Prasañga, Saradananda writes:
“Like Śrīmatī Rādhāraṇī and Śrī Gourāñgadeva, there were all the lakṣaṇas of Mahābhava manifesting in Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa’s body. The Bhairavī Brahmaṇī confirmed it later comparing it with the śāstra. According to Bhakti śāstra there are nineteen lakṣaṇas, it takes a life time to experience any one of them, but Thākur had all of them in his body” (155).
How did he achieve this? He was an accomplished sādhaka, in the Puṅthi Akshay Kumar Sen mentions:
“There was a desire in his heart
Impatient to begin his sādhana
The yearning was so potent
That his body got transformed
His male body had no masculinity
The Gosāīñ felt like a young maid
The walk, the talk the looks and all
Body, grace, smile and every aspect
The way his hips swayed that it was
Impossible to discern him from a lady
No imperfection in his dress and style
On his head he wore a long haired wig
He wore an embroidered varānasi śāri
Wrapped a piece of cloth around his chest
And wore trinklets around his lovely feet
So, did he serve Śrī Rādha as her sakhī” (108)
Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa followed the Āhārya, Āngika and Vācika abhinaya and meticulously wore the costumes and makeup and all accessories to play the role of a sakhī. And thereafter, he starts behaving like the sakhī, copying the walking and talking style of a sakhī. He does pujā, pāṭh, śravan manan. Sen further sings:
Śrīmotī Rāi entered his pious body,
Body inundated with Rādhā’s bhāva
Rādhā and Prabhu were no different
In love and warmth was mad for Kṛṣṇa
There were signs of Prakṛti in his body
Started bleeding for three days every month
Blood dripped from the pours of his groins
As he wore a loin cloth for those three days. (112)
His pious body went through a mysterious change and behaved like a woman’s body. This transformation is an inexplicable and mystifying divine phenomenon accomplished by the great sādhaka Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa. He finally, turns into a real sakhī and then Rādhā enters his body and he has the darśana of Śrī Kṛṣṇa.
Here in these portions we discover two aspects of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa. First, his exemplary experiences as rāgānugābhakti sādhaka in contemporary times, which reveals his desire to transcend the body through the body. He reestablishes a master path to transcend desire by converting it into a longing for the ultimate truth, the Lord. He emulates the ideal feminine to merge with the ideal Puruṣa. The second, is Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa’s sincerity, perfection and skill while performing a sādhana. This feature of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa consequently reveals his mimetic and performance skills, which are the key aspects of this sādhana as discussed earlier. Like a sincere performance artist, he copied the characters he emulated to the last detail. The basic need for a performer is to know the art of mimesis. Through mimesis a particular character is physically established. Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa used mimesis to an extreme ingenious level while performing the role during his sādhana. He was very meticulous about the costume, makeup and the scenic backdrop of the characters. Lastly, Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa brilliantly employed the theory of rasa (though unknowingly) to create the bhāvas of the character to such a pure state that the onlookers would readily accept him as the character itself and not a mere actor/performer. For example, as a sakhī, he adopted madhura bhāva to such an extent that even Mathur Babu (a devotee and the owners of the Dakhineshwar temple) was unable to recognize him as Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa (Puṅthi 112). He was a keen observer of these characters and could discern the differences in their nature similar to a seasoned performer. However, these were not mere physical transformations; his performance skills transcended the physical world and elevated him to the mystical world of samādhi and at times changed the physical nature to an aberrant level. For example, while performing madhura bhāva as a sakhī, he claimed to have started bleeding like a menstruating woman (Puṅthi 109, LP 155). In all these practices finally he encountered the character physically and in a state of ecstasy the effulgent divine character would merge with his being. He would experience the oneness. While being in the character of Rādhā, he finally has a darśana of Śrī Kṛṣṇa and then a ray of light emerges out of the Lord’s feet and touches the holy scriptureHoly Scripture Bhāgavatam and thereafter the rope like light enters his body (LP 158). These and many such examples prove that Sri Ramakrishna was an extraordinary sādhaka who transcended the empirical world by his performance and reached a state of a finer spiritual truth, both emotionally and physically. He merged with the Puruṣa by exploring the Prakriti. However, as suggested by Professor Sri Ranjan K Ghosh in an interaction, it is noticeable that though the characters he chose to copy were a sakhī or Rādhā, basically, in his practice he was trying to copy the “Self” alone, in forms of sakhī, Rādhā, manjarī or the hand maid. These characters were the reflections of the “true Self” that he merged with during samādhi because we are both the feminine and the masculine in the same body. In a way, his heightened state of samādhi during rāgānugā bhakti sādhana gave expression to the art of performance allowing him to experience the Feminine within and finally the Absolute.
The rāgānugā bhakti sādhana is a performative process formulated in terms of aesthetic experiences. Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa as a master performer without being conscious of it accomplished his spiritual goals. He is often called as A Kālī’s Child has an unwavering faith in the power of the feminine and eventually, experienced the feminine in his own self, physically, mentally and spiritually. He imitated, improvised and experienced the rarest feeling of a performer while seeking the absolute. Imitation of the feminine to realise the Absolute is also practiced in Christianity, Buddhism and Sufism. Recently, I met an octogenarian Babaji named Rādhāpada Dās who secretly practises rāgānugā bhakti sadhana in Nabadwip, West Bengal as a sakhī.
Note and Abbreviations used
- All the translations from Bengali to English are done by me.
- CC : Caitanya Caritamṛta
- LP : Līlā Prasañga
- KMG: Śrī Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa Kathāmṛta
- BRS: Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu
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