SRI SRI RAMAKRISHNA KATHAMRITA AND ITS TRANSLATED VERSION(SAMYA MUKHERJEE)
Dear brothers and sisters, one the eve of the birth-anniversary of one of India’s greatest mystics Sree Ramakrishna Paramhansa, it is his time to memorise our pious saint. Thus, with utmost devotion and respect, I am going to present my views on ‘Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita’, the sacred text written about the sayings of Ramakrishna Paramhansa.
Sree Ramakrishna Paramhansa was born on 18th February 1836, at Kamarpukur (under Bengal Presidency in British India). He was formerly known as Gadadhar Chattopadhyay. Sree Ramakrishnadeva is considered as the Hindu mystic and religious leader, who lived in 19th century Bengal. Sree Ramakrishnadeva approached his religious life through the path of devotion to Goddess Kali and by observance of various elements from Tantra, Vaishnav Bhakti and Advaita Vedanta; as well as dalliances with Christianity and Islam. After earniest practice of various religious traditions, he held that the world’s religions represented ‘so many paths to reach one and the same goal’. His followers came to regard him as an ‘avatara’ or divine incarnation, as did some of the prominent Hindu scholars of the contemporary period. Ramakrishnadeva, who experienced spiritual ecstasies from a young age, started his religious life as a priest at Dakshineswar Kali temple. Soon his mystical temperament and spiritual nature gained him widespread acknowledgement as a Guru, attracting to him - various spiritual teachers, social leaders, Bengali elites and followers alike; he eventually taught his disciples who later formed the monastic Ramakrishna order. One of his disciple Mahendranath Gupta (later came to be known as ‘Sree M’), who recorded the sayings of Ramakrishnadeva by stenographical fonds primarily and after Master’s death his writings were published as ‘Ramakrishna Kathamrita’. This sacred scripture spread the teachings of Ramakrishnadeva in each and every corner of the world and glorifies the world with the Master’s light.
‘Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita’, the Nectar of Sri Ramakrishna’s words, is a work of five volumes, written in Bengali by Mahendranath Gupta (1854-1932), which recounts the conversations and activities of Sri Ramakrishna, an Indian
mystic of 19th century. The five volumes of ‘Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita’ were published at Kathamrita Bhawan (13/2, Guru Prasad Chaudhury Lane, Calcutta), in the years 1902, 1904, 1908, 1910 and 1932 respectively. The Kathamrita is regarded as a Bengali classic and revered among the followers as a sacred scripture. Later the entire text was translated into English and entitled as ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ (1942).
Sri Ramakrishna was a living embodiment of Godliness. His sayings are not those of a mere learned man, but are pages from the book of a life. Mahendranath Gupta has recorded his sublime utterences with stenographic precision. Therefore, they are a beacon light to all, who follow the spiritual path, to whichever race or religion they may belong. Even now, Sri Ramakrishna is the silent force that is moulding the spiritual destiny of India. ‘Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita’ helps to stricken humanity, coming nearer to the ‘Eternal verity of life.’
Methodology and History : Mahendranath Gupta, famously known as ‘M’ was a professor at Ripon College and taught at a number of schools in Kolkata. He himself had an academic career at Hare school and Presidency College in Kolkata. Mahendranath Gupta had the habit of maintaining a personal diary, since the age of thirteen. He met Sri Ramakrishnadeva in 1882 and attracted by the teachings of Ramakrishna. Mahendranath Gupta maintained a stenographic record of Ramakrishna’s conversations and actions in his diary, which finally took the form of a book ‘Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita’. Initially when Mahendranath Gupta began writing the diaries, he had no plans of publication. Regarding his methodology, Mahendranath Gupta wrote, “I wrote everything from memory after I returned home. Sometimes I had to keep awake the whole night...Sometimes I would keep on writing the events of one sitting for seven days, recollect the songs that were sung and the order in which they are sung and the Samadhi and so on”. In each of his Kathamrita entries; Mahendranath Gupta recorded the date, time and place of the conversation. The title ‘Kathamrita’, literally means the ‘nectarine words’, inspired by verse 10.31.9 from the Vaishnava text, the Bhagavata Purana.
The pre-history of Kathamrita has been discussed in R.K. Dasgupta’s essay (Dasgupta 1968). The first volume (1902) was preceded by a small booklet in English called ‘A Leaf from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’(1897). After the death of Ramakrishnadeva, the recognition by growing public would have encouraged Mahendranath Gupta to make his diary public. Mahendranath thought that Kathamrita might be an important medium for public dissemination of Ramakrishnadeva’s ideas. Mahendranath also sought Sarada Devi’s appraisal before the publication of the diary. Between 1898 and 1902, transliterated experts from his diary were published in leading Bengali journals like ‘Bangadarshan’, ‘Udbodhon’, ‘Hindu Patrika’, ‘Sahitya Patrika’ and ‘Janmabhumi’. The first four volumes were published in 1902, 1904, 1908 and 1910 respectively and the fifth volume in 1932 was delayed because of Mahendranath Gupta’s health problems. At the time of Mahendranath Gupta’s death in 1932, he was contemplating at least six to seven volumes, after which he hoped to rearrange the entire material chronologically. In 1932, when the fifth volume of Kathamrita was at the printers, Mahendranath died at his home, now called Kathamrita Bhawan, located near Thanthania Kali temple in Kolkata. Kathamrita Bhawan is a place of pilgrimage for the followers of Ramakrishnadeva, due to numerous visits there by Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi as well as several relics associated with their lives.
According to Sumit Sarkar, “The Kathamrita was published from 15 to 50 years after the sessions with Ramakrishna and covers a total of only 186 days, spread over the last four and a half years of the saint’s life. The full text of the original diary has never been made publicly available. Considered as a constructed ‘text’, rather than simply a more or less authentic source, the ‘Kathamrita’ reveals the presence of certain fairly self-conscious authorial strategies. The high deegre of ‘truth-effect’, undeniably conveyed by the ‘Kathamrita’ to the readers of 20th century is related to its display of testimonies to authenticity, careful listing of ‘types of evidence’ and meticulous reference to exact dates and times”.
Tyagananda and Vrajaprana wrote, “... at the time of Mahendragupta’s death, he had enough diary material for another five or six volumes. Poignantly and frustratingly, Mahendra’s diary notations were as sparse as they were cryptic. As a result, his Kathamrita project ended with the fifth volume and lest there be any misunderstanding, it needs to be said that the sketchy notations which
constitute the remainder of Mahendra’s diary, belong solely to Mahendra’s descendants, not to the Ramakrishna Order”. It also needs to be pointed out that, according to Dipak Gupta, Mahendranath’s great-grandson, scholars can and have seen these diaries.
Contents : The Kathamrita contains the conversation of Ramakrishnadeva from 26th February 1882 to 24th April 1886, during the visit of Mahendranath Gupta. Mahendranath even with his partial reporting, offers information about a great variety of people with different interests, converging at Dakshineswar Kali temple including, “...childless widows, young school boys (K1 : 240,291 ; K2 : 30, 331 ; K3 : 180, 185, 256), aged pensioners (K5 : 69-70), Hindu scholars or religious figures (K2 : 144, 303 ; K3 : 104,108, 120 ; K4 : 80, 108, 155, 352) , men betrayed by lovers (K1 : 319), people with suicidal tendencies (K4 : 274-275), small time businessman (K4 : 244) and of course adolescents, dreading the grind of sangsaric life (K3 : 167)”. The Kathamrita also records the devotional songs that were sung by Ramakrishnadeva, including those of Ramprashad, a Shakta poet of 18th century.
Translations : Several English translations exist; the most well-known is ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ (1942), by Swami Nikhilananda of the Ramakrishna Order. The translation has been criticized as inaccurate by Jeffrey Kripal while others such as Lex Hixon and Swami Tyagananda have regarded the translation as authentic and culturally sensitive. A translation by Sachindra Kumar Majumdar, entitled ‘Conversation with Sri Ramakrishna’ is published electronically by SRV Retreat Center, Greenvile NY, following the original five-volume format of the Kathamrita. The latest complete translation, by Dharma Pal Gupta is intended to be as close to the Bengali original as possible, conveyed by the words ‘Word by Word translation’ on the cover. All 5 volumes have been published. The title Kathamrita literally means ‘nectarine words’, inspired by verse 10.31. Ramakrishna Kathamrita is not only a book but it is the philosophy of life. Thakur has demonstrated through his whole life, that how to live simply
and happily. Kathamrita, being a great epic, can be called as ‘The Dictionary of happiness’.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATED VERSION (ENGLISH) : ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ is an English translated version of the Bengali religious text ‘Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita’ by Swami Nikhilananda. The text records the conversations of Ramakrishnadeva with his disciples, devotees and visitors; recorded by Mahendranath Gupta, who had written the book under the pseudonymn of ‘M’. The first edition of ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ (the translated form) was published in 1942.
Author : Mahendranath Gupta
Translator : Swami Nikhilananda
Language : English
Genre : Spirituality
Publisher : Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center
Publication date : 1942
Number of pages : 1062
Swami Nikhilananda worked with Margaret Woodrow Wilson, daughter of US President Woodrow Wilson. Margaret helped Swami Nikhilananda to refine his literary style into ‘flowing American English’. The mystic hymns were rendered into free verse by the American poet John Moffitt. Wilson and American mythology scholar Joseph Campbell helped to edit the manuscript. Aldous Huxley wrote in his foreword, “.... ‘M’ produced a book unique so far as my knowledge goes, in the literature of Hagiography. Never have the casual and unstudied utterences of a great religious teacher, been set down with so minute detail”. Nikhilananda wrote that he had written an accurate translation of the Kathamrita, “omitting only a few pages of no particular interest to English-
speaking readers” and stating that “often literary grace has been sacrificed for the sake of literal translation”.
Aldous Huxley likened it to James Boswell’s ‘Life of Samual Johnson’. The book was voted as one of the ‘100 most important spiritual books of 20th century’ by the American scholars convened by Harper Collins publishers. Scholars Lex Hixon, Swami Tyagananda argued about the translations, considering the cross-cultural factors and western decorum.
Walter G. Neevel in his essay ‘The Transformation of Ramakrishna’ writes that Nikhilananda’s translations are accurate with his reliable efforts. “It should be possible to get as close to Sri Ramakrishna’s original teachings as is possible without a knowledge of Bengali and to have an adequate deegre of certainty about their meaning”. Philosopher Lex Hixon writes that the Gospel is “spiritually authentic” and “powerful rendering of the Kathamrita into dignified English”. Hixon writes that an eyewitness to the teachings of Ramakrishna reported that Ramakrishna’s “linguistic style was unique, even to those who spoke Bengali” and it was “not literally translatable into English or any other language”. Hixon writes that Ramakrishna’s “colourful village Bengali, replete with obscure local words and idioms” adds to the difficulty of translation. His “obscure local words” were interspersed with technical Sanskrit terms from “various strands of Hindu yoga and philosophy” and “extensive references” to “the complex realm of sacred history” of the Vedas, Puranas and Tantras.
Scholars Narasingha Sil and Jeffrey Kripal argue that the book has been bowdlerized. Sil argues that this “standard translation of the Kathamrita by Swami Nikhilananda is bowdlerized, with ‘vulgar expressions’ in Ramakrishna’s earthy, rustic Bengali either removed or soothed over: so that ‘raman’ (sexual intercourse) has become ‘communion’ in the Gospel. Swami Tyagananda explains this as follows: When a Hindu hears or reads about ramana with God, there is no idea of sex being involved. Jeffrey Kripal argues that although Swami Nikhilananda calls the Gospel “a literal translation”, he substantially altered Mahendranath Gupta’s text, combining the five parallel narratives into a single volume, as well as deleting some passages which he claimed were of “no particular interest to English-speaking readers”. Swami Tyagananda and Vrajaprana wrote that while introducing the Kathamrita to the Western audience of 1942, Nikhilananda considered the Western sensibilities and sought
the advice of his Western editorial assistants to ensure that there is no cultural faux pas in the manuscripts. They also point out that literal translation is not always possible which may result in an inaccurate meaning.
‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ as translated by Swami Nikhilananda offers the readers a penetrating view into the spiritual wisdom of India. On account of his deep mystical experiences and constant absorption in God, Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) is regarded as being of the stature of Krishna, Buddha and Christ. The Gospel is the record of Sri Ramakrishna’s conversations, which are unique in their breadth and depth. Profound spiritual truths are described in simple words and vivid stories, revealing the divinity of man and the spiritual foundation of the universe. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is the source of inspiration, wisdom, theology and metaphysics. The introduction of ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ narrates the main events of Sri Ramakrishnadeva’s life and briefly sketches the people as well as the doctrines associated with him; also includes 26 photographs, a detailed glossary and an index. ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ is published by The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York which bases its teachings on the principles of Vedanta or Hinduism. Hinduism teaches that every soul is potentially divine and its divinity may be manifested through worship, contemplation, selfless actions and philosophical discriminations. According to Hinduism – “Truth is universal, all humankind and all existence are one”. Hinduism preaches the unity of the Godhead or ultimate reality and accepts every faith as a valid means for its own followers to realize the truth.
While the translated version is many decades old, it still retains a certain unmistakable freshness. The English terms used are very lucid, almost too good to be true. Why? – because the readers would expect Swami Nikhilananda Maharaj to be austere and cold, perhaps even in writing. Actually, this book brings out the best of Thakur Sri Ramakrishnadeva in every word and in every ounce. Every drop is honey and every word is nectar. ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ is actually a great monumental work by Swami Nikhilananda Maharaj, for which he will ever be remembered. This complete translation into English from the original Bengali of ‘Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita’ as recorded by Mahendranath Gupta (‘M’), has made the immortal words of this great
prophet of 19th century, available to countless readers throughout the world. Aldous Huxley was pleased to write a foreword to ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ and high praise was given to the book by such notable persons as Thomas Mann and Henry Miller. Time Magazine referred ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ as - “One of the world’s most extraordinary religious documents”.
Anyone truly interested in walking a spiritual path and desire guidance on what the pitfalls are and how to avoid them, ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ is the book, which will be of a great interest to them. Sri Ramakrishna is one of India’s greatest spiritual mystics, whose teachings launched one of India’s greatest spiritual teacher – Swami Vivekananda, whose own teachings are still influencing United State of America, well over 100 years after Swami Vivekananda visited the first Parliament of Religions in 1893, held in Chicago. Sri Ramakrishna declared that all religious paths lead to God and ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ testifies to that belief.
Views of different philosophers regarding ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’
According to Stark Young, “Certainly this is one of the notable books of our time, one of the marvellous books in all time. It is a book where gentle, deathless and goodness softens whatever humiliation I might feel for any inadvertent glibness of comment : and where the piety- in the deepest Latin sense of the word, and the brilliant, easy scholarship of the translation are enough to knock us down”.
According to Thomas Sugrue, “East and West agree that he was the most radiant religious personality of the 19th century. The record of his life and teachings is a mine of inspiration, wisdom, theology and metaphysics. It is also a tremendous adventurous story, the odyssey of a man who set out on the mystical way and journeyed to its end. The English version is triumph of creative translation”.
John Haynes Holmes, Minister of the Community Church (New York) said, “I have examined the proofs of your new volume, ‘The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna’ and send you herewith my praises for a work of noble scholarship and utter devotion. You have added to the scriptures of our English tongue, a new Bible. When the volume appears I shall add it proudly and reverently to my Bible of humanity. I
feel inexpressibly grateful to you for your labors, thus crowned with this great achievement.”