Infinite Paths to Infinite Reality: Sri Ramakrishna and Cross Cultural Philosophy of Religion
Oxford University Press
Infinite Paths to Infinite Reality is a pathbreaking work. It is a philosophically astute, textually scrupulous, and imaginatively subtle reconstruction of Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s teachings. It is easy to reduce Ramakrishna to either a mystic, whose experience stuns one into either silence of scepticism; it is just as easy to reduce his oral teachings to a pedagogical exercise, more concerned with edification than intellectual coherence. While treating Ramakrishna’s experience as central to understanding him, Ayon Maharaj also treats him as a philosopher of unusual depth and consistency. Second, with admirable argumentative rigour, his book cuts through so much of the cant that has characterised recent scholarship on Ramakrishna. And in doing so, Ayon Maharaj stakes out a very distinctive interpretive stance. It is well known that Ramakrishna’s spiritual journey reached a state of vijnana, an intimate knowledge of God as anant.
Ramakrishna has been subject to criticism from two different directions. Either philosophers have argued that they cannot make sense of how experiences can both be personal and impersonal, immanent and transcendent at the same time. They have reduced these philosophical claims to a general eclecticism or syncretism, more indicative of Ramakrishna’s generous sympathies than a coherent doctrine. Or they have argued that his well-known doctrine of religious pluralism is ultimately a hierarchical construct that culminates in the authority of Vedanta.
Ayon Maharaj, who is both an ordained monk and a Berkeley-trained philosopher, does a magnificent job of defending Ramakrishna against the charge of an indiscriminate eclecticism on the one hand, or a covert hierarchy on the other. He meticulously reconstructs Ramakrishna’s thought around four pillars: the nature of God’s infinitude, the nature of religious pluralism, the epistemology of mystical experience and the problem of evil. In each of these four areas, Maharaj both advances an original interpretive thesis and brings Ramakrishna into a dialogue with comparative philosophy and religious practice.
What are Maharaj’s distinctive claims? On the infinitude of the divine, he argues that Ramakrishna stakes out a position that is distinct from both Sanakra and Ramanujan, and closer to the 17th century philosopher Vishvanatha Chakravartin, for whom the key text is verse 1.2.11 of the Bhagavata Purana (now available in a new translation by the redoubtable Bibek Debroy) where reality can be experienced as brahmana, paramatma and bhagvan. The only twist Ramakrishna gives is that there is no ontological ordering of these experiences in a hierarchy. Unlike many contemporary commentators, Maharaj does not exaggerate the discontinuities between Ramakrishna and his predecessors.
The chapter on the nature of religious pluralism is extraordinarily subtle. Its central claim is twofold: different religions are different paths to a “salvific” experience. It is possible to argue for this claim, without making the further claim that this implies that all religions are the same. Maharaj defends Ramakrishna against the charge that ultimately Ramakrishna’s position ends in the superiority of Vedanta. This charge rests on conflating Ramakrishna’s metathesis about religious pluralism with his claims about vedanta. Although he does not quite say this explicitly, Maharaj is also claiming that a salvific experience is a common goal for all religions. It is a condition for their intelligibility, but this does not imply they are the same.
Maharaj then mounts a defence of the epistemic value of mystical experience, and Ramakrishna’s account of its variation across different traditions. This chapter gives a subtle phenomenology of different types of experience, and their conceptual relationship to each other. It also clarifies in great detail the different states of being, from nirvikalpa samadhi to the state of bhavamukha: a state where an adept returns to the empirical plane after a state of nirvikalpa samadhi. In this state — that of a true vigyani — it is possible to have both the experience of the formlessness of nirvikalpa samadhi, and the experience of communion with a personal God. The final section deals with the vexed problem of evil, where Maharaj explicates Ramakrishna’s account of evil in terms of saint-making. This is, in some ways, the least satisfying of the chapters, not because of the limitations of Maharaj’s analysis but because of the inherent difficulties of providing an answer to the problem of theodicy. Any answer seems to dismiss the standpoint of those suffering. In the case of religion, Wittgenstein’s claim, that “whereof one cannot speak, one should remain silent”, is probably a more appropriate response to the problem of evil than it is to the experience of mysticism.
Infinite Reality is a delight to read: clear, accessible, fair-minded and rigorous. Its philosophical charms are complemented by a musicality about experience. Here is Ramakrishna talking about the epistemological aspect of divine infinitude: “No one can place a limit to God by saying, ‘God is this, no more’ (in Bengali, “Tahar iti kara jai na”).
There is no iti to infinite reality. It is also a reminder of the plenitude, sense of lightness, illumination, seeking and generosity that is at the heart of a genuine religiosity. It is a pity that the world of seekers of infinity like Ramakrishna have been replaced by seekers of power, masquerading as regents of the divine.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University, Sonipat