Sri Ramakrishna and Religions

Sri Ramakrishna and Religions

Part 1: Formulating the Question

Paulo J.S. Bittencourt

There are many criticisms that are intended to be destructive to the religious phenomenon.

One, in particular, emerges from “scientist” minds.

According to them, the truth is always one, transcultural and, therefore, universal. There is a talk, for example, of the law of “universal” gravitation, which would be exactly the same in Imperial China in ancient times or in the slums of Rio de Janeiro today. If we take this premise as the yardstick to measure the degree of truth of all knowledge, the religious phenomenon, by far, would not stand the test. Simple religious diversity would be the most robust and eloquent indication that apprehending the truth, here, would constitute a simply impossible task. How could different religions, with doctrines so different from each other, contain in their formulations a drop of what the truth is? The different beliefs would bring with them the indisputable traces of the cultural specificities that structure them. Someone born in Ireland at the beginning of the last century would have much more chances of becoming a Christian than a Hindu who grew up in India. In short, the religious phenomenon would essentially feed on the insurmountable singularities of the culture that shaped it.

But also a large part of the conceptions about religious truth, supported by different religions, favor, in their own way, the very content of “scientist” criticism.

Consider, for example, the core of faith in the three Abrahamic religions. I am referring here to the belief in the existence of a single deity in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Apparently, the historical root of these great traditions goes back to the Hebrew faith, whose original development came from a polytheistic context. [One can obviously mention the hypotheses that indicate, regarding the origin of the Hebrews’ restricted devotion to Yahweh, the decisive influence of Akhenaton’s Egyptian monotheism (14th century BC) or even Persian Zoroastrianism. The question, although fundamental, is beyond the scope of this article.]


Initially, ancient Judaism would have assumed “henotheistic” features, that is, of devotion to a single god, while at the same time accepting the existence of other deities. Gradually, however, this faith would evolve into an uncompromising monotheism that would deny any traces of truth to other religions. The dispute over orthodoxy, that is, the true doctrine, would brutally rule the history of both internal and interreligious relations in the evolution of Abrahamic religions. Notions such as those of the “chosen people”, the “New Israel” or the “community of believers”, when even more inflamed or under the support of totalitarian alliances with the arm of state power, would sediment the sensitivity of “religious sectarianism”. The “elect” would oppose themselves to the “infidels”, so that the harmful effects of their impurity should not only be avoided, but also combated, either through more explicit physical violence or through the veiled hatred that apparently tolerates them.

This is obviously not an exclusive privilege of monotheistic religions. Under the guise of the most extreme nationalism, the same sectarian sensitivity that justified the violent action of Yigal Amir – an extreme right-wing Jew who assassinated, in 1995, the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, for opposing the Oslo Accords – it also substantiated the assassination of Gandhi by Nathram Godse. The orthodox Hindu considered the most eminent “founding father” of Modern India complacent towards Muslims during the country’s partition in 1947. It is not necessary, however, to limit ourselves only to the area of orthodox believers who call for gun violence. Shankaracharya himself, famous formulator of Hindu monism, was tempted by the most instinctive prejudice to despise a “chandala”, a member of the untouchable caste, when he stood in the way of the “brahmin”. But, fortunately, the outcome of the story revealed the Great Soul of Shankara, the “brahmin” who glimpsed in the so-called “chandala” questioner the radical implications of the very monism he promoted: “If there is only one God, how can there be many species of men?” Shankara then, filled with shame, reverently prostrated himself before the “chandala”.

It turns out that, even putting down their weapons, the faithful of sacred traditions who advocate being bearers of the unique and exclusive truth, even when well-intentioned in the search for peaceful coexistence with different religious beliefs, persist in the attitude of the most forceful symbolic denial of the other . How can we establish, along these lines, an interreligious foundation that supports the legitimate recognition of religious experiences in their multiple expressions? Appealing to a metaphor, could it be, for example, that the plurality of languages, always shaped by the unique elements of the world of cultural life, really constitutes an obstacle to common understanding between human societies and, above all, the recognition of “linguistic citizenship” of all languages?

I believe that the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna contain fundamental principles for us to consider even the possibility of a “universal grammar” of the religious phenomenon that is radically ecumenical and anti-sectarian.

[I will discuss the issue again in the next article in the series “Sri Ramakrishna and religions”.]

Professor Paulo Bittencourt is a brilliant teacher of Ancient and Medieval History at the Universidade Federal da Fronteira Sul UFFS [Erechim Campus], Brazil. He contributes articles regularly, and is a columnist of a periodical too. He has several books to his credit. He is an ardent student of Vedanta.