A Discussion with Swami Sthiratmananda, Assistant Secretary Ramakrishna Mission, Dhaka
August 25, 2014
Background: Swami Sthiratmananda is a Hindu shadu and the assistant secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In this interview with Nathaniel Adams, Swami Sthiratmananda provides insights into the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and details the history of the social service organization he inspired. He discusses the work of the Dhaka Ramakrishna Mission, founded in 1899, which involves service to the community through its medical centers and schools in 13 centers across Bangladesh. He highlights Sri Ramakrishna’s views regarding an individual’s responsibility in society. Finally, he touches on the struggles of religious minorities in Bangladesh and current efforts in interfaith dialogue rooted in his organization’s belief in religious unity.
Tell me a little bit about Sri Ramakrishna, who is the namesake of your organization. Who was he and why was he such an important figure?
Sri Ramakrishna was born a poor but pious Brahmin’s son in Kamarpukur, a very small village in West Bengal. He was a man of extraordinary purity, with no attraction to wealth or sex. He made many inquiries about the nature of God and was eager to practice different religious approaches. So he started to search for God in his work. He had no literary knowledge; indeed, he could barely write his name. He only went to primary school. He did not want to use education to earn money or for other selfish goals, so he did not want to learn in the general way of learning. He wanted to be fulfilled, but also to be fruitful to society.
He was primarily a worshipper of Mother Kali and became a priest in Dakshineswar Temple near Kolkata. While he was there, he made his life a laboratory of religion. He started to practice the religions of all the communities he knew, like Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Vedanta, even Christianity and Islam. Many religious teachers came to him, and they taught him about all these religious practices. He was able to understand them easily because his heart was pure. He had no craving for sex, no craving for wealth; he was particularly able to recognize religious truth. He practiced all these religions and came to understand that all religions are just paths leading to the same goal; that is towards infinity. That infinity is called Braman, God, or Allah by people of different faiths. He declared that all religions are true, stating that God can be appreciated and understood through the sincere means of all religions.
Swami Vivekananda [renowned nineteenth century Hindu monk] and the elite of Kolkata learned about Sri Ramakrishna and came to listen to his teachings. They were inspired by the wonderful messages and decided that they needed to be printed. They worked to propagate Sri Ramakrishna’s message everywhere. Even Max Müller [German-born philologist and Orientalist, and a founder of the western academic field of Indian studies and the discipline of comparative religion] wrote on the life of Sri Ramakrishna. A text was published in one magazine called The Nineteenth Century, making people in Western countries also interested in Sri Ramakrishna’s life.
Sri Ramakrishna passed away in 1886. At that time Swami Vivekananda was his chief disciple and heir to his spiritual powers. Swami Vivekananda spread the message of Sri Ramakrishna worldwide, notably during his address at the Parliament of the World’s Religion in Chicago in 1893. Everyone there was very charmed by Vivekananda. He told them ‘all the rivers mingle in the same sea and all the religions go towards the same God. Therefore we can say all religions are true, the methods are different but the goal is the same.’ He told them there needs to be a focus on ‘unity and not division, cooperation and not destruction.’ These are the tenets of all religions.
The people of Dhaka had been hearing a lot about Swami Vivekananda and asked him to come to the city and deliver lectures at Jagannath University, then Jagannath College. It was following those meetings, in a house at Jagannath University that the Dhaka Ramakrishna Mission was founded in 1899. The original location was in Old Town Dhaka and it came to its present location in 1914.
Why was the Ramakrishna mission founded, what was its purpose?
Sri Ramakrishna thought that the world’s religions had become limited and confined, and he wanted to draw attention to the potential divinity in all people and show how this could be manifested through every action and thought. He wanted to contribute to a world where people can live following their own religions in harmony. And by following one’s own religion one can serve the masses from the essence of religion, because God dwells in everybody’s heart, so service to human beings is service to God.
After Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away, Swami Vivekananda and some other followers formed an organization that would continue his legacy. People from many backgrounds came to him to say that they wanted to dedicate their lives to the propagation of Sri Ramakrishna’s ideas for the well-being of humanity. They thought that because death is inevitable, we should do good for others before we die. In this way, they decided to form an organization to try to make the visions of Sri Ramakrishna reality. The headquarters is called Belur Math in Howrah, West Bengal. They found that around the world people were very interested in Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings, his life, and his religious experiment and slowly founded many other branches. There are now 178 centers globally.
The Ramakrishna Mission has been very important to Bangladesh over the past century. Could you talk a bit about the activities of the organization here?
The work of Ramakrishna Mission is unselfish because our work is worship. God dwells everywhere, especially in the heart of human beings, so if we can serve human beings, this is our practical religion. We realize this through our meditation and devotion, that we can serve God by serving others. So this is unselfish work. The work of the Ramakrishna Mission is for the service of the humanity.
We have 13 centers in Bangladesh and our goal is to alleviate human suffering by spreading education and rendering medical service to those in need. We also want to dispel the distress caused by natural calamities. We serve people by giving relief and supporting rehabilitation so that their distress can be wiped away. All of this is from the religious perspective that service to human beings is service to God.
We help from a physical standpoint through our medical centers and from the mental standpoint through our libraries and schools. In other countries Ramakrishna Mission runs colleges and a university also. Many of our students come from poor backgrounds and board at the schools. We follow the national curriculum, but we also emphasize character building and ethical education. Our shadus, or monks, also teach them, but we are few in number. We instruct people and we try to make good citizens that can serve their society afterwards. We have a high academic standard; in the last three years, all of our students have passed the school final.
We have a few schools and students’ homes at our 13 centers, but these schools are not as advanced as we would like. There are some rules and regulations in Bangladesh that we have to follow. We had one or two primary schools that are now state schools. The government has taken responsibility for them and now runs those schools
In Bangladesh we also work to contribute to spiritual and religious harmony. Because all religions are true, we can make progress staying side-by-side, by sticking to our own ideals and respecting others.
I know Ramakrishna Mission does some interfaith dialogue. Do you sponsor events here?
Yes, we do, in our own way. During the celebration of Sri Ramakrishna, the celebration of Swami Vivekananda, and the celebration of Sri Sarada Devi, we invite specialists from all religions to come here to speak from the standpoint of their own religions. We do this so that people can better understand their own religion and can also compare their beliefs with the beliefs in other religions. When they do, they find that the same things are present in their religion and other religions. We can give an example of service to humanity, which is also in Islam and also in Christianity. People become impressed that all the religions strive to do good, so hatred goes away and harmony comes. We work in the spirit of religious harmony and peace, staying at peace side by side, following one’s own religion and giving respect to others.
You’ve talked a bit about the Hindu philosophy and the philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna that inspires the work you do. Could you discuss the five acts of sacrifice and how this relates to responsibility towards others?
Those living in society leading householder’s lives, who have wealth, also have duties, which are proportional to the amount of wealth they possess. Those who have wealth should follow their duties and not only follow selfish motives. Following religion you can achieve happiness. If selfishness comes, happiness goes away. From that standpoint, the five types of duties are towards devas (good people), forefathers, seers of truth, animals, and fellow human beings. An example is duty towards seers of truth, those who are living a religious life like shadus, or monks; we get food from the society and give people religious ideas so that they can live happily in society. We have a duty towards animals. Just like people, animals are in need of food. God had given us wealth and from that wealth we can take our share. The share is there for all people and animals, it is only when people act selfishly that problems arise. We have a duty towards fellow human beings. When guests come we should serve them because that is God in the guise of a guest. God dwells in all beings, especially in human beings. God acts in service to humans and humans act in service to God. These are our religious duties. God is everywhere, so all service is service to God. As monks by spreading this philosophy we serve society.
What first inspired you to become a shadu and how long have you been working with the Ramakrishna Mission?
I have been a shadu with Ramakrishna Mission for 33 years. When I was younger a question came to my mind: “How can I utilize this human life of mine best?” For my own liberation and for the well-being of the world, I decided to lead the life of a monk. The rules are after you are a graduate when you are under 28 years old, you can come here, if you are devoted to poverty and purity. These are the main themes of monkhood. You will not marry, you will not follow married life and you will have no wealth. Wealth and marriage are important things in society, but if these things are in one’s life then one cannot act totally unselfishly. In order to become unselfish, in order to follow religious ideals fully, one becomes a monk and dedicates their life to poverty and purity.
There is a female order as well called Sri Sarada Math and Sri Sarada Mission, named in honor of Sri Sarada Devi who was the wife of Sri Ramakrishna. He had married, but did not follow the family life, because he did not treat his wife as a wife. He saw a divine mother in every female, so both of them led a pure life. There is no Sri Sarada Mission in Bangladesh because the environment needs to be made more bearable for women here, but in India, the idea of motherhood is strong so they were able to create their own organization. They have their own centers there and they are doing excellent work.
Could you explain why it is important to keep the orders separate?
Sri Ramakrishna taught that both male and female orders should exist and they should be separate and independent. The cloud is good and the ground is good, but when the two mingle things becomes muddied. Women are good, men are also good, but they should live separately with their proper rights. When they mix, purity is lost. For example we have separate schools for boys and girls. Sometimes, as young children they may be together, but when they become older they must be separated. When they are married that is one thing, but when they are unmarried they should not mix.
So both sexes need to aspire to humility and purity, but they are equal?
Yes they are equal in their rights. Sometimes there is the belief that females should be governed by males, but that should not be. Sri Sarada Devi was such a pious women that Sri Ramakrishna never had a harsh word for her. In Bengali we have a formal and a familiar way to say “you.” Once Sri Ramakrishna addressed Sri Sarada informally, but he soon realized his mistake. He told her “I apologize for those rash words, please forgive me.” He understood the importance of giving honor to women the same as men.
How is the Ramakrishna Mission funded?
We appeal to generous people to help, because we have no wealth. All the money is from generous devotees in Bangladesh and abroad. But we follow Government regulations in seeking and receiving donations from abroad. In Bangladesh, we have our devotees. We go to their houses and they give us a monthly donation and we record it. We perform worship here and at times of worship the public gives donations. As monks we have no personal money.
We also follow the concept of material purity. We have a medical center and if donations are given for that medical center, they should be used only for the medical center. We must follow purity in thought and ethical goals. Without basic ethics you can never become a religious person and you cannot do good. You need that foundation.
Hindus are a minority in Bangladesh. Are there unique challenges that the community faces?
Of course in the newspapers, you read about these things all the time, for example the suffering of people during the election violence. In Bangladesh the minority and majority is a very political distinction. Everywhere in this world minorities are persecuted by the majority. In other countries Muslims and other minorities are persecuted. There is sectarianism, bigotry, and fanaticism. These types of things exist. Governments need to become aware about the need to protect rights and inspire the people of this country to follow their own duties and their own religions. Then there will be no violence at all. But when the people of any country including Bangladesh do not follow their own ideals, when there is craving for others’ wealth, then life becomes difficult. Swami Vivekanada told us that these types of persecutions will come again and again if we forget our ideals. But if we follow our religious ideals, then we will not do harm to our neighbors. If I don’t protect my neighbor, then I am not a religious person. If I am religious, I will do good to others.