Translated from the Bengali by Swami Chetanananda. Vedanta Society of St. Louis; 205 S. Skinker Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63105; (314) 721-5118; www.vedantastl.org.
Originally written in Bengali in the early 20th century and first published as a five-volume English edition (titled Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master) 50 years ago, this exhaustive account of the life of the 19th-century Indian saint Ramakrishna is one of the great treasures of the world's spiritual literature. Now that it's been translated into contemporary English (a task that took five years), its re-publication is a great boon to seekers everywhere. The life and teachings of Ramakrishna, an itinerant mystic who espoused the essential truth of all religion, speak directly to the spiritual yearning of humanity; indeed, as the translator notes, "his life is a glowing beacon in an age that is trying to recover its bearings in a turbulent sea of opinions about religion."
Appointed secretary of the Ramakrishna Order by Swami Vivekananda (who founded the order and is famed for introducing yoga to the West in 1893), Swami Saradananda drew directly on his own long relationship with Ramakrishna as well as his brother monks' relationships with the master to produce this account, which his latter-day translator describes as "unique in spiritual literature" in that "we can find no other similar detailed accounts for Krishna, Buddha, or Christ."
In nearly a thousand pages, Saradananda details Ramakrishna's humble origins and early spiritual experiences before moving on to the great mystic's complete devotion to God and the Divine Mother, the rapid growth of his following, and the impact of his teachings. He covers Ramakrishna's entire life up to his final months, when he suffered greatly from throat cancer, and his eventual passing at age 50. Saradananda seems not to have had the heart to recount those days.
As with many other renowned gurus, Ramakrishna's most powerful teaching was the example provided by his own state of being. The man whom devotees called "the Master" was so adept at slipping into samadhi (ecstatic, unified consciousness) that it seemed to require more effort for him to maintain ordinary awareness than to move into a higher state of consciousness. "At the slightest spiritual prompting," Saradananda writes, "his mind would transcend the body-idea, his illness, and all objects of the world, and instantly reach the highest transcendental plane." This new translation of Saradananda's inimitable opus is a rare treasure, one that vividly re-creates the experience of being in the presence of an illumined being and reveals anew the implications of such illumination for the rest of us.