Ramakrishna Parmahamsa (1834-86) was a saintly person who sought religious salvation in the traditional ways of renunciation, meditation and devotion (bhakti).
In his search for religious truth or the realisation of God, he lived with mystics of other faiths, Muslims and Christians. He again and again emphasised that there were many roads to God and salvation and that service of man was service of God, for man was the embodiment of God.
It was his great disciple, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who popularised his religious message and who tried to put it in a form that would suit the needs of contemporary Indian society.
Above all, Vivekananda stressed social action. Knowledge unaccompanied by action in the actual world in which we live was useless, he said. He too like his guru proclaimed the essential oneness of all religions and condemned any narrowness in religious matters.
Thus, he wrote in 1898; “For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam is the only hope”.
At the same time, he was convinced of the superior approach of the Indian philosophical tradition. He himself subscribed to Vedanta which he declared to be a fully rational system.
Vivekananda criticised Indians for having lost touch with the rest of the world and become stagnant and mummified. He wrote: “The fact of our isolation from all other nations of the world is the cause of our degeneration and its only remedy is getting back into the current of the rest of the world. Motion is the sign of life.”
Vivekananda condemned the caste system and the current Hindu emphasis on rituals and superstitions, and urged the people to imbibe the spirit of liberty, equality and free-thinking. Thus he bitingly remarked:
There is a danger of our religion getting into the kitchen. We are neither Vedantists, most of us now, nor Pauranics, nor Tantrics. We are just “don’t touchiest”. Our religion is in the kitchen.
Our God is in the cooking-pot, and our religion is “Don’t touch me, I am holy”. If this goes on for another century, every one of us will be in a lunatic asylum.
Regarding liberty of thought, he said: Liberty in thought and action is the only condition of life, growth and well being: Where it does not exist, the man, the race, and the nation must go down.
Like his guru, Vivekananda was also a great humanist. Shocked by the poverty, misery and suffering of the common people of the country, he wrote:
The only God in whom I believe, the sum totals of all souls, and above all, my God the wicked, my God the afflicted, my God the poor of all races.
To the educated Indians, he said: So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold everyman a traitor, who having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them.
In 1897, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission to carry on humanitarian relief and social work. The Mission had many branches in different parts of the country and carried on social service by opening schools, hospitals and dispensaries, orphanages, libraries etc. It thus laid emphasis not on personal salvation but on social good or social service.