From an early age, Ramakrish was prone to intense spiritual experiences. He would go into a state of rapture while watching the flight of cranes. Once, he lost consciousness of the outer world while playing the role of Shiva in a school play. Worldly things held little interest for him, and by 1866, he became a priest at a newly dedicated temple to Goddess Kali near Calcutta beside the Ganges.
Built by a pious widow, Rani Rasmoni, the temple had a large garden with thick woods growing near the northern boundary. The place was at one time used as a burial ground, and was shunned by people even during daytime. The young priest planted there five sacred trees, and the spot came to be known as Panchavati. He began meditating there throughout the night, seeking a vision of the Goddess.
As his spiritual concentration increased, Ramakrish more and more felt himself to be a child of the Goddess. “O Mother,” he would constantly pray, “I have taken refuge in You. I am ignorant of mantras and the scriptures. Teach me what to do and say. Teach me, how to realize You. Who else can help me? Are You not my only refuge and guide?”
Everyone, down from the mager of the temple to the devotees, found Ramakrish to be a strange priest. Forgetting the formalities of worship, he would spend hours singing devotiol songs before the deity. At other times, he would sit silent and motionless, totally oblivious to the worshippers. He nearly gave up food, sleep left him altogether, his behavior turned so abnormal even well-wishers began to fear for his sanity. When one day he fed a cat with the food that was to be offered to the Goddess, there was constertion all around.
Often feeling the pangs of a child separated from its mother, Ramakrish would rub his face on the ground with agony, weeping so bitterly that people, thinking he had lost his earthly mother, would sympathize with him in his grief. In moments of unbearable frustration, he would cry out: “Are You real, O Mother, or is it all fiction? If You do exist, why do I not see You?”
And then came the day when Ramakrish felt goaded beyond all despair. Resolving there was no point living without a vision of the Goddess, he took an extreme step...
In his own words, he explained what happened thus: “I felt as if my heart was being squeezed like a wet towel. I was overpowered with a great restlessness and a fear that it might not be my lot to realize Her in this life. I could not bear the separation from Her any longer. Life seemed to be not worth living. Suddenly my glance fell on the sword that was kept in the Mother’s temple. I determined to put an end to my life. When I jumped up like a madman and seized it, suddenly the blessed Mother revealed Herself.
“The buildings with their different parts, the temple, and everything else vanished from my sight, leaving no trace whatsoever, and in their stead I saw a limitless, infinite, effulgent Ocean of Consciousness. As far as the eye could see, the shining billows were madly rushing at me from all sides with a terrific noise, to swallow me up! I was panting for breath. I was caught in the rush and collapsed, unconscious. What was happening in the outside world I did not know. But within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss, altogether new, and I felt the presence of the Divine Mother.”
Ramakrish would never tire of telling disciples how Goddess Kali appeared to him thus as an ocean of light, of all-pervading consciousness. “The Divine Mother revealed to me in the temple that it was She who had become everything. She showed me that everything was full of consciousness — the image, the altar, the water-vessels, the door-sill, the marble floor. I found everything inside the room soaked, as it were, in bliss — the bliss of God. I saw a wicked man in front of the temple; but in him too I saw the power of the Divine Mother vibrating. That was why I fed a cat with the food that was to be offered to the Divine Mother. I clearly perceived that all this was the Divine Mother — even the cat,” he would recount.
After the first vision, Ramakrish found the Goddess beginning to play a game of hide-and-seek with him. She seemed to tease him by materializing suddenly, then disappearing even as he looked. But as his visions became deeper and more intimate, he no longer had to meditate to behold the Divine Mother. Even while retaining consciousness of the outer world, the great sage would see Her as clearly as the temple, the trees, the river, and the devotees and disciples around him.