A Study In Contrasts

When designing the main graphic for this site, I already had it in the back of my mind that ethics and spirituality are related but not quite the same. We may think of ethics as having to do with moral codes, perhaps inflexible, carved in stone; while spirituality conjures up images more fluid and flowing. Then too, if we were to follow the custom of the romance languages and assign a gender even to abstract nouns, would ethics be masculine and spirituality feminine?

The challenge was to view them both within the same “frame,” and so what took shape was a study in contrasts: Socrates stone-faced and the word “ethics” tightly set in carved lettering, but the word “spirituality” done in a more flowing script, suffused with light and adjoined by a picture of Sri Sarada Devi, the consort of Sri Ramakrishna.

In the person of Sarada Devi, we’re already faced with a mini-conundrum: Sri Ramakrishna liked to remain in ecstatic trance, taking neither food nor drink. As a result, his physical health would sometimes suffer. When he was ill, Sarada Devi had to coax him to drink milk. Seeing the quantity, he would sometimes protest; but she assured him it was only “a seer or a seer and a quarter.” In fact, it was much more. She was lying! When queried about this, she said that in spiritual matters she was always completely truthful, but there was no harm in saying such about food in order to nurse Ramakrishna back to health. (A “seer” or “sihr” is a traditional unit of measurement in India.)

A similar conundrum is posed by the old parable in which a murderer is chasing an innocent man, who takes refuge in the house of a monk. The monk answers the door, and the murderer asks: “Is the man I am chasing here? If so, I must kill him.” The monk lies and says: “No, he is not here, I have not seen him.” If the monk told the truth, a murder would be committed; but by telling a lie, he protects human life. Has he acted ethically?

Socrates and Sarada Devi are a study in contrasts because the former has come to epitomize the Socratic method of seeking the truth through critical reasoning, while the latter embodies the visionary aspect of faith: to understand a thing by knowing its essence intuitively, rather than dissecting it mentally.

This suggests a theme which may recur in our peregrinations: moral codes and rules of procedure are highly fallible, subject to human error, human weakness, and the desire to rig the outcome in accordance with self-interest. A visionary approach may sometimes be superior, provided we can be certain that the vision is a true one.

Socrates himself is a figure both fascinating and tragic. At the end of his life, out of favour with Athenian citizenry, he was forced to drink hemlock. His death, described in Plato’s Phaedo, entails much weeping by friends and disciples, but little by Socrates himself, who remarks:

“I am not very likely to persuade other men that I do not regard my present situation as a misfortune, if I cannot even persuade you that I am no worse off now than at any other time in my life. Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swans? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more lustily than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the god whose ministers they are.”

Plato further recounts:

“Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: ‘You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed.’ The man answered: ‘You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act.’ At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates […] Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend.”

This tragic scene nonetheless becomes charming to the ear when translated into French and set to music. For his Mort de Socrate (1919), Erik Satie used Victor Cousin’s translation, admiring it for its clarity, simplicity and beauty. Let us now listen:

As for the death of Sarada Devi, it is described by her foremost biographer, Swami Nikhilananda of the Ramakrishna Order of monks:

On Tuesday, July 21, 1920, about one o’clock in the morning, it became evident that Holy Mother’s last moments were at hand. The attendants began to chant the Lord’s name. Half an hour later the Mother breathed deeply several times and entered into deep samadhi. Peace-eyed slumber settled over her body, which, though ravaged by a long illness, suddenly relaxed and gave out a celestial light. Many of her devotees were deceived by this radiance and thought she was still with them.

Next morning, about half-past ten, the funeral procession was formed. Swami Saradananda and many devotees joined it. To the accompaniment of devotional music, the body was taken across the Ganges to the Belur Math. There the women devotees bathed it and dressed it in a new cloth. A funeral pyre of sandalwood was made on the bank of the river, to the north of Swami Vivekananda’s memorial temple. About three o’clock the fire was lighted. Before the funeral was over it began to rain heavily on the other side of the Ganges and the devotees were afraid it might interfere with the cremation. But not a drop of rain fell on their side. At last the mournful ceremony was over and Swami Saradananda poured the first pitcher of water over the slow-burning fire. Then the rain came in torrents and extinguished the last embers.

Three shrines now stand as memorials to Holy Mother, all erected by the loving care of her beloved child Swami Saradananda. One is the Udbodhan, where she spent the last eleven years of her active life. The second, a white temple, stands on the bank of the Ganges at the Belur Math where her body was consigned to fire. The third, another white temple, has been erected on the site of her birth at Jayrambati. From the top of this temple flutters a flag emblazoned with the simple word “Ma,” reminding her devotees from far and near of her repeated assurance that she would stand by them till their hour of liberation, and recalling to them her words of benediction: “I am the Mother of the virtuous, I am the Mother of the wicked. Whenever you are in distress, say to yourself: ‘I have a Mother.'”

A study in contrasts.

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3 comments on “A Study In Contrasts

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