At the Feet of Sri Ramakrishna
Finding wisdom for our everyday lives in the words of one of India's greatest saints
(more about Sri Ramakrishna)

God in the Wicked and the Good

It is true that God is even in the tiger, but we must not go and face the animal. So it is true that God dwells even in the most wicked, but it is not proper that we should associate with the wicked.

The manifestation of the Divinity must be understood to be in greater degree in those who are honored, respected, and obeyed by a large following, than in those who have gained no such influence.


These are actually two sayings; I put them together as a nice counterpoint.

Sri Ramakrishna seems to be pointing to the idea the Buddhists call "The Two Truths." From the Godly perspective ("Absolute Truth"), all people are the same. But from our perspective ("Conditioned Truth"), distinctions must be made, for our own good.

Different Qualities of Water

All waters are brooded over by Vishnu, but every kind of water is not fit for drink.

Similarly, though it is true that the Almighty dwells in every place, yet every place is not fit to be visited by man.

As one kind of water may be used for washing our feet, another may serve the purpose of ritual cleansing, and others may be drunk, and still others may not be touched at all; so there are different kinds of places.

We may approach some; we can enter into the inside of others; and others we must avoid, even from a distance.


The name in the first sentence is actually "Narayana," a less familiar but extremely important name of Vishnu. I have used the more familiar name of the supreme god of the Vaishnava tradition here.

The emphasis here is on various places we might go, as in the next saying it will be on the people we associate with.

Man is Like a Pillowcase

Man is like a pillowcase. The color of one may be red, another blue, another black, but all contain the same cotton.

So it is with man--one is beautiful, one is not; another is holy, a fourth wicked; but the Divine dwells in them all.


In this saying, Sri Ramakrishna emphasizes the divinity in all people, without distinction. As we'll see later, this is to be tempered with some discrimination.

One Man, Many Relationships

Someone asked: "If the God of every religion is the same, why is it that God is painted differently by different devotees?"

Sri Ramakrishna answered: "God is one, but His aspects are different. Just as one man is father to his children, brother to his siblings, and husband to his wife, and is called by these different names by those different people, so one God is described and called in various ways according to the particular aspect in which He appears to His particular worshipper."


Little need be added. We are all aware of our different "selves," the masks we put on for our different roles.

One Substance, Many Forms

As the same sugar is made into various figures of birds and beasts, so one sweet Mother Divine is worshiped in various times and places under various names and forms. Different creeds are simply different paths to reach the Almighty.

As the same gold is made into various ornaments, having different forms and names, so one God is worshiped in different countries and ages, and has different forms and names. Though He may be worshiped variously, some calling him Father, others Mother, etc., yet it is one God that is being worshiped in all these various relations and modes.

In a potter's shop there are vessels of different shapes and forms--pots, jars, dishes, plates, etc.--but all are made of one clay. So God is one, but is worshipped in different times and places under different names and aspects.

God is one, but his aspects are many. One and the same fish may be made to taste differently, according to the different modes of preparing it; so one God is enjoyed in His various aspects by His devotees.


These are actually four sayings put together. The model could be repeated ad infinitum.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Four blind men went to "see" an elephant.

One touched the elephant's leg, and said, "The elephant is like a pillar."

The second touched the trunk, and said, "The elephant is like a thick stick or club. "

The third touched the belly, and said, "The elephant is like a big jar."

The fourth touched the ears, and said, "The elephant is like a winnowing basket. "

So they began to argue with each other as to what an elephant was like.

A passer-by, seeing them quarreling, asked, "What are you arguing about? "

They told him everything, and begged him to settle the matter.

He said, "None of you has seen the elephant properly.

"The elephant is not like a pillar; its legs are like pillars.

"It is not like a thick stick or club; but its trunk is.

"It is not like a big water-vessel; its belly is like a water-vessel.

"It is not like a winnowing basket; its ears are like winnowing baskets.

The elephant is the combination of all these."

In the same manner those quarrel who have seen one aspect only of the Deity.


This familiar story is told in many ways:

  • the number of blind men may vary (I usually tell the story with six; the Buddha told a version with an indeterminate number, "all the men of Savatthi who were born blind"!);
  • the "likeness" may change (in my version, the legs are tree-trunks, the trunk a snake, and so on); and
  • the statement of the moral is variously worded.

But they all mean the same thing: Our vision is limited, and we tend to take our limited version as the whole story.

Even this parable has many manifestations; how much more so God?

There's a sweet version of the story in verse here. It follows closely the story as I tell it.

Red or Green?

A man went into the forest, where he saw a beautiful red lizard on a tree.

Returning to town, he told his friend about it. "Where?" his friend asked. "I want to see it too."

So the first man told his friend it was on such-and-such a tree, in so-and-so a clearing. It would be easy to find, as a holy man often sat under that tree.

The friend returned, and agreed that it was a very beautiful lizard. "Except," he said, "it was not red. It was green!"

They discussed this, and soon the discussion became a violent argument.

So they agreed to return to the holy man, and ask him about the lizard.

The first man said to the holy man, "Sir, isn't the lizard who lives in that tree red?"

"Yes," said the holy man.

But the second man said, "What did you say? How is that? It is not red, it is green!"

The holy man again humbly replied, "Yes, sir, it is."

The holy man knew that the lizard, a chameleon, changes its color constantly, and so it was that he said "yes" to both of these conflicting statements.

The Sat-Chit-Ananda likewise has various forms. The devotee who has seen God in one aspect only, knows Him in that aspect alone, and will argue that this is the only form.

But he who has seen Him in all His manifold aspects, he alone can say, "All these are forms of one God, for God is multiform." He may be with form or without form, and many are His forms which no one knows.


This is the third saying in Max Muller's collection. Number 4 provides a perfect commentary:

"Many are the names of God, and infinite the forms that lead us to know Him. In whatsoever name or form you desire to call Him, in that very form and name you will see Him."

Let me remind you that "Sat-Chit-Ananda" is "Being-Consciousness-Bliss," the three key attributes of transcendent reality.

Also, Sri Ramakrishna refers to God as "with form and without form." These two categories, called "saguna and nirguna," are part of the genius of Indian thought. (One thinks of God the Father, "whom no man has seen," and Jesus Christ, the manifestation of God.)

Water and God Have Many Names

One and the same material, such as water, is called different names by different people. One calls it "water," another "bari," a third "aqua," and another "pani."

So the one Sat-chit-ananda, the Being-Consciousness-Bliss, is invoked by some as God, by some as Allah, by some as Hari, and by others as Brahman.


Again, an elegant illustration.

Water is everywhere, known to every person. But each culture calls it something different. (By the way, "bari" is Bengali, and "pani" Hindi. You should know the other two.)

"God" here may be the Judeo-Christian God (Sri Ramakrishna knew Christianity well); "Allah" is of course Muslim; "Hari" is the Hindu god Vishnu/Krishna (the Vaishnava greeting "Haribol!" means "Chant Krishna's name"); and Brahman is the impersonal concept of God in Hinduism.

Finally, on "Sat-Chit-Ananda": This refers to the key attributes of the transcendent reality (Brahman), and the goal of any yogi. Books could be written about this, and we'll visit it again.

A word on translation: I'm using a 19th-century text translated by Max Muller. I'm sure he took some liberties with the original, to help his audience. So what I'm giving you here is a paraphrase of a liberal translation. But I think the ideas still hold.

Can You See the Stars in the Daytime?

You see many stars in the night sky, but cannot find them at midday. Can you say, then, that there are no stars in the heavens in the daytime?

So even though we humans do not see the Almighty in the daylight of our ignorance, we must not say, "There is no God."


We start with a great example of the common-sense, humble nature of Sri Ramakrishna's sayings.

Sure the skeptic can pick this apart: "We can't see the stars because the sun is brighter. What is brighter than God?" etc.

But it's a beautiful illustration nonetheless. The full panoply of the kosmos is up there, all day long. And we're so blinded by what is near us (our daily worries, perhaps?) that we can't see it.