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Case Study of a Man of God : 2
Continued from previous section 1...
Summary of Case History
1. Subjective Experiences:
(a) Burning sensation all over body
(b) Glow over body
2. Temporary changes:
(a) Increase in the length of coccyx
(b) Feminine changes during sadhana
3. Permanent changes:
(a) Reflex recoil on touching the coin
(b) Reversal of sexual reflexes
4. Altered State of Consciousness:
(a) Visions (b) Bhava (Spiritual Moods) (c) Samadhi (Mystic Introversion)
5. Perfectly normal/healthy general mental and physical state.
It will not be out of place to mention two similar incidences from the life of the great Christian mystics.
a) St. Francis of Assisi
It is a well-known fact that St. Francis of Assisi used to get the 'Cross and Nail' marks with spots of bleeding while meditating on Jesus Christ.
In September 1224, after 40 days of fasting, St. Francis was praying upon Monte Alverno when he felt pain mingled with joy, and the marks of the crucifixion of Christ, the stigmata appeared on his body. Accounts of the appearance of these marks differ, but it seems probable that they were knobby protuberances of the flesh, resembling the heads of nails.
b) Saint Bernadette of France
Equally interesting and puzzling is the state of ecstasy or trance in the life of Saint Bernadette of France. In her life (1844 to 1879), Dr. Dozous had examined her frequently in such states of altered consciousness. She used to become suddenly extremely pale and remain in a state of intense concentration. It was found that her pulse rate was slow; while blood pressure, examination of eyes, cardiovascular and respiratory systems were normal. But still she was in such a state of consciousness, which the doctor could not explain, and ultimately labeled it as divine consciousness.
Recent journal on physiology after nearly 140 years of this incidence, as if, has come up with the explanation on the basis of the experimental evidence. These scientists have found that mental repetition of "Om" (telling beads) displayed an increase in narrowing in the blood vessels of skin (cutaneous vasoconstriction), which was interpreted as an increase in mental alertness, in presence of other signs of reduced arousal like reduced heart rate, slowness of respiration, and reduced oxygen consumption.
In such a state of mystic introversion, once the flame of burning candle touched Bernadette's fingers for ten minutes. The doctor examined that portion of the skin when she returned to normal consciousness, but he was wonder-struck to see no marks of burn injury at all! When, however, in her normal state the doctor wanted to repeat the experiment, and took the burning candle near her hand, she cried out at once, "Why do you want to burn me?"
The signs and symptoms observed in the life of Sri Ramakrishna, as mentioned in the previous section, need to be taken as authentic. Those changes were observed and documented by the doctors of the British India in the atmosphere of scientific inquiry. Moreover, many of his close relatives and learned disciples also lend their confirmation. Hence it is logical that their explanation must be available. However, we are bound to land up in severe difficulties in our attempts to explain these changes on the basis of present day knowledge of physiology or psychology. The progress in these fields at present is insufficient to analyze these phenomena scientifically. Many statements in the following pages, therefore, are just conjectures to stimulate more scholars for research in this field.
Subjective Symptoms and Perceptions
It is more difficult to give explanations for these symptoms mainly because it is not possible to get any evidence based on objective signs. Some speculative explanations are however possible, which are accordingly given:
1. Burning sensation all over body
This is a subjective sensory symptom like other abnormal sensations; e.g. tingling, numbness, heaviness, and pain over the body. We see this illness known as 'peripheral neuropathy' in the patients of diabetes, vitamin B12 deficiency, etc. The burning feet and hand syndrome is also found in many vitamin, mineral, and trace element deficiencies. Many times the exact cause cannot be determined.
Sri Ramakrishna might have developed vitamin-mineral deficiency during his prolonged and rigorous sadhana, which might have precipitated burning sensations all over his body. With restoration of normal appetite after the period of sadhana, deficiencies must have been corrected.
Affection of cortical sensory centers in the parietal lobe of the brain usually produces sensory symptoms on opposite half of the only. Such condition is found in certain patients of sensory epilepsy and clogging of blood vessels of the brain. As burning in case of Sri Ramakrishna was all over the body, this possibility of cortical sensory disturbance can be ruled out.
It is likely that intense efforts of concentration might change the pattern of blood flow to the brain and the spinal cord. The flow of blood increases in the organs or tissues when under use, as in muscles during exercise. Increased blood flow to the brain centers and consequent reduction of supply to the spinal cord may be responsible for burning sensations. For example, it is common observation that patients of diabetes with reduced blood supply to the nerves and spinal cord suffer from abnormal sensations like burning in the limbs. The same thing is seen when reduced blood supply to the sciatic nerve results in numbness and tingling in the lower limb.
2. Glow over the body
This peculiar phenomenon described and shown in pictures and photographs of divine and spiritual personalities as "Nimbus, Luminous Radiance or Halo" can not be explained on ordinary basis of physiology. The fact however can't be denied. One may become fairer after remaining indoors for a long period of time. The ill effects of exposure to dust and sun are avoided, and the skin may appear finer and fairer. Moreover, there is a talk of 'Energy Field' around our that may explain this phenomenon.
a) Increase in the length of coccyx
It is not easy to explain this temporary change which came about in the of Sri Ramakrishna during his sadhana related with the servant attitude like the Monkey God -Hanuman. In India everyone is well aware of this great devotee of Sri Rama. He is shown to have a long tail so peculiar to the monkeys. By constant thinking and living like a monkey, Sri Ramakrishna also developed about two inch prolongation of his tail bone--coccyx! This is indeed very amazing.
A probable explanation can be postulated: sometimes by constant sitting or remaining in a particular posture, inflammation of coccyx can result in swelling and painful awareness of the lower end of the vertebral column. Can the condition described by Sri Ramakrishna be interpreted from this angle-a case of inflammation of coccyx?
b) Feminine changes occurring in the of Sri Ramakrishna during sadhana
The human endocrine system secrets two sets of hormones that help in sexual differentiation into male and female. Every person is capable of secreting both kinds of hormones. Indeed, a small amount of male hormone-- testosterone is secreted by females, and equally true is the fact that males secrete small amount of the female sex hormone--estrogen. Normally male hormone secretion and synthesis is suppressed in females and vice-a-versa.
Hypothalamus in the brain is responsible for all these hormonal controls and the changes. It particularly is active during puberty that causes development of secondary sex-characters in a man and a woman. The hypothalamus is the master controller of endocrine system due to its connection with the pituitary gland. Moreover, hypothalamus responds by varying the amount and rate of secretions of hormones in response to various kinds of stresses.
It is likely that high intensity of sadhana and constant thought of identifying oneself as a female, as seen in the life of Sri Ramakrishna, might have been perceived as a stress as well as a stimulus by the hypothalamic-pituitary endocrine system to secrete excess of female sex hormones. This must have resulted in bringing about the changes like enlargement of breast and total lady-like behavior.
(a) Reflex recoil on touching a coin
(b) Reversal of sexual reflexes
Although these phenomena are beyond the grasp of science, an attempt is made to explain the same. During the process of evolution the organism develops certain protective reflexes based on the experiences. It tries to avoid any injurious or harmful stimulus by withdrawing itself from it. Thus safety and survival of the species is assured. This applies to human race as well. In course of time the process of learning to react to obnoxious stimuli or situation gets naturalized as a "reflex" in the nervous system of the organism and is then genetically transmitted also. There are many forms of reflexes. Some of the protective reflexes are withdrawal from extremes of heat and cold, reflex closure of eyes, cough reflex, secretions of adrenaline in the event of stress, so on.
One reflexively removes one's hand from a burning flame, for it is injurious and harmful. Similarly, for Sri Ramakrishna, possession of money and having sexual thought (Kamini and Kanchana, as he used to say) in any form might have been perceived as harmful to the self and, therefore, was reflexively avoided. One can understand the purity of thought, action, and relationship in the lives of saints on this basis. These reflexes are very highly evolved reflexes on the evolutionary ladder at which only a few have yet reached.
Altered State of Consciousness
a) Visions, b) Bhava, c) Samadhi
It is difficult to explain loss of consciousness associated with the various 'visions' in the life of Sri Ramakrishna. Every time he undertook a particular form of sadhana, in the end the same phenomenon was noticed, namely, a state of trance or samadhi.
Firstly, simple etiological factors like heat stroke, syncope, and hysteria can be ruled out, as the case history does not help to substantiate any one of these as a cause.
On the basis of neurology, one can suspect these changes secondary to 'temporal lobe epilepsy' or some rare form of 'limbic system seizure disorder'. In these conditions, loss of consciousness is associated with auditory and visual hallucinations and a 'dreamy state'. But no patient of epilepsy has ever become wiser, as Sri Ramakrishna had, after repeated loss of consciousness. On the contrary, there occurs general deterioration in the mental and physical health of a person of epilepsy. While in others, epilepsy is an illness, in the life of Sri Ramakrishna visions, bhava, and samadhi brought a new state of consciousness, beyond the dream and deep sleep, which is referred to as fourth or Turiya state in Vedanta.
Some people may argue that all these changes were simply manifestations of a psychiatric disorder. The modern literate cynics may brush aside all the claims of divinity and spirituality in these experiences. For example, one of my psychiatric friends maintained that Sri Ramakrishna might have suffered from a milder form of manic-depressive psychosis. So also, one should rule out the possibility of habituation to drugs like hemp, 'Ganja'. It is known that euphoric mood, mental and physical restlessness, and perceptual hallucinations are seen in such persons in manic phase of the illness and drug addicts.
But we can easily rule out any such possibility. First, it is a known fact that Sri Ramakrishna was never addicted to any drug anytime in his life. Moreover, he never suffered from depression in his life. On the contrary his mood used to be cheerful and of joy. Many of close associates wondered and appreciated such a happy and blissful state of his mind. Secondly the mood swings were not abrupt or involuntary. After full consideration, and as a willful act, Sri Ramakrishna used to undertake a particular sadhana. There was no deterioration of affect, neither in his thought-process nor intelligence. His social behavior and relations with family and friends- including his wife- were excellent and above reproach. His love for humanity, quick wit, power of observation, and wisdom were beyond any doubt. No psychiatric illness is seen with such wonderfully developed personality. On the contrary, patients of mental aberration have inadequate personality and subsequent intellectual deterioration.
Explanations of other symptoms and behaviour
- Unexplained changes in the quality and thhe quantity of neurotransmitters at the neuronal synaptic junctions can be a contributory factor. For example, stimulation of sympathetic system leads to restlessness, increase in heart rate, sweating, increased hunger, tremors, and increase in blood pressure; while stimulation of parasympathetic system causes slowness of heart rate, loss of appetite, decrease in blood pressure, and calmness.
Many of these explanations are hypothetical. It is obvious that the etiological factors to explain altered state of physiology and psychology that produced these symptoms cannot be pinpointed. Nor it is rational (logical) to brush aside these facts. In such a dilemma it is better to accept the documented facts with a proviso that future progress in physiology, neuro-psychiatry, and psychology shall be able to explain these changes on the scientific basis.
Sri Ramakrishna was rational, responsible, loving, witty, intelligent, and normal person in all the respect. It is not his fault that he was gifted with many spiritual qualities. He came in contact with many highly educated and renowned people of his time. Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Shri Devendranath Tagore, Brahmo leader Keshava Chandra Sen were but a few to mention. Every one of these respected personalities was highly impressed by, and learnt something from, Sri Ramakrishna. And how can one forget his creation of Swami Vivekananda from Narendranath!
May we say, he was saner than most of us? For, instead of longing for temporary and fleeting pleasures of life, he sought to enjoy eternal blissful state where there is neither want nor sorrow.
Next part 3... Case Study of a Man of God: Part 3
Previous part 1... Case Study of a Man of God: Part 1
C S Shah