An Overview of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission
Named after the nineteenth century saint of India, Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886), who is most well-known as the prophet of the harmony of all faiths, the Ramakrishna Order was started in 1886 near Calcutta by his foremost disciple, Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902). The Order now is composed of two sister organizations, the Ramakrishna Math (Monastery) and the Ramakrishna Mission, both of which have a common headquarters at Belur, about 4 miles from Calcutta. Currently there are approximately 2,000 centers throughout the world affiliated with the Ramakrishna Order. About 150 are run by resident swamis (monks) of the Ramakrishna Order, while the others are run by lay devotees. Following the two fold ideal set forth by Swami Vivekananda—viz. to strive for one's own spiritual enlightenment and to serve mankind looking upon each person irrespective of color, creed, or nationality as the veritable manifestation of God—the Ramakrishna Order not only has many temples, but also runs numerous hospitals, charitable clinics, schools and colleges. Vast relief operations of various kinds are also conducted, mainly in India and Bangladesh. The Order also administers rural development programs in India in the areas of agriculture, small-scale cottage industry, general education, health facilities, etc. The schools, colleges and hospitals administered by the Ramakrishna Mission are among the best in India.
Swami Vivekananda, the founder of the Order, was the first to preach the profound message of Hinduism to the Western World. As a delegate to the Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, the Swami went to America and created a sensation by his wonderful oratory and magnetic spiritual personality. He traveled throughout America and Europe preaching the ancient message of Hinduism, which, however he would prefer to call Vedanta because the essence of Hinduism is contained in the ancient holy books of the Indo-Aryans called the Upanishads or Vedanta. The centers of the Ramakrishna Order in the West are therefore called Vedanta Centers or Vedanta Societies.
The Ramakrishna Order does not believe in conversion, nor does it indulge in the occult or the sensational. The Order places utmost importance on personal spiritual unfoldment and selfless service. Inspired by the idea of the harmony of all faiths, its centers encourage adherents of different faiths to meet in a spirit of friendship and mutual appreciation, and to learn from one another without having to give up one's own faith. In the words of Sri Ramakrishna: "God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, lives and countries ... all doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion."