Ramakrishna: His life and sayings
The Dialogic Process.
Such as it is, it will give us an insight into the way in which a new religion, or rather a new sect, springs up and grows. It will place before our eyes the transformation which mere repetition, conversation, or what is called oral tradition will and must produce in the description of the facts as they really happened. We can watch here what is really a kind of Dialectic Process which is at work in all history, both ancient and modern. This Dialectic Process as applied to the facts of history comprehends all the changes which are inevitably produced by the mere communication and interchange of ideas, by the give and take of dialogue, by the turning of thoughts from one side to the other. It is in reality what is called in German the threshing out of a subject, a kind of Durchsprechen, or what the Greeks called a speaking forward and backward, or dialogue. Even Hegel's Dialectic Process, the movement of the idea by itself, that leads irresistibly from positive to negative and to conciliation, has its origin in what I should prefer to call by a wider name the Dialogic Process, of the greatest importance in history, both ancient and modern. There is hardly a single fact in history which can escape being modified by this process before it reaches the writer of history. It must be distinguished from the Mythological Process, which forms indeed a part of it, but acts under much more special rules. We can watch the Dialogic Process in Modern History also, though we have here reporters, and newspapers, the autobiographies and reminiscences
of great statesmen which would seem to render this Dialogic infection impossible or harmless. We can only guess what it must have been in times when neither shorthand nor printing existed, when writing and reading were the privilege of a small class, and when very often two or three generations had passed away before the idea of recording certain facts and certain sayings occurred to a chronicler or a historiographer. It is extraordinary that so many historians should have completely neglected this Dialogic Process through which everything must pass before it reaches even the first recorder, forgetting that it could never have been absent. How many difficulties would have been solved, how many contradictions explained, nay how many miracles would become perfectly natural and intelligible, if historians would only learn this one lesson, that we do not and cannot know of any historical event that has not previously passed through this Dialogic Process.
Let us take so recent an event as the telegram sent from Ems, where I am writing. It was meant to tell the world of the supposed insult which Benedetti had offered to the King of Prussia. That telegram marks one of the most decisive events in modern history, it has really helped to change the whole face of Europe. What do we know of it, even after Bismarck's own confessions, beyond what he thought and spoke in his own mind, beyond what he said to my friend Abeken, who wrote it out and sent it off, beyond what the people in Germany and in France thought of it, said of it, made of it, whether as justifying or condemning the war that sprang out of it. Shall we ever know the ipsissima verba
of Benedetti, his tone of voice, the tone of voice in the Emperor's reply, the consternation or chuckle when the iron chancellor heard from all parts of Europe the echo of his own words and thoughts. And yet all this happened but yesterday. Benedetti himself has told us what he actually said, what the Emperor replied; Bismarck himself has told us what he meant when he had the cooked telegram published to all the world. Does the historian know then what really happened, what was intended by the words used by Benedetti, by the Emperor, and by Bismarck? Here in Ems the very spot is shown where the words were spoken, though opinions vary even on this point. We possess now the version given by the French diplomatist which is totally different from that given by Bismarck, and yet they had passed through one Dialogic Process only, that of the old King in his conversation with Benedetti and in his communications with his ministers. Again, every reader of modern history is acquainted with the words put into the mouth of the French officer at Waterloo, La guarde meurt, mais ne se rend pas; and every reader of French Memoirs knows by this time the real word which is said to have been uttered at that historical moment. How can we ever hope to escape from the transforming power of oral tradition?
The changes wrought by that power are of course more or less violent according to circumstances; entirely absent, I believe, they never are. And nowhere are they more evident than in the accounts which have reached us of the founding of new religions and of their founders. In
the case of Buddhism, it is well known that some excellent scholars have actually denied that there ever was such a person as the young prince of Kapilavâstu, of whose life and doings and sayings we possess fuller accounts than of the founders of any other religion. And let it be remembered that no revealed or miraculous character is claimed for Buddha's biographies, nay that Buddha himself rejected any such exceptional claims for himself and for his apostles, being satisfied with having been a man on earth, which, according to him, is the highest form of being in the world, potentially, and is, even in reality, high above all angels and above all gods (devas), such as they were in his time. Atideva, above all gods, is one of the names assigned to Buddha, showing the estimation in which Buddha and in which the gods were held by their followers.
This inevitable influence of the Dialogic Process in history cannot be recognised too soon. It will remove endless difficulties by which we are ensnared, endless dishonesties in which we have ensnared ourselves. If we once understand that after only one day, one week, one year any communication, even a communication given from heaven, must suffer the consequences of this Dialogic Process, must be infected by the breath of human thought and of human weakness, many a self-made difficulty will vanish, many a story distorted by the childish love of the miraculous will regain its true moral character, many a face disguised by a misplaced apotheosis will look upon us again with his truly human, loving, and divine eyes. All honest hearts, whatever religion they may profess, will feel relieved and
grateful if they once thoroughly understand the dialectic or dialogic working of oral tradition, particularly where it can be traced back to pure and perfectly natural sources.
It is for this very reason, and because this process can be so seldom watched, but can generally be traced in its later results only, that even this slight sketch of what a disciple of Râmakrishna, with every wish to be truthful, can tell us of his master, may be of some interest to ourselves both for its own sake and for the light which it throws on the conditions under which every religion has to grow up and to be recorded. Nothing is so human as religion, nothing so much exposed to the frailties inherent in human nature. Whatever the origin of a religion may be supposed to have been, its growth from the very first depends clearly on the recipient soil, that is, on human nature, and to study that human nature as it reacts on religion is one of the most useful lessons of Comparative Theology.
I had made it as clear as possible to Vivekânanda that the accounts hitherto published of his Master, however edifying they might be to his followers, would sound perfectly absurd to European students, that stories of miraculous events in childhood, of apparitions of goddesses (devî) communicating to the Samnyâsin a knowledge of languages and literatures which, as we know, he never possessed in real life, would simply be thrown away on us poor unbelievers, and that descriptions of miracles performed by the Saint, however well authenticated, ''would produce the very opposite effect of what they were intended for. Vivekânanda himself is a man who knows
[paragraph continues] England and America well, and perfectly understood what I meant. Yet even his unvarnished description of his Master discloses here and there the clear traces of what I call the Dialogic Process, and the irrepressible miraculising tendencies of devoted disciples. And I am really glad that it does so, if only it helps to teach us that no historian can ever pretend to do more than to show us what a man or a fact seemed to be to him or to the authorities whom he has to follow, and not what he or it actually was. I have also, as far as I could, consulted another account of the life of Râmakrishna published in the late numbers of the Brahmavâdin. But I am sorry to say that this account stops with No. 19, and has not been continued.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.