Ramakrishna was born in a village called Garlapadu in Andhra State during the early part of the sixteenth century. (Some people say that he was born in Tenali.) His father Ramaiah died when Ramakrishna was very young. The boy was deprived of his father's love. His mother Lakshmamma returned to her native place Tenali to live with her brother. Ramakrishna grew up in his uncle's town and so came to be known as Tenali Ramakrishna.
Ramakrishna's mother was very anxious to educate her son. Those were days when the Vaishnavas were powerful. They thought one caste was superior and another inferior; they treated people according to their caste. There were many Vaishnava teachers in the place; they refused to teach Ramakrishna because he was a Shaiva.
Ramakrishna was not at all grieved by this. He became carefree. From morning till night he was in the company of naughty boys; he was quite happy eating the mango, apple and tamarind he stole from gardens.
Ramakrishna's mother was miserable because her son was utterly illiterate. She did odd jobs in many houses and fed- herself and her boy.
By the time he was ten, Ramakrishna grew a little more sensible. In those days education meant the study of the Vedas, the Upanishads and religious texts. He was ashamed and sorrow-stricken because, let alone reading the books, he could not even read the letters. He realized he was illiterate.
Ramakrishna went to a many pundits and begged them humbly: "Please accept me as your disciple. I will repay you by rendering service." But he was called names and thrown out of ashrams and schools.
There were only a few Shaivite Brahmins in Tenali. They were them-selves poor. When Ramakrishna approached them, he was turned away with the despairing words, "Get away; why should you struggle for this education? Make a living by begging."
'I Shall Get Education'
Ramakrishna became very angry with them. He had nothing but disgust and contempt for them. He thought: ‘What a selfish lot! What is the use of their scholarship when they refuse to impart education? No more will I beg any one for my education. I shall get enough education for everyday affairs.'
Ramakrishna fell at his mother's feet and said: "Bless me, mother! I am going out to secure education". The innocent mother rejoiced at this and thought that some good teacher had agreed, to teach him. She blessed him and said, "Son, try to become a great scholar and master all branches of knowledge."
But Ramakrishna did not approach any teacher. The village school wall was his teacher! Every day he would stand by the wall and attentively listen to the lessons taught in the classroom. He would return home to repeat before his mother the lessons he had learnt. This was his daily practice.
All good things are short-lived! One-day a- pupil saw Ramakrishna standing near the wall and shouted: "A thief! A thief!" The teacher and the pupils rushed out of the school and surrounded Ramakrishna.
In great anger the teacher questioned him: "Have you nothing else to do? Why do you loaf here?" Ramakrishna touched the teacher's feet and said humbly: I came here to learn." Weeping, he narrated his story.
When the teacher understood how the boy was yearning for education and how much he was suffering, he felt proud of him and was full of sympathy.
But he could do nothing. He was also a prisoner of foolish religious prejudices.
He said: "My child, any teacher should be lucky to have a student like you. But if I accept you, the people of my caste will throw me out! Do not come near the school; they may harm you... My mind tells me that one day you will be a great scholar. You have my sincere blessings. That is all I can give you!" So saying, the teacher placed his hands on Ramakrishna's head and then went away.
Ramakrishna did not know what to do next. He wandered aimlessly and cursed his misfortune. He entered a thick forest. The boy walked and walked, and grew very tired. He sat before an old mansion and began to weep. At that moment a Sadhu came there. He asked the boy, "Who are you? Why have you come to this fearful forest? Why are you weeping? What is your difficulty? Do not hesitate to tell me. I will try to help you if possible."
Ramakrishna replied: "Honored sir, I have no father. I am the only support of my poor mother. She keeps telling me that one who has no education is better than a crow or an eagle. But no one in my village is prepared to teach me. I beg of you, sir, accept me as your disciple and be so kind as to educate me." So saying, Ramakrishna held the sadhu's feet firmly.
Then the sage said: "My child, it is not possible for you to begin your education now and become a very learned man. I will tell you what to do. That will fulfil your desires.
"See, there is a temple. It is the temple of the great Mother, Kalika Devi;
She will be pleased with those who pray devoutly and grant boons. I will teach you the important holy words, with which you can please the Mother. If you repeat the mantra a hundred and ten million times with great devotion, she will appear before you. But do not be frightened by her terrible appearance.
'By Kali's blessings you will become a great scholar. May she grant all your wishes!" So saying the sadhu whispered the sacred words into Ramakrishna's ears and went away.
Ramakrishna bathed in a nearby lake, collected leaves and flowers and entered the temple. He chanted the words "Jai Mahakali! Jai Jai Kalika Matha! He devoutly offered the leaves and the flowers at the feet of the deity and prostrated before her. Then he sat before the image of Kali in padmasana posture, closed his eyes and began to chant the, mantra.
After all it was a temple in ruins where snakes, birds, bats and various other creatures abounded. Was it really possible to chant the mantra eleven crore times? Snakes freely moved on his body. Birds pecked at him and insects bit him. But Ramakrishna sat motionless! As soon as Ramakrishna completed the repetition of the mantra eleven crore and eleven times, Mother Kalika appeared. She had a thousand faces and looked terrifying. She said to him: "Ramakrishna! I am pleased with your devotion. Open your eyes and ask for whatever you desire." Ramakrishna slowly opened his eyes and looked at the figure standing before him. He asked her: "Mother! Who are you?"
"I am Kalika Devi, the goddess to whom you have been praying for eleven days. I am pleased with your devotion and I have appeared before you." When the Great mother said these words Ramakrishna closed his eyes and prostrated at her feet. Then he opened his eyes and gazed.
She was the Goddess of Shakthi (Power) seated on a lion! She had a thousand fierce faces! A thousand flaming tongues and a thousand pairs of burning eye!
The goddess was very much surprised. She had expected that the boy would be terrified when he saw her. But Ramakrishna was intently gazing at her and the lion!
All of a sudden Ramakrishna began to laugh! Surprised at his queer behavior, Kali asked him, "Rama Krishna, what are you doing? Even the mighty giants shudder when they see me. How dare you laugh at me?"
Ramakrishna replied: "Mother, when I saw you with a thousand faces but only two hands, I remembered something and burst into laughter. Pray forgive me, Mother."
Kalika Devi's curiosity was roused. She ordered him to explain what he had remembered to make him laugh.
"Divine Mother! When we catch cold, we feel that two hands are insufficient to wipe our only nose. If, you catch cold will your two hands be enough to wipe your thousand noses? The thought made me laugh forgive me, I have been impudent." So saying, Ramakrishna again fell at her feet and stood up.
The smile and the sense of humor of the boy pleased Kalika Devi. The boy had performed tapas but had now completely forgotten the very object of his tapas, and had spoken in such a light vein. The Goddess valid her fierce form and smiled.
"Ramakrishna, you have made even me laugh! So you will master all learning. You will speak so as to suit the situation, attain fame as a great jester and make people laugh. You will be famous as the great humorist, the comic poet Ramakrishna" So spoke Kali and blessed him.
This did not satisfy Ramakrishna. Doubts began to trouble him. 'Can the people of Tenali be made to enjoy humor? If I try, would that not be like casting pearls before swine? How can I, living in their midst, catch the king's eye?' These thoughts troubled him.
Kali understood his doubts. She said with a smile: "My child, do not be worried. Go to the famous Vijayanagar Empire in the South. You will please the king and you will be appointed as the court poet. You have my blessings." So saying she disappeared.
This is a popular story about Ramakrishna. This story is an answer to the question - how could a boy without formal schooling become a scholar? Who knows what truth there is in it? Later, in the king's court two gifts of Ramakrishna, namely his sense of humor and his courage, were amply exhibited. He could see the comic side of any situation. So he was able to see every situation from a new angle. The second quality was his courage.
Accompanied by his mother Ramakrishna came to Vijayanagar. The comfort, the prosperity and the grandeur of the capital filled him with wonder. He made inquiries and taught that artist, men of letters, scholars and experts enjoyed royal patronage. Krishnadevaraya (who ascended the throne in 1509) was most generous to men of genius.
But how was Ramakrishna to catch the king's eye? Who would introduce a total stranger to the king?
Ramakrishna realized that only his talent had to open the doors of the court to him. He waited every day near the main gate of the palace waiting for an opportunity.
Many days passed, and every day he returned home disappointed.
At last he got an opportunity. A famous 'Bhagavatha Mela' troupe (a troupe of actors in a folk-play) from Tanjore came to Vijayanagar to give a performance before the king. Ramakrishna learnt that this troupe would stage a play called 'Krishna Leela'. Members of this troupe carried with them the special costumes required for the play. On seeing this troupe, Rama Krishna thought of a plan. He returned home and dressed himself like a cowherd boy. Carrying a big churning stick on his shoulder he returned to the main gate of the palace.
There was a guard sporting big moustaches, near the main gate. He stopped Ramakrishna who was striding in and shouted at him, "You there! Who are you? You seem to think you're a big man, you don't have to ask for a permission to enter!"
Ramakrishna replied, I belong to the drama troupe, which just went in. You know they are staging a play before the king; I am a cowherd boy in it. Look at my churning stick."
Ramakrishna was trying to slip in -but the guard stopped him and said, "You have come so late. I will allow you only if you pay the penalty."
What could Ramakrishna offer? His ingenuity came to his rescue. Giving a display of a comic role before the guard, Ramakrishna said: "Look, I am a great jester. The king will appreciate my performance and give me a special prize. I will share it with you, and then leave the palace. Agreed?
The guard asked: "Will you give half of what the king grants you?"
"Yes. Yes . . . . . certainly", replied Ramakrishna.
"Then, get in." So saying the guard let him in.
Full of joy Ramakrishna ran forward. But at the entrance to the Durbar Hall there was another enemy! Another whiskered guard! And again an obstacle in Ramakrishna's way.
Like the first guard, this guard, too, let in Ramakrishna after getting a promise from him to share half of what he got from the king!
The play 'Krishna Leela' was in progress in the presence of the king himself. Krishna in the company of the cowherds, Krishna's plunder of milk and butter, Krishna over coming Kalinga, the slaying of the evil enemies Shakatasura, Dhenuka'sura, Aghasura and Puthani, and finally killing Kamsa himself, all these the actors had presented. With Krishna before them the other characters were singing songs in praise of Lord Krishna's valor.
At that moment Ramakrishna struck the actor who was playing the role of Krishna on the back. The actor sank to the ground in agony. Tenali Ramakrishna, imitating the Bhagavathas, began to sing and dance keeping time: "What sort of valor is yours? They say you slew Kaleeya and Kamsa.
"But you could not withstand a single blow with the churning stick!
'What a valiant hero! Are you Krishna or a worthless sinner?"
Krishnadevaraya and the courtiers had been bored with the play and sleepy; but they went into peals of laughter at the comic role of Ramakrishna. Encouraged by this Ramakrishna raised the churning stick at Krishna once again! Krishna fell at the feet of Ramakrishna and prayed to be spared! At this all burst into laughter again.
Raising the actor, Ramakrishna said to him: "Don't boast of your valor; and don't let others praise you. Pray for the grace of Mother Kali, who protects all living creatures." The frightened actor began to sing hymns in praise of Mother Kali!
Krishnadevaraya who laughed to his hearts content said: "I am giving a special prize to the cowherd boy who entertained us with his humor today."
The leader of the troupe was aghast at this announcement. With folded hands, he said to the king: "Your Highness! That jester does not belong to our troupe. I thought he was a member of the audience. There is some sort of deception."
Then with folded hands Ramakrishna said humbly, "Your Highness! It is true that I do not belong to this troupe. But I tried to relieve your boredom. I seek your forgiveness." At this Krishnadevaraya became angry and ordered, "Give this impostor a hundred lashes! That is his reward!"
Ramakrishna begged of the king "Please wait for a while, Your Highness. The palace guards -have to be summoned." The king thought this was strange but yet ordered the guards to be brought to his presence. When they were ushered in, Ramakrishna asked them: "Did I not promise to give each of you half of whatever the king gave me?"
"Yes," said the two guards.
Then Ramakrishna said to the king: "Did you hear, Your Highness? They are to share the hundred lashes!" The two guards were shocked. The others roared with laughter, the shrewd king suspected there was a background to this drama enacted by Ramakrishna and said, "Tell me the true reason for your behavior. I have excused you, as you have made me laugh." Then Ramakrishna narrated the entire story of his life.
On hearing his story, Krishnadevaraya said "Ramakrishna, there are seven mighty scholars in my court. But there is yet a place for one who can provide mirth and laughter. Accept the place, be our Comic Poet and one of the eight famous Poets." So saying, the king honored Ramakrishna with the special robes of his court.
Tenali Ramakrishna has attained fame as a great jester. He was equally a great scholar and a poet. He was the author of one of the five great Telugu classics 'Panduranga Mahathme' (The Greatness of Panduranga). A man who composed poetry in the king's court and won such fame must indeed have been a great scholar. He was also the author of 'Ghatikachala Mahathme'. It is said he wrote 'Linga Purana', too. Ramakrishna was one of the advisers to Krishnadevaraya. The king used to discuss problems with him. Thus Ramakrishna had learning and sound common sense, and could also consider a problem seriously.
But by nature Ramakrishna was a jester. He knew that laughter is a powerful weapon and could be used to expose foolish pride and stupidity.