From 1886, when Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa died, to 1986, when J. Krishnamurti died, is a hundred years and in these years you have a virtual cricket team of sages set up. There is a marvellous picture of Sri Ramakrishna doing a kirtan like that . . . he looks like an off-spinner in cricket in that. He’s a supreme cricketer and he’ll bowl out violence and hatred and greed, only if we give a chance, if only we include him in our team.

In India, why have so many sages and saints been packed into the last 100 years?

I often asked myself this and said, could it be that here is another instance of our desire to make idols of human beings? I don’t think so, Indians really, believe me, are very shrewd; they don’t get deceived by false gurus at all, I can tell you that. They are able to recognise a genuine sage, and very easily too. They have recognised Sri Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, Mirra Richard, Krishnamurti, Gandhi and others. I am not suggesting there’s a closed list which excludes anyone, [but] at least these.

Something tells me that this is because evolution . . . the energy, the mind of evolution, the earth, nature, 100 years ago, must have in anticipation seen the grave threat that was around the corner. The threat of annihilation . . . the extremist crime of ingratitude that we can conceive of,  and in order to overcome this,  she set up this cricket team.

They are very diverse, to suit every taste. So this is an evolutionary cunning, the setting up of this group. It will be a gift from India to the last 100 years.

What is India? Of course, it is a place. Many Hindus worry that others gave us the name India, Indian, we don’t have this name; we ought not to even call ourselves Hindus because that arises from the same word . . . from the river Indus. But that’s a marvellous name;we ought to be eternally grateful to the mlechchas, to the outsiders, foreigners, for having given us this beautiful name, the name of a river. The name reminds us that our identity is the identity of a river.

What is the identity of a river? The river always seeks the ocean.That’s what an Indian is. Any human being who seeks the ocean, the vast, the infinite and is willing to take the supreme risk of entering that ocean and apparently ceasing to be that river is an Indian. That’s what Indian spirituality is.

Well, Sri Ramakrishna, why does he appear? What is the specificity of his role in this arsenal of survival, in this weaponry of love?

Well, let’s look at nineteenth- century India a bit; it’s a time when types of hegemonism, exclusivism, hardening established themselves, India was firmly under imperial British rule, largely because of political mismanagement by our own rulers.

It’s no use blaming the foreigner for invading us. If we won’t look after ourselves, we won’t govern ourselves, somebody else will, with our aid. This is what happened. But British rule established itself in the nineteenth century in India. The original genius of India in the spheres of society and politics dried up; it was not only a rigid caste system but also that new ideas were not being thrown up. So, that had also established itself – a rigid framework of living and thinking amongst the native Indians and a rigid framework of governing on the part of the rulers.

But not only that: if you look at the literature of the time, if you look at what the missionaries were writing in the nineteenth century, they show gross insensitivity to religions like Hinduism, and so on. And if you look at the over-reactions to this you would find gross insensitivity to Christianity and to Islam. So there is rigid exclusivism and narrowness of understanding of religion. Defensively, many, many gifted Indians are giving up the traditional sources of Hinduism. [There is] the Brahmo Samaj, the reformist movement . . . of course, reform is needed. But not only in India; if you look at Britain in the nineteenth century, there is slavery of children and women, but still the colonised are always conscience-stricken more than the colonisers.

So you have men of genius like Ram Mohan Roy and others saying, ‘Oh! There is no truth in image worship, there is no truth in Advaita’ – these are the two poles of Hinduism. Advaita Vedanta, the radical, revolutionary doctrine that each one of us is identical with the absolute on the one hand, and runaway riotous celebratory image worship on the other. If you can hold fast to both, you are a Hindu, if you give up one or the other, you are not.

The Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, wonderful reformists they were, [but] they panicked and they both gave up.

They wanted to inhabit something called monotheism – god without form, they thought – forgetting that abstract form is also a form; anything that is other than me has a form, the form not me.

But they imagined that they were thus purifying Hinduism, coming closer to Islam and Christianity. Of course, this is rather interesting, because if that is so, Islam and Christianity would have said, but we’ve been telling you all along ‘join us’.

Their patriotism, their religious patriotism, is slightly inconsistent with their giving up [of] the rich complex sources of their own religious traditions. Because if they say we are exactly like [them] . . . the colonized are always saying this, ‘We are exactly like you colonizers’, forgetting that the colonisers would say, ‘In that case, why are you complaining?’ So there is confusion here.There is much social reform, much intellectual, theological confusion and a panicky giving up of the weight of complexity, of the creativity of the legacy of Hinduism.

So, that’s also [a] kind of hegemonism. And they are the elite in Bengal especially, they are the smart people, they are the beautiful people . . .  the Tagores. Rabindranath, of course, is a complex genius to come, but Debendranath Tagore and others are the beautiful people of that time. But they again in panic reject both Advaita and image worship, and they think that they can join the club.

Mind you, this has drastic consequences – religious fundamentalism in the twentieth century, exclusivism, cultural separatism, hegemonism, hardening can annihilate the world. Not only the bomb, its hatred . . . that we are right, you are wrong. [It] is not only at a theological level of unsubtlety and poverty of imagination that religious exclusivism thrives; it is in the world of society and politics that it [exclusivism] arms itself to the teeth and can destroy the world.

So I would say the first time bomb of salvation is Ramakrishna Paramahamsa – to annihilate exclusivism at its source, [the] theological experiential source.

It was not easy in the nineteenth century; it wasn’t possible in the 1840s, ’50s, ’60s . . . you would be rejected by every[one]. In order to be tolerant, you had to be a sage. Otherwise, people would say, ‘Oh! You are a traitor, you betrayed your own cause’; if a Hindu became a Christian, he would be told, ‘You are a traitor!’ If a Christian became a Hindu,‘Oh! You are a double traitor! You’re a traitor to your religion and to your empire.’ And so on and so on, on all fronts.

Here arrives a sage, who through indisputable spiritual realisation, establishes the identity at its source of various spiritual traditions within Hinduism and other than Hinduism, and he does this most miraculously . . . that is the first service to salvation of modern Indian spirituality, the arrival of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.

And through his catholic realisation, oh, he becomes a Muslim and he starts eating beef. He throws away the pictures of gods and goddesses. And he [an orthodox Brahmin] cleans the latrines of scavengers. And he becomes a Christian, he goes into a church and he’s in a trance looking at the picture of Jesus and, of course, he has these visions of men with beards, and so on.

There is quaintness to those visions; I don’t see why god shouldn’t appear in quaint and humorous ways to true lovers of god. I don’t see why he should appear in classical perfection of form. So I think that’s no disqualification . . . I think Ramakrishna entered the heart of all religions. Again and again, he entered samadhi, bliss. Again and again, [he took] from Sufism, from Christianity, from orthodox Islam, from orthodox Hinduism.

Excerpted with permission from The Seven Sages, Selected Essays by Ramchandra Gandhi, edited by A. Raghuramaraju. Penguin Books India.