TOTĀ PURĪ, a nineteenth-century monk, was the preceptor of Srī Rāmakrishna Paramhaṅsa whom he initiated into sannyāsa. Little is known about his early life except that he hailed from the Punjab. He was born presumably of a Sikh family. Totā was his monastic name and Purī the name of a sub-caste of Dashnāmī Sampradāya of Shaivite sādhūs to which he belonged. Among the Purīs, he belonged to the Nāgā order of militant ascetics who believe in combating their opponents with śastra (weapon) as well as with śastra (scriptural debate). Nāgās are organized around several monastic establishments called akhāṛās. Totā Purī belonged to the Mahāṅirvāṇī Akhāṛā. He received his initial training in the ḍerā of Bābā Rāj Purī at Laḍāṇā, in Kaithal district of Haryāṇā, where he was trained with great care by Gyān Purī, fifth in spiritual succession from Rāj Purī, the founder of the monastery. Recognition came to him when he was elected in 1852, Śrī Mahant or head of an executive body of eight mahants for the management of the Mahāṅirvāṇī Akhāṛā, with its headquarters at Paryāg (Allāhābād). He was re-elected to the office for another term of three years in 1855. In 1858, Totā Purī returned to Laḍāṇā and was chosen to be head of the ḍerā after the death of Gyān Purī. In 1861, he set out on a pilgrimage of holy places across the country. During this journey he is said to have experienced the nirvikalpa samādhī, a supersensuous and superconscious stage of meditation in which consciousness attains to the state of perfect quietude. Towards the end of 1864, Totā Purī arrived at Dakhshineshvar, a suburban village about 6 km north of Calcutta, where Gadāhar had been the chief priest of the temple of the goddess Kālī worshipping her with intense devotion and yearning for seeing the Deity, face to face. Although he had been blessed with the beatific vision of the Mother, his spiritual quest had not ended. He also practised tāntric and vaiṣṇava sādhnā. It was at this stage, that Totā Puri appeared and initiated Gadāhar into the all-renouncing path of sannyāsa and taught him the philosophy of Advait Vedānta according to which the entire phenomenal existence is only an illusion (māyā) caused by avidyā or primal ignorance.
He gave the monastic name Rāmakrishna to Gadāhar and asked him to practise withdrawing his mind from all sense-objects and meditate on the real and divine nature of his self, thus progressing gradually towards nirvikalpa samādhī. Rāmakrishna very soon attained the goal when he remained in trance for 72 hours at a stretch, but as he regained consciousness his mind went back to his divine Mother who commanded him "to remain on the threshold of relative consciousness for the sake of humanity." Thus he alternated at will between concentrated meditation upon the formless Brahmaṇ and devotional worship of the visible image of the goddess Kālī, who for him was the living Mother. Totā Purī stayed in the vicinity of Dakshineshvar for eleven months, contrary to his normal practice of not stopping for more than a few days at a place during his travels. Being a staunch monist, he often riled Rāmakrishna over relapsing into worship of māyā (the goddess) even after attaining the supreme vision. Totā Purī left Dakshineshvar towards the end of 1865 to make a pilgrimage to the Jagannāth temple of Purī. After that he returned to the ḍerā of Bābā Rāj Purī at Laḍāṇā where he spent the rest of his life.
Satish K. Kapoor