TOTA PURI, a nineteenth century monk, was the preceptor of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa whom he initiated into sannyasa. Little is known about his early life except that he hailed from the Punjab. He was born presumably of a Sikh family. Tota was his monastic name and Puri the name of a sub caste of Dashnami Sampradaya of Shaivite sadhus to which he belonged. Among the Puris, he belonged to the Naga order of militant ascetics who believe in combating their opponents with sastra (weapon) as well as with sastra (scriptural debate). Nagas are organized around several monastic establishments called akharas. Tota Puri belonged to the Mahanirvani Akhara.

He received his initial training in the dera of Baba Raj Puri at Ladana, in Kaithal district of Haryana, where he was trained with great care by Gyan Puri, fifth in spiritual succession from Raj Puri, the founder of the monastery. Recognition came to him when he was elected in 1852, Sri Mahant or head of an executive body of eight mahants for the management of the Mahanirvani Akhara, with its headquarters at Paryag (Allahabad). He was reelected to the office for another term of three years in 1855. In 1858, Tota Puri returned to Ladana and was chosen to be head of the dera after the death of Gyan Puri. 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, a super sensuous and super conscious stage of meditation in which consciousness attains to the state of perfect quietude. Towards the end of 1864, Tota Puri arrived at Dakhshineshvar, a suburban village about 6 km north of Calcutta, where Gadahar had been the chief priest of the temple of the goddess Kali 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 fan trie and vaisnava sadhna.

It was at this stage, that Tota Puri appeared and initiated Gadahar into the all renouncing path of sannyasa and taught him the philosophy of Advait Vedanta according to which the entire phenomenal existence is only an illusion (maya) caused by avidya or primal ignorance. He gave the monastic name Ramakrishna to Gadahar 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 samadhi. Ramakrishna 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 Brahman and devotional worship of the visible image of the goddess Kali, who for him was the living Mother. Tota Puri 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 Ramakrishna over relapsing into worship of maya( the goddess) even after attaining the supreme vision. Tota Puri left Dakshineshvar towards the end of 1865 to make a pilgrimage to the Jagannath temple of Puri. After that he returned to the dera of Baba Raj Puri at Ladana where he spent the rest of his life.

References :

1. Farquhar.J.N., Modern Religious Movements in India. Delhi, 1967