Swami Gambhirananda



Reflections around Swami Gambhirananda

Exploring spirituality through the life of a simple monk


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Bibhas De

Copyright 2004 - 2009 by Bibhas R. De. All rights reserved.

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During a recent Internet search on Swami Gambhirananda, a great deal of information turned up on his writings, as expected. Surprisingly though, there was very little about the Swami himself. The only item I found was an advertisement for a videocassette produced on the occasion of his passing away. It seemed that the story of a most remarkable life was receding into oblivion, with the world never hearing. There were also things remarkable about the family background whence he came. These are what prompted me to write something about him.

What is remarkable about the Swami's life? Here is a life that in the end does not make you so much look at the man in admiration, as it makes you look within yourself in reflection. What is remarkable about his family background? Spiritual stirrings in everyday men and women.

This is not a biography. All biographical anecdotes about the Swami here are taken from Swami Gambhirananda, the biography written (in Bengali) by Swami Abhayananda and published by Sri Ramakrishna Math, Belur Math, Howrah (1989). Nor is this a study of the Swami's scholarly work - for that one may go to the work itself. Here I have culled a bunch of wildflowers, and run a thread clumsily through them to fashion a garland. Read it as such.

My wife Gopa Sarkar De and my brothers Bijoy Kumar De and Biman Kumar De helped. They are a part of this effort.


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I. Who was Swami Gambhirananda?
II. A sculptress of gods, a messenger of thunder
III. From darkness lead me to light
IV. The parable of the Philosopher's Stone
V. The Password is Persistence
VI. Bodhidharma floating on the Yangtze
VII. The mindwalk of the Elephant God
VIII. What is the journey?
IX. The man who came down from the misted hills
X. Meetings with remarkable men
XI. The Roadmap
XII. The Infinite Mother brooding
XIII. A man called Pelican
XIV. Sunday marketplace of enchanted fruit
XV. Keepers of Lore
XVI. The light around the body
XVII. Of what is past, passing or to come
XVIII. Silver apples of the Moon
XIX. Golden apples of the sun
XX. Sailing to Byzantium: Unsealing the Book of Life
XXI. Firelight


On the terrace of his sprawling, magnificent palace, the great conqueror Kublai Khan sits. The time of the day is evening, and it is also the evening in the great Khan's life. His far-flung conquests are behind him, and his thoughts are now about the last of life.

This is the setting for the fantasy Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. So beautiful is Calvino's prose that you would feel like calling it, and might as well call it, prose poem. But of all his fascinating books, this one might be his crested act.

Facing Khan sits Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer. He tells Khan the stories of many cities in Khan's own empire that the explorer has visited, but the conqueror himself has not. There are cities with all manners of association: Cities and memory, Cities and desire, Cities and the sky, hidden cities ... . Witness the City of Diomira:

Leaving there and proceeding for three days toward the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to a visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman's voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.


Diomira. (c)2008 Sanchari De. All rights reserved.

DIOMIRA: Italo Calvino's Invisible City
as imagined by Sanchari De (mixed media)
(Click to see high resolution image)

As Marco Polo keeps spinning his tales, Kublai Khan gradually realizes that these are not real cities, nor are different cities. They are more things in the mind, - discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed--. The aging Kublai Khan becomes despondent, noting that we may be drawn in ever-narrowing circles to an infernal city. Then Marco Polo says:

The inferno of living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of this inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.



The name of Swami Gambhirananda is intimately associated with the worldwide monastic-philanthropic order of Ramakrishna Mission of India (In the United States, more familiarly known as the Vedanta Society), headquartered in Belur Math near Kolkata. He was the spiritual and formal leader of the Order for many years up until his passing away. He combined deep spirituality with deep scholarship: An explainer of things divine. Type his name into any search engine or Internet bookstore, and you will get a feeling of the breadth of his written work: From simple expositions and sourcebooks on the Order itself to translating and expounding on Hindu scriptures of great philosophical depth and breadth. The oeuvre of this simple monk would be the envy of the most prolific professor of philosophy or divinity. Outwardly, the Swami's was a hardworking life of selfless service, enlightened leadership and scholarly labor. Inwardly, it was a spiritual quest the depth of which we may never fathom.

The Swami did not stand in limelight nor did he perform any miracles. Thus it is not possible to make of his life a gripping story. In his position as the President of the Order, he would have received visits from people of fame, power and fortune. If there are any accounts or photographs of such visits (the Swami with this Luminary; the Swami with that Celebrity - that kind of composition), I have not made any efforts to locate them. That is precisely what my writing is not about. The Swami was once reportedly asked how he felt about becoming famous (when he became the President), and he replied:

First there is this vast world. In it there is the continent of Asia. In it there is India. In it there is West Bengal, and in it the District of Howrah. Within that is Belur Math. A tiny dot in the map. Within that dot is Gambhirananda.

The simplicity of this extemporaneous statement belies its biblical profoundness. A tiny dot on a map or a tiny ripple in the river of time. He was couching, subconsciously perhaps, the same thought in terms of spatial insignificance that the Bible couched so beautifully in terms of temporal insignificance of man:

What profit hath a man for all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth.

And yet, spatially the influence of the Swami far exceeded India. Temporally, his work on the scriptures and his sourcebooks on the Order will live long after we are all gone. To many, the Swami was the limelight that illuminated others, and a visit itself with him was the miracle for the visitor. This has been said by many who reminisced on the occasion of his passing away.

A brief orientation: The Ramakrishna Mission was founded in honor of, and on the ideals of, the 19th century Hindu ascetic Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886). Although it has its origins deeply rooted in Hinduism, it is quite secular when it comes to its service to humanity. The direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna are the true founders of this Order, and are today revered nearly as highly as the Guru Maharaj himself. Today, the philanthropic work of this Order is very much in evidence all over India (schools, colleges, specialized school for the blind, vocational training, hospitals and medical facilities, relief and rehabilitation - especially following natural disasters, etc). But the monastic side is rather private. There is never any effort to induct anyone into the Order. On the contrary, they will discourage you unless and until you have somehow demonstrated your abiding sincerity. Today, many of the monks are highly educated individuals, doing everything from teaching university level science courses to engaging in hands-on relief work. Some even do the same function as corporate executives, administering huge medical complexes - for example. All this is by day, so to speak. Outside of the public view at night, when the regular executives go back to their pleasure palaces, the monk-executives retire to their inner sanctum. It is very austere, and forbidding for you and me. Only the minimum necessities of living are provided, and creature comforts are shunned.

Sri Ramakrishna, before he became well known as a saint, was an interesting seeker of divinity - dancing and trancing and weeping uncontrollably in religious ecstasy. But perhaps there were others just as interesting, in other ways. India, after all, is the land of ascetics. Sri Ramakrishna stood out in the world scene largely because he was made famous by his illustrious disciple, Swami Vivekananda (1863 - 1902). The latter, however, was not much of an ascetic. He was more what today's world calls a mover and a shaker. He was a doer. He was a man of action, and a motivational speaker for the youth. He also wrote inspirational poetry. Contrasted to his guru's peasant-like exterior, he was a well-educated man in the British tradition. For the Order itself, a synthesis between the ways of these two disparate vanguards occurred gradually, after their time. The point is: Today's Order of Sri Ramakrishna has been gradually formed by the efforts of countless self-effacing monks (men and women) who came after them - and up until today. That is the face of Ramakrishna Mission that we see today. It modernizes, it expands - while remaining connected to its source the whole time. Its schools and colleges teach physics and electronics engineering and its hospitals offer the latest technology, while the monks do their obeisance to the nineteenth century mystic. One might say that today, symbolically, Swami Vivekananda represents the public life of the Order and Sri Ramakrishna represents the inner life. That is probably the synthesis that has happened.

Guiding these self-effacing monks who continually shape the Order are their chosen leaders, or Presidents, and the eleventh President was Swami Gambhirananda.

A spiritual lineage:

Intimations of immortality
The Bringer: The magnificent ascetic Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886)
A Keeper: His disciple Swami Shivananda (1854? - 1934)
Two Explainers: Shivananda's disciples Swami Gambhirananda (1899 - 1988)and Swami Ashokananda (1893 - 1969)
[Author's connection: The sisters of Swami Gambhirananda and Swami Ashokananda were married to two brothers, one of whom was the author's grandfather. Swami Ashokananda was a pioneer in spreading the Vedanta ideals in America.]




The Swami was born Jatindranath Datta in the village of Sadhuhati in the Sylhet District of what is today Bangladesh, in the year 1899. Interestingly, Sadhuhati means a place of gathering of sadhus, or religious ascetics. Jatindranath was the youngest of six siblings, three brothers and three sisters - sons and daughters of Dinanath and Tarasundari Datta. Dinanath - like his father - was landed gentry. The same year Jatindranath was born, two distinguished Bengali poets were born: Kazi Nazrul Islam and Jibanananda Dash.

Sylhet District and the town of Sylhet represent the environment of Jatindranath's childhood and adolescence. This is the place of beginnings. So it is of interest that the message of Sri Ramakrishna spread early in this geographical location. The Ramakrishna Mission of nearby Dhaka was founded the same year Jatindranath was born, 1899. The Sylhet Mission was founded in 1916. The mission observed many religious events: Durga puja, Kali puja, Saraswati puja and major Buddhist, Moslem and Christian holy days, and also held various seminars and discourses. The Mission formed an integral part of the social life of local Hindus. Jatindranath would have been familiar with the place as a young man when he visited home from his studies in Calcutta. This geographical area was also home to Moslems - comprising perhaps half the population then. Thus there were many religious activities related to Islam. Then there is also the famous historical tomb of Shaikh Jalaluddin (Shah Jalal), said to be a major saint of the mystic Sufi sect of Islam (c. fourteenth century AD). One also heard about a legendary man named Lalan Fakir, the lead poet of a group called the Ba'uls, itinerant minstrels who followed a combination of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. One even saw them at times singing to the accompaniment of their trademark ektara, a one-stringed musical instrument. In that environment, a child grew up, quite unconsciously, to be both devoted to his own religion and tolerant to - and curious about - many other religions. Orange clad monks routinely came round to people's homes to ask for alms, a fistful of rice - as a part of their practice of humbleness. Elders had to explain such customs to children. A child would wake up to the Muezzin's call - something that had to be implanted at some level in his psyche.

Some places associated with the life of Swami Gambhirananda

And this brings me to a proposition: A given geographical place at a given era may sometimes acquire a special attribute. I do not have any hard data to back this up, but it is my sense that the Sylhet region during turn of the last century was such a conjunction. This region produced far more than its share of holy men and women - known or unknown.

Examples of an abundant variety of religious pursuits

Tarasundari, Jatindranath's mother, was a very devout woman, spending a great deal of time in the worship room. But there is nothing particularly notable about this - in this period of time it was most common for a Hindu housewife in Bengal to engage in this activity as a natural part of her daily life. They bought an image of their chosen god or goddess from the artisans in the village maketplace - images that are fashioned from clay, straws and sticks, and bedecked with miniature costume jewelry. The image was then installed in a suitably ornate, house-shaped pedestal in the worship room, with floral offerings replenished daily. The smell of assorted flowers, Bel leaves, mango blossoms, burning incense and pasted sandalwood combined to create a sensuously devotional atmosphere. This is a primal memory for most Bengalis - at least most of those from my generation and before.

What astounds me about Tarasundari - and I have never heard this about anyone else - is that she constructed her own images of the god Shiva she worshipped. She made the images, she worshipped them and then she consigned them to water. An artisan makes images to sell. A hobbyist makes images because it pleases him or her. But making your own image for your own worship entails a great deal more for a true believer - at least at an unconscious or subconscious level.

From what I have heard, this is how the process by which clay and straw and sticks become a living god works. The artisans go through many stages of constructing the image - sometimes having to let it stand for days on end. Eventually, they finish up by applying the last coat of paint or glaze. Everything is now done, except the eyes. At this stage, it is still a lifeless thing. Now, a person of recognized special abilities - usually a senior artisan - draws the eyes. This is when the deity enters the statue. Only after that can the laity bring the image home and worship. I know of this custom on good authority because my brother Basab who can paint beautifully when he wants to, was often called upon by some artisans in Baruipur to come and draw the eyes.

But with Tarasundari, she had the sole and continuous custody the whole time the icon was transforming from clay and straw to the living deity on the altar. She was the one responsible for bringing her own deity to life, she is the one who worshipped him, and she is the one who dissolved him. Creation, preservation, dissolution - all in her hands. Audacity, may be. Assurance of some self-knowledge, more likely. With what brush did she draw her beloved youngest son's eyes, we may wonder.

Jatindranath had his primary and secondary school education in Maulvibazar. He then had his college education in the famed Scottish Church College in Calcutta. He excelled in studies. This is the same college attended earlier by Narendranath Dutta, later to become Swami Vivekananda. Also, Jatindranath would have overlapped there with a person two years his older: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose � the great Indian freedom fighter who raised the Indian National Army to oppose British occupation. Subhas Chandra had come to this college after being expelled from the Presidency College over a row with the British leaders of that college. Thus, Jatindranath would certainly have taken note of this remarkable person and his remarkable ways. He would have got a hint of non-conventional pursuit by a young man his age whom he saw everyday in the hallway - a suggestion of the possibility of untethering of oneself from the traditional life path. The paths of Jatindranath and Subhas Chandra would later cross again - in a manner of speaking. The same time Jatindranath would work for the British military in Rangoon, Subhas Chandra would be confined in a British prison in Mandalay. For both, Burma would be a transforming experience. Today, the website of Scottish Church College proudly displays the names of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Swami Gambhirananda among their eminent alumni.

Scottish Church College and her two illustrious alumni.

Away from home, Jatindranath stayed in Calcutta at the student dormitory called Ogilvie Hostel, which for some reason was an institution of note in British India. He was also keenly interested in sports, and played football and other field sports.

It appears that growing up in his family, he was particularly close to his elder sister or Didi, Sushamabala (my Grandmother). She, while devoting herself to her family, was also given to a deep, lifelong spiritual way. In this sense she was truly her mother's daughter. With just enough education to read and write, she taught herself to recite the Bhagavad Gita in perfect Sanskrit, and she chanted large portions of it from memory every day. Like many Bengali households, she had a worship room where she spent much time - upon bathing, and wearing a fresh white sari with broad, red margin. I have this vivid recollection: Once my sister Chitra and I were visiting her in Sylhet. One very cold morning before dawn, she woke us up and took us for a long trek through a dark forest and to the bank of the river Surma, where she made us take a dip in the ice cold water. She did the same herself, but for much longer than we could tolerate. She wrapped us in towels, and sat down and chanted some prayers. Then she said that it was the Bengali month of Po'ush, and the predawn dip of faith in the river would cleanse us. I recall my Grandfather being very angry with her for subjecting us visiting grandchildren to this ordeal. But, as I look back, his being angry was a form of showing affection to her. My Grandfather - a highly educated man of technology (he graduated from the Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, and rose to be an engineering executive in service of the British India Government) - seemed to have a grudging respect for the devotional preoccupation of his uneducated wife. He eventually fell in completely with her, and became a formal disciple of, or received Diksha from, one Swami Birajananda.

In the evenings we had story-telling sessions. Grandmother always attempted to tell us stories from the scriptures. But I favored detective stories. So she told endless intricate tales about the exploits of a detective Mister Ganguly. I never found anything written about Mr. Ganguly, so she must have made them up. She had her mother's imagination. She did manage to inject a story or two from the scriptures. One that stayed with me is a story about a boarding school in the forest run by Brahma, and attended by children of gods, humans and demons. Later I was to recognize this as the Fable of the Meaning of Thunder from Brihadarnyaka Upanishad. Not that I have read this Upanishad. I came to know this the same way the Western world did.

So beautiful was the Fable of Thunder that a great western poet would fall completely under its spell. T. S. Eliot wrote a poem during a recuperating stay in Lausanne, Switzerland. When he came back, he showed the manuscript to his fellow poet Ezra Pound. Pound would write to a friend: ... Eliot came back from Lausanne ... with a damn good poem (19 pages) in his suitcase.... Pound became deeply engrossed in reading and profusely commenting on the poem. But when he came to the last section, on the Meaning of the Fable of Thunder, titled "What the Thunder Said", Pound stopped commenting. He did not touch this section, but simply wrote: "OK from here on I think."

Eliot also seems to have had very special feelings about this last section (movement?) of his magnificent poem The Waste Land - the segment that came to him all at once: " ..he to whom this happens assuredly has the sensation of being a vehicle rather than a maker."

The way I remember the Fable of Thunder differs in some small respects from the authentic version. But I will describe the former version, with slight nuances of mine added. In the Vedic ages, the youngsters of gods, humans and demons studied together amicably in the hermitage school of Brahma in a distant forest. When they finished their course of studies, they were ready to go and take their places in their respective worlds: Heaven, Earth and Hell. On the day of the "Convocation", Brahma sat on an altar under a Banyan tree, in the lotus position, eyes closed. The students sat below him at his feet, expectant to receive the parting advice that would sustain them in their practical worlds. But Brahma said nothing, nor opened his eyes. As his meditation deepened, dark clouds began to gather round and grow darker still. Light began to fail. All around, there was a premonition. As Eliot would describe:

  Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.

Then all of a sudden the thunder struck, writing out across the sky the letter Da, while its terrifying voice reverberated across the sky: Da. Then just as suddenly, everything went quiet again. Brahma opened his eyes, and raised his right hand in benediction.

Now, the young gods knew: Da is for Damyata - Control, suppress your base urges. The children of man felt: Da must be for Datta - Give, be charitable. And the demon offspring thought: Da would be Dayadhvam - Have mercy, be compassionate.

Then my grandmother gave the moral of the story in Sanskrit:

Tadetat trayam shikhshet: Daman danam dayamiti.
So therefore learn these three things: Control. Give. Be merciful.

Sushamabala De
She had more in common with her younger brother than the extraordinary facial resemblance

I do not know much about the other siblings of Sushamabala and Jatindranath - and wish in no way to minimize any contributions they might have made to shape the young man. At any rate, it seems that Tarasundari and Sushamabala were two early female influences in Jatindranath's life. Later, he would very completely surrender to the idea of a Divine Mother, in this case the guiding light of the Order: The majestic Sarada Devi, wife of Sri Ramakrishna, an enlightened person completely on her own right.



Young Prince Siddhartha was despondent. He had somehow ventured out of his usual haunts around the opulent palace where he lived, and seen most disturbing sights he had never seen before: a leper; a man made decrepit by old age; and a dead body being borne to the funeral pyre. For the very first time, the misery and the impermanence of life were brought home to him. This was the transforming event for him. There would be others. When he next saw the contented smile on the face of a spare monk, he knew the direction he had to take. These transforming events would begin, or trigger, the transition of Siddhartha Gautama to Gautama Buddha. And the world would see a shining light - a dispelling of darkness.

Truly for some men there is a light that burns within. But to free it, to let it shine on through, some trigger events - however ordained, by divine guidance or by happenstance - are needed. It is these circumstances that will lead him by the hand from darkness to light.

Curiously then, such circumstances can be clearly identified in Jatindranath's young life. When he was a student in high school in Maulvibazar, for some reason that cannot be traced today, he went for an unusual brief stint in a high school in Shillong. He would soon come back and continue and finish schooling in Maulvibazar. Why this sojourn, we may wonder.

Shillong: Closer to the sky

Shillong, a 'hill station', was a beautiful and pristine place then - an unspoiled town draped carelessly over a cluster of hills. Certainly its mystic pines and unlimited sky would have had a freeing effect on the mind - even on an adolescent mind. There is a word in Bengali udasin I cannot translate. It is something like a pensive state of detachedness. That is where the undulating beauty of Shillong could place you. You could wonder out of the town and into the recluse light that lives in the pines. You could let your mind disappear round the bend of the pebble-bare Umiam. It was in this setting that Jatindranath met a teacher by the name of Ramanimohan Bhattacharya. It is clear that the two formed a lasting bond, and that this was no ordinary everyday teacher. He was deeply learned in the scriptures. He gave the adolescent readable books on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. They walked, they talked. Jatindranath kept in touch with him after he came back to Maulvibazar. It would then transpire that this teacher would one day untether himself from his secure life, and become a monk of the Order of Sri Ramakrishna. Years later, this connection would be what brought the young man to this Order. But an idea may already have been seeded, and sprouting, in the adolescent mind - amid the fully-grown mystic pines of Shillong.

I spent a number of school and college vacations in Shillong - spending much time in the pine forests past the Golf links. I tried later to capture some of Shillong's magic in a poem:


The pines of Shillong,
I'd often suspect,
Neck-straining tall and
Clearing the lowhung clouds
To the out-of-view blue,
Meditate together in secret.
There's no firm evidence yet
Though once, fearing a storm
As I made my hasty trail
Amid the solitary sentinels,
Silent as in a petrified forest,
There did seem a presence
Or a soaring of a kind, the wings
Of solitude one longs to ride
In a mountain paradise of the mind,
To perch atop a nimbus cloud,
Reach up with both hands
And feel the face of God.
The roots are there, we know;
Science tells us so
And nobody disputes.
The wings I privately deduced
And would normally tell no man
Except now, so long, so far back,
As I think on the lone mystics
I feel I could tell.

The other transforming event occurred when Jatindranath stepped out of his safe, ensconced student life and stepped right into the practical world. In college he was an Economics major. Upon his graduation, he took a job as an accountant in the military, and was posted to a military facility in Rangoon, Burma (today Yangon, Myanmar). He was far away from the loved ones at home, and thus weakened of mind. He put in hard days' work on dry numbers. He saw all around him soldiers of the British Empire in their finest discipline and professionalism - something impressively new to him. By night, he saw the raucous revelry of the soldiers in a wartime setting (but let us not be judgmental here) - something that was disturbingly alien to his life experience, such as it was then. When he went into the town, he would have seen the hauntingly beautiful sight of Buddhist child-monks, with their ocher robe and shaved head and the bowl of mendicancy.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon:
"A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains all that man is�"

When I traveled in Burma, the overwhelming impression I got is that of a collective and ancient spiritual life - as evinced by the pervasive presence of the Buddhist symbols: the crowded temples, the monasteries for training novice monks - male and female, the four-faced statues of the four Buddhas, and so on. I tried to capture the essence of this in a poem:


On the elephant river it rains.
On the roofless ferryman it rains.

In mist mountains it rains.
Over the temple-studded plains,
Dimming though not dark, it rains.
Round the four-faced monument,
Watchful no more, it rains.
On the two Buddhas past it rains.
On the Buddha present it rains.

Kakusandha is very old.

The kind eyes of the old rain,
The abhaya mudra of the good rain,
The four directions to renew the rain,
All these too are very old.

Ariya Metteyya to come, Bless this rain.

The good rain and the chill rain,
The rain to be and the rain within,
Cloud and mist and haze,
The canopy of the forest, bird nests,
Temple bells and prayer flags,
All these too rain.

On the ferryman at mid-river it rains.
On the Ayeyarwady it rains.

Where Jatindranath lived, he was able to go up to the roof terrace, lie down and look at the vast expanse of big, starry sky and the tropical moon. Perhaps he could even see or imagine in the distance the moon rays catch the magnificent gold-lined dome of the Shwedagon Pagoda. As the night progressed and grew silent, what thoughts might have passed through his mind we cannot know. But I find these lines from the W. B. Yeats poem Byzantium interesting to consider:

The unpurged images of the day recede;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Such, I imagine, was the agony of Jatindranath.

Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939)
"Once out of nature I shall never take
My form from any natural thing - "

From time to time here, we will try to look at things from the eyes of non-Indians. In particular, we will have occasion to return to Yeats. If you have sensed undertones of Eastern spirituality above, they are probably there. Yeats loved India. Some of his early poems are on Indian themes, and even Tagoresque (witness Anushuya and Vijaya). Yeats introduced Rabindranath Tagore to the world, and was the prime mover behind Tagore's Nobel Prize. He studied the Vedas, and along with an Indian scholar named Sri Purohit Swami, wrote about them. What more beautiful Western eye on Eastern spirituality than Yeats?

A hauntingly beautiful sight of renunciation such as this Jatindranath is likely to have seen in Rangoon

And so it came to pass that, like Siddhartha Gautama twenty-five hundred years ago, Jatindranath was today despondent. Like Siddhartha, he made a choice. If Siddhartha left behind his beautiful wife Jashodhara and the infant son Rahul, Jatindranath, at this point, was jettisoning himself from an entire loving family - Tarasundari and Sushamabala not the least. He was twenty-four.



In Vrindavan the great sage Sanatan sat by the Ganges, in the lotus posture of deep meditation. Presently, there appeared before him a destitute Brahmin and touched his feet in obeisance. Sanatan opened his eyes and greeted him most kindly, and inquired after his welfare. The Brahmin said: My name is Jivan, from Mankar in Bardwan. I have traveled far and hard to reach you. I am a luckless fellow and I have fallen on hard times. Please, Sir, I need your help. Upon this, the sage looked on the ground around him where river rocks of all description were strewn. He picked up one particular one and said: Here, this is a Philosopher's Stone I found the other day and saved, thinking that it might prove useful to somebody someday. Take this and all your misery will be over at a single touch. Then he closed his eyes and went back into the depth of his meditation. Jivan stood there, dumbfounded. Then, suddenly, he fell to the ground fully prostrate, and grabbing the feet of the sage, said: Whatever hidden treasure you have that makes you ignore a Philosopher's Stone, I want just a little bit of that treasure, I beg you. Then Jivan hurled the Philosopher's Stone into the Ganges, whence it came. He left his previous life, that life which he came here with such great hope to salvage, and set out in search of the greater treasure.

From Rangoon, Jatindranath headed directly for Banares. He had heard that his erstwhile teacher from Shilliong, now a monk of the Order of Sri Ramakrishna by the name of Swami Jagadananda, was in Banares. Why him? Jatindranath had known him as a teacher, a man settled in life, surrounded by admiring students, and presumably contented. The young student kept in touch with his teacher after leaving Shillong. But one day he learned that this teacher that he thought he knew and looked up to for spiritual guidance into this mortal life, had left everything behind and become a monk. What was he going after, Jatindranath surely wondered. Eventually, like Jivan, he decided to go after that himself.

We can try to imagine this fateful journey. There remains no account of this. The reader might imagine himself or herself at the age of twenty-four. The young traveler had just cut all his moorings in one fell stroke, all that represented safety and security of a safe harbor. And literally too, he would leave from the Rangoon harbor. The journey from Rangoon to Banares would take several days - a few days on a steamship to Calcutta, and then a couple of days by train to Banares. He would surely be in intense internal conflict. When he arrived in his way station Calcutta, that would be a most convenient place to reverse his decision - he had come home! As we know, he was firm in his resolve, and traveled on through.

From his later life there is a story where the Swami used to travel long distances over rough terrain on a bicycle in order to be able to see the monk who was his beloved mentor. But because of the terrain, sometimes he rode the bike and sometimes he carried it. To me this story is strangely reminiscent of the story of an old Buddhist monk who was in frail health. But he resolved to a carry a heavy statue of the Buddha a great distance through the woods, to install it in a far monastery. Naturally, it was an impossible task for him, but he did it anyway. The story goes that the monk sometimes carried the statue. Then, when no one was looking, the statue carried the monk.

Statue of Buddha carrying the old monk
by Sanchari De

That is probably how Jatindranath's journey to the holy city of Banares was: Sometimes he was weighed down by his agony, other times this agony is what carried him.



Many years ago I was once walking along a pavement, and saw a crumpled booklet lying on the ground. Curious, I picked it up. It turned out to be an Employee Handbook of McDonald's (the American Fastfood Chain). As I was about to discard it, something caught my eyes: A bit of text, words of encouragement to the young employees, many of whom are students temporarily working to make some money. But what I read was so amazing that I remember it word for word:

Press On - Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not: the world is full of educated derelict. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

Jatindranath finally made his way to the doorstep of Ramakrishna Mission in Banares. He must have been extremely tired and exhausted from traveling for many days, but hopeful of seeing a familiar, dear face, and perhaps being offered a warm meal and a bed - and eventually, that which he came for.

This was not to be. It turned out that Swami Jagadananda was no longer there. Jatindranath met the head monk of the mission and stated his purpose. But the monk would not hear of it. It has been said later that because of the political tension then existing (anarchism against the British occupation of India), people were most apprehensive of taking in strangers. However, the head monk suggested that Jatindranath go on to Belur Math and try his luck there. But the visitor realized that he would be a stranger there as well, and the same problem would arise there again. So he asked the head monk for a letter of introduction. But the monk said: How can I give you an introduction when I don't know you? Jatindranath persisted: Then please at least give me a letter saying that I came here looking for Swami Jagadananda. The head monk complied with this request.

Jatindranath was back on the streets of Banares - unfed, unrested, unwelcome. But he persisted.

Leaving there and traveling for two days Jatindranath arrived at Belur Math, and made his pitch. But the monks there were unimpressed. Nobody knew him, and nobody could vouch for him. He was about to be turned away again. This time, however, either Luck or Providence intervened. It so happened that two leading monks of the Ramakrishna Mission school in Deoghar had come to Belur Math for some business, and were there present. Seeing this highly educated man at loose ends, they made their own calculation. They could use him. So they offered him a job right then and there. Not entry into the Order, but a job. Then Jatindranath made his own calculation and accepted the job. He was given shelter. He could now unpack whatever luggage he had, lie down and rest a bit.

Thus, the voyage the young traveler had embarked upon at Rangoon harbor had at last come to an end - not the way he wanted. He left a regular job in Burma. He took a great leap into the vast unknown. He was back in a regular job in India.



It would soon become apparent that the monks who brought Jatindranath to Deoghar wanted him as an employee, period. There was no plan at all to induct him into monkhood - either soon or further down the road. And if they would not advance his cause, what could he do? The direction he was headed was not the direction he wanted. The direction he wanted was unavailable to him - it had been repeatedly made clear to him by now. He had gone to the highest level, and was turned away. He took the leap, and God knows he persisted - but now it was time to recognize the realities: It was time to give up.

Bodhidharma, a great Buddhist master, traveled from India across the forbidding Himalayas to revive Buddhism in China. It was a difficult journey with many obstacles, but somehow he managed it. But when he came to the Yangtze river, he saw that there was no way whatsoever to cross it. He had come to the journey's end. It is time to give up. He looked around. The only thing in sight was an old lady with a bundle of reed. Bodhidharma asked her if he could please borrow a single reed. The old lady gave him a reed. Bodhidharma placed the reed on water, stepped on it, and the reed floated across - delivering him safely to the other shore. There he would do the Buddha's work with great distinction, and step right into history.

Bodhidharma floating on the Yangtze
by Sanchari De

We do not know what went through Jatindranath's mind during this time. But it is clear that he looked around him to see if there was a path forward. He also looked inside him. He was a scholarship student, and as it would be evident later, he had fine command of language. He decided to use it. He took a most unusual step. He sat down and wrote a letter. He mailed it. Basically, he had floated a reed and stepped on it.

In writing this letter, Jatindranath was going over the head of the monks of Deoghar, his bosses. For he sent the letter to Belur Math, addressed it to none other than Swami Shivananda, the President of the Order, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, and a man known to be curt, distant and inaccessible.

As it turned out, the reed carried Jatindranath across as well, and safely. Not only did a response come; it came in barely three days, and with a specific date and a specific time for Jatindranath to come to Belur Math and be inducted into the Order. What he wrote in that letter we will never know.

He was inducted as a novice (or apprentice monk) by Shivananda himself, and was given the name Brahmachari Soumyachaitanya. The title Brahmachari is common to all apprentices, and the extension chaitanya to most. (Brahmachari = one whose life is in accord with the ways of the Brahma; chaitanya = consciousness). But the core name itself is chosen by the Order to reflect something about the person. Here, the name Soumya seems to have been most appropriate. It has no exact translation, but it refers to an appearance of serene and soothing dignity. This indeed captures the essence of both the man and the monk. Shivananda often addressed the young intern as "Sadev Soumya", an expression from an Upanishad meaning "Soumya who is always of God".

With lightning in speed, in barely three years, Brahmachari Soumyachaitanya was elevated to sannyas or monkhood by Shivananda. From then on, Jatindranath donned a saffron robe and answered to the name of Swami Gambhirananda. The title Swami and the extension ananda are common to all monks. (Swami = spiritual leader; ananda = absolute joy, bliss). The name itself is chosen with great care to reflect something particular that has emerged about the subject during the apprenticeship. Gambhir, without an exact English translation, may be taken here to mean the same as Soumya, but with a gravitas of countenance and an economy of speech added.

Shivananda was to mentor this disciple until the former's death. Mentoring, by definition, is a selfless act. When a professor mentors his student or a senior person in the workplace mentors a junior employee, there is no great expectation of reciprocation. Except perhaps loyalty and affection. But in both cases, there is an umbrella: the university or the workplace. Within the Order, the umbrella is not so much the organization. It is more the smile of Sri Ramakrishna, which hovers everywhere and always.

It is clear that Shivananda identified the scholarly tendencies in his protégé early on. The Brahmachari would initially receive various teaching assignments in Deoghar - eventually becoming the Headmaster. During this period, he began to develop leadership attributes - characterized especially by a soldier's discipline and punctuality, things he had seen in Burma. It so happened that Shivananda then lived in a place some twenty miles away. The disciple often covered the rough road on bicycle, sometimes riding it and sometimes carrying it. Not much more is known about this beautiful association, but that only increases its fascination.

Jatindranath would next come to the Advaita Ashram - which is the seat of scholastic learning and publishing activities of the Order. This really defined the Swami's main identity to the outside world: A monk of great learning who explained all kinds of things. Somewhere along the line he had learned the Sankrit language well enough that he could study the Vedas and the Upanishads in their original script. He studied the scriptures with his old guide from Shillong, Swami Jagadananda. His stint at the Mayavati Branch of the Advaita Ashram - perched on the Himalayas in green mountains - would have been a most meditative phase.

Advaita Ashram, Mayavati: Solitude and silence
(Photo: education.vsnl.com)

The Swami's place of spiritual leadership was quickly apparent. He was given positions of high responsibility early on, rising step by quick step to eventually become the President of the worldwide and far-flung Order - a selection that is made through a process similar to that in the Vatican. Although his tenure as President lasted only a few years until his death, his spiritual leadership spanned almost the entirety of his sixty-five years of monastic life.



As a mature monk, Jatindranath was said to be much like his Guru - distant, if not inaccessible. Even monks who lived closely with him for long periods of time did not hear him speak much about himself. It has been said that his grave outward countenance and economy of speech were a reflection of a mental conversation he was carrying out most of the time, with spiritual masters.

The great stories of the common man's transformation to spiritual enlightenment usually involve an actual, physical journey of self-search. This is true for Moses and the Buddha, and closer to our discussion and closer to earth, Swami Vivekananda. The monks of the Order, I gather, are encouraged to go on a pilgrimage to the holy places in India at some point early in their pursuit. It is rather curious then that the Swami never did this - not until he was in his seventies, and not until others coaxed him to do this while he was still in good enough health to travel extensively. But, perhaps there is an explanation.

The Goddess Durga, wife of Shiva, had a mischievous thought. She arranged a competition between her two sons, the agile and handsome Kartik and the chubby elephant-headed Ganesh. Whoever won would receive a reward. The competition was this: Who can circumnavigate the Universe faster? Upon the sounding of the starting bell, Kartik sprang forward on his peacock (for that is his mode of transportation), and was off to the journey that would take many years. Ganesha, however, did nothing. He just sat there on his lazy mouse. Years later, as Kartik was returning from the journey and Ganesh spotted him in the distance, the latter got up, circled his mother, touched her feet, and resumed his seat. Needless to say, Ganesh won.

The Swami, as we know, was deeply engrossed in compiling, successively, the biographies and thoughts of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and the Holy Mother Sarada Devi. Each today stands as a sourcebook. When a good storyteller writes a story, he or she actually becomes a part of it - living within the story. The Swami was living within these holy lives. He was on his own pilgrimage - the whole time.

And when a mind thus readied and a place long readied have a conjunction, what might happen?

That place is the place of Shiva and Parvati (Durga) - the cave of Amarnath in the mountains of Kashmir. Parvati, it should be noted, is another appearance of the Goddess Kali, the chosen deity of Sri Ramakrishna. Legend has it that Shiva chose this as the most private place he could find to recount to his wife the secret of creation - so not a living soul could hear. But a pair of mating doves eavesdropped. Having learned the secret, doves are reborn again and again and make the cave their timeless home. Some even claim to spot the original eavesdroppers among them.

When the Swami did finally go on his physical pilgrimage, he visited the ice Shivalinga (the phallic symbol of Shiva) in the cave of Amarnath. The icy translucence, the nearly shapeless form of Shiva - allowed or guided the mind to sculpt on to it its own projection. When he came out, a colleague asked how the visit went. And the Swami said: You know what I just saw in the cave?! I saw the Thakur seated there!. He did not claim to see God, he was not making any claims of a revelation - but he was just saying that he had seen Sri Ramakrishna. He did.



The Buddhist meditation Namyo ho renge kyo ('I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra') has been interpreted thus:

The lotus is a flower that grows in the mud. The thicker and deeper the mud, the more beautiful the lotus blooms.

The surface meaning is clear: Something as ordinary as the mud produces something as extraordinarily beautiful as lotus, unsullied by the mud. But it is also the Buddhist way to inquire. So we may inquire: What is there in the mud that makes the lotus what it is?

Earlier I spoke of Jatindranath's mother Tarasundari and his elder sister Sushamabala. If these two had some spiritual stirrings within them, so did two of Sushamabala's sons: Binod Bihari Dey (my father) and Bijan Kumar Dey. And when I say spiritual, I do not mean religious (We are Hindus by birth, as must be clear by now). For example, both Binod and Bijan had great fascination for people pursuing unorthodox ascetic lives - whether they are Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist etc. Binod, who studied physics at the famed Presidency College and at the Calcutta University, privately taught himself Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu scriptures, and could recite from memory large sections of the Sanskrit epic poem Meghadutam.

When it came to the odd ascetics, Binod was a veritable Harun al-Rashid. Early in his career when he was well-to-do he used to bring them home from here and there, and feed them a good meal cooked to order by my mother. They sat on the floor and dined together - also Harun al-Rashid-style. My father then had long discourses with the guest. My mother explained to us children that Father craved sadhusanga (the ennobling company of holy men). Two of these visitors I remember vaguely: A portly gentlemen addressed as Jyotishi Babu (Mr. Astrologer!) who wore 'civilian' (non-monastic) clothes and was - though in harsh circumstances of life - a most jovial person. He related freely to us children. My mother's observation on him was that he appreciated good cooking. The other was a sadhu named Anukul Chandra Thakur. He came and stayed for few days with us when we lived in a bungalow in Tikarbasti, Silchar. The house had substantial grounds around it. When the word spread about the sadhu, people came from far and wide, and camped on the grounds, and slept and cooked and used the grounds as open-air toilet facility (My mother had something to say about that as well). This sadhu later was to become so famous that the Government of India would issue a postage stamp in his honor. At some point we were talking about this sadhu's increase in name and following. However, my father did not show any interest in talking about him, saying only: Fame is one thing .... Asceticism in the unknown, everyday man is what drew him.

Sri Anukul Chandra Thakur: My father's guest

One of these discourses I do remember. We could walk freely into the room and simply stand there and they would pay no mind. Now, there is this convention in Eastern spiritual seeking that when you have trekked far for a darshan (a brief audience) with some ascetic person with 'realized soul' (he has seen God), you are allowed to ask one question. That almost sounds like a riddle. Anyway, the discourse seemed to be about what all-encompassing question one could pose with utmost brevity, to elicit the maximum response. The visitor's suggestion was: What is the journey?

Handwriting and signature of the of the prolific scholar Swami Gambhirananda. This postcard was written by the Swami to his nephew Binod Bihari in 1971.

When we lived in Silchar in my childhood, there was very much in evidence a mad sadhu, or a crazy monk, improbably named Luchipuri. We took this name to refer to an assortment of Bengali-style breads, but it could also mean a person who hails from a real or imaginary town called Luchipur. Nobody knew where or how he lived. He was found mostly on the river landing (ghat) of the Temple of Annapurna. But he walked the streets of Silchar in his shabby white robe and long beard, with a long walking stick. (Diogenes of Sinope walking the streets of Athens, I would come to think later. How was Luchipuri of Silchar any less?). Children used to run after him in droves, teasing him and trying to get him to angrily turn on them with his stick raised - when they would flee from him with all due dispatch. This was considered a good pastime for the children, and no adults in that provincial town intervened. One day my father saw me do this. Later that day he told me that this was a holy man exploring, the finest kind among men. He told me not to do anything for which I might be ashamed in my adult life. From that point on, I came to view all holy men and women in a different light - especially the ones in unorthodox pursuits.

Diogenes of Sinope: Not so unlike Luchipuri of Silchar
Diogenes the cynic carried a lit lantern in broad daylight
Luchipuri the mad sadhu carried a walking staff he did not need

For me, the above incident was to be the beginning of such a curiosity: Remarkable lives lived in complete anonymity. Certainly this is not a new thought, and it has been expressed most beautifully in Gray's elegy:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of the ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

But I do not like the "waste" bit - this is where my idea lies. Every such gem, each such flower, every soaring of the mind of an unknown yogi adds something to a hidden pool that grows thus - a pool where fame has no access. This is a subject you can explore endlessly. I think of my ancestors. I think of Luchipuri. I think of the yogi who retires to the snowy heights of the Himalayas, with not a single soul within hearing or sight. Just the whiteness and the light and the sky. He does not care to tell anyone about himself or his ascension. Suppose God shows Himself to this yogi! He, God, would be completely assured of His visitation not being revealed, ever. So why would not He? How do we ever know?

My brother Bijoy and I visited Silchar as grown men. We found the Temple of Annapurna, but now a new edifice. The ruins of the old temple were lying toppled halfway down the sloping river bank, not quite claimed by the river yet. Luchipuri of course was long gone, but I wanted to know what became of his name. We sought out the priest and asked him if he had heard of the "mad sadhu of Silchar". On that, his posture visibly changed. He said most reverently: Luchipuri? Tini to onek din holo deha raksha korechhen. He was telling us that the sadhu was long gone, but was using the honorific version of the pronoun He, and instead of simply saying the sadhu died, was saying that the sadhu left his mortal body behind.

A letter from Swami Gambhirananda

This letter, dictated by the Swami of very poor eyesight and signed by himself, mourns the death of his nephew Binod Bihari Dey in 1980 ("He was younger than I, and yet I am still living and he has severed all bonds of love."). The nephew - who had been close to the Swami throughout the former's life - had great respect for the monk�s chosen spiritual path, and in turn enjoyed his genuine affection. The letter was written to one of Binod Bihari�s sons.



In his youth Uncle Bijan had traveled to many holy places in India. He spoke of sitting down on the ground with itinerant young Americans and explaining Hinduism and the associated mysticism to them (He certainly was well qualified to do that, and he spoke English well). But his own quest was not limited to Hinduism. I often heard him speak fervently of Lumbini, a place closely associated with Buddhism. Once he heard about a Moslem holy place (near the village of Mallikpur just outside Kolkata) that had a natural spring whose water was reputed to have special qualities. So he went there and bathed in the water with great solemnity (and made me - in my early teens then - do the same). I was most apprehensive of being challenged at the entry as to whether we were Moslems, and wondered aloud why we were going to a Moslem place of worship. He said that this religion speaks of a future better than the past, and of God's granting of wealth and contentment. Later in life I was to recall this, and was able to find in the Holy Qur'an a verse called Brightness:

And surely the Future shall be better for thee than the Past,
And in the end shall thy Lord be bounteous to thee and thou be satisfied.

This was a time I had just come from Silchar to my Grandfather's house in Mallikpur to enter a school there. By coincidence, Uncle Bijan was also visiting then. He took charge of admitting me to the school, and then took me along wherever he was going. One day we visited the temple of Tarakeswar, and I saw a sight I had never seen before: People in endless stream were circling the temple, many times each, measuring their full length prostrate on the ground. My uncle explained that these people were keeping a promise they had made to the temple god. Later, we sat down in a kiosk next to the temple and had puri-potato and milked syrupy sweet tea for lunch. Then he said some things that I remember as follows: There is some blessed energy in holy places - but not necessarily because of the deity only. These are places that millions and millions of people over hundreds and thousands of years have wished to be places of the good. It is that focused wishing that made such places special.

Mahur River valley: The true Shangri-La?

Much of Uncle Bijan's early career as a single man was spent in the rugged and desolate hills of Assam - known as the North Cachar Hills, places such as Haflong, Mahur and Maibong. So rugged were these places that some two dozen tunnels had to be dug to run a railroad through these hills. At the same time, there was also lush green vegetation over undulating terrain - a true hidden Shangri-La. This was basically an unstructured life of adventure and unpredictability. And in it was ample time to reflect. I think of this period in my uncle's life as the period some yogi's spend on the remote Himalayas in complete seclusion. In the end, they come down with some secret inner wealth from the mountains. So did Uncle Bijan. It was almost as though sometimes you could see the wilderness through his eyes - far and deep in time and space.

A young Uncle Bijan (right) with his younger brother (Uncle Bimal)

I had not much of an occasion to see Uncle Bijan in his own family setting once he had children of his own. But I was most curious to know if the quest of his early youth had survived once he solidly entered human bondage. That occasion came when there was something of a family reunion in Shillong around my sister's wedding. People gathered in ever-changing groups and talked and laughed and ate. Uncle Bijan was nowhere to be seen. Two or three times a day he went out for long walks along desolate, hilly streets of Shillong under the mountain sky. This tall and solidly built man carried his tiny toddler daughter in the crook of his left arm. One day I saw him from a distance. He stopped at a street-side stall, bought his daughter a piece of candy, and continued on his way. I felt happy: Uncle Bijan was still on his old path. Only, he had synthesized his otherworldly journey with his thisworldly trip.

I last visited my favorite uncle when he was fading. He sat on his bed most of the day, withdrawn from the world around him. But he received me with great affection as he always did - and with full recognition. He was a spent reminder of his earlier "tall, dark and handsome" self, but his smile which I loved - always strangely serene - remained the same. Somehow the conversation turned to the subject of his marrying off his two daughters - something that is considered a heavy responsibility on Indian parents. He was conscious of his duty, but he said he did not worry. God will look after them, he said. He then recited two lines from the Gita, lines that I did not know. But I certainly recognized the last two words of the verse, which form a well-known Sanskrit phrase (being for example the motto of the Life Insurance Corporation of India). I was therefore able to locate the verse. Here, the Lord God Krishna is saying to his devotee Arjuna who is overcome with thoughts of his unfulfilled earthly duties (translation by Sri Purohit Swami):

But if a man will meditate on Me and Me alone, and will worship Me always and everywhere, I will take upon Myself the fulfilment of his aspiration, and I will safeguard whatsoever he shall attain.

His two daughters were to be married soon thereafter, in quick succession, and to fine young men of their liking.

My uncle was, by any definition, and ordinary man. Outwardly, nothing distinguished him from the rest of us. As you observed him more and more, you found him less and less ordinary. He was an alone man - not lonely, but alone. He did not seek out the company of holy men as his brother, my father, did. He did not take a Guru. It is as though he was the captain of his own exploration project. I do not know of any accounts of any meetings between Uncle Bijan and his uncle, the Swami. But of this I feel certain: Such meetings would not be as between laity and a holy man. They would be between kindred souls. There would be mutual recognition of each other's journey. There would be mutual respect in spite of the age difference. Many who knew Uncle Bijan came to him reverently for some guidance as to their life. They asked him to read their palms and tell of their future. But my uncle discouraged them from having their palms read. Nor did he dispense much advice beyond solid, common sense advice. He had a natural, sagelike economy and calmness of speech. What he did not say in words was conveyed by that faint smile which covered his entire face - and seemed to have its origin somewhere else. He was most generous with giving of his money - as though this is where he saw the value of money. He lived his life as though he were humbly and gratefully borrowing a small space, without wanting to disturb others. In the end, like the long-trained expert Olympic diver, he dove into the pool of life and smoothly disappeared without making any disturbance on the water's surface.



If Jatindranath was affectionate to his young nephews, he was a very close friend to Jogesh Chandra Datta, another nephew nearly his own age. They grew up together as children, and remained friends throughout their lives. As young men, they traveled to Burma together. There, both would find their calling: Jogesh Chandra in the world of business, and Jatindranath in a different world altogether. Jogesh Chandra went on to become a successful businessman, but as I recall � even within the family life in his opulent home in Ballygunge, Kolkata � he himself lived the simple life a contemplative recluse. He was a handsome man with a softness about his otherwise firm face. When we visited as children, we thought of him as a very grave and distant man who might put in a brief appearance and say a kind word or two. He became more so as he progressed in age. If the Swami had a life-long friend in the conventional sense, it was Jogesh Chandra. By appearance, Jogesh Chandra was soumya (as in Soumyachaitanya); by countenance, he was gambhir (as in Gambhirananda). As I look back on him, I have this odd thought: Either one of the two friends might just as well have become Swami Gambhirananda.

I had occasion to reflect with a sense of satisfaction upon the proclivities of these relations of the Swami when I came to know of the European mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866? - 1949), who was born in Russian Armenia - where Eastern and Western cultures interact. He journeyed through Central Asia and North Africa in search of some hidden traditions. He had much the same proclivities. He believed that an inner life of quiet search was possible even in the midst of everyday life with others. He had a small following in Europe, but he does not seem to have sought fame in any way. People gathered around him. He became better known in the West after a hauntingly beautiful movie was made from his autobiography, called Meetings with Remarkable Men. Here is an excerpt from his writings:

George Ivanovitch Grudjieff(1866? - 1949):
Meeting with unknown remarkable men

There do exist enquiring minds, which long for the truth of the heart, seek it, strive to solve the problems set by life, try to penetrate to the essence of things and phenomena and to penetrate into themselves. If a man reasons and thinks soundly, no matter which path he follows in solving these problems, he must inevitably arrive back at himself, and begin with the solution of the problem of what he is himself and what his place is in the world around him.

Gurdjieff for me was an affirmation of the lives of my father and my uncle.

Returning to the Swami's kinfolk, it seems to me that all these people who became whatever they became independently of the Swami, who were in the most ordinary of circumstances in the ordinary struggles of everyday life, who never received any early spiritual guidance from any outside sources, were each embarked upon some remarkable internal journey. Earlier I spoke of the mental journey of Yeats in connection with the Swami's transformation. Staying with the same theme - a search for something of permanent value amid man's impermanence - we may wonder if all these people arrived wherever they were going, and if there was the kind of closure Yeats found in Sailing to Byzantium:

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

But alas, I do not know what the "therefore" refers to, and where Byzantium is for them. What these lived lives do is give context to the Swami. They give us a hint of what there was in the mud to make the lotus bloom so beautiful. Spirituality was evidently in the blood. But if for the others it was a spiritual torment in homebound men and women, for the Swami it uniquely bloomed to be a pure bliss. When Jatindranath trekked from Burma and knocked on the door of Ramakrishna Mission in Banares, the monk was already there within the young aspirant. As I try to imagine that fateful moment, I imagine that these lines from the Bible might have captured its predestination:

�that which is to be hath already been

There is a most beautiful line in a Tagore poem that goes like this: So many times, with so much care, I have readied the place of fire sacrifice and lit the flame. But the flame never took, only a despondent coil of smoke wafted away skyward. I think of the lives I described as fire sacrifices in the same way - but not ones that failed. They all contributed to the one effort that flamed forth most brilliantly, and skyward. They are all there, for me, in that one flame.



The monastic pursuit among the followers of Sri Ramakrishna - as the Swami would explain - can be seen as some combination of the four basic ways: Action, Devotion, Knowledge and Meditation. Each monk is unique because he or she chooses or develops a specific combination. But only the subject can tell what combination it is - outsiders cannot. From outward appearances, however, one can guess.

From the Swami's life, it seems clear that he was very centered. His action was disciplined, his devotion was complete, his knowledge was deep and his meditation was constant. But each pursuit is interesting in its own way.

There was once a monk whose monastic name I never knew or no longer recall. But no matter. Everybody knew him as Kuber Maharaj. Kuber is the Divine Treasurer. Maharaj, literally King Emperor, is an honorific used by laity to address Hindu monks. During the period I knew him, he was placed in charge of supervising some buildings and facilities in an educational institution, spread out over a very large area. Kuber Maharaj was then no longer young, and this would be a tiresome job even for a young person. The Order, which is very frugal when it comes to spending money on themselves, relented to provide him a cycle rickshaw and a driver. So there he was at his job, with his chariot, his charioteer, and his constant companion the umbrella. Often they would stop in a shade, and he would be seen talking to his driver - a scene reminiscent of one in another place and another time. Whether it was the pouring monsoon rain or the scorching tropical sun, he was on the job all day long. That is the complete image of Kuber Maharaj one had - few knew anything more about him. He was very aloof. The students found him stern and forbidding - and never tried to befriend him. He was isolated from the very people he was working so hard to serve. What combination of the four basic ways he was following, we may wonder.

And then there was Swami Chandikananda! If ever there was a lovable monk, that was him. He bucked conventions. Unlike almost all of the monks of the Ramakrishna Order who shave their heads and beard, this Swami sported long hair and flowing beard. He was a most jovial person - rather than allowing a reverent distance, one felt like hugging him as an uncle. When he spoke to you, effortlessly, he made you feel he had known you long. He had some kind of an association with either Burma or the Khasi Hills region, and he had acquired the title U (Burmese Mr.) which became an integral part of his name: U Swami Chandikananda. But the main identity of this Swami was that he was a lyricist and a songwriter: A true bard. His devotional songs are today heard daily during the prayer hour in the institutions of the Ramakrishna Mission. But little does a young singer of today know how lovely a man the songwriter was.



You cannot fully absorb the essence of a monk of this Order without absorbing the spirit of a place: Belur Math. (Belur = the name of the village; Math = Monastery). Just as you cannot get the full sense of Rabindranath Tagore without knowing something of Bengal. Belur Math is the traditional and formal seat of the Order. But for the monks worldwide, it is also a place of the mind � the source. The temple, a dreamy white wonder, rises majestically on the bank of the river Hoogly. It is said that in the evening when it is perfectly quiet, and all the curious visitors and soulful devotees and noisy tourists are gone - when the moon climbs high on the water, some otherworldly scene unfolds - under the canopy of a brooding sky. If there is a personified spirit that permeates these calm and limpid spaces then, it would have to be the Infinite Mother, the Divine Female whom Ramakrishna worshipped as God. I have not experienced these twilight happenings, so I cannot describe them. But I can do better.

The Swami simply loved Belur Math. Whenever he was posted to another place, he never missed a chance to visit Belur Math and spend a day, or a few days, there. He said he loved to be in company of the other monks there. But surely that was not all. It had to be the spirit of the place as well.

John Moffitt was born in 1908 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Princeton University and received training in music from the Curtis Institute of Music. Somewhere along the line he came to visit the New York branch of Ramakrishna Mission, and soon fell under the spell of (in a manner of speaking) the noted scholar Swami Nikhilananda, the founder and the head monk there. The two developed a bond. In some of his books, Swami Nikhilananda acknowledges the help he received from Moffitt, right alongside others like Joseph Campbell and Aldous Huxley. This relationship was to eventually culminate in Moffitt's becoming a full monk, name of Swami Atmaghanananda. The name means, I think, one whose bliss is to gather himself within himself. Like all other monks, Moffitt renounced his former life, but the poetry he brought with him. Swami Nikhilananda and Swami Gambhirananda were contemporaries, having joined the Order in the same year. Moffitt would come to know Swami Gambhirananda during the former�s vists to Belur Math.


John Moffitt (1908 � 1987), and friend J. D. Salinger
For a time, Swami Atmaghanananda
For a lifetime, a traveler to Emmaus?
"Old pilgrim and true friend. How much his friendship means to me."
- J. D. Salinger

(Moffit: photo Antony di Gesu; Salinger: pencil sketch by Sanchari De)

John Moffitt was another remarkable man � a traveler. After twenty-five years as a devoted monk of the Order, he heard an inner call which that would send him back to Roman Catholicism. After that, he would pay homage to the Order and to Hinduism most lovingly through his 1972 book Journey to Gorakhpur, subtitled An Encounter with Christ beyond Christianity. In it he explores the interconnectivity of the great religions of the East and Christianity, and presents a reverent picture of Sri Ramakrishna and his following. Here is what he writes in the end:

The parallels between Ramakrishna's life and that of Jesus are numerous enough to arrest attention. ... What they mean is not for me to determine. I cannot help wondering, however, whether their presence in the life of a saint who worshipped God as Mother does not strongly suggest that we are being given a lesson in how actively Christ can work outside the context of Christianity.

The book is built around the symbolism of an actual roadtrip Moffitt took from Banares to Gorakhpur in company of an Indian friend, and a couple of others. He likens this trip to the journey to Emmaus (a story from the Bible). This normally-four hour trip took eleven hours, due to some happenings along the way. The book is highly regarded among the cognoscenti, but it is also a most readable book for anyone. From that book, I give you John Moffitt in his own words:

Twenty-five years as a monastic member of an important modern Indian religious order had led me to expect to end my days a Hindu. Then in 1963 some inner necessity cut me loose from my Eastern moorings and piloted me back to the Christian sphere of influence. In becoming a Roman Catholic, however, I was not led to forget or deny the profundities of my earlier faith. After a first flush of convert zeal subsided, I realized there was a deeper kinship between Hinduism and the teachings of Jesus Christ than most Westerners had up to now perceived.

John Moffitt's Belur Math

Moffitt also wrote in this book how he loved Bengal and people and things Bengali. I came to know him through correspondence and telephone conversation. When he found out that I was related to the Swami, he accepted me as though I were a long-lost friend. He sent us a gift of one of his poetry books, inscribed to my wife and me. It is almost as though he was happy to connect in some manner to a long-ago source. But sadly, this did not last long. His life was cut short in 1987. As he lay dying, this eloquent wordsmith wrote me a postcard which started, very simply: My news is not good�

Recently I tried to find out something more about John Moffitt. One item I found on the Internet reveals something about the man, and reaffirms my own distinct sense as to how very remarkable a man he was. This matter concerns a post on a Message Board dated September 2002 about a rare book offered up for sale: An autographed first edition copy of Franny and Zooey by the great American novelist J. D. Salinger. I quote:

An extraordinary presentation copy, inscribed by the author in the month of publication, "To Swami Atmaghanananda, Old pilgrim and true friend. How much his friendship means to me. Jerry Salinger. 7/29/61." John Moffitt, Jr., known as Swami Atmaghanananda. was a novice and monk from 1932-1963, when he converted to Roman Catholicism. As a Hindu, he contributed poetry to various magazines, including The New Yorker. He corresponded with Salinger from 1953 to 1965, and the two discussed spirituality and its relationship to literature. Some spotting; very good in dust jacket. The reclusive Salinger's presentation copies are of great rarity. Of the few we have had, this one is notable for its simple and genuine statement of warmth and affection. Bookseller Inventory # 14775 Price: US$ 75000.00.

Moffitt's poems written in Belur Math not only capture what I have poorly attempted to suggest above about the spirit of the place, but also provides a rare glimpse into the private spiritual thoughts of a monk. Read here these two poems from his book The Living Seed - first a meditation on place and then a meditation on self:

(Belur Math, India)

Out of unaging earth,
Out of a dark, soft, immemorial
Womb - not the thick paddies only,
Not the slim herons, not the buffalo
And the calm milch cow,
The lifted palm and sturdy deodar;
Not the thatched hut, the naked boy
On the road's edge, the grain winnowed
And piled on the road; not the flowing
Woman, the jolly hawker, the clasped hands
Of brothers joined in artless affection,
The spare, orange-clad monk striding alone;
Not the close bazars, the cozy
Lamps dotting the twilight,
The straining coolie, the round brass pot
Poised on the peasant woman's
Head; not the soiled white saris
Stretched in the sun to dry:
Not all these only, but above and beyond
And through all these, the veiled
Shape, the infinite Mother brooding,
The much affronted, the reviled, the secretly
Serene - long-suffering and forgiving:
She, rising out of this earth,
Above and beyond them all - it is she,
Mysterious and benign,
Whose presence, as you thread the crowded lanes,
Stills you, holds you,
Cheers you like a healing wind.

(Belur Math)

Unfathomable ray,
Which in me, this wide night,
Quietly answers to the tranced quality
Of a light a clean moon throws
Over sheer domes, slow Ganges shallows,
Thick-hung mango leaves:

Say audibly for me here
In the still presence of this moon-touched air
A hidden word, dark only for simplicity,
To catch my faith's consent
And - past trees, water and white silences -
Gather me to me,

Unfathomable ray.



Today there are many monastic members of the Order from many countries. The American members I find to be of particular interest - or at least some few of them. Among the very first Americans to join the Order was a San Francisco man who went just by the single name Pelican! Later he came to be known by the single name Prashanta (one who is in a state of transcendent peace). Seen in the background of the well-known bohemian culture of San Francisco even then, this conjures up the vision of a most interesting person. But nothing is known about him as far as I can find out.

We have already visited with John Moffitt, Swami Atmaghanananda. We have seen how, even though he renounced his earlier life when he joined the Order, the literary urge he brought with him and kept alive - writing and publishing poetry. His book "The Living Seed", for example, was published while he was still a monk. But he published it under his own name. It is certain that the Order had to give him a special dispensation to do so. This is not so with the Indian monks. If they have a literary urge - and many of them indeed do - it must be directed to the cause of the Order - writing about Ramakrishna and his disciples, adherents etc et al, or about religious scriptures. Swami Gambhirananda is a very good example of a prolific wordsmith. Swami Chandikananda channeled his musical urge likewise. The pioneer, the great Swami Vivekananda, had a strong literary urge, and wrote, among other things, religious and inspirational poetry ("Kali the Mother"for example). Among the American monks today there is, for example, one Swami Tadatmananda. He brought with him the gift of fine artistry. Today he has painted the likenesses of the early leaders of the Order, as also Jesus Christ in an Eastern meditative posture, quite beautifully, and clearly, lovingly.

It is to be noted that traditionally the Ramakrishna Mission centers have attracted many famous people in literature. A monk of the Order, especially one with literary leanings, thus had easy access to them.

In this background, one person that seems to stand out uniquely is an American named John Yale, who went on to become Swami Vidyatmananda. He served out a full and diligent monastic life until his death. But the special quality of this person was an abiding tendency of being "rebellious" - if I can use the term in a purely positive and admiring sense. But to see this, we need a little more background. Incidentally, John Yale received some of his instructions in monastic life from Swami Gambhirananda.

The outward life of a monk of the Order is a life of service. This life is thus in full view. But his private life, when he retires to his sanctum, is a different matter altogether. It is cloistered, and it is held sacred. Nothing is ever known about the instruction that passes from a master to a disciple. Nothing is ever known about the inner conflicts related to the renunciation, and the practice of austerity and celibacy, and their resolution. In Arequipa in Peru, we saw a mysterious walled monastery within which female monks live in complete privacy - nothing can be seen or known. This is how the private portion of the life of the monks of the Order is.

John Yale instead viewed the private monastic life with amused fascination and hesitating enthusiasm, and wanted to tell the world about these feelings of his. A part of this was evidently his literary urge. He channeled this urge initially to the service of his Order by producing a book-length compilation of the most representative writings of Swami Vivekananda, whose complete writings are formidable in volume. This book, called "What Religion Is", carries an introduction by Christopher Isherwood, and is considered today an important sourcebook. But the same erudite John Yale then went on to publish the lighthearted book "A Yankee and the Swamis" which did not seem to go over very well, especially with Indians. But slowly it came to be accepted. Today, even the bookstores of the Order carry this book!

John Yale's irreverent book!

John Yale would leave us his lifework in a book manuscript called "The Making of a Devotee" - a biographical work with a literary flavor, always reverent, but never stiff. It is clear that the author hoped, as all authors do, that this would be a welcome contribution to literature. But it would not be published during his life. Later, his literary trustee would put the entire manuscript on the Internet - for anyone to read, for free. There it stands today. Here is poignant piece from the concluding section:

This morning before dawn, looking out across the sleeping, snowy village to the high Alps luminous in the moonglow, I asked myself: "Has my appearance on this earth been of any value; will my absence make any difference?" One takes this sort of inventory at my age. I think not. It would be to claim too much to believe that one's presence "here below" had had much effect on anyone else. Existence's principal value is for oneself; one is granted these brief stopovers in this vale of tears, in this mansion of mirth, for the personal evolutionary opportunities they afford.

Swami Vidyatmananda

Swami Vidyatmananda as Brahmachari Premachaitanya

The particular way of the American monk - if there is one - is probably understandable in familiar terms. What he brings to the Order, and makes it richer for it, is probably nothing less than the good old American spirit - magnificent in its irrepressibility. And I hasten to add that today there are also many women monks who, likewise, enrich the Order.

One day many years ago, driving aimlessly along a desolate back-road of Orange County, California, I came upon the sign for the Trabuco Canyon Monastery of the Order. The signboard said that it was outside the visiting hours. However, I drove in anyway, thinking that I would stay on the grounds and not go near the Monastery itself. As I parked, there appeared a very handsome white American man in ordinary attire, with a serene smile that I am familiar with - the glow of asceticism. This had to be a monk, I thought, even though he was in ordinary attire. Strangely though, he looked familiar! Anyway, I apologized for the intrusion and quickly proceeded to drop the name of my granduncle. Upon this, I was ushered in to the monastery and given an extensive guided tour. During the conversation I found out that this monk, Swami Tadatmananda, had once visited our student apartment in La Jolla along with another monk that we knew from India. I mentioned to him another American monk I had come to know of, John Moffitt, who in the end had left the Order. Later, as I was taking leave, Swami Tadatmananda said (referring to Moffitt's return to Jesus Christ): So what if John Moffitt left the Order. He is still a very fine man to me!

I was glad then that he, a present monk of the Order, had said that, and I am glad to be able to report this today.

A painting of Jesus Christ meditating, by Swami Tadatmananda

Swami Tadatmananda

Swami Tadatmananda passed away on 11 January 2008.
A very fine son of the American soil
A most beautiful gift to monasticism



- River, where have you come from?
- From the matted hair of Shiva.

This is an imaginary conversation fragment between a curious child and the Ganges every Bengali child learns. The Ganges is the ultimate mystical concept in the Hindu psyche. It is to the Hindu mind what the river Nile is to the Egyptian civilization. If you overfly the Nile between Aswan and Cairo, you see a most logical and yet most wondrous sight: The fertile margin. As the river threads through the desert, so do two thin strips of green that margin the river. It is a precarious strip of green that results from a competition between the Nile's life-giving water, and the scorching dryness of Sahara on one side and the Arabian desert on the other. So it is with the Hindu psyche. Within the scorching reality of a hard life, the Ganges flows deep and calm. Her green margin provides a coolness you can retreat to, the way a frightened baby might run to its mother's lap. And the source of all this is the source of the Ganges: An unknown, unknowable place of beauty, mystery and mystique - from which the benediction flows.

The fertile margin of the Nile

Mayavati, nestled in the undulating green of the Himalayas, is a most beautiful place. Beauty, solitude and silence are what make up this place. It is a monastic retreat of the Ramakrishna Order, much loved by our Swami. He was in fact an early shaper of this retreat - which then was merely a cottage. If one were looking for an actual physical spiritual place on the Earth, Mayavati would do eminently.

Oddly, here again we hear echoes of Yates. In making the retreat conform perhaps to some inner idea of transcendent peace, the Swami would tend to a garden and plant vegetable saplings in well-planned rows. He would begin there to cultivate honeybees. Now, it seemed to me not so obvious how such activities add to the quality of a hermitage. Until, that is, I connected this to the following from Yeats's "Lake Isle of Innisfree"

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

For Innisfree, read Mayavati.

It has always seemed to me that spiritual places are an inextricable complement of spiritual persons. But the places do not always need to be real, and the persons are not always identifiable as spiritual. We can think of a mindplace, and we can think of the inner life. I found the following lines from Jayanta Mahapatra's poem "Talking of Death" most evocative:

And who can remember
in the sunday marketplace of enchanted fruit
when the fragrance of freshly cooked molasses
floats on the wild laughter of youth

Sunday marketplace of enchanted fruit - beautiful! First, take a shantytown marketplace in an Orissa village that picks up everyday with sunup and winds down with sundown. It is a most prosaic place of the absolute necessities of life. But on Sunday it takes on additional, festive aspect. Families come from far villages - somewhat gaily dressed perhaps - and combine the weekly shopping with social visiting. There is a cotton candy vendor, and a man who sells flutes made from bamboo canes. Molasses are being cooked and vegetables are being fried in batter. Milked, syrupy tea. A juggler may be, and a mischievous monkey. Fruits are aplenty, and wide in variety. But enchanted fruit? With that we move to an even higher aspect: An aspect of the mind. The everyday place has now become a place of the mind - non-real but true.

So it seems that you can start with real-life bricks and mortar, build up from there, and eventually end up with something that is made up of nothing.

I never tried to find out if there had been any geographic explorations of the source of the Ganges. But some years ago I watched a travelogue on television, where a traveler named William Dalrymple trekked to the actual source point of the river high in the Himalayas. It is a calm and limpid pool inside a mountain cavern. Water trickles into it from unseen cracks and fissures in the mountain, and overflows to eventually become the mighty Ganges. It is a most serene sight to behold - and is in no way a letdown. But if any imagined beauty is all there, the mystery and the mystique are gone for me, forever. It left a void for me.

Shortly after the passing away of the Swami, I happened to be listening to a Tagore song which I must have listened to a hundred times before. But this time suddenly a word stood out for me, and gradually expanded to fill my entire consciousness. The word is Bhaktahridaya- the mind of a deeply devoted person. A beautiful coinage from the words Bhakta (Devotee) and Hridaya (mind, soul) - I thought. Years later I recalled in that context similar coinages in two songs about Rama, the god of the Hindu epic Ramayana: munimanasa (muni = a monk, manasa = mindplace) and santahridaya (santa = saint). Here is an example:

Parama gopya parama Ishta
Mantra Raama Naam
Santahridaya sadaa vasata
Eka Raama Naam

Basically, this says that the glorious name of Rama can be found seated most cozily in the mind of a monk. Now I began to see that here had existed the whole time an entire idea: The mind of a monk. Beautiful, mysterious, mystical. It is a place that has been prepared with great care and great effort to be just right to receive the gods. And then, from this place, will flow the benediction for the rest of us.

Twilight in a village in rural Bengal finds a young housewife busying herself in her courtyard with buckets and burlap, applying a fresh coat of mud to the floor and to the altar around the sacred Tulsi plant. Then she bathes and puts on the large dot of vermilion on her forehead. She dons a freshly laundered sari with a wide red margin. She puts fresh wicks in the clay oil lamps, lights them and arranges them on the altar. She kneels down and bows down in prayer. She shakes a brass bell by the handle and makes that sound which marks the auspicious hour. All this is an elaborate preparation to make things right for the gods to come down and bless her children, her husband, her dear ones. Something similar goes on with a monk. Except his ways are different: monasticism, discipline, prayer, renunciation. His beneficiaries are different: The entire world. But it is in both cases a readying of a place.

I think then that I have found my source of the Ganges - or what has taken its place.



In the Gobi desert region of China in about the time of the Ming Dynasty, there lived a most beautiful young girl with her poor father who was a musician. The girl, named Amanisahan, acquired a deep love for music and its tradition and learned everything she could from her father. One day the local king, disguised as a hunter, was passing by and saw Amanisahan. He instantly fell in love and married her. In the palace, Amanisahan devoted herself very completely to preserve a local tradition of folk music that was passed on orally, and was in danger of disappearing. Amanisahan went around and gathered all the poems and scores and accounts she could. Then she sat at her writing for hours on end everyday. She gave much of her youth to this task. Eventually, she succeeded in completing a written record of this musical tradition - for all future generations to cherish. If this sounds like a fairytale, it is. It is also true.

Princess Amanisahan portrayed in the motion picture "Amanisahan"

I have said earlier, and it is generally said, that the Swami was a scholarly monk. This is good abbreviated description - but it does not capture the full person. The Swami was a monk. Beyond that he was a scholar. Beyond that he was a preserver. These are three independent things that came together in him. The scholarship came largely through his formal studies in which he excelled. This aspect would later be evinced in his work on the scriptures. His desire to preserve tradition probably came from growing up as a child in a large extended family where religious observances in their full ritualistic form were frequent. Much as Amanisahan grew up with musical tradition, the Swami grew up with religious tradition. I recall that as children in my Grandmother's house, we used to hover round the worship room for the ritual to be finished, and the sweets that were offered to the god to be distributed among us. Thus, even for children, there was an attraction for the worship room - the ultimate symbol of tradition.

Like Amanisahan, the Swami also came to a palace, Belur Math. Like Amanisahan, he saw that much of the lore of Sri Ramakrishna, the Holy Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda existed in scattered form - a few bits here, some bits there, some just oral history. Like Amanisahan he sat about righting this. He would work at it long and hard. Not only would he compile the lore of the above three in great length, but he would go on to do the same for the apostles of Sri Ramakrishna. The love for tradition was in fact very evident in the Swami's life with his colleagues. He used always to emphasize the need for preserving heritage and tradition, even in daily life.

A beautiful young girl in the Gobi desert; a young monk on the Ganges. Worlds apart, eons apart. Both heard the same inner call only their type can hear.



There once was a sow that gave birth to a full litter, but sadly, her milk suddenly dried out completely. Nothing would restore her to health. She was in deep distress at her failure to nurture her own young. She was then brought to presence of Saint Francis. Saint Francis lovingly touched her all over her back and on her head and on her brow, and murmured words to her, and suddenly, milk came rushing through her fourteen teats - with fourteen mouths noisily suckling and snuggling and nudging under her. The Irish-American poet Galway Kinnell would explore this story thus in his poem Saint Francis and the Sow:

A bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again, from within, of self-blessing;

A fourteen-year old girl - unhappy with her treatment at the foster home she was living in - decided that the world had abandoned her. So she resolved to take her own life, and before throwing herself into the river, she came to do her last pranam to the Swami. When he heard what she was about to do, he sat her down. He told her some words. Then the girl fell prostrate and did her pranam, and the Swami touched her head in blessing. The girl was told, in words and in touch, that she was loved. She abandoned her plan and returned home, and on to a full life, we imagine. There would be other occasions similar to this.

I had an opportunity to see the Dalai Lama in person. He was giving a speech on the evening of the day his Nobel Prize for Peace was announced. He was beaming with childlike joy, and uncharacteristically, even talking about himself: How he loved taking lots of honey with his porridge in the morning, and suchlike. But you could not miss his glow of spiritual health. It is a brilliant glow that illuminates others. And his effortless smile captivates others. The Swami's was not such a glow. He was not a fair-complected person, and his health was not so sound. His was more what has been called in poetry 'a privacy of glorious light'. It drew you rather than illuminated you. The Swami did not smile that much. But a steady gaze from this man of chronically impaired vision seemed to bless others. If his eyesight was poor, his eyelight was fathomless: The light that never was on sea or land.

The Dalai Lama: The most famous face of Eastern monasticism

While on the subject of the Dalai Lama, the most familiar face of Eastern monasticism in the West, I might make a couple of other observations. The Swami and the Dalai Lama, both very grave and serious men, shared an unusual trait - an ability to occasionally find humor in their monastic pursuit. The Swami played pranks on his junior monks. They played a board game called Ludo. If they stepped out for a bit, the Swami stepped in and moved the pieces around. Another story has it that a village sadhu had seen the Swami ride a bicycle through his village several times. The unusual sight of an orange-clad monk on a bicycle disturbed him, and he worried about the propriety of this. So one day he accosted the Swami and said in Sanskrit (in the West, this would be equivalent to Latin): O Holy Man, Where is it written in the scriptures that thou mayest mount a two-wheeled mode of conveyance? The Swami did not miss a beat, and replied in Sanskrit: Where is it written that thou mayest not? The Dalai Lama once was telling an interviewer how, in the monk's childhood, other boys at the kindergarten school used to routinely beat him up, and he was helpless to do anything about it. Upon this, the interviewer said most reverently, and with great comprehension: Because you were compassionate?! The Dalai Lama replied: No, they were bigger than me.

Another unusual trait both monks shared is that both had 'unmonklike' hobbies. The Dalai Lama, it is well known, likes to tinker with the movement mechanism of wristwatches. The Swami liked to remain completely updated on sports news. He watched sportscasts on television or listened to them on the radio, and if could do neither, he asked others for an update. He also liked to read a serialized children's comic strip called Aranyadev - something like a Bengali version of Mandrake the Magician.

One important role of a senior monk in any monastic order is to be a teacher and a guide to the junior members. With the Swami this role seems to have come instinctively and intuitively. Before I relate an anecdote about the Swami, I relate the parable of the ordeal of Jiv Goswami, from the lore of the Vaishnavas, as told in a Bengali poem. Now the Vaishnavas are a sect of Hinduism who worship the Lord Vishnu especially. The main characteristic one associates with them is humbleness. The young apprentice Jiv Goswami was a fine upcoming example of a Vaishnava monk. He was beloved of his guru. He excelled in debate (it is customary in many monastic orders for the monks to debate the scriptures or spiritual questions among themselves). One day Jiv Goswami is returning from bathing in the river, through the village marketplace. There, a local pundit haughtily challenges him to a debate. Jiv's humility prevents him from rising to the challenge. He tries to walk on. But by this time people have started gathering round, and goading both on to a debate. Jiv is torn. More people gather. Finally, Jib rises to the occasion - to defend his faith. An intense debate rages for a long time, but Jiv defeats his worthy opponent squarely. Upon this, the crowd breaks out into a thunderous applause and admiringly makes way for Jiv as he tries to make a furrow through the crowd on his way back to the monastery. He is pleased. Back at the monastery, he relates the story of his triumph to his Guru. But the Guru becomes very somber, and to the great anguish of Jiv, would not even speak to him for several days. Jiv had violated the basic tenet of humbleness. The purpose of debating within the Order is self-improvement, learning, honing of logic. Winning and the vanity thereof are precisely not what this is about.

The Swami once attended a learned conference on Shankaracharya, a 9th century AD expounder of Hinduism. When the Swami was walking on the grounds there with a junior monk, an expert on Shankara sauntered over and joined them. Naturally, they talked about Shankara, and the issue came up as to who Shankara's chosen God was (Vishnu or Shiva). The expert maintained it was Vishnu. The Swami disagreed. Thus a huge debate raged for an hour, with each monk citing portions of Shankara's teachings and scriptures to bolster his own point. It was even emotionally intense. In the end, the expert had to leave to go about his business. The young monk, who had been listening to this in amazement but not quite following the intricacies, got up enough courage to ask the still-agitated Swami: So how was it settled?

The Swami turned to the junior colleague, and said in the calm voice of a teacher: It was not settled.



What is the value of monastic guidance in the practical life of the laity - especially in today's fast-paced cyberworld? This is a question that has to be considered. The early teachings of Swami Vivekananda, for example, sought to whip to action Indian youth near the end of British domination, slothful and weakened of spine. But today, by and large, the Indian youth appear to be a very fine bunch - industrious, focused, sure-footed. The old order has changed. So, monastic guidance may no longer so relevant to the entirety of a people. But it is more relevant than ever to the deepest of the deep of an individual's mind. The Swami forcefully expounded on the message of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda in his ornate public speeches ("...The world is athirst for such a message..."). But it is both interesting and significant that at some point rather late in him monastic life the Swami, a distant a reserved man, decided to take on lay disciples. Such disciples visited him privately and received guidance in life. But please do not mistake the role of monastic guidance with that of a psychologist or a psychiatrist. A spiritual inner life cannot be prescribed. It is seeded.

There is prayer poem by Tagore whose opening lines may be translated thus:

I do not pray to you (O Lord) that you save me from adversity.
Let me not fear adversity.

This is a poem about developing one's inner resources in order to be able to cope with the adversities and setbacks of the practical life. This is applicable whether one believes in a god or not. If one does not believe in a god, he develops a spiritual inner life. If one does believe in a god, then the prayer says: Don't ask your god to save you when you have fallen on hard times. Take him inside you when all is going well for you. And then never doubt him.

Now, adversities of life are present at any era, for anyone. The more the advent of the computer age makes a person technologically self-contained, the more humanly isolated he becomes. Increasingly, he is mentally less and less able to cope with a dread disease, financial setback etc. Who among us has not known a person, afflicted with a serious illness, says: Why me? Lord, why me? And the person becomes mentally weakened, impairing his body's healing abilities.

Let us also look at the other extreme of this example. I once watched a television interview with the Dalai Lama. It was a voice-over segment where the monk is seen seated opposite and below a statue of the Buddha, chanting and ringing a bell in his right hand. In the voice-over, he is telling the interviewer about the work that lay ahead of him. He ends the list by saying : and then, preparation for death. And that left me completely numb. I know of course that preparation for death is a part of the monastic life. So there was nothing unexpected in that statement. But it is the tone of voice - he said it in exactly the same vein as the other things he said he was to accomplish - just the last 'action item' in his agenda! Such is the dignity and the grace of spiritual wealth.

Very few can be like the Dalai Lama. But what we see here is that there is an entire range of mental makeup from which one can approach the world around him. Through spiritual quest and spiritual guidance, one can cultivate one's inner resources and move higher and higher in that range.

There is another aspect of the advent of the computer age that is not so obvious. Just as we try to make machines function like humans, our minds begin to become more and more like the "minds" of machines. To see this point clearly, consider one of the most important professions of today and of the 21st century: the software engineers. They are the people who make the computers do what you would like them to do. They are the interface between man and machine. What does a software engineer do? All day long, he writes a series of logical statements. He has to attend to the flow of logic, the intricacies of the logic, and the interconnectivity of logic statements. And he has to 100.00% correct. If there is the slightest flaw, his method will not work. What he is really doing here is thinking like a machine - all day, everyday. I use software engineers as a convenient example, but with time, this will spread even to the greengrocers and the farmers who will constantly work with machines. Now, if you always think like a scientist, you develop a scientific mind. If are always reading poetry, you have poetic mind. If you are always thinking like a machine...

This is the reality and we cannot step back from it. But spiritual inner life can provide a counterbalance.

I close this section on the place of spirituality in the modern technological civilization with a question. One aim of today's technological quest is to let computers take over more and more of man's work, thereby freeing up man's time. But free up for what purpose?



Throughout writing this, there has been a thought in the back of my mind that I started to explore in the previous chapter: What is the value of the life of the Swami in the modern world? The modern world, of course, is the world of science and technology. But science is the source of technology. So basically the issue here is this: What is the value of spirituality in the face of the triumphal march of science?

Now, I have been using three different concepts somewhat interchangeably: spirituality, religion, God. But spirituality is not necessarily religion. Religion is not necessarily God. And God is not necessarily a particular deity. The significant word here is "necessarily". Any connections between the three are in the mind of an individual. That said, we will continue to use the words interchangeably.

There is available an entire body of work on the subject of Science vs God. We will avoid that altogether. Simply note this. The issue concerns two parties: scientists and God. One party is absent. So the best you can do is to look to the other party. It is the scientists who are climbing a mountain and trying to see what is on the other side. You have to ask them. Not philosophers, not pundits, not pedants - but proven scientists of proven depth.

A survey of scientists on attitude towards God will elicit the whole range of response, from outright dismissal to deep faith. Apart from the quantitative details, such response is expected from any grouping of human beings: stockbrokers, left-handed people, vegetarians etc. So, not much should be made of this type of information. Nor can those who disbelieve shed any light on the subject at hand. Of interest are the scientists who do believe in God. What is the source or the basis of their faith?

Now, scientists work with a set of laws that they discovered. They understand them, and can apply them. But they do not know where these laws came from. They cannot tell you why any law - the law of gravitation for example - is the way it is. Secondly, as the scientists gain more and more understanding of nature through new discoveries, they realize that they face a limitation - a boundary that they cannot cross. They cannot, for example, understand how life arises in an aggregate of molecules to make it into a living thing - such as a cell. So they are hemmed in from both directions.

This is the general basis on which a scientist's faith in God is thought to arise: He recognizes that that there is a superior power, force, being - whatever. He surrenders to it. But this view says that religion or spirituality begins where the boundary of science ends. In modern technology parlance, it is almost as though God is a default option.

But not so with Roald Hoffmann. He writes beautiful poetry. He writes essays on nature's inherent harmony and the connectedness of things. He is a dramatist of scientific history, and an innovative educator. He is a man of infinite energy and drive, and presents unending facets of himself to the world. His deep religious faith has been annealed by a deep religious hurt - his life having been touched by the scourge of holocaust. Here is a sampling of his poetry, from a poem called Longing:

The earth births shapes
in the mind that no real

land or laboratory knew:
what a fissure might divulge,

dry rocks askew, the way
a mesa waits for first


Roald Hoffmann is also a very fine scientist - he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry at a relatively young age. He is also a very kind man, always trying to help others from his prominent station in life. His easy smile starts from his intelligent eyes, and spreads expansively. With Roald Hoffmann, science and everything else start from his abiding faith.

Roald Hoffmann: Scientist-Poet

And this is the view that I prefer. Spirituality stirs at the deepest roots of science; it is the beginning of scientific knowledge and wisdom. I will illustrate this also with reference to my teacher. In the end, you will see that my Granduncle, a monk of the East, and my teacher, a scientist of the West, were at some core level much alike.

Swedish physicist Hannes Alfvén (1909 - 1995) was recognized for his discoveries by the award to him of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1970. But even among physicists he was a class by himself. His thinking was more intuitive than deductive. Most scientists arrive at new results as the end product of a long process of reasoning, calculation, experimentation etc. Alfvén instead arrived at the result first, based on how he felt things should work. Later application of the rigorous scientific process to his result would prove him to be correct. Whether he intuited, divined, felt in his gut - we do not know. But time and again he proposed new scientific ideas that appeared improbable. Time and again he was right. But all this is only one part of him. He was a scientific visionary. In his book The Tale of the Big Computer: A Vision (written under the pseudonym Olof Johannesson), published in 1966 when people used rotary dial telephones and computers used electronic tubes and punch cards, he laid out very completely what today's world of technology would be like - down to the details of cell phones that perform a wide variety of communication functions. He was engaged in issues of human condition: He fought to abolish nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. He was engaged in the effort to control human population. For a time, he led the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs - a world thinkers' forum. To call Alfvén a Rennaisance man would be to not capture who he was: A deeply humane, deeply introspective individual with extraordinary mental capacity, depth and breadth.

Hannes Alfvén (1909 -1995): A pensive savant

The point of all this is a simple one: If one wanted a view on the issue of Science vs God from a modern scientific mind, there is no finer example. In the concluding paragraph of his book Atom, Man and Universe: A long chain of complications, here is what he wrote:

Before the advent of natural science, religion made a unified world-view possible. Now modern scientific thought has precluded this possibility. As long as it is believed that the soul belongs to God and that it obeys his laws, while the body and other parts of the natural world obey the natural laws, a dualism, a tragic conflict, is inescapable. Man comes into conflict with nature by asserting that he is a god� Only if he abandons this arrogant attitude can man achieve the harmony, the unity with all else that exists, which is the goal of every world-view.

What I understand him to say is that scientific wisdom is a shoot from the spiritual tuber, and one should not think of the shoot as a self-sufficient entity. Thus it is that deep wisdom and tangible knowledge grown out of the womb of spirituality are the penultimate gift a man might seek: The silver apples of the moon. The ultimate gift we will come to in the next chapter.

I never knew Alfvén to be demonstrably religious - in the conventional sense. Yet he was deeply learned in the history of Western religions and theology. He had studied Latin, and would often use Latin expressions in his scientific writing. It is almost as though religious thinking was intertwined with his scientific thinking. He even found humor there. In the context of scientists noisily promoting not-so-good ideas, he liked to tell this story about a country pastor. The pastor had made copious notes to himself on the margin of his Bible, to aid him in his oration. Frequently, he wrote against a verse: This is a weak argument. Shout at the top of your voice.

Alfvén had read a translation of the Bhagavad Gita. One day he told me with a twinkle in his eyes: The most famous scripture in your religion is all about war and violence! Another day he asked me how familiar I was with Buddhism. When I told him that I did not know much beyond the story of Siddhartha Gautama, he showed me a book he was reading, What the Buddha taught (by Walpola Rahula).

One evening there was a gathering in his home in La Jolla, California. My wife and I had just returned from Kolkata, and had brought for him a token gift - a small brass statue of the seated Buddha purchased in New Market. When he opened the package and saw what the gift was, his face suddenly glowed. He pulled us aside and said, as if to express how unexpectedly appropriate the gift was to him: Let me show you something. Then he took us into his bedroom, and pointed to what he wanted us to see. There, on a nightstand by his bed, was a large statue of the Buddha.

So, in the most intimate place of the innermost sanctum of the private life a most enlightened Western scientific mind, what do find?

The smile of the Buddha.



Spirituality is also transcendent beauty. In the last analysis, that may be exactly what it is. Have you considered the sad beauty of a spare orange-clad monk striding alone? The solitude and the silence of a monastery perched precariously on, and carved out of, a mountain slope? The tangible peace in a Japanese garden? If you think about it, what is the deep stirring of hymns and devotional songs in any religion? It is beauty. It is poetry. It is music. Singing the praise of Rama - intoxicating poetry. The Hindu scriptures, the Bible, the Qur'an - they are all beautiful poetry. They are the original poetry. We Hindus know about poetry in the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedic chants. But there is just as much beauty in Latin prayers in Christianity, for example. Sit down sometime and listen to the chant of the Benedictine monks. Listen to Ave Maria and take in the sense as well. Listen to the part Santa Maria ora pro nobis ... pray for us at the hour of our death.

If spiritual awakening is in the end transcendent beauty, then it can be approached in many ways - not necessarily only through religious devotion. It could be achieved by an arctic explorer or an everyday man.

The great Indian mathematical physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, recognized by the Nobel Prize, was a man whose mind delved some of the deepest levels of scientific ideation. If we are to look to anyone for intimations of such worlds alien to us, he is as good a person as any. In a speech late in his life, he distilled the essence of his long career by quoting from Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"--that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910 - 1995)
The distilled essence of a glorious scientific life: "Beauty is truth"

The transcendent spiritual beauty, however, is not accessible to the excessively logical or doubting mind. It is necessary for people whose minds are so formed from training and profession to shut this mind off temporarily, and take in the sheer joy as it comes. The chant of the glory of Rama we spoke of earlier begins by saying: Extinguish your (questioning) mind with pure love, and then sing on the name of Rama:

Prema mudita manase kaho
Raama Raama Raam
Shree Raama Raama Raam

It is little wonder then that the Swami was drawn to music and poetry. He sang himself, and he recited poetry in his speeches. Once he even tried to learn to play the tabla - the Indian twin drums. Note in passing here that Swami entered the Order at the age of twenty-four. He did not get to enjoy many of the innocent pleasures one experiments with in unrestrained youth. So his trying to learn the tabla (unsuccessfully, it seems) was probably something in that category.

In my mind, no one has made a more beautiful presentation of the Eastern spirituality, mysticism and asceticism than the poet Rabindranath Tagore - a favorite of the Swami. Tagore's many poems exploring Buddhism are a fine example of my point. In one poem called Abhisar (Lovers' Tryst), the young and beautiful courtesan Basabadatta expresses a transcendent love for the young and handsome monk Upagupta. The monk does not respond immediately, but later reciprocates with an act of selfless compassion.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 - 1941): To Bengalis, just Rabi Thakur
(Pencil sketch by Basab De)

The Bengali poet Jibanananda Dash (remember the poet born the same year as the Swami?) was definitely a traveler - as he would say himself in his best-known poem Banalata Sen. Yet, even as he traveled he sent his roots deep down to the fertile silty soil of Bengal and he spread his leaves into the darkness of history - Assyria, Tyre, Babylon... Between these parentheses, he roamed freely. Nowhere has the heart of rural Bengal throbbed so sonorously as in Dash's poems. Unlike Tagore, he used most effectively a non-rhyming scheme - as if to say that such inherent beauty does not need the added sweetness of a rhyming scheme (and he would prove this). Dhansiri the essential river, Kalidaha the mysterious black lagoon, the musty smell of land - such were the ingredients of his poems. And always and everywhere through his poetryscape and across his poetryscape is flying a sad, lone bird (Alas O bird...). Before long we realize that Dash has tricked us. This is not about poetry after all. He is taking us on a magnificent spiritual journey. Dash did not write much; what he wrote was plenty.

Jibanananda Dash (1899 - 1954): Roots in Bengal, leaves in History

Unfortunately for my purpose here, as I said before, the true beauty of Tagore and Dash is accessible only by Bengalis. I have seen many acclaimed translations of their poems, but the music does not come through for me in translation. So how can I convey that beauty - the beauty over which the Swami's mind hovered - to the non-Bengalis? I will try to give an example of forming of the idea of transcendent beauty, and through it spiritual awakening, start from where one is. If the following effort captures your imagination, you will begin to see my points about the Bengali poets and about the extinguished mind.

The landscape and the people of Orissa are much like those of Bengal. Is it any wonder then that Orissa would produce her own poets of the land whose minds try to see round the bend of the Mahanadi? Among them, Jayanta Mahapatra. An advantage here, for our present purpose, is that Mahapatra has chosen to write originally in the English language, thus obviating the need of translating things that do not translate.

Jibanananda Dash said once: Not everyone is a poet - a few are. I know Jayanta Mahapatra through correspondence. What is not known generally about Mahapatra is that he is a physicist. He was a professor of physics at the famed Ravenshaw College in Cuttack. His mind is thus trained to be logical, reasoning, questioning. At some point, just like the Swami left his cozy conventional life behind, Mahapatra turned fully to poetry. What is important to note is that he is not someone who writes poetry, but one who is a poet with every bit of his being. The way Swami was a monk with every bit of his being: He did not just color his robe saffron, but he also colored his mind saffron.

Photo Jan Kemp

Jayanta Mahapatra
He loves his neighborhood "Sunday marketplace of enchanted fruit"

So we now follow one of Jayanta Mahapatra's poems - in my opinion his best of what I have read - where he describes the Dance of Fireflies. Here, first, he takes a tentative step out of his structured mind ('the city-world'):

of the first June rain.
From the isolated glow
of a log cabin in the thick Similpal forests,
the monsoon evening becomes an abyss
that swallows the city-world one left the day before.

And then the transformation:

Far and deep into the hills
some ancient tapestry takes shape, as countless gems
of fire begin swaying to a strange rhythm
against the forest's sensuous arc.
Everywhere swarms of fireflies
rise into the air and fall, wave after wave,
their lights trembling to sinuous forms,
in resonance with that unity of being
nature only knows how to brace.

Finally, the complete surrender and the spiritual awakening:

This earth around us, this dance to death,
is a touchstone,
a weapon one must learn to use.
And something touches the silence of deep roots.
I draw away, like a June rain,
no more eager for answers.
Just pure fires
keep on breathing from our open eyes.



Starting with the Swami's journey, we digressed to meet a variety of travelers in a variety of circumstances of life and in a variety of pursuits. Nothing much ties them together. But in fact we have come full circle. All these journeys are also the Swami's journey - in the end these journeys are all one and the same.

In the middle of an endless, stormy ocean is a solid granite island. From all directions, vessels of all description are trying to converge on this island: Large ships, boats, yachts, sailboats, catamarans, kayaks, sampans, canoes, dinghies. Even swimmers. As far as you can see, they are there trying to reach the island. Whether or not they actually reach it is not so important. What is important is what all these very diverse travelers have in common: Their heading. These journeys are not parallel, but convergent. There is no lighthouse on the island. And the sailors far out cannot even see the island. But they can watch one another and continually adjust their direction. In the end they will all be all right.

But as the travelers approach the island, things naturally become crowded. But they do not fight, or quarrel or contend. Instead, they begin to merge into one another. The distinction between the journeys begins to disappear. When they are at the island, all journeys are the same, because they have produced the same result.

Sailing to Byzantium: What awaits?

What is this island? We do not know it, but we can call it Byzantium. What is Byzantium? We do not know, but generally speaking, it is something of permanent value amid the impermanence of human existence. And that is why our travelers are trying to get there. As Yeats would himself say:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

The Buddha was a very clever man. He always avoided any issue to do with God. He encouraged people to use their own questioning mind to assess guidance from holy men. He saw early on that the ultimate lighthouse should not be fixed to be a deity, but that it would be best left undefined and even unlit. Let each person define it for himself or herself, light it and then follow it to his or her own satisfaction. That was the way to be the most encompassing. This need not exclude anyone or anything. Basically, the Buddha was saying: There are no gates, no tolls and no guards on the way to Byzantium. Not even those whom we might call non-believers are excluded.

And with that I come to the last of my travelers in this exposition. I have always had in mind to take all the diverse individuals, and parenthesize them somehow. Ensconce them safely from being buffeted by any storms raging on the ocean. Arrange them as in alpha to omega, or omega to alpha. There is no identifiable range or hierarchy in the ways in which one fashions one's inner life. Still and all, I wanted to take at one limit the Swami with his life deeply rooted in his implicit religious faith, and place at the other limit someone quite the antithesis - and thus somehow achieve the final synthesis.

There can be hardly anyone today with some general interest in science, who has not heard of Sir Francis Harry Compton Crick. He was the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule. With that, he essentially opened for us the Book of Life. He also was a proclaimed atheist. It appears that this belief predates his scientific life. But his later discovery of a grand secret of life would certainly have brought him closer to questioning God. Yet, just to say that he was an atheist and stop there would be to scale a mountain and not look to see what lies beyond. Crick spent an entire professional lifetime trying to scientifically gain such knowledge as we ascribe to a Divine Being: The origin of life, the origin of consciousness, the meaning of dreams. In this, he was on a unique journey of his own. It seems to me almost as though, upon unsealing for us the Book of Life, he wanted to boldly write in it.

Francis Crick (1916 - 2004)
He unsealed the Book of Life. Then he wanted to write in it.

Crick�s co-discover (of the structure of DNA), James D. Watson, wrote on the occasion of Crick's passing away:

From early adolescence, Crick had no truck with truths arrived at by religious revelation as opposed to observation and experimentation. Upon learning that Cambridge University's science-dominated new college was planning to build a Christian chapel, he resigned from the rank of his Fellows. "Perpetuating mistakes from the past" was not Crick's way to move forward.

TIME Magazine, August 9, 2004

So, is Crick not a most unlikely subject of this tribute? Actually, he is a most appropriate honoree here. He helps us gain a greater understanding of Byzantium. If you knew Crick personally, then you would know that none of the perceived arrogance of science was actually there in the man. He was a deeply curious individual, and remained a lifelong student. He knew that there were things he needed to know, and he made an effort to know. He valued his friends, and valued the gift of life. If he was defiant of God, he clearly was joyous for the wonderful bliss that his own life was.

Years ago, one afternoon my wife and I arrived at a site of Inca ruins in Peru. There was nobody there. As we made our way up the ancient stairs, suddenly we saw - there in desolate ruins of Peru - a young man from India! It turned out that he was traveling the world on a bicycle. Coming to the ruins for him was incidental. The bicycle trip was the thing. The road was the destination.

And thence this idea: It is all these journeys that make Byzantium real! No travelers, no Byzantium. This is why Crick's journey is also a Journey to Byazantium. Hundres and thousands and millions of travelers wishing that Byzantium be a real place make it real. It is the pilgrims who make the temple real. That is exactly what Uncle Bijan had said a long time ago. He had known Byzantium.

Is there a deity there in Byzantium? Do not worry about it, the Buddha has said.

Just as journeys that have a common heading are convergent, those that do not have a common heading are divergent. They do not go anywhere - there is no conclusion. So then, all the diverse travelers we have met on these pages are looking for this one thing: A conclusion. A solid period at the end of a strong sentence. Byzantium.

Every person is born with two candles inside him or her: curiosity and imagination. If someone lights these candles - parents, teachers, other inspirers - then this person grows up to be a creative individual: a scientist, a poet, a sculptor etc. The travelers are born with a third candle beyond, which they light themselves. What this is I do not know. Only they know. But when it is lit, I imagine, there is within them flickering an original light: Firelight.



Firelight to a Hindu is a primal consciousness. If sunshine is life-giving, if moonlight delights, if fireflies are an enchantment, firelight is the impermanence of it all. It flickers, it changes, it casts eerie shadows. It illuminates even as it darkens. From the solemn glow of the fire sacrifice to the rows of festive oil-wick lamps to the multi-wicked arati (invocation) lamp and onto the somber flames of the funeral pyre - firelight is the abiding theme.


By firelight torn bonds are made whole.

My own memory of the Swami is a collection of brief visits I made upon him at various austere monastic retreats. For as long as I can remember, he had achieved a place of responsibility in the Order that made him not so readily accessible for private visits without making advance appointment, which we were too provincial to do. However, people from our family could go and explain who they are, and readily gain access. When, as a boy, I visited him with my Grandmother, I always felt that there was - at some level - a sense of unease in the atmosphere. The monks of this Order renounce their earlier family ties altogether in favor of a life of celibacy, poverty, devotion and service. The family considers this renunciation a most heart-rending step, but eventually comes to terms with it. So for us to appear there, for my Grandmother to announce "I am his Didi" seemed to me to breach some tacit agreement of a long time ago. But the Swami was always welcoming.

During these visits, there really was not that much conversation. The Swami characteristically was a man of few words. He asked after various people (How is she? What is he doing now?... etc). Then it seemed that the brother and the sister were content to sit in silence - the world-weary elder sister with her head lowered in respect, the younger brother erect within his ascetic glow. No doubt memories crowded in each mind. But it seemed as though both were absorbing a companionable silence. I will always remember this as a moment of great sadness and great dignity. There was a pure bliss in the air, that time.

By firelight death becomes life.

It reveals the impermanence of things as they appear, and then it illuminates the greater meaning. It is also an idea that resonates in the universal mind, as with our guiding poet who sailed to Byzantium:

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Sushamabala's later life - for various reasons - was not happy. But she carried herself with natural equanimity and grace, never blaming or burdening others. An ability to be amused at simple things helped her cope. When she died in Shilliong (she preceded her brother), my brother Bidyut was the only person in attendance. He speaks in his own way of an unearthly calm on her face. At the end she raised her palm in blessing to him, and then, using the same hand she signaled with her index finger for him to open a window. Directly my brother opened it, she was gone. Sometimes when I hear a thunder clap, I think of her.

Exactly a year before the Swami's death, he told someone that he had a year to live. During this period, he became quieter than usual, and inward-drawn. Sometimes he would sing his favorite devotional songs. He was in "preparation for death". And yet, he became unusually giving of his time to all and sundry - considering his position of high responsibility. Previously a tough taskmaster when it came to the discharge of the work of the Order, he became soft. He carried a full work schedule up until the very last day, even traveling. It is as though he had realized that his physical existence was coming to an end, and he had to make the most of what remained. He had shared the earth with the great disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. He had stood with them. He broke bread with them. He had a special responsibility. I think of Tennyson's Ulysses who, reflecting on his old age after a magnificent life of high adventure on far seas, abreast with great heroes and mighty gods, says:

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

One December evening, as life went on as it does under the clamorous, splay sounds of Kolkata streets, and lovers held hands along darkened lanes wherever they could steal a little privacy - amid this amorphous, throbbing mass of humanity, two invisible hands reached down and scooped up the youngest child of the sculptress of gods, and gathered him into the artifice of eternity.

In one of my poems, I borrowed from a Shanti Mantra - a chanting of peace in Sanskrit:

Peace, befall the ether.
Peace, befall the earth.
Peace, befall the waters.
Peace, befall the great trees.
Peace, befall your own peace.

I think of the Swami's last moments and feel a sadness that not anyone of his flesh and blood was near him. No one even knew that he was departing. Nothing from his long-ago roots reached out and placed a hand on the forehead of this long-wandering son. No one told him at least one last time, in words and in touch, that he was loved. But of course this is how it is. The Swami was lovingly surrounded by the monks: the sangha in which he had taken refuge. That was his family.

Swami Gambhirananda
An official photograph of the Swami during his presidency of Ramakrishna Mission/Vedanta Society
This framed picture is cherished in the homes of the Swami's disciples, devotees and admirers today

In Africa there is a customary Goodbye: Be safe, go well. People who viewed the Swami in his final sleep in Belur Math, surrounded by countless grieving monks, spoke of a prashanti on his face - a calm that surpasses understanding. Many tens of thousands of people crowded the streets to pay their last respects - many of them probably never saw him in life. They came to be a part of a momentous event - the departing of a great soul, and the attendant benediction that was there in the air. In the astral place of fire sacrifice, a cupful of oblation was poured.

Then, when the day was done, there was firelight: The pyre was lit. Firelight on the holy Ganges and moonlight on the temple dome. This was the same river landing where the poet-monk John Moffitt sat another evening, the same moonlight that caught the temple dome that time and the same hour when he prayed:

Gather me to me,
Unfathomable ray.

Little more needs to be said when we remember the Swami's own words:

There is no death for a knower of God.


. .

Charan rekha: Foot markings by Sanchari De


Other FreeBooks by Bibhas De:

New and selected poems


Posted 15 June 2004