"Faith in God can produce any miracle except onepassing an examination without study." Distastefully I closed the book I had picked up in an idle moment.
"The writer's exception shows his complete lack of faith," I thought. "Poor chap, he has great respect for the midnight oil!"
My promise to Father had been that I would complete my high school studies. I cannot pretend to diligence. The passing months found me less frequently in the classroom than in secluded spots along the Calcutta bathing ghats. The adjoining crematory grounds, especially gruesome at night, are considered highly attractive by the yogi. He who would find the Deathless Essence must not be dismayed by a few unadorned skulls. Human inadequacy becomes clear in the gloomy abode of miscellaneous bones. My midnight vigils were thus of a different nature from the scholar's.
The week of final examinations at the Hindu High School was fast approaching. This interrogatory period, like the sepulchral haunts, inspires a well-known terror. My mind was nevertheless at peace. Braving the ghouls, I was exhuming a knowledge not found in lecture halls. But it lacked the art of Swami Pranabananda, who easily appeared in two places at one time. My educational dilemma was plainly a matter for the Infinite Ingenuity. This was my reasoning, though to many it seems illogic. The devotee's irrationality springs from a thousand inexplicable demonstrations of God's instancy in trouble.
"Hello, Mukunda! I catch hardly a glimpse of you these days!" A classmate accosted me one afternoon on Gurpar Road.
"Hello, Nantu! My invisibility at school has actually placed me there in a decidedly awkward position." I unburdened myself under his friendly gaze.
Nantu, who was a brilliant student, laughed heartily; my predicament was not without a comic aspect.
"You are utterly unprepared for the finals! I suppose it is up to me to help you!"
The simple words conveyed divine promise to my ears; with alacrity I visited my friend's home. He kindly outlined the solutions to various problems he considered likely to be set by the instructors.
"These questions are the bait which will catch many trusting boys in the examination trap. Remember my answers, and you will escape without injury."
The night was far gone when I departed. Bursting with unseasoned erudition, I devoutly prayed it would remain for the next few critical days. Nantu had coached me in my various subjects but, under press of time, had forgotten my course in Sanskrit. Fervently I reminded God of the oversight.
I set out on a short walk the next morning, assimilating my new knowledge to the rhythm of swinging footsteps. As I took a short cut through the weeds of a corner lot, my eye fell on a few loose printed sheets. A triumphant pounce proved them to be Sanskrit verse. I sought out a pundit for aid in my stumbling interpretation. His rich voice filled the air with the edgeless, honeyed beauty of the ancient tongue.1
"These exceptional stanzas cannot possibly be of aid in your Sanskrit test." The scholar dismissed them skeptically.
But familiarity with that particular poem enabled me on the following day to pass the Sanskrit examination. Through the discerning help Nantu had given, I also attained the minimum grade for success in all my other subjects.
Father was pleased that I had kept my word and concluded my secondary school course. My gratitude sped to the Lord, whose sole guidance I perceived in my visit to Nantu and my walk by the unhabitual route of the debris-filled lot. Playfully He had given a dual expression to His timely design for my rescue.
I came across the discarded book whose author had denied God precedence in the examination halls. I could not restrain a chuckle at my own silent comment:
In my new dignity, I was now openly planning to leave home. Together with a young friend, Jitendra Mazumdar, 2 I decided to join a Mahamandal hermitage in Benares, and receive its spiritual discipline.
A desolation fell over me one morning at thought of separation from my family. Since Mother's death, my affection had grown especially tender for my two younger brothers, Sananda and Bishnu. I rushed to my retreat, the little attic which had witnessed so many scenes in my turbulent sadhana.3 After a two-hour flood of tears, I felt singularly transformed, as by some alchemical cleanser. All attachment4 disappeared; my resolution to seek God as the Friend of friends set like granite within me. I quickly completed my travel preparations.
"I make one last plea." Father was distressed as I stood before him for final blessing. "Do not forsake me and your grieving brothers and sisters."
"Revered Father, how can I tell my love for you! But even greater is my love for the Heavenly Father, who has given me the gift of a perfect father on earth. Let me go, that I someday return with a more divine understanding."
With reluctant parental consent, I set out to join Jitendra, already in Benares at the hermitage. On my arrival the young head swami, Dyananda, greeted me cordially. Tall and thin, of thoughtful mien, he impressed me favorably. His fair face had a Buddhalike composure.
I was pleased that my new home possessed an attic, where I managed to spend the dawn and morning hours. The ashram members, knowing little of meditation practices, thought I should employ my whole time in organizational duties. They gave me praise for my afternoon work in their office.
"Swamiji,5 I don't understand what is required of me here. I am seeking direct perception of God. Without Him, I cannot be satisfied with affiliation or creed or performance of good works."
The orange-robed ecclesiastic gave me an affectionate pat. Staging a mock rebuke, he admonished a few near-by disciples. "Don't bother Mukunda. He will learn our ways."
I politely concealed my doubt. The students left the room, not overly bent with their chastisement. Dyananda had further words for me.
"Mukunda, I see your father is regularly sending you money. Please return it to him; you require none here. A second injunction for your discipline concerns food. Even when you feel hunger, don't mention it."
Whether famishment gleamed in my eye, I knew not. That I was hungry, I knew only too well. The invariable hour for the first hermitage meal was twelve noon. I had been accustomed in my own home to a large breakfast at nine o'clock.
The three-hour gap became daily more interminable. Gone were the Calcutta years when I could rebuke the cook for a ten-minute delay. Now I tried to control my appetite; one day I undertook a twenty-four hour fast. With double zest I awaited the following midday.
"Dyanandaji's train is late; we are not going to eat until he arrives." Jitendra brought me this devastating news. As gesture of welcome to the swami, who had been absent for two weeks, many delicacies were in readiness. An appetizing aroma filled the air. Nothing else offering, what else could be swallowed except pride over yesterday's achievement of a fast?
"Lord hasten the train!" The Heavenly Provider, I thought, was hardly included in the interdiction with which Dyananda had silenced me. Divine Attention was elsewhere, however; the plodding clock covered the hours. Darkness was descending as our leader entered the door. My greeting was one of unfeigned joy.
"Dyanandaji will bathe and meditate before we can serve food." Jitendra approached me again as a bird of ill omen.
I was in near-collapse. My young stomach, new to deprivation, protested with gnawing vigor. Pictures I had seen of famine victims passed wraithlike before me.
"The next Benares death from starvation is due at once in this hermitage," I thought. Impending doom averted at nine o'clock. Ambrosial summons! In memory that meal is vivid as one of life's perfect hours.
Intense absorption yet permitted me to observe that Dyananda ate absent-mindedly. He was apparently above my gross pleasures.
"Swamiji, weren't you hungry?" Happily surfeited, I was alone with the leader in his study.
"O yes! I have spent the last four days without food or drink. I never eat on trains, filled with the heterogenous vibrations of worldly people. Strictly I observe the shastric6 rules for monks of my particular order.
"Certain problems of our organizational work lie on my mind. Tonight at home I neglected my dinner. What's the hurry? Tomorrow I'll make it a point to have a proper meal." He laughed merrily.
Shame spread within me like a suffocation. But the past day of my torture was not easily forgotten; I ventured a further remark.
"Swamiji, I am puzzled. Following your instruction, suppose I never asked for food, and nobody gives me any. I should starve to death."
"Die then!" This alarming counsel split the air. "Die if you must Mukunda! Never admit that you live by the power of food and not by the power of God! He who has created every form of nourishment, He who has bestowed appetite, will certainly see that His devotee is sustained! Do not imagine that rice maintains you, or that money or men support you! Could they aid if the Lord withdraws your life-breath? They are His indirect instruments merely. Is it by any skill of yours that food digests in your stomach? Use the sword of your discrimination, Mukunda! Cut through the chains of agency and perceive the Single Cause!"
I found his incisive words entering some deep marrow. Gone was an age-old delusion by which bodily imperatives outwit the soul. There and then I tasted the Spirit's all-sufficiency. In how many strange cities, in my later life of ceaseless travel, did occasion arise to prove the serviceability of this lesson in a Benares hermitage!
The sole treasure which had accompanied me from Calcutta was the sadhu's silver amulet bequeathed to me by Mother. Guarding it for years, I now had it carefully hidden in my ashram room. To renew my joy in the talismanic testimony, one morning I opened the locked box. The sealed covering untouched, lo! the amulet was gone. Mournfully I tore open its envelope and made unmistakably sure. It had vanished, in accordance with the sadhu's prediction, into the ether whence he had summoned it.
My relationship with Dyananda's followers grew steadily worse. The household was alienated, hurt by my determined aloofness. My strict adherence to meditation on the very Ideal for which I had left home and all worldly ambitions called forth shallow criticism on all sides.
Torn by spiritual anguish, I entered the attic one dawn, resolved to pray until answer was vouchsafed.
"Merciful Mother of the Universe, teach me Thyself through visions, or through a guru sent by Thee!"
The passing hours found my sobbing pleas without response. Suddenly I felt lifted as though bodily to a sphere uncircumscribed.
"Thy Master cometh today!" A divine womanly voice came from everywhere and nowhere.
This supernal experience was pierced by a shout from a definite locale. A young priest nicknamed Habu was calling me from the downstairs kitchen.
"Mukunda, enough of meditation! You are needed for an errand."
Another day I might have replied impatiently; now I wiped my tear-swollen face and meekly obeyed the summons. Together Habu and I set out for a distant market place in the Bengali section of Benares. The ungentle Indian sun was not yet at zenith as we made our purchases in the bazaars. We pushed our way through the colorful medley of housewives, guides, priests, simply-clad widows, dignified Brahmins, and the ubiquitous holy bulls. Passing an inconspicuous lane, I turned my head and surveyed the narrow length.
A Christlike man in the ocher robes of a swami stood motionless at the end of the road. Instantly and anciently familiar he seemed; my gaze fed hungrily for a trice. Then doubt assailed me.
"You are confusing this wandering monk with someone known to you," I thought. "Dreamer, walk on."
After ten minutes, I felt heavy numbness in my feet. As though turned to stone, they were unable to carry me farther. Laboriously I turned around; my feet regained normalcy. I faced the opposite direction; again the curious weight oppressed me.
"The saint is magnetically drawing me to him!" With this thought, I heaped my parcels into the arms of Habu. He had been observing my erratic footwork with amazement, and now burst into laughter.
"What ails you? Are you crazy?"
My tumultuous emotion prevented any retort; I sped silently away.
"Gurudeva!"7 The divine face was none other than he of my thousand visions. These halcyon eyes, in leonine head with pointed beard and flowing locks, had oft peered through gloom of my nocturnal reveries, holding a promise I had not fully understood.
"O my own, you have come to me!" My guru uttered the words again and again in Bengali, his voice tremulous with joy. "How many years I have waited for you!"
We entered a oneness of silence; words seemed the rankest superfluities. Eloquence flowed in soundless chant from heart of master to disciple. With an antenna of irrefragable insight I sensed that my guru knew God, and would lead me to Him. The obscuration of this life disappeared in a fragile dawn of prenatal memories. Dramatic time! Past, present, and future are its cycling scenes. This was not the first sun to find me at these holy feet!
My hand in his, my guru led me to his temporary residence in the Rana Mahal section of the city. His athletic figure moved with firm tread. Tall, erect, about fifty-five at this time, he was active and vigorous as a young man. His dark eyes were large, beautiful with plumbless wisdom. Slightly curly hair softened a face of striking power. Strength mingled subtly with gentleness.
As we made our way to the stone balcony of a house overlooking the Ganges, he said affectionately:
"I will give you my hermitages and all I possess."
"Sir, I come for wisdom and God-contact. Those are your treasure-troves I am after!"
The swift Indian twilight had dropped its half-curtain before my master spoke again. His eyes held unfathomable tenderness.
"I give you my unconditional love."
Precious words! A quarter-century elapsed before I had another auricular proof of his love. His lips were strange to ardor; silence became his oceanic heart.
"Will you give me the same unconditional love?" He gazed at me with childlike trust.
"I will love you eternally, Gurudeva!"
"Ordinary love is selfish, darkly rooted in desires and satisfactions. Divine love is without condition, without boundary, without change. The flux of the human heart is gone forever at the transfixing touch of pure love." He added humbly, "If ever you find me falling from a state of God-realization, please promise to put my head on your lap and help to bring me back to the Cosmic Beloved we both worship."
He rose then in the gathering darkness and guided me to an inner room. As we ate mangoes and almond sweetmeats, he unobtrusively wove into his conversation an intimate knowledge of my nature. I was awe-struck at the grandeur of his wisdom, exquisitely blended with an innate humility.
"Do not grieve for your amulet. It has served its purpose." Like a divine mirror, my guru apparently had caught a reflection of my whole life.
"The living reality of your presence, Master, is joy beyond any symbol."
"It is time for a change, inasmuch as you are unhappily situated in the hermitage."
I had made no references to my life; they now seemed superfluous! By his natural, unemphatic manner, I understood that he wished no astonished ejaculations at his clairvoyance.
"You should go back to Calcutta. Why exclude relatives from your love of humanity?"
His suggestion dismayed me. My family was predicting my return, though I had been unresponsive to many pleas by letter. "Let the young bird fly in the metaphysical skies," Ananta had remarked. "His wings will tire in the heavy atmosphere. We shall yet see him swoop toward home, fold his pinions, and humbly rest in our family nest." This discouraging simile fresh in my mind, I was determined to do no "swooping" in the direction of Calcutta.
"Sir, I am not returning home. But I will follow you anywhere. Please give me your address, and your name."
"Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri. My chief hermitage is in Serampore, on Rai Ghat Lane. I am visiting my mother here for only a few days."
I wondered at God's intricate play with His devotees. Serampore is but twelve miles from Calcutta, yet in those regions I had never caught a glimpse of my guru. We had had to travel for our meeting to the ancient city of Kasi (Benares), hallowed by memories of Lahiri Mahasaya. Here too the feet of Buddha, Shankaracharya and other Yogi-Christs had blessed the soil.
"You will come to me in four weeks." For the first time, Sri Yukteswar's voice was stern. "Now I have told my eternal affection, and have shown my happiness at finding youthat is why you disregard my request. The next time we meet, you will have to reawaken my interest: I won't accept you as a disciple easily. There must be complete surrender by obedience to my strict training."
I remained obstinately silent. My guru easily penetrated my difficulty.
"Do you think your relatives will laugh at you?"
"I will not return."
"You will return in thirty days."
"Never." Bowing reverently at his feet, I departed without lightening the controversial tension. As I made my way in the midnight darkness, I wondered why the miraculous meeting had ended on an inharmonious note. The dual scales of maya, that balance every joy with a grief! My young heart was not yet malleable to the transforming fingers of my guru.
The next morning I noticed increased hostility in the attitude of the hermitage members. My days became spiked with invariable rudeness. In three weeks, Dyananda left the ashram to attend a conference in Bombay; pandemonium broke over my hapless head.
"Mukunda is a parasite, accepting hermitage hospitality without making proper return." Overhearing this remark, I regretted for the first time that I had obeyed the request to send back my money to Father. With heavy heart, I sought out my sole friend, Jitendra.
"I am leaving. Please convey my respectful regrets to Dyanandaji when he returns."
"I will leave also! My attempts to meditate here meet with no more favor than your own." Jitendra spoke with determination.
"I have met a Christlike saint. Let us visit him in Serampore."
And so the "bird" prepared to "swoop" perilously close to Calcutta!
2: He was not Jatinda (Jotin Ghosh), who will be remembered for his timely aversion to tigers!
3: Path or preliminary road to God.
4: Hindu scriptures teach that family attachment is delusive if it prevents the devotee from seeking the Giver of all boons, including the one of loving relatives, not to mention life itself. Jesus similarly taught: "Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?" (Matthew 12:48.)
5: Ji is a customary respectful suffix, particularly used in direct address; thus "swamiji," "guruji," "Sri Yukteswarji," "paramhansaji."
6: Pertaining to the shastras, literally, "sacred books," comprising four classes of scripture: the shruti, smriti, purana, and tantra. These comprehensive treatises cover every aspect of religious and social life, and the fields of law, medicine, architecture, art, etc. The shrutis are the "directly heard" or "revealed" scriptures, the Vedas. The smritis or "remembered" lore was finally written down in a remote past as the world's longest epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Puranas are literally "ancient" allegories; tantras literally mean "rites" or "rituals"; these treatises convey profound truths under a veil of detailed symbolism.
7: "Divine teacher," the customary Sanskrit term for one's spiritual preceptor. I have rendered it in English as simply "Master."