"Master, did you ever meet Babaji?"
It was a calm summer night in Serampore; the large stars of the tropics gleamed over our heads as I sat by Sri Yukteswar's side on the second-story balcony of the hermitage.
"Yes." Master smiled at my direct question; his eyes lit with reverence. "Three times I have been blessed by the sight of the deathless guru. Our first meeting was in Allahabad at a Kumbha Mela."
The religious fairs held in India since time immemorial are known as Kumbha Melas; they have kept spiritual goals in constant sight of the multitude. Devout Hindus gather by the millions every six years to meet thousands of sadhus, yogis, swamis, and ascetics of all kinds. Many are hermits who never leave their secluded haunts except to attend the melas and bestow their blessings on worldly men and women.
"I was not a swami at the time I met Babaji," Sri Yukteswar went on. "But I had already received Kriya initiation from Lahiri Mahasaya. He encouraged me to attend the mela which was convening in January, 1894 at Allahabad. It was my first experience of a kumbha; I felt slightly dazed by the clamor and surge of the crowd. In my searching gazes around I saw no illumined face of a master. Passing a bridge on the bank of the Ganges, I noticed an acquaintance standing near-by, his begging bowl extended.
"'Oh, this fair is nothing but a chaos of noise and beggars,' I thought in disillusionment. 'I wonder if Western scientists, patiently enlarging the realms of knowledge for the practical good of mankind, are not more pleasing to God than these idlers who profess religion but concentrate on alms.'
"My smouldering reflections on social reform were interrupted by the voice of a tall sannyasi who halted before me.
"'Sir,' he said, 'a saint is calling you.'
"'Who is he?'
"'Come and see for yourself.'
"Hesitantly following this laconic advice, I soon found myself near a tree whose branches were sheltering a guru with an attractive group of disciples. The master, a bright unusual figure, with sparkling dark eyes, rose at my approach and embraced me.
"'Welcome, Swamiji,' he said affectionately.
"'Sir,' I replied emphatically, 'I am not a swami.'
"'Those on whom I am divinely directed to bestow the title of "swami" never cast it off.' The saint addressed me simply, but deep conviction of truth rang in his words; I was engulfed in an instant wave of spiritual blessing. Smiling at my sudden elevation into the ancient monastic order,1 I bowed at the feet of the obviously great and angelic being in human form who had thus honored me.
"Babaji, for it was indeed he, motioned me to a seat near him under the tree. He was strong and young, and looked like Lahiri Mahasaya; yet the resemblance did not strike me, even though I had often heard of the extraordinary similarities in the appearance of the two masters. Babaji possesses a power by which he can prevent any specific thought from arising in a person's mind. Evidently the great guru wished me to be perfectly natural in his presence, not overawed by knowledge of his identity.
"'What do you think of the Kumbha Mela?'
"'I was greatly disappointed, sir.' I added hastily, 'Up until the time I met you. Somehow saints and this commotion don't seem to belong together.'
"'Child,' the master said, though apparently I was nearly twice his own age, 'for the faults of the many, judge not the whole. Everything on earth is of mixed character, like a mingling of sand and sugar. Be like the wise ant which seizes only the sugar, and leaves the sand untouched. Though many sadhus here still wander in delusion, yet the mela is blessed by a few men of God-realization.'
"In view of my own meeting with this exalted master, I quickly agreed with his observation.
"'Sir,' I commented, 'I have been thinking of the scientific men of the West, greater by far in intelligence than most people congregated here, living in distant Europe and America, professing different creeds, and ignorant of the real values of such melas as the present one. They are the men who could benefit greatly by meetings with India's masters. But, although high in intellectual attainments, many Westerners are wedded to rank materialism. Others, famous in science and philosophy, do not recognize the essential unity in religion. Their creeds serve as insurmountable barriers that threaten to separate them from us forever.'
"'I saw that you are interested in the West, as well as the East.' Babaji's face beamed with approval. 'I felt the pangs of your heart, broad enough for all men, whether Oriental or Occidental. That is why I summoned you here.
"'East and West must establish a golden middle path of activity and spirituality combined,' he continued. 'India has much to learn from the West in material development; in return, India can teach the universal methods by which the West will be able to base its religious beliefs on the unshakable foundations of yogic science.
"'You, Swamiji, have a part to play in the coming harmonious exchange between Orient and Occident. Some years hence I shall send you a disciple whom you can train for yoga dissemination in the West. The vibrations there of many spiritually seeking souls come floodlike to me. I perceive potential saints in America and Europe, waiting to be awakened.'"
At this point in his story, Sri Yukteswar turned his gaze fully on mine.
"My son," he said, smiling in the moonlight, "you are the disciple that, years ago, Babaji promised to send me."
I was happy to learn that Babaji had directed my steps to Sri Yukteswar, yet it was hard for me to visualize myself in the remote West, away from my beloved guru and the simple hermitage peace.
"Babaji then spoke of the Bhagavad Gita," Sri Yukteswar went on. "To my astonishment, he indicated by a few words of praise that he was aware of the fact that I had written interpretations on various Gita chapters.
"'At my request, Swamiji, please undertake another task,' the great master said. 'Will you not write a short book on the underlying basic unity between the Christian and Hindu scriptures? Show by parallel references that the inspired sons of God have spoken the same truths, now obscured by men's sectarian differences.'
"'Maharaj,'2 I answered diffidently, 'what a command! Shall I be able to fulfill it?'
"Babaji laughed softly. 'My son, why do you doubt?' he said reassuringly. 'Indeed, Whose work is all this, and Who is the Doer of all actions? Whatever the Lord has made me say is bound to materialize as truth.'
"I deemed myself empowered by the blessings of the saint, and agreed to write the book. Feeling reluctantly that the parting-hour had arrived, I rose from my leafy seat.
"'Do you know Lahiri?'3 the master inquired. 'He is a great soul, isn't he? Tell him of our meeting.' He then gave me a message for Lahiri Mahasaya.
"After I had bowed humbly in farewell, the saint smiled benignly. 'When your book is finished, I shall pay you a visit,' he promised. 'Good-by for the present.'
"I left Allahabad the following day and entrained for Benares. Reaching my guru's home, I poured out the story of the wonderful saint at the Kumbha Mela.
"'Oh, didn't you recognize him?' Lahiri Mahasaya's eyes were dancing with laughter. 'I see you couldn't, for he prevented you. He is my incomparable guru, the celestial Babaji!'
"'Babaji!' I repeated, awestruck. 'The Yogi-Christ Babaji! The invisible-visible savior Babaji! Oh, if I could just recall the past and be once more in his presence, to show my devotion at his lotus feet!'
"'Never mind,' Lahiri Mahasaya said consolingly. 'He has promised to see you again.'
"'Gurudeva, the divine master asked me to give you a message. "Tell Lahiri," he said, "that the stored-up power for this life now runs low; it is nearly finished."'
"At my utterance of these enigmatic words, Lahiri Mahasaya's figure trembled as though touched by a lightning current. In an instant everything about him fell silent; his smiling countenance turned incredibly stern. Like a wooden statue, somber and immovable in its seat, his body became colorless. I was alarmed and bewildered. Never in my life had I seen this joyous soul manifest such awful gravity. The other disciples present stared apprehensively.
"Three hours passed in utter silence. Then Lahiri Mahasaya resumed his natural, cheerful demeanor, and spoke affectionately to each of the chelas. Everyone sighed in relief.
"I realized by my master's reaction that Babaji's message had been an unmistakable signal by which Lahiri Mahasaya understood that his body would soon be untenanted. His awesome silence proved that my guru had instantly controlled his being, cut his last cord of attachment to the material world, and fled to his ever-living identity in Spirit. Babaji's remark had been his way of saying: 'I shall be ever with you.'
"Though Babaji and Lahiri Mahasaya were omniscient, and had no need of communicating with each other through me or any other intermediary, the great ones often condescend to play a part in the human drama. Occasionally they transmit their prophecies through messengers in an ordinary way, that the final fulfillment of their words may infuse greater divine faith in a wide circle of men who later learn the story.
"I soon left Benares, and set to work in Serampore on the scriptural writings requested by Babaji," Sri Yukteswar continued. "No sooner had I begun my task than I was able to compose a poem dedicated to the deathless guru. The melodious lines flowed effortlessly from my pen, though never before had I attempted Sanskrit poetry.
"In the quiet of night I busied myself over a comparison of the Bible and the scriptures of Sanatan Dharma.4 Quoting the words of the blessed Lord Jesus, I showed that his teachings were in essence one with the revelations of the Vedas. To my relief, my book was finished in a short time; I realized that this speedy blessing was due to the grace of my Param-Guru-Maharaj.5 The chapters first appeared in the Sadhusambad journal; later they were privately printed as a book by one of my Kidderpore disciples.
"The morning after I had concluded my literary efforts," Master continued, "I went to the Rai Ghat here to bathe in the Ganges. The ghat was deserted; I stood still for awhile, enjoying the sunny peace. After a dip in the sparkling waters, I started for home. The only sound in the silence was that of my Ganges-drenched cloth, swish-swashing with every step. As I passed beyond the site of the large banyan tree near the river bank, a strong impulse urged me to look back. There, under the shade of the banyan, and surrounded by a few disciples, sat the great Babaji!
"'Greetings, Swamiji!' The beautiful voice of the master rang out to assure me I was not dreaming. 'I see you have successfully completed your book. As I promised, I am here to thank you.'
"With a fast-beating heart, I prostrated myself fully at his feet. 'Param-guruji,' I said imploringly, 'will you and your chelas not honor my near-by home with your presence?'
"The supreme guru smilingly declined. 'No, child,' he said, 'we are people who like the shelter of trees; this spot is quite comfortable.'
"'Please tarry awhile, Master.' I gazed entreatingly at him. 'I shall be back at once with some special sweetmeats.'
"When I returned in a few minutes with a dish of delicacies, lo! the lordly banyan no longer sheltered the celestial troupe. I searched all around the ghat, but in my heart I knew the little band had already fled on etheric wings.
"I was deeply hurt. 'Even if we meet again, I would not care to talk to him,' I assured myself. 'He was unkind to leave me so suddenly.' This was a wrath of love, of course, and nothing more.
"A few months later I visited Lahiri Mahasaya in Benares. As I entered his little parlor, my guru smiled in greeting.
"'Welcome, Yukteswar,' he said. 'Did you just meet Babaji at the threshold of my room?'
"'Why, no,' I answered in surprise.
"'Come here.' Lahiri Mahasaya touched me gently on the forehead; at once I beheld, near the door, the form of Babaji, blooming like a perfect lotus.
"I remembered my old hurt, and did not bow. Lahiri Mahasaya looked at me in astonishment.
"The divine guru gazed at me with fathomless eyes. 'You are annoyed with me.'
"'Sir, why shouldn't I be?' I answered. 'Out of the air you came with your magic group, and into the thin air you vanished.'
"'I told you I would see you, but didn't say how long I would remain.' Babaji laughed softly. 'You were full of excitement. I assure you that I was fairly extinguished in the ether by the gust of your restlessness.'
"I was instantly satisfied by this unflattering explanation. I knelt at his feet; the supreme guru patted me kindly on the shoulder.
"'Child, you must meditate more,' he said. 'Your gaze is not yet faultlessyou could not see me hiding behind the sunlight.' With these words in the voice of a celestial flute, Babaji disappeared into the hidden radiance.
"That was one of my last visits to Benares to see my guru," Sri Yukteswar concluded. "Even as Babaji had foretold at the Kumbha Mela, the householder-incarnation of Lahiri Mahasaya was drawing to a close. During the summer of 1895 his stalwart body developed a small boil on the back. He protested against lancing; he was working out in his own flesh the evil karma of some of his disciples. Finally a few chelas became very insistent; the master replied cryptically:
"'The body has to find a cause to go; I will be agreeable to whatever you want to do.'
Years later, from the lips of Swami Keshabananda, 6 an advanced disciple, I heard many wonderful details about the passing of Lahiri Mahasaya.
"A few days before my guru relinquished his body," Keshabananda told me, "he materialized himself before me as I sat in my hermitage at Hardwar.
"'Come at once to Benares.' With these words Lahiri Mahasaya vanished.
"I entrained immediately for Benares. At my guru's home I found many disciples assembled. For hours that day7 the master expounded the Gita; then he addressed us simply.
"'I am going home.'
"'Be comforted; I shall rise again.' After this utterance Lahiri Mahasaya thrice turned his body around in a circle, faced the north in his lotus posture, and gloriously entered the final maha-samadhi.8
"Lahiri Mahasaya's beautiful body, so dear to the devotees, was cremated with solemn householder rites at Manikarnika Ghat by the holy Ganges," Keshabananda continued. "The following day, at ten o'clock in the morning, while I was still in Benares, my room was suffused with a great light. Lo! before me stood the flesh and blood form of Lahiri Mahasaya! It looked exactly like his old body, except that it appeared younger and more radiant. My divine guru spoke to me.
"'Keshabananda,' he said, 'it is I. From the disintegrated atoms of my cremated body, I have resurrected a remodeled form. My householder work in the world is done; but I do not leave the earth entirely. Henceforth I shall spend some time with Babaji in the Himalayas, and with Babaji in the cosmos.'
"With a few words of blessing to me, the transcendent master vanished. Wondrous inspiration filled my heart; I was uplifted in Spirit even as were the disciples of Christ and Kabir9 when they had gazed on their living gurus after physical death.
"When I returned to my isolated Hardwar hermitage," Keshabananda went on, "I carried with me the sacred ashes of my guru. I know he has escaped the spatio-temporal cage; the bird of omnipresence is freed. Yet it comforted my heart to enshrine his sacred remains."
Another disciple who was blessed by the sight of his resurrected guru was the saintly Panchanon Bhattacharya, founder of the Calcutta Arya Mission Institution.10
I visited Panchanon at his Calcutta home, and listened with delight to the story of his many years with the master. In conclusion, he told me of the most marvelous event in his life.
"Here in Calcutta," Panchanon said, "at ten o'clock of the morning which followed his cremation, Lahiri Mahasaya appeared before me in living glory."
Swami Pranabananda, the "saint with two bodies," also confided to me the details of his own supernal experience.
"A few days before Lahiri Mahasaya left his body," Pranabananda told me at the time he visited my Ranchi school, "I received a letter from him, requesting me to come at once to Benares. I was delayed, however, and could not leave immediately. As I was in the midst of my travel preparations, about ten o'clock in the morning, I was suddenly overwhelmed with joy to see the shining figure of my guru.
"'Why hurry to Benares?' Lahiri Mahasaya said, smiling. 'You shall find me there no longer.'
"As the import of his words dawned on me, I sobbed broken-heartedly, believing that I was seeing him only in a vision.
"The master approached me comfortingly. 'Here, touch my flesh,' he said. 'I am living, as always. Do not lament; am I not with you forever?'"
From the lips of these three great disciples, a story of wondrous truth has emerged: At the morning hour of ten, on the day after the body of Lahiri Mahasaya had been consigned to the flames, the resurrected master, in a real but transfigured body, appeared before three disciples, each one in a different city.
"So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"11
2: "Great King"-a title of respect.
3: A guru usually refers to his own disciple simply by his name, omitting any title. Thus, Babaji said "Lahiri," not "Lahiri Mahasaya."
4: Literally, "eternal religion," the name given to the body of Vedic teachings. Sanatan Dharma has come to be called Hinduism since the time of the Greeks who designated the people on the banks of the river Indus as Indoos, or Hindus. The word Hindu, properly speaking, refers only to followers of Sanatan Dharma or Hinduism. The term Indian applies equally to Hindus and Mohammedans and other inhabitants of the soil of India (and also through the confusing geographical error of Columbus, to the American Mongoloid aboriginals). The ancient name for India is Aryavarta, literally, "abode of the Aryans." The Sanskrit root of arya is "worthy, holy, noble." The later ethnological misuse of Aryan to signify not spiritual, but physical, characteristics, led the great Orientalist, Max Muller, to say quaintly: "To me an ethnologist who speaks of an Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar."
5: Param-Guru is literally "guru supreme" or "guru beyond," signifying a line or succession of teachers. Babaji, the guru of Lahiri Mahasaya, was the param-guru of Sri Yukteswar.
6: My visit to Keshabananda's ashram is described on pp. 405-408.
7: September 26, 1895 is the date on which Lahiri Mahasaya left his body. In a few more days he would have reached his sixty-eighth birthday.
8: Facing the north, and thrice revolving the body, are parts of a Vedic rite used by masters who know beforehand when the final hour is about to strike for the physical body. The last meditation, during which the master merges himself in the Cosmic AUM, is called the maha, or great, samadhi.
9: Kabir was a great sixteenth-century saint whose large following included both Hindus and Mohammedans. At the time of his death, the disciples quarreled over the manner of conducting the funeral ceremonies. The exasperated master rose from his final sleep, and gave his instructions. "Half of my remains shall be buried by the Moslem rites;" he said, "let the other half be cremated with a Hindu sacrament." He then vanished. When the disciples opened the coffin which had contained his body, nothing was found but a dazzling array of gold-colored champak flowers. Half of these were obediently buried by the Moslems, who revere his shrine to this day. In his youth Kabir was approached by two disciples who wanted minute intellectual guidance along the mystic path. The master responded simply:
"Path presupposes distance;
If He be near, no path needest thou at all.
Verily it maketh me smile
To hear of a fish in water athirst!"
10: Panchanon established, in a seventeen-acre garden at Deogarh in Bihar, a temple containing a stone statue of Lahiri Mahasaya. Another statue of the great master has been set by disciples in the little parlor of his Benares home.
11: I Corinthians 15:54-55.