(by R. Jayasekar)
Source: Nirvana, April 2008. Published by Ramakrishna Mission, Singapore
Young Devendranath was restless. From his very childhood he had been exposed to the traditions and culture of his orthodox Brahmin family. Yet even now in his middle age the peace that faith brings was lacking. Does God really exist? Can He be seen? Does He help the truly faithful in their hour of need as the scriptures declare? Or are they all mere words of false hope? The yearning to anchor his soul to certitude had driven him here and there in search of someone who could clear his doubts but conviction had always eluded him. Now sitting in the parlour of his maternal uncle’s house he casually leafed through the pages of the biography of one Sadhu Aghorenath, a follower of Keshav Chandra Sen of the Brahmo Samaj. Opening a page at random he came across the following incident. Aghorenath, a preacher of the Brahmo Samaj, had taken shelter in a lonely inn one night in Bihar. That night some robbers broke into his room. Fearful for his life he had burst forth into a song of lamentation to the Divine and lost consciousness. When he regained his senses he heard the robbers leaving his room saying that they would not kill a devotee of God.
A shock ran through Devendranath. "Who dares say that there is no God?" he shouted as if one mad. "Who else could have saved Aghorenath?" Rushing home, he locked himself in his room and prayed as he had never prayed before with tears flowing from his eyes. Three days and nights passed with no thought of food or sleep. Coming out of his room on the fourth day he was a changed man. The restlessness of doubt had been replaced with the calm certitude of faith. Looking at the sun rising over the horizon he exclaimed quietly, "Who says there is no God? Here is the proof of the glory of God."
Search for the Guru
But it is one thing to have faith in God, it is quite another to have the direct experience of God which alone will bring true and lasting peace. His faith in God now made the yearning for direct experience deeper and more intense. He intensified his practice of Hatha Yoga which he had learnt from his brother. Being acquainted with the Brahmo Samaj he also began to frequent their services and was subsequently introduced to their charismatic leader Keshav Chandra Sen. But the blend of Hindu philosophy and Christian faith with its rejection of traditional Hindu practices preached by Keshav neither captured his intellect nor satisfied the inherently devotional nature of his heart. "I need a Sadguru who will show me the way," thinking thus Devendra began to earnestly look for a spiritual guide. One day in early 1884 he heard of the famous Vaishnava saint of Kalna, Bhagavan Das Babaji. This aged saint, the spiritual leader of the Vaishnava community of Bengal, was held in high esteem for his renunciation, devotion and austerity. Thinking that here was a true Guru under whom he could find refuge, Devendra set out for Kalna. But it was not to be. He was late and missed the steamer to Kalna. Dejected, Devendra started for home. On the way back he dropped into the house of an acquaintance. His friend was not at home, but there was a book lying on his table. It was about the Life and Teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Casually leafing through the book he came across a paragraph where the author, referring to God with form and without form, mentioned that the Paramahamsa of Dakshineswar explained them using the analogy of ice and water. The name struck a chord in Devendra’s heart. "Surely a Paramahamsa can be a true Guru for a sincere seeker of God?" Thinking thus, he wended his way home. On the way he met another acquaintance, and immediately put to him the question uppermost in his mind, "How does one go about meeting the Paramahamsa of Dakshineswar?" Finding the whereabouts from his friend, he rushed home and then immediately set out again for Dakshineswar. Thus did a series of coincidences bring Devendranath Mazumdar to the Master one day in the early part of February 1884.
But are these events coincidences or the fulfilment of a Divine law whose workings we do not as yet understand? Let us pause for the moment and delve into Devendra’s background before taking up the thread of the story again.
Devendra was born into an orthodox Brahmin family in 1844 in the village of Jaganathpur in the Jessore district of East Bengal (now Bangladesh). His father died two months before he was born and the family was brought up under the guardianship of his uncle. His mother had a great influence on him and inculcated in him love for the traditional lore and ways. Playful and fun-loving he was not inclined to academic studies. But he had a naturally artistic bent of mind and loved poetry and music. This interest he shared with his brother Surendra who was his elder by seven years. When he was fifteen his uncle too passed away and his elder brother became his guardian. The family moved to Calcutta where his brother lived. Here he continued his formal studies. But more importantly, it brought him under the influence of his brother who had by then become a well-known poet. Moving in the company of his brother he came in contact with other writers and dramatists such as the famed Girish Chandra Ghosh, and such contact exposed him to their discussions on literature, history and philosophy. He learnt the postures of Hatha Yoga from his brother and began taking sitar lessons and in time became an accomplished player. In spite of the early bereavements life indeed did seem rosy for the young Devendra.
When Devendra was 26 years of age his mother arranged his marriage although he had no desire for it. When he resisted she undertook a fast to the death and forced him to marry. After his marriage he continued his care-free life as the whole responsibility for the family was taken care of by his brother. But eight years later in 1878 Surendra died from cholera at the age of 41 and the whole responsibility for the family consisting of his mother, wife and sister-in-law fell on the shoulders of the jobless Devendra. Facing the realities of life for the first time he was forced to move to an inexpensive apartment and look for a job. Often the family suffered terribly from poverty. He finally landed a clerical job in the Tagore family estate. Although the job provided opportunity to increase his income through dishonest means he never succumbed to the temptation in spite of being in debt. In time his employer was so taken up by the honesty of Devendra’s ways that he cleared all his debts.
Perhaps it was this direct experience of the realities and hardships of life that introduced an element of uncertainty and discontent in his mind and induced him to search for the meaning of it all. As narrated earlier this very restlessness ultimately led him to Dakshineswar.
The boat Devendra had taken around ten o’clock in the morning landed at the ghat in Dakshineswar. All during the ride he tried to picture how the Paramahamsa would look like. Would he have matted hair and a long beard? Would he be dressed in ochre robes? Following the directions given he finally entered Sri Ramakrishna’s room. The person in front was nowhere near his imagined portrait of a Paramahamsa. He was dressed in a white dhoti with one end thrown over his shoulders. His hair was short and so was his beard. And one hand of his was in a sling. After the preliminary introductions Sri Ramakrishna asked him, "Have you come to see this?" and assumed the typical form of Sri Krishna with crossed legs and flute in hand. "No sir, I have come to see you," replied Devendra. Immediately the mood of the Paramahamsa changed. "Ah, what is there to see in me?" he said in a troubled voice, and then continued, "Look, I have broken my hand in a fall. Oh, what pain! Feel it and please tell me if it is fractured. Shall I be all right again?" he added in the piteous voice of a child. Feeling his hand Devendra consoled him saying, "Certainly you will be quite well again." Once again a transformation took place. All trace of pain was gone from the Paramahamsa’s face. Calling out to others he began to exclaim joyfully, "Look here, this person from Calcutta says that my hand will be all right again."
"Is this for real?" thought Devendra. "Does a true Paramahamsa behave thus? One moment he is complaining like a child about the broken arm and the next moment he believes wholeheartedly my words spoken in consolation that he will be whole again. Can one be so naive as that? Or is this all a pretence for my sake?" But further critical examination seemed to indicate that the Paramahamsa was naturally child-like in nature. And soon Devendra was enchanted by the words of wisdom that flowed without any effort from him. "Do you know what Prema, ecstatic love for God, is like? When such love develops in a devotee all ideas of distinction vanish. He forgets the world; he forgets even his own body and its demands. As in a dust storm one cannot distinguish the trees and the houses, similarly when Prema dawns everything is seen as permeated by God, as coming from God." Forgetting his earlier suspicion Devendra sat absorbed his mind filled with wonder at the simple but profound words spoken by the Master.
It was time for the mid-day meal. Orthodox brahmana that he was, Devendra was hesitant about joining the other devotees in taking his meals from the temple Prasad and was wondering whether he should leave. However, before he could say or do anything, Sri Ramakrishna interjected, "Look, no one should object to taking the Prasad of the deity. Other brahmanas take food here. You too eat here; don’t go home now." Calling Ramlal his nephew Ramakrishna directed him to offer Devendra the Prasad from the Radha-Kantha temple. "How could he know that I have been a strict vegetarian from birth and that Sri Krishna is my Istha Devata," thought Devendra with wonder as he sat down for his meal, the significance of the Master’s initial greeting in the pose of Sri Krishna only now dawning on him. So impressed was he with the Master that throughout the meal he talked of nothing else with Ramlal.
Following a short rest after the meal Devendra was further enchanted when during the course of conversation the Master burst forth in a rapturous song depicting the love of the Gopis for Sri Krishna. Himself a connoisseur of music, the sweet song, sung by the Master with the whole of his heart, brought tears to his eyes and a sense of fulfilment and joy pervaded his being.
Directed by the Master he went to pay his respects to the deities in the temples and then returned. Noticing his flushed and pale face the Master exclaimed, "Are you ill?" Though Devendra assured him that he had recovered from a bout of malaria three months ago, the Master was concerned and moved about restlessly. Finally calling Baburam (later Swami Premananda) he directed him to escort Devendra back to his home, extracting from him a promise to consult a physician and to come again after he had recovered.
When their boat landed at the ghat where they were to get off, Devendra insisted on proceeding alone. Somehow he managed to reach the house of a relative nearby where he collapsed. For fortyone days he was dangerously ill, often unconscious or in delirium. In his delirium he imagined himself in Dakshineswar and uttered Sri Ramakrishna’s name, and whenever he opened his eyes saw the loving form of Sri Ramakrishna seated beside him on the bed. However, when he had recovered, the whole experience was seen in a different light. "Is this the consequence of a visit to a holy man, not peace and joy but the near loss of one’s life? Enough of this! I had better not go that way again."
Several days passed. Whenever the thought of going to Dakshineswar came up he suppressed it by remembering his terrible fever. Though the memory of the visions of Ramakrishna haunted him, he dismissed them as being hallucinations of his feverish state of mind. But one afternoon while reading the Brahmo newspaper at a friend’s home he came to know that Sri Ramakrishna would visit the house of Balaram Basu in Baghbazar, Calcutta that evening. His heart leapt at the news. "The Master is coming here today!" The deep seated yearning of his heart to meet the Master overcame his previous resolve not to visit him and he immediately left for Baghbazar.
An extraordinary sight greeted his eyes as he entered the compound. Surrounded by devotees the Master was dancing in ecstasy to the accompaniment of music. His body flowed so gracefully that it was a delight to watch him. When the kirtan ended, the Master stood still absorbed in Samadhi and the devotees rushed forward to take the dust of his feet. Devendra too felt drawn to do so and thought this an opportune moment to pay his respects without being noticed as he felt ashamed for not visiting the Master as promised. But as he bent before Sri Ramakrishna he heard the sweet voice of the Master, "Well how do you do? Why have you not visited Dakshineswar for so long? I often think of you." Ashamed Devendra mumbled a reply that he was laid ill and promised to visit Dakshineswar soon.
Blessed Days in Holy Company
From this moment Devendra began to visit Dakshineswar regularly. His close contact with the Master and his disciples soon convinced him that he was in the presence of no ordinary religious teacher, but an exalted being, who, if he so wished, could grant liberation with a touch or a mere glance. Accepting Sri Ramakrishna mentally as his Guru, he approached him one day for formal initiation, but was gently turned down. On another occasion seeing how the young disciples rendered some personal service to the Master he too desired to do so but was dissuaded by the Master. These rejections caused him sorrow and he wondered about his spiritual worthiness until one day the Master reassured him, "My relationship with you is different. Every person has his own characteristics. Look, you will not have to practise special austerities. It will be enough if you regularly chant the name of God."
Filled with the zeal for the vision of God, Devendra began practising the chanting of the Lord’s name for long periods with deep concentration. Neglecting the Master’s advice not to undertake austerities, he went to the extent of giving up his job and neglecting his food in his enthusiasm. Although he was rewarded with various visions, he also became slightly unbalanced and could not bear the company of worldly persons including his relatives. His moods swung from extreme elation when any of the Master’s disciples visited him to deep depression when they left. Coming to know of his condition the Master prayed to the Divine Mother, "Mother, please don’t give him so many experiences. He is a family man and several people depend on him." Devendra recovered, took up a job and continued his spiritual practices with a more moderate approach taking into account the needs of his family. For the same reason the Master forbade him when Devendra begged his permission to become a monk, for the Master knew that his path was different.
Under the guidance of the Master Devendra’s religious nature blossomed into true spirituality. He became one of the close devotees of the Master and introduced many people to him. It was partly due to his influence that Girish Chandra Ghosh began to regularly visit the Master. Devendra was also instrumental in bringing the great devotee Akshay Kumar Sen, the author of the extremely popular ‘Sri Sri Ramakrishna Punthi’, the Bengali poem on the Life of Sri Ramakrishna in the style of the Ramayana. On 6 April 1885, Sri Ramakrishna blessed Devendra by coming to his house. The wonderful kirtan, the Master’s Samadhi and the spontaneous outpouring of his wisdom on this occasion have all been captured faithfully by M (Mahendranath Gupta, the author of the "Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna") in his epic work. Devendra continued to visit Sri Ramakrishna regularly when the Master was moved to the Kasipur garden house in Calcutta for treatment in December 1885. He was one of the many householder disciples blessed by the Master with the words "be illumined" on that holy afternoon of 1 January 1886, now known as Kalpataru Day.
After the passing away of the Master in August 1886, Devendra kept close contact with both the householder and monastic disciples of the Master, often visiting the Baranagore Monastery. His association with the allrenouncing disciples of the Master and the inspiring words of Swami Vivekananda would rekindle his own innate desire to be a monk, but mindful of the Master’s advice he desisted and continued to lead the life of a model householder.
Non-vigilance is Death
In 1893 his friend Girish appointed him as a cashier and supervisor of the Minerva Theatre of which he was a director. This job threw him into contact with actors and actresses and gradually he began to drift from his high ideal by becoming involved with some of the actresses. Fortunately the memory of his wonderful days of association with the Master came to his rescue and pulling himself out from the meshes of Maya that he had fallen into, severed all connection with the theatre.
But his mind was now in turmoil. The thought of the depth of degradation he had fallen into from his earlier spiritual state caused him extreme anguish and depression. Seeking solace he went to M and asked, "The Master said that the person who touches the philosopher’s stone turns to gold. Does my fall mean that I did not really receive the Master’s blessing?" M replied that he had indeed been turned to gold, but that gold had temporarily fallen into a dustbin. Not satisfied with the answer, Devendra sought out Durga Charan Nag (Nag Mahasaya), the householder devotee who was held in great esteem by all monastic and lay disciples of the Master and poured out his heart to him. "If you enter a room full of soot you are sure to dirty yourself however clever and careful you may be," replied the saintly disciple, and then added, "There is nothing to fear. There is the Ganga and you have the Master’s grace. They will certainly purify you." This was said with such conviction that the load of guilt and remorse was lifted from Devendra’s mind. In later years he used this dark episode of his life as an example for spiritual aspirants to be always vigilant, and to never for a moment think that they are so spiritually strong that they can be careless about their associations. He told his future followers, "Through this mistake of mine the Master has completely crushed my ego." He also warned them not to succumb to depression when they experience a spiritual fall, but instead strive all the more to perfect themselves. "If out of an uncontrolled desire a person commits a wrong act, he should not be depressed and carry the guilt for ever. He should take refuge in God who is sure to protect him." And quoting Swamiji added, "True greatness consists not in rising, but in rising every time we fall."
Wings of Prayer
Devendra now plunged seriously into rebuilding his spiritual life. In spite of financial difficulties and family bereavements he continued steadfastly in his spiritual practices and in spreading the message of the Master. Attracted by the simplicity of his message and the beauty of his songs a group of devotees began to gather around him. On Sunday 6 May 1900 Devendra and his followers installed a picture of Sri Ramakrishna at a rented house and began to meet regularly for kirtan and religious study. Thus was the Sri Sri Ramakrishna Archanalaya born. The sincerity of the members of the Archanalaya became noted among the devotees of the Master and many of the monastic and lay disciples of the Master began visiting them and holding satsanga. Even the Holy Mother blessed the Archanalaya with her presence in 1904. During the remaining part of his life in spite of various bodily ailments he enthusiastically spread the message of the Master and Swamiji through songs and discourses not only in Calcutta but also in other places. His simple but magnetic personality attracted followers wherever he went and many became his disciples and began to mould their lives under his guidance. The Master had said that only those with a "licence from God" can truly teach others. One day at Dakshineswar the Master had written something on Devendra’s tongue with his finger thereby transmitting spiritual power to him. It is evident that Devendra had been granted such licence. His mastery of poetry and music acquired since childhood was of great help in capturing and holding the minds of the people. Devendra composed many devotional songs and taught them to his followers. "Do you know what your attitude to God is? It is like that of the Gopis to Krishna," Sri Ramakrishna had said to him one day. Immersed in this Gopi-bhava Devendra used to sing and dance in ecstasy, elevating the minds of all those present by the spiritual vibration of his songs. Near the end of his life he composed the beautiful hymn of eight stanzas on Sri Ramakrishna as the Guru beginning with the line 'Bhava-sagara'...and ending with 'Gurudeva daya-kara dina jane'. Hearing it Swami Brahmananda commented, "Devendra composed that song while absorbed in a high plane of consciousness, beyond the reach of ordinary people." He breathed his last on 14 October 1911* at his room in the Archanalaya in the presence of many devotees and monks including Swami Subodhananda and M to the chants of "Om Namo Bhagavate Ramakrishnaya".
The following words of advice given by him to his followers may very well serve as the message of his life to all spiritual aspirants: "Struggle is the beauty of life. This beauty vanishes as soon as our struggle ends. In spiritual life one moves backwards and forwards, but in this way gradually makes progress. No line is perfectly straight in this world. The mind fluctuates like the waves of the ocean. Don’t be upset when the mind goes down. It will rise again. There is nothing more harmful than to be despondent. Trials and tribulations make our minds strong, but despondency does not do us any good. Rather, it takes away our strength."
1. First Meetings with Sri Ramakrishna by Swami Prabhananda
2. They Lived with God by Swami Chetanananda
* "First Meetings with Sri Ramakrishna" puts the date as 11 September 1911. We have followed the date given in "They Lived with God" which narrates the details of his last days.