Last Days with my Guru | Yogananda 42
Last Days With My Guru
"Guruji, I am glad to find you alone this morning." I had just arrived at the Serampore hermitage, carrying a fragrant burden of fruit and roses. Sri Yukteswar glanced at me meekly.
"What is your question?" Master looked about the room as though he were seeking escape.
"Guruji, I came to you as a high-school youth; now I am a grown man, even with a gray hair or two. Though you have showered me with silent affection from the first hour to this, do you realize that once only, on the day of meeting, have you ever said, 'I love you'?" I looked at him pleadingly.
Master lowered his gaze. "Yogananda, must I bring out into the cold realms of speech the warm sentiments best guarded by the wordless heart?"
"Guruji, I know you love me, but my mortal ears ache to hear you say so."
"Be it as you wish. During my married life I often yearned for a son, to train in the yogic path. But when you came into my life, I was content; in you I have found my son." Two clear teardrops stood in Sri Yukteswar's eyes. "Yogananda, I love you always."
"Your answer is my passport to heaven." I felt a weight lift from my heart, dissolved forever at his words. Often had I wondered at his silence. Realizing that he was unemotional and self-contained, yet sometimes I feared I had been unsuccessful in fully satisfying him. His was a strange nature, never utterly to be known; a nature deep and still, unfathomable to the outer world, whose values he had long transcended.
A few days later, when I spoke before a huge audience at Albert Hall in Calcutta, Sri Yukteswar consented to sit beside me on the platform, with the Maharaja of Santosh and the Mayor of Calcutta. Though Master made no remark to me, I glanced at him from time to time during my address, and thought I detected a pleased twinkle in his eyes.
Then came a talk before the alumni of Serampore College. As I gazed upon my old classmates, and as they gazed on their own "Mad Monk," tears of joy showed unashamedly. My silver-tongued professor of philosophy, Dr. Ghoshal, came forward to greet me, all our past misunderstandings dissolved by the alchemist Time.
A Winter Solstice Festival was celebrated at the end of December in the Serampore hermitage. As always, Sri Yukteswar's disciples gathered from far and near. Devotional sankirtans, solos in the nectar-sweet voice of Kristo-da, a feast served by young disciples, Master's profoundly moving discourse under the stars in the thronged courtyard of the ashram-memories, memories! Joyous festivals of years long past! Tonight, however, there was to be a new feature.
"Yogananda, please address the assemblage-in English." Master's eyes were twinkling as he made this doubly unusual request; was he thinking of the shipboard predicament that had preceded my first lecture in English? I told the story to my audience of brother disciples, ending with a fervent tribute to our guru.
"His omnipresent guidance was with me not alone on the ocean steamer," I concluded, "but daily throughout my fifteen years in the vast and hospitable land of America."
After the guests had departed, Sri Yukteswar called me to the same bedroom where-once only, after a festival of my early years-I had been permitted to sleep on his wooden bed. Tonight my guru was sitting there quietly, a semicircle of disciples at his feet. He smiled as I quickly entered the room.
"Yogananda, are you leaving now for Calcutta? Please return here tomorrow. I have certain things to tell you."
The next afternoon, with a few simple words of blessing, Sri Yukteswar bestowed on me the further monastic title of Paramhansa.
"It now formally supersedes your former title of swami," he said as I knelt before him. With a silent chuckle I thought of the struggle which my American students would undergo over the pronunciation of Paramhansaji.
"My task on earth is now finished; you must carry on." Master spoke quietly, his eyes calm and gentle. My heart was palpitating in fear.
"Please send someone to take charge of our ashram at Puri," Sri Yukteswar went on. "I leave everything in your hands. You will be able to successfully sail the boat of your life and that of the organization to the divine shores."
In tears, I was embracing his feet; he rose and blessed me endearingly.
The following day I summoned from Ranchi a disciple, Swami Sebananda, and sent him to Puri to assume the hermitage duties. Later my guru discussed with me the legal details of settling his estate; he was anxious to prevent the possibility of litigation by relatives, after his death, for possession of his two hermitages and other properties, which he wished to be deeded over solely for charitable purposes.
"Arrangements were recently made for Master to visit Kidderpore, but he failed to go." Amulaya Babu, a brother disciple, made this remark to me one afternoon; I felt a cold wave of premonition. To my pressing inquiries, Sri Yukteswar only replied, "I shall go to Kidderpore no more." For a moment, Master trembled like a frightened child.
("Attachment to bodily residence, springing up of its own nature [i.e., arising from immemorial roots, past experiences of death]," Patanjali wrote, "is present in slight degree even in great saints." In some of his discourses on death, my guru had been wont to add: "Just as a long-caged bird hesitates to leave its accustomed home when the door is opened.")
"Guruji," I entreated him with a sob, "don't say that! Never utter those words to me!"
Sri Yukteswar's face relaxed in a peaceful smile. Though nearing his eighty-first birthday, he looked well and strong.
Basking day by day in the sunshine of my guru's love, unspoken but keenly felt, I banished from my conscious mind the various hints he had given of his approaching passing.
"Sir, the Kumbha Mela is convening this month at Allahabad." I showed Master the mela dates in a Bengali almanac.
"Do you really want to go?"
Not sensing Sri Yukteswar's reluctance to have me leave him, I went on, "Once you beheld the blessed sight of Babaji at an Allahabad kumbha. Perhaps this time I shall be fortunate enough to see him."
"I do not think you will meet him there." My guru then fell into silence, not wishing to obstruct my plans.
When I set out for Allahabad the following day with a small group, Master blessed me quietly in his usual manner. Apparently I was remaining oblivious to implications in Sri Yukteswar's attitude because the Lord wished to spare me the experience of being forced, helplessly, to witness my guru's passing. It has always happened in my life that, at the death of those dearly beloved by me, God has compassionately arranged that I be distant from the scene.
Our party reached the Kumbha Mela on January 23, 1936. The surging crowd of nearly two million persons was an impressive sight, even an overwhelming one. The peculiar genius of the Indian people is the reverence innate in even the lowliest peasant for the worth of the Spirit, and for the monks and sadhus who have forsaken worldly ties to seek a diviner anchorage. Imposters and hypocrites there are indeed, but India respects all for the sake of the few who illumine the whole land with supernal blessings. Westerners who were viewing the vast spectacle had a unique opportunity to feel the pulse of the land, the spiritual ardor to which India owes her quenchless vitality before the blows of time.
The first day was spent by our group in sheer staring. Here were countless bathers, dipping in the holy river for remission of sins; there we saw solemn rituals of worship; yonder were devotional offerings being strewn at the dusty feet of saints; a turn of our heads, and a line of elephants, caparisoned horses and slow-paced Rajputana camels filed by, or a quaint religious parade of naked sadhus, waving scepters of gold and silver, or flags and streamers of silken velvet.
Anchorites wearing only loincloths sat quietly in little groups, their bodies besmeared with the ashes that protect them from the heat and cold. The spiritual eye was vividly represented on their foreheads by a single spot of sandalwood paste. Shaven-headed swamis appeared by the thousands, ocher-robed and carrying their bamboo staff and begging bowl. Their faces beamed with the renunciate's peace as they walked about or held philosophical discussions with disciples.
Here and there under the trees, around huge piles of burning logs, were picturesque sadhus, their hair braided and massed in coils on top of their heads. Some wore beards several feet in length, curled and tied in a knot. They meditated quietly, or extended their hands in blessing to the passing throng-beggars, maharajas on elephants, women in multicolored saris- their bangles and anklets tinkling, fakirs with thin arms held grotesquely aloft, brahmacharis carrying meditation elbow-props, humble sages whose solemnity hid an inner bliss. High above the din we heard the ceaseless summons of the temple bells.
On our second mela day my companions and I entered various ashrams and temporary huts, offering pronams to saintly personages. We received the blessing of the leader of the Giri branch of the Swami Order-a thin, ascetical monk with eyes of smiling fire. Our next visit took us to a hermitage whose guru had observed for the past nine years the vows of silence and a strict fruitarian diet. On the central dais in the ashram hall sat a blind sadhu, Pragla Chakshu, profoundly learned in the shastras and highly revered by all sects.
After I had given a brief discourse in Hindi on Vedanta, our group left the peaceful hermitage to greet a near-by swami, Krishnananda, a handsome monk with rosy cheeks and impressive shoulders. Reclining near him was a tame lioness. Succumbing to the monk's spiritual charm- not, I am sure, to his powerful physique!-the jungle animal refuses all meat in favor of rice and milk. The swami has taught the tawny- haired beast to utter "Aum" in a deep, attractive growl-a cat devotee!
Our next encounter, an interview with a learned young sadhu, is well described in Mr. Wright's sparkling travel diary.
"We rode in the Ford across the very low Ganges on a creaking pontoon bridge, crawling snakelike through the crowds and over narrow, twisting lanes, passing the site on the river bank which Yoganandaji pointed out to me as the meeting place of Babaji and Sri Yukteswarji. Alighting from the car a short time later, we walked some distance through the thickening smoke of the sadhus' fires and over the slippery sands to reach a cluster of tiny, very modest mud-and-straw huts. We halted in front of one of these insignificant temporary dwellings, with a pygmy doorless entrance, the shelter of Kara Patri, a young wandering sadhu noted for his exceptional intelligence. There he sat, cross-legged on a pile of straw, his only covering-and incidentally his only possession-being an ocher cloth draped over his shoulders.
"Truly a divine face smiled at us after we had crawled on all fours into the hut and pronamed at the feet of this enlightened soul, while the kerosene lantern at the entrance flickered weird, dancing shadows on the thatched walls. His face, especially his eyes and perfect teeth, beamed and glistened. Although I was puzzled by the Hindi, his expressions were very revealing; he was full of enthusiasm, love, spiritual glory. No one could be mistaken as to his greatness.
"Imagine the happy life of one unattached to the material world; free of the clothing problem; free of food craving, never begging, never touching cooked food except on alternate days, never carrying a begging bowl; free of all money entanglements, never handling money, never storing things away, always trusting in God; free of transportation worries, never riding in vehicles, but always walking on the banks of the sacred rivers; never remaining in one place longer than a week in order to avoid any growth of attachment.
"Such a modest soul! unusually learned in the Vedas, and possessing an M.A. degree and the title of shastri (master of scriptures) from Benares University. A sublime feeling pervaded me as I sat at his feet; it all seemed to be an answer to my desire to see the real, the ancient India, for he is a true representative of this land of spiritual giants."
I questioned Kara Patri about his wandering life. "Don't you have any extra clothes for winter?"
"No, this is enough."
"Do you carry any books?"
"No, I teach from memory those people who wish to hear me."
"What else do you do?"
"I roam by the Ganges."
At these quiet words, I was overpowered by a yearning for the simplicity of his life. I remembered America, and all the responsibilities that lay on my shoulders.
"No, Yogananda," I thought, sadly for a moment, "in this life roaming by the Ganges is not for you."
After the sadhu had told me a few of his spiritual realizations, I shot an abrupt question.
"Are you giving these descriptions from scriptural lore, or from inward experience?"
"Half from book learning," he answered with a straightforward smile, "and half from experience."
We sat happily awhile in meditative silence. After we had left his sacred presence, I said to Mr. Wright, "He is a king sitting on a throne of golden straw."
We had our dinner that night on the mela grounds under the stars, eating from leaf plates pinned together with sticks. Dishwashings in India are reduced to a minimum!
Two more days of the fascinating kumbha; then northwest along the Jumna banks to Agra. Once again I gazed on the Taj Mahal; in memory Jitendra stood by my side, awed by the dream in marble. Then on to the Brindaban ashram of Swami Keshabananda.
My object in seeking out Keshabananda was connected with this book. I had never forgotten Sri Yukteswar's request that I write the life of Lahiri Mahasaya. During my stay in India I was taking every opportunity of contacting direct disciples and relatives of the Yogavatar. Recording their conversations in voluminous notes, I verified facts and dates, and collected photographs, old letters, and documents. My Lahiri Mahasaya portfolio began to swell; I realized with dismay that ahead of me lay arduous labors in authorship. I prayed that I might be equal to my role as biographer of the colossal guru. Several of his disciples feared that in a written account their master might be belittled or misinterpreted.
"One can hardly do justice in cold words to the life of a divine incarnation," Panchanon Bhattacharya had once remarked to me.
Other close disciples were similarly satisfied to keep the Yogavatar hidden in their hearts as the deathless preceptor. Nevertheless, mindful of Lahiri Mahasaya's prediction about his biography, I spared no effort to secure and substantiate the facts of his outward life.
Swami Keshabananda greeted our party warmly at Brindaban in his Katayani Peith Ashram, an imposing brick building with massive black pillars, set in a beautiful garden. He ushered us at once into a sitting room adorned with an enlargement of Lahiri Mahasaya's picture. The swami was approaching the age of ninety, but his muscular body radiated strength and health. With long hair and a snow-white beard, eyes twinkling with joy, he was a veritable patriarchal embodiment. I informed him that I wanted to mention his name in my book on India's masters.
"Please tell me about your earlier life." I smiled entreatingly; great yogis are often uncommunicative.
Keshabananda made a gesture of humility. "There is little of external moment. Practically my whole life has been spent in the Himalayan solitudes, traveling on foot from one quiet cave to another. For a while I maintained a small ashram outside Hardwar, surrounded on all sides by a grove of tall trees. It was a peaceful spot little visited by travelers, owing to the ubiquitous presence of cobras." Keshabananda chuckled. "Later a Ganges flood washed away the hermitage and cobras alike. My disciples then helped me to build this Brindaban ashram."
One of our party asked the swami how he had protected himself against the Himalayan tigers.
Keshabananda shook his head. "In those high spiritual altitudes," he said, "wild beasts seldom molest the yogis. Once in the jungle I encountered a tiger face-to-face. At my sudden ejaculation, the animal was transfixed as though turned to stone." Again the swami chuckled at his memories.
"Occasionally I left my seclusion to visit my guru in Benares. He used to joke with me over my ceaseless travels in the Himalayan wilderness.
"'You have the mark of wanderlust on your foot,' he told me once. 'I am glad that the sacred Himalayas are extensive enough to engross you.'
"Many times," Keshabananda went on, "both before and after his passing, Lahiri Mahasaya has appeared bodily before me. For him no Himalayan height is inaccessible!"
Two hours later he led us to a dining patio. I sighed in silent dismay. Another fifteen-course meal! Less than a year of Indian hospitality, and I had gained fifty pounds! Yet it would have been considered the height of rudeness to refuse any of the dishes, carefully prepared for the endless banquets in my honor. In India (nowhere else, alas!) a well-padded swami is considered a delightful sight.
After dinner, Keshabananda led me to a secluded nook.
"Your arrival is not unexpected," he said. "I have a message for you."
I was surprised; no one had known of my plan to visit Keshabananda.
"While roaming last year in the northern Himalayas near Badrinarayan," the swami continued, "I lost my way. Shelter appeared in a spacious cave, which was empty, though the embers of a fire glowed in a hole in the rocky floor. Wondering about the occupant of this lonely retreat, I sat near the fire, my gaze fixed on the sunlit entrance to the cave.
"'Keshabananda, I am glad you are here.' These words came from behind me. I turned, startled, and was dazzled to behold Babaji! The great guru had materialized himself in a recess of the cave. Overjoyed to see him again after many years, I prostrated myself at his holy feet.
"'I called you here,' Babaji went on. 'That is why you lost your way and were led to my temporary abode in this cave. It is a long time since our last meeting; I am pleased to greet you once more.'
"The deathless master blessed me with some words of spiritual help, then added: 'I give you a message for Yogananda. He will pay you a visit on his return to India. Many matters connected with his guru and with the surviving disciples of Lahiri will keep Yogananda fully occupied. Tell him, then, that I won't see him this time, as he is eagerly hoping; but I shall see him on some other occasion.'"
I was deeply touched to receive from Keshabananda's lips this consoling promise from Babaji. A certain hurt in my heart vanished; I grieved no longer that, even as Sri Yukteswar had hinted, Babaji did not appear at the Kumbha Mela.
Spending one night as guests of the ashram, our party set out the following afternoon for Calcutta. Riding over a bridge of the Jumna River, we enjoyed a magnificent view of the skyline of Brindaban just as the sun set fire to the sky-a veritable furnace of Vulcan in color, reflected below us in the still waters.
The Jumna beach is hallowed by memories of the child Sri Krishna. Here he engaged with innocent sweetness in his lilas (plays) with the gopis (maids), exemplifying the supernal love which ever exists between a divine incarnation and his devotees. The life of Lord Krishna has been misunderstood by many Western commentators. Scriptural allegory is baffling to literal minds. A hilarious blunder by a translator will illustrate this point. The story concerns an inspired medieval saint, the cobbler Ravidas, who sang in the simple terms of his own trade of the spiritual glory hidden in all mankind:
Under the vast vault of blue
Lives the divinity clothed in hide.
One turns aside to hide a smile on hearing the pedestrian interpretation given to Ravidas' poem by a Western writer:
"He afterwards built a hut, set up in it an idol which he made from a hide, and applied himself to its worship."
Ravidas was a brother disciple of the great Kabir. One of Ravidas' exalted chelas was the Rani of Chitor. She invited a large number of Brahmins to a feast in honor of her teacher, but they refused to eat with a lowly cobbler. As they sat down in dignified aloofness to eat their own uncontaminated meal, lo! each Brahmin found at his side the form of Ravidas. This mass vision accomplished a widespread spiritual revival in Chitor.
In a few days our little group reached Calcutta. Eager to see Sri Yukteswar, I was disappointed to hear that he had left Serampore and was now in Puri, about three hundred miles to the south.
"Come to Puri ashram at once." This telegram was sent on March 8th by a brother disciple to Atul Chandra Roy Chowdhry, one of Master's chelas in Calcutta. News of the message reached my ears; anguished at its implications, I dropped to my knees and implored God that my guru's life be spared. As I was about to leave Father's home for the train, a divine voice spoke within.
"Do not go to Puri tonight. Thy prayer cannot he granted."
"Lord," I said, grief-stricken, "Thou dost not wish to engage with me in a 'tug of war' at Puri, where Thou wilt have to deny my incessant prayers for Master's life. Must he, then, depart for higher duties at Thy behest?"
In obedience to the inward command, I did not leave that night for Puri. The following evening I set out for the train; on the way, at seven o'clock, a black astral cloud suddenly covered the sky. Later, while the train roared toward Puri, a vision of Sri Yukteswar appeared before me. He was sitting, very grave of countenance, with a light on each side.
"Is it all over?" I lifted my arms beseechingly.
He nodded, then slowly vanished.
As I stood on the Puri train platform the following morning, still hoping against hope, an unknown man approached me.
"Have you heard that your Master is gone?" He left me without another word; I never discovered who he was nor how he had known where to find me.
Stunned, I swayed against the platform wall, realizing that in diverse ways my guru was trying to convey to me the devastating news. Seething with rebellion, my soul was like a volcano. By the time I reached the Puri hermitage I was nearing collapse. The inner voice was tenderly repeating: "Collect yourself. Be calm."
I entered the ashram room where Master's body, unimaginably lifelike, was sitting in the lotus posture-a picture of health and loveliness. A short time before his passing, my guru had been slightly ill with fever, but before the day of his ascension into the Infinite, his body had become completely well. No matter how often I looked at his dear form I could not realize that its life had departed. His skin was smooth and soft; in his face was a beatific expression of tranquillity. He had consciously relinquished his body at the hour of mystic summoning.
"The Lion of Bengal is gone!" I cried in a daze.
I conducted the solemn rites on March 10th. Sri Yukteswar was buried with the ancient rituals of the swamis in the garden of his Puri ashram. His disciples later arrived from far and near to honor their guru at a vernal equinox memorial service. The Amrita Bazar Patrika, leading newspaper of Calcutta, carried his picture and the following report:
The death Bhandara ceremony for Srimat Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri Maharaj, aged 81, took place at Puri on March 21. Many disciples came down to Puri for the rites.
One of the greatest expounders of the Bhagavad Gita, Swami Maharaj was a great disciple of Yogiraj Sri Shyama Charan Lahiri Mahasaya of Benares. Swami Maharaj was the founder of several Yogoda Sat-Sanga (Self-Realization Fellowship) centers in India, and was the great inspiration behind the yoga movement which was carried to the West by Swami Yogananda, his principal disciple. It was Sri Yukteswarji's prophetic powers and deep realization that inspired Swami Yogananda to cross the oceans and spread in America the message of the masters of India.
His interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures testify to the depth of Sri Yukteswarji's command of the philosophy, both Eastern and Western, and remain as an eye-opener for the unity between Orient and Occident. As he believed in the unity of all religious faiths, Sri Yukteswar Maharaj established Sadhu Sabha (Society of Saints) with the cooperation of leaders of various sects and faiths, for the inculcation of a scientific spirit in religion. At the time of his demise he nominated Swami Yogananda his successor as the president of Sadhu Sabha.
India is really poorer today by the passing of such a great man. May all fortunate enough to have come near him inculcate in themselves the true spirit of India's culture and sadhana which was personified in him.
I returned to Calcutta. Not trusting myself as yet to go to the Serampore hermitage with its sacred memories, I summoned Prafulla, Sri Yukteswar's little disciple in Serampore, and made arrangements for him to enter the Ranchi school.
"The morning you left for the Allahabad mela," Prafulla told me, "Master dropped heavily on the davenport.
"'Yogananda is gone!' he cried. 'Yogananda is gone!' He added cryptically, 'I shall have to tell him some other way.' He sat then for hours in silence."
My days were filled with lectures, classes, interviews, and reunions with old friends. Beneath a hollow smile and a life of ceaseless activity, a stream of black brooding polluted the inner river of bliss which for so many years had meandered under the sands of all my perceptions.
"Where has that divine sage gone?" I cried silently from the depths of a tormented spirit.
No answer came.
"It is best that Master has completed his union with the Cosmic Beloved," my mind assured me. "He is eternally glowing in the dominion of deathlessness."
"Never again may you see him in the old Serampore mansion," my heart lamented. "No longer may you bring your friends to meet him, or proudly say: 'Behold, there sits India's Jnanavatar!'"
Mr. Wright made arrangements for our party to sail from Bombay for the West in early June. After a fortnight in May of farewell banquets and speeches at Calcutta, Miss Bletch, Mr. Wright and myself left in the Ford for Bombay. On our arrival, the ship authorities asked us to cancel our passage, as no room could be found for the Ford, which we would need again in Europe.
"Never mind," I said gloomily to Mr. Wright. "I want to return once more to Puri." I silently added, "Let my tears once again water the grave of my guru."