Sri Swami Nirvananandaji Maharaj (Sujji Maharaj), a disciple of Swami Brahmananda, was one of the Vice-Presidents of the Ramakrishna Order. I had the blessed fortune of being initiated by him. On this auspicious occasion of Sri Guru Purnima, I am happy to recollect one wonderful incident in my Guru’s early life – how Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi guided him. Originally published in Sri Sri Mayer padaprante (Vol. III), in Bengali, these reminiscences are translated by Mrs. Maloti Sengupta.
by Swami Nirvanananda
It was March or April of the year 1915. I was then engaged in attending on Brahmanandaji Maharaj at Belur Math. I used to notice monks and brahmacharis of my age set out for tapasya with the permission of Maharaj. They would go off to the Himalayas or go elsewhere and spend a year or so there in spiritual practices. One day I too approached Maharaj and asked permission to go for tapasya. At once he said: ‘What else are you doing here? Your serving here is much more effective than tapasya. You don’t need to go anywhere else.’ In spite of these words when I kept pressing him for permission he suggested that I obtain permission from Mahapurush Maharaj. As soon as Mahapurush Maharaj heard my prayer he exclaimed: ‘Are you crazy? Where else will you go for tapasya? Be assured that everything can be gained by just serving Maharaj.’ Still I persisted with my request. At last he said: ‘Well, go to Baburam Maharaj. You may go only if he gives permission. When I went to Baburam Maharaj his response was the same but more vehement. He cried out: ‘Have you really gone mad, Sujji? Don’t you see that Thakur dwells within Maharaj? Will you be in such close proximity to the spiritual son of Bhagawan Sri Ramakrishna anywhere else?’ Finally he gave in to my pleadings and said: ‘Okay, Mother is now at Udbodhan. If she allows you, then you may go. But at first go to Kalighat and worship Kali there. Then go to Mother for her blessings. Know that she who is in Kalighat and the one who is at Bagh Bazar (Udbodhan), are one and the same.’
Having visited the temple at Kalighat I reached Udbodhan. I was the last in the queue of devotees desiring darshan of Mother. From afar I observed Mother sitting with her face veiled and blessing everyone who offered pranams to her. Finally all the devotees departed and it was my turn. When I stood up after prostrating at her feet I found that Mother had uncovered her face completely. All smiles, she said: ‘Take this sweet, son, eat it.’ She herself gave me the prasad. I gave her an account of activities at the Math. Lastly I placed my appeal before her. After giving me a patient hearing Mother said: ‘Thakur did not like the practice of going out and indulging in harsh disciplines, my child. Besides, where will you go for tapasya leaving the Math and Rakhal? You are serving Rakhal, isn’t that sufficient?’ But I went on insisting childishly on having her permission and blessings for tapasya. Finding me adamant Mother yielded: ‘Well, you may go for tapasya, but go to Kashi. However, you have to give me word that you will not undertake austerities intentionally and needlessly. If on the way help comes unasked, you will accept it. Even during tapasya at Kashi if anybody offers you anything, you will accept it. You will stay at the Sevashram and if the urge is very strong you may beg your food outside. This will serve both purposes – Kashivas (dwelling in Kashi, a centre for pilgrimage) and tapasya.’ I gave her word that I would abide by her instructions. However, I sought her permission for travelling to Kashi on foot. I did obtain her consent but I was aware that the proposal was not to her liking. After offering my pranams to Mother and receiving her blessings I returned happily to the Math and reported everything to Maharaj, Mahapurush Maharaj and Baburam Maharaj.
A few months later, having bathed in the Ganga before daybreak I set out for Kashi with only a little cloth-bag. I had a staff in one hand and a kamandal (water pot used for religious purpose) in the other. Being then a brahmachari I was clad in white cloth. I tore the cloth into two pieces, wearing one half around my waist and wrapping the other half round my shoulders. I was on my way to Kashi, alone, along the Grand Trunk Road. It was the month of Bhadra (August-September), the weather, therefore was sultry. As I trudged on I realized that my walking down to Kashi was against Mother’s will. On the way I was rather unwell and grew weak. For two days I had almost nothing to eat. At times I felt a little aggrieved that I was in such a predicament in spite of her blessings. On the third morning I lay exhausted under a large mango tree on the wayside. Silently I complained to Mother about such an outcome of her blessings. A little later a car halted under the tree. A family alighted from the car intending to have their food under the shade of the tree. I lay down as before, not interested in them or their activities. Suddenly I heard a familiar voice: ‘Isn’t it Sujji Maharaj? What brings you here?’ On looking up I saw a well-known face, that of a devotee who was a frequent visitor at the Math. When he heard that my destination was Kashi he said: ‘Come with us in our car. We are going to Madhupur. We’ll take you along as far as we can. I thanked him and said: ‘But I have resolved to walk all the way.’ At that he had food served to me first – some parathas, fruits and sweets from what they had brought and filled my kamandal with water. I ate what he offered but despite their entreaties I neither boarded their car nor accepted their money. When they also had eaten, they departed and I resumed my journey. It seemed to me that I was walking endlessly. Due to walking barefoot, blisters had developed in my feet, and the whole body was aching. I walked mostly at night, because walking during the day was painful. Three more days passed during which I had only a few guavas to eat. It struck me then that those people had wanted to take me along some distance in their car but I had not agreed. Mother had said: ‘Don’t undertake austerities intentionally and needlessly.’ By turning down the devotee’s request I had disobeyed Mother, so my suffering may be due to that. When I asked for alms people mocked me. Being clad in white was perhaps another reason for alms not coming my way. However, I used to walk about 20 miles each day. Travelling in this manner in the evening of the seventh day, I reached a village on the border of Bengal and Bihar, in the district of Hazaribagh.
The name of the village was Birpur [sic]. After much searching I succeeded in finding a temple of Shiva where I took shelter for the night. The place was swarming with mosquitoes. I realized that it would be impossible to spend the night there. As I sat there warding off the mosquitoes, once again the potency of Mother’s blessings was revealed to me. At about 9 o’clock the priest, a young man, arrived. He took a close look at me and put some questions to me. Then he sat down to worship and when that was over, said to me in Hindi: ‘Come home with me. Bears and other animals come here at night.’ I was about to say ‘No’ but Mother’s words came back to me: ‘don’t undertake austerities intentionally.’ So I accompanied him without further delay. I found a quite well-to-do family. His widowed mother was very pleased to see me. She took me to their shrine to perform my japa etc.
I was startled when I noticed a picture of Sri Ramakrishna amidst those gods and goddesses. I stood there overwhelmed, and tears filled my eyes. How did he come to be there, an obscure village on the border of Bihar and Bengal? I can hardly describe the joy and the faith that surged in my heart. The old lady detained me for three nights with her loving care. She herself prepared khichuri, malpua and so many other things for me to eat. She applied some ointment to the blisters under my feet and smeared a paste of turmeric and lime on my sprained foot to reduce the pain. After three days I felt that I was quite well and could resume walking. The old lady, however, objected. She said: ‘No, my child, you are still weak. You can’t walk alone such a long distance to Kashi and do penance there. Here is your ticket, you will travel by train.’ Remembering Mother’s words this time too I did not refuse. They helped me board a train at a nearby station.
The old lady and her son recounted to me the story behind the picture of Thakur in their shrine. Once the son had made a trip to Kashi. Seeing the picture of Thakur on a calendar hanging in a shop selling homeopathic medicine he had asked for it and brought it home. I think it must have been M. (Mahesh) Bhatta-charya’s shop. He had learned at the shop itself that the picture was of Sri Ramakrishna – ‘Ramkishan, perhaps some Bengali avatar.’ Both mother and son stated: ‘However, after bringing this picture home everything has taken a turn for the better.’ When I asked the son why he had asked for the picture, he answered: ‘There seemed to be some magic in Ramakrishna’s eyes. His eyes drew me irresistibly, so I asked for the picture. Then I had it framed.’
I reached Kashi by train. The old lady and her son had wanted me to spend a few more days with them. I somehow succeeded in leaving on the fourth day, much to their disappointment. Till I reached Kashi everything went smoothly. I realized then that after leaving the Math, Mother had been constantly with me.
Mother had stated: ‘Stay at the Sevashram and if the urge is very strong you may beg your food outside.’ But my impetus for tapasya being excessively strong I decided that the period of my tapasya I would spend outdoors. If I put up at Sevashram the sense of security would affect my tapasya. So I resolved to stay outside and also to beg my food. I found a suitable place in an old garden house near the Ganga and I earnestly devoted my time to meditation, japa and tapasya, while depending on alms for food. The place was not a healthy one. It was infested with insects and mosquitoes which hardly let me be in peace. I understood why Mother had advised me to stay at the Sevashram and to live on alms ‘if the urge was very strong’. The alms in North India, consisting of dal (lentil soup) and chapattis did not suit my constitution. Soon I started to feel quite worn out. I felt my enthusiasm was fast declining. To revive my fervour I visited revered Latu Maharaj (Swami Adbhutananda) who used to dwell on a ghat on the banks of the river. Seeing me he asked very tenderly: ‘Sujji, what has come over you? Why do you look so weak? I fear that begging does not suit you. Well, take these two rupees. Master Mashay (M.) sends the money to me every month to have milk. Take these two rupees and have a little milk everyday.’ As he himself used to practise severe austerities, it hurt me to accept the money. However, Mother’s words: ‘don’t undertake austerities intentionally’ recurred to me. So I was compelled to accept it. This expression of his love brought tears to my eyes.
My health did not improve, rather it declined further. I contracted dysentery which aggravated due to my living on begged food. One day my condition was so bad that I just lay down in that garden house alone. I had nothing to eat and there were frequent evacuations. Suddenly I heard the sound of some people nearby. The owner of the house – a lady – entered my room. She had come to see the house after several years. At the sight of me, in that state, everything was clear to her. She may have heard about me from the caretaker of the house. Immediately she gave orders for a good room to be fixed up for me and added that rice, vegetables, milk, etc. – everything essential for my diet, should be provided to me. This time too I was about to refuse but remembering Mother’s instructions, I accepted all. It seemed to me that Mother herself had come in the form of that lady and made arrangements for my food and rest.
In a few days I recovered. By then I had realized that instead of doing tapasya I was accepting service from others. Calling Mother’s instructions to mind, I now took shelter at the Sevashram. After 6 or 7 months had passed in this manner, packing up my scanty belongings, I returned to the Math where Maharaj had been awaiting me with the anxiety of a father. I fell at his feet. That was the end of my desire to leave the Math and engage in tapasya.