1.2 SRI RAMAKRISHNA’S
1. Why an incarnation is born in a poor family
With the exception of Sri Ramachandra and Lord Buddha, all the divine incarnations were born in poverty and hardship. Consider, for example, the childhood of Bhagavan Sri Krishna, the glory of the race of Kshatriya princes. He was born in a prison and spent his childhood away from his kith and kin in a community of humble cowherds; or the life of Lord Jesus, who, although born in a stable, with a manger for cradle, brought glory to his humble parents; or that of Bhagavan Sankara, born after his father’s death, the son of a poor widow; or of Bhagavan Sri Chaitanya, of common parentage; and finally, the humble birth of the Prophet Mohammad, the founder of Islam But despite this fact, none of them was born in a family where contentment did not reign supreme in the midst of want and poverty; or where the warmth of love and selflessness did not prevail over the chill of penury; or where the hearts of the parents were not adorned with renunciation and purity, and adamantine firmness and austerity were not matched with tender charity and kindness.
If we think deeply, we find that there is a subtle connection between the condition of poverty and the future course of the lives of the incarnations. For unless, from their early years, they had known and sympathized with the lot of the poor, the oppressed and the miserable, how could they, in later years, have wiped away the tears of such people and brought them solace? That, however, is not all that the incarnations aimed to accomplish. We have already seen that they came into the world mainly to arrest the decline of religion. To fulfil that object they had to acquire intimate knowledge of the principles underlying religion in the past, and, to bring out by a study of the causes of its decline, new and perfected forms of religion suited to particular times and places. It is in the huts of the lowly and not in the palaces of the rich that this intimate knowledge can be gained; for it is the poor man, deprived of the enjoyment of worldly pleasures, who clings to God and His dispensation as his main support. Although, therefore, religion declines everywhere, a little gleam of the old teaching still brightens the poor man’s hut. That is perhaps why these great souls, the world-teachers, are attracted at the time of their birth to the huts of the poor.
A cluster of three villages, forming a triangle, is situated in Bengal, not far from the place where the north-western part of the district of Hoogly joins the districts of Bankura and Medinipur. Although known to the villagers themselves as Sripur, Kamarpukur and Mukundapur, these three villages nestle so close together that they appear to the traveller as different quarters of the same village. The people of the surrounding villages called all the three Kamarpukur, probably because the local landlords had lived, in that village for many generations. At the time we are speaking of, Kamarpukur formed a part of the rent-free estate belonging to the family of the spiritual teacher of the Maharaja of Burdwan. The descendants of this family, Gopilal Goswami, Sukhlal Goswami and others,1 were living there.
The town of Burdwan is situated about thirty-two miles north of Kamarpukur. A metalled road, skirting Kamarpukur, leads from there to Puri to the south-west. Many poor pilgrims and Sadhus walk along this road to Puri to pay obeisance to Sri Jagannath, the Lord of the universe, and return the same way. The famous temple of Tarakeswar Mahadeva is situated about nineteen or twenty miles north of Kamarpukur. A road passing through Jahanabad or Arambagh on the bank of the river Dwarakeswar connects that place with Kamarpukur. Moreover two highways — one from Ghata, eighteen miles to the south, and the other from Vanavishnupur, twenty-six miles to the west — enter Kamarpukur.
No words can express the atmosphere of peace that pervaded the mainly agricultural villages of Bengal before they were devastated by malaria in 1867. Surrounded by extensive fields, these small villages of the Hooghly district looked like islands floating in a vast green area. The people enjoyed health and strength, as well as happiness and contentment, since they led an outdoor life and had plenty to eat, the soil being extremely fertile. The villages were densely populated, and the villagers, besides cultivating the fields, engaged themselves in various small industries. Thus Kamarpukur is still famous in that part of the country for Jilapi and Nabat (sweets), and its people even now make a decent living by manufacturing hookah pipes of ebony and selling them in Calcutta. At one time it was famous for producing yarn, Dhotis and towels and for such other handicrafts. Well-known cloth merchants, Vishnu Chapdi and others, lived in this village and maintained a good business with Calcutta. A market is held in the village, even now, every Tuesday and Saturday, and people from the surrounding villages (Tarahat, Vadangaj, Sihar, Desra etc.,) bring to it for sale article’s of daily use, such as yarn, Dhotis, towels, cooking-pots, pitchers, baskets, fine and coarse mats etc. along with the produce of the fields. Numerous ceremonial festivals are still observed. To this day, in the month of Chaitra, Kamarpukur reverberates with songs in praise of the goddess Manasa, as well as with the Gajan (Garjana) song in praise of Siva, and in the month of Vaisakh or Jyaishtha, with songs about Hari continuing uninterruptedly for periods of three days. Moreover all kinds of ceremonies pertaining to special occasions (Pal Parvana)2 are performed throughout the year in the house of the landlord, while daily and special worships take place in the established temples. The poverty of the village has now put a stop to many other similar festivities.
At one time the worship of Dharma, which was originally one of the three principal ‘gems’ of the Buddhists, was celebrated annually with great pomp and splendour. But that time is gone. Sri Dharma is now looked upon as Kurma (the second of the ten important incarnations of Vishnu) and receives only ordinary worship here and in the surrounding villages. Even brahmins are sometimes seen worshipping the image of this deity. One hears different names for Sri Dharma in different villages. Thus, the Dharma of Kamarpukur is called Rajadhiraja; the Dharma installed at Sripur is named Yatrasiddhiraja; and the one at the village called Madhuvati, near Mukundapur, is known as Sannyasiraja. The chariot procession (Ratha Yatra) of the Dharma of Kamarpukur used to be celebrated formerly with much pomp. The god’s big chariot with its nine pinnacles could be seen near the temple; but after it broke down it was never rebuilt. The temple is also falling to pieces for want of repairs, and its priest, Yajnesvara, has now removed the deity to his own house.
People of various castes, high and low, such as the Brahmin, Kayastha, weaver, milkman, blacksmith, potter, fisherman and Dom (a low caste), live at Kamarpukur. There are three or four tanks in the village, the biggest being called the Haldarpukur. There are also many small ponds, some of them with large numbers of hundred-petalled lotuses and white water-lilies. There are still many brick houses and tombs in the village, though in earlier days there was a larger number of them. The broken temple of Ramananda Sankhari, the dilapidated Rasa-platform of Fakir Datta, heaps of bricks overgrown with jungle, and deserted shrines in various places are evidence of the former prosperity of the village. There are two burning-ghats, called Budhui Moral and Bhutir Khal, one to the northwest, the other to the north-east. To the west of the Bhutir Khal are the common grazing ground, the public mango grove planted by Manikraja, and the Amodar river. The Bhuti stream flows south and joins this river not far from the village.
A mile north of Kamarpukur there is a village called Bhursubo, where lived a very rich man named Manik Chandra Bandyopadhyaya, commonly known as Manikraja to the people of the surrounding villages. Besides the mango grove just mentioned, certain tanks named Sukhasayar and Hatisayar still remind us of him. It is said that on several occasions about a lakh of Brahmins3 were invited and fed at his palace.
In the village of Mandaran, south-east of Kamarpukur, there used to be an impregnable fort built to protect the people of the surrounding villages from the attacks of enemies. The course of the neighbouring rivulet, Amodar, was skilfully diverted to serve as a moat for this fort.
The ruins of the gateway, the tower and the moat of the fort, and the temple of Siva named Saileswar, not far from it, exist to this day. They indicate the importance of this part of the country during the time of the Pathan rule. It is by the Mandaran fort that the road leading to Burdwan passes. On both sides of this road are many large tanks, the largest being the one at a place called Uchalan, eighteen miles north of the fort. There is also an elephant-stable in ruins at a place along this road. This shows clearly that the road was constructed for use during wars and disturbances. The existence of the battlefield of Mogalmari by this road also attests to the same fact.
Two miles west of Kamarpukur there are three villages — called Satbere, Narayanpur, and Dere — situated side by side. The former prosperity of these villages can be inferred from various signs, such as the tank in the village of Dere and the temple near by. At the time of which we are speaking, the three villages were included in different estates, and Ramananda Roy, the landlord of Dere, lived in the village Satbere. This landlord, who was not very rich, greatly oppressed his tenants. When angry for some reason or other, he did not hesitate to deprive a tenant of all his possessions. None of his sons or daughters survived him. It is said that he could leave behind no progeny on account of the sin of oppressing the tenants. After his death all his estate and property fell into others’ hands.
About one hundred and fifty years ago, there lived a religious-minded Brahmin family of moderate means in the village of Dere. They were of noble descent, observed the customs of pious Hindus, and worshipped Sri Ramachandra. The temple of Siva and the adjoining tank known as the Chatujee tank still commemorate their memory. Sri Manikram Chattopadhyaya of this family had three sons and a daughter. Of these, the eldest, Kshudiram, was born probably in A.D. 1775. After him came Ramsila, the daughter, and the two other sons, Nidhiram and Kanairam.
It is not known whether Kshudiram ever became proficient in any kind of learning that brought him money. But the Lord had blessed him with truthfulness, contentment, forgiveness, renunciation and other noble qualities, the possession of which is considered by the Sastras the mark of a good Brahmin. He was tall and strong and had a fair complexion and pleasing looks. Kshudiram showed a deep devotion to Sri Ramachandra, who had been worshipped in his family generation after generation. He was in the habit of performing Sandhya, along with his other daily routine, after which he would collect flowers for the worship of Raghuvir (Ramachandra). Not until he finished his worship would he eat anything. He never accepted gifts from Sudras and would even refuse invitations from Brahmins who performed religious rites for them. Nor would he drink water touched by Brahmins who took money for giving their daughters in marriage. He was greatly loved and respected by the villagers for his faithful observance of pious customs.
Kshudiram took up management of the ancestral property on the death of his father. He performed this duty as best as he could, remaining at the same time steadfast in the path of religion. Some time previously he had married and taken up family responsibilities, but his wife had died young. When he was about twenty-five years of age he married a second time; The bride’s name was Chandramani, but in the family she was called simply ‘Chandra’. Her father’s house was in the village of Saratimayapur. She was simple-hearted, good-looking and devoted to the service of the gods and the twice-born. But her outstanding qualities were her heart-felt religious faith, love and affection, and it was these that made her dear to all. Born probably in the year 1791, she must have been only about eight years old at the time of her marriage in 1799. Her first son, Ramkumar, is said to have been born in 1805. A daughter, Katyayani, was born five years later, and she rejoiced at the birth of her second son, Rameswar, in 1826.
It did not take Kshudiram long to discover how difficult it was to manage worldly affairs without deviating from the path of righteousness. Probably a short time after his daughter Katyayani was born he had to undergo a very hard test. We have already spoken of the oppression of the tenants by Ramananda Roy, the landlord of the village. Annoyed with a certain man of Derepur, Ramananda instituted a false case against him, and since someone of good reputation was needed as a witness, he requested Kshudiram to give evidence in his favour. The strictly upright Kshudiram always dreaded litigation, courts and the like, and never had recourse to them against anyone, even when he had a just cause. The request therefore came to him as a shock. Though he knew for certain that he would incur Ramananda’s bitter animosity if he did not give the false evidence, he could never agree to such a course. The inevitable happened. The landlord filed a false petition in the court against him as well, won the case and got possession of the whole of Kshudiram’s paternal property through auction. In consequence Kshudiram had not even a square inch of land left in Derepur. Although all the people of the village felt great sympathy for him in his trouble, out of fear of the landlord they did not dare help him in any way.
At the time of his loss Kshudiram was about forty years old. The property4 inherited from his ancestors, together with that acquired by him over many years, had vanished like a cloud dispersed by the wind. But this calamity did not affect his upright conduct in the least. He took absolute refuge at the holy feet of Raghuvir, calmly reflected on what he should do in order to escape the wicked landlord, and finally bade goodbye for ever to his paternal homestead and village.
We have already mentioned Sukhlal Goswami of Kamarpukur. He and Kshudiram were of a like temperament and were old and intimate friends. Sukhlal was much moved on hearing of Kshudiram’s misfortune, and vacating a few thatched huts in a part of his homestead invited him to come and live there permanently. Kshudiram thus found a haven of refuge. He accepted the invitation, regarding it as the incomprehensible play (Lila) of the divine Lord, and with his heart filled with gratitude went to Kamarpukur, where he lived ever after. Sukhlal, who loved his friend dearly, felt very happy at his coming, and made a permanent gift to the virtuous Kshudiram of one Bigha and ten Chataks5 of land for his future maintenance.