1.6 GADADHAR’S CHILDHOOD AND
THE DEATH OF HIS FATHER
According to the scriptures, the parents of incarnations like Rama, Krishna and others, knew through their spiritual visions both before and after the birth of their sons, that these were under the special protection of Providence. But, blinded by parental affection, they forgot that fact, and would therefore always be anxious about their welfare. This applies to Kshudiram and his wife Chandradevi also. For, the lotus face of their loving child made them often forget the divine dream at Gaya and the celestial vision near the Siva temple, and they began to devise various means for his proper care and nourishment. The news of the birth was sent to Ramchandra, Kshudiram’s prosperous nephew, at Medinipur. Fearing that there would not be sufficient milk for his uncle’s poor family, he sent them a milch cow, thereby removing Kshudiram’s anxiety on that score. But though all that was wanted for the new-born child came in unexpected ways from different quarters, there was no end to the anxiety of the parents. Time thus rolled on.
As days went by, the baby’s charm began to attract people more and more. He captivated the hearts not only of his parents and every other member of the family, but also of the village women. Whenever the village women had some leisure, they would hasten to Chandra and if asked why they came, would answer, “What are we to do? Our longing to see your baby every day brings us here.” From now on, women relatives from the neighbouring villages also began to come to Kshudiram’s humble cottage ofener than before. Growing up without want, and surrounded by love and care, the new-comer gradually passed his fifth month, and the time for the first rice-eating ceremony of the baby was at hand.
At first Kshudiram decided to perform this ceremony in a simple way in keeping with his means. His idea was just to make it conform to the scriptural injunction and to conclude it by giving the child the rice offered to Raghuvir, and to invite a few near relatives. But actually, things took a different course. At the secret prompting of Kshudiram’s great friend, Dharmadas Laha, the village landlord, the foremost Brahmins and other leading men of the village came to Kshudiram and, to his utter surprise, insisted that he should feed them on that auspicious day. Kshudiram was in a great fix; for since all the villagers respected and loved him, he could not make up his mind as to whom to invite and whom to leave out. And to invite all was out of the question because of his slender resources. Convinced in his heart that Raghuvir would show him the way out, he sought the advice of Dharmadas. As soon as he came to know of his friend’s desire to take the responsibility for the ceremony on himself, Kshudiarm left the whole matter to him and returned home. Dharmadas cheerfully made all arrangements for the ceremony, almost entirely at his own expense, and the function went off smoothly. We are told that people of all castes in the village came to Kshudiram’s cottage for the ceremony and enjoyed taking the food offered to Raghuvir. Many poor beggars also had their fill that day and left, each with a blessing for Kshudiram’s son.
Gadadhar’s every little action appeared sweeter with the passing of time, and filled Chandradevi’s heart with joy, but she was not quite free from fear. Before the birth of this child she had never asked the gods for any favour. But now, urged by a mother’s love, a thousand times a day, consciously or unconsciously, her heart poured forth prayers for her son. And yet she could not shake off her anxiety altogether. The thought of her son’s care and well-being so completely filled her mind now that, before long, it could not but come in the way of her seeing spiritual visions. But they still came to her from time to time, and filled her sometimes with amazement, sometimes with an apprehension of evil. We shall now relate an example of this, having heard it from a reliable source.
One morning, when Gadadhar was seven or eight months old, he fell asleep at his mother’s breast. Chandra put him to rest under a mosquito-net and went out of the room to attend to her household duties. Shortly afterwards, when she happened to come back to the room for something, she found that instead of the child, a strange tall person was lying under the net, filling the whole bed. In great alarm Chandra rushed out of the room and called for her husband. As soon as he came, she told him what she had seen and both of them went to find no one except the child sleeping as before. Even then, Chandra’s fear did not abate. She went on repeating: “I am certain that it was a mischievous spirit who did it. I distinctly saw a tall person lying in the bed where our son lies. It was certainly not a delusion. How could it be? Do call immediately an experienced exorcist to examine the child. Otherwise, some harm may befall him.” Kshudiram consoled her saying: “There is nothing strange in your getting visions even now about our son; for we were blessed with them even before his birth. So drive away the idea that it was the doing of a spirit. With Raghuvir in the house, is it ever possible for spirits to come here to harm the boy? Therefore be at rest and do not speak to anyone about it. Be sure that Raghuvir always protects him” Although for the time being Chandra was pacified by her husband’s words, the fear of harm befalling the child still haunted her mind like a shadow. For a long time that day, with folded hands, she poured out to Raghuvir the anguish of her heart.
Years thus went by, bringing to Gadadhar’s parents joy and sorrow, exaltation and anxiety. The sweet influence the little boy exerted over them and over others from the very beginning, increased day by day. Four or five years gradually passed. During this period, Kshudiram’s last child, a daughter named Sarvamangala, was born.
As Gadadhar grew up, Kshudiram was filled with wonder and delight at noticing the development of the boy’s remarkable memory and intelligence. Sometimes he would take the lively boy on his lap and repeat to him a long list of names of his ancestors, or short hymns to gods and goddesses, and the various ways of paying homage to them, or wonderful stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. He found that Gadadhar could remember, by hearing it only once, most of what he was told, even after a long time, and that, when the boy was asked to repeat, he could do so without faltering. At the same time, he discovered that, just as the boy took to and remembered some things with great eagerness, he also remained indifferent to certain other things which did not appeal to him in spite of all efforts to rouse his interest. He noticed this when trying to teach him arithmetic, especially the multiplication table, and thought it unnecessary to force the impatient lad, still so young, to learn those things. But finding that the boy was becoming more and more restless, he sent him to school after the usual ceremony. He was then five years old. Gadadhar was very happy, to meet boys of his own age, and his loving ways endeared him to them and to the teacher.
The school was held in the spacious theatre-hall in front of the house of the Lahas, the landlords of the village. A teacher, paid mainly by them, taught their own children and those of the neighbourhood. In fact, it was the Lahas who were chiefly responsible for starting the school. It was not far from Kshudiram’s cottage, and was held twice daily, morning and evening. The children came in the morning and after learning their lessons for two or three hours, returned home for the bath and food. They came again at three or four in the afternoon, remained till sunset and were then free. Very young boys like Gadadhar had not, of course, to study for so long a period; but had nevertheless to remain in the school. After finishing their lessons, the little boys stayed in their places or sometimes went for play. The older boys helped the new-comers with their lessons and also saw to it that they went through their old lessons every day. Thus, although the school had only one teacher, the work went on smoothly. One Jadunath Sarkar was in charge when Gadadhar first entered school, but he retired shortly afterwards, for various reasons, and one Rajendranath Sarkar was appointed in his place.
The wonderful dreams and visions which had begun even before Gadadhar was born and foretold the boy’s destiny had made a lasting impression on Kshudiram’s mind. And so, whenever he found the boy doing something naughty, like all lively children, he could never be harsh with him Instead, he would gently ask the boy not to do it again. He now and then noticed signs of wilfulness in Gadadhar but he was not sure whether this was due to the undue attention everybody paid him or to the boy’s own nature. Instead of going to school, the self-willed boy would go and play with his companions outside the village; or, without caring to tell anybody, go to an open-air performance called the Yatra, at some place in the neighbourhood. Kshudiram did not scold him for this wilfulness, as other parents would have done, for he now felt convinced that it was this that would ultimately help the boy to become great. And there was good reason for him to think so, since he invariably found that Gadadhar would not rest till he accomplished what he had set out to do, would never try to hide anything he had done by telling a lie; and, would, above all, never think of doing harm to anybody. But there was one thing that really worried Kshudiram When the boy was asked or forbidden to do anything, he would deliberately go counter to the instruction till it was put to him in a way that appealed to his heart and understanding. Kshudiram understood that this really showed the boy’s desire to know the why and wherefore of everything; but he realized that people would not normally tolerate such behaviour, nor take the trouble to satisfy the boy’s curiosity by telling him the reason for everything. As a result, he thought, it was possible that the boy might occasionally be led to ignore the conventional rules of good conduct. It was the occurrence, at that time, of a small incident which gave rise to this apprehension of Kshudiram. It also made him understand the working of the boy’s mind, and he began carefully to guide him accordingly.
There is a big tank known as Haldarpukur, by the side of Kshudiram’s house. All the villagers used its clear pure water for bathing, drinking, cooking, etc. It had two bathing Ghats, one for men and the other for women. Young boys like Gadadhar would very often use the Ghat reserved for women. Coming one day for a bath to that Ghat with a few boys of his own age, Gadadhar started jumping and swimming in the water and made himself a nuisance to the women who had come there to bathe. Elderly women who were occupied with their daily prayers and other devotions found that, now and then, a little water was splashed over them They told the boys to stop, but the boys would not listen. Annoyed at this, one of the women scolded them saying, “Why do you come here? Can’t you go to the men’s Ghat? Here women wash their clothes after their bath. You should know that women must not be seen undressed.” Gadadhar asked, “Why not?” But, instead of making him understand, she began to scold him all the more. Seeing that the women were annoyed and fearing that they would complain to their parents, the boys behaved better. But Gadadhar hit upon a plan. For two or three days, he hid himself behind a tree near the tank and peeped at the women while they were taking their bath. When, later, he met the elderly woman who had scolded him, he told her, “Day before yesterday I saw four women bathing, yesterday six and today eight. But I find that nothing has happened to me!” She thereupon came to Chandra and told her laughingly what the boy had said. At an opportune moment, Chandra spoke to Gadadhar gently, but in a convincing manner: “It is true nothing will happen to you when you do that; only the women feel insulted. They are in no way different from me; and so, if you insult them, it is the same as insulting me. In future don’t do anything that would hurt their sense of honour. Is it right to wound their feelings, as well as mine?” The boy understood and never again behaved that way.
To resume the story, Gadadhar’s progress at school was not bad. Within a short time he could read and write in a simple way. But his aversion to arithmetic continued. On the other hand, he became more and more adroit in imitating others and showed his originality in various ways. Seeing the village potters making images of gods and goddesses, he began to visit them, and learning their art, started practising it at home. It became one of his hobbies. Similarly he mixed with those who painted pictures and himself began to do so. Whenever he was told that someone was reading and expounding the Puranas in the village, or that a religious drama was being enacted, he would go there and thus come to know the stories from the scriptures. He would, at the same time, observe very minutely the manner of presentation that appealed most to the audience. His wonderful memory and keen insight were of great help in these matters. From that early age his remarkable power of imitation and an inherent sense of fun helped the lively lad to mimic the peculiar gestures of men and women. At the same time the daily example of his parents helped to bring out his innate guilelessness and love of God. When he grew up he remembered this and all his life acknowledged with a grateful heart his debt to his parents. The reader will be able to judge for himself, when he reads the following words which he afterwards said to us at Dakshineswar: “My mother was the very embodiment of simplicity. She did not understand anything of worldly matters and could not count money. Not realizing the danger of saying all the things to all the persons, she would give out whatever came to her mind to anybody and everybody. For this, people called her, ‘silly’. She also liked to feed one and all. My father never accepted a gift from a Sudra. He spent the greater part of the day in worship, Japa, and meditation. When at the time of his daily prayers he would recite the invocation to Gayatri, ‘O shining One, O giver of boons, come, etc.’ his chest would expand, become flushed and be bathed in tears. When not engaged in worship or other religious practices he spent his time making flower garlands, with the help of thread and needle, to adorn Raghuvir. Fear of giving false evidence made him give up his parental homestead. The villagers paid him the respect and reverence due to a sage.”
As days went by, the boy’s remarkable courage also began to show itself in various ways. Without the least fear he went to places where even elderly persons dared not go for fear of ghosts, ghouls, and the like. His father’s sister Ramsila would sometimes be possessed by the spirit of the goddess Sitala. She then became, as it were, a different person. Once about this time, when she was staying with her brother at Kamarpukur, that change came over her and everyone in the house regarded her with awe and devotion. But Gadadhar watched his aunt in that state, no doubt with reverence, but without the slightest fear. He stayed near, and observed very minutely the change that had come over her. Afterwards, he said: “It would be splendid if the spirit who possessed aunt would possess me.”
The reader is already acquainted with Manikraja, the landlord of the village of Bhursubo, who was known for his charity and devotion. Attracted by Kshudiram’s pious nature, he became his intimate friend. One day Gadadhar, then a boy of six, was taken by his father to Manikraja’s house. He behaved towards everybody in that house as if they were his old friends; and was so natural and sweet that he became dear to them all from that very day. Manikraja’s brother Ramjay, was so charmed that he said to Kshudiram: “Friend, this son of yours is not an ordinary child. It seems to me that he possesses godly qualities in a marked degree. Whenever you come this way, please bring him along. I feel so happy to see him.” For various reasons, Kshudiram could not go again to Manikraja’s place for some time. So Manikraja sent one of the women of his family to find out the reason and to bring Gadadhar on a short visit to Bhursubo if it were possible. When his father asked whether he would like to go, the boy was happy and went with the woman. He returned to Kamarpukur before dusk with presents of various kinds of sweets and ornaments. Gadadhar became such a pet of that Brahmin family that they used to send for him whenever Kshudiram could not go to Bhursubo for some days.
Gradually a year went by and Gadadhar was now seven. As the child’s sweet nature developed, everybody loved him more and more. Whenever the women of the village prepared any delicacies in their homes, their first thought was now to get the boy eat some of them. His playmates never felt happy till they had shared their food with him He had such charming ways and spoke and sang so sweetly that the neighbours cheerfully put up with his childish pranks. About this time an incident occurred which made Gadadhar’s parents and friends very anxious about the boy. By the grace of God, Gadadhar was born with a strong and robust constitution, and until now he had not suffered from any disease. As a result, he was wonderfully buoyant and cheerful like a free bird. Well-known physicians say that it is the absence of body-consciousness that is the sign of health. It was this kind of health that the boy enjoyed from his birth. Whenever his mind, which was naturally one-pointed, became absorbed in a particular object, his body-consciousness almost vanished and he became completely identified with the idea on which he set his mind. The enchanting view of the vast green fields fanned by the gentle breeze, the incessant flow of the river, the melodious songs of birds, and, above all, the magic of ever-changing clouds in the deep blue sky would, at times, unfold their mystery and glory to the boy’s inner vision and hold him spell-bound. He would then lose himself completely and enter the unknown, distant, and solitary domain of the spirit.
The experience we now relate also had its origin in the boy’s tendency towards the spiritual contemplation of beauty. One day, while roaming carefree in the fields, Gadadhar looked up at the sky and saw a newly formed dark cloud, and against it the rhythmic movement of a flock of cranes in full flight, with their snow-white wings outspread. The boy became so completely absorbed in the beauty of it all, that awareness of his own body and of all other earthly things vanished altogether, and he fell down unconscious.1 His friends, finding him in that condition, were alarmed and distressed. They sent word to his parents and the boy was carried home from the field. As soon as he regained consciousness, he was his old self again. Naturally, this incident caused a lot of worry to Kshudiram and Chandradevi and they thought of various means to prevent its happening again. In fact they thought it to be the beginning of fainting fits and considered what remedy should be applied and whether propitiatory rites should be performed. But Gadadhar told them, again and again, that what had happened to him was really due to his being merged in a feeling he had never experienced before; and that, although he was found outwardly unconscious, he was conscious inwardly and had experienced a unique bliss. However, as it did not recur and as nothing was wrong with the boy’s health, Kshudiram thought that it was due to a fit. But Chandra felt convinced that the boy had come under the evil eye. Anyhow, they kept him away from school for some time. Free to go wherever he chose in the village, the boy gave himself to play and fun even more than before.
Gadadhar was about seven years and a half at the time of the great autumn festival of Bengal in 1843. The reader already knows Ramchandra Bandyopadhyaya, Kshudiram’s prosperous nephew. He used to spend most of his time at Medinipur as he made his living there. His paternal home was in the village of Selampur, where his family lived. There, every year, Ramchandra celebrated the great autumn festival at a great expense. We have heard from Hriday that for eight days at the time of worship the Selampur house used to ring with music and song. The family experienced a continuous flow of joy in feeding Brahmins, offering parting gifts to Pandits, feeding the poor and giving them clothes. On those occasions Ramchandra would bring his revered uncle to his house and spend some happy days with him. That year, also, Kshudiram and his family were cordially invited when the time came.
Kshudiram had almost completed his sixty-eighth year, and had now lost his former vigour on account of dyspepsia and dysentery from which he had suffered often in the previous few years. So in spite of his desire to go, he hesitated to accept his dear nephew’s loving invitation. He began to feel an unaccountable but strong disinclination to leave his humble cottage, his family, and especially Gadadhar, even for a few days. Then he thought: “If I do not go this year, who knows whether, with my increasing weakness, I shall be able to go there again?” He at first intended to take Gadadhar with him; but then he remembered that this would make Chandra very anxious. As he could not take Gadadhar, he finally decided to go with his eldest son Ramkumar, spend the few days of worship with Ramchandra, and then return. He paid homage to Raghuvir, bade good-bye to all, kissed Gadadhar and started for Selampur a few days before the commencement of the festival. Ramchandra was very happy at the arrival of his revered uncle and his cousin Ramkumar.
Kshudiram had a relapse of his old complaint, dysentery, immediately after reaching Selampur and was placed under treatment. But that did not interfere with the happy mood in which the sixth, seventh, and eighth days of the bright fortnight were spent. On the ninth day, however, Kshudiram’s illness suddenly took a serious turn and caused great anxiety in that mart of joy. Ramchandra called in efficient doctors and started nursing his uncle with the help of his sister Hemangini and cousin Ramkumar. But Kshudiram’s condition did not improve. The ninth day passed somehow; and now came the tenth day (Vijaya), especially sacred to the Hindus as the time of re-union. That day Kshudiram became so weak that it was difficult for him to speak at all. As soon as the immersion ceremony of the image of Durga was over in the afternoon, Ramchandra hastened back to his uncle’s bedside. He found that the last moment was drawing near. On inquiry he learnt that Kshudiram had been lying silent in the same condition for a long time. Then Ramchandra, in tears, said to him: “Uncle, you always take the name of Raghuvir; why don’t you do so now?” The sound of that name at once roused Kshudiram, and in a trembling, halting voice he said: “Is that you, Ramchandra? Have you come after immersing the image? Then, make me sit up.” When Ramchandra, Hemangini and Ramkumar had helped him, with great care, to sit up on the bed, Kshudiram in a solemn tone uttered the name of Raghuvir thrice and left his body — the drop of water mingled with the ocean. Lord Raghuvir merged the breath of life of the devotee in His infinite life and thus blessed His devotee with immortality and peace everlasting. At dead of night, the village rang with the loud singing of the praises of the divine Lord. Kshudiram’s body was then brought to the river bank and, afer consecration by fire, was cremated. The news reached Kamarpukur the next day, and filled Kshudiram’s happy abode with sorrow. When the period of mourning was over, Ramkumar performed the Sraddha ceremony as prescribed by the scriptures and fed many Brahmins, thus completing his father’s last rites. It is said that Ramchandra gave a large sum towards the expenses of the ceremony performed in honour of the departed spirit of his uncle.