1.8 ON THE THRESHOLD OF YOUTH
Ramkumar’s misfortune continued after the death of his wife, and he became poorer day by day. His income from gifts given by persons who invited him on ceremonial occasions dwindled. Although paddy sufficient for their own use grew in the piece of land at Lakshmijala, it became more and more difficult to get clothes and other daily necessaries. Milk was also needed every day for his old mother and Akshay, his motherless baby; but it had to be obtained along with other necessaries, only by borrowing money. Thus Ramkumar got into debts which began to accumulate day by day. He could not avoid this, try as he would. Thinking he might be able to earn more money elsewhere, he made preparations to leave Kamarpukur on the advice of his friends. His recent bereavement made it easy for him to take this step; for, he thought that he might get some peace of mind if he left the house crowded with memories of his companion in life for thirty years. There was much discussion as to whether Calcutta or Burdwan offered better prospects of earning an income. Finally it was decided that he should go to Calcutta, because his friends pointed out that Maheshchandra Chattopadhyaya of Sihar, Ramdhan Ghosh of Desra and others whom he knew had gone there and found good opportunities to earn money and improve their condition. They also added that, as everyone knew, those persons could not approach him in learning, intelligence and strength of character. Therefore Ramkumar handed over the charge of the family affairs to Rameswar and went to Calcutta soon after his wife’s death. He started a Sanskrit school in the quarter of the city called Jhamapukur and began to teach a few boys.
There came many changes in the life of the family at Kamarpukur on the death of Ramkumar’s wife. Chandradevi was now compelled to take upon herself the burden of all the household duties, including the care of Ramkumar’s little child, Akshay. Rameswar’s wife tried, as far as possible, to assist her; but being still very young, she was not of much help. So Chandradevi had to do practically everything herself— the service of Raghuvir, the bringing up of Akshay, the cooking and other household work. It took her all the day to do this and she had not a minute’s rest. It was very difficult for her, a woman of fifty-eight,1 to manage all those household affairs. But knowing that such was the will of Raghuvir, she carried on without a word of complaint.
Rameswar had now to look after the income and expenses of the family, and was thinking how he could make both ends meet and keep the family in comfort. But his learning never helped him to make a good living. On the other hand, he spent much time in talking to the wandering monks and religious men, whenever he met them, and even did not hesitate to supply all their wants. So, although he now earned a little more than before, he could not pay off the family debt but could just supply only the bare needs of his people. As a result, though he had the necessity to save money he could not do so. He sometimes spent more than he earned and lived a carefree life, thinking, “Somehow Raghuvir will provide for the family.”
No doubt, Rameswar dearly loved his younger brother, Gadadhar, but he never bothered to find out whether he made any progress in his studies. Apart from being temperamentally incapable of giving such attention he had no time for it, since he had to go to various places in search of remunerative work. He had thus neither the inclination nor the leisure to keep an eye on his brother’s education. He had also the firm conviction that Gadadhar’s discriminating nature would always prevent him from going astray for he had seen in him a remarkable development of religious tendencies even at that early age. This conviction became stronger when he saw how men and women of the village reposed full confidence in the boy and loved him dearly. Nobody, he felt sure, could win all hearts and be praised by everyone unless he was specially good and of noble character. Rameswar looked forward with joy to his young brother’s glorious future and had no anxiety on his account. Gadadhar was thirteen years old when Ramkumar went to Calcutta. He had now no regular guardian and was free to go wherever he wanted.
As already mentioned, Gadadhar’s keen insight enabled him, even at that young age, to see through the motives of the actions of others. Therefore it did not take him long to realize that the only object of studying at school or of gaining distinction in studies was to enable a person to make money, or, as he himself would put it, “to bundle up rice and plantain”. He also came to understand that no one who spent all his energy in that pursuit for the sake of worldly enjoyment could, like his father, be devoted to truth, or acquire strength of character and realize God. Blinded by selfish interest, some families in the village quarrelled over land and other property and took to litigation. They then divided their houses, lands, etc., with measureing tapes, declaring, “This side is mine and that side is his.” But scarcely had they enjoyed their shares for a few days when death carried them away! Gadadhar sometimes saw these things actually happening before his eyes and came to the conclusion that money and the desire for enjoyment were the root cause of much misery in human life. Therefore, it is not surprising that he became more and more averse to the kind of learning that was acquired only with the object of making money. On the other hand he looked upon the attainment of love of God as the primary aim of life and was content, like his father, with the bare necessaries of life, namely ‘coarse food and coarse clothing’. He, however, went to school for a while almost every day, but this was due to his attraction for boys of his own age. He now spent most of his time in the worship of Raghuvir and in lightening his mother’s burden by assisting her in household work. On account of all these activities, he had to remain at home for the greater part of the day.
Since Gadadhar now spent much time at home, the women of the village had good opportunities of seeing him there. When they were free from their household duties, many of them would come to Chandradevi and if they found the boy at home, would sometimes ask him to sing for them or read religious stories. Gadadhar did what they asked, whenever he could. If they found him busy helping his mother, they would themselves finish up the work to afford him time to read out to them from the Puranas or to sing. This became almost a daily routine. The women enjoyed it so much that they tried to finish off their own daily duties as soon as they could, so that they might listen to his songs and readings for a longer time.
Besides reading the Puranas, Gadadhar entertained the women in various other ways. There were then in the village three parties of Yatra players, one of minstrels (Bauls2) and one or two of versifiers (Kavis3). Again, as many of the villagers were Vaishnavas, there used to be in their houses readings every evening from the Bhagavata, or singing of the praises of the divine Lord. His gift of memory enabled Gadadhar to remember many of those musical compositions, plays, songs and hymns to God which he had heard from his childhood. As a special entertainment, one day he would begin a drama; on another sing the songs of the Bauls or Kavis, or again sing the praises of the divine Lord. When he enacted a play he would himself play the various parts, changing his voice to suit each character. If on any occasion he found his mother or any of the women dejected, he would start playing a farce from the plays; or would imitate so well the peculiar manner, and gestures of some one in the village known to all of them that they would roar with laughter.
Thus Gadadhar exercised an immense influence over the village women. They had already heard of the strange dream and spiritual visions that the boy’s parents had at the time of his birth. And they had also seen with their own eyes the extraordinary change that came over his mind and body whenever he came in touch with the spirit of gods and goddesses. Therefore it was quite natural that his intense devotion to God, his absorption when reading the Puranas, his sweet singing and his unconventional, simple-hearted behaviour towards them all, aroused in those women a unique devotion and affection for him. We are told that Prasannamayi and other elderly women saw in Gadadhar the manifestation of the divine Boy (Gopala) and loved him even more than their own sons. And younger women, believing that he was born as a part of Bhagavan Sri Krishna, looked upon him as their spiritual lover and friend. Many of these women were born in Vaishnava families and a simple poetic faith was the basis of their religion. Therefore it is not incredible that they actually believed this boy of noble mien and character to be God Himself. Because of this faith they would come and tell him, without any reserve, their innermost thoughts and would seek his advice and try to follow it. On such occasions, Gadadhar also behaved with these young women as if he were one of them.4
He would sometimes act the parts of well-known female characters and put on woman’s dress and ornaments. He did this when, at the request of his women friends, he acted the part of Radharani or of her intimate companion, Vrinda. He would then be exactly like a woman in his gestures, voice and movement. The village women would say that nobody could recognize him then. This shows how minutely the boy had observed the various ways of women. With his love of fun, he would often pass in that disguise in front of men with a pitcher under his arm to fetch water from the Haldarpukur; and no one would ever suspect that he was not a woman!
We have already spoken of Sitanath Pyne, a rich man of the village. He had seven sons and eight daughters, who lived as a joint family in Sitanath’s house even after marriage. It is said that such a huge quantity of spices was necessary for cooking their food that ten stone-slabs had to be used to grind them to paste every day. Many distant relatives of Sitanath had also built their houses near his, and lived there. Therefore that part of Kamarpukur was known as the traders’ quarter. Being situated near Kshudiram’s house, many women of that quarter, — especially Sitanath’s wife and daughters — used to come to Chandradevi during their leisure, and thus came to know Gadadhar intimately. They would often take him to their own houses and ask him to play dramatic parts or impersonate certain women characters in woman’s dress. Many of Sitanath’s women relatives were forbidden to go to any place outside the family house. Therefore they had not the good fortune to listen to Gadadhar’s readings and songs at Chandradevi’s place. Perhaps that was why Sitanath’s wife and daughters invited him to their house. There it was that many women of the traders’ quarter, who could not go to Chandradevi, saw Gadadhar and became fond of him. Whenever they heard that he was at Sitanath’s house they went there and enjoyed listening to his readings or seeing his acting and impersonations. The master of the house, Sitanath, loved Gadadhar very much and other men of that quarter knew what a fine character the boy possessed. Therefore they did not raise any objection to their womenfolk listening to the boy singing the praises of God.
The only person from the traders’ quarter who raised any objection was Durgadas Pyne. He too had a high opinion of Gadadhar and liked him, but he would, under no circumstances, allow any relaxation of the strict purdah system observed by his women. He boasted to Sitanath and other relatives that nobody had ever seen the women of his house, or could know anything about the inner apartments where they lived. He even looked down upon Sitanath and others who did not, like him, enforce purdah.
One day Durgadas was bragging thus before a relative, when Gadadhar came there. On hearing him the boy said, “Can women be protected by purdah? They can be protected only through good moral training and devotion to God. I can see everyone and know everything of the inner apartments of your house, if I want to.” At this, Durgadas became even more boastful arid said: “Well, let me see how you do it.” “Very well, we shall see,” challenged Gadadhar and went away.
Some time later, one afternoon, without a word to anyone, the boy disguised himself as a poor weaver woman by putting on a coarse dirty Sari and, among other ornaments a bangle of silver beads on his wrist. Then he came just before dusk to the house of Durgadas from the direction of the market with a basket under his arm and a veil covering his face. Durgadas was then sitting with some friends in the parlour of his house. Gadadhar introduced himself as a weaver woman who had come to the market for selling yarn, but had the misfortune to be left behind by her companions. She therefore begged for shelter for the night Durgadas made enquiries about her, and satisfied with her replies said: “Very well, go to the women in the inner apartment and ask them to take you in.” Gadadhar bowed in gratitude and went to the inner apartment. He repeated his story to the women and amused them with his gossip. Seeing her so young, and pleased with her sweet words, the women allowed her to stay with them. Then they pointed out a place for rest and gave her a refreshment of parched rice and parched paddy, husked and sweetened. Gadadhar sat in the allotted place and, while eating, observed very minutely every room and each of the women. Not only did he hear the conversation they were having but took part in it, and sometimes even put questions. The whole evening was spent in this way. As Gadadhar had not returned home, though it was very late, Chandradevi sent Rameswar in search of him to the traders’ quarter where, she knew, he often went. Rameswar went first to Sitanath’s house, but was told that the boy was not there. Then coming near the house of Durgadas, he loudly called him by his name. When Gadadhar heard his brother’s voice, he knew it was very late. He shouted back from the inner apartment, “I am coming, brother!” and ran out to meet Rameswar. It was then that the truth dawned on Durgadas. At first he was a little embarrassed and felt annoyed at the thought that Gadadhar should have befooled him and his family; but the next moment he began to laugh, seeing how well the boy had played his part. When they heard of the incident the next day, Sitanath and other relatives of Durgadas were glad that Gadadhar had dealt a blow to his conceit. Henceforward the women of Durgadas’s inner apartment began to go to Sitanath’s house whenever Gadadhar was there.
The women of Sitanath’s family and of the traders’ quarter became so fond of Gadadhar that they would send for him if they did not see him for some days. The boy sometimes went into ecstasy while reading or singing at Sitanath’s house; and when they saw this, the women’s devotion for him knew no bounds. Many of them, we are told, worshipped the boy when he was in ecstasy, as an embodiment of Sri Gauranga or Sri Krishna. They had a gold flute and various costumes for male and female characters made for his use during impersonations.
From time to time we had the opportunity of hearing some of these women speak of the influence that the many-sided Gadadhar exerted over them When some of us, including Swami Ramakrishnananda, went to Kamarpukur in 1893, we met Sitanath Pyne’s daughter, Rukmini, who was then about sixty years old. The reader will have a good idea of Gadadhar’s influence when we relate what she told us. Pointing to the north, Rukmini said: “Our old house stands yonder. It is now in a dilapidated condition since there is hardly any one of us left. But, when I was seventeen or eighteen, it was the home of a prosperous family. Sitanath Pyne was my father and we were seventeen or eighteen sisters and cousins, including the daughters of my father’s elder and younger brothers. Although there were slight differences in our ages, we were all grown-up girls at that time. Gadadhar used to play with us from his childhood and we were great friends. Though he was a big boy then, he continued coming to our house even when we were no longer children and he had free access to our inner apartments. Father loved him very much. He looked upon him as his chosen Deity and had great devotion and respect for him Some of the people of our quarter told him, “There are so many grownup girls in your house and Gadadhar is now a big boy. Why do you allow him still to enter your inner apartments?” He would then reply: “Don’t worry, I know Gadadhar very well”; and they would not dare to say anything more. Ah, how many stories from the Puranas Gadadhar used to tell us, and what fun we had! We used to go on with our household work while listening to those stories almost every day. How can I with one mouth express the great joy we all felt when he was with us? If sometimes he did not come, we would be in great anxiety, thinking he was ill. We had no peace till one of us went to the Brahmin mother (Chandra) on the pretext of bringing water or doing something else, and brought us news. Every word of Gadadhar was like nectar to us. When he did not come to our house, we would spend the whole day talking about him”
Gadadhar made friends not only with the village women but his many-sided genius and winsome ways brought him in contact with all the people of the village, whether men, women or children. He frequented all the places where the villagers — young and old — gathered to enjoy readings from the Puranas or songs in praise of God. There was great joy whenever and wherever the boy was present; for none but he could read so well, or expound religious truths with such earnestness. He had no equal in spiritual fervour at the time of singing the glory of God and in the power of arousing the spiritual sentiments. No one had a sweet voice like him nor could anyone dance like him. When all were in a merry mood, he surpassed everyone in his ability to play farcical roles and to imitate all kinds of affectation of men and women. Again, no one could narrate so well new stories or sing new songs fitting the occasion. So everyone, young and old, became fond of him and eagerly awaited his coming each evening. Gadadhar too was happy to meet and entertain the villagers, sometimes in one place, sometimes in another.
As even at that age the boy had a sound judgement, many of the villagers took his advice in the solution of their worldly problems. Attracted by his pure character and seeing that he went into ecstasy while uttering God’s name or singing His praises, religious-minded persons were helped in their own spiritual paths by following his advice.5 Only hypocrites and knaves tried to avoid him, since Gadadhar’s keen insight pierced through their deceptive exterior and detected their secret designs. The truthful and outspoken boy sometimes put these persons out of countenance by exposing them before others. Gadadhar’s love of fun would also occasionally make him imitate their hypocritical ways in the presence of others. Although this made them angry, they could not do anything about it, since everybody took his side. Their only safeguard was to appeal to his kind nature, because they knew the boy was always generous to those who took refuge in him
As mentioned before, Gadadhar continued going to school for some time every day, because of his love for boys of his own age. But on his reaching the age of fourteen, his devotion and desire for spiritual contemplation increased to such an extent that he became convinced that he had no use for any bread-winning education of the type imparted at school. Even from that time, he felt that his life was meant for a higher purpose and that he would have to direct all his energies towards the realization of God. A faint picture of that goal often arose before his mental vision; but as it was not yet developed in all its details, he was unable to grasp its meaning or to understand its purpose. Nevertheless, whenever the problem of how he should direct his life arose in his mind, his discriminating intellect pointed to an absolute dependence on God and painted in bright colours on the canvas of his imagination a symbolic picture of ochre cloth, sacred fire, food obtained as alms and a wandering life free from all attachments. But the very next moment, his loving heart reminded him of the condition of his mother, brother and others of the family, and made him give up the desire to tread that path. Instead, it urged him to help them, as best he could, by remaining in the world trusting God, even as his father had done. Since his head and his heart thus pointed in opposite directions, he waited for God’s guidance, depending entirely on what Raghuvir might dispose, for with his heart full of love for that god, the boy had always looked upon him as absolutely his own. Confident, therefore, that Raghuvir would solve his problems at the proper time he had no longer any doubt. Whenever there was a conflict between his head and heart, it was his heart that always won, and he now did everything under its influence.
At this time a new feeling welled up, now and then, in Gadadhar’s pure heart, full of a rare sympathy. There existed such an intimate relationship between him and the people of the village that he looked upon them as his dear friends and shared fully their joys and sorrows. Therefore, as soon as the idea of renouncing the world arose in his mind, his heart reminded him of those simple-hearted and loving villagers and of their implicit trust in him. He knew his path was to conduct his own life in such a way that by following him as a model, they might realize high ideals and transform their present relationship with him into one that was always spiritual. The boy’s heart, free from the slightest taint of selfishness, spoke to him: “It is selfish to renounce the world only for your own salvation. Do something that will be for the good of others also.”
But so far as his study at the school and later at the Sanskrit school was concerned, Gadadhar’s head and heart were in full agreement. Even then he did not leave school altogether because he knew his friends would miss him badly. For, all the boys of his own age, Gayavishnu and others, loved him dearly and looked upon him as their leader because of his great intelligence and courage. Gadadhar, however, found at last a favourable opportunity to leave the school. One day some friends who knew his dramatic talent proposed that they should form a party of Yatra players and requested him to take charge of their training. Gadadhar agreed; but knowing that their guardians would raise objection, the boys were at first worried about a suitable place where they could undergo that training. Clever Gadadhar finally selected Manikraja’s mango grove, and it was settled that every day some of them should absent themselves from school to meet there at the appointed time.
This plan was immediately put into effect. Under Gadadhar’s training the boys learnt by heart their own parts and songs, and the mango grove became the happy scene of the performance of the plays depicting the lives of Sri Ramachandra and Sri Krishna. All the details of each performance had to be arranged by Gadadhar with the aid of his own imagination, and he himself had to act the parts of the principal characters. The boys, however, were very happy to find their little group working in perfect harmony. It is said that, from time to time, Gadadhar went into ecstasy during these performances.
The boy’s skill in painting could not now find much opportunity for improvement, since most of his time was spent either in religious singing or in enacting plays. But one day, on a visit to his youngest sister Sarvamangala at Gaurhati, he saw her cheerfully serving her husband. Shortly afterwards, he painted a picture showing the couple in that happy mood, and all the members of the family were surprised to see how lifelike the painting was.
Gadadhar, however, became very competent in moulding images of gods and goddesses. His religious tendency led him to do this often, and he and his friends would then worship those images in the manner prescribed in the scriptures.
After he left school, Gadadhar followed the dictates of his heart by engaging himself in these activities, besides helping Chandradevi in her household work.
He became very fond of Akshay, his brother’s motherless child, who very often kept him busy. In order to allow Chandradevi time for her household duties, it now became a part of his daily routine to take the child on his lap and keep it amused in various ways.
Three years went by in this way and Gadadhar approached his seventeenth year. Through Ramkumar’s exertions, the number of students in his Calcutta school had increased during this period and he was now earning more than before.
Although he spent most of his time in Calcutta, Ramkumar used to come once a year to Kamarpukur, for a few weeks, to see how things were going on with his mother and brothers. This time, when he came he particularly noticed Gadadhar’s indifference to regular study and was worried about it. He made careful enquiries as to how he spent his time, and after consulting his mother and Rameswar, decided to take Gadadhar with him to Calcutta and keep him there. He thought it advisable to do so, because with the increase in the number of students, the management of his school had become difficult and he felt the need for an assistant. So it was settled that Gadadhar should go to Calcutta to assist him a little, and, at the same time, study under him along with his other pupils. When this was put to Gadadhar he did not raise the slightest objection, because he knew that it meant helping his eldest brother whom he respected like his father. Then, at an auspicious time on a lucky day, Ramkumar and Gadadhar paid homage to Raghuvir, took the dust of their mother’s feet and started for Calcutta. There was an end to the mart of joy at Kamarpukur. Chandra and other women devoted to Gadadhar, somehow spent their days with his sweet memory and the thought of his future welfare to sustain them.