The Contemplative Life
or spiritual practice - japa, prayer and meditation - should
play a very vital role in the lives of all. This is a sure
way to peace despite all the hindrances that one has to face
in daily life. The usual complaint is that it is very difficult
to lead an inward life of sadhana or contemplation amidst
the rush and bustle of everyday life. But with earnestness
and unshakable determination one is sure to succeed. Sri Ramakrishna
has said that a devotee should hold on to the feet of the
Lord with the right hand and clear the obstacles of everyday
life with the other.
are two primary obstacles to contemplative life. The first
one is posed by personal internal weaknesses. One must have
unswerving determination to surmount these. The second one
consists of external problems. These we have to keep out,
knowing them to be harmful impediments to our goal.
success in contemplative life, one needs earnestness and regularity.
Study of the scriptures, holy company, and quiet living help
develop our inner lives. I have clearly seen that all the
great swamis of our Order have led a life of contemplation
even in the midst of great distractions. They lived this life
amidst engagement in service to the Lord through whatever
responsibility they were assigned. I have been very fortunate
to have come in close contact with some of the very illustrious
monks of our Order like the revered Swamis Virajananda, Achalananda,
Shantananda, Jagadananda, Madhavananda, Nirvedananda, and
Gadadharananda. Their lives have been wonderful. There was
always a glow on their faces, and association with them was
spiritually very inspiring, assuring one of the priceless
value of sadhana.
thing that is a very great power in all men of God is unaccountable
love. You cannot explain why they love you. They don’t ask
anything in return. They do not ask that you become a monk
or do anything in return. They just love you. This is something
very, very wonderful. Whenever I visited Belur Math, I found
this to be true. But the first monk to leave a deep impress
on me was Swami Gadadharananda.
was then doing my intermediate at Cotton College, Gauhati.
During summer vacation, when I was visiting my home at Dinajpur,
I came down with serious malaria with several complications.
My father, who was a big Sanskrit pandit and a specialist
in the Bhagavata, had gone to deliver a lecture at a function
in a nearby school. Swami Gadadharananda was at that time
the head of the Dinajpur centre (now in Bangladesh). He happened
to meet my father at this function and found him very worried.
He enquired about the reason and, on learning about my illness,
asked if he could come and see me. My father of course welcomed
him. Next I found a monk placing his hand on my head and chest
- and to my surprise, and everybody else’s, all problems were
soon over! He had also spoken in such an affectionate and
loving manner that I had at once felt drawn to him. So when
I was cured I asked my father who the sannyasin was, and coming
to know that he was the head of the nearby Ramakrishna Ashrama,
went to meet him one day with some friends.
Gadadharananda was very pleased to see us. He took us to the
shrine there and introduced us to Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada
Devi, and Swami Vivekananda. He gave us prasad and asked us
to come again. So I started frequenting the Ashrama. The swami
gave me books like Swami Vivekananda’s Lectures from Colombo
to Almora, which I started reading. Knowing that I came from
a Brahmin family with the tradition of worship at home, he
asked me to do arati in the shrine and then also puja, even
though I had not had my spiritual initiation as yet. After
the arati he would ask me to meditate a little before returning
home. I was deeply impressed.
the morning, after mangalarati, he used to go out walking
on the bank of the Kanchan river. Sometimes he would ask if
I would like to go with him. During the walk he would suddenly
ask: ‘What are you thinking as you are walking? Always think
of Him, of God. “Ho jaye tere nam vasa, ho jaye tere nam
vasa; may your name become my refuge, may your name become
my refuge.” Whenever you walk here and there, you must mentally
think like this.’ He would find a nice place to sit by the
riverbank, and would soon close his eyes and start meditating.
What could I do? Not knowing what meditation was, I started
imitating him. He would be very still and appear very happy.
I imitated him, and in this process, discovered something
swami also allowed me to occasionally spend the night at the
Ashrama. There were not many rooms there, so he let me stay
in his own room. And there I saw something wonderful. Whenever
I happened to wake up, at midnight or any other time, I found
the swami sitting and meditating! I was amazed! You see how
holy company works!
Gadadharananda was nothing short of a saint. I have never
seen him hating anyone. He was always ready to serve anybody
in need. Even his way of collecting flowers, making garlands,
and preparing for the arati impressed me. I could not help
following him and assisting whenever possible.
mentioned earlier, even before I met Swami Gadadharananda,
I used to do puja at home. Ours was a religious home, and
we had a tradition of thakur seva (service to the family
deity). In the hostel also I used to do sandhya-vandana
(daily devotions prescribed by the scriptures) regularly.
That, however, was traditional. What I got from the ashrama
was something totally different. An ashrama is a place full
of spiritual vibrations. That is something inspiring, lively.
But in one’s home and family, it is a mere traditional way
of life, and religious practice, a routine thing; there is
not that life there.
person who greatly inspired me to take to monastic life was
Swami Achalananda, popularly known as Kedar Baba. He was a
very austere sadhu. When I first saw him at Belur Math, he
was walking about clad only in a kaupina (loin cloth).
Oh, his regular prayer, japa, and meditation! Even when his
health was completely broken, out of twenty-four hours, his
rest and other personal activities would take up at most six
to eight hours.
was in close contact with him. He used to come to Belur Math
every year for two to three months and stay in the Leggett
house, in the room where Holy Mother had lived. Whenever he
used to come, I would go and clean his room and serve him
a bit. Every day he would ask me to read the Kathamrita
and would ask me, ‘How much japa have you done?’
there was a feast at the Math. Next day Kedar Baba asked us
how many rasgullas we had eaten. When I said that I had had
two, he exclaimed, ‘What? Two rasgullas, and that at night!
And you want to be a monk and follow Swamiji! Impossible!
Those who want to live a pure life must eat a very light meal
at night and be careful about sweets.’ He was a terrific inspiration.
was in the Calcutta Students’ Home while pursuing my graduate
studies, and there I came in close contact with Swami Nirvedananda,
a real inspiration in every sense. He emphasized brahmacharya
and a God-oriented life, especially for students.
Shantananda was another great contemplative. He was a quiet
man and talked very little, but you would always find him
doing japa. I think, out of twenty-four hours, he would be
doing japa for eighteen to twenty hours. Very sweet and very
kind - that was Swami Shantananda. Even when he was down with
tuberculosis, there was no change in his routine. When he
was asked not to strain himself doing prolonged spiritual
practice, he said that he could not do otherwise. And never
did he give any external expression to the distress of disease.
there was Swami Madhavananda. Though he was the General Secretary,
and very active, his life was very regular. He was very strict
in matters of principle. But he also knew when to be considerate.
Those who live this contemplative life regularly also work
better. There is no doubt about it. There is nothing haphazard
about their work. Whatever they do they do with all their
heart, and as service to God.
it work the other way round too? For those who work well,
do their inner lives also improve? Well, work alone will not
do. The spirit behind the work is important. If you work with
the spirit that it is service to God, then that work will
be spiritually fruitful. Otherwise, well, everybody works.
But their work and the work of a Ramakrishna Order monk is
not the same. There are many doctors attending to patients.
But there is a difference between their work and the service
rendered by a monk to the sick. The monk’s spirit is that
of service to Narayana, God. The other person doesn’t necessarily
look upon the patient as an embodiment of God or any such
thing. ‘He is a patient, I give treatment, and I get my fees,
that’s all’ - that is the professional attitude.
those who have heavy work responsibilities, will the simple
maintenance of this attitude of service to God improve their
meditative life? Yes! There is no doubt about it. Relief work
or hospital work or school work or kitchen work or whatever
- it is all His service. That spirit must be there. Then your
inner life improves automatically. This is my own personal
experience. I have derived tremendous joy from hospital work.
I worked at the Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama in Rangoon,
a busy general hospital. I was also involved in the building
of the tuberculosis sanatorium in Ranchi, practically from
the beginning. Oh, the joy! And when you worked with devotion,
help came from the most unexpected quarters. We had to work
hard. But I worked keeping in mind that this was service to
the same Being to whom I offered flowers in the shrine. If
He came in this shape and form, this was how I had to serve
Him. But I also practised japa and meditation every day, irrespective
of the time. That is the support one has to hold on to. For
everybody that is a must, there is no question about that.
were also occasions when I took time out from work. That time
I spent in spiritual practices and scriptural study. I used
to go to Swami Jagadananda and study Vedantic texts. Swami
Jagadananda was a living embodiment of the spirit of Vedanta.
I shall describe the scene of his passing, and from that you
can have an understanding of his personality. He had had a
heart attack and was gasping for breath. We had brought him
to the Vrindaban Sevashrama for treatment. The doctors had
declared that there was no hope of recovery and that he would
collapse very soon. His legs were turning ice-cold. The doctors
asked us to massage the legs with brandy. While I was doing
that, he suddenly looked at me and exclaimed in his native
Sylhet dialect: ‘Kita karo? Kita karo? What are you
doing? What are you doing?’ ‘Your legs are turning cold, so
I am massaging them a little.’ ‘Massaging them a little!’
he retorted. ‘Satchidekam brahma! Brahman is Absolute
Knowledge and Existence! Have you understood that, or not?
Sarvam khalvidam brahma, all this is verily Brahman.
Know and hold on to this!’ And he was gone!
the joys of work and that of quiet contemplation and study
equivalent? Yes, they are. But both are necessary for harmonious
had also the opportunity to serve Swami Virajananda, the tenth
president of the Order. His life too was very regular, in
its own way. And he was very hard-working also. Everything
that he did, he did thoroughly - everything! Andhe was a hard
taskmaster too. He had his hours of deep contemplative moods.
And he had a great sense of humour. Sometimes he would prepare
some sweets and snacks and send them for the monks after having
checked the number - you could not get two! We knew that there
would be more in his stock, and that all of it was turning
stale. Coming to know what we were thinking, he would remark
sarcastically, ‘Rotten! Rotten!’ Then he would do some trick
and send those foodstuffs to us; and lo! it was all very good
and fresh! He would then ask, ‘Now what are they doing, what
are they doing?’
at the time of his passing away he retained this sense of
humour. The doctors had given up hope and many sadhus had
gathered in his room. When he saw that the sadhus were preparing
to chant ‘Hari Om Ramakrishna’ (which is usually done at the
final hour) he quipped: ‘Ekhon na, ekhon na, deri ache;
Not now, not now, there is still time.’ But when the actual
time came it was a sight to see: a beaming face, hair standing
on end, and tears trickling down from the outer corners of
the eyes - all signs of divine joy according to the scriptures.
householders also have equally inspiring lives? Yes, they
can. Let me recall just one incident, again a parting scene:
I heard that a certain devotee was on the verge of death.
I went to see him. His wife was massaging his feet. He looked
up and, seeing me, said, ‘Bless me, so that I can reach the
goal, the feet of the Master.’ He was quiet for some time.Then
he looked at his wife and said, ‘Now the moment has come.
Put charanamrit (holy water) here (in my mouth).’ Having
swallowed the charanamrit he uttered: ‘Ramakrishna, Ramakrishna.’
And that was the end.
both householder life and monastic life can equally be ways
of developing oneself spiritually. But one must follow the
right route. A monastic life that ends with the taking of
gerua robes alone is nothing. You have your mantra;
you have to make that mantra practically realized in your
life. Then alone is your sannyasa worthwhile.
me conclude by recalling my own initiation from Swami Vijnanananda
Maharaj, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. As he was giving
us the mantra and reciting God’s name, it appeared as if he
was intoxicated. The
atmosphere was indescribable. It is this divine intoxication
that one seeks in leading the life of a contemplative. And
on obtaining even a bit of that divine joy, one attains fulfilment.