By Swami Smaranananda
Swami Smaranananda is Vice President, Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math.
This article was originally published in the January, 2008 edition of Prabuddha Bharata.
One who has “discovered” one’s innermost Reality and identifies oneself with all that exists is called a “sthita-prajna” in Chapter Two of the Bhagavad Gita.
The Lord tells Arjuna how such a person behaves, how he talks, how he sits and moves around. The Gita describes also the behavior of a true bhakta, or devotee, in Chapter Twelve and the characteristics of a person who has transcended the three gunas in Chapter Fourteen. The people referred to in these contexts are extraordinary spiritual personalities who have crossed the ocean of samsara, of relative existence, and whose very sojourn on earth is a blessing to all: “One’s lineage is made pure, one’s mother made blessed, and Mother Earth rendered sacred, by one whose mind is merged in Brahman, the shoreless ocean of consciousness and bliss.”
Here we will deal not with such persons who have reached the highest point in spiritual life, but with sincere spiritual aspirants whose lives in the midst of society reflect the spiritual awakening in their hearts. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” as the proverb says. What are the external signs of a God-realized soul, or rather, how does a sadhaka, one who is treading the spiritual path, behave? How is spirituality reflected in a common person whose life is circumscribed by the social conditions around him or her? What about monks who have dedicated their lives to the highest spiritual ideal?
Men and women dedicated to spiritual values develop the ability to withstand even terrible tragedies in their lives. For example, I may mention one such incident which I had the opportunity to see personally. A lady devotee in Kolkata suddenly lost her son, a brilliant student preparing for his Senior Cambridge [present class twelve] examinations, in a drowning accident. The lady is very much devoted to Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi. Even then, when I heard about it, I felt that she would be devastated and went personally to her house to offer some consolation. But to our surprise, instead of being consoled by us, the lady tried to console us, saying, “The Lord gave and the Lord took him away. What is the use of sorrowing?” This attitude was possible for her only because of her deep faith in, and devotion to, the divine personalities.
Spirituality helps to develop detachment to worldly matters and creates a sense of renunciation. I may mention the case of Dr Jiten Dutta, an unassuming bachelor whom I knew in the late nineteen-fifties. He was a man of strong opinions, but, with all that, he had a soft heart and felt for the poor. He would go to treat patients in Kolkata, but would give the fees he received to one of our girls’ schools in rural Bengal, and would have receipts issued to his patients in the name of the ashrama, as if their payments were actually donations. In this way, he donated more than a hundred thousand rupees for the said institution, which would be worth ten times the amount today!
Now I come to some of our swamis who were not well-known but who, by their simple and loving nature, were loved and respected by all who came into contact with them. One such was Swami Shiveshananda, more well-known as Dwaraka Maharaj. He lived most of his monastic life at Belur Math. He was a disciple of Mahapurush Maharaj (Swami Shivananda, the second president of the Ramakrishna Order), who lived upstairs in the old Math building where Swami Vivekananda spent his last days. In the courtyard below stands the mango tree which was there during Swami Vivekananda’s time as well. There is also a jackfruit tree and some other plants there. Dwaraka Maharaj had been told by his guru to see that the courtyard was kept clean and that leaves from the tree did not litter the place.
Dwaraka Maharaj had read about Shabari, who lived an ascetic life in the forest. She had heard that Sri Rama would pass by her hermitage, and she waited and waited for months and years to have the darshan of Sri Rama. She was waiting earnestly to hear his footsteps. At last he came and Shabari’s dream was fulfilled. Similarly, Dwaraka Maharaj was always watchful to see that leaves did not litter the courtyard. As soon as a leaf fell, he would rush forward to remove it! Thus his whole mind was given to his guru, Mahapurush Maharaj. I have seen him reciting those verses that deal with the episode of Shabari from the Ramayana in Bengali poetry, tears pouring down from his eyes. In his room was a picture of old Shabari, which someone had got for him. His was a great example of how an ordinary act can also become a practical spiritual action.
One more example: Swami Muktananda, known as Ban-baba or Banbihari Maharaj. Banbihari Maharaj spent all his monastic life at Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service, Varanasi. All his life he worked in the surgical department of the Sevashrama [hospital], bandaging the wounds—surgical and otherwise—of the innumerable patients who came to the hospital for treatment. With the greatest dedication he worked day after day for years together. His was really worship of the rogi-narayana—God in the form of the patient. He was full of love for all, with a sweet smile. He worked tirelessly, at any time of the day, as a true karma yogi. Ban-baba’s loving and compassionate heart endeared him to one and all. For sixty years he carried on his service to the patients. People, even senior surgeons, believed that a patient would be cured if Banbihari Maharaj would but take up the dressing of the wounds and the care of the post-operative period. Invariably, it came true. He passed away in 1996 at the ripe old age of ninety-three.
Ban-baba’s life is a testimony to all those aspiring to live a spiritual life in the midst of intense activity. There are many examples of swamis who had lived exemplary lives, but it is not possible to describe all these lives here.
Now let us look at a grand example from the Catholic Christian tradition, of one who, in the midst of multifarious chores in the kitchen of a monastery in seventeenth-century France, maintained the constant awareness of God’s presence. His name was Brother Lawrence, and what we know about him is from a small book entitled The Practice of the Presence of God: “His conversion, at eighteen, was the result of the mere sight on a midwinter day of a dry and leafless tree standing gaunt against the snow; it stirred deep thoughts within him of the change the coming spring would bring. From that moment on he grew and waxed strong in the knowledge and love and favor of God, endeavoring constantly as he put it, `to walk as in His presence.’”
Thus, Brother Lawrence, in the midst of his heavy duties in the monastery, invoked the presence of God all the time. He said that we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s presence by continually conversing with Him. The Lord says in the Gita, “Mam-anusmara yudhya ca; Remember Me and fight.” So to make our lives fully focused on God, continual effort to keep our mind on God is necessary.
This method of remembering Him will make us progress spiritually, without disturbing our day-to-day activities, in whichever vocation we may be engaged. Thus spirituality need not be confined to forests and caves. As Swami Vivekananda said, it should enter the marketplace, and the field and the factory. When all activities are infused with the leaven of spirituality, a silent revolution will come about. The real satya-yuga—Golden Age of spirituality—will begin. For this, continuous effort in this direction—to focus one’s life on God, and give it a spiritual orientation—is highly necessary.