Together with a young friend, Jitendra Mazumdar, I decided to join a Mahamandal hermitage in Benares, and receive its spiritual discipline.

A desolation fell over me one morning at thought of separation from my family. Since Mother’s death, my affection had grown especially tender for my two younger brothers, Sananda and Bishnu. I rushed to my retreat, the little attic which had witnessed so many scenes in my turbulent sadhana.1 After a two-hour flood of tears, I felt singularly transformed, as by some alchemical cleanser. All attachment 2 disappeared; my resolution to seek God as the Friend of friends set like granite within me. I quickly completed my travel preparations.

“I make one last plea.” Father was distressed as I stood before him for final blessing. “Do not forsake me and your grieving brothers and sisters.”

“Revered Father, how can I tell my love for you! But even greater is my love for the Heavenly Father, who has given me the gift of a perfect father on earth. Let me go, that I someday return with a more divine understanding.”

With reluctant parental consent, I set out to join Jitendra, already in Benares at the hermitage. On my arrival the young head swami, Dyananda, greeted me cordially. Tall and thin, of thoughtful mien, he impressed me favorably. His fair face had a Buddhalike composure.

I was pleased that my new home possessed an attic, where I managed to spend the dawn and morning hours. The ashram members, knowing little of meditation practices, thought I should employ my whole time in organizational duties. They gave me praise for my afternoon work in their office.

“Don’t try to catch God so soon!” This ridicule from a fellow resident accompanied one of my early departures toward the attic. I went to Dyananda, busy in his small sanctum overlooking the Ganges.

“Swamiji,3 I don’t understand what is required of me here. I am seeking direct perception of God. Without Him, I cannot be satisfied with affiliation or creed or performance of good works.”

The orange-robed ecclesiastic gave me an affectionate pat. Staging a mock rebuke, he admonished a few near-by disciples. “Don’t bother Mukunda. He will learn our ways.”

I politely concealed my doubt. The students left the room, not overly bent with their chastisement. Dyananda had further words for me.

“Mukunda, I see your father is regularly sending you money. Please return it to him; you require none here. A second injunction for your discipline concerns food. Even when you feel hunger, don’t mention it.”

Whether famishment gleamed in my eye, I knew not. That I was hungry, I knew only too well. The invariable hour for the first hermitage meal was twelve noon. I had been accustomed in my own home to a large breakfast at nine o’clock.

The three-hour gap became daily more interminable. Gone were the Calcutta years when I could rebuke the cook for a ten-minute delay. Now I tried to control my appetite; one day I undertook a twenty-four hour fast. With double zest I awaited the following midday.

“Dyanandaji’s train is late; we are not going to eat until he arrives.” Jitendra brought me this devastating news. As gesture of welcome to the swami, who had been absent for two weeks, many delicacies were in readiness. An appetizing aroma filled the air. Nothing else offering, what else could be swallowed except pride over yesterday’s achievement of a fast?

“Lord hasten the train!” The Heavenly Provider, I thought, was hardly included in the interdiction with which Dyananda had silenced me. Divine Attention was elsewhere, however; the plodding clock covered the hours. Darkness was descending as our leader entered the door. My greeting was one of unfeigned joy.

“Dyanandaji will bathe and meditate before we can serve food.” Jitendra approached me again as a bird of ill omen.

I was in near-collapse. My young stomach, new to deprivation, protested with gnawing vigor. Pictures I had seen of famine victims passed wraithlike before me.

“The next Benares death from starvation is due at once in this hermitage,” I thought. Impending doom averted at nine o’clock. Ambrosial summons! In memory that meal is vivid as one of life’s perfect hours.

Intense absorption yet permitted me to observe that Dyananda ate absent-mindedly. He was apparently above my gross pleasures.

“Swamiji, weren’t you hungry?” Happily surfeited, I was alone with the leader in his study.

“O yes! I have spent the last four days without food or drink. I never eat on trains, filled with the heterogenous vibrations of worldly people. Strictly I observe theshastric4 rules for monks of my particular order.

“Certain problems of our organizational work lie on my mind. Tonight at home I neglected my dinner. What’s the hurry? Tomorrow I’ll make it a point to have a proper meal.” He laughed merrily.

Shame spread within me like a suffocation. But the past day of my torture was not easily forgotten; I ventured a further remark.

“Swamiji, I am puzzled. Following your instruction, suppose I never asked for food, and nobody gives me any. I should starve to death.”

“Die then!” This alarming counsel split the air. “Die if you must Mukunda! Never admit that you live by the power of food and not by the power of God! He who has created every form of nourishment, He who has bestowed appetite, will certainly see that His devotee is sustained! Do not imagine that rice maintains you, or that money or men support you! Could they aid if the Lord withdraws your life-breath? They are His indirect instruments merely. Is it by any skill of yours that food digests in your stomach? Use the sword of your discrimination, Mukunda! Cut through the chains of agency and perceive the Single Cause!”

I found his incisive words entering some deep marrow. Gone was an age-old delusion by which bodily imperatives outwit the soul. There and then I tasted the Spirit’s all-sufficiency. In how many strange cities, in my later life of ceaseless travel, did occasion arise to prove the serviceability of this lesson in a Benares hermitage!

  1. Path or preliminary road to God.
  2. Hindu scriptures teach that family attachment is delusive if it prevents the devotee from seeking the Giver of all boons, including the one of loving relatives, not to mention life itself. Jesus similarly taught: “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?” (Matthew 12:48.)
  3. Ji is a customary respectful suffix, particularly used in direct address; thus “swamiji,” “guruji,” “Sri Yukteswarji,” “paramhansaji.”
  4. Pertaining to the shastras, literally, “sacred books,” comprising four classes of scripture: the shruti, smriti, purana,and tantra. These comprehensive treatises cover every aspect of religious and social life, and the fields of law, medicine, architecture, art, etc. The shrutis are the “directly heard” or “revealed” scriptures, the Vedas. The smritis or “remembered” lore was finally written down in a remote past as the world’s longest epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Puranas are literally “ancient” allegories;tantras literally mean “rites” or “rituals”; these treatises convey profound truths under a veil of detailed symbolism.

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