Bharata—100 years ago
A Visit to the Belur Math: January 1907
having been connected with the Ramakrishna Mission work in
America, for the last eight years, it is quite a new experience
to find myself in India, an inmate of the Belur Math, the
headquarters, from whence all the workers of this great Mission
go forth. …
a rule, the monks or Sannyasins in India do not have a fixed
place where they reside or are taken care of. The monk in
the West, in a certain sense exchanges one home for another.
Entering the monastery he is provided for during the rest
of his life. But when in India one becomes a Sannyasin, he
henceforth begs his food from door to door and he wanders
from village to village, resting under shelter or in the open
air, as chance may be. And he is cared for only in this sense,
that no true Hindu householder, be he ever so poor, will refuse
to share his meal, with the religious mendicant.
then was the life of the Swamis belonging to the Ramakrishna
Mission, before the Math had been established. But the time
came, when their activity should be directed in a different
way. Called by their leader to a life of combined action,
a nucleus had to be formed and a place to be built where they
might meet and prepare themselves for the task before them.
The Math was erected and provisions were made for those who
wish to live a retired life, as well as for the workers. Room
was also provided for Brahmacharis or neophites who assist
the Swamis in their work and who receive from them, spiritual
is not strange that we find the life here different from what
we picture monastic life in the West. There is much that is
good and holy and praiseworthy in all places where sincere
men live together, and monasteries at all times and in all
places have served to give men an opportunity to approach
their God under less difficult conditions, than they would
have found elsewhere. But with the thought of loftiness and
sublimity there is much in the word monastery that hints at
gloom and depression; emaciated features, hushed voices, noiseless
movements and severity everywhere. There is very little of
that in the Belur Math. Failure, disappointment or fear of
punishment are not the motives which prompt the Hindu monk
to join the holy order. In the West we so often find this
to be the case. And the life of austerity and self-denial,
instead of bringing freedom to the soul, often creates a being
centred in the little self, with a heart devoid of sweetness,
mellowness and simplicity.
the East it is different. The attempt is not being made to
make the imperfect perfect, but by a dwelling in the Divine,
a drawing away from the imperfect is brought about; by bringing
in the Light, darkness leaves of its own accord; by filling
the mind with the sublime, there is no room for what is low.
A remembrance of the real Self,
makes [one] forgetful of the little self. A very different
process! The heart expands, it includes all, it is filled
with love for all that lives. There is no room then for pessimism
and morosity in the monastic life here. We find the massive
building, white walls and cement floors and extreme simplicity
everywhere. But the rooms are full of light
and air; no seclusion in little cells, but everything open
and free. The inmates hold one common object, one common purpose
and we find very little of “mine and thine” amongst them.
The association between them is much as we like to see it
amongst brothers; easy, free from unnecessary ceremonies and
still an appreciation of the good qualities in each one. The
Brahmacharis, mostly young lads, serve the older Sannyasins
in many little ways. But one is not impressed with the idea
of servility. It comes so natural with them, so spontaneous.
In their obedience there is no questioning. They love the
Swamis, they admire them and that is expressed in their actions.
To live with the Swamis is a privilege, which they appreciate.
describe the life of the monks here, can be done in a few
words. Having realized the divinity within, knowing themselves
to be the witness of all that takes place, knowing the mind
and the body to act, while the true Self never acts, they
offer up whatever is connected with their external and mental
life, to the Lord of all and they serve Him through His manifestations
in the whole of humanity. In other words, their life has become
a life of service, in whatever form that may be. When living
in the Math, they may do such work as has to be done there.
When called elsewhere, they may answer such call, be it to
nurse the sick, bring food to the famine-stricken, instruct
those who ask for spiritual advice, give shelter to the destitute,
or bring to other nations the glorious teaching of Vedanta
of which they stand so much in need. And all this is done
without any personal considerations. The question will be
discussed whether or not, the help is needed. This being decided
in the affirmative, the person best fitted for the work will
be selected and then, without further questioning or delay,
the work is executed.
the life of the Sannyasin, we will then not be disappointed
to find their life devoid of much external show of religious
sentiment as far as ceremonies are concerned. Religion is
to be practised every moment of the day, never to leave our
life, no matter in what way we may be occupied. During eating
or working or resting or play, nay even during sleep the mind
should be fixed on God. Such is the teaching. We need therefore
not mistake the cheerful countenance and hearty laugh for
a worldly state of mind.
when external practices and means are helpful to bring about
the realization of one’s ideal, such means are not rejected.
And an opportunity to satisfy the devotional yearning of the
devotee is found in the little chapel, where a simple ceremony
is performed every morning and evening. Some flowers gathered
in the garden, are offered to the Deity. But the flowers stand
only as a symbol, for every act, every thought. So also the
food is put on the altar of the Divine. And here God is worshipped
not in a sectarian way, but first of all as that All-pervading,
Universal Being and then in His different incarnations. And
when the worshipper places one of the flowers on his own heart,
he meditates on that same Deity as residing in his heart.
then is the life here. There is in it much of grace, much
of sweetness; a spirit of gentleness which one meets at all
times. How quietly it works, imperceptible, except in its
results. A simple, cheerful, holy life - a life of service
and devotion, a life of love for God and man. It is then not
strange that many flock to this beautiful place on the Ganges
side. In easy reach from Calcutta they spend their hours of
leisure in the company of the Swamis. And especially on Sundays
we may find little groups of men in conversation or singing
those beautiful Bengali hymns full of devotion and feeling.
may not be so much of austerity here, but there is the constant
withdrawing from the little self and a centering in the Divine.
And the heart becomes pure and simple and loving. And this
is what draws so many to the Belur Math and what fills their
hearts with love for the Lord and His holy workers. And they
return to their respective duties, strengthened and encouraged
and filled with a determination also to reach the goal.
stands for freedom and that principle is carried out in the
Math. All are welcome, who are sincere. The meanest, the lowest
finds a place in the heart of these monks. And never does
one call for help in vain.