of Holy Lives
Indians think that the age of the saints is long over, that
their country no longer produces saints. However, the belief
is largely unfounded. How does a man find a saint if he is
not looking for one? One cannot walk into a saint, surely!
If only people were genuinely interested in spiritual life
and deserved holy company, there is no doubt that they would,
sooner or later, find themselves living with saints. As a
matter of fact, there have been many who took the trouble
to find what they were looking for. Mahendranath Datta, Swami
Vivekananda's younger brother, was one such - and he came
across not one but several saints, all of whom had attained
to a state so high that to them the injunctions and prohibitions
of society were meaningless. These exalted souls, embodiments
of religion and spirituality, are the 'salt of the earth'.
Whether we realize it or not, they are the conscience of our
society. In order to make it known that such spiritual giants
still lived and walked the length and breadth of India, Mahendranath
recorded his experiences in a small Bengali book, Sadhu-chatushtay.
What follows is a retelling of his account.
March 1924. As Mahendranath sat on a wooden bench in the
courtyard of Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama enjoying his early
morning smoke, an old sadhu arrived and sat down beside him.
Even for a sadhu, he was quite unkempt: his shock of grey
hair was untidy and a sparse beard grew on his cheeks. Except
for a narrow kaupina he wore nothing. Mahendranath
looked at the sadhu questioningly and was rewarded with a
toothless grin. The sadhu looked quite strong for his age;
he seemed to be a Punjabi.
showing any further interest, Mahendranath turned his attention
to his hookah. He had only taken a few puffs when, without
warning, the sadhu tried to grab the pipe from his hand. Startled,
Mahendranath withdrew his hand just in time, and then, without
showing surprise - or any courtesy to the sadhu - continued
with his smoking. And the sadhu sat there looking like a small
boy in a sulk.
some time, Swami Kalyananandaji, the head of the Sevashrama,
entered the courtyard accompanied by Swami Nischayanandaji.
Both of them were disciples of Swami Vivekananda. The sadhu
walked up to them and, at the end of a fairly long conversation
on nothing in particular, left the place.
the sadhu had gone away, some workers of the Sevashrama, who
had been watching all this from a distance, approached Mahendranath
and asked, 'Mathuradasji just wanted a smoke, but why did
you refuse him?' They sounded as though he had made a very
grave error. But Mahendranath saw things differently: how
could he, a Bengali who ate fish and meat, have let a sadhu
smoke from a pipe he was using?
that as it may, Mahendranath came to know the identity of
the sadhu. Mathuradasji was a highly revered monk in Hardwar
and commanded great respect from Sevashrama workers. Countless
sadhus lived in temples and monasteries that dotted the holy
city of Hardwar, and all of them came to the Sevashrama for
medical treatment. None of them, however, enjoyed the honour
that was accorded to Mathuradasji.
or four days later the sadhu again came to the Sevashrama.
This time there were other people sitting in the courtyard
smoking. But the sadhu made straight for Mahendranath. Something
in Mahendranath's hookah seemed to have cast a spell on him.
But Mahendranath's manner was still cold and distant. After
waiting for a while, the sadhu made a long pipe from the stem
of a banana leaf and, sticking it into the hookah bowl without
asking, began to smoke, looking at the pipe intently all the
while. This time also not a word passed between the two.
watched the sadhu's behaviour minutely. He had seen too many
sadhus to be easily taken in. Most of them were common gossips,
unashamedly money-minded, and not a few were embroiled in
ashrama politics and other such controversies; some were even
litigious! Mahendranath would have nothing to do with their
ilk. He preferred to be alone rather than in such 'holy' company.
Is a Paramahamsa?
however, was different. He was entirely artless, unworldly.
There was absolutely no attempt at impressing others. The
more Mahendranath observed him, the more Mathuradasji's childlike
simplicity stood out. Everything about him was so natural
and yet he seemed strangely untouched by the world. When he
was not talking, the sadhu sat silently, his serene gaze fixed
on something deep within himself. At such times he looked
detached from his surroundings. Then he would exchange a few
words with others and go away just as he had come. He walked
with a spring in his step, like a cheerful boy.
does this sadhu live?' Mahendranath enquired of some young
men at the Sevashrama. 'Near Satikund,' they replied. 'There
is an abandoned hut at the edge of the lake.' 'Where is Satikund?'
'You have to cross the small canal behind the ashrama and
go beyond the large patch of jungle on the other side. It
is quite a distance from here. The place is as inaccessible
as it is inhospitable, the whole area overgrown with thick
forest and tangled vegetation. Even the lake is rimmed with
thorny bushes and dries up in summer.' 'So he lives in that
hut?' 'Yes, Mathuradasji sleeps there at night. He doesn't
need a bed; the bare floor is good enough for him. Why, the
hut doesn't even have doors or windows.' 'Then what does he
do in winter, how does he keep himself warm? Winters are so
cold here.' 'Summer or winter, Mathuradasji doesn't seem to
feel the difference. We have never seen him use a shred of
cloth other than his kaupina, let alone a blanket!
He just lies down on the floor and goes to sleep. It doesn't
bother him whether it is burning hot or freezing cold.' 'And
where does he eat?' 'Mathuradasji doesn't go about with a
begging bowl, nor does he eat at almshouses or ashramas. He
accepts only what is offered with love and affection.' Mahendranath
few days had passed. Mathuradasji returned to the Sevashrama
once again at mid-morning and found Mahendranath sitting on
the bench dragging on his hookah! This was their third meeting.
Without a hint of inhibition, Mathuradasji sat next to Mahendranath
and reached for the pipe. Mahendranath did not resist this
time, but wiped the pipe clean before Mathuradasji put it
to his mouth. The ice was broken. 'Well, well,' said Mahendranath,
'have your smoke, sir. I am an aghori, and so are you. Go
ahead, enjoy yourself.' (Aghoris are a Shaiva sect to whom
nothing is horrible. Mahendranath used the term because he
ate fish and meat, and Mathuradasji was above the notions
of cleanliness and uncleanliness.) Others joined in: 'So Mathuradasji
got his hookah at last! Carry on, have a nice time.' But Mathuradasji
was in no mood for talk. He busied himself with the pipe,
jiggling his knees as he sat on the bench. After several long
puffs, his mouth split in a broad smile and he looked as happy
as a boy who had won a bet. When he had satisfied himself
thoroughly, Mathuradasji rose to his feet and walked away.