In 1979, I was “posted” to Itanagar where a new modern hospital was upcoming. I was staying at that time in Belur Math after finalising the relief work. Srimat Swami Gahananandaji Maharaj brought me to Seva Pratishthan from Belur Math along with him in his car. He was on that day, “on round” and he took me with him to the indoor wards of Seva Pratishthan. That was the very first time I had the good opportunity to come in front of Revered Maharaj. That made me stand before him in awe as I was a witness to his loving care and attention to the in-patients. He could go into such details, the accompanying specialists would be taken surprised at his keen observation.
From Itanagar, time to time I was on a visit to Kolkata on Mission work. Generally my stay was centred at Seva Pratishthan. More than the work conveniences, his intense love towards me made me feel attracted and I would feel blessed even if I could get a glimpse of seeing him. In 1982 I was to accompany from Calcatta Revered Krishnarupanandaji Maharaj (the present Head of Mauritius centre) to Itanagar. We both were at Seva Pratishthan. Our flight was in the early morning. The previous night I took leave of Revered Gahananandaji Maharaj, saying that I didn’t want to disturb him next morning. He lovingly enquired about all the arrangements and told me that before leaving in the morning, “go to the pantry; warm up the milk; mix coffee; drink and go”. At about 3.30 am, I took out the key to open the small gate for the downstairs, that I heard Revered Maharaj’s clear voice, “KE” – who’s that? Though I never wanted to disturb him in that hour, yet I had to reply, “ami Sundar. Ashchhi Maharaj.” – I take leave of you. What I did not anticipate was his yesternight’s instruction regarding taking coffee. From his room prompt came his query in his inimitable authoritative voice, “coffee kheyechho?” – Did you take coffee? I replied, “na, Maharaj, ekhon dorkar nei.” – No, Maharaj its not needed now. And I went to my room to bring my luggage. Coming to the gate, what I saw stunned me. Revered Maharaj, to my great surprise, not only got up from his bed, but straight proceeded to the pantry in the meantime. And he has prepared hot coffee and was standing there with the cup in his hand. I felt ashamed. The affectionate smiling face of Revered Maharaj even now looms large before my mental eyes.
Accessible to everyone
He only posted me at Seva Pratishthan when my Arunachal days were over in June, 1988. Next year Revered Maharaj became the General Secretary. He used to visit Seva Pratishthan very often and I, as in-charge of the Premananda ward where sadhus were admitted, used to receive him at the main gate. He would enquire about every sadhu in the ward and he needed thorough answers, never satisfied with superficial facts. So I had to be on my toes, as it were, before giving any answer; sometimes, he would know more about the patient-sadhu than me! During all those visits, he would be meticulous in seeing other householder devotee-patients also. Whether sadhu or grihastha (monk or householder), everyone who was touched by him, felt blessed.
Once, a sadhu passed away. His body was ready for despatch to Belur Math for cremation. Revered Maharaj was at Seva Pratishthan on a visit at that time. There was instruction from Belur Math that the body of the sadhu must reach before 7 pm, otherwise cremation would be held only the next day, not on that night. We had no available vehicle to take the body to Belur Math. When revered Maharaj enquired, I said that due to non-availability of a vehicle we would keep the body in the mortuary and would send it next day. When he heard this, he said, “Place the body right now in the rear seat of the Ambassador car. I will reach the body to Belur Math before 7 pm.” We were stunned to listen to him. The General Secretary of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, taking a dead body in the same car! And he and Atmanishthananda, his Secretary – both clubbed together in the front seat…never minding the inconvenience…oh! We can never forget the flowing kindness of his heart.
Qualities that we can emulate
Every organisation has to undergo cycles of progress and regress. The six-year period that I stayed in Seva Pratishthan was a tumultuous one indeed! It was marked by an agitation of employees. Never have I heard from his lips words being uttered in derogatory tone of anybody. From the specialist doctor down to the sweeper, he gave enormous time for everyone. Nobody was “useless”. He would insist that the Ramakrishna family extends and includes everyone. What a sagacious advice he used to give all the monks there. His great patience, talking endearingly, listening with rapt attention – all these qualities shine as model to me. Unable to bear the stress in those times, how many times I had run to him for spiritual solace! Every time I came out wiser because of his wonderful counsel.
For me, it has been, and is continuing to be an excellent experience with the devotees of South Africa. What deep devotion they all have, not only for our Master but to all of His children, both monastics and house-holders alike!
My recent tour started on the 10th January with Estcourt hosting their 145th Swami Vivekananda Birth Anniversary Celebrations. Kimi of Durban Central branch took me by his car to Estcourt. It was held in a public Hindu Temple where the hall was almost full. The officials Naren and Rajesh did not give any specific topic, but at the same time expected me to speak for about an hour! So I made Swami Vivekananda as the topic and spoke about Him everywhere, as He supplied the ideas.
The same night I reached Ladysmith. I was so happy and surprised to see more than 800 people gathered in the Civic Hall of Ladysmith of whom, a number of Christians and Muslims were also present, because the Ladysmith branch organised the distribution of hampers to 500 poor families. every hamper consisted of good quantity of edible items all sponsored by different citizens of Ladysmith. This branch children gave a beautiful dance performance also. And after the function all the 800 people were given supper. Once the supper was over the branch devotees adults and children assembled for a friendly chat with me at Kirti’s home. This was an informal get-together where I could come to know them.
The following day I proceeded to Newcastle. This is the birth place of late Swami Nischalanandaji who was the Founder of the Ramakrishna Centre of South Africa in 1942. The house where he was born is no more there as the venue has come under flood area where two apple trees stand as mute witness to one of the dynamic sons of South Africa. This centre had scheduled two programmes, one on the 12th – that was Swamiji’s English birthday – and another for the Youth on the 13th. Both the programmes had good attendance.
On the night of the 13th, I was taken to Dundee. The function was held in our own shrine which is indeed beautiful where, I spoke for an hour. The next morning, the Mayoress visited Satish’s home to see me and we had pleasant exchanges. She was amazed and happy to see the Hindu Ramakrishna community doing welfare activity to black sisters and brothers who lived in the area. She also accompanied us and witnessed our devotees handing out the hampers. Some reference you can see here.
At noon I went to Glencoe, where for the first time, I had an opportunity to sit and talk with the devotees at Rishi’s home. It was a pleasant experience as I found that in this small town, our children are really blessed to have multiple talents. I cannot forget the wonderful oratory of Nibha, a 10 year old child who spoke on Swamiji so inspiring!
On the same night, that is the 14th, I went back to Ladysmith, where a devoted group of adults and children awaited my return. They had organised a ‘Thanksgiving Satsang’ – a Satsang where all the volunteers would be thanked by the officials. But, instead the Volunteers thanked our Master Sri Ramakrishna for giving them the opportunity to serve the poor. In this prevalent spiritual atmosphere, I was transported to a different world where Swamiji; as it were took me by the hand and guided me in speaking about him. Again on that night a group of devotees with their children met me at kirti’s home and our chat went on crossing midnight!
The next day I went to Pietermaritzburg via Midmar dam. I have crossed this dam several times but never had any chance to see it near. A beautiful place where to enter you have to shell out 17 Rands per person. We were 4 and the Entry Gate lady allowed us to go without any charge when she was told that a visitor-guest from India was there! At PMB branch we had a solemn function. Youth members sang two inspiring songs on Swamiji. The devotees here are indeed very cordial and after lunch at Sunil’s home, I returned to Durban on 16th late evening by Sunil’s car. Sunil takes pleasure in driving me to and fro always.
In all the functions, it was such a joy to see the happy and smiling faces of the devotees. The enthusiasm displayed in preparing and participating for their respective functions was indeed a heart warming experience for me. Throughout my tour I felt the continuous presence of Swami Vivekananda.