Orthodox religious childhood
Swamiji was born as the seventh and the youngest child in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family settled in Paralikkad, which in those days was a remote village in Kerala. During his childhood, Swamiji says, he had never seen a newspaper coming to the village. Of course, there was a school a few miles away. As a young boy, he used to go to the school with the Brahminical half-shaven head and abundant stripes of vibhooti (sacred ash) all over the upper part of the body, walking across the field with a palm-leaf-umbrella.
Every day early in the morning, he used to go to the temple tank carrying indigenous toothpowder, tongue-cleaner, and vibhooti. After taking bath in the temple tank, putting vibhooti stripes all over the body in the traditional style, he would come up to the temple in wet cloth to do soorya-namaskāram (prostration to the sun) chanting “Sooryam sundara-lokanātham-amṛtam …” taught by his mother.
Once Mā had asked Swamiji what made him start this soorya-namaskāram. Swamiji said that at the age of six or seven, he used to see a priest standing on the temple ground chanting some mantras for hours everyday, apparently for gaining “mantra-siddhi”. Seeing the priest doing this austerity regularly, Swamiji asked his mother what austerity he could practise. His mother then taught him how to do soorya-namaskāram, chanting the mantra.
He would chant standing near the “Arali” tree, which is even now adorning the sacred place (Tacchanathukavu Temple). After each chanting of the stotram, as instructed by his mother, stretching the hands upward, joined in salutation, he would say “Svāmin, praseeda, praseeda, praseeda” and prostrate on the ground. He would do this “soorya-namaskāram” as many times as he could, sometimes even more than hundred times.
Often the wet muṅḍu (cloth) used to slip. He would then take it off, hang it on a branch of the Arali tree, and continue his “soorya-namaskāram” wearing only the loincloth. Swamiji laughs and laughs while narrating how he was taught all these by his mother and how he used to follow all the instructions so faithfully. “I think, after I was given sacred thread and I began the daily sandhyā-vandanam and japam, the sun never rose or set without my doing sandhyā-vandanam,” says Swamiji.
Many of the Sanskrit verses he chants even now, he had learnt in childhood from his “illiterate” mother. Of course, the “illiterate” mother was the daughter of a Sanskrit scholar, a saintly person.
Swamiji’s eldest brother had left home at a very young age. Initially there was occasional communication from him, which stopped before long. Thereafter nobody knew anything about him. The next son, Purushothama Swamiji, as well as the other two elder brothers went to Kolkata for work. When as a young adult Swamiji also was to leave for Kolkata in search of employment, he felt sad and concerned to leave the old parents alone in the village farmhouse. But the mother was very supportive; she bid him goodbye saying: “A child is not supposed to be always on the mother’s lap. As a grown up son, you have to find your own place in the wide world. Don’t worry about us. The sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening; the day will pass for us.”
Exposure to Kolkata and Spirituality
This trip to Kolkata, Swamiji says, revolutionized his life as well as outlook. He found himself literally in the midst of the wide world. Very soon Baba (Swamiji’s Gurudev Baba Gangadhara Paramahamsa) arrived in his life to lead him from religious faith and traditional practices to the world of unfettered spiritual discoveries.
The very first meeting with Baba was an eye-opener. The way Baba greeted him affectionately with a kiss on the forehead, made him think where from could a person get such love and freedom to greet an unknown young man with such closeness. And regarding Swamiji’s feelings towards Baba, it was love at first sight. The sense of belonging he felt, went on increasing with time. Very soon he “demanded” spiritual initiation, and Baba was ready to bestow the invaluable treasure he had received from his own Gurudev and cultivated through his lifelong sādhanā. The new relationship, new dedication
Earlier in his life, Swamiji had never known about the path of spiritual discovery and the wonderful role of a real spiritual Guru in the unfoldment and fulfillment of human life. He was extremely loyal in his family relationships, but had never known about the wholesome trust, refuge, and love associated with the true Guru-ṣiśya relationship.
Now, a new fondness coupled with gratitude and adoration began to germinate deep within. The same sincerity and purity that made him loyal to his parents, now made him loyal to his Guru too. Although the effect of Brahmavidya initiation from the Guru resulted in a complete dedication to spiritual unfoldment leading finally to sannyāsa, the fondness for his parents remained intact or perhaps took a loftier dimension. That is why after embracing Sannyāsa, Swamiji first went to his parents to let them know what had taken place in their son’s life, to enlighten them about his great discoveries and the subsequent goal.
Swamiji always says that Sannyāsa is not breaking away from the family relationships or banishing the loved ones from one’s “own” sphere. It is an expansion to own up everybody, a call to embrace the whole world in one’s ever-expanding love. For such a person, the Upanishads say, the whole world becomes a single nest or abode: “Yatra viṣvaṃ bhavati-ekaneeḍam”.
In the field of sādhanā also, as he was earlier practising with extreme faith the religious disciplines learnt from the parents, now he started getting lost in the depths of Brahmavidyā meditation and samādhi. Meditational absorption and ecstatic blissful spiritual experiences adorned his life with overwhelming grandeur and abundance. Swamiji says, “I became a meditation-addict.”
Swamiji often says that he would have become an ecstatic spiritual Saint, had he not been graced with the unfathomable depth, stability, and placidity bestowed by Knowledge at the right time. Exclusive Knowledge-orientation
Baba had read voraciously a large number of spiritual texts and compositions. After initiation, when Swamiji expressed that he was not given to reading too much, Baba told him: “You don’t have to read much. Whenever you need to know anything about the pursuit, the book will come to you.”
It happened exactly in that manner. After about one and half years of intense meditational sādhanā, arrived in his hands the Muṅḍakopanishad and a few other authoritative Vedantic texts. The Muṅḍakopanishad opened before him the door to knowledge pursuit.
He started thinking: “The Upanishads speak of Knowledge as the ultimate goal of spirituality, and it is the non-dual Knowledge that is finally revealed as the Reality, our Soul or Brahman or God. The Supreme never undergoes any change at all. But what I am experiencing in meditation is not there when I come out of meditation! The external world is in utter contradiction with the meditational experience! Where lies then the ultimate unchanging Reality?”
The whole focus shifted from samādhi to Knowledge, from dhyāna-niśṭhā (dedication to meditation) to Jñāna-niśṭhā (dedication to knowledge). And here again, the sincerity that made him immerse in intense meditative absorption, made him also outlive it. Gradually the devotion to Knowledge led him to exclusive knowledge-orientation. But for this timely dedication to knowledge-orientation, Swamiji says, he would have fallen a prey to various mystic spiritual fascinations, as are often found in staunch seekers.
This exclusive knowledge-orientation made him a sane, natural human being, free of various saintly insignia or ecstatic eccentricities.
I am reminded of a statement he once made during his sickness. Those days, whenever his body was undergoing a little high temperature, Swamiji used to become very restless. He would turn on the bed uttering “Appa, Amma, Appa, Amma …” quite loudly. And in the old Ashram cottage, Swamiji’s room was next to the outer verandah. So, one day in fever, when he was calling out like this, Mā told him: “Swamiji, can you not remain a little quiet? Anybody standing outside will be able to hear you. Will they not think: What kind of saint this Swamiji is! Even ordinary people do not shout like this in fever! “
Swamiji said: O.K. When you write my biography, you are free to write about this behaviour of mine. You may also add: “Swamiji used to shout so restlessly that even we doubted whether he was a real Knower.”
(Now for years, Swamiji does not have such restlessness during sickness. Rather, he becomes conspicuously restful whenever he gets sick.) Orthodoxy or super-orthodoxy
While speaking about orthodoxy, we often associate a note of rigidity and lack of independent thinking. But truly, orthodoxy relates more to sincerity. Even etymologically (orthos : straight; doxia : opinion), it indicates firm adherence to what one finds correct or true.
A real orthodox person will devoutly pursue whatever he finds right, but will readily take to even a revolutionary change in his practices with equal sincerity when he finds that to be truer or loftier. He will not be held back by his adherence to the previous faith. In fact, the ‘sincerity’ that makes him dedicated to a practice also makes him readily outlive it when necessary for a higher purpose. Swamiji gives the illustration of sharpening a pencil with a knife. To make the tip sufficiently sharp, the knife has finally to leave the pencil and go forward. He calls it super-orthodoxy.
An orthodox person remains grateful to the earlier practices knowing very well that those are the ones that promoted him to the present higher level. It is like passing out from the primary classes to go for higher and higher education. Will not one who loves the primary studies be promoted easily and well to higher studies? Just because somebody is now in the postgraduate class, can he ignore or degrade the role and importance of the primary classes?
If we look into the various phases of Swamiji’s life – his promotion from faithful religious disciplines to intense meditational experiences, then to exclusive knowledge dedication, and further to religio-social reformation movements – then we understand that it is the constant working of the one quality called sincerity that made him live and outlive each phase excellently. Call it orthodoxy or super-orthodoxy, there lay the key to the courage and confidence with which he undertook the crusade against the perverted temple practices, and other reformation movements.