in this issue ...
Pearls of Wisdom
Tribute to Volunteers
Lay Disciples XII - Akshay Kumar Sen
Pearls of Wisdom
Kapilopadesam – XXXI
Translated by Swami Tapasyananda
(Continued from last issue)
The Lord Kapila said: Through such meditation the devotee obtains absorbing love for the Lord. His heart melts in the sentiment of devotion and his tears of surpassing joy almost drown Him. The power of devotion then slowly melts the metallic hook of the mind which holds the Purusha in the bondage of Prakriti. Just as a flame gets extinguished when the oil, its sustenance, is exhausted, the mind is extinguished in the Lord, when renunciation deprives it of the sense enjoyments that form its support. Then, being liberated from the current of the Gunas of Prakriti, the Jiva has a direct and unobstructed perception of the Supreme Being, who is the One without a second. (to be continued)
srimad bhagavatam I.III.28.34-35
‘OM’ and its Significance
The word ‘OM’ is not the invention of the human mind. It is the primordial and uncreated sound heard by mystics in deep meditation. We cannot hear it because our ears are not trained. Some sounds like ultrasonic or infrasonic are beyond the range of human hearing. In addition to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism also have accepted the holiness of the mantra ‘OM’. The Upanishads extol the power of ‘OM’ and advise spiritual aspirants to meditate on it. In Yoga Sutras it is described, “God’s name is OM. Therefore repeat it and meditate upon its mystical meaning.” There are hundreds of names to signify God, but the Hindu sages say ‘OM’ is the most appropriate one because other names may change but ‘OM’ never changes. As long as the universe lasts, so long the sound OM lasts.
Vedanta says the universe is born out of sound, it lives in sound and gets dissolved in sound. As this sound concentrates and condenses it produces matter - solid, liquid and gaseous. When an idea flashes in our mind, it expresses itself in word or sound. Idea and word are inseparable. To simplify further, word is the manifested form of idea. No creation of any kind is possible without an idea behind it. This is true in our case and also true in the case of the Supreme Spirit – God.
In the Rig Veda it is mentioned, “In the beginning, before creation, was the infinite spirit or Brahman, with Brahman was vak or word.” St. John voices the same idea in the Bible, “In the beginning was the word, the word was with God and the word was God.” The whole creation exists in the cosmic mind of God as an idea. The word is its external manifestation, the universe. When the idea of creation arises in the mind of God, it assumes the form of sound or cosmic energy. From those sound vibrations the entire objective universe gradually comes into existence. That sound is ‘OM’. It is called “Shabda Brahman” or Brahman in the form of sound. Therefore ‘OM’ word is the nearest to God. As long as this creation lasts, the vibrations of the sound ‘OM’ continue. In other words, the mantra ‘OM’ is the sonic body of God.
Creativity – Gift or …?
‘Being creative is seeing the same thing as everybody else but thinking of something different’ – this is one of the simplest and most nontechnical of definitions of an abstract concept, with very tangible implications. Creativity in different spheres of life is manifested in a variety of behaviours; we see this around us all the time. It shows in the way a string of flowers is garlanded around the image in our personal shrine and in the unique architecture of the Baha’i temple in Delhi. Its presence or absence is made plain when a talk on a rather mundane topic delivered by one individual may seem long and boring while a discussion on the same topic by another enlightens us to the core. One wonders, is creativity a science that can be mastered? Or is it something that is genetic, something which only the ‘gifted’ among us are able to experience and enjoy in various life experiences? This article is a brief attempt to understand the topic in a little more depth. We shall start with some technical definitions of creativity and try to understand what they mean for the average human being. We shall then delve a little deeper into the human brain and see if there are areas within it that can be directly linked to creative talent. We shall next look at some implications of creativity in our personal and professional lives and see if it is a skill that can be developed and mastered with time. We will conclude with some thoughts on whether a link exists between creativity and spirituality in our daily lives.
What is Creativity?
We can start with this working definition of Creativity: Creativity (or creativeness) is a mental process involving the generation of new ideas or concepts, or new associations between existing ideas or concepts. From a scientific point of view, the products of creative thought (sometimes referred to as divergent thought) are usually considered to have both originality and appropriateness. An alternative, more everyday conception of creativity is that it is simply the act of making something new. Creativity is synonymous with the birth or making of something new and different. We often associate various art forms with creativity. The way Monet is able to capture, on canvas after canvas, the subtleties of light and colour playing over a pool of water lilies is a shining example of creative endeavour. Ravi Shankar’s musical performances – which epitomize Swami Vivekananda’s famous words, ‘Music is the highest art and, to those who understand, is the highest form of worship’ – are another stellar example of creative expression. However, during my limited experience in the corporate world, it has increasingly dawned on me that creativity is not confined to the arts alone, and that it has immense relevance in the fields of physical science and management, and also in our daily lives.
Before delving into some examples that explain this, we should understand one key concept that is almost synonymous with creativity: innovation. Richard Luecke begins his book Managing Creativity and Innovation by pointing out that the meaning of innovation lies in its Latin root, ‘nova’ or new. It is generally understood as the introduction of a new thing or method. It follows that innovation is a by-product of creativity. Let me explain that with a very practical example. To develop the highly successful Crest teeth whitening strips that are available without a dentist’s prescription in various stores worldwide, the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) giant Proctor and Gamble used some very creative thinking. Their scientists drew on the substrate technology developed in their family-care business and the research related to hydrogen peroxide in their laundry business to come up with these small strips which, when taped to one’s teeth, visibly brighten them in a few weeks. What is remarkable here is not only the product, which turned out to be highly innovative, but especially the creative process that went on behind scenes. Networking between two seemingly dissimilar departments led to a minor revolution in home dental care in the United States.
Thus creativity and innovation go hand in hand, the latter often a direct outcome of the former. The question then arises: can anyone and everyone come up with ideas like that – simple yet revolutionary ideas that change the face of science, art, and technology the world over – or does it take a special gene or skill? That calls for a deeper look into the root of all human thought and function, the human brain.
Creativity and the Human Brain
The brain controls ‘lower’ or involuntary activities such as heartbeat, respiration and digestion – these are known as autonomic functions – as well as voluntary movement and a variety of special senses. The brain also controls ‘higher’ order conscious activities, such as thought, reasoning, and abstraction. The different higher brain functions are controlled by different parts of the brain. Specifically, the left hemisphere of the brain largely governs logical and rational thought, while the right hemisphere is primarily associated with creative and artistic faculties. This was first discovered by Dr. Roger Wolcott Sperry (1913-94).
A neuropsychologist and neurobiologist, Sperry studied subjects whose brains had been surgically separated into two halves to control epilepsy. He was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1981 ‘for his discoveries concerning the functional specialization of the cerebral hemispheres.’ The functional specialization of the left and right brain hemispheres are highlighted below: According to Sperry’s research, the left brain is largely responsible for the logical and analytical faculties of learning and processing information, while the right brain displays non-linear and innovative patterns of thinking and assimilating information. This fascinating distinction shows up in people’s behaviour. It would seem that some people’s behaviour is influenced primarily by the right side of the brain, and others’ by the left side: some people are very organized and detail oriented, almost to a fault, while others are scatterbrained and find great order in chaos. After reading about Sperry’s model, I have tried not to be judgmental about these two extremes – after all, they are just following different brain hemispheres! There is a further distinction in understanding brain function that can help us hone in on that part of the brain that supports or stimulates creativity, which is the contribution of ‘William E ‘Ned’ Herrmann (1922-99), another great thinker in this field. Herrmann developed a ‘brain dominance theory’ – the theory that different parts of the brain are dominant in different people – and applied it to teaching, learning, increasing self understanding, and enhancing creative thinking capabilities on both an individual and corporate level. He was internationally recognized for his work.
Herrmann added to Sperry’s left brain – right brain distinction, further dividing brain function into cerebral and limbic modes – the cognitive and intellectual contrasted with visceral and emotional thinking processes. As the illustration shows, this gives four quadrants, corresponding to four different ways in which we assimilate knowledge and information, react to our environment, and solve problems. This can be illustrated with an example: Suppose you have decided to take a vacation with your family. That sounds like a fun prospect, doesn’t it? The next time you are in such a situation, take a moment to watch how you can react to it. If our brain dominance is in the A quadrant, we will immediately look at the logistics of getting to our destination, and find out what the ticket fare is, where the hotels are, what kind of clothes we need to carry, and so on. If we are B quadrant dominant, we will focus on packing the right kind of clothing, deciding on our travel itinerary, sequencing every programme detail – like planning the times we would see various places – and ensuring that everyone’s role is clearly defined. If we are primarily C quadrant people, we would want to know more about who is coming with us and what things we might carry for 7 their convenience. We would pay attention to how excited we feel about where we are going, and making sure we take enough pictures to capture all the memories. Finally, if we are D quadrant dominant, we wouldn’t worry about the details of the travel, but would just focus on getting there (doesn’t matter how) and taking each day as it comes. We would look for new challenges each day and not worry about planning every detail. D quadrant people make exciting travel companions if you are embarking on an adventurous trip in the Himalayas. Risk-taking is their middle name however, if one doesn’t provide adequate time to the other quadrants, one might ‘risk’ making the Himalayas one’s permanent adobe after the trip! The point is that for any decision to be completely thought out, we must use a ‘whole-brain’ approach, by giving due attention to each quadrant.
The D quadrant and creativity
It is the D quadrant of the brain that has the greatest influence on creativity. The guiding principles that govern this quadrant are listed below:
Individuals with highly evolved D quadrant thinking are the best people to have on a creative team. They are able to think abstractly, come up with new ideas, and introduce fresh thinking into an existing system. They are innovative individuals who are able to transcend the real and artificial barriers that society imposes on them. Swami Vivekananda is, to me, the prime exemplar of a D quadrant thinker. What makes him special is that each of his faculties was so highly evolved that he could not only see the ‘big picture’ of the development of the humankind and of spiritual growth in the world, but also put a plan in place to effect that development and delineate the exact steps which would see it through to fruiton. Swami Ranganathananda, the thirteenth president of the Ramakrishna Order, was another such personality whose D quadrant was highly evolved. At the same time, he gave careful attention to detail in his projects and endeavours; one sees this clearly on reading ‘My Life Is My Work’ the pictorial tribute to him published by Nachiketa Tapovan. He was able to discuss with equal élan the fundamentals of children’s education and complex spiritual questions, and would cross reference his ideas in a multitude of ways, always doing amazing justice to the issue at hand. Lesser mortals like us would do well to recognize in which quadrants we do most of our thinking, and which quadrants are evinced by our family members and colleagues; thus we can build on our strengths, transform our weakness, and compensate for quadrants in which we may be lacking by turning to others around us for whom those quadrants are dominant.
Practical Implications of Creativity
So far we have looked at the preconditions to creativity as dictated by our brain – but creativity with parameters placed on it is a bit of an oxymoron. While there is a method in the madness that infuses creativity into a system, there is also the necessity for a free flow of thoughts and ideas for creativity to flourish. Scientific understanding of creativity is far from complete. The popular belief that creative thinkers are few and far between is dismissed by Steven M Smith, a professor of psychology at the Institute of Applied Creativity, Texas A & M University, who says, ‘Creative thinking is the norm in human beings and can be observed in almost all mental activities.’ Another thinker in this arena, Joy Paul Guildford of the University of Southern California, notes that intelligence doesn’t have a direct correlation with a person’s cognitive capacity. His research identifies a crucial variable that results in innovative solutions to problem solving: the difference between ‘convergent’ and ‘divergent’ thinking (ibid).
Convergent thinking comprises a more traditional approach to problem solving: the premise is that there is essentially ‘one’ correct solution to a given problem at hand and success lies in reaching that goal. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, calls for a free and unconstrained thought process that questions norms and challenges pre-existing ideas. Divergent thinking is exemplified by the famous words of Robert Frost (1874-1963) : Two roads diverged in a wood and I — I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.
Throughout our childhood and a good part of our teenage and adult years, we are subject to a traditional system of education typically emphasizing convergent thinking. I recall that, as a child, when I was learning the principles of ‘modern maths’ in school, my mother would sometimes show me a much easier way to solve a problem. However, my teacher did not always accept this different way of subtraction or multiplication, and even if I did get the correct answer using these other methods, I would lose marks for not following the ‘right’ steps. As we proceed along the path of education and then look for a job, we find that emphasis is always placed on the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ of goal achievement. The propensity for convergent thinking becomes increasingly internalized, and since we are, after all, creatures of habit, so is our brain, and with time we gradually begin to lose the ability to ‘think out of the box’ or question norms; we then take most of our environmental variables as given. We end up confirming the age-old adage, ‘If you always think the way you always thought, you will get what you always got.’ This is the prime promise on which all change-management initiatives are based. Though change management is nowadays thought of as a clichéd ‘business-school term’ – especially when it comes from a typical management graduate like myself – still, change management is something we do every day; it is not the domain of corporation alone.
If we analyze the evolution of any social, political, or economic system, we shall find that the only reason it was successful is because it consistently adopted and adapted to change. Mahatma Gandhi rightly says, ‘Be the change you want to create in this world.’ I consider Swami Vivekananda to be one of the greatest change agents of all times. He questioned norms, challenged ideas, and accepted the new without prejudice, while using amazing discretion and discrimination in his decision making process. Each of us in our fields of endeavour – whether we are working for a corporation, educating students, or creating a place of warmth for our families to come home to every night – can individually and collectively look around us and question inconsistencies in our home, our society, our country. In a typical Indian household, the mother is the one who ensures that everyone has a warm meal, that everyone’s needs are met. Can we not ask who takes care of her needs? When we take our environment for granted we cease to be creative, we cease to be true thinkers, we cease to ‘live’, we merely exist; to my mind, that cannot be the goal of human life.
Since I feel ill-equipped to discuss creativity in the context of spirituality. I shall rather draw upon two eloquent statements from Swami Ranganathananda: The creative act of any creation is preceded by tapas. Without tapas there is no creativity. When an artist is in tapas, then he or she gets creativity. Behind every creative action, there is tapas. Creativity cannot come from the attached state of mind. From a detached state of mind it can come. Swami Ranganathananda explains that in the Vedantic context, tapas means more than just ‘physical austerity’; it also implies austerity of speech and mind. A constant sense of alertness and a spirit of discrimination keep the mind from going downhill; each time we check our thoughts to keep our minds at steady state we are exercising mental tapas (190).
Such powerful words, and so beautifully reminiscent of the famous assertion of Thomas Edison: ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration,’ Yes, creativity cannot come without discipline; creativity truly is the method in the madness, the order in the chaos. These concepts may seem contrary to one another, but it is not so: for a revolutionary idea to flourish, immense discipline and hard work must go on behind the scenes. To allow for productive ‘divergent thought’ in our minds, it is critical that we be able to converge our thoughts in a focused manner on the issue at hand and use a wholebrain approach to a given problem. And to come up with great answers, it is imperative that we first learn now to ask the right questions.
Whether we are suffering from writer’s block or a blank canvas is staring us in the face, whether we are in a lab trying to come up with the latest hand-held computer or just trying to add some fun into a mundane task, we very often have to put on our creative hat – and one size doesn’t fit all. Here are some simple tips that can get those juices flowing in the brain. Just watch as the influx of new ideas creates a halo of sparks around your head.
Tribute to Volunteers
The lifeline of service-oriented organizations such as the Ramakrishna Mission is the contribution of volunteers. To honour them and to acknowledge their valuable contributions, the Mission observed 1 May 2007 as Volunteers’ Recognition Day. The good turnout signalled the dedication of the volunteers and the assurance of their continued assistance and support for the various activities of the Mission. The function started with traditional prayers by children of some of the volunteers. In his short address, Swami Muktirupananda, President of the Mission, spoke of the need for volunteers not only to develop love and compassion but the right mental attitude. He said: Volunteer means a person who out of his own free will and free choice offers his or her services to any institution which is engaged in doing some good to others. There is no compulsion and no obligation. Yet people come forward to share their knowledge, time, labour and money. Why people do it? As human beings we cannot lead our lives in isolation. Because we are interconnected and interdependent. The human society is one long chain and each ring of the chain is connected to the other. It is human nature to expect that we must be loved and helped by others. But life teaches that to receive other’s love I must in turn love and help them. Love is not mere sentiment or mere emotion. If one simply says that one loves all people, that is not enough. Love is action. It expresses itself in our acts. That act is service, doing some good to others, bringing some happiness to others. Voluntary service fulfills two purposes:
1) It breaks down our selfish-barriers, makes us forget our personal problems and worries. The less we think about our ambition, desires and wants it is better for our mental health.
2) It purifies and expands our hearts.
A psychiatrist has quoted a case of a wealthy old lady. This rich lady lived alone in a bungalow. She did not have much contact with other people. She suffered from many imaginary ailments. She constantly complained to her doctors with one or the other physical pains. There was no end to her grumbling. Medicine did not help. One of her doctors was able to diagnose her problem – it was self-centredness, thinking about oneself always. In front of her big house there was a school for kids. The doctor persuaded her to spend sometime at the school play ground and watch children playing. She reluctantly went and sat for few days. When the children saw an elderly lady sitting everyday at their play ground, naturally they brought their disputes, quarrels to her. So this old lady started to involve in their activities. Some of them brought their drawings, paintings to show her and some brought their home work for her correction. Thus within few weeks she became absorbed in the busy world of the children. Later she became part of that school and used her wealth to improve the condition of the school. What was the outcome? She forgot her troubles and illness and became active and cheerful. So this is the lesson we learn – isolation and separation bring misery and linking and relating to others bring happiness and a feeling of fulfillment.
Doing voluntary service is not a smooth affair. It has also some pitfalls. 1) Each one of us has sharp edges to one’s personality. These sharp edges not only hurt oneself but others also. These are personal opinions, prejudices, judgements and so on. When we start working with others they come to the surface. If we patiently smooth out these rough edges it is better for us. Otherwise we grumble, quarrel and leave with bitterness. 2) Hankering for recognition, sometimes what we do may not receive proper recognition. Why to worry about it? If we love to render some service for the good of others the joy and satisfaction we get that itself is a reward. Please love what you do and do what you love. Don’t worry about other trivial things like praise and recognition. 3) If we work some years as volunteers for any welfare institution, in course of time, a feeling may crop up that we are very important and without us the organization cannot go on. The idea of self importance unknowingly creeps in. With this idea of conceit and vanity we try to control and dictate others. But this does not work. No one is indispensable. A huge organization like the Ramakrishna Mission does not depend on any one person either monks or volunteers. It has its inner force and momentum. None can stop it. Serving others is an opportunity and we are not obliging any one. What is required is little humility and an open mind to learn from others.
Following his address, the other monks at the Mission – Swamis Satyalokananda, Samachittananda and Jitamanasananda – made audio-visual presentations explaining the functioning of their respective departments: Sarada Kindergarten, Boys’ Home, Wings Counselling Centre, Spiritual and Cultural activities, Yoga and Homeopathy Centre. This presentation was to enable the volunteers, who are normally involved in a particular area of work, to get an overall picture of the Mission’s activities. This was also the purpose of a tour of the various facilities for those not familiar with them. Some of the old-time volunteers recalled their experiences explaining how they were drawn into volunteerism and how this had contributed to a widening of their horizons of understanding the social problems. All the volunteers were presented with a souvenir and some publications of the Mission.
Renunciation and Service
Swami Vivekananda in a letter wrote, “My ideal can be put into a few words, that is: preach unto mankind their divinity and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.” (Vol VII – 501). We have two aspects – one is human and another is divine. With our human aspect we are quite familiar. About the divine aspect we do not know much. It is a mysterious thing to us. What is divinity? God is within us as well as outside. God within us is called divinity. God dwelling in our heart is invisible because He is hidden by this magic world and its bewitching attractions. Our focus is also on the world and its enjoyments and not on God. How to unfold God or our divinity in our everyday life? Swamiji says renunciation and service are the practical means to express our divine nature. Why we have to find our divine nature? Because it is the only state of happiness which is free from all sorrows and suffering. All of us are working to reach that state but the means we adopt are wrong. According to Swamiji renunciation and service are the right means to unfold our potential divinity. Divinity, renunciation and service these three concepts are not independent but are related to one another. Without the aim of manifesting our godly nature renunciation and service have no meaning. So also renunciation and service are mutually related. How can we practise these two virtues little by little in life?
What is service? Service means giving up a little of personal interest and comforts in order to do some good to others. Many people do such service either out of obligation or unwillingly. But it has to become our conscious ideal. We have to do it without any grumbling or expecting anything out of it. Such attitude purifies our mind and brings us out of our hard-shell or self centeredness. The concept of service is easy to understand but the word renunciation appears frightening. The moment one hears about renouncing he imagines all sorts of fearful things – giving up his family, wealth, possessions and so on. It brings before him the austere and lonely life. So this preconceived idea of giving up personal pleasures and family life terrifies most people. It is not so. It is not running away from the world but living in the world and practising as far as possible unselfishness and feeling fulfillment.
People engage themselves in various types of welfare activities and social service. To do this they have to renounce something. They give up money, time and comforts. They also endure many hardships and discomforts. In fact this is tyaga, renunciation. Without tyaga service is not possible. Any kind of doing good to others certainly entails some kind of renouncing. People do practise to some extent the virtue of self-sacrifice. Parents give up many of their desires and pleasures and sacrifice a lot for their children. So also children reciprocate. If parents and children become selfish and look out for their own happiness then there is neither harmony nor happiness in that family. It is rather a selfish group and not a family. In a family its members voluntarily give up their selfishness for the welfare of the family. The same ideal holds for all collective and social life. No man can remain utterly selfish. His selfishness will be knocked down by nature and society. During one’s personal crisis one needs succour and help; during sickness one requires care and kindness of others. Life cannot be lived in isolation. All life is interconnected and interdependent. It is one long chain and each ring of a chain is vital. The moment we put barriers of defence, nature interferes and destroys them. Nature reminds us again and again to get out of our self-concerns and love others. Therefore Swamiji said, “Love is, therefore, the only law of life.” (Vol VI – 320). “If you love, that love will come back to you, completing the circle.” (Vol I – 196). “Love makes the whole universe as one’s own home.” Even animals are social and they love and care for one another. The human society and nations depend on the principle of give and receive. Human beings live depending on each other. This requires a little of sacrifice from each member. In most cases this sacrifice is not voluntary but enforced from outside authority. Religion and Government either use persuasion or enact laws to force its members to renounce part of their wealth and time. The lofty moral purpose behind all these enforcements is to teach man a little of renunciation for the wellbeing of all.
In many religions certain days are marked as holy. The followers of different faiths are advised to be generous on these days and give liberally to poor people. By doing so one hopes to acquire merit or a place in heaven by one’s good deeds. Religions thus lay stress on charity. Charity is voluntary renunciation. On the other hand, the law demands and takes away the surplus wealth of citizens. Voluntary giving up fills one’s heart with joy and compassion. Tyaga does not mean only giving money and things in charity. Its scope is much wider and deeper than this. It includes sharing one’s knowledge, giving one’s time and labour caring for sick people, sending good thoughts and doing one’s work with diligence and dedication. Renunciation also includes appreciating good deeds of others, recognizing good qualities in them and using kind and encouraging words. We seldom admire goodness in other people. We think we alone possess all the good virtues. This is ego-centered life. To minimize the importance of one’s ego and to look beyond this centre requires a certain amount of renunciation. Tyaga means to deny one’s self importance. Renunciation and service cannot co-exist with selfishness. A self centered person is unable to see beyond his own excessive worries, fears and anxieties. A selfish person is an unhappy and neurotic person. One who seeks exclusively his own happiness never gets it. When he forgets his little self even for a short time he is happy and free. This is the law of nature. Mahabharata tells, “When you hurt another, he turns and hurts you; when you love another, he turns and loves you.” A Sanskrit verse succinctly puts it, “Do unto others what you want them to do.” We usually complain that others are selfish and do not like to help and so on.
In fact society is a mirror. It reflects what we are. Others do not love me means I do not love others; others do not help me implies, I do not help any one. What we send out good or bad comes back to us. So renunciation and service unite us with the whole world. There is a famous saying, “Birkenhead drill.” A crew of any ship is familiar with this proverbial expression. In times of great dangers at sea they remember the story of the brave crew of the ship Birkenhead and that steadies them. The discipline and sacrifice of these people is legendary. In 1852, the British ship was carrying soldiers and their families to South Africa. In the dead of night the ship struck a hidden rock. She split in two. Of the 630 people aboard, 170 were women and children. The ship was sinking fast. There were only three life boats and only 180 people could be taken in them. The colonel named Sydney Seaton ordered the soldiers to be lined up on the deck. The women and children were put 20 into the life boats and rowed away. The ships crew and soldiers stood like statues without panic till the ship went down. A few of them were later picked up by a rescue ship. Before that when a ship went down it was usually the strongest who seized the life boats first and helpless women, children and invalids were left behind.
The almost uncontrollable instinct in time of danger is to save one’s life at any cost. But there are heroic souls who face death to save others. There are men and women who risk their lives to save even endangered forests and animals. These people teach us a lesson what sacrifice really means. All people are not ready to embrace such extreme sacrifice. But it tells us that in our own way, within our limited capacity we too can serve other people in distress. All moral principles are based on one goal of unity. The unity of life. The more we consciously move towards that Oneness we find fulfillment and joy. The more we separate from that Oneness we will be more miserable. Renunciation and service are ethical norms which lead us towards that goal. It is not only social or moral goal but also spiritual.
Eric Fromm, a famous psycho-analyst observes, “The problem of psychic health and neurosis is inseparably linked up with that of ethics. It may be said that every neurosis represents a moral problem.” Swamiji also said, “In doing evil, we injure ourselves and others also. In doing good, we do good to ourselves and others as well.” (Vol I – 82). To bring a little sunshine and cheerfulness into the lives of other fellow beings is an opportunity. It is not a burden. If we think always about our pleasures, pains and anxieties we become morbidly protective of this little self. However carefully we guard it nature comes and mercilessly pulls down the protective walls. What is after all our personal life in this world? A bundle of fears, worries, hopes and despairs and an occasional flash of joy. The joyous moments are those when we have stopped to think about this little ‘me’. When we are not deeply anchored in ‘me’ and ‘mine’, we are free to connect ourselves to other people and to the world. So renunciation and service are not only ethical norms but also spiritual disciplines. Therefore all faiths advise their followers to give, renounce a little for others. This giving, however humble, purifies the heart of a giver. That pure heart is the dwelling place of God or Divinity. All are in me and I am in all is the ultimate Truth.
Lay Disciples - XII
Akshay Kumar Sen
“Glory, glory be to Ramakrishna, the wish-yielding tree, glory, glory be to God, the teacher of the world.”
With this invocative prayer begins Akshay Kumar Sen’s monumental work Sri Sri Ramakrishna Punthi, a long narrative poem in Bengali on the life and divine play of Sri Ramakrishna. Since its publication more than a hundred years ago, it continues to be read in most Bengal villages with the same devotion and fervour as the Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. After reading the work, Swami Vivekananda wrote from the States to a brother monk in India, “Give Akshaya a hundred thousand hearty embraces from me. Through his pen Sri Ramakrishna is manifesting himself. Blessed is Akshaya.” Fortunately for the non-Bengali readers an English translation running into almost nine hundred pages was published a decade ago.
Who is this Akshay Kumar Sen?
Akshay was born in 1854 in a small village in the Bankura district of Bengal. His father Haladhar Sen was too poor to provide a good education for his son who had to be content with limited exposure to rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic at the village school. He was, as was the family, a devotee of Lord Krishna. In course of time he married and when the wife died, took a second wife who bore him two sons and a daughter.
To improve his economic prospects Akshay moved to Calcutta where he found employment as a private tutor to the children of the Tagore family. The sophistication, culture and elegance of the Tagore clan added to Akshay’s inferiority complex and most of the time he kept to himself. For good measure, he was short, stocky and dark complexioned with small eyes, thick lips and a flat nose. In later years he grew an unkempt grey beard and wore a huge turban and thick glasses to boot. Swami Vivekananda had nicknamed him “Sankacunni” literally meaning a female ghost wearing bangles. But Akshay was not offended as he knew that Swamiji gave names of endearment only to those whom he liked. But changes were on the horizon. One day he heard Devendranath Majumdar, a senior employee at the Tagore estate, and Dhirendra, a young member of the Tagore family talking about a paramahamsa.
Paramahamsa is one who has realised Brahman, a liberated soul. When he heard that word his interest was kindled. As mentioned earlier he was a devotee of Lord Krishna. He had taken initiation from a family guru. He was under the impression that taking initiation would automatically lead to some kind of vision of God. This had not happened, but the spark of devotion had been ignited and he wanted to know more. So one day when Devendra was alone Akshay approached him and asked him about the paramahamsa they were talking about. Devendra brushed him aside saying, “What good could it possibly do you?” Akshay felt rebuffed, but strangely it only increased his appetite. So when he had an opportunity to talk to Dhirendra he found out that the paramahamsa they were talking about was Sri Ramakrishna and that he lived in Dakshineswar. That did not help much because not being familiar with Calcutta Akshay had no idea where Dakshineswar was. He realised that Devendra alone could help him and began cultivating him by offering him some services anonymously. When Devendra found out who the service provider was, he asked Akshay what he wanted. “Sir, would you please take me to meet the paramahamsa?” was his request. Devendra was impressed by his humility and sincerity and agreed to do so.
In the early part of 1885 Akshay came to know that a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna, Mahimacharan Chakrabarty had arranged for a festival for the Master at his house and that Devendra would be attending. He was keen not to miss this opportunity. When Devendra and Dhirendra were about to get into their carriage, Akshay rushed to Devendra , clutched his feet and pleaded with him, “Sir, please allow me to accompany you.” Devendra agreed. Akshay was then thirty years old. At Mahimacharan’s residence had assembled several of Sri Ramakrishna’s devotees.
Here is Akshay’s own account of this first meeting: “Devendra and Dhirendra took the dust of the Master’s feet, as usual, and took their seats. The humble author did likewise and the Master gave him a look full of compassion. What was there in that look, I do not know. It was beyond any description. The holy image of the Master entered his heart through his eyes and occupied it right away. That charming figure at once dazzled his eyes and mind and captivated his heart. Whatever had been left in the heart was cleared out by listening to the Master’s sweet words. It was an invisible play, burglary in open daylight by breaking open hundreds of locks inside one’s heart…All past remembrances disappeared in a moment, and I became completely oblivious of the world. I forgot my old self, a new current started flowing, a new being was born in my old body. The assembled people no longer seemed to be people, the houses ceased to be houses at all, and having lost everything old, it appeared as if I had entered a new territory and was moving forward in a dream. The story of the Master’s glory has been chiselled in my heart. Where can I find adequate language to describe it?” Soon the kirtans began. Sri Ramakrishna burst forth into a rapturous song,“Behold, the two brothers have come, who weep while chanting Hari’s name…” Intoxicated with divine joy, the Master began to dance, his face beaming with love and bliss. At times he went into samadhi and remained motionless, at other times he danced with great vigour. As the spiritual fervour reached a climax, Mahimacharan pointed to Sri Ramakrishna and exclaimed, “Here’s our Krishna.” Akshay, a Krishna devotee, felt deeply that the Master was verily Lord Krishna for whose vision he had been yearning for years.
After Sri Ramakrishna left for Dakashineswar, Akshay got into the carriage with Devendra and Dhirendra. Another close devotee of Sri Ramakrishna, Ramchandra Dutta also joined them. During the journey Ram was talking only about the Master and Akshay was thrilled to hear what Ram had to say. So when Ram got down near his house, Akshay also joined him and went to his house. There Ram treated him to many more incidents about the Master. He returned home quite late inebriated with divine fervour.
Two or three days later Akshay went to Dakshineswar with a friend. This time the Master asked him many details about his life and whether he was a Brahmo (i.e. whether he belonged to the Brahmo Samaj, a religious and social reform movement then led by Keshab Chandra Sen). Akshay had not even heard the name. Before leaving, Akshay wanted to take the dust of the Master’s feet, but to his dismay he was frustrated. On this and later occasions the Master used to tell him, “Let you be purified, then you may do so.” (The Master had let him do so at Mahimacharan’s house though). Akshay felt offended. He wrote later, “The way the Master treated me! If he had treated any other person in that way, he never would have returned . So many devotees touched his feet, and yet whenever I would try to, he would withdraw his feet and sometimes even move back saying, ‘All right, all right!’” But Akshay was not to be put off by the seeming indifference on the part of the Master. The Master’s spiritual loftiness, his discourses and his spiritual ecstasies were awe-inspiring to Akshay. He had developed both fear and resect for the Master. In the push/pull factor, the pull factor proved stronger. Despite his disappointments, Akshay became more convinced as days passed that Sri Ramakrishna alone could guide him to his desired destination.
As he wrote later, “I neither talked with Sri Ramakishna nor asked him any questions, but this I knew – that whosoever received the touch of the Master on his chest would lose outer consciousness and in that state would see Krishna. Expecting this I continued to visit him. Not only that, whenever I see him I would feel myself to be a different person. I used to think how it would be when the Master, out of mercy, would touch my chest. Many days passed, but he did not fulfil my desire. I used to go to him with great hope and return home with tearful eyes and disappointment.” While Akshay’s disappointment is understandable, it is not uncommon for great gurus to mould their disciples in different ways to cleanse them of their ego or jealousy or just to straighten their angularities. If only Akshay had known that Sri Ramakrishna had put his star disciple Narendra (Swami Vivekananda) through a trial period, his feelings may not have been that intense.
In 1883, a sudden change seem to come in their close relationship. The Master, who used to be overwhelmed with joy at the arrival of Narendra, suddenly began to assume an attitude of indifference. One day Narendra came, bowed down to the Master and took his seat. But the Master took no notice of him and remained indifferent, speaking not a word to him for the whole day. For more than a month the Master continued this stand-off. Narendra, however, continued to visit the Master and showed no sign of being offended. At last one day the Master asked him, “Well, I did not speak a single word to you. Still you are coming here.” Narendra said he continued to come because he loved the Master. Highly pleased the Master said, “I was testing you. It is only a spiritual aspirant of your calibre that can put up with so much neglect and indifference. Any one else would have left me long ago.”
It speaks a lot for the calibre of Akshay that he too was not put off by the Master’s posture, but pressed on with efforts to reach the goal. As part of the effort he appealed to Devendra to request the Master to bless him. Devendra duly conveyed the request. The Master’s response was, “What shall I say? You give him some advice.” Devendra then asked Akshay to chant the name of Hari which he did with tremendous faith and hope. In April 1885 Devendra arranged a festival at his house in Sri Ramakrishna’s honour. Akshay was thrilled to have been invited. A professional singer had been engaged and he sang several songs praising Lord Krishna. The spiritual mood was intense. After refreshments Sri Ramakrishna was seated in the drawing room. The devotees sat around him. Akshay, and another devotee Upendra, sat on either side of the Master and stroked his feet. The Master was in a happy mood and sang some songs. Akshay was also a happy man that day.
But the icing on the cake was yet to come. As Sri Ramakrishna’s health deteriorated considerably, in December 1885 he was moved to a spacious garden house in Cossipore so that proper medical care could be given to him. On 1 January 1886, the Master felt a little better and came out for a walk in the garden. It was the day Sri Ramakrishna blessed many of his household devotees and hence it is observed as the Kalpataru Day. Let Akshay recall what happened to him: “When it was about 3 o’clock the Master came downstairs and walked towards the garden path. The devotees followed him. All others, who were elsewhere, hearing that the Master was walking in the garden, rushed there. Some of us were on the trees playing like monkeys on the branches. We came down at once and quickly went to the place where the Master was walking with the other devotees. I stood on one side behind the Master. Two beautiful champa flowers were in my hands. The great devotee Girish (Chandra Ghosh) was near the Master and talking with him. The Master was charmingly dressed that day. Looking at him once the form cannot be forgotten. He wore a red bordered cotton cloth. A green coloured coat was on his body. He had a cotton cap which covered his head and also his ears. On his feet there were socks and slippers which had decorations of creepers and leaves on them. His face was shining and luminous. Though the body was emaciated by his terrible illness, his face was charming and rays of light were always playing on it……
A little afterwards, the Master blessed the devotees and raising his right hand said, ‘May you have chaitanya. What else can I say?’ Then the Master returned to the path leading towards the house. I was standing some distance away. From there he addressed me, ‘Hello, my boy, what are you doing?’ He then came near, touched my chest with his hand and recited something in my ear which, being a Maha-mantra, I shall keep secret. What did I see and what did I hear? I shall only say that my heart’s desire was fulfilled that day and I only wish to pass the rest of my days in singing the glory of Sri Ramakrishna.” Sri Ramakrishna’s illness worsened in the months ahead. On 15 August 1886, his condition became critical. Swami Vivekananda had arranged for Akshay to fan the Master that night. After a while Sashi (Swami Ramakrishnananda) asked Akshay to call Girish and Ramchandra Datta from Calcutta. Akshay immediately left for Calcutta, met the devotees and returned to Cossipore. The Master entered into Mahasamadhi on 16 August.
With the Master physically gone, Akshay used to decorate his photo and sing his glories. He felt a compelling urge to write something about the Master though he was conscious of his scant literary talent. Devendra, in whose company he first went to see Sri Ramakrishna, also uged him to try. Later he expressed his desire to Swami Vivekananda who was impressed by Akshay’ sincerity. Citing instances of unskilled men turning into great poets, Swamiji encouraged him to press on with his instinct. Thus began his writing in Bengali verse in 1887. After compiling the first part of the Master’s life, he took it to the Baranagore monastery and read it to Swami Vivekananda. Swamiji was moved by what he heard and took Akshay to Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi who blessed him. Again Holy Mother blessed him when he went to Kamarpukur, the birth place of Sri Ramakrishna. At that time Mother had him read the poem to some of the village women who had known the Master and urged him to continue his writings. Since his personal contacts with Sri Ramakrishna were limited, he collected considerable information from some of the monastic as well as lay disciples of the Master. The work, written in the style of the great epics The Ramayana and Mahabharata, was published in four volumes between 1894 and 1901 as Charitamrita. Towards the end of 1901 all the four parts were published in one volume entitled Sri Ramakrishna Punthi.
Akshay sent a copy of the book to Swami Vivekananda, who was then in the States. As noted briefly, Swamiji’s response was ecstatic. In a letter written to his brother monk Swami Ramakrishnananda, he said, “Just now I read Akshay’s book. Give him a hundred thousand embraces from me. Through his pen Sri Ramakrishna is manifesting himself. Blessed is Akshay….I do not find a single irrelevant word in it. I cannot tell in words the joy I have experienced by reading his book. …Dear, dear Akshay I bless you with all my heart, my dear brother. May the Lord sit on your tongue… .Akshay is the future apostle for the masses of Bengal. Take great care of Akshay, his faith and devotion have borne fruit.”
Apart from the Punthi, Akshay also wrote the The Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna in 1896 and The Glory of Sri Ramakrishna in 1910, both in Bengali. Critics say the Punthi is a complimentary work to two other authoritative volumes on Sri Ramakrishna, the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by ‘M’ and Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master by Swami Saradananda. After working in a publishing firm in Calcutta for a while, Akshay retired to his village home where despite his poverty and family problems he continued to sing the glories of god. He often travelled to Jayrambati with some offering for Holy Mother. During one of his visits he addressed her as ‘Mother’ and she responded ‘Yes, my son.’ Thrilled, he said, “Mother, I called you ‘Mother’ and you answered ‘Yes.’ So I have no fear any more.” The Mother replied, “My son, do not talk like that. Success comes only to a careful person.” For a few days before his death Akshay suffered blood dysentery. As his end came nearer, his younger brother chanted the name of Sri Ramakrishna. All of a sudden Akshay said to those around him, “Keep quiet now. I see the Master and the Mother.” Those in the room noted that Akshay’s face was luminous and his eyes were half-closed. He passed away on 7 December 1923 at the age of sixtynine. Thus did Akshay Kumar Sen, with the grace of Sri Ramakrishna, scale the lofty heights of spirituality overcoming his numerous shortcomings.
References: A Portrait of Sri Ramakrishna (Punthi) They Lived with God – by Swami Chetanananda First Meetings with Sri Ramakrishna – by Swami Prabhananda
On the way to Mithila
(Continued from last issue)
Vishvamitra planned to visit Mithila and then proceed to Himavan, the source of the Ganges. The trio, Vishvamitra, Rama and Lakshmana, set off, heading north and after some time, reached the banks of the river Sona. While resting, the ever inquisitive Rama wanted to know to whom the lush, fertile land belonged. Vishvamitra, thus began an elaborate account of the place of his birth. He explained that Lord Brahma’s son Kusa, a great tapasvin, had married the daughter of the king of Videha and had four sons- Kushamba, Kushanabha, Adhurtarajas and Vasu. Each founded and ruled a city like true kshatriyas. The country which Rama had just admired was Vasumati, the land of Vasu. Kushanabha had a hundred daughters who were given to a noble rishi, Brahmadatta. Longing for a son, Kushnabha requested Brahmadatta to perform a yaga on his behalf. During the yaga, Kusa prophesied that a son would be born to Kushanabha who would bring the king world-wide fame. Vishvamitra revealed that this son called Gadhi was in fact Vishvamitra’s father. Vishvamitra also had an elder sister Satyavati who was such a saintly person that she rose to heaven and became the sacred river Kaushiki. That explained why Vishvamitra spent all his time on the banks of the Kaushiki in the Himavan mountains. Vishvamitra’s narration took him late into the night.
The next morning they set off again, travelling north, following the route taken by rishis. After a long journey, they reached the majestic Ganga and as before, Rama was curious to learn all about the sacred Ganga or Tripathaga - the river with three paths. The sage began by saying that mount Himavan, the lord of all mountains, had two daughters - the older Ganga, and the other Parvathi (Uma). Ganga was given to the devas who had approached Himavan with their request and she transformed herself into a river, flowing in the heavens (Akasha Ganga) and purifying everything in its path. The other pious daughter Parvathi was given to Lord Mahadeva. Vishvamitra continued that one of Rama’s ancestors, King Sagara had two wives, Kesini and Sumati but both were childless. So Sagara decided to perform tapas at Himavan and after a hundred years, the rishi Bhrigu prophesied that Sagara would become a father and his children would bring him great fame. His one wife would bear him a single son who would continue the illustrious line of Ikshvakus while the other would bear him sixty thousand brave sons. The two wives were given the choice as to who they would like to be. Kesini chose to be the mother of a single son while Sumati looked forward to being mother to numerous sons. Soon Kesini gave birth to a son Asamanja who very early in life showed evil traits. Eventually King Sagara banished him from the kingdom. Asamanja’s son Amshuman, however, was the direct antithesis of his father. Sumati became the proud mother of sixty thousand powerful, good looking young men. On one occasion, Sagara prepared to perform the Ashvamedha at a site between mount Himavan and the Vindhya range. Amshuman was given the task of parading the sacrificial horse round the kingdom, but Indra, envious of the earthly kings, stole the horse and disappeared. The king, unable to proceed with the yajna, was warned that a disaster would occur if the horse was not brought back. The king then summoned his sixty thousand sons and instructed them to scour every corner of the earth to find the horse. The young princes, the Sagaraputras, dutifully combed every inch of the earth, but found nothing. Then they went into the nether lands and came upon a cave from which emanated the neighing of a horse. Entering the cave, they found it to be an ashrama where a rishi was meditating and behind the sage was the stolen horse. Unknown to them, this rishi was the great Kapila Vasudeva. The impulsive princes rushed into the cave accusing the sage of being a charlatan and stealing the horse. Furious at their insolence, Kapila opened his eyes, stared at them and reduced them to ashes. Sagara, becoming impatient, sent his grandson Amshuman to look for his uncles. Following the same path they had taken, Amshuman soon reached Kapila’s cave and saw the horse. He waited patiently for Kapila to finish his meditation and when the latter opened his eyes, Amshuman prostrated at his feet and explained his presence there. Kapila returned the horse, telling him that Indra had stolen it. Amshuman then looked around for water to perform the funeral rites for his uncles who had been turned to ashes, but could not find any. Sumati’s brother, Garuda, came to him and informed him that only holy water could erase his uncles’ sins. He advised Amshuman to request Ganga, the elder daughter of Himavan to come down to earth to wet the ashes and salvage the souls of his uncles. This was a tall order. Amshuman returned to the kingdom with the horse so that the Ashvamedha could be completed. King Sagara was unhappy with the turn of events but knew not how to get Ganga to flow on earth. His successors Amshuman and the latter’s son Dilipa also failed in this quest. Dilipa’s son Bhagiratha’s sole aim in life was to seek salvation for his ancestors and he spent all his time performing tapas. Pleased with his utter devotion, Brahma asked what he desired. Bhagiratha asked for what he had always wanted. Brahma reassured him that the Ikshvaku line would continue with the birth of a son to him but he would have to pray to Lord Mahadeva to temper the tumultuous flow of Ganga when she descends to earth. Bhagiratha spent a whole year praying to Mahadeva, taking only air for nourishment. The Lord, pleased with such devotion, promised to take Ganga on his head and moderate her flow. Under Brahma’s command, Ganga agreed to descend to earth. Lord Mahadeva stood on Mount Himavan and in front of an assemblage of heavenly beings, Ganga descended with a mighty roar and a cascade of water. To mute Ganga’s pride, Mahadeva absorbed the cascading waters into his matted locks of hair and finally allowed it to trickle from a single strand of hair to form a pool from which flowed seven streams - three eastwards and three westwards. The seventh stream followed Bhagiratha’s chariot towards the cave containing the ashes of the Sagaraputras. The Ganga tumbled and rolled, meandered and moved placidly, purifying everything it touched. The Ganga reached Patala (the underworld) and drenched the ashes of Bhagiratha’s ancestors. Brahma then appeared and praised Bhagiratha for achieving a tremendous task and for that his ancestors would remain in heaven and Ganga would, in the eyes of the gods, be his daughter and be called Bhagirathi. With that Visvamitra ended his story of how Ganga came down to earth. Rama and Lakshmana were thrilled by this tale of Ganga, the Tripathaga which flowed in the heavens, on earth and in Patala. (To be continued)
1. Ramayana by Kamala Subramaniam
2. Ramayana by C. Rajagopalachari
The Ramakrishna Centre of South Africa, Durban, has been made a branch centre of the Ramakrishna Mission. Swami Vimokshananda is the new President of the centre. He arrived in Durban on the morning of Monday 26 March 2007. The next morning, being the auspicious Ram Navami Day, the Swami assumed the charge as President of the centre. April 15, 2007 marked the 65th anniversary of the founding of the centre. Over three thousand devotees and well wishers of the movement and many dignitaries assembled at the Lady Smith Indoor Sports Stadium to accord a warm welcome to Swami Vimokshananda and to observe the 65th anniversary celebrations. The function included devotional songs and a classical Indian Kathak dance performance. The chief guest, Mr Justice P.N. Langa, the chief justice of the Republic of South Africa, praised the centre for its six decades of welfare works helping the poor people in rural areas. In his speech he emphasized two important teachings of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda tradition, the concept of selfless service and the harmony of religions. He said that these two teachings were extremely important for the development of South Africa. The Lady Smith choral Artistes, noted for their sense of harmony and resonant voices then presented songs on Sri Ramakrishna in English and Zulu. As their voices filled the stadium the audience could discern their devotion in praising God. The function ended with a colourful and skillful dance performance of the “Krishna Arati”. Some of the welfare activities of the centre are: