(Bhavanath was a very close companion of Swami Vivekananda during the time when Sri Ramakrishna was alive.)
by Swami Chetananda
As both blades of a pair of scissors are needed to cut a piece of cloth, so both self-effort and grace are needed to realize God. The grace of God is always blowing, like wind over the sea. A sailor who unfurls the boat’s sail catches the wind and reaches the destination smoothly. Sri Ramakrishna’s grace began to flow over Bhavanath Chattopadhyay’s life, but Bhavanath suddenly pulled down his sail, putting his spiritual journey in peril. His condition was like that of a man who puts his left leg in one boat and his right in another. Bhavanath ascended to a higher plane of consciousness by the grace of the Master, but mysterious Mahamaya entangled him and brought him back down to the world.
Bhavanath was born towards the end of 1863 in Atulkrishna Banerjee Lane , Baranagore, a couple of miles away from Dakshineswar, to Ramdas Chattopadhyay and Ichhamayi Devi. He had one sibling, a sister named Kshirodbala. A good-looking boy with a fair complexion, Bhavanath had a simple, mild and devout nature.
During the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, Western influences brought about an upheaval in Indian society. Christian missionaries were trying to use Western education to convert the younger generation. In response, various indigenous religious and social movements sprang up to face the Western challenge by reforming India ’s religions and its ancient customs. At that time Shashipada Bandyopadhyay, a leader in the Brahmo Samaj, organized some youths in southern Baranagore and inspired them to carry out philanthropic activities. On 27 October 1872, Shashipada established the Students Club, which carried out various social programmes: popular education, women’s education, education for labourers, night school, Sunday school, moral training, a public library and so on. In 1876 Shashipada established the Atmonnati Vidhayini Sabha, an association devoted to the self-improvement of its members. Bhavanath was in charge of this association’s library. Narendranath Datta (later Swami Vivekananda) would sometimes take part in the discussions held by this association, along with his classmates Satkari Lahiri and Dasharathi Sanyal, who also lived in Baranagore. Thus Bhavanath became acquainted with Narendra.
Due perhaps to Shashipada’s influence, Bhavanath joined the Brahmo Samaj. Narendra was also a member, and Bhavanath and Narendra eventually became close friends. Shashipada had met Sri Ramakrishna at Shambhu Mallick’s house and was very devoted to him. Bhavanath most probably heard about the Master either from Shashipada or from the writings of Keshab Chandra Sen, the famous Brahmo leader.(1) According to M’s account in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Bhavanath met Sri Ramakrishna either in late 1881 or early 1882. At any rate, M first saw Bhavanath and Narendra at Dakshineswar on 6 March 1882.
On 5 August 1882, the Master visited Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, accompanied by M, Bhavanath and Hazra. On different occasions, the Master made remarks about Bhavanath that bear witness to his high spiritual state:
Boys like Narendra, Bhavanath and Rakhal are my very intimate disciples. They are not to be thought lightly of.(2)
Devotees like Rakhal, Narendra and Bhavanath may be called nityasiddha. Their spiritual consciousness has been awake since their very birth. They assume human bodies only to impart spiritual illumination to others. (182)
Narendra, Bhavanath, Rakhal and devotees like them belong to the group of the nityasiddhas; they are eternally free. Religious practice on their part is superfluous. (279)
On 11 March 1883 Bhavanath attended the Master’s birthday celebration at Dakshineswar. The Master told the assembled devotees, ‘One cannot be spiritual as long as one has shame, hatred, or fear. Great will be the joy today. But those fools who will not sing or dance, mad with God’s name, will never attain God. How can one feel any shame or fear when the names of God are sung? Now sing, all of you.’ (186)
Bhavanath and his friend Kalikrishna sang the following song:
Thrice blessed is this day of joy!
As the Master listened to the song with folded hands, his mind soared to a far-off realm. When Kalikrishna bowed down to the Master and was about to go, the Master asked where he was going.
Bhavanath replied, ‘He is going away on a little business.’
‘What is it about?’ the Master asked.
Bhavanath replied, ‘He is going to the Baranagore Workingmen’s Institute.’
‘It’s his bad luck,’ said the Master. ‘A stream of bliss will flow here today. He could have enjoyed it. But how unlucky!’ (187)
The celebration continued throughout the day. When the devotees were about to leave that evening, the Master told Bhavanath, ‘Don’t go away today. The very sight of you inspires me.’ In the Gospel, M comments, ‘Bhavanath had not yet entered into worldly life. A youth of twenty, he had a fair complexion and handsome features. He shed tears of joy on hearing the name of God. The Master looked on him as the embodiment of Narayana.’ (194)
Passion, or longing, for God is the only thing necessary in spiritual life. Just as one who is hungry will definitely search for food, so one who has a genuine hunger for God cannot sit idle. Observing Bhavanath’s yearning for God, the Master said to Manilal, ‘Ah, what an exalted state he is in! He has hardly begun to sing about God before his eyes fill with tears. The very sight of Harish made him ecstatic. He said that Harish was very lucky. He made the remark because Harish was spending a few days here, now and then, away from his home.’
The Master asked M, ‘Well, what is the cause of bhakti? Why should the spiritual feeling of young boys like Bhavanath be awakened?’ M remained silent.
Master: ‘The fact is, all men may look alike from the outside, but some of them have fillings of “condensed milk”. Cakes may have fillings of condensed milk or powdered black gram, but they all look alike from the outside. The desire to know God, ecstatic love for Him, and such other spiritual qualities are the “condensed milk”.’ (232)
Noticing Bhavanath’s gentle character, the Master said to M, ‘Have you noticed Bhavanath’s devotion? Narendra and he seem like a man and a woman. He is devoted to Narendra. … Bhavanath, Baburam and a few others have a feminine nature; but Narendra, Rakhal and Niranjan have a masculine nature. Bhavanath and Narendra are a pair. Both of them belong to the realm of the formless Reality.’ (238, 458-9, 535)
Swami Saradananda wrote in Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play:
Bhavanath Chattopadhyay, a handsome and devout youth, stayed with the Master in Dakshineswar for a while. During that time he became acquainted with Narendra and a close friendship developed between them. Bhavanath was very dear to the Master because of his humility, modesty, simplicity, faith and devotion. Observing his soft feminine nature and his affection for Narendra, the Master sometimes teased him, saying, ‘Perhaps you were Narendra’s life-companion in a previous incarnation.’(3)
On 7 April 1883 the Master visited Balaram’s house in Calcutta with Narendra, Bhavanath, Rakhal, M and others. Balaram invited some of the Master’s young devotees to lunch. The Master often said to him, ‘Feed them now and then; that will confer on you the merit of feeding holy men.’ (198)
At the Master’s request, Narendra sang a few songs:
Sing, O bird that nestles
Bhavanath was also a good singer, so the Master asked him to perform as well. Bhavanath sang:
Where is another friend like Thee,
Bhavanath was trying to renounce everything that might be detrimental to his spiritual progress. Narendra said to the Master with a smile, referring to Bhavanath, ‘He has given up fish and betel-leaf.’ Master: ‘Why so? What is the matter with fish and betel-leaf? They aren’t harmful. The renunciation of “woman and gold” is the true renunciation.’ (200)
Bhavanath felt intense renunciation and began to spend nights at Dakshineswar with the Master. His parents and relatives thought the Master was mad. They warned Bhavanath not to frequent Dakshineswar, but he did not listen to them. On 18 June 1883 Bhavanath and other young devotees shared a carriage with the Master to attend the festival at Panihati. On their way, the Master was in a light mood and joked with the youngsters; but as soon as he reached the festival grounds, he joined the kirtan party and danced, totally forgetting the world.
All followers of Sri Ramakrishna are eternally indebted to Bhavanath because he was responsible for the shrine photograph of the Master that devotees worship today worldwide. In October 1883, Bhavanath brought a photographer from Baranagore, Abinash Chandra Dahn, to Dakshineswar to take a picture of the Master. The most authentic account of the circumstances surrounding this photo came from Swami Nirvanananda, who published the following brief report in Bengali in the Udbodhan [64.12] in 1963:
At Belur one day, Swami Akhandananda asked us in the course of a conversation: ‘Well, do you know anything about the photo of Sri Ramakrishna that is worshipped these days?’ On being told by us that we knew nothing that is really important, he related the following:
‘Bhavanath Chatterjee, the Master’s devotee from Baranagore, wanted to take a photograph of the Master. One day he requested him very strongly to give his consent, and on the afternoon of the next day brought a photographer along with him from Baranagore. He could not make the Master agree. The Master just went away near the Radhakanta temple.
‘In the meantime Narendra arrived on the scene and heard everything. He said, “Wait a bit. I shall put everything straight.” Saying this, he went to the veranda to the north of the Radhakanta temple where Sri Ramakrishna was sitting and started a religious conversation with him. The Master went into samadhi. Narendra went and called others and ordered them to get ready quickly to take the picture.
‘In the state of samadhi the Master’s body was bent on one side and therefore the cameraman went to make him sit erect by gently adjusting his chin. But as soon as he touched his chin, the whole body of the Master came up like a piece of paper - so light it was!
‘Swamiji then told him: “Oh, what are you doing? Be quick. Get the camera ready.” The cameraman took the exposure as hurriedly as possible. The Master was completely unaware of this incident.
‘After some days, when Bhavanath brought the printed copy of the photo, the Master remarked, “This represents a high yogic state. This form will be worshipped in every home as time goes on.'(4)
Bhavanath’s spiritual journey was proceeding smoothly, but suddenly his parents took advantage of his soft nature and arranged his marriage. Bhavanath consented to their wishes. Either at the end of 1883 or at the early part of 1884, he married Kiranshashi, an eleven-year-old daughter of Abhaycharan Bhattacharya of Mallikpur, 24-Parganas.(5) After the wedding Bhavanath took his wife to Dakshineswar for the Master’s blessing, so that Kiranshashi would help him in his spiritual journey. The Master blessed them both.(6)
During this period Bhavanath became a teacher in Baranagore School , but the job did not last long. Soon after they were married, his wife became very ill, but by God’s grace her life was saved. Although Bhavanath was involved in family life, he did not have much attachment for worldly things. Since he was then desperately looking for a job, he could not visit the Master on a regular basis.
Narendra and Bhavanath were very close friends. Sometimes Narendra would spend nights with his Baranagore friends singing devotional songs and discussing spiritual subjects. On the night of 25 February 1884 Narendra was staying at the house of Satkari Lahiri in Baranagore when he learned of his father’s death. Immediately Narendra’s struggle began. His family was living hand to mouth, so he began searching for a job. He could not visit the Master as usual, and he started to question the existence of God. News spread that Narendra had become an atheist and was associating with bad people. One day Bhavanath tearfully said to Sri Ramakrishna, ‘Sir, we never dreamed that Narendra would sink so low!’ The Master cried out excitedly: ‘Silence, you scoundrel! Mother has told me that he could never do such things. If you talk like this anymore, I won’t allow you in my presence again!’(7)
In early 1884 Sri Ramakrishna fell while in ecstasy near the railing of the temple garden, dislocating his left arm. In spite of his injury he was constantly either absorbed in samadhi or engaged in instructing his devotees. On 9 March, Bhavanath came to see the Master and told him about an exhibition that was then being held near the Asiatic Museum . He said: ‘Many maharajas have sent precious articles to the exhibition - gold couches and the like. It is worth seeing.’ The Master replied with a smile:
Yes, you gain much by visiting those things. You realize that those articles of gold and the other things sent by maharajas are mere trash. That is a great gain in itself. When I used to go to Calcutta with Hriday, he would show me the Viceroy’s palace and say ‘Look, Uncle! There is the Viceroy’s palace with the big columns.’ The Mother revealed to me that they were merely clay bricks laid one on top of another.
God and His splendour. God alone is real; the splendour has but a two-days existence. The magician and his magic. All become speechless with wonder at the magic, but it is all unreal. The magician alone is real. The rich man and his garden. People see only the garden; they should look for its rich owner.(8)
While talking about the rules for householders and monks the Master advised devotees to give up hypocrisy and be guileless. Then he remarked: ‘How guileless Bhavanath is! After his marriage ceremony he came to me and asked, “Why do I feel so much love for my wife?” … This is due to the world-bewitching maya of the Divine Mother of the Universe. A man feels about his wife that he has no one else in the world so near and dear, that she is his very own in life and death, here and hereafter.’ (401)
Again, how much a man suffers for his wife! Still he believes that there is no other relative so near. Look at the sad plight of a husband. Perhaps he earns twenty rupees a month and is the father of three children. He hasn’t the means to feed them well. His roof leaks, but he hasn’t the wherewithal to repair it. He cannot afford to buy books for his son. He cannot invest his son with the sacred thread. He begs for a few pennies from different friends.
But a wife endowed with spiritual wisdom is a real partner in life. She greatly helps her husband to follow the religious path. After the birth of one or two children they live like brother and sister. Both of them are devotees of God - His servant and His handmaid. Their family is a spiritual family. They are always happy with God and His devotees. They know that God alone is their own, from everlasting to everlasting.’ (401-2)
On another occasion (7 March 1885) the Master remarked: ‘Bhavanath is married, but he spends the whole night in spiritual conversation with his wife. The couple pass their time talking of God alone. I said to him, “Have a little fun with your wife now and then.” “What?” he retorted angrily. “Shall we too indulge in frivolity?”’ (715-6)
In 1884 the Master’s birthday celebration was postponed because of his illness; it was finally held on 25 May. Seeing Bhavanath dressed elegantly, Surendra remarked: ‘Are you going to England ?’
Master (smiling): ‘God is our England . …’
Surendra: ‘On returning from the office, as I put away my coat and trousers, I say to the Divine Mother, “O Mother, how tightly You have bound me to the world!'
Master: ‘There are eight fetters with which man is bound: shame, hatred, fear, pride of caste, hesitation, the desire to conceal and so forth.’
Then the Master sang: ‘In the world’s busy market-place, O Shyama, Thou art flying kites;/ High up they soar on the wind of hope, held fast by maya’s string.’ The Master explained: ‘Maya’s string means wife and children.’
‘The three gunas - sattva, rajas and tamas - have men under their control. … The three gunas are so many robbers. Tamas kills and rajas binds. Sattva no doubt releases man from his bondage, but it cannot take him to God. It shows him the way.’
Bhavanath: ‘These are wonderful words indeed.’
Master: ‘Yes, this is a lofty thought.’ (438)
Only a few people could support Sri Ramakrishna when he was in samadhi. If the devotee touching him was not pure enough, the Master would cry out in pain, embarrassing that person. On this particular birthday celebration, M recorded: ‘The musician sang a song about the monastic life of Chaitanya. The Master stood up, as he heard about Chaitanya’s renunciation, and went into samadhi. The devotees put garlands of flowers around his neck. Bhavanath and Rakhal supported his body lest he should fall on the ground.’ (440)
It was probably during this period that Bhavanath asked the Master to remove maya from him. The Master told him to come to Dakshineswar on a Tuesday or a Saturday. When Bhavanath arrived, the Master tried to give him a little prasad, but he could not lift his hand. He tried several times and then said, ‘Mother is not allowing me to do it.’ Swami Saradananda later explained this mystery: ‘The Master had two moods - human and divine. When he was in the human plane, he had infinite compassion for the suffering humanity. He was eager to remove the sufferings of those who came to him. But when he ascended to the divine plane to remove their suffering, he would see the time had not yet come and it was not the will of the Mother.’(9)
On 7 September 1884, the Master told a large group of devotees: ‘There are many opinions about God. Each opinion is a path. There are innumerable opinions and innumerable paths leading to God.’
Bhavanath: ‘Then what should we do?’
Master: ‘You must stick to one path with all your strength. A man can reach the roof of a house by stone stairs or a ladder or a rope-ladder or a rope or even by a bamboo pole. But he cannot reach the roof if he sets foot now on one and now on another. He should firmly follow one path with all his strength.
‘But you must regard other views as so many paths leading to God. You should not feel that your path is the only right path and that other paths are wrong. You mustn’t bear malice towards others.(10)
On 14 September 1884 Bhavanath visited the Master at Dakshineswar. Narendra, M and other devotees were present. A scholar from Konnagar came to see the Master with some friends and he asked many different questions. When he and his friends later saw the Master in samadhi they were about to leave, but Bhavanath asked them to stay. When they finally left, the devotees talked about the scholar.
Bhavanath (smiling): ‘What kind of man is he?’
Master: ‘He is a tamasic devotee.’
Bhavanath: ‘He can certainly recite Sanskrit verses.’
Master: ‘Once I said to a man about a sadhu: “He is a rajasic sadhu. Why should one give him food and other presents?” At this another sadhu taught me a lesson by saying to me: “Don’t say that. There are three classes of holy men: sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic.” Since that day I have respected holy men of all classes.’ …
Bhavanath: ‘The devotees from Konnagar did not understand your samadhi and were about to leave the room.’
Master: ‘Who was it that asked them to remain?’
Bhavanath (smiling): ‘It was I.’
Master: ‘My child, you are equally good in bringing people here and in driving them away.’ …
The conversation turned to the glory of God’s name.
Bhavanath: ‘I feel such relief while chanting the name of Hari.’
Master: ‘He who relieves us of sin is Hari. He relieves us of our three afflictions in the world. Chaitanya preached the glory of Hari’s name; so it must be good. … (Smiling) Once some peasants were invited to a feast. They were asked if they would eat a preparation of hog plum. They answered: “You may give it to us if the gentlemen have eaten it. If they enjoyed it, then it must be good.”’(11)
(to be concluded)
1. Udbodhan, 87.623.
2. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 127.
3. Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, trans. Swami Chetanananda ( St Louis : Vedanta Society of St Louis , 2003), V.8.2.6.
4. Swami Chetanananda, Ramakrishna as We Saw Him (St Louis: Vedanta Society of St Louis, 1990), 468.
5. Udbodhan, 68.321.
6. Vaikunthanath Sanyal, Sri Ramakrishna Lilamrita ( Calcutta , 1936), 335.
7. Divine Play, V.8.2.14.
8. Gospel, 400.
9. Akshayachaitanya, Swami Saradanander Jivani, (Calcutta: Model Publishing House, 1955), 348-9.
10. Gospel, 514.11. ibid., 528.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.