New Findings about Ramakrishna’s First Disciples

Apr 9, 2020 | Articles, Issue 76 | 3 comments

by Swami Yogeshananda

New discoveries can be made in various ways: old libraries can turn them up.  This was proven recently when a member of the Ramakrishna Monastery (Vedanta Society of Southern California) in Trabuco Canyon, California, brought to me a slim volume written in French, and asked what it was.

It proved to be accounts of those who knew Ramakrishna,  translated into French. Published by the Centre Vedantique  Ramakrishna in 1960, three years after the passing of Swami Siddheswarananda, it was made up of two sections: the first, a summary of the Vedanta Philosophy obviously penned by the Swami; the second, memories of some of the First Disciples by their disciples. It is this last that is of much interest to us here.

At first glance these appeared to be familiar enough; but as the translation from the French went on, surprising new dialogue appeared: these were different versions of some familiar accounts. In part the language was strikingly new. We present them here, convinced that readers will appreciate them and understand their genuineness.

First Disciple Reminiscences

One day Swami Shivananda was asked whether Sri Ramakrishna gave initiation. The swami replied, “Yes, but very rarely and never in the manner of an ordinary guru who whispers the mantra into the ear of the disciple. He raised to spirituality the awareness of one who came to him, sometimes by a touch, sometimes by writing with his finger a mantra on the tongue, thereby transforming totally the personality of the disciple by the mere power of his will. It is in the heart of the disciple that he placed the mantra. He raised the spiritual level of those who came to him, awakening in them the Divine by means of disciplines that varied according to the nature of the person. Whatever the way that was followed, one  was sure to receive the efficacious help of Sri Guru Maharaj.”

Ramakrishna and Latu

Latu

Latu had held for a long time the desire to go on pilgrimage. He had not spoken of it to anyone, but Ramakrishna, who had understood his thoughts, said to him one day, “Where will you go?  You should not cherish these ideas of vagabondage. Here at least you have the opportunity to have, every day, the food that has been offered to the Mother. Outside, you will have to get your food by begging.  Anyway, if you absolutely must go elsewhere, go to Calcutta to the house of Ram Babu.”

Latu departed but he did not go to Calcutta.  He did not find the freedom that he enjoyed in the company of Ramakrishna and, at the end of three days, he returned to Dakshineshwar. A short time later the desire to go on pilgrimage came back to him strongly. 

Ramakrishna, smiling, said to him, “You have been here a long time; after all; that can only make you eager to live somewhere else for some time.”  

Latu was delighted to have obtained in this way permission to leave without having to ask for it.  But where to go? As he was not able to decide himself he spoke about it to Sri Ramakrishna, who told him, “Why don’t you go to Antpur, the village of Baburam? He is there at this time and you will have no problem about anything.”  

Latu then went to Antpur where he stayed for 10 days. Baburam Maharaj has himself told us of this visit: “When Latu came to our village he began by telling me that the place did not suit him.  My mother, seeing his look of sadness, asked me what might be the reason. The answer was simple and he told it to me as soon as I asked: the Master was not there.  One day he burst into sobs and declared, ‘ Tomorrow I go back to Dakshineshwar.’ Seeing his tears, my mother naturally made no objection to his leaving.” 

When he arrived at Dakshineshwar, Ramakrishna said to him, “You have been there already? You have come back so quickly?”

“I felt that I couldn’t stay there,” Latu replied in a most respectful tone. 

“What is it that keeps you from staying there? It is an especially agreeable place.”

“I know.  I was sad not to be seeing you anymore and nothing could satisfy me. I have the impression of having a completely empty head and it has even become impossible for me to do japa.”

Ramakrishna appeared surprised: “This is the first time I am hearing of such a thing. Formerly you could not concentrate your mind and here now you are capable of doing it!  God is only here and not there? But, if you repeat the name of the Lord you will be able to meditate on Him in whatever place you find yourself.”

Latu: “But you were not there.” 

Sri Ramakrishna: “So, when I am not there you can’t concentrate your mind nor make japa? All right, don’t be so sad.  From now on I will be with you always.”

Latu could not restrain his emotion.  He blubbered: “Without you my life will be lost.  Pray that I may constantly feel your presence.”

Ramakrishna said, smiling, “See how he speaks!” Then, seeing Latu crying, he said to him, cheerfully.

‘No, I will never abandon you.  Have no more anxiety.’

* * *

In 1882, for the first time, the anniversary of Sri Ramakrishna’s birth was celebrated at Dakshineshwar. The principal part of the expense was assumed by Suresh Mitra and Dr. Ram Datta. Latu, busy with preparing the food and serving it to everyone who had come, didn’t have an instant of rest that day. As he had started to work from dawn, he wanted to rest a little i the afternoon, but Mano Mohan Babu give him an extra task that he accomplished with a very depressed face. Then Ramakrishna asked him to go to Calcutta to see a devotee who had not been able to come and to whom he wanted to send a little prasad.  Latu obeyed but he was so tired, so discouraged, that he passed the night at the house of that devotee, instead of returning to Dakshineswar. 

The next morning, on his way back, Latu stopped at Naren’s house. 

Naren asked him “What are you doing here so early?  And what is the news from there?”

Latu: “There was a great feast for his birthday. Why didn’t you come? Several times during the day he asked for you. Come with me now, today.  He has such a strong desire to see you.” 

“No, I cannot go there at this time. The date of my examinations is coming and I haven’t got time to lose with this fool of a brahmin.”

“How can you talk that way?!” Latu exclaimed. “You know how far away he is from being a fool. I do not know of anyone so well balanced as he is.”

Naren replied with a sarcastic smile, “Oh yes.  You can talk about his balance. Sometimes he doesn’t even know that his cloth is falling off his shoulders and when he hears the name of the Lord, he begins to jump and dance like a fool. No, really, he has no decency. He is capable of going completely nude, no matter where. And then, I am persuaded that he gives himself to magic practices. He casts spells on others and what more, I don’t know. (Changing suddenly to a tone of respect): “You are with him day and night. Can you tell me, is he always absorbed in the same state of consciousness? Does he pass his nights without sleep?”

Latu: “Yes, I see him all the time and I have never seen him behave in an indecent way. As for the other, I’ve never seen him cast a spell on anybody. If anybody has claimed that, they’re out of their mind. And you are the only one who calls him ‘that mad brahmin’. Many respectable people come just to see him. The other day Keshab Babu came to visit him with Mr. Cook, and they spent several hours together.”

Naren: “What did they talk about?” 

“That day there was a lot of talk about meditation and the knowledge of God. In the course of the conversation he highly praised you to Keshab Babu.”

Naren: “Does Rakhal come there very often?”

“Yes, he comes and even stays a day or two. The Master loves him very much. He makes him sit by his side. He gives him full attention and serves him food as if he were his own son. When he took Rakhal to the Holy Mother he said to her, ‘You see, your son has come! Take good care of him, I ask of you.’ You cannot imagine the joy that she felt at that. She prepared all sorts of treats for us that day.”

Naren: “ He said to her that Rakhal was her child?”

Latu: “Exactly, I was with them when he said it.”

The anecdote which follows shows us how Latu Maharaj, in the company of Ramakrishna, learned to overcome his natural impetuosity. 

One day, after the midday meal, Ramakrishna asked Rakhal to prepare a paan (betel nut roll) for him.  Sri Ramakrishna said, “If there is no paan ready, you can prepare one.” 

“I don’t know how to do that,” replied Rakhal. 

“What? You do not know? How is it that you don’t know? But this is not at all difficult. You don’t have to read books in order to make a paan. Go on, find one for me.”

But Rakhal did not budge. Latu seemed very shocked by Rakhal’s attitude, but the latter didn’t pay any attention to his reproval and began to talk to somebody else. This was too much for Latu, who began to reproach him violently in the presence of Ramakrishna.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, Rakhal Babu! Not only are you not obeying him, but you also showed disrespect by beginning to speak of something else.  Truly, I would never have believed that you could behave this way.”

Rakhal , bored by these rebukes, replied to Latu, “Then go and prepare it yourself, this paan! As for me, I don’t know, I have never done it. And today is not the day that I’m going to begin.”

This reply was too much for Latu; he began to speak half in Hindi, half in Begali, which was, for him, the sign of great anger. Ramakrishna, very amused at this scene, called his nephew Ramlal. 

“Come quick, Ramlal, hurry up! There is a dispute between Rakhal and Latu!”

Ramlal arrived quickly. Ramakrishna asked him: “In your opinion, which is the better disciple? Rakhal, or Latu?”

Ramakrishna’s nephew, joining in the fun, replied smiling, “I truly believe that it is Rakhal. 

Latu, carried away with anger, cried out “Is that so?! He has disobeyed the Master and now he is a great bhakta!” 

Seeing the fury of Latu, Ramakrishna continued to laugh and said to Ramlal,“Yes, you are right. Rakhal is the better disciple. See how he (Rakhal) smiles?  Even while he (pointing to Latu) has become mad with rage. How can one who has great devotion to God get into a rage in front of this (indicating himself)?  Anger is lowbrow; when it prevails, faith, devotion, and all the other virtues are shoved aside.”

At these words, the anger of Latu fell away and his embarrassment was extreme.  Tears in his eyes, he could not contain the feelings of shame which now upset him and he said,

“Never again will I become angry in front of you. I beg you to forgive me.”

Cheerfully Ramakrishna said, “After all, Rakhal was right. The body was wishing for a paan and Rakhal did well not to be disturbed: but, if He who lives in this body, had truly a need for a paan, do you think that Rakhal would have been able to refuse Him?

* * *

Memories of Swami Vijnanananda as reported by Swami Siddheswarananda

Swami Vijnanananda

When I was at the Madras monastery I had heard about Sri Vijnana Maharaj, that his devotion was as remarkable as that of Sri Shashi Maharaj. In 1922 I was sent to the monastery at Belur. Young monk that I was then, and coming from the South — not yet knowing very much Bengali — I waited impatiently for an opportunity to listen to Sri Vijnana Maharaj tell his memories of Ramakrishna.  Soon I had the opportunity when he spoke directly to me. 

After the evening service, as I found myself seated next to the swami, I asked him to tell us something of his memories. I did not know that this was a brash question. How many times had I not seen Maharaj, (Swami Brahmananda) remain grave and silent when we tried to get him to talk about Ramakrishna. We had to wait for the favorable moment when he felt like bringing up past years with his Master; at that time he would speak to us without being asked. Likewise, it was not any easier to persuade Sri Vijnana Maharaj to satisfy our curiosity; I had already tried several times uselessly. That evening, however, he was quite willing to grant my wish. I asked him,

“Maharaj, would you be so kind as to talk about Sri Thakur?” He answered me after some silence.

“I’m going to ask you a question:  How do you think of Sri Ramakrishna?’ 

“I think he is a Divine Incarnation.” I said to him.

“My poor boy, is that all that you think of him? So you don’t see that it is He who sends the incarnations? That he is the Divine Mother Herself?’

Seeing me embarrassed, he did not ask me any other questions.  He told us the following memory:

“One day when I went to Dakshineswar, I saw him walking back and forth in the veranda. He had a very happy air and when he saw me he imitated the gestures of a wrestler and asked me,

‘Do you want to wrestle a little with me?’ I too felt playful, but at the same time I said to myself ‘How puny he looks and I am so big and strong, while he is so tiny and fragile!’ I went forward toward him and in a few movements I had him on the ground, thus assuring the victory.”

The swami changed the subject and his face grew grave. The atmosphere created by this silence was extraordinary. Only those who have been in contact with great spiritual personalities can understand the power of such a silence. 

I had the impression that he was about to speak again. The young swami who was dedicated to his service signaled to me, however, not to ask any more questions at the moment. Several minutes went by in this way. Then Sri Vijnana Maharaj  turned toward me and asked me,

‘In your opinion, who won this fight?’

‘You won, Maharaj.  There isn’t any doubt about that.’

‘IDIOT! You haven’t understood anything. It is HE who conquered me.’’

‘How is that, Maharaj?’

Vijnanananda said, ‘You do not see, then, that I have become his slave? When I fought with him, he took into himself all my strength.’

Then, in a few words, he taught us how we should make japa. ‘When you repeat His name, imagine that you are grappling with him as I have just done. Let all your strength be absorbed in his name. It is in this way that He will grasp you and there will no more be you, but He, your Master.’

According to Indian belief, there is no difference between the Lord and his name, And the power of the divine Name can overcome the influences of maya and avidya. We suppose that it is we who act, but grace can dispel that illusion. What do we notice, ordinarily, in the course of our spiritual practices? That we are lacking in love, in faith, or even in the simple faculty of concentrating. Under such circumstances we don’t make any progress. Many thoughts, like parasites, impose themselves upon us. We observe in ourselves the simultaneous presence of two lines of thought: on one side, that of the Lord, flickering like the light of a candle and on the other hand, a prodigious abundance of thoughts which bring us back to the things of the world. These two lines never meet. We must pit the thought of the Lord, completely concentrated on His name, against the vagaries of our mind. It matters little if one side seems inadequate and if the influence of God appears too feeble in us compared to what is resisting Him. Let us enter into the Divine play that Ramakrishna had offered to Sri Vijnana Maharaj. The Lord, in struggling against our wayward thoughts is going to bring together in Him their scattered forces and absorb their energy just as He, from that moment, lives in us.

Memories of Swami Akhandananda

Swami Akhandananda
Swami Akhandananda

My first meeting with Sri Ramakrishna took place in 1883 when I was 16 years old. At that time I was very observing of Brahminic orthodoxy and scrupulously followed the customs and rites prescribed by the scriptures. I regularly practiced  breathing exercises before meditating; they made me feel stronger so I would increase the number every day. It sometimes happened that my breath stopped for such a long time that I perspired, and my body would shake.

When I spoke of these exercises to Sri Ramakrishna he firmly forbade me to pursue them and warned me that such practices could provoke dangerous troubles.

‘He told me to repeat the Gayatri mantra. “Say it as often as you can,“ he advised me.

Sri Ramakrishna talked to me about Naren.

“He has huge eyes,” he told me, “ that are always looking inward. When he walks in the streets, all that he sees – houses, carriages, horses– all become, for him, Lord Narayana.  Go and see him on my behalf; he lives in Calcutta, in the Simla District.”

The next day I went to pay a visit to Naren in his father’s house. When I went back to Sri Ramakrishna, he asked me right away,

“Did you go and see Naren?”

‘Yes,’ I replied; ‘and I spoke to him about our meeting. I marveled at his large eyes and the intensity of his look. He was reading an English book as big as Webster’s dictionary; it was a biography of Buddha. His room was full of dust that he appeared not to notice nor even see. One might say that his mind belonged to another world.’ Sri Ramakrishna seemed very happy to hear this account.

“You noticed all that during the short time that you were with him!’” he said. “Go and see him often; seek his company every time you have a chance.”

After the death of his father, Naren did not come to Dakshineswar for a long time. Sri Ramakrishna, full of anxiety, often asked for news of him and sent various people to find him. Naren, who was having serious preoccupation with financial problems, no doubt wished to avoid speaking to Sri Ramakrishna. As soon as his situation improved a little, he returned to Dakshineswar and, subsequently, every time I went there, Naren was there. 

A visitor asked Sri Ramakrishna one day,

‘Revered Sir, your young disciples are showing no interest at all in family life. They all want to become monks. Do you think that is normal?’

‘You don’t see the tendencies which are in them in this life,’ replied Sri Ramakrishna, ‘and you do not know their past lives in the course of which they were heads of families. Otherwise, how to explain what sometimes produces in a family, a son, having become a young man, saying to his parents, “From now on, I will not use oil in my bath, I will not eat fish, and I will be satisfied with one vegetable meal which I prepare myself.”

‘The family does everything that it can to dissuade him, they even threaten him with a severe chastising, but nothing can make him give up his attitude of renunciation. However, the other children eat everything given them and are inclined towards worldly pleasures. The more they have of them, the stronger is their desire to posses more: they are insatiable. But their brother has already chosen the monastic life. Why? Because efforts made in previous incarnations have borne their fruits and this boy now has a sattvic nature, calm and pure.’

Tuesdays and Saturdays are the days auspicious for spiritual life. In this Kaliyuga, this iron age, one should follow the path of devotion taught by Narada.’ He also advised us to practice meditation on those two days of the week.

‘No matter what people were present, Sri Ramakrishna spoke only of God and spiritual subjects: this was one of the remarkable habits of his nature. But the conversation never became monotonous. Even when it was a matter of important questions, he often illustrated his teaching, amusing the listeners. For example, he said,

“How do you recognize a perfect sage, a siddha?  You know the meaning of the word ‘siddha’; taken literally, it means ‘boiled’. After being put into boiling water, potatoes become soft. It is the same with men who have achieved perfection.”


Swami Yogeshananda is a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order of India. He has retired to the Vedanta Society of Southern California’s Trabuco Monastery in the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange County, California. The swami can be reached at swamiyogeshananda@gmail.com.

3 Comments

  1. What a wonderful article: well-written informative, and inspiring. The Swami Vijnanananda story was particularly striking in that there’s a popular version of this story that differs in the outcome of the match. These memories are very close to the source and fleshed out in great detail.

    Reply
  2. Wonderful stories. Thank you Swamiji.

    Reply
  3. Most refreshing always, the reminiscences of the anecdotes about their intimate and close association and it’s effects (on transformation of their life and outlook. We all like to hear if them often, which we miss in the magazine’s
    Welcome more of such revealatio s come forth.

    Reply

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