Sri Ramakrishna used to refer to half a dozen among his disciples as Ishwarakotis (divine and ever free); and to this select group belonged Swami Premananda. Talent and greatness, like cream, do not always float on the top; oftentimes they lie hidden like gems in the dark caves of the sea. And though the aroma of this saint of angelic beauty and sweetness did not travel beyond a small circle of devotees and acquaintances, yet he occupies a place of great eminence among the children of Sri Ramakrishna.
Swami Premananda was born on 10 December 1861, in the prosperous and picturesque village of Antpur, in the district of Hooghly, Bengal. His parents came of two well-to- do and influential Kayastha families of the village. His father Taraprasanna Ghosh was a man of piety, who had inherited enough means to meet the demands of the family with ease and to conduct the daily service of the household deity, Sri Lakshminarayana. Taraprasanna Ghosh was married to Matangini Dasi, daughter of Abhay Chandra Mitra, of the same village. Like her husband, she was also of devout disposition; and they formed a happy pair. The couple had a daughter and three sons. The daughter’s name was Krishnabhavini and the sons were called Tulsiram, Baburam, and Shantiram. Of these Baburam came to be known in later life as Swami Premananda, though he was familiarly called Baburam Maharaj.
The marriage of Krishnabhavini with Balaram Bose of Calcutta brought Taraprasanna’s family into close touch with Sri Ramakrishna some years later. Balaram paid frequent visits to Sri Ramakrishna. Often he would take his wife and children with him. One day he took his mother-in-law also to Sri Ramakrishna. The devoted lady was highly pleased with the meeting and felt herself blessed by seeing him.
Born of pious parents, Baburam had a natural slant towards spirituality. But blood cannot explain all the rich endowments native to the soul of young Baburam. A few memories of his childhood, accidentally preserved, acquire a great significance in the light of later events. Renunciation spoke through the broken accents of his childhood. When a mere stripling of a few summers, if anybody teased him about marriage, he would lisp out his protestations, ‘Oh, don’t marry me, don’t, don’t; I will die then.’ His mates in the village school were drawn to this young cherub by an invisible tie of affection; they regarded him as their near and dear one. At eight years his ideal was to lead a life of renunciation with a fellow monk in a hut shut out from the public view by a thick wall of trees. Later on we shall see how correctly his boyish dreams anticipated future events. He loved to associate with holy men from the period of his adolescence. The sight of ascetics on the banks of the Ganga drew the comely boy to them; and in their company he would be unaware of the flight of time.
Passing out of the village school, Baburam came to Calcutta for higher studies. After joining the Aryan School for some time, he finally entered the Shyampukur Branch of the Metropolitan Institution. At this time Mahendranath Gupta, later the celebrated author of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna happened to be the headmaster of the school.
By another curious coincidence Rakhal (later Swami Brahmananda) was also a student of the school and studied in the same class as Baburam. The two boys quickly became drawn to each other by a hidden tie, and there soon sprang up between them an intimate relationship which was only deepened with the passage of years. About this time Rakhal also came under the influence of the Master and began visiting Dakshineswar now and then. These contacts brought to Baburam’s notice the holy personality of the Master and opened up opportunities which led to an early acquaintance with him.
With Sri Ramakrishna
Baburam chanced to see Sri Ramakrishna for the first time in a Hari Sabha at Jorasanko, where the latter had gone to hear the chanting of the Bhagavata, though Baburam scarcely knew then that he had seen him. He also heard from his elder brother about a monk at Dakshineswar, who, like Sri Gauranga, lost all consciousness of the world while uttering the name of God. Baburam became eager to see the saint. He knew that Rakhal was in the habit of visiting Dakshineswar frequently, and it was settled that on the following Saturday they should go together to see him. On the appointed day, after school hours, they set out by boat and were joined on the way by an acquaintance named Ramdayal Chakravarti, who also used to visit Sri Ramakrishna. Rakhal inquired of Baburam if he would like to stay for the night. Baburam thought that they were going to a monk who lived in a hut, and replied, ‘Will there be accommodation for us?’ Rakhal only said, ‘There may be.’ The question of food troubled Baburam, and he asked, ‘What shall we eat at night?’ Rakhal simply said, ‘We shall manage somehow.’
At sunset they reached the temple of Dakshineswar. Baburam was fascinated with the beauty of the place which looked like fairyland. They entered the Master’s room, but he was not there. Rakhal asked them to wait and hurried to the temple. In a few minutes he was seen leading the Master by the hand. The Master was in a state of God-intoxication, and Rakhal was carefully directing his staggering footsteps, warning him of the high and low places. Reaching his room he sat a while on the small bedstead and presently regained normal consciousness. He inquired about the newcomer. When Ramdayal introduced Baburam, Sri Ramakrishna said: ‘Ah, you are a relative of Balaram! Then you are related to us also.’ After a little more familiar talk, Sri Ramakrishna caught hold of Baburam’s hand and said, ‘Come closer to the light. Let me see your face.’ In the dim light of an earthen lamp he carefully scrutinised his features. Satisfied with the results of the examination, he nodded his head in approbation. Next he examined the boy’s arms and legs. Finally he said, ‘Let me see your palm.’ He looked at it and placed it upon his own as if to weigh it. Then he said, ‘All right, all right.’ Turning to Ramdayal he said, ‘Narendra has not come here for a long time, and I feel a great longing to see him. Will you ask him to come here one day? You won’t forget it?’ Ramdayal said, ‘I shall ask him positively.’ The night advanced. It was about ten o’clock.
Ramdayal had brought a large quantity of food for the Master who took only a part of it, arranging the rest to be distributed among the three devotees. Then the Master asked them where they preferred to sleep—in his own room or outside. Rakhal chose inside, but Baburam thought that his presence might disturb the meditation of the saint. So he and Ramdayal preferred to sleep outside, though Sri Ramakrishna invited them to remain within.
The two devotees had already fallen asleep when they were roused by the cry of guards. Presently the Master approached them reeling like a drunkard with his loincloth under his arm. Addressing Ramdayal he said, ‘Hello, are you asleep?’ ‘No, sir’, was the reply. Then the Master said with great eagerness, ‘Will you please tell him to come? I feel as if somebody were wringing my heart like this’—and he twisted his cloth. His every word and gesture expressed the unspeakable agony of heart at the separation from Narendranath. ‘What love!’ thought Baburam, ‘But how queer that he does not respond?’ Sri Ramakrishna proceeded a few steps towards his room. Then he returned and said to Ramdayal, ‘Then don’t forget to tell him about it.’ He repeated these words and went back to his bed with staggering gait. About an hour after he appeared again and unburdened his mind to Ramdayal: ‘Look here, he is very pure. I look upon him as the manifestation of Narayana and cannot live without him. His absence is wringing my heart like this’, and he again twisted his cloth. Then he said in bitter anguish, ‘I am being put on the rack, as it were, for his sake. Let him come here just once.’ This scene was repeated at hourly intervals throughout the night.
When Baburam met the Master next morning, he found him quite a different man. His face was calm like a sea after the storm, no anxiety lined his face. He asked Baburam to go round the Panchavati. As he advanced towards the spot a strange sight greeted his eyes. The place looked so familiar and known. We knew how his boyish imagination used to conjure up the vision of a hermit’s life in future in a secluded spot. What was his astonishment when he found that the Panchavati tallied exactly with his dreams of boyhood! How could he have foreshadowed the picture so accurately? He, however, kept this to himself and returned to the Master. In response to a question as to how he liked the place, he only said it was nice. The Master then asked him to visit the Kali temple, which he did. When he took leave of Sri Ramakrishna, the latter affectionately asked him to come again.
The visit left a deep impression on Baburam’s mind. ‘He is an exceptionally good man’, he thought, ‘and dearly loves Naren. But strange that Naren does not go to see him.’ The next Sunday at eight o’clock he again went to Dakshineswar. A few devotees were seated before the Master who welcomed him and said, ‘It is nice that you have come. Go to the Panchavati where they are having a picnic. And Narendra has come. Have a talk with him.’ At the Panchavati, Baburam found Rakhal who introduced him to Narendra and some other young devotees of the Master who had assembled there. From the first Baburam was filled with admiration for Narendra. To look at him was to love him. Narendra was talking with his friends. Presently he burst into a song, which charmed Baburam. With bated breath he listened saying to himself, ‘Ah, how versatile he is!’
This became the prelude to a closer association with Sri Ramakrishna, whose great love, purity, and holiness drew Baburam nearer and nearer to him as days went on. Slowly the knowledge began to dawn on Baburam that his relation with him was not of this life alone, but dated from a remote existence. In the personality of Sri Ramakrishna he discovered the realisation of the highest ideals of life, whose vague contours flitted across his mind in the dreams and fantasies of his boyhood.
Baburam was just twenty when he met the Master, though he appeared to be much younger and very handsome. His character was untouched by the least blemish of the world. Indeed to the end of his days he maintained a childlike innocence and was unaware of the common erring ways of humanity. Sri Ramakrishna divined his absolute purity and held him very high in his estimation. In a vision he saw Baburam as a goddess with a necklace. This gave him an inkling as to the personality of this disciple. ‘It is a new vessel, and milk can be put into it without fear of it getting spoilt’—this was what he used to say of the boy. He would also say, ‘Baburam is pure to his very marrow. No impure thought can ever cross his mind and body.’
Owing to his absolute purity Baburam was deemed a fit attendant for Sri Ramakrishna, who liked to have him about. The inner group of disciples of the Master began to come from 1879; from that time onward they began to take personal care of him. Among them Rakhal and Latu attended on him continuously for a fairly long period. After a time Rakhal had to be away occasionally, so the Master sometimes felt difficulty with regard to his personal care. There were others, no doubt, but the Master could not bear the touch of all in all his moods. So one day he said to Baburam: ‘Such is my condition that I cannot bear the touch of all. You stay here, then it will be very good.’ Baburam began to stay there now and then, though he did not dare to do so permanently, apprehending trouble from home.
Closer association with the Master drove Baburam’s mind so inward that studies became insipid to him, and he began to neglect them. In 1884 he appeared in the Entrance Examination and failed to get through. When Sri Ramakrishna heard about it he said, ‘So much the better; he has been released from bonds’, playing a pun on the Bengali expression pash which means bondage and sounds like the English word ‘pass’. Baburam heaved a sigh of relief on hearing this. The Master had not failed to notice that Baburam was neglecting his studies. To test the boy’s mind he asked him one day: ‘Where are your books? Do you not mean to continue your studies?’ And then turning to Mahendranath Gupta, who was present, he said, ‘He wants to have both’, and added, ‘Very difficult is the path. What will a little knowledge avail? Just imagine the sage Vashistha being seized with grief at the loss of his son! Lakshmana was amazed at it and asked Rama the reason. Rama replied, “Brother, there is nothing to wonder at. Whoever has knowledge has also ignorance. May you go beyond both.” ‘I want just that’, Baburam smilingly replied. The Master said: ‘Well, is it possible to have that if you stick to both? If you want that then come away.’ Still smiling Baburam replied, ‘You please draw me away.’
Baburam’s mother had already become a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna. One day as she came to see him, the latter requested her to leave her son with him. The mother was rather pleased and gave her ungrudging consent. She only asked that she might have devotion to God and that she might never live to suffer the bereavement of her children. Her desires were fulfilled. From this time on Baburam began to live constantly with the Master, who used to call him daradi, that is, the companion of his soul; so great was the love the Master bore towards him.
In later years Swami Premananda would often recount with tenderness the Master’s great love for him. ‘Do I love you?’ he would say addressing the young monks of the Math, ‘No, if I did, I would have bound you for ever to me. Oh, how dearly the Master loved us! We do not even bear a hundredth of that love towards you. When I would fall asleep while fanning at night, he would take me inside his mosquito net and make me sleep on his bed. When I would remonstrate with him saying that it would be sacrilegious for me to use his bed, he would reply, “Outside, mosquitos will bite you. I shall wake you up when necessary.” The Master would often come to Calcutta to see Baburam and feed him with his own hand, with sweets which he brought from Dakshineswar. And often the intensity of affection made the Master cry out like a child when Baburam was away from him in Calcutta.
Sri Ramakrishna’s love and sweet words began to mould the pliant soul of the young disciple. His life was the greatest teacher of all, and he taught in strange ways. One night Baburam was sleeping in the master’s room. After some time he was awakened by the sound of the Master’s steps. Opening his eyes he found Sri Ramakrishna pacing up and down the room in a state of trance with his cloth under his arm. A feeling of deep abhorrence was written on his features. With a face flushed with emotion, the Master was repeating vehemently, ‘Away with it! Away with it!’ and praying, ‘O Mother don’t give me fame, Oh, don’t Mother!’ It appeared to the boy as if the Divine Mother was following the Master with a quantity of fame in order to make a present of it to him and that he was remonstrating with Her. The incident impressed the boy so profoundly that he conceived the uttermost hatred of fame for life.
The holy life of the saint of Dakshineswar sharpened the boy’s appetite for religious experiences. In the saint’s company he noticed that many went into ecstasies while hearing devotional songs, and he felt sad that he was denied such experiences. He pressed the Master that he might also enjoy such states. At his importunities the Master prayed to the Divine Mother for his sake, but was told that Baburam would have Jnana (knowledge) instead of Bhava (ecstasies). This delighted the Master.
One day Pratap Chandra Hazra, in his characteristic way was advising Baburam and some other young boys to ask of Sri Ramakrishna something tangible in the shape of occult powers, instead of, as was their wont, merely living a jolly life with him with plenty of good things to eat. Sri Ramakrishna, who was nearby, scented mischief-making and calling Baburam to his side said, ‘Well, what can you ask for? Is not everything that I have yours already? Yes, everything I have earned in the shape of realisations is for the sake of you all. So get rid of the idea of begging which alienates by creating distance. Rather realise your kinship to me and gain the key to all that treasure.’
Austerity and Pilgrimages
When the Master fell ill and was brought to Cossipore for treatment, Baburam served him wholeheartedly; and after the Master’s demise, he joined the monastery at Baranagore. During the Christmas-tide of 1886, Narendra took the young band of the Master’s disciples to the ancestral home of Baburam at Antpur. Here they spent about a week in holy discourse and in intense meditation. The imagination of all took fire at Naren’s eloquent portraiture of the glories of a life of renunciation, and they decided to take up the monk’s garb. On returning to Baranagore they took formal initiation into sannyasa. Narendra gave Baburam the name of Premananda as he thought it conformed to the remark of the Master that Sri Radha, the Goddess of divine Love Herself was partially incarnated in him.
First at Baranagore, then at Alambazar, the little band passed days of hard austerities. On Swami Ramakrishnananda’s departure to Madras in 1897 to preach the message of the Master there, Swami Premananda took up the duties of the daily worship of the shrine. Some time later he left for a pilgrimage in Northern India and returned on the eve of the removal of the monastery to Belur in the beginning of 1898. There he again resumed the worship of the Master.
Service to the devotees
A new chapter of his life opened with the passing away of Swami Vivekananda. One could hardly realise then what boundless love and tenderness, what compassion and sweetness, what leonine power and great fire lay hidden within this meek and unobtrusive figure. The heavy responsibilities which came to rest on his shoulders gradually unfolded the beauty and richness of his personality. The task of looking after the affairs of the Mission had devolved on Swami Brahmananda. For this reason he had to travel in different parts of the country. So Swami Premananda was entrusted with the management of the Math at Belur. The daily service in the shrine, the training of the young brahmacharins and sannyasins, the various household duties of the monastery, the receiving of devotees and guests and instructing them on spiritual matters—all these crowded his hours with activities and left him little respite.
The father is reflected in the son. Some of Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples specially recalled some aspects of the infinite excellences of the Master. Swami Premananda mirrored more than anyone else the Master’s all consuming love for all. Monks, householders, devotees, visitors, and guests, all felt the tenderness of his affection and came to regard him as the mother of the monastery. Like an indulgent mother, he sheltered under his protecting wings those whose perverse ways had alienated them from society. His sympathy unlocked in many of these lost souls of the world unsuspected springs of devotion and service.
A young man of Calcutta had strayed into evil paths under the influence of vicious company. An addict to intoxicants, he appeared to be heading towards utter ruin everyday. The efforts of his friends and relatives to wean him away from his associates and habits came to naught. In the end they abandoned all hope in despair. Fortunately, one of the relatives of the young man happened to be acquainted with Swami Premananda. He related everything to the Swami and begged his mercy. The Swami listened to everything patiently. He went to the boy’s place one day and asked him to come to the Math. The boy came and enjoyed the day at the Math. As he was returning the Swami asked him to come again. The boy felt attracted to the Swami even at the first meeting and visited the Math several times. The alchemy of the Swami’s love and kindness slowly transmuted the base metal of the boy’s character. ‘How strange!’, he thought, ‘how could he bestow such tenderness and affection upon me who have been shunned even by my relatives and acquaintances in horror and shame. He knows all my misdeeds. No worldly ties bind me to him. No selfishness rules his affection. Yet how wonderful is his love!’ Shortly afterwards he gave up the world and embraced the life of renunciation and service.
Drawn by the invisible bonds of Baburam Maharaj’s (Swami Premananda’s) love and consideration, the devotees began to flock in larger numbers to the Math. A single meeting sufficed to create a lasting impression on their minds. The springs of action of great saints remain hidden from public gaze. Baburam Maharaj’s purity and devotion and the Master’s grace had lifted him to a plane of realisation where the service of man became transformed into the worship of God. The extreme care which the Swami took in receiving and entertaining the devotees betrayed to the dullest mind glimpses of his transformed outlook. None could leave the Math without being entertained. The visitors often turned up at odd hours, so the midday meal could not usually be served earlier than one or two in the afternoon. And sometimes it so happened that a group of devotees unexpectedly arrived from a distant place while the monks were resting their tired limbs late in the afternoon. Swami Premananda would then proceed alone in silence to the kitchen to cook food for them himself, as he did not want to trouble the boys in their rest. The young monks, however, when they came to know of this, would hurry to the kitchen and do everything. Baburam Maharaj was highly pleased with those who came forward. He used to encourage and bless them saying, ‘Well, the householders have to do a lot of things. Is it possible for them to come always at the proper time? And what can we do for them? We can only serve them and that costs us nothing but a little physical trouble. Through the Master’s grace nothing is wanting here. Should we not be blessed by giving these things to his children?’
Concern for the devotees did not leave him even during his fatal illness. If anybody remonstrated with him for his anxiety lest it should affect his health he would reply, ‘It is my nature.
The service of the devotees is the worship of God.’ A couple of days before he passed away, he called to his side a sannyasin who looked after the management of the Math during his absence and asked him in a voice tender with emotion, ‘Could you possibly do one thing?’ The sannyasin replied, ‘Please tell me what I am to do.’ ‘Will you be able to serve the devotees?’ was the question he met with. ‘Yes, I shall’, was his reply.’ ‘Don’t forget, then’, said Baburam Maharaj almost imploringly.
Standing on firm faith, Swami Premananda believed that everybody who chanced to partake of the food which had been offered to the Master was sure to put forth the sprout of spirituality at some future date. In his eyes persons who visited the Math had some special worth in them. He used to say, ‘Innumerable are the places where people can seek pleasure! Some go to garden-houses, and others, maybe, to places of amusement. But those who come here, must, therefore, be understood to have some spiritual worth in them. Or, why should they come at all?’
His ministrations did not end with entertainment of a merely physical nature. He was anxious above everything that the devotees should grow in spirituality. He would snatch a few moments from his crowded hours in order to infuse into their hearts a spirit of devotion to God and the ideal of detachment. His words, having their roots in love and untarnished by the slightest speck of egotism, would find their way directly into the sanctuary of the soul. He talked to the visitors and newcomers when they had rested for a while after the midday meal, and again after the evening service he talked to those who happened to have stayed on. His one idea was to kindle the fire of devotion in them. When he spoke, an exalted feeling would take possession of their minds, and they would always experience a certain degree of spiritual uplift.
During holidays and vacations students would sometimes come to spend a few days at the Math. Baburam Maharaj treated them as would a mother. He often wrote instructive letters to those who came in close contact with him. His words and influence spread into the hearts of many a young soul and tinged them with the dye of a noble idealism. A good many monks of the Ramakrishna Order today look back to his inspiration as the decisive influence on their lives. To him they owe a debt which they cannot repay.
Training the young monks
The Swami’s solicitude for the well-being of the novitiates in the monastery knew no bounds. With infinite patience he endeavoured not only to instil into them the supreme ideal of renunciation and service but also to train them in the various practical duties of life. He aimed at an all-round development of abilities and disliked one-sidedness. ‘You should learn’, he would say, ‘how to work in every walk of life—be it service in the shrine, cooking in the kitchen, the tending of cows, or scavenging. Be they great or small, all works should receive your equal attention. Always take as much care of the means as of the ends.’ Though he would eye with disfavour the slightest indifference to work, he was quick to forgive and forget all remiss.
A great teacher as he was, he knew that the leader must be prepared to sacrifice and to set the example. He taught more by his actions than by precepts. One of his favourite sayings was that a leader (Sardar) must be ready to sacrifice his head (Sirdar). A remarkable incident reveals not only this trait of his character but also his breadth of vision free from the trammels of a conventional social code.
A Mohammedan gentleman from Diamond Harbour, in the district of 24 Parganas, had one day come to the Math with a few Hindu friends. After he had visited the shrine, he was given some food on a few leaves. Everybody present showed some hesitation in taking away the leaves and cleaning the spot after the gentleman had partaken of the food from them. Noticing this Swami Premananda came forward and took them away to the great surprise and discomfiture of all. A similar event also took place during his visit to East Bengal in 1917. A Mohammedan of a village in Mymensingh, where Baburam Maharaj had gone, heard him speak of the one God who existed in all. Thereupon he asked the speaker if he could partake of the food touched by him. ‘Yes, I can,’ came the quick reply. Immediately some food was brought in a plate, and he partook of it from the hands of the Mohammedan without the least hesitation.
The management of the vast organization with its members of diverse temperaments and natures made heavy demands on Swami Premananda’s endurance, patience, and forgiveness. His spirit was more than equal to it. One day he revealed to a senior monk of the Order with what mind he proceeded to his daily duties. He said, ‘After finishing my meditation and japa when I come down the stairs of the shrine, I utter again and again the mantra of the Master: ‘Endure, endure, endure (sa, sha, sha), one who endures, abides, one who does not is ruined.’ Devoid of any trace of pride and egotism, he felt himself to be an instrument in the hands of the Master. His lofty spiritual vision had clothed the world with a divine light from which evil had taken its flight. In the errors of others he detected his own shortcomings. He wrote in several of his letters:
‘This lesson I have learnt at the feet of the Master. When the boys do any wrong, I reason and find that they are not at fault. Whatever fault there is, it is mine. I do not harbour the idea that I am good. I have come to learn. There is no end to learning. May the Master give us right understanding—this is my prayer … By observing the faults of others we are gradually infected by them. We have not come to look at the faults of others and to correct them. But it is only to learn that we are here … Lord, Thou art everything. Whom should I scold? Everything is He; there is only a difference in the quantity of dust that covers the gold.’
Despite this meekness of spirit and humility, he could be stern as well if it became necessary. When sweet words and loving counsel fell on deaf ears, he would not hesitate to reprimand the delinquents severely. It was, however, a rebuke which had no sting in it. If it made the boys sulk, he would soothe them with affectionate words and offer them the best things to eat.
Swami Premananda was loved and honoured because in his life and talk he was full of the Master. On the younger monks he impressed the idea that all their duties were a sort of worship to the Master, to whom indeed belonged to the whole monastery and the Mission. The devotees were to be served because they were his, the ground was to be kept clean because he walked there and so on.
During his last illness at Deoghar a devotee used to bring the best available things for his attendants to eat. One day he scolded one of the attendants for taking such things, saying, ‘The Master used to say that a sadhu must restrain his greed and lust, and take only half a meal at night. But you are doing just the opposite out of greed.’ The attendant felt hurt and left the place without anyone’s knowledge. At the time of the midday meal Baburam Maharaj noticed his absence and grew anxious. He suspected that the young man had taken his rebuke to heart and left the place. He sent out his other attendants to find him but they failed. In the evening, while he was sitting in a sad mood, the attendant entered the house by a backdoor. Coming to know of this he called him to his side and said, ‘My boy, I am old and weakened by illness. I cannot always keep my temper. Should you fly into a rage if I happen to say anything in my present condition?’ As he said this, tears filled his eyes. And he brought some sweets and fed him with his own hands.
He laid great stress on the gentleness of behaviour. ‘Be gentle first’, he would often repeat, ‘if you desire to be a sadhu!’ He regretted, ‘Nowadays none pays any attention to social and common good manners and gentle behaviour. The Master used to take extreme care to teach us these things.’ And by his eloquent and impassioned appeals, he would firmly impress upon the novitiates the high ideals of the Master and Swami Vivekananda.
In obedience to the advice of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Premananda did not to the end of his days, make any personal disciples. Yet his eagerness to help all along the path of spirituality seemed beyond comparison. Every action of his betrayed his anxiety for the spiritual welfare of the young flock under his care and supervision. He is even said to have imparted spiritual power to a young monk by a touch. Besides his own help, he used to send those who pressed him for initiation to the Holy Mother or to Swami Brahmananda and had them initiated by them.
It was Swami Vivekananda’s dream that the Mission he founded should become the rallying point of a new resurgent spirit in India and that the monastery at Belur should become a great centre of learning from which would emanate noble and inspiring ideas. Swami Premananda made earnest efforts to realise an aspect of Swamiji’s dream, namely to convert the Math into a great centre of Sanskrit learning. Through his efforts a study circle was gradually formed under the guidance of a competent pundit. He also encouraged the study of other subjects like Western philosophy. The dissemination of education among the illiterate masses also interested him greatly. He blessed and encouraged all who undertook such activities. He wrote to one:
‘Be you the torch-bearers in the path of spreading knowledge. The cultivation of knowledge in the company of the sadhus will impart a new appearance to the country, and the boys will have their life’s aims correctly determined. It is only by so doing that the boys will become men—nay, they will become Rishis and gods. … What will one school or three or four Sevashramas avail? Have faith in God’s grace, establish schools and Sevashramas in every town, village, and hamlet.’
To his saintly eye, women were the manifestations of the Divine Mother. His attitude to them was literally one of worship. He behaved like a child in their presence. Drawn by his guileless manners, spotless purity and charm, and a certain amount of feminine grace about him, women found themselves quite at ease in his presence. Even the ladies of certain aristocratic Mohammedan families, where the strict rules of the purdah were observed, would come to him at the Maths at Dacca or in Calcutta to listen to his words. Imbued with the ideals preached by Swamiji, he realised that a nation could never be great unless its women were educated and honoured. He not only exhorted the mothers of the nation to follow in the steps of the ideal womanhood of the past, but took great pains to instil into their minds the necessity of a liberal education. ‘Let thousands of Niveditas come out of Bengal’, he wrote to a lady, ‘Let there arise anew in the land numbers of Gargis, Lilavatis, Sitas, and Savitris … What better thing is there in this world than learning? Give knowledge, and ignorance will vanish through its culture.’
The tie that bound the children of Sri Ramakrishna was built up in equal measure of the strands of love and reverence. This reverential attitude among the brother disciples was specially manifest in Swami Premananda. In the presence of Swami Brahmananda, the President of the Mission, he behaved like a humble servant. He would start his daily work only after saluting him in the morning, if the latter happened to be at the Math.
He had the typical disregard of a sadhu for personal comfort. When he sat down to eat, he would take the best things from his plate and distribute them among the junior members. His wardrobe never exceeded the demands of sheer necessity. During his illness at Deoghar a devotee gave to his attendant four shirts for the Swami’s use. On coming to know of this, he severely scolded the attendant saying: ‘I have never been accustomed to keeping too many shirts. Besides, it does not become a monk to have so much clothing.’ When he passed away, diligent search could discover only an empty canvas bag and a few books which could be preserved as souvenirs.
Thus Swami Premananda lived his unostentatious life for years, away from the public gaze. After about six years of service in the Math he set out on a pilgrimage to Amarnath in 1910 in company with Swamis Shivananda and Turiyananda. On his return he went on a tour of different parts of Bengal preaching the universal message of the Master. The enthusiasm he evoked by this tour is still a living memory with many. East Bengal in particular was fortunate in sharing his holy company, love, and blessing. Wherever he went, his enchanting figure left an unforgettable impression upon all, young and old, high and low. His tour reminded one of the triumphal procession of a hero. Men in crowds followed his trail wherever he stopped. People flocked in from the morning till late at night to listen to a few inspiring words from his lips.
Many touching and remarkable incidents occurred during this journey. One which we are tempted to mention reveals his vision and greatness. In the course of his travels he found a village in Dacca filled with that scourge common in villages, namely, water hyacinth. He asked the young men who accompanied him to remove the pest and himself proceeded to clear the pond. Inspired by his example the young men at once cleared the whole pond. Nor did they stop there. They organized a party and in several villages of Vikrampur carried on this work of removing water hyacinths, which had been a standing nuisance for several years.
The long trip told on his health, and he returned to the Math with fever. The doctors diagnosed it to be the deadly Kala-Azar. He was sent to Deoghar for a change. After suffering from the malady for about a year and a half, when he was on the road to recovery, he suddenly fell victim to influenza. He was brought down to Calcutta to the house of Balaram Bose. All medical help and care proved to be of no avail, and in the afternoon of Tuesday, 30 July 1918, he left the mortal coil and entered Mahasamadhi in the presence of his brother disciples and monks of the Order.
The fell disease which held him in its deadly grip could not for a moment becloud the serenity of his faith. As in health, so also in illness, he would ever repeat, ‘The grace of the Master is the only support’, and the name of Sri Ramakrishna was ever on his lips. It is not for ordinary mortals, whose gaze is fixed on the procession of phenomena, to measure the heights of spirituality to which he attained. Only a jeweller can appraise a diamond. Sri Ramakrishna used to refer to him as a jewel-casket. But does that lift the veil of ignorance which obstructs our vision?
Like all men who have soared to the empyrean heights of spiritual realisations, he was reticent about his own experiences. One significant incident which we reproduce here may give a momentary glimpse into the light that burnt within. One day after evening service Swami Premananda sat down for meditation in a corner of the southern verandah of the shrine at Belur Math. The usual period of time flew by, but he did not get up. The attendant of the shrine, when he came to offer bhoga (offering to the deity), found him sitting stock-still with his body tilted a little backward. He surmised that sleep had overtaken his exhausted flesh. He called him repeatedly, but in vain. He returned after the service, called him again—still there was no response. He then held a light before him. The Swami opened his eyes by and by. On being asked if he had fallen asleep, the Swami broke into a sweet song, ‘I am awakened and will sleep no more. I am awake in the state of Yoga. O Mother, I have given back Thy mystic sleep to Thee and have put sleep to sleep.’ Turning to the attendant he said, ‘When you find me in that state, don’t call me or cry aloud, but repeat the Master’s name in my ears. That will bring me back.’