In one of the pioneering application of Swami Vivekananda’s teaching of serving ‘God in Man’ was by the group that came up in Varanasi under the leadership of Charuchandra Das (later Swami Shubhananda) that established the Varanasi Sevashrama. The concept of Sevashram itself was directly derived from Swamiji’s teaching as an Ashram (a place devoted to spiritual development with seva (service) as the keynote practice in addition to other conventional spiritual practices like Japam, Dhyana, Adhyayana, and Satsanga. The Varanasi Sevashrama or the Varanasi Home of Service is one of the largest Hospital catering to a large member of poor patients in that holy city. How it came to be built by seemingly ordinary youngmen with no means of their own is a truly remarkable story.
Charuchandra had his upbringing in Kolkata and studied at the city’s Ripon College when his attention was drawn to the life of Sri Ramakrishna by listening to some talks of the Great Master’s devotee – Ramachandra Dutta. He also had a few friends with similar bent of mind and they would assemble together at some place to study and discuss spiritual themes. Since living and practising spiritual disciplines called for some degree of solitude he took up a job in a solicitor firm which enabled him to rent a small house where he would live alone. The idea was to live the kind of life he cherished and advance on that path. He also went to Kedarnath, Badrinath , Haridwar, and other places of pilgrimage .
It was in February 1897 when Charuchandra , for the first time , saw Swamiji upon the latter’s return to Calcutta from the west. Swamiji already had received a welcome seldom seen in the nation’s history, in several places in South India and even Ceylone. Kolkata, the city of his birth would not be left behind in welcoming him. Swamiji who had disembarked at Budge-Budge, about twenty miles south west of Calcutta, and from there taken a train to Sealdah in the heart of the city, where he had a sea of people waiting there with bated breath. The house carriage that was to carry Swamiji to Ripon College was pulled by several youngmen who had untied the houses from the carriage in order to have the privilege of pulling the carriage themselves. Charuchandra also got an opportunity to pull the same and he got a feeling as if he were pulling the carriage of Jagannath during the ‘Rath’ festival. Fully captivated upon seeing Swamiji, Charuchanda went the following day to the house of Gopal Lal Seal where Swamiji was then staying. But his personal meeting with Swamiji was still a few years away. After this Charuchandra began to go to Alambazar Math (where Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples had set up a monastery since 1890, moving from the first one at Baranagar) and from 1898 to Belur Math (where got an opportunity to come in close touch with some of Sri Ramakrishna’s direct disciples particularly Swami Niranjananda. The latter gave him a photograph of Sri Ramakrishna. Which, Charuchandra devotedly placed with great reverence in his house, and before which he regularly meditated.
In 1898 Charuchandra’s parents decided to relocate to Varanasi to spend then remaining life there – a custom very much prevalent then. Charu stayed back and continued with his routine but in a few months began to feel uneasy in Calcutta and longed for a more spiritually congenial ambience. Consequently he too decided to move to Varanasi. Here he immersed himself with much more focus into spiritual disciplines, and also did daily rounds of Viswanath and Annapurna temples. He also spent a few hours teaching at a school declining any remuneration and only taking his meal there. The remaining time was devoted to serving his elderly parents. At Varanasi Charu also again met Swami Niranjananda as well as Swami Shuddhanananda (Swamiji ‘s disciple and a fellow Ripon-ian who later became President of the Order and was much acclaimed to have translated Swamiji’s Complete Works from original English into Bengali ) who were spending their time in spiritual practices in the city. Charu used to regularly go and spend time in their ennobling company. He also devotedly attended to Shuddhananda when the latter fell ill. Upon recovering his health Swami Shuddhananda returned to Belur Math keeping in regular touch with Charu through correspondence.
By that time, sometime in 1899 , the Bengali journal Udbodhan had already been launched and Shuddhananda sent some sample copies to Charu, asking him to campaign and enlist subscribers for the some. Charu, who by then knew some youth of similar bent of mind, enlisted quite a few subscribers, and in the process his own circle in Varanasi expanded. Many in that circle began to assemble in form of a study circle reading from scriptures and Swamiji’s works. The meetings usually happened at the home of a young man employed in the local police force by name of Kedarnath Moulik, who later become a close brother-worker and co-founder of the Varanasi Sevaashram, and took sannyasa and came to be known as known as Swami Achalananda. In decades to come Swami Achalananda led an exemplary monastic life and inspired many to walk in the path of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda. Swami NIranjananda also frequented this study circle and inspired the young man to lead pure lives and set before them ideas of Thakur and Swamiji. The picture image of Thakur that Charu had brought along from Calcutta was placed at Kedarnath’s house where the study circle was conducted. On the occasion of the Thakur’s birthday in 1899 Swami Niranjananda worshipped Thakur in that image to everyone’s delight.
This group was also immensely benefitted by the visit of Swami Kalyanananda, Swamiji’s disciple who had given his life and soul to the ideal to serving ‘God in Man’.
Such was the way in which Charu and his group got introduced to a life vastly different from conventional worldly life. But it was in June 1900 that a completely new dimension opened before him. He opened the newly arrived edition of Udbodhan in which is eyes fell on a poem written by Swamiji which was actually part of a letter he wrote to a friend. The poem “Sakhar Prati” translated in English as “To a Friend” read as follows from highest Brahman to the yonder worm, every where is the same God . These are His manifold forms before thee. Rejecting them, where seekest thou for God? One who loves all beings without distinction, he indeed is worshipping best his God.” This new ideal created such a thrill and upsurge within Charu that he immediately ran to a friend’s house and found him meditating. He excitedly told him of Swamiji’s words of seeing divine in everything and serving everything as such. Their youthful energies got a new direction with this ideal. The friend’s name was Jaminirajan Majumder. This friend, just on the following day, saw an old lady lying in a completely uncared condition, severely ill with no one paying attention to her. Charged with this new ideal of seeing God in everyone, Jamini helped wash filth on the old woman’s body, and with no money on him, begged the passers by for some money to feed the lady. He gave her hot milk and had her admitted to a hospital. Then Charu and his group raised money for her treatment. This was the inaugural act of service by this group following which they regularly scouted the lanes and alleys of Varanasi and picked up helpless ailing people. They rented a small house that would act as a shelter and caring home for the sick. They went from door to door seeking contributions for this and through this could meet expenses of medicines, fooding, clothing, bedding etc. In the intervening time Kedarnath had already spent quite a few months at Belur Math and even got initiated (received Mantra-Diksha) from Swamiji who had been the staying there at that time after his return from West for the second time. Hearing from Kedarnath about these efforts in Varanasi, Swamiji became very interested in the group’s activities, and was delighted that some youngmen had so sincerely taken to the ideal of serving god in man that he had been exhorting his countrymen to take up.
But it was Swmiji’s visit to Varanasi in February 1902 that finally blessed this work and gave it a direction and momentum that would see it multiply in times to come. Alighting at Mughalsarai station the great awakener of India was received by Swami Shivananda and Swami Niranjananda (who were staying there then) along with Charu and his group. Swamiji stayed at Kalikrishna Thakur’s house where Charu also stayed. This gave Charu opportunity to render his personal service to Swamiji and receive valuable guidance. Swamiji, though exceeding happy with Charu’s work, did not quite like the name that they had given to their organisation, which was then called ‘Poor Men’s Relief Organization’. He told them that would be presumptuous to think themselves of bringing relief to fellow human beings. They should instead have the attitude of feeling blessed upon getting an opportunity of serving God Himself present in human beings. He advised them to rename it as ‘Ramakrishna Home of Service’.
Swamiji himself wrote an appeal towards supporting the efforts of the Sevashrama which clearly reflected his idea of serving ‘Divine in Man’ and at the same time also expressed his deep reverence of traditions related to such holy places of Sanatana Dharma as Varanasi. Swamiji wrote, “In these days of intellectual awakening and steadily asserting public opinion, the holy places of the Hindus, their condition, and method of workhave not escaped the keen eye of criticism; and this city, being the holy of the holies to all Hindus, has not failed to attract its full share of censure.
In other sacred places people go to purify themselves from sin, and their connectionwith these placesis casual, and of a few days’ duration. In this, the most ancient and living centre of Aryan religious activity, there come men and women, and as a rule, old and decrepit, waiting to pass unto Eternal Freedom, through the greatest of all sanctifications, death under the shadow of the temple of the Lord and the Universe.
And then there are those who have renounced everything for the good of the world and have forever lost the helping hands of their own flesh and blood and childhood’s associations. They too are overtaken by the common lot of humanity, physical evil in of form of disease.
It is true that some blame attaches to the management of the place. It may be true that the priests deserve a good part of the sweeping criticism generally heaped upon them; yet we must not forget the great truth – like people, like priests. If people stand with folded hands and watch the swift current of misery rushing past their doors, dragging men, women, and children, the sannyasi and the householder, into one common whirlpool of helpless suffering, and make not the least effort to save any from the current, only waxing eloquent at the misdoings of the priests of the holy places, not one particle of suffering can be lessened, not one ever be helped.
Do we want to keep up the faith of our forefathers in the efficacy of the Eternal City of Shiva towards salvation?
If we do, we ought to be glad to see the number of those increase from year to year who come here to die.
And blessed be the name of the Lord that the poor have this desire for salvation, the same as ever.
The poor who have come here to die have voluntarily cut themselves off from any help they could have received in the places of their birth, and when disease overtakes them, their condition we leave to your imagination and to your conscience as a Hindu to feel and rectify.
Brother, does it not make you pause and think of marvellous attraction of this wonderful place of preparation for final rest? Does it not strike you with a myseterious sense of awe – this age-old and never-ending stream of pilgrims marching to salvation and death? If it does – come and lend us a helping hand.
Never mind if your contribution is only a mite, your help only a little. ‘B;ades of grass united intoa rope will hold in confinement the maddest of elephants’ – says the old proverb.
Ever yours in the Lord of the Universe,
During his stay Swamiji also gave initiation (Mantra-Diksha) to Charu along with some other youngmen. This was the strongest booster and sustainer for Charu as far as moulding his spiritual life was concerned.
During his stay at Varanasi Swami also received as a donation a piece of land from a local Raja at which he decided to start an Ashrama under the leadership of Swami Shivananda who had stationed himself there. It was called Advaita Ashrama. The presence of such a gigantic personality like Swami Shivananda for many years in the vicinity ensured that Charu and his friends never fell short of receiving adequate inspiration to carry out the charge they had taken upon themselves. Swamiji was not to live long after his return from Varanasi and left his body on 4th July 1902. He was said to have referred to the work in Varanasi to be last major work.
On 23rd November 1902 it was decided to affiliate the Sevashrama to the Ramakrishna Mission. In 1903 Swami Brahmananda also visited Varanasi and encouraged Charu to search for a permanent land and building for the Sevashrama. This dream was realised in 1906, with the help of a munificent donation from a devotee in Calcutta, a land was purchased at the locality of Luxa in Varanasi. Swami Brahmananda himself laid the foundation stone in the new premises in 1908, and also inaugurated the new building in May 1910. Swami Vijnananda, the youngest direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who was a trained civil engineer from famed College of Engineering Pune, and lived at the Ashrama at Allahabad, designed and supervised its construction. This building had six general and three isolation wards and could accommodate forty-six patients, along with provision for an outdoor unit a dispensary, a chemist counter and a library. Appreciative of the Sevashram’s yeoman service of the poor and needy the local municipally then under the British administration, sanctioned a monthly grant of Rs 10/-.
The greatest day in the history of the Sevashrama was to come on 8th November 1912 when Holy Mother Sarada devi visited there. She was accomparnied by Swami Brahmananda, Swami Shivananda, Swami Turiyananda and Master Mahasaya (Mahendranath Gupta, the author of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna). The Holy Mother was very much pleased to see everything and remarked that Thakur himself is residing there and Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, had chosen this place as her abode. She also said that she liked the place so much that she did not want to leave the place. As a taken of her blessing she gave a ten rupee note which is till date carefully preserved at the Sevashrama.
In subsequent years too, the Sevashrama was blessed by the visits of many direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna who not only contributed to a lasting spiritual ambience at the place, but inspired and gave a direction to the spiritual lives of the workers, ensuring harmonious spiritual development for all. The neighbouring Advaita Ashram also hosted many great spiritual personages from time to time, the presence of whom immensely benefitted the Sevashrama. In 1913 Swami Brahmananda, staying at the Advaita Ashrama then, decided to have Durga Puja there. Maharaj, being very knowledgable in gardening, brought many seeds, saplings and planted them at the Sevashrama giving it a different look. There were multiple visits by some other direct disciples of Thakur like Swami Shivananda, Swami Premananda, Swami Akhandananda, Swami Saradananda. The Sevashrama was especially blessed to have Swami Turiyananda who lived for three and a half years there. There he also made an extraordinary statement that anyone who works in the Spirit of ‘Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva’ (Service of Man in spirit of Service of God) even for three days is sure to have a deep spiritual realisation. He exhorted everyone by saying, “Have faith in the words of Swamiji – the Shiva incarnate, and dedicate yourself in the service of fellow human beings at the Sevashrama”.
In this way for more the twenty years Charuchandra laboured day in and out. Charu’s mind now wanted to be immersed into deep meditation and solitude. After being engaged in sadhana at Jhuli near Allahabad he returned to Varanasi where Swami Brahmananda along with Swami Saradananda were visiting. During this period of stay Maharaj ordained Charu in the vows of Sannyasa and gave him the name Shubhananda. Swami Shubhananda after receiving the holy vows of Sannyasa immersed himself in rigorous Tapasya visiting chief pilgrim centers in Uttarakhand as a penniless monk, begging for his food. He returned to Varanasi and continued to live a life of severe austerities by staying at Sri Girishwara Temple – and not his beloved Sevashrama which he helped to build from scratch – such was spirit of detachment. Later at repeated requests from monks and workers of the Sevashrama he stayed there for a short time. For long it had been Shubhananda’s wish that there should be some place for the workers of Sevashrama where they could retreat for short stretches of time, after long and exhausting periods of work, into a solitude and contemplation. This idea had also been voiced by Swami Turiyananda when he was alive. In 1925, this idea got materialised when the Sevashrama purchased two cottages at Kishanpur near Dehradun. It was named ‘Sadhan Kutir’, a name suggested by Swami Turiyanda himself. Swami Shubhananda himself took some monks and workers from the Sevashrama to ‘Sadhan Kutir’.
By this time there had been considerable deterioration in his health. He did not accept any personal service from anyone. At the loving persuasion of Swami Saradananda who was then the General Secretary of the Mission, he went to Belur Math for medical treatment, but did not stay there long and returned to Varanasi. He wanted to spend his last days in Varanasi, but due to severe heat there it was decided to take him to Kankhal, which being near the foothills of Himalaya had a more pleasant climate. He then had a premonition of giving up his body in Kankhal. This end come on the day of ‘Poila Baishakh, the New Year Day of the Bengali Calendar in a dramatic fashion. Accompanied by an attendant, he went to take bath in a canal of the Ganga and very soon his body was found floating in water. There were efforts to revive him but in vain. His visage at that moment of final deliverance was calm and serene.
Today the Varanasi Sevashrama is a large hospital having more than 200 beds and many departments and for more than a century has been rendering service to all in spirit of serving God. On one day every year all the patients in the hospital are actually worshipped with incense by serving monks to remind everyone of the great ideal given by Vivekananda for which the Sevashrama stood. The lives of everyone who has served in this great mission has become blessed. The life of Swami Shubhananda, the chief architect of the Sevashrama and a pioneering servant-monk, has been and will be a source of continuous inspiration to people and an illustration of what it is to live life of serving’ Divine in man’. Indeed he was a paragon of the new type of spiritual practitioner envisaged by Swami Vivekananda.