A Silent Social Revolution
Source: The Speaking Flute (book published by Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai)
To allow the socially downtrodden people into the temples or to dine together with them or to get married to someone from their class are still considered very revolutionary in India.
But nearly 170 years ago, in a remote village in rural Bengal, there was a real revolution of a special kind.
Behold! That rustic village of Kamarpukur now welcomes you… In the lanes of Time and Memory we now travel back to 1840s.
‘Is this true, Gadai? Will you really give this poor woman that divine privilege, my son?!’ asked Dhani-Ma, a poor and lower caste lady.
‘Of course, mother. You are also my mother,’ replied Gadadhar, fondly known as Gadai.
Can you imagine a boy from an orthodox Bengali Brahmin family, accepting bhiksha (alms) from a low caste woman on the occasion of his Upanayana (sacred thread ceremony, one of the important rituals necessary for commencing spiritual practice according to the orthodox Vedic religion) during those days? How could the rage of the upper caste be countered when they came to know of such an event?
How could the 50-year old Dhani expect this out of Gadai, a mere 9-year old boy? But then, does she not have the right? Was she not the motherly woman who assisted Gadai’s mother at the time of his birth and also kept attending on him from time to time ever since?
Gadai’s birth was indeed a glorious moment for Dhani. After she cut the umbilical cord and assisted his mother Chandramani, Dhani glanced at the little infant. She was utterly surprised by what she noticed. She was truly overwhelmed by the radiant glow on the infant’s face—a divine face that shone with the splendour of Lord Siva. That very moment Dhani knew that Gadai was no ordinary baby. As she watched him roll around in the ash of the cooking oven at Chandramani’s hut, she was sure that Lord Siva had descended upon the earth.
From then on, whenever she saw Gadai, she had the happiness born out of conviction that he was her saviour and that he would take care of her till the very end.
Dhani took a vow that if given a chance to give bhiksha during Gadai’s Upanayana, she would present him with gifts that reflected her immense love, in spite of her poverty. She was firm in her resolve.
Gadai was a blissful boy. He would sow the seeds of bliss where there was dearth of it, and in places which were filled with happiness, he would enhance its intensity. Perhaps that is why all the sages who visited Kamarpukur adored him.
A wealthy gentleman named Dharmadas Laaha owned the ‘Community Hall’ in Kamarpukur. He was very fond of Gadai who was the son of his best friend Kshudhiram, a man who had lived and died as an epitome of truth. Listening to Gadai’s songs, watching him play, observing his mischief and childish prattle – all these gave Laaha the utmost pleasure and happiness.
Laaha’s public house was a resting place for visiting monks and scholars of different traditions and lineages. If a devotee of Lord Krishna visited one day, the next day would belong to Lord Rama’s devotee. Similarly, the rest house played host to philosophers of Vedanta and Siddhanta alike.
Whether these visitors from different schools of thought ever talked to one another is unknown. But they were all united in one thing despite their varied philosophies. They all loved Gadai immensely. Each of them shared with Gadai the distinguishing features of their philosophies.
If one monk adorned his forehead with the sacred mark of Lord Rama, the other introduced him to the mesmerizing flute of Lord Krishna. While one yogi taught him the aspects of ritualistic homa, the other trained him in the art of meditation.
Why wouldn’t these monks and yogis love Gadai? Wasn’t he a unique child capable of grasping the best from each one of them?
It was a Dvadasi. The monk who was taking shelter in Kamarpukur had observed the Ekadasi fasting the previous day. Gadai brought some water with some Tulsi leaves and offered food for the monk who was meditating.
On completing his japa and meditation, the revered monk looked at Gadai blissfully and chanted a sacred mantra from the Svetasvatara Upanishad. It meant, ‘Just as oil in the sesame seed, butter in curd, water in river and fire in wood; he sees the Atman in himself through the continuous practice of truth and penance.’
As the monk chanted this mantra from his innermost heart, Gadai stood captivated by it fully fathoming its real content.
‘My dear boy, do you know of the vigorous austerities that the sages and saints had to perform in order to become one with the Creator?’ enquired the monk. ‘However, in this age and time, there is no greater austerity to realize God than leading a life of truth and justice. Therefore, my son, take a vow that you will always speak the truth.’
Saying thus, the monk placed his hand on Gadai’s head and profusely blessed him.
This was just one episode. There were several such instances where great scholars and saints shared their divine knowledge and experiences with Gadai.
Gadai became 9 years old. Due to the sudden demise of his father, his elder brother Ramkumar took charge of the family responsibilities. The family decided to conduct the Upanayana ceremony for Gadai. All the arrangements were made according to the tradition. The entire village was looking forward to that auspicious day.
Dhani’s happiness grew by leaps and bounds. As she was doing some chores in the backyard of Gadai’s home, she looked at him and enquired, ‘Gadai, I hear that your Upanayana is to be conducted soon? Is that true?’
Gadai immediately sensed the concern in Dhani’s voice. ‘Mother, neither will I forget you nor the promise that I made to you,’ he reassured her firmly.
Dhani was overjoyed. As she hugged Gadai and kissed him, tears of joy rolled down her cheek and fell upon his tender hand.
Gadai’s brother Ramkumar was held in high esteem and his words were considered as the benchmark for priests in Bengal. He was an authority on the subject of Upanayana and imparted this knowledge to his younger brother Gadai.
‘How does one behave at the time of Upanayana? What is the significance of this ceremony?’ were the questions that were duly answered, as Gadai comprehended the true meaning of this auspicious ceremony.
When Ramkumar discussed the subject of accepting bhiksha from their mother, Gadai immediately asserted, ‘Brother, I will receive my first bhiksha only from Dhani-Ma.’
Ramkumar was astounded. In a fit of rage he remarked, ‘Hey, Raghuveera! Don’t say like that? This is not our tradition!’
‘Sorry brother, I have given my word to Dhani-Ma. How can I go against my own word?’ Gadai replied firmly.
Ramkumar was fully aware of how much determined his little brother could be when it came to religious matters. So he did not discuss further but merely said, ‘Alright, we elders will take care of these matters.’
Gadai was not to be put off. He looked straight into his brother’s eyes and remarked, ‘Dear brother, take the case of Lord Rama. He decided to go to the forest in spite of pleadings by all his relatives, ministers and elders. More than the words of the elders and the venerated, Rama honoured and wanted to keep up the promise that his father had made. Was that not the reason why he went to the forest?’
Ramkumar did not expect this argument.
‘If I fail to keep up my promise to Dhani-Ma, I will be untruthful. Then what right do I have to take up Upanayana?’ reproached Gadai with his face turning red.
Ramkumar tried to avoid looking at Gadai’s face. What his little brother said sounded revolutionary indeed. Ramkumar was not personally opposed to it. But as a priest to the whole village, how could he go against age-old traditions and support this apparently inappropriate act?
What will happen to his family? Won’t the villagers disregard and abandon them? By giving way to his younger brother’s determination, was he not putting his entire family in jeopardy? After such an act, can he hold his head high and continue to be a priest in the same village?
These were the questions that haunted Ramkumar. But deep within, he knew that when Gadai decided on something, no one could stop him.
Next day, Ramkumar decided to go and seek advice from Dharmadas Laaha whom he considered as a fatherly figure and held him in high esteem. Dharmadas listened to Ramkumar patiently and then remarked, ‘Ram, I know Gadai. He is a boy who is steadfast in his promise and not one who is just stubborn.’
‘But sir, it is the tradition that the first bhiksha is to be given by the mother alone. But Gadai is firm
that he will receive it only from Dhani, who is from low caste…’
‘Ram, do you realize why he said that?’
‘Apparently, he has made a promise to Dhani when he was a little boy. He feels that someone who fails to keep up his promise is unfit to wear the sacred thread.’
Laaha admired Gadai’s perception of the true meaning of Upanayana and his conviction to always stand for truth. Ramkumar on the other hand, was still concerned about the customs and rituals associated with the ceremony.
Dharmadas patiently remarked, ‘Gadai is right, Ram. Is it not the true purpose of Upanayana to see the divine creator in our earthly lives? What better way is there to see God than to be true in our daily deeds?’
‘But sir, what about the traditional formalities and customs?’ asked Ramkumar.
‘Ram, I firmly believe that Gadai’s acceptance of bhiksha from Dhani will not bring any blemish to your family. I have heard that such incidents have taken place earlier too. Further, if your father was alive, I am sure he would have given his consent. Moreover, don’t you think it is important to keep the boy who is taking the Upanayana happy?’ asked Laaha.
For a second, Ramkumar thought of Dhani-Ma. Her body had the colour of Goddess Kali, but her soul had the colour of Goddess Saraswati’s lotus seat. How much of love she had for Gadai? Didn’t she treat him like her own son?
In spite of knowing all this, Ramkumar’s mind was still mired in mere societal norms and customs and was perplexed.
The much awaited day of Gadai’s Upanayana came. The whole village of Kamarpukur had gathered for the grand event. As the ceremony was at the house of Ramkumar, a well-known Vedic scholar, all the learned priests of the locality had come to bless the boy.
The sound of the shehnai, an auspicious instrument rented the air. Women folk with their heads covered in the drape of their sarees were running around attending to different chores.
The revered Brahmin priests began their Vedic chants. At the entrance of the house was seen the
holy cow with her little calf.
Gadai was in a state of radiant glow with his head tonsured except for a little tuft of hair and his forehead anointed with the sacred ash. As he stood wearing new clothes with a baton in his right hand and a water pot (kamandalu) in his left, many of the bystanders were awe-struck and exclaimed if this little boy was indeed Vamana, one of the avatars of Lord Vishnu.
The holy fire of the homa was glowing bright. Ramkumar conducted the ceremony solemnly. Gadai
was initiated into the chanting of the sacred Gayatri mantra. All the elders of the village showered their blessings upon him.
The time had now come for Gadai to take bhiksha. Ramkumar sincerely hoped that his little brother would have forgotten about Dhani-Ma in the hustle-bustle of the ceremony. Mother Chandramani along with others was anxiously waiting to give bhiksha to Gadai. But Gadai with a cloth bag over his shoulder was fervently looking around for Dhani-Ma.
As he moved through the crowd, he finally spotted her. There she was at a distance, frightened and excited, waiting with the rice, fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and new clothes that she had so lovingly brought for him.
At that very moment, the story of the little boy Adi Shankara receiving a dry gooseberry as bhiksha from a poor woman appeared in Dhani’s mind. ‘Was she that poor woman? Was Gadai the holy manifestation of Adi Shankara?’ she wondered.
Everyone’s eyes were then focused on Gadai. But his eyes were focused on truth and truth alone. He went straight towards Dhani-Ma, touched her feet and said ‘Bhavati Bhikshaam Dehi’.
Oh! Everyone was astounded. ‘How can an orthodox Brahmin boy bow down before a low caste woman, that too at the most important occasion of his Upanayana?’ they wondered.
That very moment the playing of the shehnai stopped.
The calf at the entrance stopped shaking its tail and raised its ears in wonder; the women were coming to terms with what was happening; the Brahmins were shocked as to whether this was acceptable.
As Ramkumar stood with fear and anxiety, Dharmadas Laaha stood pleasantly surprised at Gadai’s conviction to abide by the truth (satya nishta) and wondered if he was one among Nachiketa or Dhruva or Prahlada – all our legendary youth hailed as heroes in our fables.
The monks exclaimed that Gadai was right and duly blessed him.
As an answer to all the above emotions and turmoil among people, Gadai chanted ‘Bhavati Bhikshaam Dehi’ in a solemn voice once again.
Dhani-Ma trembled as she gave bhiksha to Gadai. Her eyes were shedding copious tears. She was certain that God Himself in the form of her Chosen Deity was accepting all of her past and present karma.
On seeing Gadai’s truthfulness and Dhani-Ma’s overflowing love, even the orthodox priests who were known for their tantrums stood silent in awe.
True to the Sanskrit verse ‘Taala vrindena kim kaaryam lapyate malayamarute’, in summer, the love of gracious people blow like the fragrant cool breeze of the hills. With such a breeze blowing, do we really require a hand-fan made of palm leaf in the form of social and religious restrictions?
That was the foremost thought in everybody’s mind including that of Ramkumar and his respectable Brahmin friends. All the women who were initially furious then came to their senses. They desired to be like Dhani whose unconditional love for Gadai had earned her a supreme place in his heart.
Who was this amazing little boy Gadai who captivated all those people?
When He appeared as Rama, He embraced Guha, the downtrodden. When He emerged as Krishna, He lived among the poor shepherds. When He appeared as both in the form of this Gadai, who was none other than Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna, a silent revolution was initiated.
In India, Sri Ramakrishna started one of the largest monastic Orders. Any monastic aspirant can join it, irrespective of caste, creed, religion and nationality. The members work together as one with the ultimate motto, ‘Service to man is indeed service to God’.
Dear Dhani-Ma, the moment you gave the first bhiksha to Gadai, you paved the way for a great movement – the Ramakrishna Movement.