III

BIRTH AND BOYHOOD

The blessed hour for which Khudiram and Chandra were anxiously waiting at last drew near. In the early hours of the morning of February 18, 1836, Chandra gave birth to a boy whom the world was to know afterwards by the name of Sri Ramakrishna. Learned astrologers predicted a great future for the child, and Khudiram was overjoyed that the prospective greatness of his son confirmed his previous vision and the experience of Chandra. He named him Gadadhar in memory of his wonderful dream at Gaya.

Since his very birth Gadadhar cast a spell of fascination not only over his parents and relatives but also over his neighbours, who could not help paying visit to Khudiram's house whenever possible just to have a look at 'Gadai'—as he was lovingly called.

The years rolled on, and Gadadhar was now five years old. He began to show wonderful intelligence and memory even at this early age. The precocious boy learnt by heart the names of his ancestors, the hymns to various gods and goddesses, and tales from the great national epics. As he grew to be very restless, Khudiram sent him to the village school. At school Gadadhar made fair progress, but he showed great distaste for mathematics. He directed all his attention to the study of the lives and characters of spiritual heroes. Constant study of those subjects often made him forgetful of the world and threw him into deep meditation. As he grew older, he began to have trances whenever his religious feelings were roused. Soon it was found that not only religious subjects but beautiful scenery or some touching incident was also sufficient to make him lose himself. Once an occurrence of this kind caused great anxiety to his parents and relatives. Sri Ramakrishna in later years narrated this incident to his devotees in the following way:

'In that part of the country (that is, Kamar-pukur) the boys are given puffed rice for snack. This they carry in small wicker baskets, or, if they are too poor, in a corner of their cloth. Then they go out for play on the roads or in the fields. One day in June or July, when I was six or seven years old, I was walking along a narrow path separating paddy fields, eating some of the puffed rice which I was carrying in a basket. Looking up at the sky I saw a beautiful sombre thunder cloud. As it spread rapidly enveloping the whole sky, a flock of snow-white cranes flew overhead across it. It presented such a beautiful contrast that my mind wandered to far-off regions. Lost to outward sense, I fell down, and the puffed rice was scattered in all directions. Some people found me in that plight and carried me home in their arms. That was the first time I completely lost consciousness in ecstasy.' But this was not the only time he had such an experience. On two other occasions also in his boyhood—once while accompanying a group of elderly ladies of the village who were going for the worship of a deity in a neighbouring village, and again, while playing the role of Shiva in the village dramatic performance on a Shivaratri night—the boy Gadadhar passed into deep trance, and it was with great difficulty that he could be brought back to the plane of normal consciousness.

In the year 1843 Khudiram died, and the entire burden of the family fell upon the shoulders of Ramkumar, his eldest son. The death of Khudiram brought a great change in the mind of Gadadhar, who now began to feel poignantly the loss of his affectionate father as also the transitoriness of earthly life. Though very young, he began to frequent the neighbouring mango-grove or the cremation ground in the vicinity and pass long hours there absorbed in thought. But he did not forget his duty to his loving mother. He became less exacting in his importunities, and tried every means to lessen the burden of his mother's grief, and to infuse into her melancholy life whatever joy and consolation he could.

Gadadhar soon found a new source of pleasure in the company of wandering monks who used to stay for a day or two in the rest-house built by the neighbouring Laha family for wayfarers. One day Chandra was startled to find her dear boy appear before her with his whole body smeared with ashes and with pieces of cloth put on like a wandering holy man. Association with these itinerant monks and listening to their readings from the scriptures inclined the naturally emotional mind of the boy more and more to meditation and kindled in him the latent spirit of dispassion for all worldly concerns.

Gadadhar was now nine, and it was time to invest him with the holy thread. A curious incident happened in this connection. It is the traditional custom in a Brahmin family that just after the investiture, the newly initiated should accept his first alms from some relative or at least from a Brahmin of the same social standing. But Dhani, the blacksmith woman who had tended the child in the lying-in room, had long ago prayed to Gadadhar to allow her the privilege of giving him the first Bhiksha (alms), and the boy, moved by her genuine love, had agreed. After the investiture ceremony was over, Gadadhar, in spite of the repeated objections of other members of the house, kept his promise and accepted his first alms from this Shudra woman in contravention of the time-honoured custom of his Brahmin family. But the event, however trifling, is not without significance. This unyielding love of truth and rising above social convention at this tender age reflected in no small measure Gadadhar's latent spiritual potentiality and foresight and disclosed the real stuff the boy was made of. It showed that true love and devotion were more to him than social restrictions.

Gadadhar's inborn qualities of head and heart became manifest on more than one occasion at this time. Shortly after the thread ceremony an incident occurred bringing him for the first time before the villagers as a teacher. He was then only ten years old. One day he was listening with rapt attention to an animated discussion held by certain scholars on some subtle point in the house of the local zamindar. The boy, understanding their difficulty in arriving at the proper solution, made a suggestion to one of the Pandits and asked whether such might not be the answer. The solution of Gadadhar was so appropriate and pertinent to the point under discussion that the scholars were amazed at such mental maturity in one so young.

But from now on the boys' aversion for school increased. He often played truant in the company of other boys of the school, and passed a great portion of the day in various sports. Gadadhar trained a number of young boys in the histrionic art and held performances in the neighbouring mango orchard. Gadadhar's favourite themes were the various incidents in the life of Sri Krishna. The boy, with his fair complexion and flowing hair, a garland about his neck and a flute to his lips, would often play the part of Sri Krishna. Overwhelmed with the emotion associated with these themes, he would fall into frequent trances. At times the whole mango-grove would ring with the loud Sankirtanas which the boys sang in chorus. Thus, deeply absorbed in these divine sports, Gadadhar lost all taste for school education and engaged himself more and more in the study of the epics, Puranas, and other sacred books, which gave him ample spiritual stimulus. But this other-worldly attitude of the boy caused a great deal of anxiety to his elder brothers.

Soon another misfortune overtook the family. The wife of Ramkumar died, leaving an infant son behind to be taken care of by the aged grandmother. At this time Ramkumar's income also unexpectedly diminished, and being forced into debt, he went to Calcutta and opened a Tol (school for the study of Sanskrit) at Jhamapukur in the central part of the city to earn some money to meet the financial needs of the family. The management of the house naturally fell on Rameshwar. But as before, Gadadhar was unmindful of his school studies. He spent a great portion of his time in worshipping Raghuvir or in reading passages from the holy books, and in helping his aged mother in her domestic duties. As days rolled on, his aversion to academic education became more pronounced. And soon the idea dawned on him that he was destined to fulfil some great mission in life, though he did not know what. The realization of God was to him the only purpose worthy of consideration. Much as he would have liked to have taken up the begging bowl and renounced everything for the Lord's sake, the thought of the plight of his unprovided mother and brothers made him forgo his desire. In the struggle between the two ideas he was powerless to decide, and could do nothing but resign himself to the guidance of Raghuvir, fully believing that He would show him the way out of this distressing situation.

Meanwhile, Ramkumar began to experience great difficulty in managing alone all his duties in Calcutta. On one of his visits to Kamarpukur he noticed Gadadhar's peculiar indifference towards school, and when he learned that Gadadhar had given up his friends and playmates, he decided to take him to Calcutta, where he might supervise Gadadhar's studies and have him help in his manifold works. Gadadhar readily agreed to this proposal, and on an auspicious day set out for Calcutta with the blessings of Raghuvir and his mother.

When Gadadhar came to Calcutta, he was entrusted with the duties of a priest, which he was glad to discharge. Here too by his simplicity, integrity of character, and winning manners he soon formed a circle of friends and admirers, all belonging to respectable families. But when, after some months, Gadadhar still showed no interest in his studies, Ramkumar naturally got annoyed, and one day took the boy aside and admonished him for his apathy towards education and his general indifference. 'Brother, what shall I do with a mere bread-winning education?'—was the spirited reply of the boy. 'I would rather acquire that wisdom which will illumine my heart and getting which one is satisfied for ever.' Ramkumar could hardly understand the full import of this laconic answer, as he was quite ignorant of the phenomenal mental transformation of this wonderful boy, who now more than ever, realized that he was born for purposes different from those of the ordinary run of men. So Ramkumar was puzzled to hear the straight and pointed reply from his youngest brother. All his arguments to prevail upon the boy to pursue his studies with zeal and enthusiasm proved fruitless. He had therefore no alternative but to leave everything to the will of Raghuvir, until a new event, with far-reaching consequences in the life of young Gadadhar, came to pass in a most unexpected manner.