At the time when Sri Ramakrishna was attracting devotees – old and young – to the temple-garden at Dakshineswar, a young man in his teens, belonging to a neighbouring family, came to the garden of Rani Rasmani for a few consecutive days to see Sri Ramakrishna. The boy looked younger than his age and was cherubic in appearance. He was of a very religious disposition, and a divine purity beamed through his face. The boy had heard about Sri Ramakrishna and felt interested to see the saint. But he was shy by nature and so could not find out Sri Ramakrishna, though he went to Dakshineswar repeatedly. One day he saw a crowd in a room in the precincts of the temple and thought that that might be the place where Sri Ramakrishna was staying. He went near but stood outside. At this time Sri Ramakrishna asked a man to bring all those who were outside within the room. The man found only a boy and brought him inside and offered him a seat. When the conversation ended and all went away, Sri Ramakrishna came to the boy and very lovingly made inquiries about him.
The name of the boy was Jogindra Nath Choudhury. Sri Ramakrishna was delighted to know that the boy was the son of Nabin Chandra Choudhury, his old acquaintance.
Jogindra belonged to the Choudhury family of Dakshineswar. His ancestors were very aristocratic and prosperous, but his parents had become poor. His father was a very orthodox Brahmin and performed many reiligious festivals. Sri Ramakrishna during the period of his Sadhana had sometimes attended these festivals, and was thus known to the family.
Jogin was bom in the year 1861. From his boyhood he was of contemplative temperament. Even while at play with his companions, he would suddenly grow pensive, stop play and look listlessly at the azure sky. He would feel that he did not belpng to this earth, that he had come from somewhere in some other plane of existence and that those who were near about him were not really his kith and kin.
He was simple in his habits and never hankered after any luxury. He was a bit reserved and taciturn by nature. This prevented his friends from being very free with him. But he commanded love and even respect from all.
After he was given the sacred thread, he, though very young, spent much time in meditation and worship. While performing worship of the family deity he would now and then become deeply absorbed.
Jogin was about sixteen or seventeen when he met Sri Ramakrishna for the first time. He was then studying for the Entrance Examination. At the very first meeting Sri Ramakrishna recognised the spiritual potentiality of the boy and advised him to come to him now and then. Jogin was charmed with the warmth and cordiality with which he was received; and he began to repeat his visits to Sri Ramakrishna as often as he could.
To the people of Dakshineswar Sri Ramakrishna was known as an “eccentric Brahmin.” They had no idea that the ‘ ‘ eccentricity ‘ ‘ in the behaviour of Sri Ramakrishna was due to his God-realisation. The orthodox section looked upon Sri Ramakrishna with suspicion in regard to whether he strictly observed caste rules etc. For people from Calcutta flocked round him – the city where in those days many people openly defied the customs and traditions of Hinduism. Therefore, Jogin did not dare come to Sri Ramakrishna freely, for he was afraid there would be objections from his parents if they knew about it. So he began to pay visits to Sri Ramakrishna stealthily.
But love like murder will out. Soon it was known that Jogin was very much devoted to Sri Ramakrishna and spent most of his time with him. Jogin’s friends and companions began to taunt and ridicule him for that. Of a quiet nature as he was, he would meet all opposition with a silent smile. His parents were perturbed to see him indifferent to his studies and so much under the influence of Sri Ramakrishna. But they did not like to interfere with him directly as they thought it would be of no avail.
Jogin thought that his continuance of studies was useless for he had no worldly ambition. But just to help his parents, who were in straitened circumstances, he went to Cawnpore in search of some job. He tried for a few months, but could not get any employment. So he devoted his ample leisure to meditation and spiritual practices. He shunned company, and liked to live alone with his thoughts. He spoke as little as possible. His movements and behaviour were unusual. The uncle of Jogin with whom he stayed at Cawnpore, got alarmed lest he go out of his mind. He wrote to the father of Jogin all about him and suggested marriage as the only remedy; for that might create in him an interest in worldly things.
Jogin knew nothing about this. He got information that some one was ill at home, and thinking it might be his mother to whom he was greatly devoted, he hurried to Dakshineswar. But to his great dismay he found that the information he got was wrong – it was simply a pretext to bring him to home, where his marriage was arranged. He was in a great fix. He was against marriage, for that would interfere with his religious life. His great desire was to live a life of renunciation and devote all his time and energy to the realisation of God, but now there was a conspiracy to frustrate his noble resolve.
Jogin was too gentle to be able to resist the wishes of his parents – specially of his mother, and in spite of himself he consented to many. His parents wrongly thought that marriage would turn the mind of Jogin to worldly things. But the effect was just the reverse. The fact that his resolve of living a celibate life had been frustrated, weighed so heavily on his mind that he felt miserable over it. He became moody and brooded day and night over his mistake. He did not even like to go to Sri Ramakrishna to whom he was once so attached. No, he would not show his face to-Sri Ramakrishna, who had high expectation about his spiritual future and would be sorely disappointed to learn that he had falsified all his hopes by his act of marriage.
The news of all that had happened with regard to his beloved Jogin reached Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna sent information again and again to Jogin to come and see him. But he was reluctant to go. Thereupon Sri Ramakrishna told a friend of Jogin: “Jogin once took some money from me. It is strange that he has not returned the money nor has he given me any account of that!” When Jogin heard of this, his feelings were greatly wounded. He remembered that Sri Ramakrishna had given him a small sum to make some purchases for him before he left for Cawnpore, and a small balance of that remained. But because of his marriage he had felt ashamed to go to Sri Ramakrishna and therefore could not return the balance. At the remarks of Sri Ramakrishna, however, he was so aggrieved that he took the earliest opportunity to return the money and at the same time he thought that it would be his last visit to Sri Ramakrishna.
Sri Ramakrishna was sitting on his cot with his wearing cloth on his lap when Jogin came to see him. Like a child, putting his cloth under his armpit, he ran to receive Jogin as soon as he saw him. Sri Ramakrishna was beside himself with joy at the coming of Jogin. And the first thing he said to him was: “What harm if you have married ? Marriage will never be an obstacle to your spiritual- life. Hundreds of marriages will never interfere with your spiritual progress if God is gracious. One day bring your wife here. I shall so change her mind that instead of an obstacle she will be a great help to you.”
A dead weight was removed, as it were, from Jogin’s heart, as he heard Sri Ramakrishna utter these words in an ecstatic mood. He saw light where it had been all darkness for him. He was filled with new hope and encouragement. While taking leave of Sri Ramakrishna, he raised the topic of the balance of the money which he was to return, but to this Sri Ramakrishna was supremely indifferent. He understood that Sri Ramakrishna’s remarks about the money had simply been an excuse to bring him to him. Now his love and admiration for Sri Ramakrishna became all the more great, and he began to repeat his visits to Dakshineswar.
Even after marriage Jogin was indifferent to worldly affairs as before. This was a great disappointment to his parents who had thought of binding him to the world through the tie of wedlock. Once the mother of Jogin rebuked him for his growing detachment to the world as unbecoming of one who had a wife to support.
He was greatly shocked. Did he not marry only at the earnest importunity of his mother! From this time on, his aversion for worldly life increased all the more. He thought Sri Rama-krishna was the only person who consistently and most selflessly loved him. And he began to spend greater time with Sri Ramakrishna. The latter also found an opportunity to pay greater attention to the training of Jogin.
We have said Jogin was very soft-natured. It would be difficult for him to hurt even an insect. But sometimes too much gentleness becomes a source of trouble rather than being a virtue. Sri Ramakrishna noticed the softness in the character of Jogin and he wanted to bring this home to his disciple. Sri Ramakrishna once found that there were some cockroaches in his bundle of clothes. He asked Jogin to take those clothes outside the room and kill the cockroaches. He performed the first part of the order and not the second one. He took the clothes outside the room. But as he was too gentle to kill the insects, he simply threw them away and thought Sri Ramakrishna would not perhaps inquire in so much detail. But strangely enough Sri Ramakrishna asked him whether he had killed those cockroaches. When he answered in the negative, Sri Ramakrishna gave him a mild reproof, for not obeying his words in toto.
A similar incident happened on another day. Jogin was going from Calcutta to Dakshineswar by a boat. There were other passengers on the boat. One of them began to criticise Sri
Ramakrishna as being a hypocrite and so on. Jogin felt hurt at such criticisms, but did not utter even a word of protest. Sri Ramakrishna needed no defence from Jogin: he was tall enough to be above the reach of any criticism of fools – Jogin thought. After coming to Dakshineswar he narrated the incidents to Sri Ramakrishna and thought Sri Ramakrishna would approve of his goodness in not opposing the passengers. But Sri Ramakrishna did just the opposite. He took him to task for pocketing the blasphemy heaped upon his Guru. “A disciple should never hear criticisms hurled against his Guru without protest,” said Sri Ramakrishna. “If he cannot protest, he should leave the spot forthwith.”
Once Jogin went to the market to make some purchases for Sri Ramakrishna. The cunning shopkeeper feigned to be very religious-minded and Jogin took him to be such. But when he returned to Dakshineswar, he found that the shopkeeper had cheated him. This called for a sharp rebuke from Sri Ramakrishna. ” A man may aspire to be religious; but that is no reason why he should be a fool,” said Sri Ramakrishna.
Though Jogin would trust a man easily and had the simplicity of a child, he was not a simpleton. Rather he had a keen discriminating mind and was critical in his outlook. What opinion he would give about men and things would often prove true. But his critical attitude once led him into a quandary.
One night he slept in the same room with Sri Ramakrishna. In the dead of night he found that Sri Ramakrishna was not in the room and the door was open. At first he felt curious, then became suspicious as to where Sri Ramakrishna could go at such an unearthly hour. He came outside, but Sri Ramakrishna could not be seen. Did Sri Ramakrishna then go to his wife, who was then staying at the concert-house? – he thought. Then Sri Ramakrishna was not what he professed himself to be ! He wanted to probe into the mystery, and stood near the concert-house to see if Sri Ramakrishna came out of the room. After some time Sri Ramakrishna came from the Panchavati side and was surprised to see him standing near the concert-house. Jogin was stupefied and felt ashamed of himself for his suspicion. A more sinful act can never be conceived of: to suspect even in thought the purity of a saint like Sri Ramakrishna! He was horror-struck at his own conduct and did not know what to say. Sri Ramakrishna understood the whole situation and consoled his young disciple with the encouraging words: “Yes, one should observe a Sadhu by day as well as at night before one accepts him as a guide.” With these words Sri Ramakrishna came to his room, followed mutely by Jogin. In spite of the sweet words from Sri Ramakrishna, he had no sleep throughout the rest of the night, and later throughout his whole life he did not forgive himself for what he considered to be an extremely sinful act.
There are many incidents as to how Jogin, with all his devotion to Sri Ramakrishna, kept his critical faculty alert and did not fail to judge even his Guru. Once he asked Sri Ramakrishna how one could get rid of sex-idea. Sri Ramakrishna said that it could be easily done by prayer to God. This simple remedy did not satisfy him. He thought that there were so many persons who prayed to God, but nevertheless there came no change in their lives. He had expected Sri Ramakrishna would suggest to him some Yogic practice, but he was disappointed in that, and came to the conclusion that Sri Ramakrishna’s simple remedy was the outcome of his ignorance of any other better means. During that time there stayed at Dakshineswar a Hatha-Yogi who would show to visitors his dexterity in many Yogic feats. Jogin got interested in him. Once he came to Dakshineswar and without meeting Sri Ramakrishna went straight to the Hatha-Yogi and was listening to his words spellbound. Strangely enough, exactly at that moment Sri Ramakrishna chanced to come to that place. Seeing him there, Sri Ramakrishna very endearingly caught hold of his arms and while leading him towards his own room said: “Why did you go there? If you practise these Yogic exercises your whole thought will be concentrated on the body and not on God.” He was not the person to submit so easily. He thought within himself, perhaps Sri Ramakrishna was jealous of the Hatha-Yogi and was afraid lest his allegiance be transferred to the latter. He always thought himself to be very clever. But on second thought he tried the remedy suggested by Sri Ramakrishna. To his great surprise he found wonderful results and felt ashamed of his doubting mind. Afterwards Swami Vivekananda used to say, ” If there is any one amongst us who is completely free from sex-idea, it is Jogin.”
To recount another incident of a similar type. Once he found that Sri Ramakrishna was very much perturbed over the fact that his share of the consecrated food of the temple had not been sent to him. Usually the cashier of the temple would distribute the food offered in the temple after the worship had been finished. Being impatient Sri Ramakrishna sent a messenger to the cashier and afterwards he himself went to him to inquire about the matter. Jogin was proud of his aristocratic birth. When he saw Sri Ramakrishna agitated over such a trifle, he thought that Sri Ramakrishna might be a great saint, but still his anxiety at missing the consecrated food was the result of his family tradition and influence: being bom in a poor priest-family he was particular about such insignificant things.
While he was thinking this way, Sri Ramakrishna came and of his own accord said: ” Rani Rasmani arranged that the consecrated food should be distributed amongst Sadhus. Thereby she will acquire some merit. But these officers without considering that fact give away the offerings at the temple to their friends and sometimes even to undesirable persons. So I am particular to see that the pious desire of that noble lady is fulfilled.”
When he heard this, he was amazed to see that even an insignificant act of Sri Ramakrishna was not without deep meaning, and he felt ashamed at the opinion he had formed about Sri Ramakrishna.
Jogin began to grow spiritually under the keen care of Sri Ramakrishna. Afterwards when Sri Ramakrishna fell ill and was under medical treatment at Shyampukur and Cossipore, he was one of those disciples who laboured day and night in attending to the needs and comfort of their beloved Master. Too much strain due to this told upon the none too strong health of Jogin, but the devoted disciple was undaunted.
Sri Ramakrishna was sinking. No amount of care on the part of the disciples could arrest the progress of the disease. His life was despaired of. One day Sri Ramakrishna called Jogin to him and asked him to read out a certain portion of the Bengali almanac to him. In doing this, while Jogin was reading about a certain date, Sri Ramakrishna told him to stop. It was the date on which Sri Ramakrishna passed away.
The Mahasamadhi of Sri Ramakrishna threw all his disciples into deep gloom. They now laid still greater stress on spiritual practices in order to fill up the great void in their hearts. The Holy Mother went to Vrindavan and remained almost day and night absorbed in meditation. Jogin along with another disciple, Latu, was with her in attendance. At this time Jogin also performed hard Tapasya.
After a stay for a year at Vrindavan, the Holy Mother returned to Bengal and stayed in a house on the bank of the Ganges near the present site of Belur Math. There also he was her attendant. In fact, his service to the Holy Mother was wonderful. In looking-after the comfort of the Holy Mother, he threw all personal considerations to the wind. For, did he not see the living presence of the Master in her? Then to serve her with all devotion and care, he thought, was his best religion.
Some time in 1891, Jogin who had now become Swami Yogananda, went to Benares. There he spent his days in hard Tapasya. He lived in a solitary garden-house absorbed in spiritual practices. It is said that during this period he would grudge the time to be spent even for taking meals. He would beg his food – some pieces of bread – one day and for the following three or four days these pieces of bread soaked in water would constitute his whole meal. During this time there was a great riot in Benares, but he commanded such respect in the vicinity that rioters of both sides would not even disturb him. The hardship which he was undergoing was too much for his constitution, which broke down completely. Swami Yogananda never regained his normal health. But when the mind is given to God, what does it matter if the body is ill or well? He found supreme bliss in his inner world, so physical illness did not disturb his serenity of mind. From Benares he returned to the Math at Baranagore. He was still ailing. But his bright, smiling face belied his illness.
Who could imagine that he was ill when he would be seen whole-heartedly engaged in fun and merry-making with his beloved brother-disciples !
When the Holy Mother came to Calcutta, Swami Yogananda again became her attendant. He spent about a year in devoted service to the Holy Mother. After that he stayed chiefly at the house of Balaram Bose in Calcutta. He was now a permanently sick person – a victim of stomach trouble. But he was the source of much attraction. So great was his amiability that whoever would come into contact with him would be charmed with him. One would at once feel at home with him. Some young men who got the opportunity of mixing with him at this time afterwards joined the Ramakrishna Order and became monks.
Swami Yogananda was the first to organise a public celebration of the birthday anniversary of Sri Ramakrishna on a large scale. It was performed at Dakshineswar. The success of this celebration, against tremendous odds, was due to the great influence Swami Yogananda had over men – specially of the younger generation. The organising ability of Swami Yogananda was evidenced also when a grand reception was given to Swami Vivekananda in 1897 on his return from America. Swami Yogananda was the moving spirit behind that.
After his return to India, when Swami Vivekananda made his proposal of starting an organisation to his brother-disciples, Swami Yogananda was the person to raise protest. His contention was that Sri Ramakrishna wanted all to devote their time and energy exclusively to spiritual practices, but that Vivekananda, deviating from the Master’s teachings, was starting an organisation on his own initiative. This provoked the Great Lion too much and made him unconsciously reveal a part of his inner life. Swami Vivekananda feelingly said that he (meaning himself) was too insignificant to improve upon the teachings of that spiritual giant – Sri Ramakrishna, that if Sri Ramakrishna liked he could create hundreds of Vivekanandas from a handful of dust, but that he had made Swami Vivekananda simply a tool for carrying out his mission, and Swami Vivekananda had no will but that of Sri Ramakrishna. Such astounding faith of Swami Vivekananda in Sri Ramakrishna stunned all that were present there, and had the effect of winning over Swami Yogananda immediately.
When the Ramakrishna Mission Society was actually started, Swami Yogananda was made one of its office-bearers. This was not the only occasion when Swami Yogananda showed the power of individual judgment and of a great critical faculty by challenging the very leader – Swami Vivekananda, though his love for the latter was very, very* deep. Indeed, one who dared examine the conduct of his Guru with a critical eye before fully submitting to him, could not spare his Gurubhai. So whenever Swami Yogananda differed from Swami Vivekananda, he was bold enough to say it straightforwardly.
Two years after the incident referred to above with reference to Swami Vivekananda’s starting an organisation, a similar thing happened. Swami Vivekananda was accused by his Guru-bhais of not preaching the ideas of their Master. For Sri Ramakrishna insisted on Bhakti and on the practice of Sadhanas for the realisation of God, whereas Swami Vivekananda constantly urged” them to go about working, preaching and serving the poor and the diseased – the very things which make the mind out-going. Here also Swami Yogananda started the discussion. At first the discussion began in a light-hearted mood on both sides. But gradually Swami Vivekananda became serious, till at last he was choked with emotion and found visibly contending with his love for the poor and his reverence for Guru. Tears filled his eyes and his whole frame began to shake. In order to hide his feelings Swami Vivekananda left the spot immediately. But the atmosphere was so tense that none dared break the silence even after the Swami had left. A few minutes later some of the Gurubhais went to the apartment of Swami Vivekananda and found him sitting in meditation posture, his whole frame stiff and tears flowing from his half-closed eyes. It was nearly an hour before the Swami returned to his waiting friends in the sitting room, and when he began to talk, all found that the love of Swami Vivekananda for the Master was much deeper than what could be seen from a superficial view. But Swami Vivekananda was not allowed to talk on that subject. Swami Yogananda and others took him away from the room to divert his thoughts.
Swami Yogananda again became the attendant of the Holy Mother and stayed with her in Calcutta. But as he was too weak to attend to all her work, a young monk was taken as his assistant. When the Holy Mother was in Calcutta, naturally many ladies would flock to her. Seeing the situation, Swami Vivekananda once took Swami Yogananda to task for keeping a young Brahmacharin as his assistant: for if the celibate life of the latter was endangered who would be responsible? “I,” came the immediate reply from Swami Yogananda, “I am ready to sacrifice my all for him.” The words were uttered with so much sincerity and earnestness that everyone who heard them could not but admire the large-heartedness of Swami Yogananda.
In 1898 Swami Yogananda organised the birthday celebration of Sri Ramakrishna in a place near Belur, as it could not be held at Dakshine-swar for various reasons. This was the last birthday celebration of Sri Ramakrishna which Swami Yogananda could attend. For, in the next year – in 1899, on March 28, he passed away. Swami Yogananda was the first among the monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna to enter Mahasamadhi.
His passing away was wonderful. His words before death were: “My Jnana and Bhakti have so much increased that I cannot express them.” An old Sannyasin brother who was at the bedside at the solemn moment said that they felt all of a sudden such an inflow of a higher state of being, that they vividly realised that the soul was passing to a higher, freer and superior state of consciousness than the bodily.
Swami Vivekananda was greatly moved at the passing away of Swami Yogananda and very feelingly remarked, “This is the beginning of the end.”
Outwardly* the life of Swami Yogananda was uneventful. It is very, difficult to give or find out details through whxeh one can see his personality. Only those who moved with him closely could see something of his spiritual eminence. One of the younger members of the Math at that time wrote with regard to him:
” He was such a great saint that it fills one with awe to belong to the Order that contained him, even as the youngest member.” Swami Yogananda commanded great love and respect from all the lay and monastic disciples of the Rama-krishna Order. He was one of those whom Sri Ramakrishna spotted out as ” Ishwarakotis ” or ” Eternally perfect,” – one of the souls which are never in bondage but now and then come to this world of ours for guiding humanity God wards.
It is more than four decades that Swami Yogananda passed away, many of the younger monks of the Ramakrishna Mission have not even seen him, but the sacred memory of that great Swami is a supreme inspiration to one and all. With how much devotion do they utter his name, and with what great eagerness do they hear even a trifling incident of his life! He has occupied a large part of their hearts. Such is the influence of noble life though silently lived.