The Holy One of Benares
BENARES again! The bend of the Ganges that first came to view glittered and flashed like a scimitar held under the sun. It was three o’clock in the afternoon when we entered the Holy City. From the distant bridge over which we walked, the turrets and towers of the thronging temples rose to the sky that burned like a turquoise shell. Stone upon stone, — yellow, gray and brown, — houses upon houses, rose tier upon tier; some had blue doors and windows, and some red; but each and all breathed only one spirit: it was the city of holiness raised above the world on the trident of Shiva. Even the monkeys in the temple of the Mother seemed holy to me.
Benares cannot be described. It is held aloft on the trident of holiness — no description can come near it. I can only set down a few impressions as background to my experiences there. I expected to be disappointed, for I had come to it after a long sojourn in an utterly alien world; and instead of disappointment — I felt its overwhelming majesty. It was Brahmanism incarnate; for no matter what new sect rises amongst us, in Benares it will find a temple and worshipers. In truth, the long arm of the Eternal Religion that abides here reaches out and sustains any new religious experience that utters itself in any form of worship. Thousands of years, thousands of religious teachers — Buddha, Shankara, Ramanuj, Nanak, Kabir, and Vivekananda — all have their place here. It is the vast banyan tree which gives shelter to any spirit that wishes to come to it. Here every arch is a soul story and every roof the footstool of God. There is no other city in the world, unless it be Rome, to which one can point suggesting an image of what Benares means to us.
Color on color beat upon us like a changing sea. The tawny minarets of the Beni Madhav rose clear against the intense red of the large gaunt templetowers next to it; the latter in turn stood against the pure white domes of lesser houses of worship. And over them all danced the gleaming turquoise sky, on fire with the sun. Men and animals jostled one another as we walked the ancient flagstone, while beside us paced the multitude of pilgrims clad in robes of ochre, yellow, white, and red. The large Shiva bulls, their humps throbbing with heat and fat, rubbed their sleepy gray sides against us.
That July afternoon was not a day, but a revelation. No sooner had we entered the city than we felt that the veil of delusions had been torn asunder, giving us a glimpse of the road that we were destined to travel in order to reach the Holy One. It seemed quite natural that every one we met should point out to us the way. In Benares the streets have no names, and houses are not numbered; yet everyone whom we asked for direction told us which turn of the road to follow. One whitebearded old man said, ‘Go to the Spice Market and turn north; that will bring you to the Jewelers; there, if you do not find anyone to tell you which way to turn, go east; that will bring you to the Flower-Weavers’ (garland-makers) quarters; turn east, again — But Shiva Vishnu, what is the use of so much information? One step at a time, say the senile and the wise! Therefore go, brothers, first to the Spice Market, and if you lose your way, it will only fulfill some prophecy or other—what is life but a fulfilling or defeating of prophecies? Without doubt you will find your Holy One — Shiva, Shiva!’
As we took leave of the old man, my brother said, ‘There is no race on earth that can talk as poetically as we do. Every one of us is born with the peacock’s colors in his imagination.’
We hastened to the Spice Market, then to the cross-roads of the Ten Stallions; there we turned northward to the embankment called Gem of Gems. Here we made an ascent of a hill covered with houses five hundred years old, buttressed and held together like small Gothic churches hugging one another. We went through courtyards of old palaces, flagged as early as the days when men first learned to make flags. We passed people’s drawing-rooms, laundries, flower gardens, over yellow sandstone fences, down broken pavements, in and out of gullies wrought with stones as old as the world itself.
Then suddenly we came upon a vast garden enclosed by tall red-brick walls. There was a gate made of blue-black iron bars; on it two letters were carved in Sanskrit: we pushed through this gate into a garden, green with the fierce verdure of the tropics after heavy rain. We did not wait, for permission. We pressed our way past a person or two — men or women — until it seemed, after passing endless bungalows and corridors, that we were held at bay by a sound — tire sound of a marvelous lion-like intonation of Sanskrit. Both of us felt its power. It was not Sanskrit; it was a ring of fire woven out of a chant. One who wished to cross that ring must know the secret of Immortality. No doubt it was the tiger-voice of the Holy One intoning, —
‘He has no fear of growth, senility, or death, for he has put on the flamegarb of Immortality. Now with hands of clay he gathers the golden fire of deathlessness. He is stiller than the mountains, hence swifter than the swiftest flight of man’s mind: subtler than the subtlest, as a tiger in the blackness of the forest. He is the Eagle of Eternity fly ing through the wilderness of ‘Time, lie has unlocked the door of soul-ecstasy for the Spiril of men to enter in. Though desireless, he fulfills all desires! O thou fierce silence! quicken my senses, smite my tongue till it drips with the flaming honey of TruthUtterance, and this my mortal body becomes Thy Chalice of Immortality. Hari—Om — Hari Om — Hari-i-i O-O-m-m! ‘
Yet it. was not these words, but the golden thunder-vibrant voice, touching chords of infinite range and shade, that held us motionless where we stood. He chanted till the sun went down.
I know not how long we waited in the vestibule, but at last, when we entered the presence, we found the Holy One seated on a wooden couch and a small brass lamp burning near him. The room was absolutely bare. The red-sandstone walls looked gaunt and hard, the cemented gray floor felt cool under our travel-hot feet.
We fell on our faces before Maharajkeshar, the Lion — the name they gave the Blessed One. It was such a joy and relief to lie there on one’s face! Every moment I felt that gladness was passing into my heart with a pang. I know not how long we lay thus, prostrate before him.
Suddenly we heard him say, ‘Rest a long time here.’
Now I looked at him. Yes, he was indeed holy. The power poured from him, infusing all the air of the room with life. It is impossible to describe it. Those dark brown eyes shone upon us with the simple radiance of a child’s, yet they were full of maturity; slanting a bit when he looked sideways, their pupils and the whites almost wrinkled with age; but his gaze was as fresh as a child’s after a night of restful sleep. He had a straight tall forehead and straight brows. His face was lean and strong, there was not an atom of superfluous flesh, nowhere a single line to indicate care or worry. When I looked at his mouth I knew at once that he was old, for his lips were drawn and sunken; but the youth of his beautiful nose, firmly modeled chin and clear eyes, mitigated the age that had touched his mouth. I learned later on that at the time the Holy One was suffering from a carbuncle on his left shoulder — it was the pain of it that one saw in his lips.
He spoke: ‘What brings you here?’
I answered, ‘Problems, my Lord.’
‘Problems?’ he questioned — then laughed. ‘Thou hast acquired the Western habit of worrying and running the Universe. Whose Universe is it, thine or Brahma’s? If it is His why not look for Him and find out what He wants from it?’
‘But this hate between the East and the West, my Lord. Throughout the East I have heard nothing but distrust of the West. From Egypt to Burmah all men say that the Westerners are thieves, all that they want is oil wells and money. I am afraid this attitude will cause much trouble between Asia and Europe.’
‘Thou art very tender-hearted, my child. But do not rob the heart of the discrimination that is its own. Thou art in need of rest. Sit here and idle away time. Eat sweetmeats and sing songs. The Universe can wait till thou art well!’
That evening we spent quietly in the bungalow allotted to us by the Holy One.
Next morning about five o’clock we were roused by one of the disciples of the Blessed Master. He wished to know if we would care to bathe in the Ganges. We assented, and were hardly outside our rooms when we heard the thud of human feet. Beat, beat, beat, sounded the bare feet of the oncoming pilgrims. If I were to describe India by a single sound, it would be that beat of the feet of Man. Someone is always walking barefoot and marking the rhythm of pilgrimage; the dust of illusion darkens our eyes, and the veils of time and space delude our minds; yet the heart and feet of every Indian know where to search and whither to look for that ultimate Holiness of the Universe — God.
A very short walk brought us to the river bank. The brief morning twilight had already vanished, and the warm white light of day shimmered on the waters of the Ganges. Every time a woman or a man clad in crimson or saffron dipped in the water the colors broke into a thousand running bits of liquid splendor. Here and there against the half-leaning and half-falling sculptured walls of a temple, girls in violet chuddars, their yellow skirts dripping, moved like statues in stately procession in an antique world, or like frescoes, suddenly come to life.
At last I found myself swimming down the glad currents of the sacred river. The tall stiff embankments of the Gwalior Ghat slipped by me; halfsubmerged temples, shrines of an older cult, raised their red turrets as if to greet me, as stroke by stroke 1 went where the dead were being cremated and their ashes thrown into the Ganges. Now and then I swam past a calm figure of a Yogi sitting on a fallen temple tower, lost in meditation. Little boats with their painted sides crossed and recrossed my way, yet I swam on to the burning ghat. Death, death alone, I wanted to see. The many colored draperies of the bathing populace, the umbrellas made of coco palms, the chanting priests — all the moving life against the hard yellow walls of the embankment, delayed me not. I wanted to behold Death. At last I reached the burning ghat. There I stopped.
I saw two bodies on their respective pyres just catching fire, while the ashes of a third were being thrown into the river. Ah, wonder of wonders. ‘Thousands are dying the death that no one can avoid, yet the rest of us live as though we should never die!' Those burning pyres sputtered and sang as if life to them was a festival.
Suddenly I saw the Holy One. 1 could not. believe my own eyes. Near, yes, right near one of the pyres he stood, with three of his disciples, all dressed in ochre-colored robes. I at once climbed out of the water and went toward them to salute the Maharaj. He said; ‘One of our patients died during the night. We had to cremate him. The weather is so hot that any delay in burning a corpse may cause putrefaction.’
‘But, Master, why do you have this institution? Why have a hospital right in the midst of a sanctuary of meditation ? ‘
‘It is a long story,’ he answered. Then turning to the three of his companions, he remarked, ‘I think now that the fire is well started you will not need me, so I will go and bathe. Will you all go home after you have finished your work?’
Then he turned toward me. ‘Come, let us bathe and have a swim.’
In a few moments he and I were swimming in the Ganges. He swam wonderfully. Suddenly I remembered the carbuncle growing on his back and urged him not to swim any more. Like a naughty lad he answered, ‘ I do not think of carbuncles when I am at play. Come, race me against the current!’
It was hard work for me. I admit he went against the moderate current faster than I. Again we passed the Yogi lost in meditation on the turret of a fallen temple, and the bathers, their glittering purple, orange, russet, and green draperies clinging to their bodies like liquid colors as they came out of the water and up the stately steps of the ghat, while above them gleamed the red, brown, white, and tawny temples in the fierce light of the sun. Lo, he had sprung like a lion of white flames over the city and flung himself on a black cloud — that ‘elephant of the sky’ as the poet said.
At last we reached a place where we saw my brother standing on the edge of the water, with eyes shut chanting to the sun: —
With thy fiery radiance
Scorch and consume all ills and evil,
And bring that day
That will press my heart against the heart of God.’
The Holy Man looked at me, his dark brown eyes twinkling with mischief. He said, ‘I suppose thou canst no more sit still and meditate on God than a tiger can concentrate on vegetarianism!’
‘I am not pious like my brother,’ I replied meekly.
‘ Ha, thou callest him pious, him who has beheld God?’ the Holy One ejaculated.
‘Has he truly seen God, my Lord?’
‘Canst thou not smell the fragrance of his soul? If thy spirit’s nostrils cannot inhale it, can words give thee the perfume of yon man’s vision?’
‘Then he has seen God?’ I inquired and affirmed in the same breath.
‘Ask him. He will tell thee,’ said the Holy One very simply.
We left my brother to meditate on the river bank, and went on toward the Holy Man’s abbey. Again I noticed how beautilul some of the figures looked clad in their wet raiments. The rhythm of their barefooted walk and the close clinging wet colors made the women seem creatures from some ancient myth. Here and there a porter, bare to the waist, would pass with a heavy weight on his head. To see so much of a body, such pleasing skin, such play of muscles was a strange contrast to New York, where everyone is dressed to the hilt. Here in India the bronze men carrying loads on their heads looked stately — in fact no king is so majestic as men or women carrying loads on their heads. The dignity of it is unsurpassable. No matter how cultivated a society grows its toilers will always look more in harmony with art than its idlers. ‘The carrier of a load is greater than the wearer of a crown,’ Benares told me.
The Holy One who had been walking silently beside me suddenly remarked: ‘If the Without is so beautiful, how much more beautiful the Within must be!’
‘But, Master, can’t I tarry a bit at the door of the Without?’
He answered: ‘Thou dost not tarry; thou dost hasten to catch the glamour of the apparent. The pursuer of the thunder cannot afford to tarry. But he who sits above the thunder cloud in the centre of Heaven tarries forever. He need not move any more, for all things are happening before him. The centre of the Within is the seat of vantage from which to see the drama ■— the players, on the stage as well as off, and the audience too. Take that seat and none other. Come Within, my son! ‘
We were at the gate of the abbey. We entered and again passed the many buildings on the grounds. In one I noticed about a dozen sick people being carried in. In the next building we saw patients lying in bed close to the wide open windows.
‘Why a hospital, and a day clinic as well?’ I asked. ‘How did you come to have them here?’
‘My son, it is the punishment for doing good. Go, change thy dress and come back to my chamber. I will explain it to thee.’
When I entered his room again the odor of sandalwood greeted my breath. The walls looked cool and hard and the floor on which I stood felt cooler yet. This was the first time I had walked barefoot in thirteen years; my feet were sore. I had almost lost my entire faith in the rhythm and beauty of barefoot walking. But I felt the same sense of a strange power pervading the room.
On the floor were seated two young ladies, an old gentleman, their father, and a young monk in yellow, crouching before the Maharaj as though bowed by his sanctity.
The Holy One bade me be seated. ‘ I am glad,’ he said, ‘that thy feet pain thee. That will start the easing of the pain in thy soul.’
He turned to the others; ‘What was I talking about? — I remember — the hospital which is a punishment for doing good.’
‘How so, my Lord?’ questioned the old gentleman.
‘Even thou, an old man, dost ask me that question also? Well — it all began one day about eleven years ago when one man, a pilgrim, fell ill. I, who was meditating with a brother disciple under a big tree decided to stop meditating, and care for the man who had fallen sick by the roadside. He was a lean money-lender from Marwar and he had come to Benares to make a rich gift to some temple in order to have his way to Heaven paved in solid gold. Poor fellow, he did not know that any gift made thus binds a soul all the more to the Chain of Desire.
‘I ministered to him until he recovered and could return to Marwar, to lend more money, I suppose. But the rascal did me an evil turn. He spread the news all along his way that if people fell sick near my big tree I took care of them. So very soon two more people came and fell sick at the prearranged place. What else could my brother disciple and I do but take care of them? Hardly had we cured them when we were pelted with more sick folk. It was a blinding shower. I saw in it all a terrible snare: beyond a doubt, I felt, if I went on taking care of the sick, bye and bye I should lose sight of God.
‘Pity can be a ghastly entanglement to those who do not discriminate, and there I stood, with a wall of sick men between me and God. I said to myself, “Like Hanuman, the monkey, leap over them and fling thyself upon the Infinite.” But somehow I could not leap, and I felt lame. Just at that juncture a lay disciple of mine came to see me; he recognized my predicament and, good soul that he was, he at once got hold of a doctor and an architect, and set to work to build the hospital. Very strange though it seems, other illusions coöperated with that good man to help him — the money-changer, the first fellow I cured, sent an additional load of gold and built the day clinic. In six years the place was a solid home of delusion where men put their soul-evolution back by doing good. Shiva, Shiva!’
‘But, Master, I notice that your own disciples, boys and young girls, work there?’ I put in my question.
‘Yes, like these two young ladies here, other young people come to me to serve God. Well, youth suffers from the delusion that it can do good. But I have remedied that somewhat; I let them take care of the sick as long as their outlook on God remains vivid and untarnished, but the moment any of my disciples show signs of being caught in the routine of good works—like the scavenger’s cart that follows the routine of removing dirt every morning — I send that soul off to our retreat in the Himalayas, there to meditate and purify his soul. When he regains his God-outlook to the fullest, if he wishes, I let him return to the hospital. Beware, beware: good can choke up a soul as much as evil.’
‘But if someone does not do it, how will good be done?’ questioned the old gentleman in a voice full of perplexity.
‘Live so,’ replied the master in a voice suddenly stern, ‘Live so that by the sanctity of thy life all good will be performed involuntarily. My children do not try to do good. Live like the holy man, my whilom teacher, the AirEater; live so that evil will never dare come near where you live, and all the good will be accomplished of itself. For, as a scavenger removes dirt and constantly watches out lest the dirt infect him with disease, so the doer of good lives in perpetual fear of his soul being diseased with the evil he carts away from the house of life. He does not know into what danger the routine of good work can plunge his God-seeking soul. The pestilence of improving others may kill his spirit. Try the safer way — live so that by your living all good deeds will be done unconsciously.’
At this moment my brother entered the room, dressed in fine ivory-colored silk. He had a look in his eyes that was not of this world. But my mind was after another thing. I asked the Blessed One, ‘What did the Air-Eater teach you, my Lord?’
‘O thou soul of vulgar probing, dost thou not know what I learned from him I can utter only through my living? If the fragrance of my living docs not call the soul to suck the honey of eternal bliss, then — but I will toll thee one thing more,’ he conceded. ‘I will tell thee of the last visit I made to him, some time after he had entered his mountain cavern.
‘I reached the spot in April. All the hills were dry, every scrap of the earth was parched, almost cracked with the dry heat. When I reached the cavemouth at midday, I was fainting with thirst. I saw him come out, a man old, ah, old as this city of Benares. His hair was like threads of white silk, his eyes were sunken like large lamps in a misty cave. He gave me a drink of water out of a black shell. I drank on and on — it seemed that I could never have enough. I had no desire to look at anything. Finally, when I had drained the last long drop, I raised my eyes to see my master; but lo, I beheld only but for a moment his back at the cavernmouth. Then he was gone!
‘I knew what it meant — I had lost him! I said to myself, “The thirst of thy body took precedence of thy soul’s thirstiness.” But there was no time to rebuke myself — somehow I must attain that man! So I sat down to meditate. I meditated about five hours. Yet no answer from the Air-Eater. Darkness was shutting down upon me. The young bears were linking their voices together in the upper woods and shook the echoes in all directions. The stars came out and questioned me. Again I plunged myself into meditation and not before the first faint preening of the wings of dawn did I emerge therefrom. Then I felt a cool something resting on my hand. I looked carefully — it was the chin of a fawn, dripping with dew. I looked beyond — a pair of small ruby eyes glowed near by. As if they caught my glance and took the hint, they disappeared. The fawn, breathed more easily, and raised its chin; I gently stroked its nose and forehead with my hand. Turning my gaze from the deep brotherhood that danced in its eyes, I looked at the stars; they were close and quivered questioningly like the beckoning finger of a man — it is a terror-rousing sight: do not let the stars question you!
‘Suddenly they stopped those heartbreaking signs and fled. The small Himalayan sparrow set the theme of dawn with two notes. After a pause of several moments he repeated them half a dozen times, then stopped. Like a long call of a flute rose a silver light in the east. Again the bird answered. Again came the flutings of silver light in the east. The fawn, now standing near me almost whistled a cry. That was the signal — now began the cymbal crash of gold all over the sky: color upon color, bird note upon bird note, forest upon forest tore the vestments of night into ribands and shreds of silver, gold, purple, and green. Then like the groaning of drums the bellow of the bison came. It startled me. I looked around and the fawn, scenting fear from my movement, fled; while, like the cool cry from a happy heart, came the chant of the holy man from his cave: —
I am the many branched emerald tree of Heaven;
I am the sanctities, higher than the highest hills,
The jewel of immortality,
The secret in the sun,
And the song of gold in the dross of life.’
‘The sky was by now two wings of glowing sapphire, on which flew the sun, the Eagle of Gold.
‘ I spent nearly three weeks waiting for the holy Air-Eater to come out of his cave. I never saw him. At last one clay in deep meditation the secret flashed through my mind.’
Here the Holy One paused. A great light shone in his eyes. The whole room was filled with glory; the man before us was no more a man, but a song — not from some other voice — but aching in our own throats. Yes, that was the secret: perfect identity of each one of us with all. Alas, hardly had that glorious light broken out when again it vanished.
‘Then,’ he continued slowly, all the radiance gone from his eyes, ‘Then I said to myself, “He will not teach me with words; from now on my instructions must come through Silence”: and 1 rose to leave, for I had accomplished my purpose. After I started down the hill I could not help looking back over my shoulder. Behold, he was standing there at the cave-mouth, smiling a tender, inscrutable smile. I said to myself over and over again, “\7es, I know, my instructions will come to me through silence now.”
‘I never saw the Air-Eater again. The next time I went to his cave, I stopped at the village first and they told me what I suspected: the AirEater had passed onward.’
At this moment the arrival of the doctor, Saravdikari, interrupted the Holy One’s discourse. That he had a carbuncle we all knew, but none had been told that the Master was to be operated on that day. The young ladies and their father left the room and I noticed that they bowed very low before the Presence, and with the ends of their napkins took the dust from his feet. Is there any sight more noble than men and women bending reverently before what they cherish as the highest? In this gesture man attains the acme of his art.
Before the three had left the room two more monks entered with large fans embossed with red and blue semiprecious stones. With these they began to fan the Master.
The doctor, who looked exactly like a bronze Sophocles, began to arrange his weapons on a large sheet of leather which he had spread on the floor. This Sophocles was sombre as well as brown and had very little sense of humor; he laid out his goods with all the unction of a priest poking among his sacred vessels and bells. I whispered to my brother that there must be the manuscripts of tragedy in this man’s pocket. He whispered back, ‘It is likely he has enough bills there to visit, tragedies on many a patient. He is our most prominent. surgeon; sometimes they nickname him “the butcher.” ‘
I looked at the Holy One; he had, in the meanwhile closed his eyes like one withdrawing himself into the deeps of his own thought.
The doctor turned to him. ‘I must give you an anaesthetic,’ he said.
The Master opened his eyes and added gently, ‘I don’t think that is necessary. One of the disciples will assist, you while to the others I shall talk philosophy; that will be my anæsthetic.’
‘But you will suffer pain. You may bungle my work,’ retorted Sophocles.
‘Oh no, doctor; I will not. spoil the skill of your instruments of torture. Do begin!’
So they began. Sophocles deftly cut into the carbuncle while the Master described in a quiet even voice the need of Bhakti, Raja, Juana, and Karma Yoga to us. He went on and on with his ideas as the doctor worked with his scalpel. Yet the Blessed One’s tone did not change, nor was there a mark of pain visible anywhere in his face. Once in a while I felt the running and trickling of blood down his back as he paused between sentences, but even that feeling in me was brushed aside by the words coming from his lips.
At last it was over. The wound was completely bandaged. Now the doctor turned to the Master and asked with a smile, ‘Did you feel any pain?'
‘Why should I, doctor?’
‘I felt the temperature not quite normal on that side of your back. Are you sure you felt no pain?’
‘How could I? I was absent from that part of the Universe where you were working. I was present in this part where I discussed philosophy.’
Suddenly the doctor glanced at us and remarked, ‘When this man dies one of the most astonishing specimens of Hindu religious culture will go with him.’
He bent low, and as the others before him, took the dust from the feet of the Master, then stood up to go. He enjoined his patient to take absolute and perfect rest, then helped the disciple to put the place in order.
I was unable to contain myself any longer. I said to the Blessed One, ‘You who are so holy, why do you not heal yourself?’
Here the doctor interposed, but the Holy One said, ‘I am able to answer the child.’
‘Very well,’ said Sophocles. ‘I shall wait till you finish answering. Then I will put you to bed.’
‘Doctors and Death are absolute,’ exclaimed the Holy One. ‘The reason, my son, why I do not heal myself is that the will here,’ he pointed at his heart, ‘turned into ashes long ago. I gave my will to the Will of the Universe. Now I spend my time willing the happiness of all. If in the happiness of all I incidentally am to be healed, then my friend the doctor is the incident. If not, why should I call my will back from the embrace of the Infinite to do here a little repairing upon myself? No, my son, I would rather not be Holy than stoop to take back a gift to my Beloved!' He turned to the doctor. ‘Come, dear friend, you have been very patient with me; put me to bed!’ At this, everyone save the doctor and the two monks with fans left the room.
The quest of my brother’s face is nothing new. It is the old, the age-old search for the happiness that comes in a flash, but abides with us till death, and which perhaps continues beyond that final event of Life.
Who is our brother? Is he the man we find, or the man we look for? The sages of the Upanishad have answered that our brother is He who wears that One Face dwelling in the thousand faces of all life.
That Face I have never seen, but as time passes, and as the shadow of age falls across my path, I feel more often in my brother’s face that Absoluteness of truth as well as of love, though only for the length of time that a mustard seed may sit steady upon the horn of a Shiva bull.
I was thinking of these things a few days later, as I was sitting alone on the porch of the temple. My brother had gone on a short tour of inspection connected with his medical work. Suddenly I saw my sister coming toward me holding a telegram. At first I thought it was from him, but when she handed it to me, I saw that it was from Benares, from the Holy One. It said only one word: ‘Come.’
It was not too cryptic to hide from me the final command. Had my brother heard also, I wondered? I must make ready and go at once. The whole world depended on my reaching Benares without delay.
It was hard to say good-bye to my sister, because she asked for nothing. She said, ‘Live long. Abide in serenity wherever thou art. I shall fast until thy journey’s end, and that will purify our hearts and may give thee what thou dost desire. Only the hearts that are pure can attain what they need. Farewell, farewell!’
Farewell — the bugle had been sounded; I must hasten to action.
I took a last look at our temple, a glimpse at Shree Krishna’s face. ‘ Yes, as long as he sits there, the world will go on,’ I said to myself. ‘ If this religion dies, wherever that Krishna statue goes, a new temple will be built to enshrine him. Gods live long and compel the tribute of time. Farewell, farewell! ‘
I crossed the bridge and drove for the railway station that looks like a palace of crimson.
Next morning I got off at Benares and went immediately to bathe in the Ganges. It did not take long, but the ablution in the holy water was a necessary preliminary to visiting the Holy One.
I found my brother at the entrance to the monastery. After I had taken the dust from his feet, he led me within. The master was lying on his couch, and two monks in yellow were fanning him. Sunlight poured into the room through the open windows. His face was white as a dying man’s generally is, and a black beard, of about fifteen days’ growth, covered it. His eyes were closed, and his forehead once in a great while contracted momentarily, then grew smooth again with the passing of a paroxysm of pain; but the power was still about him like a garment. He began to speak as if resuming an old familiar conversation.
‘My son,’ he said, almost in a whisper, ‘as to the eye of the sky, the clouds and stars are in it, and yet contain not all of its intangibility. So are the experiences of man.’ Then suddenly, in a stronger voice, he commanded me, —
‘Return to the West! Thy time for peace has not come. Thou wilt commit some errors yet. Only be pure in spirit — vanity is the worst impurity — and through thy errors thou wilt learn.’
He paused, closing his eyes. When he opened them again, they were clear and keen. He said to me, —
‘India needs love. The West has given her criticism these many years, therefore give the West love, till she learn to love this land of the Sages. I am quite clear in what I am saying; love her; and she will fulfill her destiny. The West still believes that knowledge will give her God: we think that God can be found by Bliss alone. A decade of intense loving will enable her to accomplish a century of God-realization.’
‘But Holy One,’ I cried, ‘I am most pained and bewildered. What of conversion? Shall I go to the West as a missionary of Brahman? Is ours a missionary religion ?’
‘Thou of thyself canst convert no one, my son,’ he replied, ‘for thou art not holy. When a saint converts a man to his eternity the saint takes the burden of the man’s sins upon himself. Therefore I say to thee thou mayest not convert, but speak thou of God to any one who has time to waste.’
‘Holy One,’ I exclaimed in amazed awakening, ‘then vicarious atonement is true?’
‘Indeed, my son, only saints may convert others, for when you convert a man you yourself become responsible for him. Beople should not be converted from one religion to another, but from all religions into the Eternal Religion whose name is Viswarupadarsana — which is to behold one’s Own Self as the self of the past, the present, and the future of the Universe.
‘That last conversion, that supreme realization — the realization of one’s own identity with the existing All — is the goal to which little human conversions point. Desire then to convert the human into the divine, the temporal into the timeless, to convert all men not to one religion, but to the essence of all religions! Go, my son, and ask each man to realize that he himself is God.
‘Make thy mistakes like a king, my son, but love with all thy heart. Love
— love.’ His voice became fainter. ‘Go hence now, and look upon thy brother’s face!’
He closed his eyes and spoke no more.
We bowed and touched our foreheads to the floor and walked noiselessly out of the Presence.
For three days I did not see the Master again. My heart was heavy. In India when a man dies we say he is about to start upon the great journey
— literally — he makes the supreme change of habitation. ‘I relinquish my hut to enter my palace,’ say the dying. But must I, after knowing the splendor of his presence, remain behind in the darkened and empty hut to wait — for how long? I am not able in words to convey the experience of this man. Sick and fragile as he was, the power of his presence charged the very air we breathed until it lived like an organism to bleed at a touch. How many times I had entered his room to find him, ‘The Lion,’ sitting straight on his bed and the people crouched about him on the floor like mice, bowed before his silent power. Once I had been so overcome that seeking where to hide my face, I had buried it in his shoes which were cool, like stone.
It was the daybreak of my third day in Benares that the Master asked for everyone to be present. Since a hundred people could not be accommodated in his room, we brought him outdoors. He wished to be placed under that mango tree where he had meditated for so many years. A group of disciples and friends surrounded him.
In the open he seemed better, his unshaven face did not look so white. He lifted his eyes and gazed at us slowly; not the least one of us all was hastily passed over. Each one received his message, so far as he could interpret the great glance cast upon him. Then the Holy One spoke:
‘The call has come, my children. I must go. No lamentation! I have taken you upon my back; I shall not drop you into the ditch on my way Home; you shall be in His House with me! To be afraid is vile, therefore fear not! Even the ultimate sin cannot touch the fearless.
‘Whatever I took from my master, I in turn pass on to you. I leave behind me for you all that he taught. I take nothing with me. All knowledge, all benediction, I lay here at my feet for you; spring from it into the Infinite!’
He ceased, and we saw that he was in great pain.
Suddenly he said,
I am in haste,’ and chanted out: —
signing to all of us to chant with him. But his voice was soon drowned under the cry of a hundred men and women: —
There, where all are vestured in light.
There, where no longing is,
For all longing has been stilled by fulfillment.’
Our love had surrounded him like a fence, and he could not depart nor free himself from the entanglement of our affection; so he had commanded us to chant; and as the intoning engulfed us — Om Hari Om — and our hold relaxed, he slipped through our loosened grasp. Suddenly, as a sword falls through the air, silence fell upon our chanting—he was gone! His face, which was always so full of expression, now lay expressionless and white. His eyes were closed. His mouth grow hard and rigid. The morning breeze trembled through his hair for a moment.
We anointed the corpse with pure sandal oil, covered it with hand-made homespun silk of ochre color, then carried it, bed, cot and all, on our shoulders to the burning ghat.
It seemed that all Benares had heard the news, but how I do not know. Other men and women, holy also, had already gathered at the ghat, and the old lady, who taught that All is nothing, that truculent old man who cried there is no God — both of them had reached the ghat before us. Flowers poured from all directions as we went our way. It was overwhelming.
Now it is a law in Benares that if a Holy One dies in the sacred city he is not cremated. His naked body is thrown into currents of the river, to be borne to the sea. A holy body must be given to the Holy Ganges. Even the flames are too impure for it!
‘Go, go, on the path of ancient mystery! ‘
The old words rang out, and the river received him in her arms; and swiftly bore him from our sight. We gazed and gazed at the flowers that floated after till they too were lost in the blue distance like bubbles in the sea.
After our ablutions and prayers, we returned to the monastery. Now that he was gone, we must remember his injunction to shed no tears. When a holy one departs this life, there can be no official or unofficial mourning. So as soon as we could gather our forces of self-control together, we gave a feast of rejoicing to all Benares. Pilgrims, priests, holy men, beggars, and rajahs — seven thousand or more came and sang the praise of God. His light shone on all faces and his essence danced in every heart. ‘ In every human being I am the expected flush upon his face.’
And then at last I was no longer alone. Peace returned to my heart with the light from the eyes of my brothers.
The following week, I set out on another pilgrimage to the New World. What had I found to bring back with me — what offering from India in upheaval to America in the heyday of her prosperity? Only the ancient sweet spices and myrrh, only the old incense of love; but my orders were plain, and with joy I turned again to the West.
I bade good-bye to my brother; his face is with me now. Next to the Holy One, his is most sacred to me.
As for the last, time I took the dust from his feet, he said simply: ‘Finish thy quest. Remember the warning of the Holy One. Criticize no more! Buddha blessed the world, and in blessing gave new life. There the miracle! Farewell — but come back again and bring to us the face of blessing and benediction from the West.'
I kept looking back at my brother as my train moved out of Benares, and for the first time in my life, I beheld tears in his eyes. Then all was lost to view. But no — for now on the western horizon I saw dimly, but ever growing more and more clear before me, the beloved Face of my Brother.