“Notes of a Pilgrim” New York City, March 31, 1971, written to family members. Words in italics were written later.
After ten beautiful days in South India, I proceeded north to West Bengal, where I would stay for a week at Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order, near Calcutta. Calcutta was tense at that time. Swami Vandanananda had warned me that getting from the airport to Belur Math was like crossing a battlefield. Maoists, called Naxalites, were destroying statues of famous men and occasionally committing murder. At the college run by the Order right next to Belur Math, a professor had recently been killed by the Naxalites. Flying from Madras to Calcutta, I was sitting next to a Bengali engineer. Since I had been warned about going from the airport to Belur Math, I asked whether he thought it would be better for me to go first to the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Calcutta city, stay overnight, then go to Belur Math the next day. He thought that was a good idea. I knew Swami Nityaswarupananda, Founder and Head of the Institute. He had had an extended tour in the U.S. in the early 60s as a guest of the U.S. State Department. I was very happy to see him again, and I was accommodated at the Institute’s International Guest House.
When I arrived at Belur Math the next day, I found the campus swarming with policemen. For a pilgrim this was disheartening. One goes hoping for a serene, peaceful atmosphere conducive to meditation on the holiness of the place. Still, I had many fine experiences in Calcutta and vicinity, visiting places associated with the lives of Ramakrishna and his disciples. And I was well taken care of by the swamis at the Math.
Visiting the Kali temple at Dakshineswar (near Calcutta) where Ramakrishna lived most of his adult life, where he did spiritual practices, realized God in all His various aspects, personal and Impersonal, trained his disciples, and gave inspiration to thousands of men and women who came to him, was one of the most deeply moving experiences of my pilgrimage….
Also, visiting Kamarpukur, the birthplace of Ramakrishna, and Jayrambati, a neighboring village, which is the birthplace of the Holy Mother, was a very fine experience.
A fellow American, who had just become a swami of the order—Swami Yogeshananda—went with me by taxi from Calcutta (it is about 60 miles from there). We stayed overnight. The next morning I went on foot the three miles from one village to the other. That was my choice; I wanted to have that experience. We met the great-great nephew of Ramakrishna, who showed us around Kamarpukur and then went with us by car to some neighboring villages associated with Ramakrishna and Holy Mother. I tape-recorded his voice and his son’s voice, Much to the delight of friends here in N. Y. my companion knew some Bengali, so could translate. Even without a common language, one felt a warmth and affection….
Who could have imagined that one day I would live at the Center near Atlanta that this American swami would later build up?
The state of Orissa, of which Bhubaneshwar is the capital, is full of historical interest, with many fine old temples. Near Bhubaneshwar there are interesting caves carved out of the rock face where communities of Jain monks lived 2,000 years ago. It occurred to me that they were just contemporaneous with the Essenes of Palestine.
My teacher, Swami Pavitrananda, recalled (in New York) his own visit to these caves some fifty years earlier. On seeing the small size of the caves and visualizing the hard life the monks must have lived, he said to Swami Shivananda (a disciple of Ramakrishna), “If those monks didn’t attain enlightenment, God must be very cruel.” Swami Shivananda remained quiet and looked grave. Then Swami Pavitrananda said, “But surely some of them must have reached enlightenment.” Swami Shivananda joyfully exclaimed, “That’s it.”
I also visited Dhauligiri, the place where the Emperor Ashoka was converted to Buddhism. This was a very moving experience. You may have read how Ashoka vanquished his last foe in India after a bloody battle in which 100,000 men perished. Then he met a Buddhist monk who challenged him with the gospel of love, non-violence and enlightenment. Ashoka, overcome with remorse, disbanded his army and ruled India for 33 years without the military. He is probably the most remarkable ruler who ever lived. (This was in the third century B.C.) All over India he erected stone tablets and pillars proclaiming the royal code of justice and mercy. My guide swami and I climbed a hill, perhaps 200 feet high, with the ruin of a Buddhist temple on top, and with a magnificent panoramic view of what was once the battlefield of Kalinga. There is now an atmosphere of profound quiet and meditation. At the foot of the hill is a stone outcropping with the Edicts of Ashoka carved into it. It was interesting to see a colony of Japanese there, who are building a monastery and school…
Sadly, the peace and solitude didn’t last. I visited again 11 years later and found the site swarming with tourists. The Japanese had built a beautiful pagoda, and the Hindus, not to be outdone, had built a Shiva temple right next to it. I was grateful to have seen the spot before the temples and the tourists.
I saw Japanese also at Sarnath, near Banaras, where Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. There are impressive ruins of stupas and monasteries, pervaded by a meditative atmosphere; a museum with fine sculptures from the Buddhist period; and a modern Buddhist temple with fine murals on Buddha’s life done by a Japanese artist. In this temple we saw a group of Japanese pilgrims. As they were allowed up on the altar to circumambulate the image, underneath which are some relics, the two swamis with me and I tagged along behind them. Then they all knelt down in front of the image and chanted sutras. It reminded me of an experience I had had in Rome, in Santa Maria Maggiore, where I mingled with a group of German pilgrims who were singing hymns to the Virgin…. There is also a Tibetan colony at Sarnath, whose temple we visited briefly. Both the Tibetans and the (resident) Japanese there know the swamis, as the Ramakrishna Mission runs the best and largest hospital in Banaras.
Banaras itself is of course fascinating. I was taken in a rickshaw, properly clad in Indian dress, to visit the main temples. As non-Hindus are not allowed, there was a brief outcry in the sanctum eanctorum until my guide explained my status. The boat ride on the Ganges along the waterfront of the city was very enjoyable. When we visited the new campus of the Hindu University of Banaras, with its attractive buildings and spacious, well manicured grounds, I thought of the beautiful campus at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where I spent part of every summer as a child. My great-grandfather had settled in Oxford in 1849 after emigrating from Germany.