We would be sleeping, and father would be doing ārati. Ding ding ding-we would hear the bell and wake up and see him bowing down before Kṛṣṇa.
It was Janmāṣṭamī, the annual celebration of the advent of Lord Kṛṣṇa Some five thousand years before. Residents of Calcutta, mostly Bengalis and other Indians, but also many Muslims and even some British, were observing the festive day, moving here and there through the city’s streets to visit the temples of Lord Kṛṣṇa. Devout Vaiṣṇavas, fasting until midnight, chanted Hare Kṛṣṇa and heard about the birth and activities of Lord Kṛṣṇa from Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. They continued fasting, chanting, and worshiping throughout the night.
The next day (September 1, 1896), in a little house in the Tollygunge suburb of Calcutta, a male child was born. Since he was born on Nandotsava, the day Kṛṣṇa’s father, Nanda Mahārāja, had observed a festival in honor of Kṛṣṇa’s birth, the boy’s uncle called him Nandulal. But his father, Gour Mohan De, and his mother, Rajani, named him Abhay Charan, “one who is fearless, having taken shelter at Lord Kṛṣṇa’s lotus feet.” In accordance with Bengali tradition, the mother had gone to the home of her parents for the delivery, and so it was that on the bank of the Ādi Gaṅgā, a few miles from his father’s home, in a small two-room, mud-walled house with a tiled roof, underneath a jackfruit tree, Abhay Charan was born. A few days later, Abhay returned with his parents to their home at 151 Harrison Road.
An astrologer did a horoscope for the child, and the family was made jubilant by the auspicious reading. The astrologer made a specific prediction: When this child reached the age of seventy, he would cross the ocean, become a great exponent of religion, and open 108 temples.
* * *
Abhay Charan De was born into an India dominated by Victorian imperialism. Calcutta was the capital of India, the seat of the viceroy, the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, and the “second city” of the British Empire. Europeans and Indians lived separately, although in business and education they intermingled. The British lived mostly in central Calcutta, amidst their own theaters, racetracks, cricket fields, and fine European buildings. The Indians lived more in north Calcutta. Here the men dressed in dhotīs and the women in sārīs and, while remaining loyal to the British Crown, followed their traditional religion and culture.
Abhay’s home at 151 Harrison Road was in the Indian section of north Calcutta. Abhay’s father, Gour Mohan De, was a cloth merchant of moderate income and belonged to the aristocratic suvarṇa-vaṇik merchant community. He was related, however, to the wealthy Mullik family, which for hundreds of years had traded in gold and salt with the British. Originally the Mulliks had been members of the De family, a gotra (lineage) that traces back to the ancient sage Gautama; but during the Mogul period of pre-British India a Muslim ruler had conferred the title Mullik (“lord”) on a wealthy, influential branch of the Des. Then, several generations later, a daughter of the Des had married into the Mullik family, and the two families had remained close ever since.
An entire block of properties on either side of Harrison Road belonged to Lokanath Mullik, and Gour Mohan and his family lived in a few rooms of a three-story building within the Mullik properties. Across the street from the Des’ residence was a Rādhā-Govinda temple where for the past 150 years the Mulliks had maintained worship of the Deity of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. Various shops on the Mullik properties provided income for the Deity and for the priests conducting the worship. Every morning before breakfast, the Mullik family members would visit the temple to see the Deity of Rādhā-Govinda. They would offer cooked rice, kacaurīs, and vegetables on a large platter and would then distribute the prasādam to the Deities’ morning visitors from the neighborhood.
Among the daily visitors was Abhay Charan, accompanying his mother, father, or servant.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: I used to ride on the same perambulator with Siddhesvar Mullik. He used to call me Moti (“pearl”), and his nickname was Subidhi. And the servant pushed us together. If one day this friend did not see me, he would become mad. He would not go in the perambulator without me. We would not separate even for a moment.
* * *
As the servant pushed the baby carriage into the wide expanse of Harrison Road, timing his crossing between the bicycles and horse-drawn hackneys, the two children in the pram gazed up at the fair sky and tall trees across the road. Sounds and sights of the hackneys, with their large wheels spinning over the road, caught the fascinated attention of the two children. The servant steered the carriage towards the arched gateway within the red sandstone wall bordering the Rādhā-Govinda Mandira, and as Abhay and his friend rode underneath the ornate metal arch and into the courtyard, they saw high above them two stone lions, the heralds and protectors of the temple compound, their right paws extended.
In the courtyard was a circular drive, and on the oval lawn were lampposts with gaslights, and a statue of a young woman in robes. Sharply chirping sparrows flitted in the shrubs and trees or hopped across the grass, pausing to peck the ground, while choruses of pigeons cooed, sometimes abruptly flapping their wings overhead, sailing off to another perch or descending to the courtyard. Voices chattered as Bengalis moved to and fro, dressed in simple cotton sārīs and white dhotīs. Someone paused by the carriage to amuse the golden-skinned boys, with their shining dark eyes, but mostly people were passing by quickly, going into the temple.
The heavy double doors leading into the inner courtyard were open, and the servant eased the carriage wheels down a foot-deep step and proceeded through the foyer, then down another step and into the bright sunlight of the main courtyard. There they faced a stone statue of Garuḍa, perched on a four-foot column. This carrier of Viṣṇu, Garuḍa, half man and half bird, kneeled on one knee, his hands folded prayerfully, his eagle’s beak strong, and his wings poised behind him. The carriage moved ahead past two servants sweeping and washing the stone courtyard. It was just a few paces across the courtyard to the temple.
The temple area itself, open like a pavilion, was a raised platform with a stone roof supported by stout pillars fifteen feet tall. At the left end of the temple pavilion stood a crowd of worshipers, viewing the Deities on the altar. The servant pushed the carriage closer, lifted the two boys out, and then, holding their hands, escorted them reverentially before the Deities.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: I can remember standing at the doorway of Rādhā-Govinda temple saying prayers to Rādhā-Govinda mūrti. I would watch for hours together. The Deity was so beautiful, with His slanted eyes.
Rādhā and Govinda, freshly bathed and dressed, now stood on Their silver throne amidst vases of fragrant flowers. Govinda was about eighteen inches high, and Rādhārāṇī, standing to His left, was slightly smaller. Both were golden. Rādhā and Govinda both stood in the same gracefully curved dancing pose, right leg bent at the knee and right foot placed in front of the left. Rādhārāṇī, dressed in a lustrous silk sārī, held up Her reddish right palm in benediction, and Kṛṣṇa, in His silk jacket and dhotī, played on a golden flute.
At Govinda’s lotus feet were green tulasī leaves with pulp of sandalwood. Hanging around Their Lordships’ necks and reaching down almost to Their lotus feet were several garlands of fragrant night-blooming jasmines, delicate, trumpetlike blossoms resting lightly on Rādhā and Govinda’s divine forms. Their necklaces of gold, pearls, and diamonds shimmered. Rādhārāṇī’s bracelets were of gold, and both She and Kṛṣṇa wore gold-embroidered silk cādars about Their shoulders. The flowers in Their hands and hair were small and delicate, and the silver crowns on Their heads were bedecked with jewels. Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa were slightly smiling.
Beautifully dressed, dancing on Their silver throne beneath a silver canopy and surrounded by flowers, to Abhay They appeared most attractive. Life outside, on Harrison Road and beyond, was forgotten. In the courtyard the birds went on chirping, and visitors came and went, but Abhay stood silently, absorbed in seeing the beautiful forms of Kṛṣṇa and Rādhārāṇī, the Supreme Lord and His eternal consort.
Then the kīrtana began, devotees chanting and playing on drums and karatālas. Abhay and his friend kept watching as the pūjārīs offered incense, its curling smoke hanging in the air, then a flaming lamp, a conchshell, a handkerchief, flowers, a whisk, and a peacock fan. Finally the pūjārī blew the conchshell loudly, and the ārati ceremony was over.
* * *
When Abhay was one-and-a-half years old, he fell ill with typhoid. The family physician, Dr. Bose, prescribed chicken broth.
“No,” Gour Mohan protested, “I cannot allow it.”
“Yes, otherwise he will die.”
“But we are not meat-eaters,” Gour Mohan pleaded. “We cannot prepare chicken in our kitchen.”
“Don’t mind,” Dr. Bose said. “I shall prepare it at my house and bring it in a jar, and you simply…”
Gour Mohan assented. “If it is necessary for my son to live.” So the doctor came with his chicken broth and offered it to Abhay, who immediately began to vomit.
“All right,” the doctor admitted. “Never mind, this is no good.” Gour Mohan then threw the chicken broth away, and Abhay gradually recovered from the typhoid without having to eat meat.
On the roof of Abhay’s maternal grandmother’s house was a little garden with flowers, greenery, and trees. Along with the other grandchildren, two-year-old Abhay took pleasure in watering the plants with a sprinkling can. But his particular tendency was to sit alone amongst the plants. He would find a nice bush and make a sitting place.
One day when Abhay was three, he narrowly escaped a fatal burning. He was playing with matches in front of his house when he caught his cloth on fire. Suddenly a man appeared and put the fire out. Abhay was saved, although he retained a small scar on his leg.
In 1900, when Abhay was four, a vehement plague hit Calcutta. Dozens of people died every day, and thousands evacuated the city. When there seemed no way to check the plague, an old bābājī organized Hare Kṛṣṇa saṅkīrtana all over Calcutta. Regardless of religion, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Parsi all joined, and a large party of chanters traveled from street to street, door to door, chanting the names Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare. The group arrived at Gour Mohan’s house at 151 Harrison Road, and Gour Mohan eagerly received them. Although Abhay was a little child, his head reaching only up to the knees of the chanters, he also joined in the dancing. Shortly after this, the plague subsided.
* * *
Gour Mohan was a pure Vaiṣṇava, and he raised his son to be Kṛṣṇa conscious. Since his own parents had also been Vaiṣṇavas, Gour Mohan had never touched meat, fish, eggs, tea, or coffee. His complexion was fair and his disposition reserved. At night he would lock up his cloth shop, set a bowl of rice in the middle of the floor to satisfy the rats so that they would not chew the cloth in their hunger, and return home. There he would read from Caitanya-caritāmṛta and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, the main scriptures of Bengali Vaiṣṇavas, chant on his japa beads, and worship the Deity of Lord Kṛṣṇa. He was gentle and affectionate and would never punish Abhay. Even when obliged to correct him, Gour Mohan would first apologize: “You are my son, so now I must correct you. It is my duty. Even Caitanya Mahāprabhu’s father would chastise Him, so don’t mind.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: My father’s income was no more than 250 rupees, but there was no question of need. In the mango season when we were children, we would run through the house playing, and we would grab mangoes as we were running through. And all through the day we would eat mangoes. We wouldn’t have to think, “Can I have a mango?” My father always provided food-mangoes were one rupee a dozen.
Life was simple, but there was always plenty. We were middle class but receiving four or five guests daily. My father gave four daughters in marriage, and there was no difficulty for him. Maybe it was not a very luxurious life, but there was no scarcity of food or shelter or cloth. Daily he purchased two and a half kilograms of milk. He did not like to purchase retail but would purchase a year’s supply of coal by the cartload.
We were happy-not that because we did not purchase a motorcar we were unhappy. My father used to say, “God has ten hands. If He wants to take away from you, with two hands how much can you protest? And when He wants to give to you with ten hands, then with your two hands how much can you take?”
My father would rise a little late, around seven or eight. Then, after taking bath, he would go purchasing. Then, from ten o’clock to one in the afternoon, he was engaged in pūjā. Then he would take his lunch and go to business. And in the business shop he would take a little rest for one hour. He would come home from business at ten o’clock at night, and then again he would do pūjā. Actually, his real business was pūjā. For livelihood he did some business, but pūjā was his main business. We would be sleeping, and father would be doing ārati. Ding ding ding-we would hear the bell and wake up and see him bowing down before Kṛṣṇa.
Gour Mohan wanted Vaiṣṇava goals for his son; he wanted Abhay to become a servant of Rādhārāṇī, to become a preacher of the Bhāgavatam, and to learn the devotional art of playing mṛdaṅga. He regularly received sādhus in his home, and he would always ask them, “Please bless my son so that Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī may be pleased with him and grant him Her blessings.”
Enjoying each other’s company, father and son used to walk as far as ten miles, saving the five-paisa tram fare. On the beach they used to see a yogī who for years had sat in one spot without moving. One day the yogī’s son was sitting there, and people had gathered around; the son was taking over his father’s sitting place. Gour Mohan gave the yogīs a donation and asked their blessings for his son.
When Abhay’s mother said she wanted him to become a British lawyer when he grew up (which meant he would have to go to London to study), one of the Mullik “uncles” thought it was a good idea. But Gour Mohan would not hear of it; if Abhay went to England he would be influenced by European dress and manners. “He will learn drinking and women-hunting,” Gour Mohan objected. “I do not want his money.”
From the beginning of Abhay’s life, Gour Mohan had introduced his plan. He had hired a professional mṛdaṅga player to teach Abhay the standard rhythms for accompanying kīrtana. Rajani had been skeptical: “What is the purpose of teaching such a young child to play the mṛdaṅga? It is not important.” But Gour Mohan had his dream of a son who would grow up singing bhajanas, playing mṛdaṅga, and speaking on Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.
When Abhay sat to play the mṛdaṅga, even with his left and right arms extended as far as he could, his small hands would barely reach the drumheads at the opposite ends of the drum. With his right wrist he would flick his hand just as his teacher instructed, and his fingers would make a high-pitched sound-tee nee tee nee taw-and then he would strike the left drumhead with his open left hand-boom boom. With practice and age he was gradually learning the basic rhythms, and Gour Mohan looked on with pleasure.
Abhay was an acknowledged pet child of both his parents. In addition to his childhood names Moti, Nandulal, Nandu, and Kocha, his grandmother called him Kacaurī-mukhī because of his fondness for kacaurīs (spicy, vegetable-stuffed fried pastries, popular in Bengal). Both his grandmother and mother would give him kacaurīs, which he kept in the many pockets of his little vest. He liked to watch the vendors cooking on the busy roadside and accept kacaurīs from them and from the neighbors, until all the inside and outside pockets of his vest were filled.
Sometimes when Abhay demanded that his mother make him kacaurīs, she would refuse. Once she even sent him to bed. When Gour Mohan came home and asked, “Where is Abhay?” Rajani explained how he had been too demanding and she had sent him to bed without kacaurīs. “No, we should make them for him,” his father replied, and he woke Abhay and personally cooked purīs and kacaurīs for him. Gour Mohan was always lenient with Abhay and careful to see that his son got whatever he wanted. When Gour Mohan returned home at night, it was his practice to take a little puffed rice, and Abhay would also sometimes sit with his father, eating puffed rice.
Once, at a cost of six rupees, Gour Mohan bought Abhay a pair of shoes imported from England. And each year, through a friend who traveled back and forth from Kashmir, Gour Mohan would present his son a Kashmiri shawl with a fancy, hand-sewn border.
One day in the market, Abhay saw a toy gun he wanted. His father said no, and Abhay started to cry. “All right, all right,” Gour Mohan said, and he bought the gun. Then Abhay wanted another gun. “You already have one,” his father said. “Why do you want another one?”
“One for each hand,” Abhay cried, and he lay down in the street, kicking his feet. When Gour Mohan agreed to get the second gun, Abhay was pacified.
Abhay’s mother, Rajani, was thirty years old when he was born. Like her husband, she came from a long-established Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava family. She was darker-skinned than her husband, and whereas his disposition was cool, hers tended to be fiery. Abhay saw his mother and father living together peacefully; no deep marital conflict or complicated dissatisfaction ever threatened home. Rajani was chaste and religious-minded, a model housewife in the traditional Vedic sense, dedicated to caring for her husband and children. Abhay observed his mother’s simple and touching attempts to insure, by prayers, by vows, and even by rituals, that he continue to live. Whenever he was to go out even to play, his mother, after dressing him, would put a drop of saliva on her finger and touch it to his forehead. Abhay never knew the significance of this act, but because she was his mother he stood submissively “like a dog with its master” while she did it.
Like Gour Mohan, Rajani treated Abhay as the pet child; but whereas her husband expressed his love through leniency and plans for his son’s spiritual success, she expressed hers through attempts to safeguard Abhay from all danger, disease, and death. She once offered blood from her breast to one of the demigods with the supplication that Abhay be protected on all sides from danger.
At Abhay’s birth, she had made a vow to eat with her left hand until the day her son would notice and ask her why she was eating with the wrong hand. One day, when little Abhay actually asked, she immediately stopped. It had been just another prescription for his survival, for she thought that by the strength of her vow he would continue to grow, at least until he asked her about the vow. Had he not asked, she would never again have eaten with her right hand, and according to her superstition he would have gone on living, protected by her vow.
For his protection she also put an iron bangle around his leg. His playmates asked him what it was, and Abhay self-consciously went to his mother and demanded, “Open this bangle!” When she said, “I will do it later,” he began to cry, “No, now!” Once Abhay swallowed a watermelon seed, and his friends told him it would grow in his stomach into a watermelon. He ran to his mother, who assured him he didn’t have to worry; she would say a mantra to protect him.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Mother Yaśodā would chant mantras in the morning to protect Kṛṣṇa from all dangers throughout the day. When Kṛṣṇa killed some demon she thought it was due to her chanting. My mother would do a similar thing with me.
His mother would often take him to the Ganges and personally bathe him. She also gave him a food supplement known as Horlicks. When he got dysentery, she cured it with hot purīs and fried eggplant with salt, though sometimes when he was ill Abhay would show his obstinacy by refusing to take any medicine. But just as he was stubborn, his mother was determined, and she would forcibly administer medicine into his mouth, though sometimes it took three assistants to hold him down.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: I was very naughty when I was a boy. I would break anything. When I was angry, I would break the glass hookah pipes which my father kept to offer to guests. Once my mother was trying to bathe me, and I refused and knocked my head on the ground, and blood came out. They came running and said, “What are you doing? You shall kill the child.”
Abhay was present when his mother observed the ceremony of Sādha-hotra during the seventh and ninth months of her pregnancies. Freshly bathed, she would appear in new clothing along with her children and enjoy a feast of whatever foods she desired, while her husband gave goods in charity to the local brāhmaṇas, who chanted mantras for the purification of the mother and the coming child.
Abhay was completely dependent on his mother. Sometimes she would put his shirt on backwards, and he would simply accept it without mentioning it. Although he was sometimes stubborn, he felt dependent on the guidance and reassurance of his mother. When he had to go to the privy, he would jump up and down beside her, holding her sārī and saying, “Urine, mother, urine.”
“Who is stopping you?” she would ask. “Yes, you can go.” Only then, with her permission, would he go.
Sometimes, in the intimacy of dependence, his mother became his foil. When he lost a baby tooth and on her advice placed it under a pillow that night, the tooth vanished, and some money appeared. Abhay gave the money to his mother for safekeeping, but later, when in their constant association she opposed him, he demanded, “I want my money back! I will go away from home. Now you give me my money back!”
When Rajani wanted her hair braided, she would regularly ask her daughters. But if Abhay were present he would insist on braiding it himself and would create such a disturbance that they would give in to him. Once he painted the bottoms of his feet red, imitating the custom of women who painted their feet on festive occasions. His mother tried to dissuade him, saying it was not for children, but he insisted, “No, I must do it, also!”
Abhay was unwilling to go to school. “Why should I go?” he thought. “I will play all day.” When his mother complained to Gour Mohan, Abhay, sure that his father would be affectionate, said, “No, I shall go tomorrow.”
“All right, he will go tomorrow,” said Gour Mohan. “That’s all right.” But the next morning Abhay complained that he was sick, and his father indulged him.
Rajani became upset because the boy would not go to school, and she hired a man for four rupees to escort him there. The man, whose name was Damodara, would tie Abhay about the waist with a rope-a customary treatment-take him to school, and present him before his teacher. When Abhay would try to run away, Damodara would pick him up and carry him in his arms. After being taken a few times by force, Abhay began to go on his own.
Abhay proved an attentive, well-behaved student, though sometimes he was naughty. Once when the teacher pulled his ear, Abhay threw a kerosene lantern to the floor, accidentally starting a fire.
In those days any common villager, even if illiterate, could recite from the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata, or Bhāgavatam. Especially in the villages, everyone would assemble in the evening to hear from these scriptures. It was for this purpose that Abhay’s family would sometimes go in the evening to his maternal uncle’s house, about ten miles away, where they would assemble and hear about the Lord’s transcendental pastimes. They would return home discussing and remembering them and then go to bed and dream Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata, and Bhāgavatam.
After his afternoon rest and bath, Abhay would often go to a neighbor’s house and look at the black-and-white pictures in Mahābhārata. His grandmother asked him daily to read Mahābhārata from a vernacular edition. Thus by looking at pictures and reading with his grandmother, Abhay imbibed Mahābhārata.
In Abhay’s childhood play, his younger sister Bhavatarini was often his assistant. Together they would go to see the Rādhā-Govinda Deities in the Mulliks’ temple. In their play, whenever they encountered obstacles, they would pray to God for help. “Please, Kṛṣṇa, help us fly this kite,” they would call as they ran along trying to put their kite into flight.
Abhay’s toys included two guns, a wind-up car, a cow that jumped when Abhay squeezed the rubber bulb attached, and a dog with a mechanism that made it dance. The toy dog was from Dr. Bose, the family physician, who gave it to him when treating a minor wound on Abhay’s side. Abhay sometimes liked to pretend that he was a doctor, and to his friends he would administer “medicine,” which was nothing more than dust.
* * *
Abhay was enamored with the Ratha-yātrā festivals of Lord Jagannātha, held yearly in Calcutta. The biggest Calcutta Ratha-yātrā was the Mulliks’, with three separate carts bearing the deities of Jagannātha, Baladeva, and Subhadrā. Beginning from the Rādhā-Govinda temple, the carts would proceed down Harrison Road for a short distance and then return. The Mulliks would distribute large quantities of Lord Jagannātha’s prasādam to the public on this day.
Ratha-yātrā was held in cities all over India, but the original, gigantic Ratha-yātrā, attended each year by millions of pilgrims, took place three hundred miles south of Calcutta at Jagannātha Purī. For centuries at Purī, three wooden carts forty-five feet high had been towed by the crowds along the two-mile parade route, in commemoration of one of Lord Kṛṣṇa’s eternal pastimes. Abhay had heard how Lord Caitanya Himself, four hundred years before, had danced and led ecstatic chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa at the Purī Ratha-yātrā festival. Abhay would sometimes look at the railway timetable or ask about the fare to Vṛndāvana and Purī, thinking about how he would collect the money and go there.
Abhay wanted to have his own cart and to perform his own Ratha-yātrā, and naturally he turned to his father for help. Gour Mohan agreed, but there were difficulties. When he took his son to several carpenter shops, he found that he could not afford to have a cart made. On their way home, Abhay began crying, and an old Bengali woman approached and asked him what the matter was. Gour Mohan explained that the boy wanted a Ratha-yātrā cart but they couldn’t afford to have one made. “Oh, I have a cart,” the woman said, and she invited Gour Mohan and Abhay to her place and showed them the cart. It looked old, but it was still operable, and it was just the right size, about three feet high. Gour Mohan purchased it and helped to restore and decorate it. Father and son together constructed sixteen supporting columns and placed a canopy on top, resembling as closely as possible the ones on the big carts at Purī. They also attached the traditional wooden horse and driver to the front of the cart. Abhay insisted that it must look authentic. Gour Mohan bought paints, and Abhay personally painted the cart, copying the Purī originals. His enthusiasm was great, and he became an insistent organizer of various aspects of the festival. But when he tried making fireworks for the occasion from a book that gave illustrated descriptions of the process, Rajani intervened.
Abhay engaged his playmates in helping him, especially his sister Bhavatarini, and he became their natural leader. Responding to his entreaties, amused mothers in the neighborhood agreed to cook special preparations so that he could distribute the prasādam at his Ratha-yātrā festival.
Like the festival at Purī, Abhay’s Ratha-yātrā ran for eight consecutive days. His family members gathered, and the neighborhood children joined in a procession, pulling the cart, playing drums and karatālas, and chanting. Wearing a dhotī and no shirt in the heat of summer, Abhay led the children in chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa and in singing the appropriate Bengali bhajana, Ki kara rāi kamalinī.
What are You doing, Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī?
Please come out and see.
They are stealing Your dearmost treasure-
Kṛṣṇa, the black gem.
If the young girl only knew!
The young boy Kṛṣṇa,
Treasure of Her heart,
Is now forsaking Her.
Abhay copied whatever he had seen at adult religious functions, including dressing the deities, offering the deities food, offering ārati with a ghee lamp and incense, and making prostrated obeisances. From Harrison Road the procession entered the circular road inside the courtyard of the Rādhā-Govinda temple and stood awhile before the Deities. Seeing the fun, Gour Mohan’s friends approached him: “Why haven’t you invited us? You are holding a big ceremony, and you don’t invite us? What is this?”
“They are just children playing,” his father replied.
“Oh, children playing?” the men joked. “You are depriving us by saying that this is only for children?”
While Abhay was ecstatically absorbed in the Ratha-yātrā processions, Gour Mohan spent money for eight consecutive days, and Rajani cooked various dishes to offer, along with flowers, to Lord Jagannātha. Although everything Abhay did was imitation, his inspiration and steady drive for holding the festival were genuine. His spontaneous spirit sustained the eight-day children’s festival, and each successive year brought a new festival, which Abhay would observe in the same way.
* * *
When Abhay was about six years old, he asked his father for a Deity of his own to worship. Since infancy he had watched his father doing pūjā at home and had been regularly seeing the worship of Rādhā-Govinda and thinking, “When will I be able to worship Kṛṣṇa like this?” On Abhay’s request, his father purchased a pair of little Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa Deities and gave Them to him. From then on, whatever Abhay ate he would first offer to Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa, and imitating his father and the priests of Rādhā-Govinda, he would offer his Deities a ghee lamp and put Them to rest at night.
Abhay and his sister Bhavatarini became dedicated worshipers of the little Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa Deities, spending much of their time dressing and worshiping Them and sometimes singing bhajanas. Their brothers and sisters laughed, teasing Abhay and Bhavatarini by saying that because they were more interested in the Deity than in their education they would not live long. But Abhay replied that they didn’t care.
Once a neighbor asked Abhay’s mother, “How old is your little son?”
“He’s seven,” she said, as Abhay listened with interest. He had never heard anyone discuss his age before; but now he understood for the first time: “I am seven.”
In addition to the education Abhay received at the kindergarten to which he had at first been forcibly dragged, he also received private tutoring at home from his fifth year to his eighth. He learned to read Bengali and began learning Sanskrit. Then in 1904, when he was eight years old, Abhay entered the nearby Mutty Lall Seal Free School, on the corner of Harrison and Central roads.
Mutty Lall was a boys’ school established in 1842 by a wealthy suvarṇa-vaṇik Vaiṣṇava. The building was stone, two stories, and surrounded by a stone wall. The teachers were Indian, and the students were Bengalis from local suvarṇa-vaṇik families. Dressed in their dhotīs and kurtās, the boys would leave their mothers and fathers in the morning and walk together in little groups, each boy carrying a few books and his tiffin. Inside the school compound, they would talk together and play until the clanging bell called them to their classes. The boys would enter the building, skipping through the halls, running up and down the stairs, coming out to the wide front veranda on the second floor, until their teachers gathered them all before their wooden desks and benches for lessons in math, science, history, geography, and their own Vaiṣṇava religion and culture.
Classes were disciplined and formal. Each long bench held four boys, who shared a common desk, with four inkwells. If a boy were naughty his teacher would order him to “stand up on the bench.” A Bengali reader the boys studied was the well-known Folk Tales of Bengal, a collection of traditional Bengali folk tales, stories a grandmother would tell local children-tales of witches, ghosts, Tantric spirits, talking animals, saintly brāhmaṇas (or sometimes wicked ones), heroic warriors, thieves, princes, princesses, spiritual renunciation, and virtuous marriage.
In their daily walks to and from school, Abhay and his friends came to recognize, at least from their childish viewpoint, all the people who regularly appeared in the Calcutta streets; their British superiors traveling about, usually in horse-drawn carriages; the hackney drivers; the bhaṅgīs, who cleaned the streets with straw brooms; and even the local pickpockets and prostitutes who stood on the street corners.
Abhay turned ten the same year the rails were laid for the electric tram on Harrison Road. He watched the workers lay the tracks, and when he first saw the trolley car’s rod touching the overhead wire, it amazed him. He daydreamed of getting a stick, touching the wire himself, and running along by electricity. Although electric power was new in Calcutta and not widespread (only the wealthy could afford it in their homes), along with the electric tram came new electric streetlights-carbon-arc lamps-replacing the old gaslights. Abhay and his friends used to go down the street looking on the ground for the old, used carbon tips, which the maintenance man would leave behind. When Abhay saw his first gramophone box, he thought an electric man or a ghost was inside the box singing.
Abhay liked to ride his bicycle down the busy Calcutta streets. Although when the soccer club had been formed at school he had requested the position of goalie so that he wouldn’t have to run, he was an avid cyclist. A favorite ride was to go south towards Dalhousie Square, with its large fountains spraying water into the air. That was near Raj Bhavan, the viceroy’s mansion, which Abhay could glimpse through the gates. Riding further south, he would pass through the open arches of the Maidan, Calcutta’s main public park, with its beautiful green flat land spanning out towards Chowranghee and the stately buildings and trees of the British quarter. The park also had exciting places to cycle past: the racetrack, Fort William, the stadium. The Maidan bordered the Ganges (known locally as the Hooghly), and sometimes Abhay would cycle home along its shores. Here he saw numerous bathing ghāṭas, with stone steps leading down into the Ganges and often with temples at the top of the steps. There was the burning ghāṭa, where bodies were cremated, and, close to his home, a pontoon bridge that crossed the river into the city of Howrah.
At age twelve, though it made no deep impression on him, Abhay was initiated by a professional guru. The guru told him about his own master, a great yogī, who had once asked him, “What do you want to eat?”
Abhay’s family guru had replied, “Fresh pomegranates from Afghanistan.”
“All right,” the yogī had replied. “Go into the next room.” And there he had found a branch of pomegranates, ripe as if freshly taken from the tree. A yogī who came to see Abhay’s father said that he had once sat down with his own master and touched him and had then been transported within moments to the city of Dvārakā by yogic power.
Gour Mohan did not have a high opinion of Bengal’s growing number of so-called sādhus-the nondevotional impersonalist philosophers, the demigod worshipers, the gañjā smokers, the beggars-but he was so charitable that he would invite the charlatans into his home. Every day Abhay saw many so-called sādhus, as well as some who were genuine, coming to eat in his home as guests of his father, and from their words and activities Abhay became aware of many things, including the existence of yogic powers. At a circus he and his father once saw a yogī tied up hand and foot and put into a bag. The bag was sealed and put into a box, which was then locked and sealed, but still the man came out. Abhay, however, did not give these things much importance compared with the devotional activities his father had taught him, his worship of Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa, and his observance of Ratha-yātrā.
* * *
Hindus and Muslims lived peacefully together in Calcutta, and it was not unusual for them to attend one another’s social and religious functions. They had their differences, but there had always been harmony. So when trouble started, Abhay’s family understood it to be due to political agitation by the British. Abhay was about thirteen years old when the first Hindu-Muslim riot broke out. He did not understand exactly what it was, but somehow he found himself in the middle of it.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: All around our neighborhood on Harrison Road were Muhammadans. The Mullik house and our house were respectable; otherwise, it was surrounded by what is called kasbā and bastī. So the riot was there, and I had gone to play. I did not know that the riot had taken place in Market Square. I was coming home, and one of my class friends said, “Don’t go to your house. That side is rioting now.”
We lived in the Muhammadan quarter, and the fighting between the two parties was going on. But I thought maybe it was something like two guṇḍās [hoodlums] fighting. I had seen one guṇḍā once stabbing another guṇḍā, and I had seen pickpockets. They were our neighbor-men. So I thought it was like that: this is going on.
But when I came to the crossing of Harrison Road and Holliday Street I saw one shop being plundered. I was only a child, a boy. I thought, “What is this happening?” In the meantime, my family, my father and mother, were at home frightened, thinking, “The child has not come.” They became so disturbed they came out of the home expecting, “Wherefrom the child will come?”
So what could I do? When I saw the rioting I began to run towards our house, and one Muhammadan, he wanted to kill me. He took his knife and actually ran after me. But I passed somehow or other. I was saved. So as I came running before our gate, my parents got back their life.
So without speaking anything I went to the bedroom, and it was in the winter. So without saying anything, I laid down, wrapped myself with a quilt. Then later I was rising from bed, questioning, “Is it ended? The riot has ended?”
* * *
When Abhay was fifteen he was afflicted with beriberi, and his mother, who was also stricken regularly had to rub a powder of calcium chloride on his legs to reduce the swelling. Abhay soon recovered, and his mother, who had never stopped any of her duties, also recovered.
But only a year later, at the age of forty-six, his mother suddenly died. Her passing away was an abrupt lowering of the curtain, ending the scenes of his tender childhood: his mother’s affectionate care, her prayers and mantras for his protection, her feeding and grooming him, her dutifully scolding him. Her passing affected his sisters even more than him, though it certainly turned him more towards the affectionate care of his father. He was already sixteen, but now he was forced to grow up and prepare to enter on his own into worldly responsibilities.
His father gave him solace. He instructed Abhay that there was nothing for which to lament: the soul is eternal, and everything happens by the will of Kṛṣṇa, so he should have faith and depend upon Kṛṣṇa. Abhay listened and understood.
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