In January of 1939, when Britain was consumed by the anxiety that Hitler might invade Netherlands(the “Dutch war scare”), the young British novelist Christopher Isherwood arrived in America to further his literary prospects. In Los Angeles, he found his fellow countryman and friend Gerald Heard engaged in some mystical meditation practices under the guidance of Swami Prabhavananda who headed the Vedanta society of Southern California. In Isherwood’s opinion, the Christians were sour life-haters and sex-forbidders, hypocritically denying their rabid secret lusts while the Hindus seemed to be stridently emotional mystery-mongers whose mumbo-jumbo was ridiculous rather than sinister. Nevertheless, his curiosity was sparked by the discreet and composed Heard, who refused to divulge the secret teachings because it was absolutely forbidden to repeat the teacher’s instructions to anyone else.
Entranced by the mere idea of meditating, Isherwood visited Prabhavananda (1893-1976) to learn more, thus beginning a collaboration which lasted several years and produced several books, including a biography of Ramakrishna, a translation of the Bhagavad Gita and a memoir of his days with Prabhavananda. Later in life, Isherwood noted with satisfaction that the “Swami’s great quality is that he never gets in the the way of what he stands for; his figure never blocks out the light”. Prabhavananda once dissuaded a well-known Hollywood actress from traveling to India with the forthright remark: “You won’t get anything out of India unless you have reached something inside yourself.”
Prabhavananda always made it clear that he was not the Guru; that whatever power worked through him was that of Swami Brahmananda, the direct disciple of Ramakrishna who had served as the first President of the Ramakrishna Mission. Brahmananda appears under the pre-monastic name Rakhal in the spiritual classic “The Gospel of Ramakrishna”. As they grew closer, Prabhavananda disclosed to Isherwood that he continued to receive guidance in his dreams from Swami Brahmananda (who had passed away many years ago in 1922). Once when Prabhavananda was a young monk, he had asked Brahmananda to release him from sexual desire. (Brahmananda had the power to do this.) But Brahmananda smiled and answered, “My son, if I did that, you would miss all the fun of the struggle.”
Swami Prabhavananda was born Abanindra Nath Ghosh on December 26, 1893, at Surmanagar, a village in Bengal near the town of Bankura, northwest of Calcutta. By the time he was fourteen, he had read about Ramakrishna, the holy man already regarded by some as an Avatar. Ramakrishna had been born in a village not very far away, and had spent his adult life at a temple just outside Calcutta. Abanindra had also read about Ramakrishna’s chief disciples, Vivekananda and Brahmananda who had founded the Ramakrishna Order of monks after Ramakrishna’s death in 1886. He felt a mysterious power of attraction in their names.
Then one day, by seeming chance, Abanindra met Sarada Devi. She had been Ramakrishna’s wife and was now regarded by his disciples as their spiritual mother, “Holy Mother” they called her. One of her attendants told Abanindra who she was; otherwise, he would have taken her for an ordinary countrywoman, sitting barefoot, without the slightest air of self-importance, outside a village inn. When he approached and bowed down to touch her feet in reverence, she asked, “Son, haven’t I seen you before?“
When Abanindra was eighteen and a student in Calcutta, he visited the Belur Math, the chief monastery of the Ramakrishna Order, which is beside the Ganges, on the outskirts of the city. He wanted to see the room in which Vivekananda used to stay; since his death in 1902, it had been maintained as a public shrine. When Abanindra left the Vivekananda Room, he found himself for the first time face to face with Brahmananda. Brahmananda asked him, “Haven’t I seen you before?“
The effect of this encounter upon Abanindra was far too powerful and subtle to be described in a few words. Abanindra longed to meet Brahmananda again. A few months later, he impulsively spent the money he had been given for tuition fees on a ticket to Hardwar, because he knew that Brahmananda was visiting a monastery there. He arrived in the middle of the night, unannounced, but Brahmananda didn’t seem at all surprised to see him. He allowed Abanindra to stay a month, accepted him formally as his disciple, and then sent him back to Calcutta to continue his education.
Although Abanindra felt drawn to Brahmananda, he wasn’t yet intending to become a monk. At college he had come under another strong influence. Organized militant opposition to British rule was now growing, and many students were involved. Abanindra decided that his first duty was patriotic. He felt that he must devote himself to the cause of India’s freedom; in order to be able to do this single-mindedly, he vowed not to marry until it was won. In his spare time, Abaninda would visit the Belur Math because one of the Swamis there was instructing him in the teachings of the ninth-century philosopher Shankara. His instructor kept urging him to become a monk, but Abanindra would argue with him, saying that the monastic life is escapist, a refusal to accept one’s political responsibilities.
During the Christmas vacation, Abanindra stayed at the Math (monastery) for a few days. It was then that another extraordinary incident took place. Here is Abanindra’s account of it, written many years later. (“Maharaj” was the name by which Brahmananda was known familiarly in the Order; its approximate meaning is “Master.”)
One morning, as usual, I went to prostrate before Maharaj. An old man was also in the room. Suddenly he asked Maharaj, “When is this boy going to become a monk?” Maharaj looked me up and down, and his eyes had an unforgettable sweetness as he answered quietly, “When the Lord wills.” That was the end of my political plans and ambitions. I remained at the monastery.
In his memoir “My Guru and his disciple”, Isherwood writes in a diary entry dated April 29, 1959: “Swami told us he believes that he, as an old man during his last incarnation, met Brahmananda as a young man. This was during the eighteen-eighties(1880s), on the bank ot the river Narmada, where they were both practicing austerities.”
Once Brahmananda put Prabhavananda in a trance to determine the past-life connection. The story appears in Prabhavananda’s book “The Eternal Companion”:
I was sitting cross-legged in front of Maharaj(i.e. Swami Brahmananda) with his feet resting on my knees. This was the position in which I often used to massage his feet. Then something happened to me which I cannot explain, though I feel certain that it was Maharaj’s doing. I found myself in a condition in which I was talking and talking, forgetting my usual restraint; it seemed to me that I spoke freely and even eloquently for a long time, but I do not remember what I said. Maharaj listened and said nothing.
Suddenly I returned to normal consciousness and became aware of Maharaj leaning toward me and asking with an amused smile, “What did you say?” I then realized that I had addressed him as “tumi” (the familiar form of “you,” which is used in speaking to equals and friends). I hastened to correct myself, repeating the sentence-I have forgotten what it was-but using “apani” (the respectful form of “you,” by which we addressed him). At this, he seemed to lose all interest in the conversation and sat upright again.
I can only assume that Maharaj wanted to corroborate his own intuitive knowledge of my past lives and that he therefore put me into this unusual state of consciousness in which I was able to tell him what he wanted to know.
It was for this reason that both Sarada Devi and Swami Brahmananda had asked Swami Prabhavananda when they first saw him, “Haven’t I seen you before?”.
Adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s “My Guru and his disciple”, New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980.
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