In the life of the great Saviours and Prophets of the world it is often found that they are accompanied by souls of high spiritual potency who play a conspicuous part in the furtherance of their Master’s mission. They become so integral a part of the life and work of these great ones that posterity can think of them only in mutual association. Such is the case with Sri Ramakrishna and M., whose diary has come to be known to the world as the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna in English and as Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita in the original Bengali version.
Sri Mahendra Nath Gupta1, familiarly known to the readers of the Gospel by his pen name M., and to the devotees as Master Mahashay, was born on the 14th of July, 1854 as the son of Madhusudan Gupta, an officer of the Calcutta High Court, and his wife, Swarnamayi Devi. He had a brilliant scholastic career at Hare School and the Presidency College at Calcutta. The range of his studies included the best that both occidental and oriental learning had to offer. English literature, history, economics, western philosophy and law on the one hand, and Sanskrit literature and grammar, Darsanas, Puranas, Smritis, Jainism, Buddhism, astrology and Ayurveda on the other — were the subjects in which he attained considerable proficiency.
He was an educationist all his life both in a spiritual and in a secular sense. After he passed out of College, he took up work as headmaster in a number of schools in succession — Narail High School, City School, Ripon College School, Metropolitan School, Aryan School, Oriental School, Oriental Seminary and Model School. The causes of his migration from school to school were that he could not get on with some of the managements on grounds of principles and that often his spiritual mood drew him away to places of pilgrimage for long periods. He worked with some of the most noted public men of the time like Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Surendranath Banerjee. The latter appointed him as a professor in the City and Ripon Colleges where he taught subjects like English, philosophy, history and economics. In his later days he took over the Morton School, and he spent his time in the staircase room of the third floor of it, administering the school and preaching the message of the Master. He was much respected in educational circles where he was usually referred to as Rector Mahashay. A teacher who had worked under him writes thus in warm appreciation of his teaching methods: “Only when I worked with him in school could I appreciate what a great educationist he was. He would come down to the level of his students when teaching, though he himself was so learned, so talented. Ordinarily teachers confine their instruction to what is given in books without much thought as to whether the student can accept it or not. But M., would first of all gauge how much the student could take in and by what means. He would employ aids to teaching like maps, pictures and diagrams, so that his students could learn by seeing. Thirty years ago (from 1953) when the question of imparting education through the medium of the mother tongue was being discussed, M. had already employed Bengali as the medium of instruction in the Morton School.” (M — The Apostle and the Evangelist by Swami Nityatmananda Part I. P. 15.)
Imparting secular education was, however, only his profession ; his main concern was with the spiritual regeneration of man — a calling for which Destiny seems to have chosen him. From his childhood he was deeply pious, and he used to be moved very much by Sadhus, temples and Durga Puja celebrations. The piety and eloquence of the great Brahmo leader of the times, Keshab Chander Sen, elicited a powerful response from the impressionable mind of Mahendra Nath, as it did in the case of many an idealistic young man of Calcutta, and prepared him to receive the great Light that was to dawn on him with the coming of Sri Ramakrishna into his life.
This epoch-making event of his life came about in a very strange way. M. belonged to a joint family with several collateral members. Some ten years after he began his career as an educationist, bitter quarrels broke out among the members of the family, driving the sensitive M. to despair and utter despondency. He lost all interest in life and left home one night to go into the wide world with the idea of ending his life. At dead of night he took rest in his sister’s house at Baranagar, and in the morning, accompanied by a nephew Siddheswar, he wandered from one garden to another in Calcutta until Siddheswar brought him to the Temple Garden of Dakshineswar where Sri Ramakrishna was then living. After spending some time in the beautiful rose gardens there, he was directed to the room of the Paramahamsa, where the eventful meeting of the Master and the disciple took place on a blessed evening (the exact date is not on record) on a Sunday in March 1882. As regards what took place on the occasion, the reader is referred to the opening section of the first chapter of the Gospel.
The Master, who divined the mood of desperation in M, his resolve to take leave of this ‘play-field of deception’, put new faith and hope into him by his gracious words of assurance: “God forbid! Why should you take leave of this world? Do you not feel blessed by discovering your Guru? By His grace, what is beyond all imagination or dreams can be easily achieved!” At these words the clouds of despair moved away from the horizon of M.’s mind, and the sunshine of a new hope revealed to him fresh vistas of meaning in life. Referring to this phase of his life, M. used to say, “Behold! where is the resolve to end life, and where, the discovery of God! That is, sorrow should be looked upon as a friend of man. God is all good.” (Ibid P.33.)
After this re-settlement, M’s life revolved around the Master, though he continued his professional work as an educationist. During all holidays, including Sundays, he spent his time at Dakshineswar in the Master’s company, and at times extended his stay to several days.
It did not take much time for M. to become very intimate with the Master, or for the Master to recognise in this disciple a divinely commissioned partner in the fulfilment of his spiritual mission. When M. was reading out the Chaitanya Bhagavata, the Master discovered that he had been, in a previous birth, a disciple and companion of the great Vaishnava Teacher, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and the Master even saw him ‘with his naked eye’ participating in the ecstatic mass-singing of the Lord’s name under the leadership of that Divine personality. So the Master told M, “You are my own, of the same substance — as the father and the son,” indicating thereby that M. was one of the chosen few and a part and parcel of his Divine mission.
There was an urge in M. to abandon the household life and become a Sannyasin. When he communicated this idea to the Master, he forbade him saying,” Mother has told me that you have to do a little of Her work — you will have to teach Bhagavata, the word of God to humanity. The Mother keeps a Bhagavata Pandit with a bondage in the world!” (Ibid P.36.)
An appropriate allusion indeed! Bhagavata, the great scripture that has given the word of Sri Krishna to mankind, was composed by the Sage Vyasa under similar circumstances. When caught up in a mood of depression like that of M, Vyasa was advised by the sage Narada that he would gain peace of mind only on composing a work exclusively devoted to the depiction of the Lord’s glorious attributes and His teachings on Knowledge and Devotion, and the result was that the world got from Vyasa the invaluable gift of the Bhagavata Purana depicting the life and teachings of Sri Krishna. From the mental depression of the modem Vyasa, the world has obtained the Kathamrita — the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.
Sri Ramakrishna was a teacher for both the Orders of mankind, Sannyasins and householders. His own life offered an ideal example for both, and he left behind disciples who followed the highest traditions he had set in respect of both these ways of life. M., along with Nag Mahashay, exemplified how a householder can rise to the highest level of sagehood. M. was married to Nikunja Devi, a distant relative of Keshab Chander Sen, even when he was reading at College, and he had four children, two sons and two daughters. The responsibility of the family, no doubt, made him dependent on his professional income, but the great devotee that he was, he never compromised with ideals and principles for this reason. Once when he was working as the headmaster in a school managed by the great Vidyasagar, the results of the school at the public examination happened to be rather poor, and Vidyasagar attributed it to M’s pre-occupation with the Master and his consequent failure to attend adequately to the school work. M. at once resigned his post without any thought of the morrow. Within a fortnight the family was in poverty, and M. was one day pacing up and down the verandah of his house, musing how he would feed his children the next day. Just then a man came with a letter addressed to ‘Mahendra Babu’, and on opening it, M. found that it was a letter from his friend Sri Surendra Nath Banerjee, asking whether he would like to take up a professorship in the Ripon College. In this way three or four times he gave up the job that gave him the wherewithal to support the family, either for upholding principles or for practising spiritual Sadhanas in holy places, without any consideration of the possible dire worldly consequences; but he was always able to get over these difficulties somehow, and the interests of his family never suffered. In spite of his disregard for worldly goods, he was, towards the latter part of his life, in a fairly flourishing condition as the proprietor of the Morton School which he developed into a noted educational institution in the city. The Lord has said in the Bhagavad Gita that in the case of those who think of nothing except Him, He Himself would take up all their material and spiritual responsibilities. M. was an example of the truth of the Lord’s promise.
Though his children received proper attention from him, his real family, both during the Master’s life-time and after, consisted of saints, devotees, Sannyasins and spiritual aspirants. His life exemplifies the Master’s teaching that an ideal householder must be like a good maid-servant of a family, loving and caring properly for the children of the house, but knowing always that her real home and children are elsewhere. During the Master’s life-time he spent all his Sundays and other holidays with him and his devotees, and besides listening to the holy talks and devotional music, practised meditation both on the Personal and the Impersonal aspects of God under the direct guidance of the Master. In the pages of the Gospel the reader gets a picture of M.’s spiritual relationship with the Master — how from a hazy belief in the Impersonal God of the Brahmos, he was step by step brought to accept both Personality and Impersonality as the two aspects of the same Non-dual Being, how he was convinced of the manifestation of that Being as Gods, Goddesses and as Incarnations, and how he was established in a life that was both of a Jnani and of a Bhakta. This Jnani-Bhakta outlook and way of living became so dominant a feature of his life that Swami Raghavananda, who was very closely associated with him during his last six years, remarks: “Among those who lived with M. in latter days, some felt that he always lived in this constant and conscious union with God even with open eyes (i.e., even in waking consciousness).” (Swami Raghavananda’s article on M. in Prabuddha Bharata vol. XXXVII. P. 442.)
Besides undergoing spiritual disciplines at the feet of the Master, M. used to go to holy places during the Master’s life-time itself and afterwards too as a part of his Sadhana. He was one of the earliest of the disciples to visit Kamarpukur, the birthplace of the Master, in the latter’s life-time itself; for he wished to practise contemplation on the Master’s early life in its true original setting. His experience there is described as follows by Swami Nityatmananda: “By the grace of the Master, he saw the entire Kamarpukur as a holy place bathed in an effulgent Light. Trees and creepers, beasts and birds and men — all were made of effulgence. So he prostrated to all on the road. He saw a torn cat, which appeared to him luminous with the Light of Consciousness. Immediately he fell to the ground and saluted it” (M — The Apostle and the Evangelist by Swami Nityatmananda vol. I. P. 40.) He had similar experience in Dakshineswar also. At the instance of the Master he also visited Puri, and in the words of Swami Nityatmananda, “with indomitable courage, M. embraced the image of Jagannath out of season.”2
The life of Sadhana and holy association that he started on at the feet of the Master, he continued all through his life. He has for this reason been most appropriately described as a Grihastha-Sannyasi (householder-Sannyasin). Though he was forbidden by the Master to become a Sannyasin, his reverence for the Sannyasa ideal was whole-hearted and was without any reservation. So after Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away, while several of the Master’s householder devotees considered the young Sannyasin disciples of the Master as inexperienced and inconsequential, M. stood by them with the firm faith that the Master’s life and message were going to be perpetuated only through them. Swami Vivekananda wrote from America in a letter to the inmates of the Math: “When Sri Thakur (Master) left the body, every one gave us up as a few unripe urchins. But M. and a few others did not leave us in the lurch. We cannot repay our debt to them.” (Swami Raghavananda’s article on M. in Prabuddha Bharata vol. XXX P. 442.)
M. spent his weekends and holidays with the monastic brethren who, after the Master’s demise, had formed themselves into an Order with a Math at Baranagore, and participated in the intense life of devotion and meditation that they followed. At other times he would retire to Dakshineswar or some garden in the city and spend several days in spiritual practice taking simple self-cooked food. In order to feel that he was one with all mankind he often used to go out of his home at dead of night, and like a wandering Sannyasin, sleep with the waifs on some open verandah or footpath on the road.
After the Master’s demise, M. went on pilgrimage several times. He visited Banaras, Vrindavan, Ayodhya and other places. At Banaras he visited the famous Trailinga Swami and fed him with sweets, and he had long conversations with Swami Bhaskarananda, one of the noted saintly and scholarly Sannyasins of the time. In 1912 he went with the Holy Mother to Banaras, and spent about a year in the company of Sannyasins at Banaras, Vrindavan, Hardwar, Hrishikesh and Swargashram. But he returned to Calcutta, as that city offered him the unique opportunity of associating himself with the places hallowed by the Master in his life-time. Afterwards he does not seem to have gone to any far-off place, but stayed on in his room in the Morton School carrying on his spiritual ministry, speaking on the Master and his teachings to the large number of people who flocked to him after having read his famous Kathamrita known to English readers as The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.
This brings us to the circumstances that led to the writing and publication of this monumental work, which has made M. one of the immortals in hagiographic literature. While many educated people heard Sri Ramakrishna’s talks, it was given to this illustrious personage alone to leave a graphic and exact account of them for posterity, with details like date, hour, place, names and particulars about participants. Humanity owes this great book to the ingrained habit of diary-keeping with which M. was endowed. Even as a boy of about thirteen, while he was a student in the 3rd class of the Hare School, he was in the habit of keeping a diary. “Today on rising,” he wrote in his diary, “I greeted my father and mother, prostrating on the ground before them” (Swami Nityatmananda’s ‘M — The Apostle and the Evangelist’ Part I. P 29.) At another place he wrote, “Today, while on my way to school, I visited, as usual, the temples of Kali, the Mother at Thanthania, and of Mother Sitala, and paid my obeisance to them.” About twenty-five years after, when he met the Great Master in the spring of 1882, it was the same instinct of a born diary-writer that made him begin his book, ‘unique in the literature of hagiography’, with the memorable words: “When hearing the name of Hari or Rama once, you shed tears and your hair stands on end, then you may know for certain that you do not have to perform devotions such as Sandhya any more.”
In addition to this instinct for diary-keeping, M. had great endowments contributing to success in this line. Writes Swami Nityatmananda who lived in close association with M., in his book entitled M – The Apostle and Evangelist: “M.’s prodigious memory combined with his extraordinary power of imagination completely annihilated the distance of time and place for him. Even after the lapse of half a century he could always visualise vividly, scenes from the life of Sri Ramakrishna. Superb too was his power to portray pictures by words.”
Besides the prompting of his inherent instinct, the main inducement for M. to keep this diary of his experiences at Dakshineswar was his desire to provide himself with a means for living in holy company at all times. Being a school teacher, he could be with the Master only on Sundays and other holidays, and it was on his diary that he depended for ‘holy company’ on other days. The devotional scriptures like the Bhagavata say that holy company is the first and most important means for the generation and growth of devotion. For, in such company man could hear talks on spiritual matters and listen to the glorification of Divine attributes, charged with the fervour and conviction emanating from the hearts of great lovers of God. Such company is therefore the one certain means through which Sraddha (Faith), Rati (attachment to God) and Bhakti (loving devotion) are generated. The diary of his visits to Dakshineswar provided M. with material for re-living, through reading and contemplation, the holy company he had had earlier, even on days when he was not able to visit Dakshineswar. The wealth of details and the vivid description of men and things in the midst of which the sublime conversations are set, provide excellent material to re-live those experiences for any one with imaginative powers. It was observed by M.’s disciples and admirers that in later life also whenever he was free or alone, he would be pouring over his diary, transporting himself on the wings of imagination to the glorious days he spent at the feet of the Master.
During the Master’s life-time M. does not seem to have revealed the contents of his diary to any one. There is an unconfirmed tradition that when the Master saw him taking notes, he expressed apprehension at the possibility of his utilising these to publicise him like Keshab Sen; for the Great Master was so full of the spirit of renunciation and humility that he disliked being lionised. It must be for this reason that no one knew about this precious diary of M. for a decade until he brought out selections from it as a pamphlet in English in 1897 with the Holy Mother’s blessings and permission. The Holy Mother, being very much pleased to hear parts of the diary read to her in Bengali, wrote to M.: “When I heard the Kathamrita, (Bengali name of the book) I felt as if it was he, the Master, who was saying all that.” (Ibid Part I. P 37.)
The two pamphlets in English entitled the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna appeared in October and November 1897. They drew the spontaneous acclamation of Swami Vivekananda, who wrote on 24th November of that year from Dehra Dun to M.:”Many many thanks for your second leaflet. It is indeed wonderful. The move is quite original, and never was the life of a Great Teacher brought before the public untarnished by the writer’s mind, as you are doing. The language also is beyond all praise, — so fresh, so pointed, and withal so plain and easy. I cannot express in adequate terms how I have enjoyed them. I am really in a transport when I read them. Strange, isn’t it? Our Teacher and Lord was so original, and each one of us will have to be original or nothing. I now understand why none of us attempted His life before. It has been reserved for you, this great work. He is with you evidently.” (Vedanta Kesari Vol. XIX P. 141. Also given in the first edition of the Gospel published from Ramakrishna Math, Madras in 1911.)
And Swamiji added a post script to the letter: “Socratic dialogues are Plato all over — you are entirely hidden. Moreover, the dramatic part is infinitely beautiful. Everybody likes it — here or in the West.” Indeed, in order to be unknown, Mahendranath had used the pen-name M., under which the book has been appearing till now. But so great a book cannot remain obscure for long, nor can its author remain unrecognised by the large public in these modern times. M. and his book came to be widely known very soon and to meet the growing demand, a full-sized book, Vol. I of the Gospel, translated by the author himself, was published in 1907 by the Brahmavadin Office, Madras. A second edition of it, revised by the author, was brought out by the Ramakrishna Math, Madras in December 1911, and subsequently a second part, containing new chapters from the original Bengali, was published by the same Math in 1922. The full English translation of the Gospel by Swami Nikhilananda appeared first in 1942.
In Bengali the book is published in five volumes, the first part having appeared in 1902 and the others in 1905, 1907, 1910 and 1932 respectively.
It looks as if M. was brought to the world by the Great Master to record his words and transmit them to posterity. Swami Sivananda, a direct disciple of the Master and the second President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, says on this topic: “Whenever there was an interesting talk, the Master would call Master Mahashay if he was not in the room, and then draw his attention to the holy words spoken. We did not know then why the Master did so. Now we can realise that this action of the Master had an important significance, for it was reserved for Master Mahashay to give to the world at large the sayings of the Master.” (Vedanta Kesari Vol. XIX P 141.) Thanks to M., we get, unlike in the case of the great teachers of the past, a faithful record with date, time, exact report of conversations, description of concerned men and places, references to contemporary events and personalities and a hundred other details for the last four years of the Master’s life (1882-’86), so that no one can doubt the historicity of the Master and his teachings at any time in the future.
M. was in every respect a true missionary of Sri Ramakrishna right from his first acquaintance with him in 1882. As a school teacher, it was a practice with him to direct to the Master such of his students as had a true spiritual disposition. Though himself prohibited by the Master to take to monastic life, he encouraged all spiritually inclined young men he came across in his later life to join the monastic Order. Swami Vijnanananda, a direct Sannyasin disciple of the Master and a President of the Ramakrishna Order, once remarked to M.: “By enquiry I have come to the conclusion that eighty percent and more of the Sannyasins have embraced the monastic life after reading the Kathamrita and coming in contact with you.” (M — The Apostle and the Evangelist by Swami Nityatmananda Part I, P 37.)
In 1905 he retired from the active life of a Professor and devoted his remaining twenty-seven years exclusively to the preaching of the life and message of the Great Master. He bought the Morton Institution from its original proprietors and shifted it to a commodious four-storeyed house at 50 Amherst Street, where it flourished under his management as one of the most efficient educational institutions in Calcutta. He generally occupied a staircase room at the top of it, cooking his own meal which consisted only of milk and rice without variation, and attended to all his personal needs himself. His dress also was the simplest possible. It was his conviction that limitation of personal wants to the minimum is an important aid to holy living. About one hour in the morning he would spend in inspecting the classes of the school, and then retire to his staircase room to pour over his diary and live in the divine atmosphere of the earthly days of the Great Master, unless devotees and admirers had already gathered in his room seeking his holy company.
In appearance, M. looked a Vedic Rishi. Tall and stately in bearing, he had a strong and well-built body, an unusually broad chest, high forehead and arms extending to the knees. His complexion was fair and his prominent eyes were always tinged with the expression of the divine love that filled his heart. Adorned with a silvery beard that flowed luxuriantly down his chest, and a shining face radiating the serenity and gravity of holiness, M. was as imposing and majestic as he was handsome and engaging in appearance. Humorous, sweet-tongued and eloquent when situations required, this great Maharishi of our age lived only to sing the glory of Sri Ramakrishna day and night. Though a very well versed scholar in the Upanishads, Gita and the philosophies of the East and the West, all his discussions and teachings found their culmination in the life and the message of Sri Ramakrishna, in which he found the real explanation and illustration of all the scriptures. Both consciously and unconsciously, he was the teacher of the Kathamrita — the nectarine words of the Great Master.
Though a much-sought-after spiritual guide, an educationist of repute, and a contemporary and close associate of illustrious personages like Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Keshab Chander Sen and Iswar Chander Vidyasagar, he was always moved by the noble humanity of a lover of God, which consists in respecting the personalities of all as receptacles of the Divine Spirit. So he taught without the consciousness of a teacher, and no bar of superiority stood in the way of his doing the humblest service to his students and devotees. “He was a commission of love,” writes his close devotee, Swami Raghavananda, “and yet his soft and sweet words would pierce the stoniest heart, make the worldly-minded weep and repent and turn Godwards.” (Prabuddha Bharata Vol. XXXVII P 499.)
As time went on and the number of devotees increased, the staircase room and terrace of the 3rd floor of the Morton Institution became a veritable Naimisaranya of modern times, resounding during all hours of the day, and sometimes of night, too, with the word of God coming from the Rishi-like face of M. addressed to the eager God-seekers sitting around. To the devotees who helped him in preparing the text of the Gospel, he would dictate the conversations of the Master in a meditative mood, referring now and then to his diary. At times in the stillness of midnight he would awaken a nearby devotee and tell him: “Let us listen to the words of the Master in the depths of the night as he explains the truth of the Pranava.” (Vedanta Kesari XIX P. 142.) Swami Raghavananda, an intimate devotee of M., writes as follows about these devotional sittings: “In the sweet and warm months of April and May, sitting under the canopy of heaven on the roof-garden of 50 Amherst Street, surrounded by shrubs and plants, himself sitting in their midst like a Rishi of old, the stars and planets in their courses beckoning us to things infinite and sublime, he would speak to us of the mysteries of God and His love and of the yearning that would rise in the human heart to solve the Eternal Riddle, as exemplified in the life of his Master. The mind, melting under the influence of his soft sweet words of light, would almost transcend the frontiers of limited existence and dare to peep into the infinite. He himself would take the influence of the setting and say,’What a blessed privilege it is to sit in such a setting (pointing to the starry heavens), in the company of the devotees discoursing on God and His love!’ These unforgettable scenes will long remain imprinted on the minds of his hearers.” (Prabuddha Bharata Vol XXXVII P 497.)
About twenty-seven years of his life he spent in this way in the heart of the great city of Calcutta, radiating the Master’s thoughts and ideals to countless devotees who flocked to him, and to still larger numbers who read his Kathamrita, the last part of which he had completed before June 1932 and given to the press. And miraculously, as it were, his end also came immediately after he had completed his life’s mission. About three months earlier he had come to stay at his home at 13/2 Gurdasprasad Chaudhuary Lane at Thakur Bari, where the Holy Mother had herself installed the Master and where His regular worship was being conducted for the previous 40 years. The night of 3rd June being the Phalaharini Kali Pooja day, M. had sent his devotees who used to keep company with him, to attend the special worship at Belur Math at night. After attending the service at the home shrine, he went through the proof of the Kathamrita for an hour. Suddenly he got a severe attack of neuralgic pain, from which he had been suffering now and then of late. Before 6 a.m. in the early hours of the 4th June 1932, he passed away, fully conscious and chanting: ‘Gurudeva-Ma, Kole toole na-o! O Master! O Mother! Take me in your arms!’
Sri Ramakrishna Math,
- ^In the body of the Gospel he also appears under the assumed names of Mani, Mohini Mohun and Master (meaning school teacher). He is familiarly referred to in the circle of Sri Ramakrishna’s devotees as Master Mahashay. Readers who want to know in greater detail about M. and his teachings may read the book ‘M’ — the Apostle and the Evangelist by Swami Nityatmananda. It is in five parts and records the conversations of M. in his later years with devotees, more or less on the lines of the Gospel.
- ^The idea is this: according to the rules of the temple the worshippers could touch the image only in certain months of the year. M., overpowered by devotion, broke these rules in the complete forgetfulness of spiritual absorption and touched the Deity during the forbidden time.