With Cossipore is ushered in the last scene of the wonderful life of the Master, the pathos and sublimity of which is like the melting beauty of the setting sun. These were days of intense physical suffering, yet of ineffable bliss, for he felt that he had fulfilled his mission on earth and was leaving behind him a number of youthful, all-renouncing and determined disciples who would carry on his message. His great hope lay in Narendra Nath and even on his death-bed he devoted himself to the task of moulding his and some of the others’ lives and characters. Of his approaching end he gave ample hints to the devotees: “I shall make the whole thing public before I go”, “When people in large numbers will begin to whisper about the greatness of this body, then the Mother will take it back”, “Devotees will be sifted into inner and outer circles towards the end”, and so on.
Naren grew in power and spiritual vigour from day to day, while Shri Ramakrishna grew worse, although in his mind and heart burned the same divine flame, all the greater in its luminousness and intensity because of his physical sufferings. The disciples nursed him faithfully, making their service to the Guru, literally, an act of worship. But nothing could stay the progress of the disease. The Master was again commanded by his physician not to strain his throat by talking. But he could not resist the urge to transmit his knowledge to the multitude of religious aspirants who flocked to him at all hours.
Day after day the body of the Master grew weaker and weaker. The boys, under the direction and supervision of Naren, gave all their time to nursing him. This required that they stay day and night at the Cossipore garden. It meant serious objections and opposition from their guardians. Naren had been then studying for the law examination and at this time the lawsuit with some of his relatives, which we have mentioned, was pending in the Courts of Calcutta. The latter made it imperative for him to be in Calcutta part of the time; but he resolved to do his studying in the time left to him at Cossipore.
Shri Ramakrishna was now practically alone with these young men. Having given up their homes for the time at the urgent desire of Naren, they gave themselves up in unparalleled living and devoted service to Shri Ramakrishna. Naren was to them a constant source of inspiration. During their leisure periods, he would gather them together, and the time was spent in study, music, conversations and discussions of the divine traits of their Master’s character. Naren’s personality was like a blazing fire, the welding heat of which united the various heterogeneous elements of the boys into a homogeneous whole, possessed, as it were, of one body and one soul. They were twelve1 in number, every one of them a tower of strength in consecration and single-minded devotion.
As the end of the Master came nearer, Narendra Nath’s hankering after the realisation of God increased and intensified. His heart was like a seething cauldron. One night after deciding to go home for a day or two to settle some household affairs he went to bed but could not sleep. Calling Sharat, Junior Gopal and a few others to him he said, “Come, let us have a walk in the garden”. As they walked about Naren said, “The Master’s disease is most severe. May it not be that he intends to lay down his body! Strive your best for spiritual uplift through service unto him and prayer and meditation, while yet there is time. After his passing away, there will be no end to your repentance. We are wasting our time in the foolish thought that we shall pray to God after finishing this or that business at hand. That is only fastening more, chains of desires on us, and desire means death. We must root that out at once.”
In that cold starry night they felt a great urge to meditation. A stack of dry hay and twigs was lying near. Naren said, “Set fire to it. It is at this hour that the monks light their Dhuni fires. Let us do the same and burn our desires.” The fire was lighted, and the boys sat around it, feeling that they were really making a bonfire of their desires and being actually purged of all impurities.
One day Shri Ramakrishna initiated Naren with the name of Rama, telling him that it was the Mantra which he had received from his own Guru. In consequence of this, Naren's emotions were stirred to tremendous heights. Towards the evening he began to encircle the house, repeating the name of the Lord “Rama! Rama!” in a high and excited voice. All outward consciousness had apparently gone, and he was full of ecstatic fire. When the Master was informed of this, he only said, “Let him be, he will come round in due course.” The emotional storm subsided in a few hours, and Naren became his old self again.
The Cossipore garden-house became a Temple and a University Hall in one. At times philosophy held the floor; again devotion rose high; singing and chanting would fill the time that could be snatched from nursing. The Master would send Naren and other disciples to meditate. And Naren in the intensity of his meditations had many realisations. Or the Master would ask him to sing; and in his song great waves of rapturous love for God would sweep over him carrying him on to regions of pure ecstasy.
The following conversation between Narendra and Mahendra, a lay disciple of the Master, gives an idea of Naren's mental condition at the time:
Narendra: “Last Saturday (2nd January, 1886), I was meditating here. Suddenly I felt a strange creeping sensation in the chest.”
Mahendra: “It was the awakening of the Kundalini.”
Narendra: “Probably so. I clearly felt Ida and Pingali, and asked Hazra to put his hand on my chest. Yesterday I saw Shri Ramakrishna upstairs and said, ‘Everyone has been blessed with some sort of realisation. Let me, too, have something. When all have got it, shall I alone be left out?’ He said, ‘Make some arrangements for your family, and you shall have all. What do you want?’ I said, 'I wish to remain immersed in Samadhi for three or four days at a stretch — breaking it just to take food.' He said, 'You are a fool. There is a state higher than that even. Do you not sing, ‘Thou art all that there is?’ Come here after making some provision for your family, and you shall realise a state even higher than Samadhi.'
“This morning I went home. They took me to task for neglecting my studies when I should be busy preparing myself for my examination. I went to study at my grandmother’s house. But as I was about to begin, I was seized with a sort of dread, as if it were a most horrible thing to read! A struggle raged in my heart. I never wept like that in my life! Then leaving my books and all, I ran here. My shoes slipped off somewhere on the road. I was running past a rick of straw and some fibres flew out and stuck to my body! I ran and ran till I reached here.”
That very night at about nine o’clock, in spite of the aggravation of his complaint, the Master spoke in whispers or by signs of Narendra. He said, "Look at the wonderful state of Narendra! There was a time when he did not believe in the Personal aspect of God. Now see how he pants for realisation!" Then he gave a hint that Naren was soon to reach the goal. That very night Naren with some of his brother-disciples left for Dakshineswar to practise meditation.
There was nothing unnatural in Naren's request. It is the heartfelt desire and ambition of every sincere Sadhaka of all ages and climes to feel the ecstasy of merging himself in God. Samadhi is the culmination of spirituality. But Naren was bom for the fulfilment of a higher and greater purpose. He was to be not only a Siddha-purusha — a perfect soul — but a saviour of souls as well. He was not only to cross the ocean of Maya himself, but to help others to do so. From that standpoint individual liberation was destined for Naren to be comparatively insignificant. Shri Ramakrishna was fully aware of this as was shown by his telling Naren that he would make him realise a higher and nobler state than Samadhi. He wanted Naren to be a Jnani and a Bhakta in one, to see God in His various forms as well as in the Absolute State.
On another day the Master asked, “Why do you not continue your college studies?” The young disciple replied with emotion, “Sir, I would feel relieved if I could find a drug by taking which I might forget for all time all that I have learnt.” All this time Naren was practising many austerities and meditating a great deal, spending night after night under the Panchavati before a Dhuni fire. The Master had initiated him into various paths of spiritual discipline, and in carrying out these injunctions Naren attained remarkable results. Shri Ramakrishna was silently preparing him to be the head of the group of young monks who were to consecrate their lives in the near future to carrying out his mission on this earth. One day the Master expressly commissioned him to look after the young devotees, saying, “I leave them to your care. See that they practise spiritual exercises even after my passing away and that they do not return home.”
One day, in preparation for the prospective monastic life, the Master commanded the young boys to beg food from door to door. They consented immediately with enthusiasm; and with the name of the Lord upon their lips they went forth to beg in the neighbourhood. They had varied experiences; some were abused for neglecting their duties; the sight of others caused many mothers to shed tears. The food which they collected in this manner was cooked in the garden and offered to the Master, who was overjoyed. He took a grain of rice and said, “Well done! This food is very pure.” He knew that soon these young boys would put on the ochre robe of renunciation and go forth empty-handed in quest of God, begging what food was necessary from pious householders.
It is interesting to see how the Master was strengthening the bonds between himself and his disciples. Naren, of course, was the central figure. He was looked up to because of Shri Ramakrishna’s high estimate of his spiritual worth. Then, too, he was the most intellectual of them all. He had combined reason and secular knowledge with his devotional nature, besides being more strongly fortified in his religious convictions. When the Master’s teaching and the monastic tendencies of himself and his fellow disciples were challenged, his explanations were irresistibly logical. And in speaking for himself, he spoke for his fellow disciples. It was he who fired them with a great enthusiasm by the power of his remarkable personality. Did any differences or difficulties arise they would come to him for their solution. Shri Ramakrishna encouraged this in innumerable ways. He told them all that Naren was their leader, and made them feel that the spiritual understanding of his chief disciple should be their infallible guide in the days that were to come. And many of the disciples did understand the Master the better through Naren. He explained that great life to them. His understanding of the Master was their understanding and strength.
In the midst of all his strivings and hankerings for the realisation of Truth, he never lost sight of his Master, but remembered that it was he who, through his infinite grace, was preparing him for the realisation of God. The Master was his friend, philosopher and Guru, all in one. The Master’s illness was constantly in his mind. One day, about this time, Pandit Shashadhar Tarkachudamani, a great Hindu scholar and a devotee of the Master, came to Cossipore. In course of the conversation, the Pandit said, “Sir, it is written in the scriptures that perfect souls like you can cure any physical malady by a mere wish. If you would but concentrate your mind on the affected part, determined that it shall be cured, the cure will take place. Why don’t you try it, sir?” Shri Ramakrishna replied without a moment’s hesitation, “You are a scholar and yet you make such a senseless proposal! I have given my mind once for all to God. How is it possible for me to take it away and concentrate it upon this cage of rotten flesh and blood?” The Pandit was silenced. After he had left, Naren and a few disciples begged the Master to heal himself saying, “Sir, you must get rid of this disease, at least for our sake.”
Shri Ramakrishna: “Do you think that I undergo this suffering voluntarily? I would like to see it cured. But it is. still there. Everything depends upon the sweet will of the Divine Mother.”
Naren: “Then, please tell the Mother to cure you. She cannot but listen to your prayer.”
Shri Ramakrishna: “It is easy for you to talk like that. But I can never say such things.”
Naren: “But that will not do. You must tell the Mother about it, at least for our sake.”
Shri Ramakrishna: “Very well. Let me see what can be done.”
After a few hours, Naren came back and said, “Did you ask the Mother about it? What was Her reply?” The Master said, “I said to Her, pointing to my throat, 'I cannot eat anything on account of a sore here. Please see that I may eat a little.' The Mother replied, pointing to you all, 'Why, are you not eating through so many mouths!' I was so ashamed that I could not utter another word.”
Naren was startled at these words. What an absence of body-consciousness! What a firm realisation of the Truth of Advaita! Naren knew then that his Master was really unique in his realisations.
Meditation was becoming a fixed habit with Naren and manifested itself outwardly in the power to plunge the mind into the deepest concentration upon any subject. Naren was now sensing spiritual powers within him. He knew moments when he literally touched divinity and was made physically conscious of Reality by the spiritual transfiguration of the functions and faculties of the senses. His thought, became a sweeping power. And on one occasion he displayed this:
It was in March of 1886. Naren was seated with three or four brother-disciples in a room in the Cossipore garden on the night of the Shivaratri. They had fasted the whole day and intended to spend the night in meditation, worship and prayer.
A mild shower of rain feel in the evening and small patches of fleecy clouds spread over the starlit sky. The worship of the first part of the night finished, Naren was talking with his brother-disciples. For one reason or another the different devotees left the room and Naren was left alone with Kali (subsequently Swami Abhedananda). Suddenly he desired to test on Kali his power to transmit a certain high consciousness of the Advaita Vedanta which he himself possessed. He said to Kali, "After a few minutes, touch me." When a brother-disciple re-entered the room, he found Narendra and Kali seated in a meditative posture. Presently Kali touched Naren’s right knee with his right hand, which began to tremble. After a minute or two Naren said to Kali, “All right. How did you feel!” “I felt,” replied Kali, “a shock as though from an electric battery.” The third disciple asked, “Kali, was it Naren’s touch that made your hand shake?” “Yes,” Kali answered, “I could not keep my hand steady though I tried.”
After finishing the midnight worship, the young men again sat for meditation. Kali this time became absorbed in deep meditation, quite unconscious of the outer world. Those present concluded that it was all due to Naren’s touch. When the worship was finished, Naren went to see the Master. As he entered the room, the Master said, “Well, you are frittering away your power before you have accumulated enough. Gather it first and then you will understand how much of it you should spend and in what way. Mother will let you know. Do you understand what great harm you have done to that boy by infusing your idea into him? He had been following a particular line for a long time. All is spoilt now. Well, let bygones be bygones. Never do it again. However, the boy is lucky.” Naren was totally dumbfounded. Shri Rarnakrishna knew, although he was in his room, what was going on in the garden. Naren kept silent at the Master’s reproof.
Shri Ramakrishna was sinking daily. The anxiety and grief of the devotees knew no bounds. They redoubled their efforts to serve him. The young men made Cossipore garden their home much to the chagrin of their guardians. The householders defrayed all expenses most ungrudgingly. All felt that the chief support of their life was going to be taken away. The sight of the haemorrhage would send a thrill of horror into their hearts. But the Master, in the midst of all sufferings, looked as cheerful as ever, for he recognised the benign hand of the Divine Mother behind all this. When the pain became unbearable, he would whisper with a smile, “Let the body and the pain take care of each other, thou, oh my mind, be always in bliss!“ One night he whispered to Mahendra, “I am bearing all this because otherwise you would be weeping. If you all say that it is better that the body should go rather than suffer so, let it go.” To other devotees he said, “The disease is naturally of the body. I see many forms of the Lord, and this (his own form) too, is one of them.”
Next morning (March 15, 1886) the Master felt a little better. He was talking with the devotees in whispers or by signs. Naren, Rakhal, Mahendra and a few others who were present appeared very gloomy and depressed.
Shri Ramakrishna: “Do you know what I see? It is He who has become all this. Men and animals that I see appear to be but frameworks coated with skin, and through them He is moving the head and limbs! As I once saw in a vision, all — the garden, houses, roads, men and cattle — everything made of wax, composed of the same substance!
“I see that He Himself has become the executioner, the victim and the sacrificial post!”
As he said this he fell into Samadhi and lost all outward consciousness. Returning partially from that state, he said, “Now I have no pain — I am perfectly at ease!”
The disciples were startled to find how he could so easily detach himself from the body-idea and go beyond all relative pleasure and pain. Looking at Latu, the Master said, “There sits Latu, leaning his head upon his hand. It seems to me as if the Lord is seated in that posture.”
As he cast his eyes upon the disciples, he appeared to melt in love. Like a mother, he began to caress Rakhal and Naren and said to Mahendra, "Had this body been allowed to last a little longer, many more people would have been spiritually awakened" He paused a little, and said, “But that is not the wish of the Mother.” Repeating the same sentence he said, “No, the Mother, has ordained otherwise. Lest people should take advantage of my simplicity and illiteracy, and prevail upon me to bestow upon them the rare gifts of spirituality, She will take me away. And this is an age when devotional exercises are at a sad discount.”
Rakhal (tenderly): “Please ask Her to let your body last.”
Shri Ramakrishna: “That depends upon Her will.”
Narendra: “Your will has become one with Hers.”
Shri Ramakrishna paused for a minute and said, “I now see that my will is entirely merged in Hers.”
The devotees sat silent. Shri Ramakrishna tenderly gazed upon them and said:
“Here (i.e. within him) are two personalities. One is God and the other is His devotee. It is the latter who broke his arm and who is ill. Do you understand?”
The devotees kept quiet. The Master added, “Alas I To whom shall I tell this and who will understand me?” After a pause, “He comes as a man — as an Incarnation. He brings His devotees with Him. The devotees again return with Him.” Rakhal: “So you must not leave us behind.”
Shri Ramakrishna (smiling): “A band of minstrels suddenly appear before a house. They sing and dance, and go away as suddenly as they came — nobody knows them!”
After a short pause he resumed: "Pain is unavoidable so long as there is form. Therefore, I sometimes wish that I may not have to assume this form again. But still there is the other side of the shield. Through the body one may taste divine bliss. Otherwise everything appears insipid. After going to feasts repeatedly one does not enjoy the humdrum food at home. That the Lord takes on a form is for the sake of His devotees." Looking affectionately at Naren, the Master gave him some instructions about Pure Knowledge and the state of a man after realisation.
Shri Ramakrishna (to Naren): “Always discriminate as to whether you are body, mind or intellect. Try to discover your real nature. The real Self is unattached. Sattva, Rajas and Tamas are the three qualities. But it is not attached to any of these.”
Naren: “Yes, sir.”
Shri Ramakrishna: “It is beyond qualities; beyond ignorance. Lust and gold is Maya. Knowledge, renunciation and devotion — these are the divine attributes of Maya. Though you and other devotees are anxious about me through some attachment, yet it does not bring bondage to the soul. It leads to the highest realisation of the Self. Even after realisation some retain relationship with Maya — I mean its divine attributes to serve as a teacher to mankind and to taste the felicity of divine relationship with God and His devotees.”
Naren: “Some get cross with me when I advocate the need of renunciation.”
Shri Ramakrishna (in a whisper): "One must renounce."
(Pointing to his limbs) Suppose one thing is placed under another. If you want to take the former, won’t you remove the latter? Can you get at that without removing this one?” Naren: “Quite so.”
Shri Ramakrishna: “When you see everything saturated with That, can you see anything else?”
Naren: “Must one renounce the world?”
Shri Ramakrishna: “As I said, if you see everything saturated with That, can you see anything else — family or the like?” The Master was looking at Naren most tenderly. Addressing the devotees, he said, “Capital!” Naren asked with a smile, “What do you mean by that?” The Master replied smiling, “You are swiftly progressing towards renunciation.” Rakhal said, “Naren now appreciates you thoroughly.” To which the Master replied, “Yes, and many others too do the same.” Then to Naren and others he said, “I now realise that everything has come out of this.” He asked Naren if he had understood the meaning of that. Naren said, “All created things have come out of you.” Shri Ramakrishna was delighted and said to Rakhal: “Do you see! He has understood!”
This remarkable conversation was illuminating to Naren in many respects. He had come to the Master with many doubts, regarding the very existence of God, His nature and the Incarnations. The Master, at first, tried to convince Naren through his intellect. Therefore, he propounded to him the theory of Advaita Vedanta which makes an irresistible appeal to reason. Naren assimilated this idea quickly but longed to go on to the vision of Brahman, beyond name and form and all relative settings. He wanted to realise the Self in Samadhi. The Master promised to take him to a higher plane than that — to the realisation that Brahman not only transcends the universe, but is also immanent in it. All that exists is Brahman. The aspirant reaches a high stage of illumination when he realises the universe as the manifestation of Truth, the relative as only another phase of the Absolute. The man of highest realisation passes easily from one state to the other. Naren now realised that it is possible for the same transcendental Truth to embody Itself in a human form, and that to know the Incarnation is to know the Absolute. To see the Son is to see the Father. And no one can see the Father except through the Son. To embrace the universe after transcending it is the last divine sacrifice. Naren saw Shri Ramakrishna in a new light. He further realised that the paths of Devotion and Knowledge lead to the same goal, that Love is the culmination of Realisation, the Jacob's ladder through which the man of realisation connects the Absolute with the relative.
At one time the sole topic of discussion and meditation among the disciples in their leisure hours was the career and gospel of Lord Buddha, the Enlightened One. The main speaker and the inspirer was of course Naren. He had saturated himself with Buddhistic lore. For the time he was a Buddhist in spirit. The towering intellect of the Enlightened One, the eminent sanity of his views, his uncompromising demand for Truth, his burning renunciation, his compassionate heart, his sweet, deep and luminous personality, his sublime morality, and the manner in which he struck the balance between metaphysics and human character — all these had aroused tremendous enthusiasm in Naren. He forgot everything else for the time being. Naren’s enthusiasm was contagious and spread to the other disciples. They were all determined, like Buddha, to realise Truth even at the sacrifice of life itself. They inscribed in bold characters upon the wall of the meditation room, “Let my body dry up, as it were, on this seat; let the flesh thereof and the bones sink into dissolution; without realising that Enlightenment which is difficult to attain even in aeons, this body shall not rise from its seat.” Instinctively Naren’s mind turned to Buddha Gaya, the place of the Tathagata’s illumination, where these pregnant words were uttered, and he determined to go there and meditate under the sacred Bo-tree. He confided this only to Tarak and Kali. Tarak arranged for the passage money, and about the beginning of the month of April in the year 1886, Naren with Tarak and Kali crossed the Ganga for the Railway station at Bally. Since they left no information as to their journey, their friends became very anxious, thinking that they might have renounced the world to take up the life of the wandering monk and that they might never return. Subsequently it was learned that the three boys had gone to Buddha Gaya, dressed in Gerua, to practise austerities.
The three friends alighted at Gaya and walked seven miles to the place of Buddha’s illumination. The wonderful solitude of the place and its sweet associations gladdened their hearts beyond expectation. One evening when all was silent and hushed, they repaired to the stone seat under the sacred Bodhi tree and sat in meditation. The silence of the evening hour and the solemnity of his thought stirred the depths of Naren's emotional nature. Suddenly he burst into tears, and putting his arm about Tarak seated next to him, he embraced him with wonderful tenderness. Startled, Tarak asked him the reason for this demonstration. Naren said that as he meditated, the sublime character of Buddha, his wonderful compassion, his humane teachings, and the subsequent history of India transformed by the magic wand of Buddhism — all these presented themselves before his vision in such glowing colours, like pictures seen in a kaleidoscope, that he could not control his feelings.
Naren and his companions stayed three or four days at Buddha Gaya as guests of the Mahant of the temple. At the end of that time they began to feel a desire to see the Master again. Part of the passage money was obtained from the Mahant, and they came to Gaya town, where Naren met an old acquaintance of his father, a practising lawyer of Gaya who invited the three young monks to a soiree at his home. The invitation was accepted, and Naren added to the enjoyment of the evening by singing a number of songs. The remainder of the passage money was contributed by the kindly host, and soon they were back to the Cossipore garden. The Master was overjoyed to see his beloved Naren and made him tell all that he had seen, heard, felt and thought at Buddha Gaya.
Naren was indelibly impressed with what he had seen and realised there, and for some days could talk of nothing else.
One day, on the 9th of April, 1886, shortly after his return, he had the following conversation with the Master and his brother-disciples.
Shri Ramakrishna (to Mahendra): "Naren had been to Buddha Gaya."
Mahendra (to Naren): “What is the philosophy of Buddha?”
Naren: “He could not express in words what he had realised; therefore people call him an atheist.”
Shri Ramakrishna (by signs): “Why should he be an atheist? No, he was not an atheist. Only he could not express his realisation in words. Do you know the meaning of the word Buddha? It means that by thinking of Consciousness, one becomes Consciousness Itself.”
Naren: “Yes, sir. There are three classes of Buddhas — Buddha, Arhat and Bodhisattva.”
Shri Ramakrishna: “This is also the play of God — a new sport. How could Buddha be an atheist? The state of being conscious of one’s Self cannot be described as existence or nonexistence.”
Naren (to Mahendra): “Here contradictions meet. Oxygen and hydrogen constitute water; again they produce the oxy-hydrogen flame. In this Buddha state both work and inactivity are perfectly possible — I mean selfless work. Worldly people, those who are engrossed in sense-objects, speak of the world as existence; again those who believe in the theory of Maya speak of it as non-existence. The Buddha state is neither existence nor non-existence.”
Shri Ramakrishna (to Naren): “What does Buddha say?”
Naren: "He did not speak about the existence of God."
But he exhibited mercy towards all. A hawk was going to devour a bird which was its prey and Buddha offered his own flesh in place of the victim’s. What renunciation! The son of a king, he renounced everything! There is nothing wonderful in the renunciation of a man who has no possessions.
“After becoming enlightened and realising Nirvana, he at once returned to the ancestral home and requested his wife, his child and many of the royal family to embrace the life of monasticism. What a great renunciation! But contrast it with the conduct of Vyasadeva. He prevented Shukadeva, his son, from renouncing the world and advised him to practise religion at home. Buddha did not believe in power or anything of the kind. He spoke only of the annihilation of desires. He sat for meditation under a tree and said, ‘Let this body dry up here’, i.e. let me die on this spot if I cannot attain to Nirvana. This body is a great rogue. Nothing can be achieved without controlling it.”
Shashi: “Why then do you say that meat produces the quality of Sattva? You advocate meat-eating, don’t you?”
Naren: “Yes. I do. But I can also live on rice alone, even without salt.”
Shri Ramakrishna (to Naren): “Well, you find here (meaning his own self) everything, don’t you? It is like a grocer’s shop which keeps everything, even the smallest titbit.”
Naren: “Yes, sir, having attained all these states, you keep yourself, as it were, at a lower level.”
Shri Ramakrishna: “Yes. it is, as if someone keeps me there.”
Picking up his fan the Master said, “When I realised God, He was as tangible as this fan. Furthermore, I saw that God and that which resides in this body (pointing to himself) are one and the same thing.”
Naren said, “The perfected soul attains his own liberation, but retains the sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and suffers from the pain and pleasure of the body for the redemption of humanity. We work on compulsion; it is like coolie’s work. He does it for the fun of the thing.”
The few days that were left to Shri Ramakrishna on this plane were memorable ones for the disciples. One day, Gopal Senior, one of the disciples, brought some Gerua clothes and Rudraksha beads to the Master for distribution among Sadhus. The Master said. “Here are boys full of renunciation. You won't be able to find better monks anywhere. Distribute the clothes and beads amongst them.” One evening he called the boys, the future apostles of the Ramakrishna Order and put them2 through a certain ceremony. Thereafter they were permitted to take food from all irrespective of caste and creed. The Master himself initiated these boys as monks, fulfilling their heart’s desire. Thus was sown the seed of the future Ramakrishna Order, which was to grow and develop into a mighty organisation.
Now, we come to the greatest moment of Naren’s Sadhana, the very crest and glory of his spiritual realisations. Ever since the Master had initiated him into the intellectual and spiritual awareness of the Advaita Vedanta, he was pining for a vision of the Absolute. He prayed to feel Divinity; to have the whole of Nature erased from the tablets of perception. To lose the I in order to plunge into the Region of True Being which is even beyond thought — such was Naren’s prayer to Shri Ramakrishna. Naren wanted to realise the very spirit of the Upanishads and be able to say from experience that which is the last utterance of the human soul and the first note of Divine Consciousness — “Aham Brahmasmi”. I am Brahman!
Naren had teased the Master for this realisation but of no avail. One evening however it came unexpectedly. He was meditating, when suddenly he felt a light at the back of his head, as if a torch-light had been placed there. It became more and more brilliant, larger and larger and finally seemed to burst. His mind became merged in it. What transpired then in his consciousness was beyond words, for that Absolute State is beyond description. Afterwards he wrote some verses, “The Hymn of Samadhi”, which best illustrate that exalted condition. It was all still and quiet in the room where Naren and Gopal Senior were meditating. Suddenly Gopal heard Naren cry out, “Gopalda, Gopalda, where is my body?” In partially descending from that state Naren had consciousness only of his head; his body seemed lost. “Why, Naren, it is there, it is there,” answered Gopal startled beyond description as he looked at Naren’s rigid body. He then hastened for help to Shri Ramakrishna and found him in a state of intense calm, his countenance deeply serious as though he knew what was happening in the next room. In reply to Gopal’s demand for aid for Naren he said, “Let him stay in that state for a while. He has teased me long enough for it.”
About nine o'clock at night Naren began to show faint signs of returning consciousness. When he regained full consciousness of the physical world he found himself surrounded by his anxious brother-disciples. Memory came back. He felt as though he were bathed in ineffable peace. His heart was full to overflowing with ecstasy. He realised that the Absolute of Vedanta alone could reconcile all philosophies. When he presented himself to the Master, the latter said, looking deep into his eyes, “Now then, the Mother has shown you everything. Just as a treasure is locked up in a box, so will this realisation you have just had be locked up and the key shall remain with me. You have work to do. When you will have finished iny work, the treasure-box will be unlocked again; and you will know everything then, just as you do now.” He warned him to be careful of his body for some time, and to exercise the utmost discretion in his choice of food and companions, accepting only the purest.
Afterwards Shri Ramakrishna said to the other disciples, “Naren will pass away only of his own will. The moment he realises who he is, he will refuse to stay a moment longer in the body. The time will come when he will shake the world to its foundations through the strength of his intellectual and spiritual powers! I have prayed that the Divine Mother may keep this realisation of the Absolute veiled from Naren. There is much work to be done by him. But this veil is so very thin that it may give way at any time.” It was Naren’s intense desire to realise the absolute Brahman that decided Shri Ramakrishna to give it to him. But the Master had no intention of permitting him to stay there. As Naren’s work was to be in the sphere of compassion and service to humanity, he could not remain in Nirvikalpa Samadhi if he was to do it. It is only a Ramakrishna who is able to come from and go to the Absolute at will, and even he assured his return to ordinary consciousness by creating some desire, of the simplest and most childlike nature before going into Samadhi and repeating it insistently so that there was nothing left to chance. He would say, “I — I — I shall smoke”, ”I shall have water to drink”.
The days passed in devotion, in service, in sorrow, in ecstasy — Naren leading, the others following. But few days were left before the soul of Shri Ramakrishna would pass into Nirvana, the Infinite Realisation. The time was near at hand when the light of this great life was to become extinct, to escape from the cage of the body. The disciples were untiring in their attention in spite of sleepless nights and busy days. What did it matter if their own bodies succumbed in his service? In August of the year 1886, people came and went by scores; it seemed as if everyone who had ever known the Master felt that the end was drawing near.
It was two years and six months since the Master had bound Naren over to the Mother, an event for which Shri Ramakrishna had waited for many years; for after giving over the whole treasure of his realisations he would be free to depart. Naren used to say, later on, “From the time that he gave me over to the Mother, he retained his vigour of body only six months. The rest of the time he suffered.” Indeed, the power of the Master was being diverted into a new channel — into Naren who had been prepared for this by more than four years of spiritual training. Naren, at this time, was meditating with great intensity. One day he and Girish Babu sat under a tree to meditate. There were mosquitoes without number there, which disturbed Girish so much that he became restless. On opening his eyes he was amazed to see that Naren’s body was covered as if with a dark blanket, so vast was the number of mosquitoes upon him. But Naren was quite unconscious of them and had no recollection of these when he returned to his normal state.
Towards the close of the month of July the malady in the Master’s throat had made such progress that he could speak only in a whisper, or else make his wishes known by signs. The disciples were grief-stricken that he, their father, their guide, he who loved them all as a mother loves her children, who had borne patiently with them, and had given up his own life for them, was sinking daily. Often, the Master would call the young disciples to his side, caressing them lovingly, speaking eloquently by means of signs of the love he bore them. His constant thought was, “What will become of them without me?” But there was Naren!
It so happened that Naren had been called to the side of the Master some days earlier, when he was suffering intensely and could scarcely speak. The Master wrote on a piece of paper, “Narendra will teach others.” Naren hesitated and said, “I won’t do that.” But the Master replied, “You shall have to do it.” Some time before he had told Naren, “My Siddhis (powers) will manifest through you in time”, meaning thereby that Naren in later years, as a teacher, would in a miraculous way turn many of the most worldly-minded to the spiritual life.
Verily, Naren was the rock of Vedanta and the Master singled him out as the one upon whom to build the structure of the Modern Gospel of the Eternal Religion as he himself had realised it. Naren was overcome with emotion. A feeling of utmost humility came over him, commingled with poignant grief, for, in a way, it was an assurance from the Master’s own lips that the time for the Great Deliverance was close at hand.
Now that the last days were approaching, the Master set himself with greater energy than ever to mould, in a calm and silent way, the spiritual life of these boys, particularly that of Naren. Every evening he would call Naren to his room and for two or three hours at a time would impart final instructions to him on various spiritual subjects and advise him to keep his brother-disciples together, how to guide and train them so that they would be able to live the life of renunciation.
It was now only three or four days before the Masters Mahasamadhi. Shri Ramakrishna called Naren to him. Looking steadfastly at him he entered into deep meditation. Naren felt as if a subtle force, resembling an electric shock, were entering his body, and he lost all outer consciousness. When he came to, he found the Master weeping. Wondering, Naren asked Shri Ramakrishna why he wept, and was told, “Oh Naren, today I have given you my all and have become a Fakir, a penniless beggar. By the force of the power transmitted by me, great things will be done by you; only after that will you go to whence you came.” Naren suddenly became the possessor of all the spiritual wealth of his Guru, acquired by years of superhuman effort and at the cost of terrible austerities. Shri Ramakrishna willingly deprived himself of his powers in order that Naren might be endowed with spiritual omnipotence. When that which was Ramakrishna had completed its task in its human Incarnation and manifestation, it gave itself wholly and entirely to Naren, as one gives a flower or bestows a gift, for the good of the world.
A couple of days before the final Mahasamadhi of the Master, as Naren was standing by his bedside, a curious thought flashed across his mind, "He has said many times that he is an Incarnation of God. If I can make him say now as he is in the throes of death, in the midst of human anguish and physical pain, 'I am God incarnate', then I will believe him!" The moment this thought came to him, the Master turned towards him and summoning all his energy said distinctly, “O my Naren, are you not yet convinced? He who was Rama and Krishna is now Ramakrishna in this body — but not from the standpoint of your Vedanta!” Naren was stricken with remorse and shame for having doubted, even for a moment, after so many revelations.
The last two days were sad ones for the disciples. They knew that all would soon be over, and that they would be left fatherless in the darkness of the world. The Master’s suffering on the last day was intense. The physician was summoned but was unable to do anything. A little before dusk the Master complained of difficulty in breathing. Suddenly he entered into Samadhi. It was rather of an unusual kind. Some of the disciples began to weep. After midnight, Shri Ramakrishna regained consciousness of the physical world and said that he was hungry. He ate a small quantity of porridge and seemed better. Leaning against five or six pillows supported by Shashi he talked up to the last moment with Naren, and gave him his last counsel in a low voice. Then uttering thrice the name of Kali he lay gently back on the bed. Suddenly, at two minutes past one, on the 16th of August, 1886, a thrill passed through the Master’s body, the hair stood on end, the eyes became fixed on the tip of the nose, a divine smile lit up the face and the Master entered into trance, the Mahasamadhi from which he never returned to this mortal plane of existence. The curtain fell on a great spiritual life. The immortal spirit, so long confined in a physical casement, burst through its limitations of name and form, and became one with the Infinite Spirit. The barriers of time and space were broken, and he who had been the light and guide of a few souls, now became a spiritual beacon for the whole universe. Though the disciples knew all this, yet they were overwhelmed with grief. The more they looked upon the pallid face and rigid body of the Master, the more they wept. They felt themselves like helpless orphans; that benign smile would greet them no more, that radiant face would no longer console them; the sweet words of peace and benedictions were hushed for ever; those lips which had spoken innumerable words of love and blessings were now sealed in death. They were stupefied.
The cot upon which the Master lay was brought down in the morning, the body was wrapt in ochre robes and adorned with sandal paste and flowers. For some time it stood in the ground of the Cossipore garden-house — the home of so many sweet, never-to-be-forgotten memories. Then a procession was formed, and to the sound of devotional music it was taken to the cremation ground on the Ganga, a little distance away. The disciples and devotees were in tears. All took turns in carrying the beloved burden of the Master’s form. Many of the spectators bowed before it.
At the ghat the body of the Master was tenderly laid upon the pyre prepared for it. The pyre was lighted; incense and clarified butter were poured upon it, and in a couple of hours, everything was finished.
In the midst of this terrible grief, a spirit of calm resignation suddenly descended upon the heart of the disciples. Was he really gone? He who sacrificed his life for their welfare, could he have left them for ever? No, was not he, their Lord, the Soul of their souls, the same even in death as in life? If they were to believe his own words, he had simply passed from one chamber to another. Bereavement was transformed into ecstasy they had so often felt while the Master was in the body.
The ashes and other remains of the body were collected and put into an urn. Slowly and heavily they retraced their steps and entered the garden-house shouting "Jai Ramakrishna!” — “Victory to Bhagavan Shri Ramakrishna!”