On 1st January, 1955, I was getting ready to leave the house to play soccer with a few friends. I picked up the local newspaper to see if the day’s outdoor activities were listed. I was very interested at that time in all kinds of sports, soccer being my favorite.
As I started to open the paper, I beheld a very attractive photo on the first page. Beneath it were the words, “On 5th January, Paramhansa Yogananda’s birthday will be held at Yogoda Math, Dakshineswar.” My mind was suddenly attracted to this photo. Instead of going to the soccer game, I left at once for Dakshineswar.
On my way to the address given in the paper, I stopped first at the Kali Temple in Dakshineswar, which had been made famous by Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, one of the great masters of the Nineteenth century, and, among all saints up to then, my “first love.” I used often to go there and meditate, tuning in to the power and blessings of the great Master, Sri Ramakrishna, which still permeate that holy place. God’s presence was, to me, more palpable there than anywhere else.
After some time, I quietly left and made my way to nearby Yogoda Math. On entering the prayer room in the main building, I was struck by four large, beautiful pictures of masters I didn’t recognize. Their names, I learned subsequently, were Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, Sri Yukteswar Giri, and Paramhansa Yogananda. Who they were I had no idea at the time, but I was amazed that here in this place so near Calcutta I would behold images of such radiant beings that were completely unknown to me. My mind instantly responded, “This is a good place to be. Remain a while longer.”
I walked around the ashram, and was met by a dynamic and powerful man with a kindly face and a benign smile. He introduced himself as Swami Atmananda. Later I learned that he was the secretary and dharmacharya of Yogoda Satsanga Society, and as such had authority from Yogananda to train others in the principles of Sanatan Dharma, the “eternal religion,” ancient name of the Hindu religion. He traveled all over India in service to this cause. Later I learned that Yogananda discovered him when Atmananda was eleven years old, through a mutual friend of theirs, Tulsi Bose.
He, in turn, introduced me to Jim Wood from America; two German boys, Eitel and Prell; a very nice boy from Switzerland, Habluz; and to other swamis and brahmacharis of the ashram as well.
Jim Wood was the talkative one of the group. He told me about Paramhansa Yogananda, their guru. Even though I had met a few highly advanced yogis in my travels, until now I had never been drawn to accepting anyone as my guru. Jim Wood asked if I had read Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. I replied I had not, so he offered me a copy of the book in Bengali, commenting, “You will find everything about the Master in there.”
How they all impressed me! In their shining simplicity, I thought, it was obvious that they led their lives guided by divine teachings. What was their secret? Obviously, again, it had to be that they had a true master! I wondered, Why have I not had this good fortune? How I would have loved to be in their shoes! Soon I learned that Yogananda had had his mahasamadhi (a great yogi’s final exit from the body) only three years earlier, on March 7th, 1952. Gazing into these men’s eyes, I felt they had something that I, too, wanted. Being with them increased my zeal for the Divine.
As the day advanced, Jim Wood took me to the dining room, where the monks had gathered for their midday meal. Swami Atmananda told us a few miraculous stories of Yogananda’s life. (The Master’s life seemed to me to have been one long miracle!) Swami Atmananda (or “Swamiji,” as I learned to call him) then invited me to attend the celebration on 5th January in commemoration of the Master’s birthday. This was four days from then. I accepted with alacrity. As I returned home, it was with eager anticipation of the coming event.
That day dawned, and I left home for the ashram in Dakshineswar, arriving earlier than most of the guests, who came at last in great numbers. I spent the entire day there. The most wonderful part of the celebration was watching my newly made friends take their brahmacharya (renunciation) vows. Jim Wood took the name Brahmachari Paramananda. The Swiss boy, Habluz, took the name Gyanananda, meaning “Bliss through divine wisdom.”
As I left the ashram later that evening, my mind was overflowing with joy. The Master was in my mind the whole time. My thoughts kept repeating, “He is the one for you. It would be absurd to look anywhere else!”
Swami Atmanandaji and Paramananda both told me to come every Sunday for satsanga (spiritual fellowship) and have lunch with them after the service. I soon found myself going there almost weekly to join the seven dedicated monks who lived there together.
We honored Yogananda’s mahasamadhi on 7th March of that year by meditating all night, from 4:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 the next morning. For me it was an amazing experience. I’d been part of this group only three months. Atmanandaji had taught me basic techniques of meditation during one of my first visits to the ashram, but I never thought I’d be able to meditate so long. Yet the “effort” proved effortless! I reflected, it certainly must have been the Master’s grace. Meditation has remained my life-practice ever since.
Afterwards, we were given prasad of blessed sweets. Then Atmanandaji invited me to come on 4th May for his own birthday. It astonished me that one thousand devotees and disciples attended that event.
Being in the ashram, above all during meditation there, I came to appreciate who Atmanandaji was: a man who cared deeply for all who came to him; fearless, kind, and overflowing with love. He always gave to his guru any thanks we expressed for what he’d given us, and whenever he spoke to us of Yogananda, tears filled his eyes. His familiarity with the divine teachings was deeply inspiring to me. I drew from him all that I could.
Swamiji (“ji” implies a note of respect) had come onto this path in 1935 when he received diksha (spiritual initiation) from Paramhansa Yogananda. He was born Prakash Das, but after taking Kriya initiation was known as Prakash Brahmachari. It wasn’t until 1953 when he became a swami that he was called Swami Atmananda. Swamiji grew up in Calcutta and in his early adult years operated an harmonium and piano business, Das & Co., with his father. As they were quite well-to-do, Swamiji was able to devote all his later years to bringing souls to God.
Swamiji had given me a meditation technique known as yoti mudra on my first arrival. This is a technique by which the meditator can behold the inner light and through it become aware of the presence of God. Swamiji used to talk to the disciples every morning and evening about this path-its techniques of meditation, its way of life, the attitudes a devotee ought to develop. I had never before known peace like this. We were irresistibly drawn to Swamiji’s deep devotion to God and Guru. Inevitably, he was deeply loved in return by all those around him.
He was also an inspiring singer, and often chanted with us. It was, indeed, through music that he taught best.
Meanwhile, I had finished reading Autobiography of a Yogi. It made me think of the Bhagavad Gita: It was scripture. Even today, it is the only book I read. Someone once asked me if I believed in the miracles described in it. All I could say in reply was, “I have seen many miracles myself in the Himalayas. Advanced yogis can do anything they want.” As a saint whom I often visited high in the Himalayas would say, “Past, present, future: It’s all the same!”
I did not know at the time that my own mother was a Kriyaban (practitioner of Kriya Yoga, the highest technique of meditation), nor that she had already read Autobiography of a Yogi many years earlier. It was only when she realized how serious I was becoming about these teachings that she told me she had taken the holy Kriya initiation, through Panchanon Bhattacharya,1 a direct and highly advanced disciple of Lahiri Mahasaya, Yogananda’s param-param guru, or guru’s guru. Yogananda called him “Bhattacharya Mahasaya.” (Mahasaya means “great-souled.” To this day a picture of him hangs in Yogananda’s meditation room at his boyhood home at 4 Garpar Road.)
From the time I was six years old until the beginning of World War II my mother went often by train on the several-hour journey it took to reach Panchanon’s lovely ashram, where he lived with his disciples. The ashram was situated on seventeen acres of land in Deoghar, a small town in the state of Bihar about 170 miles northeast of Calcutta. As I was only a small boy, I would play outside while she sat, absorbed in his spirit. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize at the time that my mother was in the presence of a great saint!
Now, twenty years later, she told me miracles of his life. She said that many times while visiting her guru, Babaji (the first, still-living, in our line of gurus) would come visit him also! In fact, Babaji came to give Bhattacharya instructions-using him, as she put it, as his secretary!2
“Don’t come tomorrow,” Bhattacharyaji would tell disciples who wanted to see him. “I shall be busy with Babaji.”
It soon became clear that there was something here, in the YSS order, for me. My mind tried to tell me to go back to my familiar world, but my heart kept repeating, almost like a mantra, “Stay with them.” Finally I packed up my few belongings, left home and job, and joined Yogoda Satsanga Society. This was in May, 1955. My two closest friends in the order, Paramananda and Gyanananda, were very happy. I took Kriya Yoga initiation from Atmanandaji, and he advised me to stay with them at our nearby Baranagore Ashram.3 I lived there for a year, after which I transferred to the main math (monastery) in Dakshineswar.
On 5th January, 1956, I took the vows of brahmacharya and the name Karunananda, which means “bliss through compassion.” Also, on this day I met other disciples of Master: Tulsi Bose (Yogananda’s boyhood friend who took Kriya initiation< from him at the age of twenty); Tulsi’s wife, Martan Ma;4 Tulsi’s father Hari Narayan, or, as Master called him, “Baba Mahasaya.” (Baba means “father”; Mahasaya means, as I have said, “great souled.”) Other relatives I met that day were two cousins of Master’s, Prabhas Ghose and Prakash; Ramakrishna Ghosh (who became known to us as Gagan-da5 ), who was the son of Master’s elder brother Ananta, and lived in Serampore;6 Sananda and Bishnu Ghosh, Master’s younger brothers; Thamu-di,7 Master’s younger sister; and many others.
Every Sunday, and on other special occasions, I traveled the seven miles to Dakshineswar. Eventually I came to regard all of these people as not only Master’s family, but as my own family as well.
Swami Atmananda, who had known Gagan since 1910, loved the devotion with which he sang, and would announce with great enthusiasm, “Gagan will lead the singing today!” Gagan-da had one of the sweetest, most melodious voices I have ever heard. I soon became one of his greatest admirers, and would ask him to sing those of Master’s chants that I knew, and that he himself particularly loved, such as “Will That Day Come to Me, Ma?,” “He Hari Sundara! (O God Beautiful!)” and other songs to Divine Mother Kali. He would sing for hours at a time. How his voice thrilled me! I would say to him, “Oh, Da, let us sing!” Whenever he sang, he forgot even food.
Many stories of Master were told the day I took my vows. Thamu-di, Master’s sister, described a literally haunting event that had happened to her as a young girl:
“One day, Mejda (the name Master’s brothers and sisters called him; it means, ‘second-eldest brother’) lost a set of golden buttons inlaid with diamond fittings, given him by our father and for that reason precious to him. Mejda was with his friends Tulsi-da and Prakash Das (Atmanandaji), and asked them what they thought he should do about it. Tulsi-da suggested that he call forth a spirit and ask it to tell him where the buttons were. Mejda then sent for me and, wanting to use me to find the buttons, hypnotized me on the spot.”
I lost outward consciousness. All of a sudden, an evil spirit came into my body and said, ‘One of your best friends took that set of buttons at Shyambazar.8 You will find it in a small box underneath a cot in the left-hand corner of his bedroom.’
“Mejda and Tulsi-da left immediately on their motorcycle for the friend’s home, and found him there. The young man was shocked to see them, and seemed very nervous. Mejda went to his bedroom, found the box, and opened it. There were his buttons! His friend began crying. Mejda said to him, ‘Do not enter my or Tulsi-da’s home ever again.’
”They hurried back home, where I was still lying unconscious. Mejda thanked the evil spirit, then asked him to go. The spirit, however, liked it where he was, and replied, ‘I will go only if you give me my freedom.’ Mejda said, ‘How can I do that? You are an evil spirit!’
“The spirit then said, ‘If you don’t, I won’t leave. I’d rather kill her!’ Master insisted, but the spirit simply wouldn’t listen. Master then turned to Prakash Das and said, calmly but with deep intensity, ‘Hand me the picture of Lahiri Mahasaya.’ Holding that photograph, he said, ‘Evil spirit, I will touch this body with the photograph in my hand if you don’t leave.’ The spirit cried out, ‘All right! All right! I am going. But you must pray for my freedom.’ Mejda agreed, and said that in time he would attain salvation. Then he blessed the spirit.”
As soon as the spirit was gone, Mejda began praying for me until I returned to consciousness. He then gave me some hot milk, and told me that my disposition was ‘very soft.’9 He blessed me, but it took another hour for me to feel well.
“Mejda never again used hypnosis for his own ends.”
- Panchanon Bhattacharya was one of the three disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya who witnessed the manifestation of the great guru’s physical form after he’d left his body in death.
- By “secretary” is meant, one assumes, someone who could produce for him some spiritual treatise, as in the case of Sri Yukteswar, whom he asked to write the book, The Holy Science; or one who could carry out certain tasks for him, just as when he gave Master instructions and advice regarding his work.
- At that time, YSS had two ashrams outside Calcutta not far from each other. In 1961, however, the Baranagore ashram was sold.
- Martan is the highest expression of the term, Mother. Master gave her that name, and always called her that.
- The suffix, “da,” means “elder brother.” I called him, simply, “Da” as a term of affection. I felt toward him this sense of familial closeness.
- Its original name, which is still used by the people of the town, was Sri Ram Pur, which means, “City of Lord Rama.” It wasn’t until much later, in 1961 in Serampore, that I got to meet Gagan’s wife Meera. Master had not only picked her out as the ideal wife for Gagan, but had also performed the wedding ceremony himself, in 1936. Over two thousand people had attended the ceremony! I found her sweet, compassionate, and completely devoted to God and Guru. Martan and Meera Ghosh were very good friends, and to this day Meera and I have a deep and sincere friendship in God.
- “Di” is a suffix signifying, “older sister,” which of course she was in relation to us, though she was younger than Master.
- A shopping place about two miles from their home.
- He may have meant, “too susceptible.”