From Questioning to Quest
Things happen when they are meant to happen. When we look back upon our lives, we would wish that many a time things could, or ought to have been different. But they weren’t: whatever took place, well, just took place… At that time there was no way we could have altered the turn of events although, upon reflection later, we feel that if we had done this or that earlier, maybe, just maybe life could have unfolded otherwise. Perhaps that is why we have the expression ‘to be wise after the event.’
As Swami Suddhananda from Chennai observed during one of his discourses when he visited a few years ago, ‘Life is the only exam that we first take and then later realise that we needed to prepare for it.’ That’s after we have made mistakes and tumbled, following which some get up and go forward again, having learnt their lessons – what we call experience – while others, who don’t learn or refuse to, cannot rise to face their lives again.
The sum total of the collective experience of mankind is that some things are under our control, but many things are not. If we learnt early on in our lives to distinguish between these two categories, then by taking charge of and responsibility for things that we can control — for example, how much time and effort we need to put in for our studies – we could have some influence at least over the direction which we take. But as Swamiji said, we take life’s test first and afterwards when it is already too late we think about preparation. Although it is also said that ‘it is never too late.’
But still, things happen when they have to happen…
I sat next to my friend Raj last Saturday at M-Cine in Trianon to watch the film ‘On A Quest’ about the life of Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda, and before the film started we were exchanging some notes as it were. He told me how in 1977 when Pujya Gurudev had come to Mauritius for the first time and he was invited by a friend to meet the latter, he had no interest – but was among those who mobilized people to go and listen to Gurudev’s public discourse at the Rose-Hill stadium in 1987. By that time Raj had become an active member of the Chinmaya Mission, founded in 1979 by Swami Pranavananda whose teachings he was following regularly, and supporting Swamiji in his activities at the ashram.
And I told him my story – how in 1987 a close friend and colleague had invited me to join him and other common friends to attend Gurudev’s discourse at Rose-Hill, and I repeated to Raj what had been my response: ‘Please, these Swamis, give me a break!’ I didn’t go for that talk. The supreme irony is that not only did I, ten years later in August 1997, participate in the annual camp for students at the Chinmaya Ashram, courtesy Raj, but a few more years later I became a student of Swami Pranava there, and in 2002 took on as the president of the Executive Committee!
This is the background that led to my subsequent involvement with the Chinmaya movement, and Swami Pranava set me on course when, as I was leaving that Sunday in 1997 when the camp was over, he gifted me as prasad a copy of Pujya Gurudev’s biography by American journalist Nancy Patchen. ‘The Journey of a Master’ was about ‘The Man, the Path, the Teaching’ and was ‘unputdownable’ once I began to read it, completing it in a week, and overwhelmed by the contents.
Subsequently I wrote a few articles about Pujya Gurudev in this paper, and watching the film has been a deep immersive experience not only for me but for every single viewer as far as I have come to know. Both shows were played to a full house, and because of the enthusiasm and demand, there will be a third one on the 27 June at the same venue, from 3 to 5 pm. I plan to take along some friends who have not seen it, and thus I will be viewing it a second time, as many have done already, so captivating it is.
It begins with the frame showing a modern young man giving a talk at some sort of club, and is cheered by the audience of like-minded people as he concludes that he is a rationalist and an atheist. He is then invited to visit the museum in Pune, south of Mumbai, which showcases the life of Pujya Gurudev, and is taken through by a lady guide, who in fact is a disciple at the Chinmaya Mission in Manila, Phillipines.
As he is led through the film arranged in four chapters covering the different phases of Pujya Gurudev’s life, he gradually finds out that the latter too was initially an agnostic, questioning why these Hindu holy men spent their time in the Himalayas instead of coming down to the plains across the country and engaging with the masses. The questioning attitude of Pujya Gurudev resonates with the young atheist, who by the end of the film discovers the transformation of the journalist Balakrishnan Menon into Swami Chinmayananda, who becomes one of the foremost spiritual masters and luminaries of modern India and the founder of Chinmaya Mission Worldwide, with 300 centres spread across the globe today.
Born in Cochin, Kerala, in 1917, Pujya Gurudev lost his mother at an early age, but grew up in an extended joint family where he was well cared for. He began studies in English literature at Lucknow University, and got involved in the student movement as a freedom fighter. World War II was on, and the British were suspicious of any activity that they deemed subversive to their objective of maintaining their supremacy over the country they considered as the ‘jewel in the crown’ amongst their colonies.
Balakrishna Menon, or Balan as he was better known, had to go in hiding in the north of the Indian subcontinent. But he was finally caught up and jailed. In prison the conditions were extreme, with regular beatings and deprivations, poor nutrition and sanitation. During an epidemic of typhus, Balan became seriously ill with the disease and was thought of as dead because he was unconscious. He was taken out and dumped on the road. Luckily he was picked up by an Indian Christian lady whose only son was fighting with the British army in Europe, and she nursed him back to health.
He returned to his home via Baroda in Gujarat, where a cousin stayed, to recuperate further. He then resumed his studies at Lucknow University, and graduated MA in English literature, as well as in journalism. It was as a journalist of the National Herald that he went to the Himalayas to ‘expose’ the sadhus, coming first in contact with Swami Sivananda, founder of the Divine Life Society.
He had come for a few days: the impact of Swami Sivananda on him was such that he stayed on to be ordained as Swami Chinmayananda by the very one he had come to debunk! Swami Sivananda sent him to learn Vedanta under Swami Tapovan Maharaj, and the rest, as the expression goes, is history.
The gist of this history is unfolded as a beautiful story in ‘On A Quest’, and I highly recommend all doubting Thomases to go and see for themselves what happened to one such! They will have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
And also to get a copy of either Nancy Patchen’s book and/or the other biography lavishly produced on the occasion of Pujya Gurudev’s Birth Centenary Celebration ‘He did it’, both available at Chinmaya Mission, Raoul Jollivet Street, Beau Bassin, along with the hundreds of other equally illuminating publications.
* Published in print edition on 29 May 2015