A Bohemian Devotee of Sri Ramakrishna
By Swami Chetanananda
A portrait of a legendary playwright and actor with an introduction by Christopher Isherwood
Hardback. 496 pages, 46 photos.
Girish Chandra Ghosh (1844 – 1912) was the father of Bengali theatre, Calcutta’s own Goethe, as brilliant and prolific as Shakespeare. A massively successful playwright, composer, actor and director, he virtually single-handedly created the modern performing arts in northeastern India. But that’s just a small part of his story.
On 21 September 1884, a priest from the nearby Kali temple arrived at Girish’s Star Theatre to watch his play, Chaitanya Lila. It was Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, one of the greatest saints of the nineteenth century. The meeting of these two giants — one a star of the stage, the other a star of spirit — would prove portentous. At the feet of the spiritual master, Girish would claim his most celebrated role, as Ramakrishna’s beloved and exuberantly unconventional devotee.
“I am a sinner,” Girish told Ramakrishna frankly when the two met; he was a drunkard and a debauchee, but never a hypocrite. Their remarkable relationship is a classic story of redemption, as Ramakrishna’s unconditional acceptance and gentle guidance transformed Girish from a committed atheist into a passionate lover of God.
Girish Ghosh’s genius was rooted in his pervasive experience of death. He lost his parents early in life, and at various times most of his siblings, both his wives, and even some of his young children. Unrelenting tragedy drove the famous writer to alcoholism, but also gave depth and power to his enormous body of work. Ramakrishna helped Girish see beyond his personal tragedies into the beauty and subtle purpose of the Divine Mother’s will.
Ramakrishna’s part in the history of religions is well known: he modeled religious tolerance and respect for all traditions during his life; after his death, his disciple Swami Vivekananda was among the first to bring the wisdom of yoga and Vedanta to the West. Few of his Western admirers realize however, that Ramakrishna was and remains even today the patron saint of the stage in his native Bengal, a testament to his enduring impact on Girish Ghosh and the artists and actors of India.
Swami Chetanananda’s authoritative biography provides a fascinating introduction to Ramakrishna’s most colourful and least orthodox devotee. Details of numerous encounters between master and disciple have been preserved; we actually see Ramakrishna teaching and reshaping this difficult student. Chetanananda also describes Girish Ghosh’s contributions to the development of modern Bengali theatre and summarizes some of his most influential plays, revealing Ramakrishna’s direct influence. The sparkling arts and vibrant spirituality of nineteenth century Calcutta — at that time a cultural centre of British India — comes to life in this vivid portrait of that magical era.
The readers are grateful to Swami Chetanananda for preparing this exhaustively documented account of Girish Chandra Ghosh for the English-speaking world. Till now Ghosh has remained a charming and intriguing shadow figure to those of us who do not read Bengali. Now at last this brilliant artist and humanitarian will receive the worldwide attention he has always deserved.
This is an important book for everyone who has been touched by the extraordinary life of Ramakrishna, and for anyone who wonders if a sinner truly can become a saint.
Girish Chandra Ghosh — actor, playwright, devotee — was a most interesting personality who became all the more unforgettable in his deep devotion to Sri Ramakrishna. Ghosh’s fascinating life story enriches our understanding and appreciation of Sri Ramakrishna’s world and the community that gathered around him and kept his memory alive. Swami Chetanananda’s thorough study gives us a real feel for Calcutta society in the years before 1900, and the way in which Sri Ramakrishna’s transformative influence was felt on all levels of society.
Girish was a person of great animal vitality, strength, ingenuity, force, drive, and indeed genius — a protean kind of talent. He was a poet, a dramatist, an actor, and he threw himself into everything with the utmost vitality. It was a function, an aspect, of this vitality that he was also exceedingly sensual; he had a considerable sex life, which was much discussed by everybody around him; and he drank enormously, took opium, and so forth. A modern poet has said: “A saint is easy to recognize; his constitution is designed for vice.” He meant that in the case of somebody like Girish, without this energy he would not have had all the positive qualities as well as the negative ones.
List of Illustrations
Biographical Introduction by Christopher Isherwood
1. “I Am a Sinner”
2. Early Life to Adulthood (1844–1879)
3. As an Accountant (1864–1879)
4. As an Actor (1867–1879)
5. As a Playwright and Actor (1880–1884)
6. As a Playwright and Actor (1885–1912)
7. As a Dramatic Director
8. From Atheist to Devotee (1867–1873)
9. Chaitanya Lila
10. Prahlada Charitra
11. Nimai Sannyas
13. Daksha Yajna
14. Sri Ramakrishna: Patron Saint of Bengali Stage
15. Three Stars — Binodini, Tarasundari, and Tinkari
16. Ramakrishna’s Influence on Girish’s Plays
17. Reminiscenses of Ramakrishna
18. Conversations with Ramakrishna
19. The Power of Attorney
20. Days with Ramakrishna
21. Girish and Vivekananda
22. Girish and Holy Mother
23. Girish and the Monastic Disciples of Ramakrishna
24. Girish and the Devotees of Ramakrishna
25. Further Glimpses of Girish
26. Interviews and Reminiscenses
27. Departure from the World Stage
Girish’s father was very practical and honest. Once a poor neighbour came to him for a job. Nilkamal agreed to employ him in his office on the condition that he deduct five rupees from his salary every month. The man agreed, but his relatives criticized Nilkamal’s mean-mindedness. However, that man died after some years and his family fell into a dire financial crisis. Nilkamal called in the man’s wife and told her: “Your husband deposited five rupees each month with me when he was working in my office. This amount that I am giving to you is his total savings, including interest. Another poor neighbour borrowed 500 rupees from Nilkamal to pay for his daughter’s wedding. He agreed to pay fifteen rupees per month to clear the loan. This man was an alcoholic and he suffered from asthma.
After paying back 450 rupees, he asked Nilkamal to write off the remaining fifty rupees. But Nilkamal demanded the entire amount and said: “You have money to buy alcohol. Don’t you feel ashamed asking me to forgive your debt?” At last the loan was paid off. The man died within a year, leaving behind a few children. Nilkamal called the man’s wife and said: “I asked your husband to stop drinking, but he did not listen to me. I knew that he would not live long. I am now giving you the five hundred rupees that he repaid me. Please clear your debts and use the remainder to raise your children.”
The neighbours were amazed by Nilkamal’s generosity and farsightedness. On another occasion, a friend complained to Nilkamal about his wayward son, saying: “My boy did not finish school. He does not like to work or obey. He wanders around and spends his time fishing.” Nilkamal told his friend: “Why don’t you lease a couple of ponds and ask your son to grow fish and sell them? It will satisfy his hobby and be a good source of income for the family.” That wayward young man eventually became a successful fish merchant and earned a lot of money. Thus Nilkamal’s practical advice helped his friends and neighbours.
Girish’s mother was very devout; she served their family deity, Lord Sridhar (Vishnu), every day. Once Raimani saved a ripe jackfruit for the offering but one of her children — probably Girish — ate part of the fruit. During her devotions she noticed that someone had already eaten some of the fruit, so she did not offer it to the Lord. (According to the Hindu custom, food defiled in that manner cannot be offered to the deity.) That night she dreamt that a beautiful young child with a blue complexion said to her with a smile: “I love jackfruit. Why did you not offer it to me? It does not matter that it is defiled; I also dwell in your children. Tomorrow, offer that remaining piece of jackfruit to me.” Girish included this story in one of his writings.
Ramakrishna’s Influence on Girish’s Plays
One day when Girish was depressed he went to see the Master. To alleviate his depression, the Master told Girish the story of Vilwamangal and asked him to base a drama on it. The Master described to Girish the nature of a real saint and also the character of a false monk. He himself showed this to Girish by demonstrating the gestures and deportment of a hypocritical monk. Girish depicted this monk in the character of Sadhak in Vilwamangal Thakur. He also created a character named Pagalini in this drama. This role was based on an unbalanced woman who would come to Ramakrishna in Dakshineswar and Cossipore and disturb him. The devotees called her Pagalini (crazy woman).
Girish had observed her devotion and longing for God, and he dramatized this in that character. He also composed some songs that the character sang in the drama. These songs describe the different stages of sadhana. After seeing Vilwamangal Thakur performed, a philosopher said to Girish: “Sir, the purpose of writing Vilwamangal has been fulfilled by one sentence in the drama: ‘The result of the vision of Krishna is the vision of Krishna and nothing else.’ ” If one has the vision of God once, that experience never goes away. After seeing and reading Vilwamangal many times, Swami Vivekananda remarked: “Girish’s Vilwamangal surpasses the plays of Shakespeare. I have never read a book with such lofty ideas.” Chandrakanta Basu, a famous writer and critic, said: “Vilwamangal is Girish’s masterpiece.”
Girish’s Middle Years
Girish worked in various capacities for different businesses over a period of fifteen years. He had indomitable energy, which he increasingly devoted to the theatre. It became common practice for him to work all day at the office then go to the theatre in the evening to act in a play, returning home at three or four o’clock in the morning. Pramodini became very ill after giving birth to their stillborn daughter. Girish then regretted that he had been so occupied with the theatre, acting, and his wayward lifestyle, and had not paid sufficient attention to his wife, so he now went to work during the day and stopped acting at night. He also engaged the best doctors for his wife, and began to take care of her himself as well. At night he would study, and sometimes become so absorbed in his books that he did not notice when dawn appeared. Pramodini’s illness turned more serious and the doctors lost hope. She died on 24 December 1874, leaving a son and a daughter. Girish was 30 years old. At first Girish was not much perturbed by her death, but over time his heart became tormented with grief. He considered himself an atheist, so he could not take solace in God. And because the Atkinson Tilton Company had failed, he could not turn his mind to that work to ease the pain….
As drugs and alcohol temporarily distract a person from pain and anguish, so does the effort to write poetry. To escape his agonizing grief, the rebel Girish began to write poems. His compositions during this period were full of melancholy. That man is indeed unfortunate who loses his mother in childhood, his father in boyhood, and his wife in early manhood. Girish had suffered all three losses, and in addition, his employer had gone out of business. A thick, dark cloud of despair hovered over him. As God created grief to subdue man, so man created wine to subdue grief. Girish began to drink heavily.
After a short period, Girish took a job with Fribarger & Company. But the creative mind of a genius is never idle. Whenever his office duties allowed, he continued to write poems expressing his grief. Some time after taking this job, he went on a business trip to Bhagalpur, in Central India. One day while he was there he went for a walk with some friends and, in a boisterous mood, jumped into a deep ravine. When he tried to climb out he found he was unable to do so. His friends then attempted to rescue him, but they failed. One of them commented: “Now we are in real trouble. You are an atheist, and yet no one can save you now but God. Let us all pray together.” Girish found himself joining wholeheartedly in the prayer, and strangely, just then he found a way out of the ravine. After he was safe he said to his friends: “Today I have called on God out of fear. If I ever call on Him again, it will be out of love; otherwise I will not call on Him, even at the cost of my life.”