By Swami Chetanananda
590 pages, 55 photos
What if, in the long era before cameras and recording equipment, a skilled writer with a photographic memory had followed Jesus, Muhammad or Moses, carefully noting every word he spoke, every interaction with his devotees, every event of his day? This information would be invaluable, providing unparalleled insight into a great religious figure, most of whose sayings have been lost to history. In the late 19th century just such an appealing scenario actually occurred.
For four and a half years, Mahendra Nath Gupta (1854-1932), a high school headmaster from Calcutta, painstakingly transcribed every one of his encounters with the remarkable Bengali saint Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Ramakrishna’s inspiring teachings regarding the equal value of all religions and the transformative power of ecstatic love for God quickly spread not only through India but also throughout the Western world. This was due in no small part to the immense appeal of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the spiritual classic written by Mahendra Nath Gupta based on his detailed diary notes. This influential volume has rightly been hailed as one of the greatest spiritual biographies of all time. The English translation published in 1942 was edited by the legendary mythologist Joseph Campbell with assistance from Margaret Woodrow Wilson, daughter of the 28th U.S. president, and contained an introduction by famed British humanist Aldous Huxley.
While The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is universally acknowledged as a masterpiece, the man who actually wrote it remains virtually unknown. He left scarcely a trace of himself in his work, focusing instead entirely on the luminous personality of Sri Ramakrishna. This has left many readers wondering who was this “M.,” as he styled himself, the invisible author who didn’t even include his full name in his book?
Thanks to Swami Chetanananda, we finally have a biography of the biographer. Mahendra Nath Gupta, the self-effacing author who craved no accolades, at last emerges from the shadows. We discover a highly intelligent Bengali schoolteacher whose dreams of studying at Oxford were undermined by poverty and bereavement. Burdened with financial obligations and continuous family discord, Gupta became nearly suicidal. Grace and desperation led him to Ramakrishna, the unconventional temple priest at Dakshineswar who became his guru. By the close of his life Gupta was recognized as a saint in his own right, his life transmuted by the spiritual master whose activities he observed so closely and reported so vividly.
Swami Chetanananda has explored every available historical source for information about the humble devotee whose 177 diary entries would grow into one of the most engaging spiritual portraits ever compiled. Mahendra Nath Gupta: The Recorder of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna also includes reminiscences by such historical figures as the poet and dramatist Dilip Kumar Roy and the world-renowned yogi Paramahamsa Yogananda.
I believe Mahendra Nath Gupta would be pleased that even though this new biography is about him, in many respects its central focus remains Sri Ramakrishna, many of whose lively and inspired conversations are preserved in this volume. The transformation of an unhappy Bengali schoolmaster into a biographer and saint is only one of Ramakrishna’s countless miracles. Many thanks to Swami Chetanananda for illuminating the lives of both these extraordinary men, the brilliant spiritual master and his unassuming devotee who simply and honestly wrote everything down.
In a world in which much spirituality is contrived, even ersatz, the story of Ramakrishna — India’s greatest modern saint — remains a perpetual fountain of authenticity. Entrée into his extraordinarily uplifting world is obtained, of course, via his biography, but also, and in some senses equally or even more powerfully, through study of the lives of those who were transformed by him. Among the latter, Mahendra Nath Gupta — to whom we owe the most reliable accounts of day-to-day life with Ramakrishna — is of paramount importance. This is all the more the case as Gupta (or “M.” as he has been known to readers of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna) was not a monk but a married man with children and all the obligations of family. A study of his life will bear abundant fruit for any student of spirituality. We all owe a great deal to Swami Chetanananda for this engaging and meticulously researched account, which for seekers and scholars alike will become a “must read.”
Eminent writers praise “M.”
“M.”, as the author modestly styles himself, was peculiarly qualified for his task. . . . Making good use of his natural gifts and of the circumstances in which he found himself, M. produced a book unique, so far as my knowledge goes, in the literature of hagiography. No other saint has had so able and indefatigable a Boswell.
If I had to use one single word to describe the atmosphere of the Gospel narrative, it would be the word Now. . . . The service M. has rendered us and future generations can hardly be exaggerated. Even the vainest of authors might well have been humbled, finding himself entrusted with such a task. M. was the least vain.
List of Illustrations
1. Early Life (1854-1874)
2. As a Householder and School Teacher
3. First Meetings with Ramakrishna
4. The Guru and the Disciple
5. With Ramakrishna in Various Places
6. Christmas Vacation with Ramakrishna
7. Two New Entries from M.’s Diary
8. The Stage for Ramakrishna’s Divine Play
9. Service to the Master
10. Ramakrishna’s Love for M.
11. Last Days with Ramakrishna
12. After Ramakrishna’s Passing Away
13. M. at the Baranagore Math
14. Some Early Drafts of Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita
15. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: A History
16. The Centenary of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna
17. Pilgrimage and Austerities
18. Holy Mother and M.
19. M. and Swami Vivekananda
20. An Ideal Householder Devotee
21. The Morton Institution and Naimisharanya
22. M. as a Guide at Dakshineswar and Cossipore
23. What Ramakrishna Taught
24. From Death to Immortality
25. Swami Satprakashananda
26. Gokuldas Dey
27. Lalit Bandyopadhyay
28. Ramesh Chandra Sarkar
29. Swami Dharmeshananda
30. Swami Kamaleshwarananda
31. Mahendra Kumar Chaudhury
32. Sailendra Kumar Gangopadhyay
33. Satish Chandra Nath
34. Shanti Kumar Mitra
35. Amulya Krishna Sen
36. Swami Jagannathananda
37. Tarani Purakayastha
38. Brahmachari Yatindranath
39. Jitendranath Chattopadhyay
40. Abinash Sharma
41. N. Bangarayya
42. Paul Brunton
43. Paramahamsa Yogananda
44. Dilip Kumar Roy
45. Swami Shivananda
Appendix 1 — Correspondence of Romain Rolland with M.
Appendix 2 — A Brief History of M.’s House
Appendix 3 — M.’s Family Tree
Appendix 4 — Chronology of M.’s Life
List of Illustrations
Mahendra Nath Gupta (M.) at Bel-tala in Dakshineswar, 1927
M. in his younger days
Ramakrishna’s bedroom at Dakshineswar
Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar in 1884
Panihati festival ground; Kankurgachi Yogodyana
Northern Nahabat at Dakshineswar
Early picture of the Temple Garden of Dakshineswar
Map of Dakshineswar Temple Garden
Shyampukur House; Ramakrishna’s room at Shyampukur
Cossipore garden house; Ramakrishna’s room at Cossipore
Raghuvir’s shrine and Ramakrishna’s room at Kamarpukur
Ramakrishna’s writing in Bengali
Devotees with Ramakrishna’s body before cremation
Baranagore Math; monks and devotees at Baranagore
M.’s diary, page 1 (first and second visit, Feb., 1882)
M.’s diary, page 2 (second and third visit, Feb./March 1882)
M.’s diary, page 3 (fourth visit, March 1882)
M.’s diary, page 4 (fifth visit, March 1882)
M.’s diary, page 5 (visit to Vidyasagar, Aug. 1882)
M.’s diary, page 6 (visit to Vidyasagar, Aug. 1882)
M.’s diary, page 7 (some notes of M.)
Ten of M.’s diaries and his inkpot
Holy Mother in 1905; Holy Mother’s thumb print
Swami Vivekananda at Cossipore garden house in 1886
Group photo of swamis and devotees
M.’s room in the attic; Morton Institution
Mother Kali of Dakshineswar; Krishna Temple, Kali Temple, Natmandir of Dakshineswar
Bel-tala; Panchavati at Dakshineswar
M. in his old age; M. with Brahmachari Balai
M.’s monument at Cossipore cremation ground
Steps leading to M.’s shrine; Entrance at M.’s house
Sri Chandi Mangal Ghat installed by Holy Mother; M.’s shrine with picture of Ramakrishna and some of Master’s relics
Clothing and shoes used by Ramakrishna
M.’s bedroom on the second floor; M.’s shoes
Painting of nesting bird visualized by Ramakrishna; Roof garden at M.’s house
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar; Keshab Chandra Sen Vijaykrishna Goswami; Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar
Illustration of the Dakshineswar temple complex, 1920
Cossipore garden house; Balaram Basu’s house, 1920
Early Life (1854-1874)
It is extremely difficult to write about a man who was reticent, selfeffacing, humble, reluctant to speak about himself, and preferred to be hidden from the public gaze. There is a saying: “The more secret it is, the stronger and more fruitful it becomes; the more it is expressed, the weaker and more superficial it becomes.” For this reason mystics and true spiritual aspirants like to remain anonymous. Mahendra Nath Gupta (known as M.) wanted to be hidden but failed: His immortal work, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, made him famous. People from all over the world flocked to see M., and he would talk to them only about God. When they would ask, “Please tell us something about Sri Ramakrishna,” he would quote the conversation between the disciple and the teacher in the Kena Upanishad: The disciple said, “Teach me the Upanishad,” and the preceptor remained silent for a while and then replied, “I have already told you the Upanishad.”1 By this, Mahendra meant that as he knew only Ramakrishna and nothing else, whatever came through his lips was about him. If anyone asked M. about his personal life, he would invariably turn the conversation to Ramakrishna. He infused his identity with his beloved guru and acted as his Master’s voice throughout the rest of his life. M. was born on Friday, 14 July 1854, at 5:55 a.m. The place of his birth was at Shivanarayan Das Lane, Shimulia, in North Calcutta, and it is very close to Swami Vivekananda’s birthplace. Coincidentally, at that time Ramakrishna was living in that same area, helping his brother by performing rituals in private homes.
M.’s father, Madhusudan Gupta, was a pious man and worked in the Calcutta High Court. His mother, Swarnamayi Devi, was extremely devoted to God. It is said that she had this special child after worshipping Lord Shiva and praying to Him for a long time. Madhusudan and Swarnamayi had five sons and six daughters: Kailashchandra, Khirodvasini, Saudamini, Kshetramohan, Ramanmohini, Manmohini, Akshaykumar, Binodini, Mahendra Nath, Durgamani, and Kishori. (Kishori also became a devotee of Ramakrishna.) Shortly after M.’s birth, Madhusudan bought a house nearby at 13/2 Guruprasad Chaudhury Lane, which M. later named Thakur Bari, the Lord’s House. Now it is also known as Kathamrita Bhavan, the House of the Kathamrita. M. was handsome and had a fair complexion. He was very dear to his parents and neighbours. His primary school teacher was also fond of him because of his sweet nature and intelligence. From an early age, M.’s calm face, large and distinctive eyes, gentle voice, and charming personality attracted others.
Service to the Master
Humility, the spirit of inquiry, and personal service rendered to the teacher are requirements of discipleship. Krishna says in the Gita: “Learn it [the Truth] by prostration, by inquiry, and by service. The wise, who have seen the Truth, will teach you that Knowledge.”1 There is also a saying: “One can attain God by service, worship, and humility.” M. was endowed with all these qualities. Very few people had the opportunity to serve Ramakrishna. He did not allow people to serve him who were not pure and guileless, who earned money through unfair means, who offered him food with ulterior motives, who lied, or who were of questionable character. On the other hand, the Master needed someone nearby to hold him when he would go into samadhi, or to carry his water pot, because he could not touch any metal.
On 20 June 1884 Ramakrishna said to M.: “You see, I am having some difficulty about my physical needs. It will be nice if Baburam lives with me. The nature of these attendants of mine is undergoing a change. Latu is always tense with spiritual emotion. He is about to merge himself in God. Rakhal is getting into such a spiritual mood that he can’t do anything even for himself. I have to get water for him. He isn’t of much service to me.”2 Moreover, Rakhal had to visit his home occasionally. Although several devotees lived with the Master, when he was in samadhi he could bear the touch of only certain people.
“Do stay with me. It will be very nice. In this mood I cannot allow others to touch me.” Baburam was a student at M.’s school. He was deemed a proper attendant for Ramakrishna because of his absolute purity. He was one of those fortunate souls whose touch the Master could accept during samadhi. Many were the occasions when he was found supporting the Master in that state lest he should fall and be injured. Later, Baburam reminisced: “Sri Ramakrishna was the embodiment of purity. A man earned a lot of money by taking bribes. One day this person touched the Master’s feet while he was in samadhi and he cried out in pain. During the Master’s samadhi we had to hold him so he would not fall, but we were afraid. We thought that if we were not pure enough, then, when we touched him during samadhi, he would publicly cry out in pain. So we prayed for purity. It was the Master’s grace that I was allowed to live with him.”
Reminiscences of Mahendranath Gupta by Swami Satprakashananda
It was at the end of January 1908 that I first had the opportunity to leave my home city, Dhaka — at that time the capital of the province of East Bengal and Assam — for a trip to Calcutta, which was then the capital of British India and of West Bengal. I was in my first year at an intermediate college located in Dhaka that was affiliated with the University of Calcutta. I came to Calcutta, accompanied by a relative, with a concession travelling ticket of about ten days, mainly for the purpose of pilgrimage. While Dhaka is situated on the river Budiganga, Calcutta is situated on the Ganges, which derives from the Bhagirathi, the main stream of the Ganges. According to Hindu astrology there was to be a rare auspicious day for a sacred bath in the Ganges on account of a solar eclipse at dawn. The auspicious day happened to be, as far as I can recall, on Monday, 3 February 1908. The day was further sanctified by the special position of a notable constellation. Most probably I arrived in Calcutta on Saturday, 1 February.
Being closely connected with the Ramakrishna movement at Dhaka from an early age, I was familiar with the names of most of the people and places associated with the life of Ramakrishna, and within the reach of Calcutta. I had had the good fortune to see Swami Vivekananda for three days when he visited Dhaka in March 1901. I also had the privilege of carrying on the work of the Ramakrishna Association of Dhaka since the autumn of 1905. In our meetings held every Saturday evening we used to read The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (the Kathamrita), and then sing some devotional songs.”