In the year 1912 I came across a little book in Hindi called “ Sohum Tattwa ” on Vedanta. The subject was. treaded scientifically and boldly disregarded the orthodox opinion of the Brahmins who, while acknowledging the truth of the unity of spirit and the divinity of man, still remained tied to the rules of the caste system. The book gave me the impression that the writer must have been a man of great spiritual realization. My efforts to know his history were successful.
Shyam Kant Banarji was known throughout Bengal as the strongest man living, who gave demonstrations of his powers by fighting unarmed with wild Bengal tigers. He came from Dacca, a town in Eastern Bengal. He had organized a circus in which he gave exhibitions of fighting single-handed with tigers tamed by himself. It did not take him long to become a prosperous gentleman. He led the life of an ordinary man of wealth who is without much culture, indulging freely in the material pleasures that money could procure. He was a familiar figure at the big receptions and parties given in Calcutta. He stayed at fashionable hotels, moved in “ high circles ” and enjoyed the company of the envied society clique in Bengal. His name became a household word and the Bengalis, whom Macaulay had called cowards, pointed to him with pride and joy as one of themselves. He danced, drank the costliest wines and slept on a most luxurious bed.
In May, 1913, when spring had spread forth beauty and colour, fragrance and the song of birds in every quarter, I came to Bhowali, a small hill station deep in the Himalayas. Situated amongst the heaven-kissing peaks, Bhowali is equidistant from two great lakes each over 6,000 feet above sea level, Naintal and Bhimtal. Here the crystal-clear water, the shade of tall leafy trees and an emerald-green carpet woven with flowers of every hue spread beside the lakes, gave to the place the charm of fairyland. Bathed in sunshine, swept by cool breezes and flickering with the shadows of giant trees, the valley was a picture of peace : it drove out all thought of strife, ambition and power, and in their place welled up that feeling of inner peace which finds an easy outlet in places hidden in the bosom of Nature. On the slope of a hill in the middle of the village lay a small bungalow called “ The Hermitage ”. A long and narrow path led me through a garden of flowers and ferns to the door of the cottage and I was wondering if Sohum Swami, the author of the little book which I had read, really lived here. Soon afterwards, a figure over six-foot tall, robust, cheerful, with peace radiating from him, appeared at the door and, affectionately grasping both my hands in his, gave me a somewhat forceful welcome.
I put my baggage in the guest room of the Swami’s cottage. There were in all two small rooms and one slightly larger one. The Swami slept on the floor on a tiger skin in his room, where there was a little collection of books including the songs of Shri Shankaracharya, the Upanishads and a few classics in Bengali. The large room was used for dining and conversation. The Swami cooked his own food, consisting of roots, leaves and rice, on an oil stove and shared it with his guests.
Shyam Kant Banarji had become a Sannyasin and adopted the name of Sohum (“ I am That ”) Swami. I was told by the gardener that, soon after his arrival in the village, the hill men gave up the drunken orgies which had once been common, litigation came to an end and everyone lived in harmony. After breakfast, the Swami retired for his meditations. I stood in the garden, watching the hillmen’s children at play in the yard and enjoying the beauty of the hills. A ray of bliss seemed to issue forth from the meditation room of the Swami, pervading the whole atmosphere. I was bathed in peace and joy. Some time later, the Swami called me to his study. He paid me a high compliment for my attainments in the Indian classics and encouraged me in myyogic practices, adding : “ Shri Dadaji was one of the great Mahatmas of the age. You are fortunate to have had his blessings. I cannot teach you anything more than what that great light has given you ”.
One evening, after joint meditations, the Swami told me that he was born in a Brahmin family in a village in Bengal. When a boy of twelve, he happened to meet a Sadhu who lived in a straw hut near his village and was supposed to meditate day and night. Popular opinion took him as a mad recluse who had the power of healing any disease and of reading the thoughts of others. The Sadhu took him into his hut and said : “ Child, you will one day be a remarkable man. I have known you in your previous incarnations, in which you have suppressed your emotions by force without trying to sublimate them. Now you must let them have judicious free play, and keep your mind on God. Be truthful and stand by your friends ”. Then he gave him a short meditation and said : “ Go on with this daily and you will not be. lost. When the time is ripe and you are ready, renounce all and you will enjoy the bliss of Nirvana and give peace and joy to others ”.
Thirty-five years after this incident, when Shyam Kant was at the height of his fame, wealth and luxury, the Sadhu, who had long since left his physical body, appeared before him one night and said : “ Shyam, the time has come for you to enter the spiritual life. You have done well in your worldly life but now you have to determine how you will live in your next incarnation. You must now learn to train the tigers within yourself and to be master of them. Are you willing ? If you fail now, your lot will be that of a common athlete, and you will be unable to make your contribution to the spiritual and ethical progress of humanity. You are free to do what you like. God be with you ”.
The following morning, Shyam resolved to adopt the new life. He dissolved his circus company, paid off his employees, sold his animals and distributed the money thus obtained among the poor. Starting off as a penniless mendicant, he made for the holy plain of Naimcharyana and, entering a thick forest in the old Buddha fashion, devoted day and night to thoughts of self-conquest and meditation. He lived alone and no one in the vicinity knew of his past. After five years of solitude and meditation, the peace of Nirvana descended upon him and he realised his unity with cosmic life. Now came the illumination which wiped out all suffering and sorrow and made him a Mahatma. So great was the ecstasy that for six months he did not know where he was nor how he lived. Then came a new call to teach the Truth and to serve humanity, in response to which Shyam wrote a number of books which contained an account of his Realization and shed a new light on the philosophy of the Vedas.
His chief contribution was that he freed Vedanta from the shackles of orthodoxy and taught the uselessness of the caste system, the freedom of women and the brotherhood of all nations. In his great work called “ Sohum Sanghita ”, he teaches that the philosophy of Vedanta is the common heritage of all, and that realization of the Truth is independent of meaningless ceremonies. He recognizes selfcontrol and a high moral character as the prime essentials for Self-Realization. There is no national narrowness in his teaching. He stands for widow re-marriage, universal free education and hospitals for birds and animals.
Sohum Swami lived and taught up to the age of seventy. Those who went to see him received light from him. While I was in China some years ago, news reached me of the death of the Swami in India. He died peacefully without ever having been a burden to anyone, even for a day.
Sohum Swami did not believe in forcibly restraining the emotions or in any abrupt change. He taught that emotional experience should, however, be reconsidered in the light of spiritual experience. He published a book of English verse, the title of which is “ Truth ”.