How Dr. Hari Prasad Shastri prepared to set out on his momentous spiritual mission20 min read

Those who are familiar with Dr Hari Prasad Shastri’s writings will know that there were three dominant spiritual figures who inspired and guided his steps in his early life. First and foremost, of course, there was, Shri Dada. But hardly less influential were those two other great spiritual luminaries, Paramahansa Swami Rama Tirtha and Swami Satchitananda.

When, at the end of his incarnation, Swami Rama Tirtha retired to the Vasishtha Ashrama near Tihri in the Himalayas in 1906, he wrote to Dr Shastri describing the beauty of the scene and the fantastic shapes and colours taken on by the light reflected and refracted from the clouds, transforming the entire scene into a blazing sphere of glory:

 “Then the playful children of heaven put on saucy colours. What artist could paint, what observer could note all the passing shades and hues? Look where you will, the eyes are charmed by the orange, purple, violet, roseate colours, while behind these the ever-welcome blue background is peeping out here and there. The effulgent glory brings ecstasy and tears of joy.

The clouds disperse and leave a permanent message behind – they brought a cup of nectar from God and went back to Him.

Of such nature is, in fact, all objects. They appear, reflect Rama’s glory for a second and dissolve … Happy he whose vision no clouds of names and forms can obstruct, who can always trace the light to its, true source, the pure Atman, whose affections reach the goal – God, not being lost on the way like rivers dried up in the sand. Our friends and relatives must vanish.

Dear objects must disappear. They were but postmen. Did you receive from them the Lord’s love letter they brought for you?

The lighted match must burn out, but blessed is he who has lit his lamp permanently from it. The food supply on a steamship must be exhausted ere long, but fortunate the ship that reaches its harbour before supplies are gone. He alone really lives who can make of every object a stepping-stone to God, or a mirror to see Self.

Come when you can; two days’ walk from Tihri brings you to Vasishtha. Ever free in your own Self. Rama”.

Hari Prasad Shastri said he received this invitation as a divine command. He made the difficult journey and stayed some days with Swami Rama on those heights.

One night the paramahansa talked with him alone and said that the world was going to suffer on account of its karma, but that the self-sacrifice of some God-loving men could ameliorate the conditions. He told Dr Shastri that all the rishis of the Himalayas had paid reverence to Shri Dada and added: “We will all be worshipped in Shri Dada. He will give to the West the spiritual philosophy of balance …” Then he took Dr Shastri in his arms and embraced him to his breast, saying: “Little swan, fly in the blue; little brother, love truth. Little friend, go ahead. Those loved by thee will have my blessings, and those loving thee will have the blessings of Vyasa Rishi …”

This was the last meeting which Dr Shastri had with Swami Rama Tirtha on the physical plane, and when he left, the paramahansa walked a mile with him to see him off. They parted with an embrace. This was in 1906, and it was the first intimation that Dr Shastri had of his mission to the West.

This mission had originally been entrusted to Swami Krishnananda by the assembly of rishis gathered in the valley of Dharuli in the Himalayas in the year 1855, as described in the prologue to the “The Heart of the Eastern Mystical Teaching”. In that august assembly Shri Vyasa had proclaimed: “Now let a new era open. A tributary of the holy Gunga of the Gita is winding its way to Great Britain. Thus it has been decreed. This holy and venerable sage (Shri Swami Krishnananda), this representative of the great Shankara, this saint is undertaking the great task. Give your blessings, holy sages.” The mission was handed on to Shri Dada by his guru, and the words which he was overheard saying in his devotions in the Shiva Temple in the garden in Moradabad confirm that he regarded it as the supreme task entrusted to him:

“By your orders, O Avatara of Shankara, I am here, and whatever service I am permitted to render to your children of the depressed classes and to others, is for your glory. The highest miracle is that you have used this antahkarana so undeveloped in intellect, this heart so unlearned in the art of love, and this body so frail, to carry out your wishes. Yet the supreme task which you have given me still awaits fulfilment. The holy Advaita, based on the traditions of Manu and Ikshvaku, is not yet transmitted to Great Britain, where many of your daughters and sons are to incarnate and to have the privilege of being pioneers in the spiritual field … I am in your hands, but if my wishes are worth being listened to, I would remain in an obscure spot near Anupashar on the Ganges and sing out the remaining breaths of my life in your praise …” (“The Heart of the Eastern Mystical Teaching”, p. 105).

Shri Dada often spoke of the spiritual role which Great Britain was to play. He maintained that India had the key to the teachings of Christ and that Great Britain could only meet her responsibilities by becoming Christian in the true sense of the word. Brother B. Allnutt wanted Shri Dada himself to come to England to disseminate the spiritual truth. He wanted to resign from his official position to accompany the Saint Universal and offered to put what resources he had at his disposal. Soon after Christmas in 1909, in the Lala’s garden in Japur, he asked Shri Dada in Hindi: “Holy Father, will you come to London and teach, by the example of your life and by your loving instructions?

I will go with you, and what little I possess in this world I will employ to defray the material expenses.” Shri Dada remained silent for a while and then said slowly: “Dear brother, the sun of my career is sinking below the horizon. I do not believe so much in preaching as in the spiritual truth. Preachers or no preachers, truth finds entry into those hearts which are ready to receive it. Many brahmanical souls, many brahmacharis from the Himalayas, many yogic disciples from the banks of the Ganges are reincarnating in Great Britain. They will have opportunities to know this truth. It will be conveyed without any show, without any drumbeating, and the paramahansa will help its propagation. It may be a slow process, my son, but a fruit which matures naturally is sweet.” (“The Heart of the Eastern Mystical Teaching”, pp. 262-3). Within a few months the holy Guru had withdrawn from the body.

Even before Shri Dada withdrew from the body, Dr. Shastri had received a definite indication that he was to be the one who would carry out the mission to the West entrusted to Shri Dadaji by his paramguru, Swami Krishnananda. In the summer of 1909 Swami Satchitananda was the central figure in the Guru Puja celebration arranged by Pundit Bajnath on his roof-garden in Meerut. All those who were present worshipped their own gurus in the Mahatma Satchitananda.

Shri Dada had introduced Hari Prasad to the mahatma when he visited Meerut, and it was the beginning of a deep and affectionate spiritual relationship between the two. Whenever he could, Dr. Shastri went to hear the discourses of the mahatma, and he said that his life was immensely enriched by this association.

One evening Swami Satchitananda told him that he thought that the orders of the Paramguru Maharaj relating to the dissemination of the holy truth in its purest form, free from nationalistic egoism, were meant for Shri Bodharanya. He embraced Dr. Shastri and kissed him, giving him his blessings with the words: “May Vyasa Deva and Shankara Bhagavan guide you! “

After the parinirvana of Shri Dada on 9 March 1910, the economic difficulties of the family forced Hari Prasad to get a job as a junior clerk in the office of the superintendent of traffic in Moradabad. It was a very difficult and soul-destroying time for him. He made enough money to feed the family and pay for the education of his brother only by taking pupils for extra coaching, and he had to work a sixteen-hour day. In addition, he had attacks of typhoid and dysentery, and his health deteriorated. But he kept the spiritual flame alive. He read Shrimad Bhagavad daily and attended the sat sangs at the temple of the Risaldar, and his love of guru and Govinda was undimmed.

It was at this time in 1910 that Swami Satchitananda suddenly appeared in Moradabad and stayed in a temple outside the city for a few days. Dr. Shastri heard of his arrival and at once went with gifts, placing his head at his feet. Swami Satchitananda said most sweetly to him: “Hariji, trials and misfortunes should be met with fortitude and patience; they are passing. The mind should meet whatever comes, whether pleasant or unpleasant, in a spirit of equanimity and devotion to the Lord.”

Dr Shastri attended upon the paramahansa morning and evening while he was in the town. He introduced the chief clerk, who had some spiritual leanings, to the holy man; but although he admired Swami Satchitananda’s intellectual acumen, he was not interested in the teachings.

The paramahansa stayed in Moradabad for about ten days and then left for the Ganges, As he took leave of him, the holy man said: “Hariji, misfortune can be made an ally instead of an enemy. I know you were out of your element in the society of Moradabad, but God is ever with you. You can ever commune with him and study your Gita. May Shri Dada bless you.” He slowly walked away in his wooden sandals and disappeared into the green and waving fields, and Dr. Shastri was left with tears in his eyes, following his shadow.

Two years later in 1912 Dr. Shastri wrote to Swami Satchitananda, begging him to give him his darshana. They met at Rishikesha, where the paramahansa was staying in a cave in Svarga Ashrama. Dr. Shastri used to go daily and buy a jug of fresh milk from a hill dairy and offer it to the mahatma. He spent a few hours with the mahatma each day in the forest of Tapovana in the vicinity of Lakshmanjhula. It was on this occasion that the paramahansa took him to see the bones of the Vachajnani and gave him wonderful teachings on jivanmukti. He lived in complete obscurity, and Dr. Shastri was the only visitor; but he did have a few walks with Swami Mangalnathji, who was also there. He used to take one meal a day at the free kitchen of the kshetra.

On one occasion, when he had taken Dr. Shastri for a long walk, they climbed to the top of a neighbouring hill and sat down looking at the world from that height. Swami Satchitandaji said: “Hariji, I have lately read some utterances of the Indian swamis in America. I am not satisfied; their knowledge of Vedanta is very shallow; it is mixed up with mundane practices. They try to collect money to erect ashramas. They are not doing any harm to anybody, but ever since the visit of Swami Rama Tirtha there has been no real missionary of Vedanta out of India.”

Hari Prasad begged the swami to go himself to America and offered to be his interpreter. He said that he knew that Pundit Bajnath would be more than willing to provide for the paramahansa’s personal expenses. Swami Satchitananda was silent for a while and then said: “No, Hariji, I love solitude; neither am I a public speaker, nor do I like crowds of people to follow me or to listen to me. I think you are the right man to go and teach Vedanta in the West. Are you willing?” Dr. Shastri told him of Shri Dada’s desire that the message of the holy rishis should be carried to the West, but protested his incompetence on moral grounds. “My emotions were not fully under control; and, although I had no money and no reputation, still there were subtle vasanas which agitated my subconscious.” The swami smiled faintly at these remarks. He observed: “You speak of your inadequacy as a preacher. None of us is perfect. There are few Shri Dadas and few Swami Rama Tirthas and few like Swami Nirbhayananda Sarasvati in the world, but as long as you are not a slave to fame and do not crave personal distinction and attention, you are fit to be a server of truth in the West.”

Dr. Shastri fell silent. The paramahansa placed his hand on Hari Prasad’s head and said: “My son, the holy rishis will bless you. Their influence will touch your soul as long as you adhere to Advaita for its own sake.”

Dr. Shastri received these blessings in silence. He put his forehead at the saint’s feet and shed a few tears of gratitude for the spiritual love and blessings that he had given him. The paramahansa went back to the plains after a short visit, but Dr. Shastri stayed behind and passed a few days in silence, meditating on what the holy swami had said to him.

In 1913 Dr. Shastri in his meditations heard Shri Dada asking him to make a pilgrimage to Shri Badrinath, Kedarnath and Kailash. “None can be a real yogi unless he has been to these holy retreats and lived in the sacred atmosphere of the haunts of the mahatmas.” He therefore obtained nine months’ unpaid leave from the office and early in April 1913 started out on his long pilgrimage to the Himalayas. There are many echoes of this momentous spiritual odyssey in the pages of “Prakasha Brahmachari”.

In the summer of the following year he encountered Paramahansa Satchitananda again, at the memorial ashrama built by Pundit Bajnath in honour of his guru, Swami Nirbhayanandaji, at Barut, some thirty miles from Meerut. It was a simple building, containing a hall, a meditation room, a library and about six rooms furnished with mats for the mahatmas to dwell in. The ashrama was run by a trust which the pundit had set up and endowed as a charity. Two or three swamis, who were old and feeble, were looked after there, and Swami Satchitananda often stayed there. A few yards away there was a canal ditch that carried water from the holy Ganges to help irrigation.

In the summer Swami Satchitananda and his fellow disciples sat by the side of this canal and watched the tranquil flow of the water. Pundit Bajnath, who worked in his law practice in the courts in Meerut during the week, used to come there at the weekends and himself to look after the comfort of the mahatmas and serve Swami Satchitananda. Meetings were held each afternoon at about four, when Swami Satchitananda used to give wonderful discourses on the holy philosophy.

One day Dr. Shastri spoke privately to the holy man and told him of the inner urges that he had to leave India and to preach Advaita abroad. He again expressed his incompetence on moral and academic grounds, but the swami said: “You are needed in this field of work. We are all incompetent; we are all imperfect, but as long as you have no selfish aims, no desire for fame and do not set yourself up as a mahatma, you will have inspiration.

“You will be directly inspired by Swami Rama Tirtha. As you go, believe that you continue the tradition of Shri Swami Rama Tirtha. Keep his memory green in your heart and inspire others with his example.” When the question of meeting the expenses of the journey and of the stay in Japan came up, the swami said: “Do not worry on that score. Pundit Bajnath will help you privately; but we must not talk about it to anybody. The charity of the pundit will be kept very secret.”

At this time the First World War had broken out, and the country was agitated as to what the outcome would be. Swami Satchitananda did not encourage any discussion of the war. “Let us give our spiritual quota of peace to all,” he said. Most of the time he was merged in the contemplation of the identity of his empirical self with the cosmic Self. When he spoke, it was of Brahman, jivanmukti and of Shankaracharya. The only person of whom he ever spoke, and it was with the utmost reverence, was his guru, Shri Swami Nirbhayananda Sarasvati. He referred to him always as Maharaj and used to quote his verses in support of the Vedantic statements he made. When speaking of the attainment of nirvana, he said:          “In my case the cognition of the spiritual truth was a gift of my guru to me. Out of his grace he just conferred it on me. I hardly deserved it, because I was not one of the best servants or followers of the holy Saint.”

Dr. Shastri said that when he took stock of his abilities and capacities, he found himself deficient in the qualities needed by a teacher of Advaita in the regions out of India. But the swami disagreed with him and said: “Hariji, depend upon the blessings of Shri Dada and Swami Rama Tirtha. Do not fear. All you have to do is to keep any desire for name and popularity away and to lead a life of asceticism … The duty of a teacher of Vedanta is to be independent and not to care for anybody’s personal sympathy. Hariji, that suffering which comes to you in the course of detachment can become a matter of very great joy. I know you have very few wants, but do not publish any of them.

The Vedanta preached by the Bengalis in America is not pure Advaita. They are sectarians and partisans; they do not speak enough of Shri Bhagavadpad Acharya and his great disciples. I therefore wish you to go to the West and scatter the seeds of holy Advaita.”

One evening, under the calm star light, as they finished their devotion at Shri Nirbhaya Ashrama, Swami Satchitananada called Dr. Shastri to sit near him and said: “Hariji, no antahkarana is perfect, but it is yogic as long as it is devoted to guru and Govinda and to the selfless service of the holy Adhyatma Yoga. Pundit Bajnath thinks that Japan, being a new country and having already got affiliations with Indian philosophy through Buddhism, will be a good field for you in which to practise the propagation of Advaita. The holy light will shine through you. Do not fear opposition; do not care for indifference; do not court appreciation, but just like Swami Rama Tirtha scatter the seeds in a humble way. I am of the same opinion as Pundit Bajnath. Shri Dada used to remark about Japan, and he used to see a great future for Asia if Japan were really spiritualized. Remember that the pioneer work is more difficult than to help the work already established.”

Dr. Shastri said that he placed his difficulties before the paramahansa and asked how to deal with the so-called Indian ‘patriots’ to whom Dr. Johnson’s saying applied that “patriotism is the last resort of a scoundrel”. The swami was silent and said nothing that day. He gave Dr. Shastri a few papers to study, which were notes of his conversations written down by younger disciples.

That evening he finally said: “Our mind is not yogic so long as we think that things should happen according to our individual wishes and the fulfilment of our own ambition. Hariji, death in life is the principle I have practised. My holy guru,

Shri Nirbhayananda Swami used to teach it with great emphasis. You know that Shri Dada lived this principle. His name will soon be forgotten, but not the beams of light which he has emitted. They will continue to enlighten innumerable antahkaranas. Think well, whatever you do, my son.” Dr. Shastri bowed down to his holy feet and retired to his cell to meditate on the words of the swami. He said that this closed a very important day in his associationship with the holy paramahansa.

One of the last days spent by Dr. Shastri at Nirbhaya Ashrama was in the summer of 1916. About sixteen Sat Sangees were gathered together on the roof after a hot day. Towards evening silence fell over the meeting, except for the sound of the birds singing as they returned to their nests. The holy Swami said: “Hariji, decide one way or the other, Pundit Bajnath is ready to make arrangements for your trip and for your stay for about a year in Japan. You will not be on a holiday, but as a pioneer in the field of the spiritual crusade. You will face many temptations; the lower mind will assert itself and will demand satisfaction of carnal pleasures. Use your judgement in all these matters.” Dr. Shastri bowed down reverently. When all the other sat sangees had left and he was quite alone with the paramahansa, he said: “I am ready. I will obey your commands. How shall I repay the kindness of Pundit Bajnath?” The swami smiled and said: “Hariji, Pundit Bajnath has devoted all his wealth and property for the public good. He has no children and has made enough provision for his two wives. You need not worry about him. Book your passage.”

Dr. Shastri had an interview with Pundit Bajnath on the following day, and the Pundit wrote a letter to the district magistrate of Moradabad asking him to help Dr. Shastri getting a passport. He also wrote to Thomas Cook in Delhi to make arrangements for his passage.

Dr. Shastri said he was still half willing, half unwilling. The thought of leaving India, the holy Ganges and the holy Himalayas weighed heavily on his mind, but he had given his word to Swami Satchitananda. The final words of Pundit Bajnath to him were: “Hariji, my doctor says that I am suffering from diabetes. It is incurable. I am not at all sorry that I will have to leave this body now. Perhaps I shall never see you again. I used to think of appointing you as my trustee, but now, as you have to go, I have to find somebody else to take up that task. I have served my guru satisfactorily all these years. I have practically lived for him. I assure you I find it the greatest joy in life.

I may have to give up my practice of law and live on my capital, which is more than enough for my needs. I do not want name or fame. I have no ability to write a book or deliver discourses. All I wish is to live in the proximity of Swami Satchitananda and to leave this body in his presence.”

As he said these final words he gave Dr. Shastri an envelope which contained a good sum of money to cover his stay in Japan for at least a year. He said: “Do not speak of it to anybody; just think of me as a servant of Swami Nirbhayananda and no more.”

Thus it was that Dr. Shastri prepared to set out on his momentous spiritual mission.