The youth of Swami Rama Tirtha11 min read

THE mention of Swami Rama Tirtha’s name always inspires reverence and joy in the hearts of those who have either read his works, or who have heard of him in one way or another. Not only is he held in high esteem by yogis, but he is also held in very high regard by people outside the path. C. F. Andrews, who lived in the Punjab, describes the effect Swami Rama had on the people:

“The name of Swami Rama is one which I have learnt to honour through residence in the Punjab, where his chief influence was felt. Again and again I have seen faces light up at the mention of his name, and men have told me how much they owed to him. There is a child-like simplicity in what he writes and an overflowing joy and happiness won through great selfdiscipline and suffering, which reveals a soul that is at peace within itself and has found a priceless gift that it desires to impart to others.”

When a person has accomplished so much in a short span of thirty-three years, it is always interesting to know a little of their early years and experiences, to see how they must have affected his personality. Rama was born on the 22nd October 1873 in a village in the West Punjab called Muraliwala. His father was a poor priest who ministered to the Hindu families in the neighbouring villages for a living. His mother, who was described as a woman of ‘tranquil disposition,’ died a year after Rama was born. He was therefore brought up by an aunt. According to the customs prevailing at the time, Rama was betrothed at the age of two to the infant daughter of a Pundit by the name of Rama Chandra who lived in Viroke. The proper matrimonial ceremony took place eight years later when Rama was ten years of age.

Rama was a pupil in the village Primary School and was taught by a Mohammedan Maulavi (priest). He suffered badly from colds and bronchitis but this did not prevent him from attending school. In fact he worked very hard in defiance of these very serious setbacks of health and poverty, with the result that he successfully passed his examinations at school and gained admission to a Secondary School in the neighbouring town called Gujranwala, which was located six miles from his home in the village. His father placed him in the charge of a friend by the name of Dhanna Rama. Dhanna Rama was a coppersmith by trade and a wrestler in his spare time. Besides, he was also very spiritually dedicated and had received initiations into the practice of Yoga.

Until Rama had met Dhanna Rama, he had been brought up in a religious atmosphere of an orthodox nature. His father believed in religion simply as a means to livelihood. Under the influence of Dhanna Rama, however, Rama soon developed great devotion to the Lord incarnate as Krishna. He respected his saintly friend, and showed his great love for Dhanna Rama, his loyalty and spiritual indebtedness to him later in his life when he went to Lahore, by writing to him no less than three times a week.

In 1888 Rama passed the entrance examination into the Punjab University at the age of fourteen and a half, standing thirty-eighth in the order of merit. Later that year he joined the Mission College in Lahore, and rented a hovel of a room, because that was all he could afford. The place was very noisy and moreover infested with snakes. He worked under great strain, and this is evidenced by a letter he wrote to an uncle, who gave him every sympathy and who encouraged him in the face of the bitter opposition he was receiving from his father at the time. The following is an extract from his letter:

“My greatest need is a solitary place to study in, time, and a will to acquire knowledge. O Uncle, this is my innermost desire, the rest is known to God.”

In 1890 he sat for the Intermediate Examination and passed with distinctions and was awarded a University scholarship. Instead of being pleased with his son’s achievement, his father was very angry. He did not want his son to fritter away his health and energy and resources in the search for knowledge of any kind. All he was interested in was an income that would meet their daily needs. Rama, on the other hand, was not only determined to pursue his academic career, but also his spiritual one. He therefore defied his father and joined the B.A. class. His father in return punished him by stopping all financial aid and in addition by transferring to Rama all responsibility for his wife, a responsibility which he himself had imposed on him in the first place. After providing for his rent, his wife’s maintenance and other necessities, Rama is said to have had three pice (equivalent to farthings) a day left.

“Never mind,” said he in a letter, “God wishes to put me to the test. If beggars can live on two or three pice a day, why can’t I?”

In 1892 he sat for his B.A., but failed for want of a few marks in English, although he is said to have stood first in the University by his grand total. This was indeed a real crisis. Not only had his father forsaken him, but he had so many responsibilities, on top of which he had now also lost his scholarship. There was nothing left to depend upon. His reactions to all this are expressed in the following extract of a letter he wrote to his good friend Dhanna Rama:

“Heart-broken, I felt as if a mountain of sorrow crashed upon me. Tears streamed in a torrent, and I prayed ‘O Lord, now Rama is utterly Thine and Thou art Rama’s. My only duty is to pray continuously, and to remain contented with whatever comes: and Thine is to protect him in every way. Even the body of Rama is no longer his, it is Thine. Now save him or kill him, just as it pleases Thee.’ ”

All these difficulties, instead of turning him away from God, made his love for Him more intense, for he knew that nothing in the world or in human nature could be relied on, only God. He was not going to be weakened into accepting some petty job for a livelihood. He had determination and a strong will, and, having displayed it in his own life, later recommended it to others in the following words: “There is nothing in the world so precious as firm determination,” and again in the words, “Fate bows to him who defies it.”

In 1893 he finally passed his B.A. Examination and began to receive a certain amount of scholarship money. Although he stood first in the B.A. Examination results, nonetheless he failed to secure a State Scholarship to Cambridge for higher studies. He had worked very hard and had hoped to come to Cambridge for further studies in Mathematics, but another Indian obtained the opportunity instead. Rama was disappointed, and he wrote to Dhanna Rama: “There is nothing in the world on which one could depend. They are blessed by God who put their faith in Him alone.” This conviction that God was the only one that one could rely on, and his intense love, grew with every new disappointment and difficulty in life.

Rama later passed his M.A. with distinctions in Mathematics from the Government College in Lahore. Even before he graduated he had been permitted to officiate for his Professor of Mathematics for one hour daily, for which he received tuition fees. He also held private classes to coach other students who were sitting for various examinations. His classes were so successful and popular that there was a great demand for his services as a tutor. He could not, however, rely on this sort of work for a livelihood, and so he decided to seek a job in Peshawar and Amritsar, and finally accepted one in Sialkot on a temporary basis, later being offered work as Professor of Mathematics in the Forman Christian College at Lahore at a rather more substantial salary. This was the first financial reward he had seen after many years of struggle, and an ordinary person would have been overjoyed at the change of his luck, but Rama was not the slightest bit affected, as can be seen from the following extract of a letter from him to Dhanna Rama:

“The peace I get from my work for God is enough for me. With this college salary do what you like. I neither increase nor decrease by the addition or subtraction of such things. I am joy Absolute.”

It would seem that Rama Tirtha had chosen his vocation in life long before he graduated. His greatest purpose in life was to serve God, whom he loved more than anything else in the world. He saw teaching mathematics as one of the ways of serving God and humanity, it was with no other personal motive in mind. He had a great love for the subject of Mathematics itself. In one of his lectures he is known to have said:

“Mathematics enables us to calculate accurately distances billions upon billions of miles in length, as the distances of the stars, and it also enables us to measure magnitudes about one billionth part of a cubic inch in volume, like the size of a molecule or atom. From finite quantities it leads us to the region of the infinite. By Mathematics we discover some of the universal laws of nature written with inerasible ink on the faces of substances by the unerring finger of the Almighty.”

Rama was very conscious of man’s debt to humanity. He said: “We owe a debt to humanity. Let us leave the world better than we found it. Then work, work, work, with all your heart, with all your might, remembering that work is worship.” He was very conscious of the fact that the student tended to disregard the need for physical exercise, which was essential to study.

This comes to light in a lecture he delivered on ‘How to Excell in Mathematics.’

“Never neglect to take bodily exercise. This is a neglect which proves ruinous to most students. Thus they succeed very easily in breaking their health, but not in passing the examination. Remember that it is not labour that kills a student, but it is laziness or neglect of exercise that does so. Workers are sadly needed in India.”

Rama worked as Professor of Mathematics for four years and retired to the Himalayas in July, 1900. When he decided to relinguish his professorship and retire to the Himalayas it was recognized by all who knew him that this was part of his spiritual evolution. He took his wife and two sons with him, but upon discovering that they could not endure the hardships, sent them back home.

In 1902 he attended the Parliament of Religions in Japan. He was sent there by the Maharaja of Tehri, and later went to America, where he stayed for two years. He arrived in America without any luggage or money. The Press and public were said to have bestowed great attention and great affection on him, and he delivered many lectures there. They are contained in the books In Woods of God-Realization.

From childhood Rama had a mission, the mission of Selfrealization, and this was his driving force. He strove earnestly, even at the expense of a brilliant academic career, to achieve his purpose. Although so much has been written on Rama’s life, hardly any mention has been made of his spiritual Teacher. His name was Shri Dada of Aligarh. According to Rama, his Teacher was “a simple but most holy Brahmin” who conferred the rite of meditation on him. It was while he was quite young, and this fact also stands as testimony to his certain sense of vocation. Rama did not spare himself, as a student and as a teacher, in discharging his duties. He worked not from any conventional standards, but from his own idealistic standards. He sacrified his individuality for the common good in attaining the highest achievement of all, God-realization.

The life of Rama lends great hope for all, because he set an example of greatness achieved under the most difficult conditions. By renouncing his attachment to all he possessed, he lived according to the Advaita ideal, and it was quite evident that his supreme renunciation had not made him poor, but a king.

In such a short span of thirty-three years, Rama achieved so much. He was a spiritual hero in the line of Adhyatma Yoga, and his spirit lives on in the universe as a source of inspiration to all true seekers after God.