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Sri Ramakrishna and Sadhu Hiranand: Interface of Bengali and Sindhi Culture

Let us look at the glorious cultural heritage shared by both Sindh and Bengal. There was a growing interest in Sindh about whatever was happening in Bengal.

Like the great Sindhu River having a long cultural history behind it, Bengal too had the sacred river Ganga, entering into the veins of man and nourishing trade and commerce with motherly care and affection.

[Sri Ramakrishna, who was born in 1836 and passed away in 1886, represents the very core of the spiritual realizations of the seers and sages of India.

Sadhu Hiranand (23 March 1863 – 14 July 1893) was a Sindhi language prose writer, journalist, educationist social reformer and advocate for women’s education]

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The message of universal harmony orchestrated by Sri Ramakrishna on his spiritual lyre in the second half of the nineteenth century Bengal, a time of religious dissension and reformist debate, had probably something in common with the mid-Victorian confusion and uncertainty in England. Industrial Revolution and discovery of the railways, closely succeeded by Darwin’s theory of evolution that questioned man’s divine origin shattered the old faith without replacing anything new in the bargain.

Reading Hamilton, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and others, intellectuals in colonial India, especially in Calcutta, liked more to question than to adopt and accept. Before the arrival in Calcutta of Hiranand Shaukiram Advani of the then Sindh, to pursue his education on the advice of his elder brother Navalrai and the encouragement of Keshab Chandra Sen, the Brahmo Samaj had witnessed its first major schism in 1866.

Hiranand-Sadhu-Vaswani
Sadhu Hiranand

Navalrai was already attracted to the principles of Keshab’s Brahmo Samaj, and he had a strong influence on Hiranand’s upbringing. Hiranand’s stay in Calcutta from 1880 to 1884 till he completed graduation from Presidency College became momentous so far as the interface of two cultures, separated by more than two thousand miles, soon took place. The man behind this was no other than the maestro of symphony, Sri Ramakrishna, in whose strings Hiranand became one important addition. Their several meetings later became history, as it has been recorded by Sindhi scholars like Dayaram Gidumal, Mangharam Udharam Malkani, and Virumal Beghraj, a freedom fighter, who was imprisoned along with Mahatma Gandhi in Yerwada prison of Pune. Mention should also be made of Gobindu Malhi, a prolific writer of Sindhi language, involved actively with the Nationalist Movement for independence; Mohan Gehani, and above all, Sri Mahendranath Gupta, the chronicler of Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita, a classic by its own right.

The unique cultural interface we are talking about in this narrative was made possible by Sri Ramakrishna’s subtle and unobtrusive playing of the music of harmony, binding together both Hiranand and Keshab Chandra Sen; influencing, and controlling the whole system of thought prevalent at the time, and even after. Hiranand lived on earth only thirty years (1863-1893), rendering intense service to humanity, and exactly thirty years after his exit Rabindranath Tagore visited Sindh in 1923, completing a circle, as it were, of profitable cultural exchange, initiated by Sri Ramakrishna much earlier.

Let us look at the glorious cultural heritage shared by both Sindh and Bengal. The tinkle of bells on camels’ ankles in the desert of Sindh and the gale chasing the mirage in the distance made travellers listen wistfully to the other-worldly music. And, like the great Sindhu River having a long cultural history behind it, Bengal too had the sacred river Ganga, entering into the veins of man and nourishing trade and commerce with motherly care and affection. The wandering minstrels of Bengal, trudging along the green paddy fields, may remind one of the Sufi poets that were in abundance in Sindh right from the beginning.

Jethmal Parsram Gulrajani, a significant prose writer of Sindhi Literature, has written a whole book titled Sindh and its Sufis in 1924. Like Bengal, inundated by Bhakti cult of Chandidas and Chaitanya, Sindh too was enlightened by the Sufi scholar and poet, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, the greatest Muslim poet in Sindhi language, and one who is credited to be generating Rumi’s spirituality in South Asia. The interesting saga of survival of the Sufi saints has been traced by Sarah F. D. Ansari in Sufi Saints and State Power: The Pirs of Sindh 1843-1947, explaining why ‘Sufism as opposed to more “orthodox” forms of Muslim practice came to dominate Sindh.’

The Baul-tradition too has survived in Bengal despite long political turmoil.

What started after Hiranand’s arrival in Calcutta in 1880 and his subsequent intimate relationship with Sri Ramakrishna made a definite echo in the desert of Sindh. Unlike the trouble-ridden Victorians in England that had her Matthew Arnold and George Eliot, Bengal, experiencing the inevitable rift in Brahmo Samaj, and yet another schism in 1878, following the marriage of Keshab’s daughter before the age established by the law of the Brahmo Samaj, had her Ramakrishna, enthusing and radiating spirituality of the highest order. Orthodox Hinduism, jealous Christian missionaries, and the enlightened section of the Brahmo Samaj avidly reading western philosophies, left a warring scenario. There was also the militant leader Dayanand Saraswati, who founded in Bombay his first Arya Samaj, laying down the principles at Lahore and spreading the network over Northern India, though Punjab remained his chosen land. Sri Ramakrishna, who knew Dayanand and had met him, was acutely aware of how some of the best minds of the time were divided, nearly everyone being in conflict with the other.

The situation in England was no better, in fact a little worse, as the Victorians were desperately trying to find answers to Darwin’s frontal attack in The Origin of Species (1859) on the divine existence of man. Colonial expansion and unprecedented growth of technology forced religion to a down-hill slide toward the end of the century, fomenting Thomas Hardy’s pessimism in the ‘90s, morbidity and angst, which in their turn led to the First World War. In Bengal, on the other hand, a spiritual awakening was taking place, dismissing the qualms and anguish of people languishing in a colonized land. This was a strange phenomenon, hardly noticed, by the postcolonial scholars of the academia in India and abroad. The unique revival in Bengal, shaking off colonial hangover and humility, was replaced by the Vedantic awareness of the hidden potentialities of man. This also had its influence in shaping even the freedom movement. Sindh was quick to respond eagerly to the national surge that in reality confirmed individual solidarity. The fundamental tune was played by a layman at Dakshineswar, possibly a replica of what happened once in Vrindavan and Mathura under the inspiration of a mere cowboy. The best cultural minds during Ramakrishna’s time flocked around the sage at Dakshineswar, everyone feeling awestruck and rejuvenated by his simple and yet wise aphorisms. Later, across the seas, it attracted a German philosopher and thinker, Max Muller, who felt a spiritual kinship with the Eastern prophet and published Ramakrishna, His Life and Sayings in 1895.

Sri Ramakrishna’s contribution to the national zeitgeist and the desire for freedom, both internal and external, makes a moving spectacle that needs to be recycled again and again for our own sake, newer perspectives bouncing out of the frames on every occasion. Remember the people Ramakrishna met—Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Madhusudan Dutt, Debendranath Tagore, Dayanand, Aswini Kumar Dutt, Shibnath Shastri, Keshab Chandra Sen, and so on.

The question is not who he met and talked to, but who he didn’t, among the leading minds of the day. Many went to him, while he himself visited some at their places, being a gentleman par excellence, which indeed was another facet of his multi-dimensional personality. Possibly a whole treatise can be written on this alone. Let us remember his hallowed visit to the Bengali theatre, headed then by Girish Chandra Ghosh, who was yet to become his disciple at the time. He blessed everyone there, including Binodini Dasi, a talented actress, and other women of the theatre, considered to be fallen from the traditional norms of society. The theatre was good, Ramakrishna said emphatically, because it was a vehicle of education and awareness. Remember in this context there wasn’t anything that could properly be called Victorian theatre, and acting by women couldn’t normally be thought of within the tight ambience of Victorian morality. Female writers had to use pseudonyms; Mary Ann Evans taking the name of George Eliot; Emily Bronte, known for her masterpiece Wuthering Heights, using the pen name Ellis Bell, while Charlotte Bronte, the eldest of the three Bronte sisters, writing Jane Eyre, still held to be a classic, with the nom de plume Currer Bell. In all cases, female identity had to be held back.

It was therefore little surprise that, nestled smugly against the citadel of strange pride and confidence of the colonized, and seated on the chariot drawn by horses tamed by Sri Ramakrishna, the charioteer, Swami Vivekananda, the modern Arjuna of the battlefield ‘where ignorant armies clash by night’ (Matthew Arnold’s last lines of the poem ‘Dover Beach’), would later conquer the aristocratic and elitist minds of Europe and America. Vivekananda was aware of the reports circulated by the Christian missionaries about how in India women were burnt and how they threw their children into the Ganga. True, India had earned notoriety by being called an exotic land, and befittingly it was generously accorded with exotic stories. Vivekananda, the lion of Vedanta, emphasized the glorious past of India and emphatically denied all idle stirring up of stories. Walking along the streets of Chicago, New York and other places, he felt that Sri Ramakrishna had probably visited this foreign land before him. This may not be an exaggeration, though it is beyond the scope of sensory knowledge, being somewhat akin to what Romain Rolland says, talking about the authenticity of his masterly account, ‘All knowledge of reality is an inversion through the mind and the senses.’

And before this, in April 1886 Vivekananda, then Narendranath, was stomping with his sword removed from its sheath in the presence of Sri Ramakrishna and Hiranand, the eclectic mind from Sindh, when he came all the way to see the ailing Master. Sri Ramakrishna lovingly describes Hira as a ‘fine boy’: ‘I wish he be ever present near me,’ says the Master. Hiranand stayed full four years in Calcutta and must have been aware of Sri Ramakrishna’s visits to Vidyasagar on 5 August and the Brahmo Samaj of Sinthi in North Calcutta on 28 October, both events taking place in 1882. He must have heard also of how Keshab Chandra Sen was gradually leaning towards Sri Ramakrishna before finally surrendering to him and accepting Hindu idolatry as ‘nothing but the worship of divine attributes materialized.’ When everyone deserted Keshab at the hour of crisis in his life, Sri Ramakrishna stood behind him. Was Hiranand looking at all this with microcosmic knowledge from his eerie? He, along with the other boys, was indeed staying then at a place called ‘An Eagle’s Nest.’

The spiritually exhilarating and intensely communicative conversation between Narendranath, Sri Ramakrishna, Hiranand, and Mahendranath Gupta can be read from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna when Thakur was taken ill. It has also been reproduced in an excellent publication on Hiranand by the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Gol Park Kolkata titled The History of a Humble Soul: Being the Life and Letters of Hiranand Shaukiram, which provides the earliest and most authentic record about Hiranand’s spiritual upbringing. Written by Hiranand’s intimate friend Dayaram Gidumal, a judge by profession, and an avid reader of literary classics, this book was published from Karachi in 1903. One great merit of this excellent biography is that it contains letters written by Hiranand to Dayaram, who fully empathized with his noble mission and deep earnestness.

When Hiranand, leaving his busy schedule in Sindh, went to Calcutta to see Sri Ramakrishna, he was deeply impressed, remembering the fond memories of the past. Mahendranath’s memorable account of this intimate meeting is marked by few words and more meaning, which left its echo even after Hiranand left. Sri Ramakrishna says with deep affection that Hiranand’s nature is very sweet and his earnest desire is to take him to Sindh. Previously, Mahendranath tells us that Hiranand’s words sound sweet like honey, as it were. The significant part of this meeting is that when Sri Ramakrishna asks Mahendranath if he knows Hiranand, the former answers in the affirmative, and towards the end speaks of Hiranand’s previous stay in Calcutta, his association with Keshab Chandra Sen, and how he used to stay often with Ramakrishna in Dakshineswar. At the end that gives details of persons mentioned in the Gospel, we are also told that Hiranand, even after the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, used to see his disciples at Baranagar Math whenever he went to Calcutta. Every interested reader will be immensely profited by reading the April 1886 entries in the Gospel and getting a glimpse of the cultural exchange between Sindh and Bengal.

The partition of Bengal that triggered the Swadeshi movement buoyed up freedom movement in Sindh, like elsewhere in the country.

No surprise that after going back to Sindh, Sri Ramakrishna’s ‘fine boy’—Hiranand— should be actively engaged with the social service in Karachi, along with his elder brother Navalrai, apart from editing two newspapers: Sindh Sudhar (Sindhi) and Sindh Times (English) from Karachi. Deciding to work in the field of social reform, Hiranand came back to Hyderabad where in 1888 he and Navalrai founded the Union Academy for modern education. They also opened the first girls’ school in Hyderabad. His other social work included the establishment of a centre for the treatment of leprosy at Manghopir, Karachi, and an orphanage in Shikarpur. Hiranand’s stay with Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar temple, as reported by Sri Mahendranath Gupta, must have been a turning point in his spiritual journey. Female education was very close to Hiranand’s heart; so he wanted his own daughters, Lakshmi and Rami, to get the best education available at that time in India. He took them in 1893 to Bankipur to admit them to Prakash Chandra Roy’s Aghor Kamini Girls’ School. The three of them, accompanied by his friend Promotho Lal Sen, the priest, went through Sukkur, Lahore, and Lucknow to arrive finally in Bankipur, where Hiranand, fighting diligently with the epidemic of cholera in the locality, himself fell ill and died on July 11, 1893. Only two months after on the same day Swami Vivekananda held the vast audience in Chicago spellbound and enraptured, just as he had once held Hiranand quiet and enthralled by singing Koupinpanchakam and Jo kuch hai sab tuhi hai in presence of Sri Ramakrishna and Mahendranath Gupta.

The point to notice in this story of cultural interface where Sri Ramakrishna stands as the focal point is that there was a growing interest in Sindh about whatever was happening in Bengal. The partition of Bengal that triggered the Swadeshi movement buoyed up freedom movement in Sindh, like elsewhere in the country. When Khudiram Bose was hanged in 1908, his portrait found its way into the patriotic homes of Sindh. In the same year, Virumal Beghraj (1874—1955), who had a special liking for Hiranand, set up a swadeshi store in Sukkur. The upshot of all these was that when Rabindranath Tagore visited Sindh in 1923, Sindh accepted him as one of its own. Even before he reached Sindh, Sadhana was translated by Beghraj in Pune prison. Much to his pleasure, the poet found that the ground for his visit to Sindh was already prepared. Tagore was highly impressed by the performance of some parts of his plays, translated by him, by M.U. Malkani and others at Hyderabad College. He called the performers to have breakfast with him the following morning. Meanwhile, the music of harmony was played by Ramakrishna, and the lead later was taken up by others.

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Courtesy: Sri Ramakrishna website

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