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Articles from Pre-1998 Issues 

Bhagwaan Gopinathji

The Saint Extraordinary

by T. N. Dhar

In response to the questions of his enthusiastic devotees and inquisitive seekers about the nature of the self, Ramana Maharshi is reported to have observed: "The state of self-realisation, as we call it, is not attaining something new or reaching some goal which is far away, but simply being that which you always are and which you always have been. All that is needed is that you give up your realization of the not- true as true... The state we call realisation is simply being oneself, not knowing anything or becoming anything. If one has realised, one is that which alone is and which alone has always been." If Bhagwaanji had given discourses or entered into conversation with his devotees on the subject of realizing one's self, he would perhaps have said the same thing, because he was a living embodiment of this vital truth about the state of self-realisation. The narrative of his life, though plain and singularly unspectacular, is a striking illustration of how- through single-minded devotion, rigorous discipline, and iron will, he attained this true state: of being himself.

It is almost unbelievable that a saint of the stature of Bhagwaanji could have lived so near our times which, because of our relentless and unabashed pursuit of material gains, has witneued a radical transformation in our life styles, reflected most conspicuoudy in the steady decline of faith and our indifference to the rich spiritual heritage of our land. I am not even sure how many amongst us can share my feelings of regret when I recall that though Bhagwaanji lived right through my school and college days I did not have the good fortune of having his darshan, even touching his feet. For me it will always be a costly miss, an opportunity I did not avail myself of, for does not Kabir say it beautifully: "A pilgrimage is good; To meet a saint is better?" And what better luck could it have been to have met not just a saint, but a saint of saints, a veritable Bhagwaan, for that is what Gopinathji was and still is for hundreds and thousands of his devotees, whose tribe has been on the increase?

Bhagwaanji's journey towards sainthood in Kashmir can be understood in its proper perspective as part of a long tradition in the holy valley of rishis, as Kashmir was known in the past, and of the still older tradition of asceticism in India. The way of life in ancient India, which is now generally understood as the Hindu way of life, is perhaps unique in providing a proper and meaningful space for ascetics, sadhus, rishis, and saints within the normal recognizable social framework. For the four- fold varnashrama provided for different stages in an individual's growth and maturity, through the stages of boyhood, youth, marriage and family life to the last stage, in which he stepped into asceticism. This ideal arrangement balanced social needs and material pursuits, for keeping the race alive and providing for its upkeep and growth, with an individual's quest for spiritual enlightenment and self-realisation. It recognized asceticism as a stage following worldly pleasures and joys towards a state in which, through rigorous detachment, every being learnt to withdraw into himself and work towards his personal salvation.

The most remarkable feature of this arrangement is the clear and realistic focus of the ancient Indians on asceticism: it is something normal, desirable, and within the reach of every person; because of this, it has remained an integral part of our society. As a logical extension of a life of fulfillment, it is not something unusual, i.e., a thing diametrically opposed to social and material goals. However, it did affirm that the ultimate purpose of life was much more than perpetuating the race in material comfort. This consciousness was supposed to have a healthy, salutary effect on the earlier stages of an individual's life, imbuing it with a definite moral purpose and character.

In Kashmir, a slightly altered form of this tradition was the strong tradition of householder-sadhus and saints, of enlightened souls who had attained extraordinary spiritual powers, evenwhile living in recognizable family structures. It survived the onslaughts of the rise of Muslim faith, and made inroads into the spiritual fabric of Islam, by straightening the order of the Sufi saints. I have had the good fortune of knowing quite a few of the householder- saints, who preferred to remain almost unknown. They were extraordinarily gentle, humane, and compassionate beings, who kept the tradition of spirituality alive in Kashmir.

Although the four-fold varnashrama was the standard practice among the Hindus, many people chose to plunge straightaway into the last stage, bypassing the proceeding ones of marriage and raising a family. In course of time, this tendency grew further, giving rise to the emergence of another class of saints. Some even held that a person who chooses to be a celibate and leads a life of renunciation right from an early stage is ideally suited to face the rigours of ascetic life.

Within the differing strands of this main tradition, sadhus and saints had enormous freedom to do whatever they thought was right and desirable for attaining their ends. There is hardly any evidence, both literary and archival, in pre-Buddhist times to show that asceticism had a rigid institutionalized character, which could be identified through recognizable orders, monks, standardized practices, training schedules, and rules firmly laid-down. This left people free to choose different modes of worship of the deities of their choice; they were, likewise, free to adopt ascetic practices of their choice involving physical and mental discipline. Even the search for a proper mentor or guru was a part of the saintly quest. This partially accounts for the great variety in the saintly order in India. If we find the emergence and growth of more recognizable kinds of saintly orders in the later periods, it is largely because of the growing influence of Buddhism and Jainism on tha Hindu thinking and practices. It is not my intention to go into details concerning the various kinds of saintly orders; I have mentioned this social phenomenon only to show what kind of a saint Bhagwaanji was.

The most striking feature of Bhagwaanji's life is that though he lived hardly a few decades ago, when writing about people of eminence and distinction in any field was quite possible, because documenting lives had already developed into a standard literary practice, we actually know very little about him. In spite of our awareness of the extraordinary spiritual powers he had and of the respect he commanded among people, we have less than adequate knowledge about his personality and the nature of his achievement. All that is available to us is a short and in many respects a very inadequate biography by one of his devotees, the late S. N. Fotedar. A devotee of a long stanting, he had known BhagwaanJi for over two decades. Also available today are a few short pieces of reminiscences by some people, which provide descriptive accounts of their meetings with him and also of some miracles that he performed. The biography in particular is more of a chronicle of Bhagwaanji's physical movements in the city of Srinagar than a sustained narrative about his life.

The reasons for the paucity of materials about BhagwaanJi do not lie solely with the people who wrote about him; we cannot pin it on the lack of acumen of his biographer or of the people who recorded their impressions about him. They largely inhere in the very nature of his sainthood. He had such a normal and ordinary childhood and youth that nobody could have thought that he would become an eminent saint. In fact, till the time he was in his thirties, he had first a regular job and then ran a small business in a shop, because he needed money to help the members of his joint family. If he resolved not to marry and took interest in visiting holy places, it was not something too unusual. One can cite examples of several house-hold saints of Kashmir who did not marry and did not earn for the families they belonged to. I emphasize these details to establish that Bhagwaanji's early life did not provide any significant clues about the nature of his future life, as one normally finds in the lives of Kabir, Mirabai, or Ramakrishna neither struggle, nor neglect, nor extraordinary visions and fainting spells.

Bhagwaanji's story is too prosaic and ordinary. Compared with the lives of many of the known saints, it has no fire, no striking passion, no flamboyance., which could stimulate people's interest in him. Although he had a well-directed will to seek his Parmeswar and spent virtually his whole life, more noticeably his years after he gave up active work of all kinds, in pursuit of his goal, he did not do anything out of the ordinary which could attract his attention of people. He undertook no complicated measures, did not do anything risky, did not even move out of his home or place of birth. Even after attaining his goal, he remained steadfast in his endeavour to be a true being. He had no ambition to announce anything to the world, or found a school, or raise a following, or reform the society of his day.

In many respects, Bhagwaanji, though he never became a house-holder in the true sense of the word, is a model of the family-saint. Till it was necessary, he shouldered the responsibility of looking after his kin. After he was free from it, he continued to live with his close relatives. He observed most of the routine social norms, was never choosy about his food or other requirements, and seldom gave any obvious indications of his true state.

Though he maintained links with his family, he stuck to his saadhana. When he concentrated on it with increasing intensity, he became more and more careless about his appearance and living style. Any person seeing him for the first time could hardly take him for the realized soul that he was, for around him one could see only the traditional trapping of commonplace sadhus. He would frequently smoke his chillum and offer ahutis in the dhooni in front of him. Most of the time, he would simply be either lying down or sitting with an abstract look on his face, this was certainly not a very inviting sort of look, which could encourage people to talk to him. This self- absorption became his usual manner in the last years of his life. Though he allowed some of his devotees to press his feet and his legs, which he always thought no better than pieces of wood, he was not much of a talker. Most of the people who sat with him for hours together did not even open their lips, because they always held him in reverential awe. Obviously, Bhagwaanji's mode of saadhana did not make room for discourses, and he spoke no philosophical profundities. He was more of a loner, and too much into himself. His biographer tells us that during the closing years of his life, he spent much of his time in mauna, and hardly ever took food or attended the calls of nature. Although he seldom washed his body, it always looked clean and exuded aroma.

In spite of living through protracted spells of reticence, Bhagwaanji did not cut off his links with people. He was essentially gentle and compassionate and fully alive to the pain and sorrow of those who came to him for succour. To them he offered solace and help and no intellectual or metaphysical fare. He spoke to them in the language that they could understand, the language of a fellow being and not of a learned pundit. Several people have written about Bhagwaanji's acts of kindness and also about the various ways in which he mitigated their pain. All such acts perceived by the devout as miracles have been recorded systematically by Fotedar in a separate chapter in his book.

Though it is generally believed that true saints do not normally perform miracles, especially those who do not want followers or raise sects, yet most of them do it because that is one of the ways for them to reach out to their fellow beings. Dadu Dayal, a famous family- saint from Rajasthan, has said that a saint is always one with God. And when He deems fit, He automatically takes care of the saint and his devotees in very many special ways, which common people understand as miracles. In his celebrated autobiography, Swami Yogananda has recorded a large number of miracles of several yogis. He maintains that "by the perfection of his surrender to the Prime Healing Power, the master enabled it to flow freely through him." Here Swami Yogananda explains that it is actually God Himself Who performs what are seen as 'miracles' of the Masters that act as His instruments.

Bhagwaanji's miracles of various kinds have been meticulously documented not only by his biographer but also by various other people, whose writings have featured in different issues of the Patrika. That is why there is no need to recount them here. I would only like to emphasize that they were actuated by his love and compassion for the people who came to him with hope. Some of them also illustrate how he came to the rescue of his loved ones during moments of their trial or crisis. Another interesting aspect of his miracles is that they were not concerned only with his desire to help or heal people, but also with his wish to enable them to havs a taste of the divine. Several times he is believed to have let some of his chosen devotees to have darshan of the Devi, Sharika Devi of Hari Parbat in particular, right in the midst of their routine surroundings. He would let this happen in a very casual manner, which would catch his devotees off their guard. Often when they missed out on the miracle and their chance of seeing the Davi with attention Bhagwaanji would get into his rare unusual moods: he would be playful, humorous, even mischievous. However, such moments minimized with the passage of time, for during the last phase of his intense saadhana, he was hardly conscious even of his surroundings.

Since Bhagwaanji was one with God even while he lived in this world, he was truly a mystic saint, and his mysticism could be called the "mysticism of personal life." Sudhir Kakar, in his illuminating study of Ramakrishna as a mystic, characterises his mysticism as ecstatic, accompanied by physical movements (such as the postures or mudras associated with the Indian dance). Unlike this, "the mysticism of personal life," according to - Kakar "is not rooted in ecstatic nature, but in a meeting with God in the midst of life's problems and struggles, a meeting experienced at a deep level of faith within normal waking consciousness." This, in my view, aptly describes Bhagwaanji's state as distinguished from Sri Ramakrishna's.

I think that the most remarkable part of Bhagwaanji's achievement is that he makes us see and understand the saintly path in very ordinary and human terms. No adverse circumstances in life pushed him into adopting this path; nor did he show any unusual signs, which could be interpreted as his pre-disposed leanings in this direction. But deep inside him was a strong urge towards it. And he chose to follow this path slowly, steadily, and without any fanfare. He went on intensifying his powers of concentration to such an extent that at one stage he thought of nothing but his Paramatman. Everything he did was within the tried-out, known, and traditional mould, through ways and means which are neither difficult nor unattainable. This makes him into a splendid example of the realized saint, who inspires us more by his example than by his words and actions. The most direct and simple lesson of his life for us is that personal salvation is a purely individual concern and every human being can and should strive towards it: that each one of us, in spite of our ordinaliness, is a potential saint.
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