This is a miscellany of stories told by Sri Chinmoy over the years about his childhood in Chittagong. When he used to reminisce about his Indian life, he would pluck anecdotes from here and there, not necessarily in any chronological order. Sometimes he would follow a theme, or relate events connected with a certain relative. Oftentimes, in answer to a question from one of his students, he would invoke an episode from his youth, and then the whole atmosphere of his Indian village life would permeate him. A kind of magic would descend as wave after wave of sweet memories flooded his being. Here are just a few of those well-loved stories. It is perhaps worth noting that while these stories are often in the present tense, they were mostly told during the 1990’s.
Table of Contents
1986: Sri Chinmoy returns to Shakpura after more than forty years.
Here he is lying down on the front step of his childhood home.
1. Our Birthplace
We Indians, specially Bengalis, are always proud of our birthplace, whether we think of our province, town or even village. Strangely enough, as a villager, you are even more proud of where you were born than you would be if you were born in a large town or city.
Always when I think of Shakpura, I feel so lucky that I was born in a village, not in a town. Then, when I think of Chittagong, I feel so lucky that I was born in Chittagong and not somewhere else in East Bengal. Then, when I think of East Bengal, I feel so lucky that I was born there and not in West Bengal or somewhere else.
We always feel that our village is by far the best; our town is by far the best; our city is by far the best; our province is by far the best; our country is by far the best. That is our national feeling. By widening and widening our vision, we can go from nationalism to internationalism. But if I do not have real and genuine love for my village, Shakpura, then I can never develop love for Chittagong, and if I cannot develop love for Chittagong, I can never have love for Bengal. If I do not love Bengal, I will never have love for India and if I do not have true love for India, I will never be able to love America or any other part of the world, let alone the whole world.
It is because we love our mother right from the dawn of our life that we can love others. From the physical mother, we expand and increase our love so that eventually we feel utmost love for the Universal Mother.
2. Village Life
I was born in an Indian village. A village is all simplicity, innocence, sincerity and purity. Whenever and wherever I see these divine qualities, I am deeply moved and I am immediately transported to the highest Heaven.
3. My Cousins
When I think of the affection of my cousins, I simply cannot imagine that they are not my real brothers and sisters. We were brought up together. They are absolutely like my real brothers and sisters.
My cousin Pushpita and her mother, my aunt, both live in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. They are so close to our family. Once my sister Lily had a difference of opinion with my cousin about something and for fifteen years they would not talk to each other. Here we are like brothers and sisters and two members of the family are not on speaking terms! It was so painful for the rest of the family. Everybody else continued to mix as before, but blindly I took my sister’s side. Who knows who was right and who was wrong? For me, whatever side my sister was on was the only side for me.
So this sad state went on, went on. Finally, a few years ago, when my sister Lily fell seriously ill, my cousin and her mother came to see her in the Nursing Home. They said, “No, we are not going to go away. The past is dust. This is the time for us to be with you.” Then my sister Lily had to surrender and they became extremely close once more.
My aunt is 99½ years old. Next year, in March, she will reach 100. She will be the first person in our family to reach 100. A few years ago, I told her that I wanted her to live to 100 and she has done it. I am so proud of my aunt. She is my mother’s younger sister. Alas, my mother did not even live to be fifty years old. She passed away when she was 49.
4. My Prayers to Saraswati
In our family, my father worshipped Kali and my mother worshipped Durga. We did not care so much for Saraswati. Once a year, we observed Saraswati Puja, but otherwise it was all Kali and Durga.
Again, in order to pass your school examinations, you have to worship Saraswati because she is the goddess of knowledge, wisdom and perfection. If she is pleased with you, then she will grant you the capacity to learn things by rote very quickly. So when I was a young boy, I used to repeat millions of times, like a parrot, the Sanskrit slokas to invoke Saraswati. Mine was absolutely Bengali pronunciation. How fast I used to say the words, like a train! Only the sound I used to hear and with my devotional spirit I invoked Saraswati, but the words I did not pronounce correctly at all.
But Saraswati was pleased with my prayer and she blessed me with retentive faculties. In the school, I always used to stand first. When I was fourteen years old, I was meditating in the main building of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and she appeared right before my eyes. She was playing on her celestial vina. I had never heard this instrument before, either in Chittagong or in Pondicherry. Then she broke the whole instrument into millions of pieces and she poured them into me. She said, “I am giving you my knowledge.”
Now look at this! When I worshipped Saraswati as a young boy, how fast I said her name. If a teacher wanted to give marks for my performance, he would not have given me even zero out of one hundred. It is absurdity. I am the worst possible student that I have ever seen! But divine compassion is unconditional. Because I did it in my childhood, she came to me when I was a youth. Does she care for my pronunciation? No, it is only the devotional attitude that she cares for. Unconditionally she poured and poured her knowledge, wisdom and intellectual aspect into me. That is why I have been able to write so many books. It is all because of the blessings that I received from Saraswati in 1945 or 1946.
5. Brihaspati’s Day
I was born on a Thursday. This is the day of Brihaspati, the Guru of the Cosmic Gods. In Bengali, we call it Brihaspatibar. For some time, I used to observe a day of silence on that day. If I needed something from the disciples, I would write it down on a piece of paper. Again, how I suffered for one full year because of that day. Every Thursday, without fail, I used to have miseries because I would receive bad news on that day.
When I was doing my long-distance training, I decided to run 27 miles every Thursday because I was born on the 27th. Then my promise descended to 13 miles, then 7 miles. Now I do not do anything special on that day.
When we visited one large Buddhist temple in Rangoon,1 they had shrines for the Lord Buddha at different places according to which day of the week you were born on. So I stood and meditated at the Thursday shrine.
6. It is in our Life-Blood
From the age of five, I began hearing stories about Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Is there any Bengali whose blood is not made of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda? We cannot breathe without Thakur and Naren.
This much I can say: if anyone claims to be a Bengali, then he has Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda as the source of his life-blood.
7. Astral Journeys
When I was only nine or ten years old, my father told me a story about astral journeys. I knew that my father never told lies, but when I heard this story, I thought that perhaps my father was only joking. I could not believe that it really happened.
My father told me that once a judge happened to be trying a case in court. All on a sudden, a Buddhist monk came into the courtroom while the court was in session. He walked right up to the judge and said, “Meditate, meditate.”
The judge was puzzled. Then the Buddhist monk said, “You do not know why? Then I shall tell you. You know that your wife is now in London. This is a most significant moment. Take down the time. Now calculate the time difference between here and London. At this moment, your wife is giving birth to a most beautiful child.”
To the judge’s wide surprise, eight hours later he received a telegram from London. The telegram came with the happiest news that a child had been born. And the time of birth corresponded exactly with the appearance of the Buddhist monk.
Six months later, the Buddhist monk again went to the court. This time he said to the judge, “Your wife has now returned to India. I would like to see her.” The judge was extremely pleased with the monk, so he took him to see his wife. Upon seeing the monk, the wife exclaimed, “Oh, I have seen this man before. He came to me at the hospital in London.”
That was my father’s story. Then he explained to me that it was the subtle physical of the Buddhist monk that had gone to the hospital in London, while the monk himself remained in India. Unfortunately, I did not believe this story at all. I thought that perhaps the monk had somehow gotten the telegram from somewhere else. I gave my father all kinds of silly arguments.
Many years later, I came to know from my own personal experience that this kind of astral journey is quite possible for spiritual Masters and aspirants of a very high order.
8. Our Messenger-Dog
When I was a young boy, we had a dog. I was so fond of this dog. He used to take letters from our house to our cousin’s house about five and a half miles away. We would write down the message, give it to him, and he would take it to our cousin’s home. Quite often our mother used to write letters to her sister, and sometimes she sent them like this. Our dog acted just like a human being, like a real messenger.
9. An Insane Fellow
Many years ago in our village our barber's brother all on a sudden became insane. He was such a nice man and a good friend to everyone. God knows why it happened. Then he used to create all kinds of problems wherever he went. He used to strike people.
The members of his family – his wife and children – used to tie weights around the feet of this poor fellow so that he could not walk properly and also they hung two bells around his neck. The villagers would hear the bells ringing and then they would know that the insane man was coming and they would disappear.
10. Our Family House
In 1986, I returned to Shakpura for the first time in over forty years. Our original four or five houses disappeared during a cyclone after we had gone to the Ashram. They were blown away. Afterwards, our relatives tried, according to their financial capacity, to rebuild the main house where I was born, but it is not the same. In size and proportion, it is totally different. They have kept the same main structure, but the roof is now very low. There used to be a second floor with a corrugated tin roof, but now there is no upstairs. Also the doorways were much higher, otherwise my brother Mantu would not have been able to pass through the door. Unfortunately, now it looks poverty-stricken.
Upstairs my three sisters and my cousin used to live. Chitta, Mantu and I used to sleep on the ground floor. On the left side of the house was our temple. It is no longer there. Now there is only a haystack. There was also a guesthouse on the kitchen side, but it, too, has disappeared, along with the servants’ quarters and other houses.
Right in front of the house were many mango trees, at least twenty. Now there is not even one. My relatives said they had to use them to get money. It is like a barren desert. In the back of the house there were ponds. The largest one has been reduced in size so that the gardens can be utilised as paddy fields. In this pond, I learnt to swim. I used to sit on the stone slab that was the front doorstep and Brahmins used to come and chant for protection and invoke the presence of Lord Krishna.
Sri Chinmoy visits his parents' resting place (1986)
The ashes of my parents are buried near the house. According to our Hindu tradition, at the time of cremation, the eldest son has to put fire inside the mouth of the parents. This is the most painful experience. Then the ashes are gathered and buried.
This house still belongs to my family, my brothers and sisters and I. The relatives that are now living there are my distant cousins. They are not my first or second cousins, but third or fourth. They are taking care of the property. They know everything about me and they were begging me to give them permission to make it a place of pilgrimage. But my mother’s soul in Heaven was dead against it, so I cannot stand against my mother. My sister and brothers begged me to send money to our relatives for this purpose. I was quite happy to do so, but unless my mother changes her mind, I cannot do anything. I wanted to have a memorial for my parents, but my mother has her own reasons for not wanting it.
For me, it was a very sad experience to see our family house once again. Outwardly, it has been so badly neglected that I could not recognise aanything. It was like seeing a haunted housed. Again, when my sweetest childhood reminiscences came forward, I was happy.
11. Our Family Temple
Our family did not hold regular meditation or worship services inside our temple, but on special occasions, such as Durga Puja, we would have them. My mother used to spend hours and hours praying in the temple. I had to go twice – early in the morning before going to school and again in the evening. My morning meditation was short and my evening meditation was even shorter. I only repeated as fast as possible a few times Krishna’s name or Kali’s name. That was my meditation.
12. Our Chittagong Dialect
In my childhood, I never dreamt that anyone could compose songs in our Chittagong dialect. It was unheard of. This dialect, unfortunately, is not written down. We never wrote it and in school they did not teach it. We had to read and write in pure Bengali. Recently, I came to learn that two books have been published in our dialect. How I would like to have copies of those books!
Bengali is very soft and sweet, whereas our Chittagong dialect is uneven. The whole thing in the Chittagong dialect is to speak very fast. My sister Lily can speak so fast, but since I came to America, I have slowed down considerably. In my childhood, I spoke much, much faster. I have forgotten so many words.
If you want to write the Chittagong dialect down, you have to use the real Bengali characters and then add some diphthongs here and there. Now, because Bangladesh is a separate country, they have started singing in this dialect. They are trying to show their independence from the Calcutta Bengalis.
I have also started composing in the Chittagong dialect. In 1986, I made my first attempt. Now I have written quite a few songs about Chittagong, Dacca and Bangladesh.2 One day I hope that we can sing them for the staff members of the Bangladesh Mission to the United Nations.
Tagore is the only composer who has two national songs to his credit. His song “Jana Gana Mana” is the Indian national anthem and “Amar Sonar Bangla” is the anthem for Bangladesh. Both are written in pure Bengali.
13. My History Teacher
My history teacher in Chittagong was a Muslim. He was such a good and kind man. At one o’clock every afternoon – recess time – he and a few Muslim students used to go to the mosque to pray. We Hindu boys used to play football, only fifty or sixty metres away from the mosque.
When Muslims pray, they say, “Allahu Akbar” (‘Allah the Almighty’). They bend and chant and pull their ears. Then they slap their face a few times. I saw my history teacher pray like this many, many times.
There were some mischievous boys in our school who used to imitate him by doing exactly the same thing. They used to slap their faces very nicely and then bend and pull their ears. At other times, these same boys used to scream very loudly to disturb the prayers of the Muslims. Then my history teacher used to come out and scold them. Sometimes he used to beat them also. I felt so sorry for my history teacher because the Hindu boys were so disrespectful.
Many years later, when I visited Marrakesh in Morocco, at six o’clock in the morning I heard the Muslim call to prayers. You could hear it all over the city. At that time, I remembered my poor history teacher and his unfortunate experiences.
14. My Pet Monkeys
I wish to tell you something amusing but authentic. As a child, I was very fond of monkeys. That is why I still have the monkey consciousness in me! I had two or three monkeys at a time. My most favourite monkey used to bite me like anything. I used to give it bananas and other kinds of food that I liked to eat. Right after eating the banana, he used to bite me. You have no idea, how many marks I have even now from monkey bites.
One day my mother said to me, “Monkeys do not bite little babies, because they are so innocent and helpless. But when children become a little older, like you, then you become immediate victims to monkeys. But there is one thing you can try to save yourself: you can fall down and pretend that you are dead.”
It seems that monkeys do not bite dead people. My monkeys had a long chain around their necks. As soon as I came within their reach, I used to fall on the ground and hold my breath. This I have done forty or fifty times. Then the monkey would feel me to see if I am really dead, but he would not bite me. Usually I escaped, but two or three times I was caught because the distance between us was not very great when I fell down.
Of course, the moment I used to open my eyes and get up, the monkey would bite me anyway! I did not have the heart to strike the monkey, but my cousins used to strike them so hard and then the monkeys would leave them alone.
There is a philosophical lesson to be learnt from this. Let us say that in this case to be dead means to be deep in ignorance-sea, which is full of impurity. At that time, the lower vital forces do not bother you because they know you are at their beck and call. But the moment your soul awakens you and makes you aspire for purity, these lower vital forces say, “Where are you going?” At that time, they challenge you. If you want to live a spiritual life, then you must fight against ignorance and establish purity. But if you want to surrender to ignorance, you will just lie down. Then incarnation will follow incarnation and you will not make any progress at all.
15. My First Visit Back to Chittagong
I went back to Chittagong after more than forty years to see my birthplace. I wanted to see where I was once upon a time when I was still a tiny grain of sand. I just wanted to appreciate the finite in me, which was absolutely insignificant. Whoever thought that a little Indian village boy would come to the West and write so many books and songs and so on?
I know that I cannot utilise the past realities in my life in order to make progress, so in one sense my visit was useless. But curiosity took me there. On the one hand, it was useless, but, on the other hand, you can say that there is always a source from whence we grow. A vast expanse of light begins with just a tiny flame. Again, the source of that tiny flame is infinite Light. In the process of involution, infinite Light is descending, descending, descending.
So I wanted to go back to see my source. And still, when I think of my little village – East Shakpura – it gives me a kind of inner thrill.
16. A Significant Occurrence
On the day I was born, our home in the town burned down, without rhyme or reason. It was not our village home. Fortunately, nobody was in the house at that time. You can say that all the sins of my past incarnations were burnt to ashes! Again, fire signifies aspiration. So perhaps my soul came down with intense aspiration to be of service to mankind with the dawn of a new hope.
17. My Father and Mother
My mother comes from the village of Kelishahar, which is five and a half miles from Shakpura, where my father’s family lived. As you know, in India it is the custom to have arranged marriages. When my mother was a young girl, there were only arranged marriages. Sometimes the family members would go and look for someone suitable, and sometimes the Brahmin priest would go.
Again, it is also traditional to choose a bride who is much younger than her husband. My father was twelve years older than my mother.
Even though theirs was an arranged marriage, my father and my mother had an extremely close connection based on their previous incarnations. After my father passed away, it did not take even a year for my mother to follow him to the other world.
18. A Budding Poet
Right from infancy, I started composing poems, even when I could not read or write. I used to dictate them to my brother Chitta and he used to write them down for me. I dictated them in my own language – it is Bengali, but in the Chittagong dialect. Even when I was three or four years old, rhymes used to come. But, unfortunately, quite often there were no such words. The words that I was using spontaneously were missing from the dictionary!
19. Lakshmi Puja
In October 1990, at our tennis court in Queens, we observed Lakshmi Puja. The disciples lit hundreds of little candles, the way they do in India, and they placed Lakshmi’s footprints at various places.
Lakshmi is worshipped practically all over India in various ways. Each town, city and province worships her in its own way. Mother Lakshmi is for everybody, good or bad. She is the Mother of indulgence.
While I was growing up, our family and neighbours in Shakpura observed Mother Lakshmi’s Puja in a special way. On this one day of the year, you can steal things from your neighbours. The gardens are full of flowers and fruits, plus there are various other things in the courtyards of the houses. So you can enter and steal whatever you like. Even if you are caught red-handed by the owner, you just smile and go away. Expensive things that are kept inside the house are not available, but anything that is left outside you have the opportunity to take away as your own.
So we would go to other people’s houses and steal mangoes and other things, and they would come to our house and steal things. It was all great fun.
20. The Bhrigu System and My Fate
In my case, Bhrigu says that at the age of twelve I will go to my Satguru and from that time onwards astrology will not apply to my life because my Guru would be responsible. Whatever was destined to happen would not happen because my Guru would change my fate.
In India, we have another system of astrology. There it says that Lord Krishna’s planets, the Buddha’s planets, Sri Aurobindo’s planets and my planets are all in the same alignment.
My brother Chitta laughed when he read this because he knew it was all true long before I was born.
21. My Meat Eating Days
Before I went to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, I ate fish every day and meat twice a week. Usually, we would have duck meat. Perhaps once a month we would have lamb. On rare occasions, we would have turtle, which I liked very much. But fish I had every day. We had so many ponds on our property and they were filled with clean water and fish.
22. Our Family Cows
In our family, we had two special cows. They were huge. One was called Surabhi. She was white and very, very mild. The other was Nandini. This one was brown and not too mild! These were the names of Krishna’s two cows, so we took the same. Both of these cows we had for a long time.
23. Life Under the British
When the British soldiers came and took over East Bengal, quite a few of our relatives were killed. Others left. And some stayed behind. The British soldiers were supposed to threaten us and frighten us, so that we would not rebel against the British government. But some of the soldiers, instead of scaring us, used to come and eat with my relatives and carry me on their shoulders.
24. Lacking in Faith
Every day Mantu and I were supposed to go into our temple and pray before going to school and every day we used to forget. Then my mother would worry that we did not have any faith. On important occasions, she would come and see how Mantu and I were doing, but otherwise she would ask my sisters how we were.
My mother spent so much time in the temple. When we fell sick, she would not come near us. She would only go to the temple and pray and pray. She had no faith in the doctor. Her faith was all in her prayers. At that time, my sisters would look after us.
25. Indian Mothers
The affection that I received from my immediate family and from my relatives is beyond your imagination. Indian affection is so different from American affection. Indian mothers will not kiss or embrace their children. They will only bless them. When Indian mothers are happy, they always bless their children.
Again, in our Indian households, mothers do not have to do the same kind of work as American mothers do. Although American families are far wealthier by comparison, you do not have servants like we do in India. There machine work is not so developed. We did not have a washing machine or hot water, but we used to have a washing man who came to our house every day. We also had a man to cook and two other servants to clean. These servants used to do everything. I was so close to them. They were like members of the family.
When we took the train to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, my father would take eleven people – eight family members, two servants and one cook.
Now, in Indian society, people do not have to remain servants if they do not want. They can study and get a degree the same as any other caste. But in those days, it was unheard of.
26. My Only Ambition
It used to take four days to go from Chittagong to Pondicherry by train. First, the train would go to Calcutta and then it would travel southwards at thirty miles per hour. I used to enjoy the train ride so much. My only ambition was to become an inspector, like my father. He started out as an inspector. Then he became head inspector of the whole line from Bengal to Assam.
When we travelled to Pondicherry, everybody else in the family used to fall asleep, but there was no sleep for me. I would wait eagerly for the next station. With my eyes and ears, I absorbed the scenes that passed by. In those days, the trains were not very crowded, so I could move from side to side. I did not want to miss anything. Nowadays, the trains are overcrowded.
At the stations, people used to keep their wares on their head. And some of them had a peculiar way of shouting ‘chai’ and other things. Sometimes, I slipped out of the train to buy sweetmeats and other tasty foods.
27. My Favourite Places
There are quite a few places in India whose very name gives me tremendous joy and a tremendous inner thrill. Kanyakumari is one of those. Kanyakumari is where Vivekananda entered into the water and Sri Ramakrishna was telling him inwardly to come to America. No matter how many times during the day I hear ‘Kanyakumari’, the name gives me the same inner thrill.
Another place that gives me immense joy is Cherrapunjee in Assam. It rains throughout the year in Assam.3 When I was a little boy studying in Chittagong, the very name ‘Cherrapunjee’ used to give me such joy.
Another name that used to give me special joy when I was a little boy is ‘Pondicherry’. Even without the Ashram, the very word ‘Pondicherry’ was like Heaven for me.
There are quite a few rivers in India. When it is a matter of sacred feeling, nothing compares with the Ganges. But, strangely enough, I get more joy when I hear the name of the Jamuna River, even though it is so small. Perhaps it is because of its special connection with Lord Krishna.
When we travelled by train along the route from Calcutta to Madras, we passed over the Godavari River. O God, such a sacred feeling I used to get whenever the train passed over that river!
Then comes our Taj Mahal. I have been there three times. When you look at the Taj Mahal with the mind, the mind immediately gets lost because of the beauty and power of the place. How many pilgrims and other people have been there to see the Taj Mahal! It shows an emperor’s love for his wife. Because of Shah Jahan’s love for his wife, Mumtaz, he built something immortal.
But of all the places in India, what gives me utmost joy is the name ‘Chittagong’ and specially ‘Shakpura’. On the one hand, I am a cosmopolitan. I am a spiritual man; I am meant for the whole world. But still, when I hear the name ‘Shakpura’ or ‘Chittagong’, immediately my heart derives the sweetest joy. Vastness we appreciate, admire and adore. But inside littleness, we can develop sweetness, fondness and intimacy. For me, that sweetness can be found inside the mere mention of my childhood village home.
1 Sri Chinmoy is referring to the Shwedagon Pagoda.
2 Here are three songs composed by Sri Chinmoy in the Chittagong dialect:
Chatga Ar Chatga Manat Pare Toar Katha
Ranga Mati... Bhitare Tui Baire Tui
Ma Toar Pachhuiyere Kataananda Pailam
3 Cherrapunjee is known as the wettest place on earth.