January 16th, 2009
Indians of all castes and from all walks of life traditionally worship numerous cosmic gods and goddesses – Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Kali, Parvati, Ganesh, Kartikeya and many more. To the Western mind, this pantheon of divine manifestations can be mystifying, whereas, for an Indian, they belong to a time-honoured way of life that is perfectly natural. Throughout the year, special festivals are dedicated to certain gods and goddesses, and on a daily basis many traditional religious rituals are observed.
Bengal has long been regarded as the epicentre of devotion to the goddess Kali and spiritual Masters who hail from this part of India – including Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda – all expressed profound devotion to her. Sri Chinmoy, a true Bengali, belongs to this tradition. Kali was worshipped with great ceremony in his family and, as he grew older, although he no longer observed a ritual-based form of worship, he maintained his deep love for her. She was his most favourite of all the goddesses. He explains:
Kali is one of the four aspects of the Supreme Mother. She is the Mother of power, the Mother of compassion and the Mother of speed. She wants her devotees to run the fastest … One has to be extremely pure, sincere and heroic in order to be her chosen instrument. She is not for the weak; she is only for the strong. She cares only for the strong who are ready to fight against ignorance… In India, each family has a presiding deity. Mother Kali happens to be my family’s deity, so she has special blessings for my entire family.
(Great Masters and the Cosmic Gods)
For Bengali families, the most important religious event of the year is Kali Puja, which falls in October or November, depending on the lunar calendar. This sacred occasion is observed with elaborate decorations and ceremonies, which extend over a number of days and nights. Special bamboo pandals (temples) are erected, Brahmin priests travel from household to household to perform the rituals, temples and houses are brightly illuminated by strings of lights, women wear red-bordered saris, men don white dhotis and kurtas, and the constant sound of conches, bells and drums all add to the festivity.
During Sri Chinmoy’s childhood, it used to be a common custom, especially among well-to-do landowners such as his father, to offer a special goat sacrifice to Mother Kali during Kali Puja. In Bengal, this sacrifice is called patha bali. For Shashi Kumar Ghosh, it symbolised his protection of the entire family.
In 1938, when Sri Chinmoy was seven years old, something unexpected took place during this sacrifice which very nearly resulted in a tragedy of horrific proportions. In his autobiographical writings, he describes the scene as it unfolded at the family temple:
Once, our family was performing the Kali Puja, the festival of Mother Kali. At the time, I was about seven years old. Many sacrifices were offered. The most important was the sacrifice of a live goat. Someone would hold the legs of the animal tightly, while the goat’s head was placed at the end of the scaffold. For the sacrifice to be successful, the Brahmin priest had to perform it with one stroke of his sharp scimitar. If the priest failed on the first stroke, it was said that the devil’s doings would befall the family that was performing the festival.
After the sacrifice of the goat, it was customary that fruits also be sacrificed to Mother Kali. In this case also, to make the sacrifice successful, the priest had to cut these fruits in half with only one stroke of the scimitar. Then he would fling the fruit out to the spectators and the lucky ones would catch it.
When the time came for the sugar cane sacrifice, it was placed on the scaffold that earlier had held the goat and the fruits. The top portion of the sugar cane has a few leaves and is not edible, but the main body of the sugar cane plant is most delicious. I noticed that some of my friends, who had been standing near the top portion of the sugar cane, had quietly moved around the back of the audience to the other side, so that they could stand near the other end of the altar. They knew that the body of the sugar cane would be flung in that direction.
The priest had grasped the scimitar in both hands and swung it above his head, even extending his hands behind his head in order to get better leverage to perform the job successfully. Just as the priest was beginning to swing, I jumped over the scaffold. In the nick of time, he halted his swing.
A wave of panic swept those who were watching. I had escaped from a great calamity by just a hair’s breadth. Had the priest not been able to stop his swing, I would have been in the other world. Fortunately, the divine in the priest had immediately endowed him with the needful life-saving skill.
My father, approaching me in a calm and quiet manner, embraced me with both arms. There was not a trace of worry or anxiety in his face – only tranquil joy streaming forth.
My father then took the priest aside and said, ‘You have saved my son’s life. Whatever reward you want I shall immediately give you – money, property or anything else I have. I shall give it to you here and now.’
The priest, still trembling from the experience, said to my father: ‘Reward! What reward? I have saved my mentor’s dearest son! What greater joy can there be on earth than to save my deeply esteemed mentor’s youngest son!’ My Brother Chitta
In his eagerness to catch one of the stalks of sugar cane as the priest flung them to the young boys, Madal had no concept of the danger he courted by jumping over the scaffold. He was intently focussed only on reaching the other side and oblivious to all else. We recall that Madal’s maternal uncle used to make a pun on the family surname and call him kharaghosh (rabbit) because he was always darting about here and there. Madal was adept at jumping, climbing and running and this may have given him the foolhardy confidence to jump over the scaffold at the precise moment the priest was preparing to strike.
Meanwhile, the priest, on his part, was focussed on raising his scimitar over his head in preparation for his swing. At some point, he must have noticed the movement of the little boy. Human reaction time is usually between .2 and .25 of a second. However, it is highly unlikely that this window of time alone would have been sufficient to arrest the action of the sharp blade, particularly once the downward motion had begun, a motion which some have described as being faster than the eye can see.
A world-class 100-metre runner can cover two and a half metres in .25 seconds. A weapon thrown by an expert travels 10 metres in .25 seconds. An object, after freefalling 100 metres, travels 11.25 metres in the same timeframe. How much faster then would a powerful slice with a scimitar be! Clearly, under the circumstances, even an extremely fast reaction time would not have saved the boy from a terrible fate.
Moreover the reaction time of the priest – that is, the elapsed time between his observance of Madal and his subsequent halting of his swing – would have been affected by the events of the day. He would arguably have been tired from his previous exertions. By the time he was asked to cut the sugar cane, his reaction time may have slowed considerably. Again, since he addresses Shashi Kumar Ghosh as his mentor, it seems that he had been the family priest for some time, which indicates that he may not have been a young man. In this context, the fact that he was able to stop the momentum of the blade, to fight against the pull of gravity, was a feat of monumental proportions.
Both Shashi Kumar Ghosh and the priest immediately recognised that some divine force had intervened to save the little boy. Since the sacrifice was dedicated to Mother Kali, and presumably took place in front of the sanctum sanctorum where her image was installed, I believe we can say that Mother Kali acted through the priest to save Madal’s life. Fortunately, one of the main qualities of Mother Kali is that of speed. Sri Chinmoy says,
When the Grace of Mother Kali or any aspect of the Divine Mother enters into us, miracles can take place in the twinkling of an eye. Whatever You Want, God Gives
Her direct intervention transformed this potential tragedy into a cause for profound wonder and awe. One can even see traces of her divine touch reflected on the face of Shashi Kumar Ghosh. Sri Chinmoy speaks of the ‘tranquil joy streaming forth’ from his father, who instantly recognised the miracle for what it was. Like a king of olden times, he was fully prepared to bestow his entire kingdom on the priest who had saved his son’s life. The priest, on his part, was still trembling from the incident some minutes after it happened. He seems both physically and spiritually shaken.
Sri Chinmoy retained this scene in his memory with great vividness for several reasons: it was yet another of his narrow escapes from death; it was one of the very few occasions when his beloved and adored father embraced him and, after leaving Bengal, he never again in his life celebrated Kali Puja in this way.
From the age of twelve, when Madal became a resident at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, religious rituals as such disappeared from his life. Although at one time Sri Aurobindo had identified with Kali so closely that he even signed some of his letters with her name, in his Ashram he cultivated a universal form of spirituality that was not embedded in tradition. It was based solely on silent meditation and inner awakening. Swami Vivekananda expounded a similar philosophy when he gave lectures in the West. Only in rare, private poems or letters did he make mention of Mother Kali or even of his own spiritual Master, Sri Ramakrishna.
We find a similar dichotomy in Sri Chinmoy’s life. He maintained his intense personal devotion to Mother Kali to the end of his days. Wherever he went, he carried a small picture of her in his pocket. He bowed before her image whenever he left his house and before he did his daily weightlifting. He composed a number of devotional songs in praise of her in his mother tongue Bengali, only seldom translating them into English. His writings and teachings, however, focus on the universal aspects of prayer and meditation. They are, one may say, oriented to seekers of the West.
One must inevitably ask why someone who has achieved the highest type of realisation – such as Sri Aurobindo or Sri Chinmoy – would feel the need to offer devotion to a cosmic god or goddess. It is, perhaps, something that we shall never fully understand. As seekers on the path, we are secure in the object of our devotion. It is the spiritual guide whom we have chosen to lead us to the Goal. But for the one who has reached the Goal, perhaps there is still something in his nature which yearns for the sweetness of devotion. In the same way that a master cellist still practises the musical scales every day, Sri Chinmoy still prayed to the Supreme, still sang devotional songs, still repeated the Name of the Supreme hundreds of times – and still offered Mother Kali all the intensity of his devotion.
Even before he passed behind the curtain of Eternity, he sought her permission and her blessings. In the small hours of the morning on October 11th, 2007, he stood with folded hands facing his cherished image of Mother Kali and uttered the simple Bengali word ‘Mago’ (Mother), the very first word that all Bengali children learn. Then he bowed his head. This time Mother Kali did not have to act swiftly to save her child from certain death. Instead she welcomed him with open arms.
– End –