Studies from an eastern home
An old collegiate village
WE were a small and very cheerful party that set out to visit the village of Khardah. It was here that Nityananda--ordered by Chaitanya to take up the life of the householder--had dwelt year after year, organising and instructing the then rudimentary society of Vaishnavism. One day, about A.D. 1520, two thousand and five hundred men and women, "all Mussulmans," hearing of the great teacher of love and mercy, had come to him there to receive discipleship, and been admitted by him into Hinduism, as the order of Nera-Neris, or the Shaven-hes and the Shaven-shes. The records called them Mussulmans because to the writers they were not recognisable as Hindus, and it had been long ago forgotten that there could be any other category outside orthodox society to which they could belong. But they were in fact Buddhists, and that memorable day in the life of Nityananda definitely marked the death of Buddhism in Bengal.
Could a more fascinating question have been opened up? Within an hour or two we were on
our way to examine what traces of such events were left in the place of their occurrence. The Ganges was full, and our little boat could not always keep us water-tight against the occasional downpour of rain that varied the monotony which uniformly fine weather would have caused. Near Baranagore began the long succession of temples and sacred spots that marked that part of the Ganges side which was always sacrosanct. As far as this, said someone, Chaitanya came, for is it not true that at Baranagore a house that Chaitanya visited still stands? From this point on we noticed every now. and then a finer than ordinary bathing-ghât, distinguishing some old centre of importance; at Panihaty the evidences of a Moghul fort; again, the temple of the White Shiva, where in seasons of drought the peasants pray for rain, and so on. Still the question haunted us: would there at Khardah be any lingering sense of what the town had stood for in the past? Would the memory of Nityananda be alive in any real sense? Above all, could there possibly be any surviving tradition of the great event, of the incorporation of the Nera-Neris into Hinduism?
It seemed a wonderful story, this of Chaitanya and Nityananda, in the early sixteenth century. Surely there is no other country where the waking of genius is so welcomed as in India!
[paragraph continues] The love that was to spread to all mankind began to sweep Chaitanya of Nuddea into its whirlpools and torrents of ecstasy when he was eighteen only; and for three years more the foster-brother of his childhood shared with him every thought and enterprise. Then the inner call became imperious. Chaitanya could no longer brook the ways of the world, and saying farewell to all about him he wandered off, alone and free. But before he went, with strange prevision for one so planless of the work to be done for the world he was leaving, he begged Nityananda to enter the householder's life; and this behest was loyally carried out, his adopted brother living for the rest of his life here on the Ganges bank at Khardah. "And so," pursued the scholar, bent on expounding his own view, "it is really Nityananda to whom is due the formation of the Vaishnava community, and the working out of its rules for the admission of the lowly and the fallen into orthodox society. It was no fall from a higher life that led to the parting from Chaitanya. It was stern obedience and a sense of work to be done. This was that Nityananda who walked in the city without anger, without restlessness, and without pride. As for Chaitanya, he spent the next twenty-six years of his life, first in wandering, then at Brindaban, and then in the temple at Puri. He lived there for eighteen years, and
there is not a village in Orissa where he is not worshipped. We of Bengal know him as a poor Brahmin. We have his pedigree, and can tell you of his family. But they in Orissa know him as God!"
In a deep quiet we came gradually to a fine old ghât made of tile-like bricks, with ornamental buildings at the top on each side. Near it stood a curious form of temple, made for the Exposition of the Image at the Ras Mela. And further in the town, though hidden from us here at the river bank, we knew that we should find the famous temple of Shyam Sundar, built by Nityananda himself.
It was the rainy season, most beautiful of all times for visiting the Ganges bank. The brimful river and the fresh green foliage gave an air of opulence and unusual beauty. But the great feature of the place one found as soon as landed to be the fine old buildings of the Gossain houses. Unplastered walls of brick displayed the exquisite work of the bricklayers, whose construction was of a quality to need no ornament. The houses in the quiet lanes of Khardah were like eighteenth-century colleges in some university city of the West: such was their air of perfect craftmanship and conscious dignity. We reminded ourselves, looking thus at the abodes of Nityananda's spiritual descendants, how probably the people living here
had long forgotten the traditions of their home. Undoubtedly they must have shrunk by this time into the tightest shell of orthodoxy. One must not be too disappointed if they should prove the very reverse of what their ancestors would have had them. One could not expect that a great idea should persist, in its vigour, for four hundred years together in the same spot. Thinking thus, I came to the paved brick pathway that led to the temple of Shyam Sundar. Fascinated by the beauty of the paved way, I followed it and came to the precincts of the temple itself. As much as I could see from the entrance I saw, and after some moments was turning away, when an old Brahmin entered. "Oh no!" he cried; "come to this place in the Nat-Mandir. You can see better here." Considerably cheered by the warmth of the invitation, I followed his suggestion, while he went about his business in the temple. A few minutes later we found the place of the Nera-Neris. Sure enough, there it is to this day, kept in gracious memory by this very name, the lawn before the cottage-home of Nityananda, where the Nera-Neris were reabsorbed into their Mother-Church. The site of the house that once stood on the grass is now covered with an open veranda-floor, and the room in which Birbhadra, the son of Nityananda, was born is marked by a couple of tulsi plants. Here one can imagine Nityananda standing, in his
doorway, when the whole twenty-five hundred camped before him to state their cases and accept his ruling. Beggar-men and women from all the countryside, they must have been only too conscious, many of them, that they were fallen and unworthy, in this way or that, and totally unaware of the great name they may once have borne. For many a generation, nay many a century, they had been constantly recruited by the failures of society, who shaved their heads and donned a copper-wire above the elbow, and with this mark of humility and religion, wearing the ochre-coloured cloth, sallied forth to beg their bread and impose on no one. Their name had long been held as a term of contempt, for were they not monks and nuns who wandered in pairs? Away with such mummery! said Bengal in effect. The crumbs from the richer tables were carelessly thrown to them, for the Indian people condemn none to starve, but their want of order and decency had made them a byword amongst men. Their very name was hurled carelessly at a new offender as a term of reproach. How strange that behind the courting of such a fate there is human suffering! The sinner continued to shave his head and adopt the garment of the order, and to sally forth with begging bowl in hand, and yet was keenly aware the while of the ignominy of his situation, would have given much, perhaps even complete self-reformation,
to have met with a little respect from other human beings. Such was the sorry crowd that had camped on the lawn in those days at Khardah. Nay, as the villagers were presently telling us, even now there are Nera-Neris, and until lately it was the custom to give them a mela here once a year. Increasing poverty is making this impossible, and some of the older men among the local Gossains spoke of the fact in a brokenhearted fashion, as of an ancestral trust betrayed. But until a year or two ago the custom was maintained, and even now they are hoping to revive it. Nay, they were taking us presently to another temple--not of Shyam Sundar--built at a later date for the express purposes of the mela, and still used by the Nera-Neris as a dharmsala. This temple has never been finished, and consequently was never consecrated, but it is, curiously enough, built in the old-time fashion of Buddhist monasteries, as we see them at Mahavallipore; and this is fitting, since it has to afford sleeping quarters for so many who in name at least are of the religious.
The spirit of Nityananda, then, had not died out of Khardah. Nay, one can imagine the beggars--whose feet, in the European Middle Ages, some king was wont to wash with his own hands before sitting himself at the banqueting board--we can imagine these acquiring in the
royal household a semi-symbolic character, as if within the palace beggars and kings were specially to be reverenced. And something of this spirit, I imagine, I detected at Khardah. The fact that we were strangers, and one of us a foreign woman, seemed to strike the good burghers as the very reason why we should be given civic entertainment, and presently we found ourselves once more on the way to the temple. They have heard the story of our tastes and predilections with attention and sympathy, and now they would show us something that would please us. They had a copy of Bhagbat, written by Nityananda with his own hand. Oh, that book! They held It before us and every word was a picture. Written with the old pens, on the old paper, with the old unfading ink, there was not a letter, not a space, not a word, that was not perfect. The very heart of Nityananda--free, sweet, rejoicing in beauty--seemed to be displayed before us. But what of the other relic? Of that one would speak, if one could, in whispers only. When Chaitanya commanded his brother to go back to the world, and take up there the life of householder and citizen, Nityananda broke his sannyasin's staff. And there is the head of it to this day in the temple at Khardah. They brought it out and held it up for us to see--the staff that was held in the hand of Nityananda, during those three wonderful years
when he wandered side by side with Chaitanya through the villages and towns of Bengal, preaching love. We look in a dream at the simple broken piece of wood--only the head of the broken staff. But if we could see what you have seen, if we could touch what you have touched!
But Khardah does not retain merely the memory, or the relics, of its great happenings. It represents a community entrusted with a mission. For hundreds of years it has stood charged with the duty of teaching the inclusiveness of Hinduism. And were there not three strangers here, who on this account should be accorded the franchise of the place? Hence we could not depart from the temple till we had eaten prasad. All must gather together and eat it with us. Hurriedly it was sent for, and quickly consecrated, but already the twilight was falling when we tasted the communion, standing in the transept below the altar in the temple of Shyam Sundar. All Khardah, gentle and simple, Brahmin and lay folk, ate it with us; for all, it seems, come to make salutation at the evening arati. To one there it came with a sense of being "eaten in haste, with loins girt and staff in hand, for it was the Lord's Passover": and as, with many expressions of courtesy and respect, we turned away from the hurried feast, the bells rang out and the blaze of the light began for evening worship.
And so we dropped down the river in the starlight, thinking much of the making of history here in our close neighbourhood, and feeling all the wonder of a place that had not forgotten its mission in four hundred years.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.