Narayana Prasad, later known as Shri Dada, was born in a rich family in Moradabad, a city of the United Provinces. He was a Brahmin, or member of the highest caste. In early youth he met his guru, Swami Krishnanandaji, and devoted himself entirely to his service. The young man’s father strongly disapproved, because he wished his son to live the life of an aristocrat; in the end he disinherited him and refused to see him again. Shri Dada would not take his worldly troubles to his guru, and spent some months penniless, living in the woods. Later he got a post as a clerk at the railway station, and in this way supported himself, remaining in the service for the rest of his life. He gave himself with undivided will to the personal service of his guru and to the mystic practices he was taught, and obtained the final illumination when still quite young.
He was now a Mahatma, but remained as a householder, supporting his wife and family, and founding groups of disciples in the towns to which his work took him. He was not a great theorist of yoga—he did not know classical Sanskrit; but he was an expert on the practice. Of course he had a good knowledge of the philosophical basis, and his knowledge had been completely verified in his own experience. He was like one who learns a language by residence in the country rather than from grammars. So it was that he did not become famous as a Pandit or philosopher, but among his disciples were Hari Prasad Shastri, one of the greatest authorities on Indian philosophy and Sanskrit scholarship, and Swami Rama Tirtha, the mathematician. The great abbots of the ancient monasteries founded by Shankaracharya knew him as a Mahatma; his disciples knew him as a guru; but the general public simply knew him as a very saintly man.
Nevertheless, his influence was considerable. He made the first move towards removing the prejudice against the “Untouchables”, a move which could only be made effectively by a Brahmin, one of the highest caste. The removal of the disabilities attached to the Untouchables later became the lifne-work of Gandhi-ji, but it must be remembered that the latter was only a member of the Vaishya or merchant caste, and the reform would never have been accepted in practice if it had not originally come from the Brahmin caste. Shri Dada was by some regarded as a traitor to his caste, and was abused and even attacked for his convictions. Some of his bitterest opponents later became his disciples.
In the same spirit he broke with the custom that the religious instruction of the Upanishads should not be given to women. It was not that he did not believe in tradition— he had the greatest veneration for it, but he attacked meaningless prejudices based on one-sided interpretation of a few doubtful texts, and quoted the lives of the great Incarnations, who had women and Untouchables among their closest disciples and friends. On one occasion when the rumour went round that he was initiating two women disciples, a mob stormed the house. The Mahatma confronted them and was able at once to turn them to his own view.
He was a universal saint, with no prejudice or bias against anyone. He studied the Koran and entertained the Moslem mystics in his own home. Similarly he made his disciples read the Gospels and revere the teachings of Christ as a perfect revelation of truth. The great teacher often said that the association of India and Britain would be an important factor in the spiritual history of the world ; he believed that Britain had much to teach India, and had no sympathy with those who wished to break the association by violent means. But he also thought that Britain must learn from India the philosophy and practice of Yoga, and he wished that a traditional teacher, fully at home in Western learning, should come to Britain to found a centre.
He did not recommend his disciples to retire from the world, but told them to make a success of their lives, physically, mentally, and spiritually. The only point of having a healthy body, economic independence, a developed mind, was to realize God in the Self. When God was known in the Self, there was an experience of unending bliss, which no worldly catastrophe could shake; until God was known, life was suffering. Intellectual people he asked to study history to find whether worldly success alone had ever brought lasting happiness to anyone. With simple people, he appealed to their own experience of life; insecurity was itself a cause of suffering, and what was secure in life ? When it was fully understood that the changing objects of the world could not give lasting satisfaction, their irrational attraction would cease. Taking an illustration familiar to the common people, he pointed out that a child is attracted by the bright colour of an unripe mango and goes to eat it. But when, after repeated disappointments, he understands that mangoes of that colour are not good to eat, the colour no longer attracts him.
Those disciples who were philosophically inclined were told to analyse the occasions when they thought they had experienced real bliss. He showed them that in such cases the sense of the individual separate “ I ” was temporarily absent. The technique of Yoga was to purify and still the mind, and in that state to dissolve the sense of egoity, which is illusory, in God, the true Self.
By many illustrations, by lucid and profound argument, he convinced many disciples of the theoretical principles of Yoga, and some of them by giving their whole energies to the practice, attained the realization that ends suffering.
For people living in the world he specially recommended meditation on incidents in the lives of Incarnations or of great saints, and also the ancient practice, which Kobo Daishi had made the basis of his own system, of repeating one of the great Names of God: Rama, Jesus, or OM.
A full account of the technique of these practices, and of the day-to-day teachings of Shri Dada, is given in the book The Heart of the Eastern Mystical Teaching by H P Shastri.
We can see that the essential points in the lives of great spiritual figures are strikingly similar. Shri Dada’s renunciation of his family position is identical with that of St. Francis; his absolute freedom from prejudice and determination to know truth were echoed in the life of Rama Tirtha; the practices by which he reached illumination and which he taught to others were those of Kobo Daishi.
The Chinese artists count several types of beauty; they speak, for instance, of limpid beauty, of strange beauty, of virile beauty, and of perfect beauty. If so inclined, one might describe the life of Kobo as an example of strange beauty, of St. Francis as limpid beauty, of Rama Tirtha as virile beauty. Perfect beauty is said to be that which has something of all the others, in perfect proportion; to many who knew him it seemed that the life of Shri Dada was one of perfect beauty. There is one thing more. A single artist may paint many pictures, each with its own beauty. But however different in subject, the characteristic brush- work always gives an unmistakeable indication that they are by the same hand. Perhaps it is not fanciful to see in great lives the characteristic brush work of the same Artist.
© Trevor Leggett