Akshay Kumar Sen
(by K. C. S. Pillai)
Source: Nirvana, October 2007. Published by Ramakrishna Mission, Singapore
"Glory, glory be to Ramakrishna, the wish-yielding tree, glory, glory be to God, the teacher of the world."
With this invocative prayer begins Akshay Kumar Sen's monumental work Sri Sri Ramakrishna Punthi, a long narrative poem in Bengali on the life and divine play of Sri Ramakrishna. Since its publication more than a hundred years ago, it continues to be read in most Bengal villages with the same devotion and fervour as the Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. After reading the work, Swami Vivekananda wrote from the States to a brother monk in India, "Give Akshaya a hundred thousand hearty embraces from me. Through his pen Sri Ramakrishna is manifesting himself. Blessed is Akshaya." Fortunately for the non-Bengali readers an English translation running into almost nine hundred pages was published a decade ago.
Who is this Akshay Kumar Sen?
Akshay was born in 1854 in a small village in the Bankura district of Bengal. His father Haladhar Sen was too poor to provide a good education for his son who had to be content with limited exposure to rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic at the village school. He was, as was the family, a devotee of Lord Krishna. In course of time he married and when the wife died, took a second wife who bore him two sons and a daughter.
To improve his economic prospects Akshay moved to Calcutta where he found employment as a private tutor to the children of the Tagore family. The sophistication, culture and elegance of the Tagore clan added to Akshay's inferiority complex and most of the time he kept to himself. For good measure, he was short, stocky and dark complexioned with small eyes, thick lips and a flat nose. In later years he grew an unkempt grey beard and wore a huge turban and thick glasses to boot. Swami Vivekananda had nicknamed him "Sankacunni" literally meaning a female ghost wearing bangles. But Akshay was not offended as he knew that Swamiji gave names of endearment only to those whom he liked. But changes were on the horizon. One day he heard Devendranath Majumdar, a senior employee at the Tagore estate, and Dhirendra, a young member of the Tagore family talking about a paramahamsa.
Paramahamsa is one who has realised Brahman, a liberated soul. When he heard that word his interest was kindled. As mentioned earlier he was a devotee of Lord Krishna. He had taken initiation from a family guru. He was under the impression that taking initiation would automatically lead to some kind of vision of God. This had not happened, but the spark of devotion had been ignited and he wanted to know more. So one day when Devendra was alone Akshay approached him and asked him about the paramahamsa they were talking about. Devendra brushed him aside saying, "What good could it possibly do you?" Akshay felt rebuffed, but strangely it only increased his appetite. So when he had an opportunity to talk to Dhirendra he found out that the paramahamsa they were talking about was Sri Ramakrishna and that he lived in Dakshineswar. That did not help much because not being familiar with Calcutta Akshay had no idea where Dakshineswar was. He realised that Devendra alone could help him and began cultivating him by offering him some services anonymously. When Devendra found out who the service provider was, he asked Akshay what he wanted. "Sir, would you please take me to meet the paramahamsa?" was his request. Devendra was impressed by his humility and sincerity and agreed to do so.
In the early part of 1885 Akshay came to know that a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna, Mahimacharan Chakrabarty had arranged for a festival for the Master at his house and that Devendra would be attending. He was keen not to miss this opportunity. When Devendra and Dhirendra were about to get into their carriage, Akshay rushed to Devendra, clutched his feet and pleaded with him, "Sir, please allow me to accompany you." Devendra agreed. Akshay was then thirty years old. At Mahimacharan's residence had assembled several of Sri Ramakrishna's devotees.
Here is Akshay's own account of this first meeting: "Devendra and Dhirendra took the dust of the Master's feet, as usual, and took their seats. The humble author did likewise and the Master gave him a look full of compassion. What was there in that look, I do not know. It was beyond any description. The holy image of the Master entered his heart through his eyes and occupied it right away. That charming figure at once dazzled his eyes and mind and captivated his heart. Whatever had been left in the heart was cleared out by listening to the Master's sweet words. It was an invisible play, burglary in open daylight by breaking open hundreds of locks inside one's heart...All past remembrances disappeared in a moment, and I became completely oblivious of the world. I forgot my old self, a new current started flowing, a new being was born in my old body. The assembled people no longer seemed to be people, the houses ceased to be houses at all, and having lost everything old, it appeared as if I had entered a new territory and was moving forward in a dream. The story of the Master's glory has been chiselled in my heart. Where can I find adequate language to describe it?" Soon the kirtans began. Sri Ramakrishna burst forth into a rapturous song, "Behold, the two brothers have come, who weep while chanting Hari's name..." Intoxicated with divine joy, the Master began to dance, his face beaming with love and bliss. At times he went into samadhi and remained motionless, at other times he danced with great vigour. As the spiritual fervour reached a climax, Mahimacharan pointed to Sri Ramakrishna and exclaimed, "Here's our Krishna." Akshay, a Krishna devotee, felt deeply that the Master was verily Lord Krishna for whose vision he had been yearning for years.
After Sri Ramakrishna left for Dakashineswar, Akshay got into the carriage with Devendra and Dhirendra. Another close devotee of Sri Ramakrishna, Ramchandra Dutta also joined them. During the journey Ram was talking only about the Master and Akshay was thrilled to hear what Ram had to say. So when Ram got down near his house, Akshay also joined him and went to his house. There Ram treated him to many more incidents about the Master. He returned home quite late inebriated with divine fervour.
Two or three days later Akshay went to Dakshineswar with a friend. This time the Master asked him many details about his life and whether he was a Brahmo (i.e. whether he belonged to the Brahmo Samaj, a religious and social reform movement then led by Keshab Chandra Sen). Akshay had not even heard the name. Before leaving, Akshay wanted to take the dust of the Master's feet, but to his dismay he was frustrated. On this and later occasions the Master used to tell him, "Let you be purified, then you may do so." (The Master had let him do so at Mahimacharan's house though). Akshay felt offended. He wrote later, "The way the Master treated me! If he had treated any other person in that way, he never would have returned. So many devotees touched his feet, and yet whenever I would try to, he would withdraw his feet and sometimes even move back saying, 'All right, all right!'" But Akshay was not to be put off by the seeming indifference on the part of the Master. The Master's spiritual loftiness, his discourses and his spiritual ecstasies were awe-inspiring to Akshay. He had developed both fear and resect for the Master. In the push/pull factor, the pull factor proved stronger. Despite his disappointments, Akshay became more convinced as days passed that Sri Ramakrishna alone could guide him to his desired destination.
As he wrote later, "I neither talked with Sri Ramakishna nor asked him any questions, but this I knew - that whosoever received the touch of the Master on his chest would lose outer consciousness and in that state would see Krishna. Expecting this I continued to visit him. Not only that, whenever I see him I would feel myself to be a different person. I used to think how it would be when the Master, out of mercy, would touch my chest. Many days passed, but he did not fulfil my desire. I used to go to him with great hope and return home with tearful eyes and disappointment." While Akshay's disappointment is understandable, it is not uncommon for great gurus to mould their disciples in different ways to cleanse them of their ego or jealousy or just to straighten their angularities. If only Akshay had known that Sri Ramakrishna had put his star disciple Narendra (Swami Vivekananda) through a trial period, his feelings may not have been that intense.
In 1883, a sudden change seem to come in their close relationship. The Master, who used to be overwhelmed with joy at the arrival of Narendra, suddenly began to assume an attitude of indifference. One day Narendra came, bowed down to the Master and took his seat. But the Master took no notice of him and remained indifferent, speaking not a word to him for the whole day. For more than a month the Master continued this stand-off. Narendra, however, continued to visit the Master and showed no sign of being offended. At last one day the Master asked him, "Well, I did not speak a single word to you. Still you are coming here." Narendra said he continued to come because he loved the Master. Highly pleased the Master said, "I was testing you. It is only a spiritual aspirant of your calibre that can put up with so much neglect and indifference. Any one else would have left me long ago."
It speaks a lot for the calibre of Akshay that he too was not put off by the Master's posture, but pressed on with efforts to reach the goal. As part of the effort he appealed to Devendra to request the Master to bless him. Devendra duly conveyed the request. The Master's response was, "What shall I say? You give him some advice." Devendra then asked Akshay to chant the name of Hari which he did with tremendous faith and hope. In April 1885 Devendra arranged a festival at his house in Sri Ramakrishna's honour. Akshay was thrilled to have been invited. A professional singer had been engaged and he sang several songs praising Lord Krishna. The spiritual mood was intense. After refreshments Sri Ramakrishna was seated in the drawing room. The devotees sat around him. Akshay, and another devotee Upendra, sat on either side of the Master and stroked his feet. The Master was in a happy mood and sang some songs. Akshay was also a happy man that day.
But the icing on the cake was yet to come. As Sri Ramakrishna's health deteriorated considerably, in December 1885 he was moved to a spacious garden house in Cossipore so that proper medical care could be given to him. On 1 January 1886, the Master felt a little better and came out for a walk in the garden. It was the day Sri Ramakrishna blessed many of his household devotees and hence it is observed as the Kalpataru Day. Let Akshay recall what happened to him: "When it was about 3 o'clock the Master came downstairs and walked towards the garden path. The devotees followed him. All others, who were elsewhere, hearing that the Master was walking in the garden, rushed there. Some of us were on the trees playing like monkeys on the branches. We came down at once and quickly went to the place where the Master was walking with the other devotees. I stood on one side behind the Master. Two beautiful champa flowers were in my hands. The great devotee Girish (Chandra Ghosh) was near the Master and talking with him. The Master was charmingly dressed that day. Looking at him once the form cannot be forgotten. He wore a red bordered cotton cloth. A green coloured coat was on his body. He had a cotton cap which covered his head and also his ears. On his feet there were socks and slippers which had decorations of creepers and leaves on them. His face was shining and luminous. Though the body was emaciated by his terrible illness, his face was charming and rays of light were always playing on it......
A little afterwards, the Master blessed the devotees and raising his right hand said, 'May you have chaitanya. What else can I say?' Then the Master returned to the path leading towards the house. I was standing some distance away. From there he addressed me, 'Hello, my boy, what are you doing?' He then came near, touched my chest with his hand and recited something in my ear which, being a Maha-mantra, I shall keep secret. What did I see and what did I hear? I shall only say that my heart's desire was fulfilled that day and I only wish to pass the rest of my days in singing the glory of Sri Ramakrishna." Sri Ramakrishna's illness worsened in the months ahead. On 15 August 1886, his condition became critical. Swami Vivekananda had arranged for Akshay to fan the Master that night. After a while Sashi (Swami Ramakrishnananda) asked Akshay to call Girish and Ramchandra Datta from Calcutta. Akshay immediately left for Calcutta, met the devotees and returned to Cossipore. The Master entered into Mahasamadhi on 16 August.
With the Master physically gone, Akshay used to decorate his photo and sing his glories. He felt a compelling urge to write something about the Master though he was conscious of his scant literary talent. Devendra, in whose company he first went to see Sri Ramakrishna, also uged him to try. Later he expressed his desire to Swami Vivekananda who was impressed by Akshay' sincerity. Citing instances of unskilled men turning into great poets, Swamiji encouraged him to press on with his instinct. Thus began his writing in Bengali verse in 1887. After compiling the first part of the Master's life, he took it to the Baranagore monastery and read it to Swami Vivekananda. Swamiji was moved by what he heard and took Akshay to Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi who blessed him. Again Holy Mother blessed him when he went to Kamarpukur, the birth place of Sri Ramakrishna. At that time Mother had him read the poem to some of the village women who had known the Master and urged him to continue his writings. Since his personal contacts with Sri Ramakrishna were limited, he collected considerable information from some of the monastic as well as lay disciples of the Master. The work, written in the style of the great epics The Ramayana and Mahabharata, was published in four volumes between 1894 and 1901 as Charitamrita. Towards the end of 1901 all the four parts were published in one volume entitled Sri Ramakrishna Punthi.
Akshay sent a copy of the book to Swami Vivekananda, who was then in the States. As noted briefly, Swamiji's response was ecstatic. In a letter written to his brother monk Swami Ramakrishnananda, he said, "Just now I read Akshay's book. Give him a hundred thousand embraces from me. Through his pen Sri Ramakrishna is manifesting himself. Blessed is Akshay....I do not find a single irrelevant word in it. I cannot tell in words the joy I have experienced by reading his book. ...Dear, dear Akshay I bless you with all my heart, my dear brother. May the Lord sit on your tongue... .Akshay is the future apostle for the masses of Bengal. Take great care of Akshay, his faith and devotion have borne fruit."
Apart from the Punthi, Akshay also wrote the The Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna in 1896 and The Glory of Sri Ramakrishna in 1910, both in Bengali. Critics say the Punthi is a complimentary work to two other authoritative volumes on Sri Ramakrishna, the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by 'M' and Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master by Swami Saradananda. After working in a publishing firm in Calcutta for a while, Akshay retired to his village home where despite his poverty and family problems he continued to sing the glories of god. He often travelled to Jayrambati with some offering for Holy Mother. During one of his visits he addressed her as 'Mother' and she responded 'Yes, my son.' Thrilled, he said, "Mother, I called you 'Mother' and you answered 'Yes.' So I have no fear any more." The Mother replied, "My son, do not talk like that. Success comes only to a careful person." For a few days before his death Akshay suffered blood dysentery. As his end came nearer, his younger brother chanted the name of Sri Ramakrishna. All of a sudden Akshay said to those around him, "Keep quiet now. I see the Master and the Mother." Those in the room noted that Akshay's face was luminous and his eyes were half-closed. He passed away on 7 December 1923 at the age of sixtynine. Thus did Akshay Kumar Sen, with the grace of Sri Ramakrishna, scale the lofty heights of spirituality overcoming his numerous shortcomings.
* A Portrait of Sri Ramakrishna (Punthi)
* They Lived with God - by Swami Chetanananda
* First Meetings with Sri Ramakrishna - by Swami Prabhananda