Sri Rang Avadhoot Maharaj of Nareshwar,
Part – I
November 21, 1898 – November 19, 1968
My mother passed away on October 6, 2014 (USA date). I could not see her at the last moment. However, I was fortunate to spend time with her in August 2014 for couple of days. After she stopped visiting us in USA because of her health, I used to visit her every year and also I was in touch with her through phone. Whenever I went to spend some time with her, she used to ask me to sing a bhajan. She did the same with my brothers and sister. She would enjoy listening to bhajans and dhoons. She had a very good voice and we used to enjoy her singing. One of her favorite hymns was “Dattabavani” written by the great saint Sri Rang Avadhoot Maharaj. Up to her last days she could recite this hymn from her memory. My brother used to say that whenever he was singing Dattabavani to her, not only she would join in singing, but she would surpass him in singing. We feel blessed to be her children and she taught us many values from her life which is difficult to learn in any other way.
For one of the ceremonies we had to go to Nareshwar, a place of pilgrimage on the bank of the great river Narmada. It seemed that couple of days ago or on the previous day the river was high tide and the day we went was low tide.
The ground was wet and was filled with sea-shells and trails of various small species. We had to go further in to be in the water. We were amazed to see that the water was very clean. We could see everything at the bottom of the river. Being purified with Mother Narmada’s water, we walked to Sri Rang Avadhootji’s Ashram. It was very clean everywhere. The entire environment was peaceful. A group of devotees were singing bhajans. One of the bhajans was a loving request to Sri Rang Avadhootji to come and help the devotees in their spiritual path. We joined the singing. Our sorrowful minds received some peace. We saluted and decided to walk around the place. There was a sign ‘DO NOT PUT MONEY.’ We were surprised to see something different. Then, we went to see the cave where Sri Rang Avadhootji did his spiritual practices. Everything was inspiring. My brother gave donation in the office located outside and across the temple.
When we were leaving, one of my brothers and I thought of checking out the bookstore. He wanted the book of bhajans that we just heard and I wanted Shri Rang Avadhoot Maharaj’s biography. We both got our books. We gave a round figure bill and the person at the book store had to return to us Rs. 2. He was searching for it. We said that it was okay if he did not have it and started walking away. But, he insisted that we must take Rs. 2 from him. He did not let us go until we took that money. Again, we were impressed by ‘no money-minded mentality’ which is rare.
Let me tell you my association with Shri Rang Avadhoot Maharaj. My paternal grandfather was his close disciple and I distinctly remember that on one occasion as a young boy I was sitting very close to Shri Rang Avadhoot Maharaj. He was sitting in a slightly relaxing chair wearing darker glasses. His face was beaming with unusual divine light. I think it was in the town Chhani, near Vadodara and my grandfather was one of the main organizers of the program. In our home every day we had regular prayers – once in the early morning and once in the evening. The whole family used to join in the prayer. On Thursdays we used to recite “Dattabavani” written by Shri Rang Avadhoot Maharaj.
Visiting his ashram at Nareshwar, all my memories associated with Shri Rang Avadhoot Maharaj came to the surface. While going back to Vadodara in the 15-seater Van I started reading his small biography “Nareshwarana Rang Avadhoot” written in Gujarati by Shri Dhirubhai Joshi. This book is published by “Shri Avadhoot Sahitya Prakashan Trust, Nareshwar.” I find the life and teachings of Shri Rang Avadhootji very inspiring. The biography has been very well written by Shri Dhirubhai Joshi. The same day I finished reading this biography. I also shared some incidents and thoughts with my brothers and sister. Since I enjoyed it so much, I decided to share this experience and information briefly with the readers. This is a first part of a series of posts.
Life and teachings of Shri Rang Avadhoot Maharaj:
Parents: In Ratnagiri region of Maharashtra there is a village called Devale. In that village a Brahmin named Shri Jayaram Bhatt was living. He had four sons. His third son’s name was Shri Vitthala Pant. He was spiritually inclined and wanted to renounce everything to realize God. But, at a young age he was married to a young girl. Unfortunately that girl passed away. Shri Vitthala Pant decided to visit the famous place of pilgrimage named Pandharpur at the bank of Chadrabhaga. He stayed there for few days worshipping and thinking of Lord Vitthala. One night Lord Vitthala appeared in his dream and told him to go home and marry again because the Lord wanted to be born as his son. He was in disbelief and ignored that dream. But, again the same dream came and this time he was told whom he should marry. Being a simple minded devotee he came home and to his surprise found that such a girl existed. The girl’s parents were very happy to marry their daughter named Kashi to Shri Vitthala Pant. Later her name was changed to Rukmini.
Around that time a friend of Shri Jayaram Bhatt named Shri Sakharam Sarapotadar was visiting Devale from a city Godhara of Gujarat. He had Lord Vitthala’s temple in Godhara and was looking for someone who can be a priest in the temple. He asked Shri Jayaram Bhatt if his son Shri Vitthala Pant can come and take care of the temple worship. The father was reluctant, but Shri Vitthala Pant agreed and the newly wed family settled in Godhara, Gujarat.
Shri Vitthala Pant and Shrimati Rukminidevi were very pious. People were amazed by their spiritually inclined life and their unselfish service to all.
Birth and Childhood:
On November 21, 1898 Shrimati Rukminidevi gave birth to a boy. They named him Pandurang. His full name was Pandurang Vitthala Valame. This boy Pandurang became the great saint Shri Rang Avadhoot Maharaj. Since childhood Pandurang Valame was unusual. At that time in Godhara a fatal disease started spreading and many people were dying. Little Pandurang saw this and asked his father “Does everyone have to die.” Father said, “Yes.” The boy continued, “After death what happens?” The father said, “People are born again.” Pandurang asked, “Can we avoid this chain of birth and death?” The father said, “Yes my son. By repeating the name of Lord Rama one can get out from this cycle.” This conversation left a deep impression on the mind of Pandurang. From that day on whenever he found time he would sit in a corner of his house and repeat Lord Rama’s name.
When Pandurang was three years old his baby brother was born. His name was Narayana. When Pandurang was five years old a natural calamity came. An outbreak of plague covered Godhara and surrounding areas. Pandurang and Narayan’s father Mr. Vitthala Pant became a victim and he could not survive. For the mother Rukmini to survive in Godhara with two little children away from relatives was a big challenge. She was shaken up. But, she kept her composure and with great courage continued to raise children in the best possible way. Sometimes there were no vegetables in the house to eat, but Pandurang said that, “Mother, do not worry. We will eat without vegetables. You need not have to ask for them to anyone.” Thus, children managed with what little they had.
Surrender to Guru:
When the two children grew up a little more, mother Rukmini took them to Devale for their sacred thread ceremony. After the ceremony they went to a place of pilgrimage called Narasoba Vadi on the bank of river Krishna. At that time a famous saint Shri Vasudevananda Saraswati was visiting the place. As soon as the eight year old Pandurang saw him, he ran and fell at his feet. Shri Vasudevanandaji asked whose boy it was. Pandurang immediately said, “Yours.” Thus, little Pandurang found his Guru and surrendered himself to him. Later on Shri Rang Avadhoot used to say that, “After surrendering my head to my Guru on that day, I have never raised my head with ego. I became headless (meaning ego-less).’
Pandurang was very courageous and filled with inner strength. Once a bully started threatening Pandurang’s friend Hariprasad. One day, the bully and his friends decided to beat Hariprasad. Pandurang asked Hariprasad if he had any weapon at home to fight with them. He found a wooden sword. When the bully and his friends came to beat Hariprasad, Pandurang started swinging the wooden sword and with roaring voice said, “Come forward whoever wants to touch Hariprasad! I will take care of them.” No one came forward and the friends of the bully were impressed with Pandurang. The bully had to run away.
Once, a British Principal Mr. Robertson was conducting individual oral exam of students in Pandurang’s school. Seeing Pandurang with shaven head, ‘tilak’ on his forehead, and simple traditional attire, Mr. Robertson smiled and asked Pandurang why he was wearing funny attire. Pandurang said that he could answer the question in two ways: one was to give a direct answer and the other was with a counter question. He asked Mr. Robertson for his preference. Mr. Robertson thought that the boy is smart. Continuing smiling he said whichever way he wants. Pandurang asked him why he was wearing a noose on his neck (meaning a tie). Mr. Robertson said that it was a symbol of his religion. It reminded him of the cross. Pandurang explained that in the same way his shaven head and tilak reminds him of God. He added that India was a poor country and it was expensive to get a hair-cut. Mr. Robertson was pleased by Pandurang’s courage, self-pride, and effective articulation of his thoughts. He gave Pandurang the highest score in the exam.
Once Pandurang was sick and he had to take his college exam. He was worried that he would fail the exam. A sadhu told Pandurang that he had checked Pandurang’s horoscope in a book and according to it he was going to fail. Even though he was very sick, Pandurang collected all his strength and took the exam with the help of a writer. Pandurang passed the exam. He went to the sadhu and told him to throw his book away. The book was wrong in his case. Sadhu said that because of Kali Yuga (deteriorating time), Pandurang is talking like this. Pandurang told him he should have forseen Kali Yuga when he referred to his book.
Pandurang was studying in a college in Baroda (now Vadodara). Once there was a cricket match on the college field. Hundreds of college students were watching the game. At that time an Army Officer of the King Sayagirao Gayakvad was walking by and he was swinging his cane. Some students were hurt and they complained to him. The Officer was mad to see the students protest. So, he beat them with his cane. Afterwards the students and professors had a meeting to discuss what kind of actions they should take against the officer. They could not decide what to do. All the students came to Pandurang. He suggested that all students should go on strike. Pandurang added that the strike must be “well-behaved strike.” All students should not attend any classes, do not gather as a crowd and do not destroy anything. Overnight they circulated a flier of the strike in the city and all the people of the city agreed to take some action against the army officer. Then, they met the Principal of the college. The Principal said that he was leaving for Bombay (now Mumbai) for a few days and the students should hold on their strike. He assured them that upon his return he would take care of the matter. Pandurang and all students called off the strike. After coming back from Mumbai, the Principal wrote a letter. The army officer gave a written apology and the Principal posted it on the college bulletin board.
As a freedom fighter & meeting with Mahatma Gandhi:
In 1921, Shri Lokmanya Tilak, a great Indian leader and a freedom fighter passed away. In Jubili Park of Vadodara a rally was held by all the students in honor of Shri Tilak. Pandurang gave a very powerful speech and offered his reverence to Shri Lokmanya Tilak. In his letters Pandurang wrote how he grieved over the passing away of Shri Tilak.
During that time Mahatma Gandhi started taking the leadership of India to free India from slavery. He asked all the youngsters to join in this freedom movement. Pandurang went to one of the meetings of the Congress. As he presented himself as a students’ representative, Mahatma Gandhi asked him, “Did you bring any documentation?” Pandurang said, “Is there a coronation ceremony for a lion to be the king of the forest? If anyone else comes claiming to be a students’ representative from the same region, let me know.” Mahatma Gandhi was very much impressed by Pandurang’s tremendous self-confidence. Mahatma Gandhi said that if he had 100 such passionate students like Pandurang, then India would be free in no time.
Pandurang was in the senior year of his undergraduate program. His mother was waiting for him to get a degree and earn money to ease the financial problems of the family. Pandurang was aware of this. But, Pandurang could not resist his inner voice to work for the freedom of his motherland. One day, he wrote on the college blackboard, “To fight for the freedom of my country I am leaving this college. Anyone who wants to join me, come along with me.”
Pandurang came to Ahmedabad. He started writing in newspapers and magazines to raise public consciousness to engage all in the fight for freedom. He was writing a column named “Bhangno Loto” (A pitcher of Bhang – a mild intoxicated drink people take in Shivaratri) with the pen name “Ganjeri” (An addict).
Once, a famous lawyer Shri Jaykar was going to come as a guest. Pandurang and other students started thinking what kind of food they should serve him. Pandurang and a couple of his friends said that they should serve Mr. Jaykar the same simple meal that they all ate regularly. But, the majority decided that they should serve more exquisite foods. Pandurang and his two friends did not join in the dinner. Later on this incident was reported to Mahatma Gandhi. After the evening prayer Mahatma Gandhi admired the view and action of Pandurang and his two friends.
Once, Pandurang went to Dakor for a pilgrimage. When he returned Mahatma Gandhi said that Dakor was not a clean place. It had lots of filth all over. Pandurang replied, “Bapu (a loving address as a father to Mahatma Gandhi)! I did not go to Dakor to see the dirt. I went to salute the deity Shri Ranchhodarayaji (Shri Krishna) and I was very happy to do that. Next time when I go to Dakor, then I will see how filthy it is.” Mahatma Gandhi said that it was so true that one sees what one wants to see.
Mahatma Gandhi started a university called Gujarat Vidyapith in 1920. He enrolled the first 13 students to this university who came to Ahmedabad after quitting their colleges to fight for India’s freedom. Pandurang was one of the 13 students who were thus enrolled. In this university Pandurang met the famous Gujarati writer and thinker Kakasaheb Kalelkar. Kakasaheb had a very high regard for Pandurang. All 13 students received a degree from Gujarat Vidyapith. Pandurang received a degree of “Bhasha Visharad” (expert in language). (To be continued in the next post.)
(Thanks to Jyoti Champanerkar for editing this post.)