Situated immediately east of Durga Kund in the southern sector of old Varanasi, Anand Bagh (Garden of Bliss) is a compact lush green park that offers some respite from the hustle and bustle of much of the old city. Today the park is often frequented by joggers, morning walkers, couples and students, but also acts as a focal point for people practicing yoga and meditation.
At the center of the grassy manicured lawn gardens is a pretty white marble memorial which offers some welcome cool shade from the heat of the day, although I doubt many who dwell under the verandahs here are aware of who the memorial was actually built for.
Built in 1910 by one of his disciples, this is the memorial to Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati (1833 – 1899), a revered saint who lived the latter part of his life and died not far from this spot here in Varanasi.
Originally known as Matiram Misra, Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati was born into a Brahmin family in Kanpur district, Uttar Pradesh. He was invested with the sacred thread at the age of eight and was married at the age of twelve. From age eight to seventeen, he was a diligent and most successful student of Sanskrit. At the age of eighteen he had a son which, in his own opinion, freed him from any further social obligations. Not long after the birth of his son he disappeared from his father’s house and travelled on foot to Ujjain, where he erected a temple of Shiva. He continued his Vedantic studies and also started practicing yoga. He subsequently traveled to all the parts of India and devoted his life to the study Vedanta philosophy from noted gurus including Pandit Anant Ram of Patna, who was at Haridwar at the time.
At about age 27, he was initiated into the holy order of Sannyas (a form of asceticism, marked by renunciation of material desires and prejudices) by Paramahamsa Swami Purnananda Saraswati of Ujjain, and christened Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati, a name by which he was known afterwards.
For thirty-five years Swami traveled around India, always practicing austere spiritual meditation practices (tapas). He finally settled down for the remainder of his life in 1868 in the sacred city of Varanasi, where numerous miracles of healing are attributed to him. Many kings are reputed to have visited him to seek advise, and he is also reported to have been an advisor counsel to Kashi Naresh, the Maharaja of Kingdom of Kashi. But his influence spanned all sections of society, and transformed of character of several notorious pandas.
Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati’s influence was so extensive, he even made his way into popular culture. Mark Twain, the famous non-fiction travelogue writer, documented a meeting with the Swami in Varanasi in his book Following the Equator, published in 1897.
As the book is now out of copyright, I thought it would be nice to include Mark Twain’s account in this blog post. The chapter starts with Twain reflecting on a recent visit to the Taj Mahal, but it soon moves on to his meeting with the Swami. I have included the full text for context and completeness.
CHAPTER LIII – True irreverence is disrespect for another man’s god.
Following the Equator, by Mark Twain, 1897
It was in Benares that I saw another living god. That makes two. I believe I have seen most of the greater and lesser wonders of the world, but I do not remember that any of them interested me so overwhelmingly as did that pair of gods.
When I try to account for this effect I find no difficulty about it. I find that, as a rule, when a thing is a wonder to us it is not because of what we see in it, but because of what others have seen in it. We get almost all our wonders at second hand. We are eager to see any celebrated thing—and we never fail of our reward; just the deep privilege of gazing upon an object which has stirred the enthusiasm or evoked the reverence or affection or admiration of multitudes of our race is a thing which we value; we are profoundly glad that we have seen it, we are permanently enriched from having seen it, we would not part with the memory of that experience for a great price. And yet that very spectacle may be the Taj. You cannot keep your enthusiasms down, you cannot keep your emotions within bounds when that soaring bubble of marble breaks upon your view. But these are not your enthusiasms and emotions—they are the accumulated emotions and enthusiasms of a thousand fervid writers, who have been slowly and steadily storing them up in your heart day by day and year by year all your life; and now they burst out in a flood and overwhelm you; and you could not be a whit happier if they were your very own. By and by you sober down, and then you perceive that you have been drunk on the smell of somebody else’s cork. For ever and ever the memory of my distant first glimpse of the Taj will compensate me for creeping around the globe to have that great privilege.
But the Taj—with all your inflation of delusive emotions, acquired at second-hand from people to whom in the majority of cases they were also delusions acquired at second-hand—a thing which you fortunately did not think of or it might have made you doubtful of what you imagined were your own what is the Taj as a marvel, a spectacle and an uplifting and overpowering wonder, compared with a living, breathing, speaking personage whom several millions of human beings devoutly and sincerely and unquestioningly believe to be a God, and humbly and gratefully worship as a God?
He was sixty years old when I saw him. He is called Sri 108 Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati. That is one form of it. I think that that is what you would call him in speaking to him—because it is short. But you would use more of his name in addressing a letter to him; courtesy would require this. Even then you would not have to use all of it, but only this much:
Sri 108 Matparamahansrzpairivrajakacharyaswamibhaskaranandasaraswati.
You do not put “Esq.” after it, for that is not necessary. The word which opens the volley is itself a title of honor “Sri.” The “108” stands for the rest of his names, I believe. Vishnu has 108 names which he does not use in business, and no doubt it is a custom of gods and a privilege sacred to their order to keep 108 extra ones in stock. Just the restricted name set down above is a handsome property, without the 108. By my count it has 58 letters in it. This removes the long German words from competition; they are permanently out of the race.
Sri 108 S. B. Saraswati has attained to what among the Hindoos is called the “state of perfection.” It is a state which other Hindoos reach by being born again and again, and over and over again into this world, through one re-incarnation after another—a tiresome long job covering centuries and decades of centuries, and one that is full of risks, too, like the accident of dying on the wrong side of the Ganges some time or other and waking up in the form of an ass, with a fresh start necessary and the numerous trips to be made all over again. But in reaching perfection, Sri 108 S. B. S. has escaped all that. He is no longer a part or a feature of this world; his substance has changed, all earthiness has departed out of it; he is utterly holy, utterly pure; nothing can desecrate this holiness or stain this purity; he is no longer of the earth, its concerns are matters foreign to him, its pains and griefs and troubles cannot reach him. When he dies, Nirvana is his; he will be absorbed into the substance of the Supreme Deity and be at peace forever.
The Hindoo Scriptures point out how this state is to be reached, but it is only once in a thousand years, perhaps, that candidate accomplishes it. This one has traversed the course required, stage by stage, from the beginning to the end, and now has nothing left to do but wait for the call which shall release him from a world in which he has now no part nor lot. First, he passed through the student stage, and became learned in the holy books. Next he became citizen, householder, husband, and father. That was the required second stage. Then—like John Bunyan’s Christian he bade perpetual good-bye to his family, as required, and went wandering away. He went far into the desert and served a term as hermit. Next, he became a beggar, “in accordance with the rites laid down in the Scriptures,” and wandered about India eating the bread of mendicancy. A quarter of a century ago he reached the stage of purity. This needs no garment; its symbol is nudity; he discarded the waist-cloth which he had previously worn. He could resume it now if he chose, for neither that nor any other contact can defile him; but he does not choose.
There are several other stages, I believe, but I do not remember what they are. But he has been through them. Throughout the long course he was perfecting himself in holy learning, and writing commentaries upon the sacred books. He was also meditating upon Brahma, and he does that now.
White marble relief-portraits of him are sold all about India. He lives in a good house in a noble great garden in Benares, all meet and proper to his stupendous rank. Necessarily he does not go abroad in the streets. Deities would never be able to move about handily in any country. If one whom we recognized and adored as a god should go abroad in our streets, and the day it was to happen were known, all traffic would be blocked and business would come to a standstill.
This god is comfortably housed, and yet modestly, all things considered, for if he wanted to live in a palace he would only need to speak and his worshipers would gladly build it. Sometimes he sees devotees for a moment, and comforts them and blesses them, and they kiss his feet and go away happy. Rank is nothing to him, he being a god. To him all men are alike. He sees whom he pleases and denies himself to whom he pleases. Sometimes he sees a prince and denies himself to a pauper; at other times he receives the pauper and turns the prince away. However, he does not receive many of either class. He has to husband his time for his meditations. I think he would receive Rev. Mr. Parker at any time. I think he is sorry for Mr. Parker, and I think Mr. Parker is sorry for him; and no doubt this compassion is good for both of them.
When we arrived we had to stand around in the garden a little while and wait, and the outlook was not good, for he had been turning away Maharajas that day and receiving only the riff-raff, and we belonged in between, somewhere. But presently, a servant came out saying it was all right, he was coming.
And sure enough, he came, and I saw him—that object of the worship of millions. It was a strange sensation, and thrilling. I wish I could feel it stream through my veins again. And yet, to me he was not a god, he was only a Taj. The thrill was not my thrill, but had come to me secondhand from those invisible millions of believers. By a hand-shake with their god I had ground-circuited their wire and got their monster battery’s whole charge.
He was tall and slender, indeed emaciated. He had a clean cut and conspicuously intellectual face, and a deep and kindly eye. He looked many years older than he really was, but much study and meditation and fasting and prayer, with the arid life he had led as hermit and beggar, could account for that. He is wholly nude when he receives natives, of whatever rank they may be, but he had white cloth around his loins now, a concession to Mr. Parker’s European prejudices, no doubt.
As soon as I had sobered down a little we got along very well together, and I found him a most pleasant and friendly deity. He had heard a deal about Chicago, and showed a quite remarkable interest in it, for a god. It all came of the World’s Fair and the Congress of Religions. If India knows about nothing else American, she knows about those, and will keep them in mind one while.
He proposed an exchange of autographs, a delicate attention which made me believe in him, but I had been having my doubts before. He wrote his in his book, and I have a reverent regard for that book, though the words run from right to left, and so I can’t read it. It was a mistake to print in that way. It contains his voluminous comments on the Hindoo holy writings, and if I could make them out I would try for perfection myself. I gave him a copy of Huckleberry Finn. I thought it might rest him up a little to mix it in along with his meditations on Brahma, for he looked tired, and I knew that if it didn’t do him any good it wouldn’t do him any harm.
Anand Bagh can be easily combined with a visit to the adjacent Durga Temple complex and is well worth visiting for a welcome slice of green space, but also for reflecting on the life of the Swami for whom this pretty memorial was erected for.
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