I want to share a few incidents of my Gurudev Shri Vinod Bihari Das Babaji Maharaj’s life. He is a Babaji, which is equivalent to a Sannyāsi in Gaudiya Vaishnavism. So naturally, he doesn’t speak much about his life before forsaking the Grihastha Āshram since that is the rule of Babaji vesa (a renunciate’s attire). Only sometimes he refers to some of the incidents in his life as part of his satsanga. That is how we came to know about these incidents. I am sorry that I am unable to give much factual description like dates and names. The intention is to let our hearts get inspired by reading about a Mahapurush’s life.
Baba’s previous name was Vinay Krishna Debnāth. He was born in April 1947 in a Brahmin family to his father Sri Dāma Debnāth and mother Lāvanya Debnāth. His father died when he was eight years old and two years later, his mother died too. Vinay Krishna was so young, the only significant memories he has of his mother are that she used to take him to her Gurudev, a Sadhu, and tell him to massage His feet. Baba says that he got his first samskaras of Sadhu-seva from his mother.
He had two older brothers. After their parents died, the three brothers were left abandoned with nobody to look after them. They would roam around on the streets looking for some minor jobs or just for food and water. It was the most difficult time of Baba’s life. He was 10 years old and had to face rejection, condemnation and the inhuman side of humans at such a young age. He had to frequently starve and was very grateful to the women who gave him even one chapati or a handful of rice. There were only a few women who gave him shelter for a few nights. They let him sleep on the verandah and gave him food. Baba recalls an old woman would get angry if he didn’t go to her house any day and would tell him to go away and never come back. But as soon as baba would turn his back, she would get even angrier and say, “Look! How conceited he is! He dares to go away!”
While his parents were alive, Baba studied until the 5th class. But after their demise, he was attracted to street drama groups and acted in several dramas which also helped him earn his livelihood. He was a talented actor. After a few years, he continued studying until the 10th class with a private tutor. Eventually, he found a job with the government at the age of 18 years. He was admired by his colleagues for his sincere work and friendly behaviour.
Baba was also talented in music. He was trained by Allah Rakha Khan, a famous classical music artist, who is also the mentor of sitarist Ravi Shankar. He became a sitarist and performed in several radio programs.
Baba says that he used to live in style at that time. He used to wear silk Kurtas and Churidars with properly stylised pleats. Many foreigners used to come to listen to his sitar and would present him with precious perfumes. He was single and had no family to care for. He had abundant money, a government job and performed on classical music shows. He was quite happy and contended.
In 1974, one day, an old lady living in Bārāsāt (a town near Kolkata) gave him a book about Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa. Curious to know about new subjects by nature, Baba started reading it. He was so inspired by Ramakrishna Paramhamsa’s teachings that he decided to change his life completely. He was about 27 years old at the time. He was awakened to the spiritual aspect of life and became determined to see the very end of it.
Baba says that he started living a very simple life. Even though he had so much money, he started reducing his food intake and daily needs. He thought, ‘If I became a Sadhu, where will I find so much food to eat? No, I need to practice eating less. I might also have to tolerate sun and rain when I become Sadhu.’ Hence, he used to stand or roam around under the scorching sun in summer and wear very few warm clothes in winter.
He found a friend who was a staff member of Calcutta university and started reading all the scriptures of Sanatan Dharma from the university’s library. Starting from April 1976, he studied every scripture he could find for 5 years. During his extensive study of all kinds of paths of Sanatan Dharma, he understood that chanting Harināma and associating with Sadhus are the most important practices to progress in spirituality. Therefore, he used to go to the banks of Ganga and sit beside the Sadhus there. He would listen to their lectures and viewpoints on spirituality quietly and read the scriptures. Like this, he explored all kinds of sampradayas existing around him. If anyone talked about a good Sadhu, he would immediately visit the Sadhu with an open mind and a thirst to know about the different experiences of different Sadhus. For the association of Sadhus, he also visited various pilgrimage places. He would go to the Himalayas in his holidays and associate with Sadhus there. He didn’t accept anyone as his Guru but extensively explored all sects.
Baba was not sure whom to accept as his Guru but he had heard the Hare Krishna Mahamantra sung by kirtan groups. So he started chanting Mahamantra day and night, all the time.
One day, he saw Govardhan Talhati in his dream. At that time, he didn’t know anything about Vrindavan or Govardhan. Eventually, a Sadhu of Haridwar told him to visit Vrindavan and he went to Vrindavan for a few days. He was more attracted to the Sadhus than the temples. He would try to find those Sadhus who lived in dense forests (Braj Dham was still full of forests at that time) and were determined renunciates. In 1978, he met Sri Kishorikishoranand Das Baba, also known as Sri Tinkodi Goswami. He was attracted to his mood of absolute renunciation.
Sri Tinkodi Goswami ji never lived in any ashram, though his disciples built many ashrams and temples in his name. He liked to stay in densely forested areas where, Baba says, even ghosts wouldn’t like to stay (let alone any human being). Even when seven-day programmes of Srimad Bhagavatam were organized by the villagers motivated by him, he would stay in a forested area nearby and would come only to listen to Srimad Bhagavatam. During feasts and other programmes, he would go back to his Āsana in the forest. He spoke very little, ate very little (that too only falahar) and was so engrossed in chanting Harināma day and night that he had to ask people whether it was day or night.
But Baba thought that he has not yet developed such a mood of complete renunciation himself. So he went back to Kolkata and visited Braj Dham and Sri Tinkodi Goswami during his holidays. Baba practised the renunciate lifestyle in his home itself. He would eat very little, skip eating grains for a few days, wouldn’t mind whether his clothes looked proper or not and so on.
In 1980, he was visiting Braj Dham for a few days. Sri Tinkodi Goswami was residing in Giriraj Talhati at that time. Baba had purchased some gifts for his friends from Braj and was sure to go back home. He says he had given his favourite blue silk shirt to the laundry shop before coming to Braj and wanted to wear it on an occasion when he would get back to Kolkata. But it seems that Sri Tinkodi Goswami had already accepted him as his disciple and had different plans.
It was summer and Baba wanted to get a haircut. On the same day, he wanted to worship Sri Tinkodi Goswami with flowers, sandal paste and arati. So, early in the morning, he went to the barber and asked him to quickly cut his hair. The barber thought that he wanted to become a Babaji (renunciate), so he cut all his hair but kept his Shikha (a patch of uncut hair at the back of the head which is considered sacred in Sanatan Dharma).
When Baba realised it, he was annoyed but was getting late. So he let it be and asked how much he had to pay. The Brijwasi barber said that since he was becoming a renunciate, he wouldn’t take any money but wanted his shirt. Baba didn’t want to waste his time arguing, so he just gave away his shirt to the barber. Now he was wearing just a dhoti and the barber had already cut his hair like a Babaji. Hence, he looked exactly like a Babaji. He purchased some flowers and fruits and quickly went to Sri Tinkodi Goswamiji in Giriraj Talhati. He saw Goswamiji standing by the door and peeping outside as if looking for someone. When Baba reached him and offered his obeisances, he was suddenly overcome by emotion and started crying holding Goswamiji’s feet. Baba said, “O Gurudev, please take me into your shelter! I don’t want to go anywhere leaving you.” Goswami ji started laughing very loudly, looking at the sky. Baba was both surprised and relieved looking at his inexplicable expression. Goswamiji told Baba to stay with him. Baba never went back home.
Baba was initiated by Sri Tinkodi Goswamiji. Goswamiji didn’t give Babaji vesa to anyone. That is why he ordered Baba to take vesa from Sri Dolgovinda Das Babaji Maharaj who was a very elderly Babaji living at Radhakunda. But in Baba’s heart, Goswamiji is the sole Guru of both Diksha and vesa, while considering Sri Dolgovinda Das Babaji Maharaj as Goswamiji’s representative.
The renunciate life with Goswamiji was very difficult and strict. Goswamiji used to stay in one place sometimes for a few days, and sometimes for a few months. Such was his nature that he would suddenly get up from his Āsana having decided that he wanted to move on to a different place and start walking. When the disciples would enquire where he was going, he would casually say that he is going to a certain place and they can pack up the things and follow him whenever they could. The disciples had to quickly pack their things and run behind him. Then Goswamiji would choose a spot where snakes, scorpions and ghosts lived so that the local people won’t come to disturb him every now and then.
When Goswamiji asked the villagers to organize a seven-day Srimad Bhagavatam lecture by renowned and renunciate Bhagavatam speakers from Radhakund and Vrindavan, Baba and his godbrothers helped prepare for the feast for Sadhus. Baba usually made chapatis for the feast. After several other services and making chapati from morning till noon, Baba used to go for Mādhukari like the other renunciate disciples of Goswamiji. They never partook any prasad of the feasts and always went for Mādhukari themselves.
One of their elder godbrothers was a strict renunciate himself and was strict about renunciation to other godbrothers too. Often Baba didn’t get much Mādhukari at that time. Most Brajawasi women would give only one-fourth of a chapati. After wandering through the whole village, Baba would hardly get two chapatis in total. Though he had practised reducing his food intake at home, Baba felt very hungry after all day’s work. But his elder godbrother would clean all the utensils and the whole place immediately after the feast, and give away all remaining prasad to the animals of Braj by the time Baba and others returned from Mādhukari.
One day, he was extremely hungry. He was hoping to find some chapatis remaining after the feast and was determined to steal some chapatis from a pot in which his elder godbrother kept some chapatis for cows that day. Those chapatis were a day or two old, but Baba was too hungry to care. Baba sat down for chanting at a spot from where he could watch his elder godbrother and also see the pot in which the chapatis were kept. As soon as his godbrother went out of sight, Baba rushed to the pot and stole 2-3 chapatis from it. They had hardened and were completely dry. One could not chew them as they were. So Baba soaked them in water for an hour and then ate them.
One day, Baba asked his elder godbrother if he could give some sabji (vegetable curry) since he was extremely hungry and didn’t get any in Mādhukari. The elder godbrother was sarcastic and said, “Babaji wants sabji! You have left the householder’s life to come here and you want to eat sabji?!” Another day, Baba asked for a green chilli since he found it very difficult to chew the dry and thick chapatis of Mādhukari (Like all Bengalis, Baba was more accustomed to eating rice than chapati). That too was rejected quite sarcastically.
Baba was very disappointed and in his sorrow, he went to Goswamiji and sat a little away from him. Goswamiji was inside a little room and the door was open. Baba heard him murmur, “Oh, the child doesn’t have even a little sabji to eat with. How will he eat?” But Goswamiji didn’t call the elder godbrother to tell him to give Baba any sabji. Baba was surprised that even though Goswamiji was sorry for him, he didn’t make any arrangement for a little sabji for his disciples, which he was completely able to do. Baba realised that though he was as compassionate as a mother, he wanted his disciples to be strict about renunciation. If he asked wealthy disciples to provide for them, they would become dependent and indebted to the wealthy disciples which is against the rules of renunciation. Baba was not sorry or angry about this incident but was inspired by the mood of renunciation of his Gurudev.
But this was not the worst. Sometimes Goswamiji moved to remote places in Braj where no villages existed within miles. In the dense forests of Braj, there were only wild vegetables and wild leafy greens unknown to them. But his elder godbrother didn’t care. He would take a big basket and pick whatever looked like food to him. Often they would spend the night going repeatedly for cleaning their bowels. Some wild food couldn’t be digested.
Just when Baba couldn’t endure it anymore, someone suggested cooking Kadhi and rice. The elder godbrother was amused and agreed to it. The next day, Baba was very excited that today he wouldn’t have to eat wild grass. He would eat Kadhi and rice. He quickly completed his daily morning rounds of chanting Harināma and went to the place where his elder godbrother was cooking. He saw the yellow fluid boiling in the vessel and was very happy. He waited till the Bhoga was offered to Giridhari and everyone sat to take prasad. But as soon as he put a little ‘Kadhi’ in his mouth, his happiness vanished. It was just the starch of rice coloured yellow with turmeric and salt. Eat this ‘Kadhi’ with rice!
This was the situation of food. But that was only a part of the difficult training of renunciation under Goswamiji. Goswamiji was very particular to his disciples about waking up at 2 am at midnight and attending kirtan after quickly bathing and refreshing themselves. Then they could go for their bhajan routines. But maybe he wanted Baba to climb the extreme heights of spirituality. To do this, he wanted Baba to reduce his sleep too. He would ask Baba simply for water or a little food (usually just a pinch of a sweet) in order to keep him engaged in his service and therefore, keep him awake. Baba was a determined disciple, who loved his Guru with all his heart and life. He would sit near Goswamiji, holding the glass of water or the plate with the sweet for hours while Goswamiji chanted and nodded now and then to let him know that he knew Baba was waiting. Baba could not leave the glass or plate till Goswamiji would ask him to go. (Goswamiji had himself ceased sleeping before Baba came to him. Baba never saw him sleeping).
This happened day after day. Once Goswamiji kept Baba awake till 1 am. Then Baba asked if he could go to sleep. Goswamiji replied, “Now?! It is time to wake up and not fall asleep.” So, Baba was deprived of sleep, though he admitted that he fell asleep during chanting due to this. But he never complained. He knew he was being trained. Eventually, he got accustomed to it and he didn’t feel sleepy much.
Here are a few incidents of Baba’s life. We have no information on their timeline, just enumerating:
- Baba had practised renunciation at his home itself. He mentions that at the time he came to Braj forever, he felt indifferent to the speciality sweets of Bengal he had loved eating earlier. The last time he boarded a train to Braj, he saw people flocking around a sweet seller’s stall at a railway station. When he enquired about it he was informed that it was ‘Petha’, a sweet made from white gourds, and it was not available in Bengal. So he decided to try the sweet over which people were going crazy. He bought 250g of the sweet and tasted a bit of it. He felt like he was just eating a lot of sugar. He could not identify any other taste in it. He had to secretly throw the rest of the sweet away, thinking people will consider him crazy to throw away ‘Petha’.
But a few years later, while living the life of a renunciate in Braj, one day, he felt an overwhelming craving for the same ‘Petha’. At that time he had some money with him. So he bought 500g of ‘Petha’ and went to a lonely place to devour all of it. Later, he asked Goswamiji why this happened. Goswamiji replied, “When the forest is fine, you will hardly see any wild animals in the forest path. But when the forest catches fire, all the wild animals come running out of it. When you were in the lap of Maya, the Vikaras (lust, anger, greed, envy, etc.) seemed non-existent. But now you have put fire on your worldly desires, the forest. That is why all the wild animals are coming out. Don’t panic, they will run away on their own.”
- Baba had to endure recurring malaria for 7 years after coming to Braj. But he never asked anyone to get him medical treatment or any kind of medicine, though many influential and wealthy disciples of Goswamiji were regular visitors of Goswamiji. One of his godbrothers came to know about this, who was a compounder in a medical shop in Vrindavan. He gave Baba homoeopathic medicine of his own accord as seva. Baba was slowly cured over several years.
While baba was badly suffering from malaria, Goswamiji decided to move on to Vrindavan from Tapovan one day. As was his nature, Goswamiji didn’t tell anyone. Baba was almost unconscious due to malarial fever, so he didn’t know when Goswamiji left. Later, when he got up, he found Goswamiji gone. Somebody told him that Goswamiji had left for Vrindavan. He had to somehow go to Vrindavan in that very state itself (Baba was the sole disciple in Goswamiji’s service at the time). When he reached there, Goswamiji said, “Oh Vinod, you have come? I was so worried about you. Very well!” Baba was puzzled. If he was so worried about him, then why did he leave him without notice in such a state? With the mercy of Goswamiji, Baba’s faith in his Guru was never shaken. He realised what Goswamiji wanted to teach was that a Guru is a spiritual mentor but he is not responsible for a disciple’s bodily needs.
- Once, Baba was sitting in front of Goswamiji while he was engrossed in chanting as always. Baba was feeling guilty for making some minor offences while in service of Goswamiji (like stepping on Goswamiji’s foot while handling him. Goswamiji had an attack of paralysis, which he overcame but had to be helped to move around). He didn’t say anything but was thinking in his mind whether he should better go anywhere else than commit such offences to his Guru. Goswamiji suddenly opened his eyes and said, “You must not think like this. It’s not good for you. When a baby is in the lap of his mother, he often kicks his mother in the stomach. Does the mother take offence? She enjoys her child’s acts and only loves him.” Besides the lesson, Baba also realised that Goswamiji knew all his thoughts. He is Antaryāmi.
- Once, while living in Giriraj Talhati, Baba was fed up of eating wild vegetables, leaves and occasional bland meals consisting of boiled vegetables with just salt. One day, a Brajawasi maiya (mother) brought a small basket of prasad containing pooris, sabji, halwa and other sweets, and gave it to Goswamiji. Baba was very happy. He hoped that Goswamiji would ask him to accept some prasadam. But Goswamiji was engrossed in chanting and so, Baba waited. A little later, a cowherd boy, who occasionally visited them to pay obeisances to Goswamiji, came. Goswamiji told Baba to give him some prasadam. So Baba gave about half of the prasadam to the cowherd boy. Sometime after the boy went, a dog came roaming around. Goswamiji told Baba to give the rest of the prasadam to the dog. Baba was disheartened but did as he was ordered. Thinking about the incident he realised that Goswamiji had become indifferent to bland and delicious food. That is why, he gave away all those good prasadam to a dog, while he didn’t offer any to his disciple.
- Baba has endured extreme and fearful situations in his renunciate life. While living with Goswamiji in dense forests, he never owned a woollen shawl or blanket. In places like Kokilavan, Badrinath, etc. Goswamiji resided in small kutiyas built for Sadhus, but Baba stayed outside in the open. He had a cotton blanket called ‘Kantha’ which was barely warm. He recalls that sometimes in those years, Lalita kund (near Radha kund) would get frozen. Whether it rained or hailed, even in such harsh weather, Baba stayed in the open. In hot summers, the Giriraj shilas would heat up like a hot skillet. But Baba would rest his head on a Giriraj shila and sleep while living in the Talhati. I myself have seen Baba sleeping soundly on the hot cement verandah in Likhi, on which I could not even stand for a few seconds. He has literally lived the sloka of Bhagvad Geeta:
“Jitātmanaḥ praśhāntasya paramātmā samāhitaḥ,
Śhītoṣhṇa-sukha-duḥkheṣhu tathā mānāpamānayoḥ.”
(Bhagavat Geeta 6.7)
Meaning: The yogis who have conquered the mind rise above the dualities of cold and heat, joy and sorrow, and honour and dishonour. Such yogis remain peaceful and steadfast in their devotion to God.
- Once, Goswamiji was going to Vrindavan from Goverdhan. But when he reached Radha kund, he decided to stay there. At that time, the place around Radhakund was not set in marble stone. There was a tree where the present temple of Goswamiji has been built, and Goswamiji sat down under the tree to chant. Some of Baba’s elder godbrothers ordered Baba to take a wooden cot from the temple built by his disciples in Goverdhan to Radhakund. Baba was not used to carrying such heavyweights, but he didn’t object to his elders. So, he carried the cot alone on his shoulders. By the time he reached Kusum Sarovar, his shoulders were aching like anything and he could not continue. He slammed the cot down by the road and sat down on the ground. At that time, the parikrama route of Goverdhan was also a densely forested area. People didn’t go to parikrama after dark since there were dacoits and of course, no lights.
The street was deserted, except for a few tractors that passed by. Baba was not popular among Brajawasis like today. In fact, no one knew him and he had no money. He simply prayed and waited for someone known to come by. After waiting for about half an hour, he saw one of his godbrothers coming running towards him. Baba was relieved and thought he would stop his godbrother and pray to him, holding his feet, to help him carry the cot to Goswamiji. But the godbrother came straight to him and said that Goswamiji had sent him to Baba saying, “Go fast! Vinod is exhausted. He is near Kusum Sarovar. Go and help him to bring the cot here.” Baba was overjoyed to hear this and felt so blessed in Goswamiji’s shelter.
- Such a strict mood of renunciation in those hard conditions couldn’t and didn’t go unrewarded. His determination in serving Goswamiji with all his heart was always reciprocated by Goswamiji himself. Once, Baba was fanning Goswamiji at midnight while Goswamiji was sitting chanting as usual. Baba was very tired. After fighting his sleep for a long time, he inevitably fell asleep. And he fell right on Goswamiji’s shoulder with the fan still in his hand. When he woke up, he realised that he had been asleep for at least half an hour. And Goswamiji had been sitting still with Baba sleeping on his shoulder. For half an hour, he neither moved nor did he wake Baba up. This shows that Baba was very dear and a receiver of special vatsalya (parental love) of Goswamiji.
But Goswamiji also showered his mercy on Baba by showing him some sweet pastimes of Radha Krishna. Baba recalls that once, while living in Giriraj Talhati, Goswamiji stood up from his āsana and called Baba. Goswamiji’s eyes were full of tears. He said, “ See, Vinod, do you see those cowherd boys? Do you see those cows?” Baba saw some cowherd boys playing in the field and some cows grazing beside them. “You cannot see their real forms. They are Krishna and his friends with their cows.” When Baba looked back at the field, they were gone.
- As the sole disciple in service in the last years with Goswamiji, Baba had to keep guard so that nobody disturbed Goswamiji. But sometimes he thought he could hear Goswamiji talking and laughing with someone. He would get very angry and would immediately go to see who had dared to go to Goswamiji without his permission. But he found nobody near Goswamiji, who was calmly chanting as usual. This happened quite a few times. Then one day, he heard the sound of bangles along with Goswamiji’s talking. It was just forest all around and no one could come and go without Baba seeing him or her. Then Baba realised that it was Radharani with whom Goswamiji talked and laughed. Later when he asked Goswamiji about it, Goswamiji nodded with a laugh.
Goswamiji entered Nitya Lilā on 12th March, 1984 while visiting Navadvipa Dham. On returning from Navadvipa, Baba tried to live at several different ashrams but found them too chaotic for bhajan. Eventually, he went to Bhānukhor, Barsānā and lived there in solitude. In 1987, he left Bhānukhor and moved to Prema Sarovar. In 1996, he again left Prema Sarovar and did bhajan at many places (Bansi vat, Chandra Sarovar, Khambi, etc) for short time periods. Then, he went to Likhi, a small village on the border of Vraja Mandala and lived there from 1997 to 2007. Finally, he left Likhi and moved to an ashram in Barsana near Priya Kund (also known as Pili Pokhar). To date, he is living there engrossed in intense bhajan and blessing fallen souls like us.
Baba is a personification of humility. So much that he doesn’t shirk from paying obeisances to his own disciples (though he has not given initiation to anyone till now. He has only given Harināma to us). He has all the qualities described in Shrimad Bhagavatam that a Shuddha Bhakta should be adorned with, and those who have received his association know this in their hearts. Therefore, it is only a repetition to say that he has achieved the stage of Prema Bhakti and also received the darshan of Radha Krishna. He would of course, never admit it. So we don’t know when and how that happened. I, personally, don’t even want to know that. I see him as an living example of all the qualities of a bonafide devotee:
- Kripalu (he is impartially benevolent to all),
- Akritadroha (he does not consider anyone as his enemy),
- Satyasaar (he is committed to the Truth i.e., Sri Krishna is the only Truth),
- Sama (he considers all creatures equal as Krishna resides in every living being),
- Nirdosh (he is free from all faults born from Maya),
- Vadanya (he is magnanimous),
- Mridu (he is soft-hearted and sweet spoken),
- Shuchi (he observes physical cleanliness and mental piousness),
- Akinchana (he does not accept anything more than what is needful for survival),
- Sarvopakarak (he tries to benefit others, irrespective of reciprocity),
- Shanta (he is peaceful in pleasures and miseries alike),
- Krishnaika sharan (he is devoted to Krishna only),
- Akaam (he has no desire for any worldly matters),
- Aniha (he is detached from worldly matters),
- Sthira (he is steady in his words and actions),
- Vijita Shadaguna (he has conquered his desires, anger, greed, delusion, pride, and jealousy – the six enemies),
- Mita bhuk (he eats only as required to maintain his body),
- Apramatta (he does not get fascinated or absorbed in worldly matters),
- Manad (he respects everyone equally, irrespective of their status or qualities),
- Amani (he does not desire respect, recognition, or appreciation for himself),
- Gambhir (he is grave, and he does not flaunt his Bhakti),
- Karun (he is compassionate),
- Maitri (he desires welfare for everyone like a friend),
- Kavi (he speaks in a beautiful language and chooses his words expertly),
- Daksha (he is not lazy; he does all his works expertly) and
- Mauni (he does not speak unless questioned, besides Hari katha).
In the world of spiritualism, no one can certify or prove anyone as a shuddha bhakta. The more people will try to associate with Baba, the more they will deepen their faith in him, the more they will experience his divine mercy.