The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 25, 2003

Values, the incomparable treasure
Ashu Pasricha

An Indian Monk: His Life & Adventures
by Shree Purohit Swami. Rupa. Delhi. Pages 205. Rs 95.

An Indian Monk: His Life & AdventuresTHE values taught in India over the past 5,000 years have great relevance to the times we live in. And yet so few Indians are aware of our priceless heritage. It has been a longstanding conviction that India is like a donkey carrying a sack of gold, not aware of what it is carrying, content in moving along with the load on its back.

The load of gold in India’s case is the fantastic treasure — in arts, literature, culture, and some sciences like ayurveda — which we have inherited from the days of splendour that India once saw. Adi Sankaracharya called it "the accumulated treasure of spiritual truths discovered by the rishis." Rabindranath Tagore said, "India is destined to be the teacher of all lands."

The golden voices of ancient India have come to us down the ages in unbroken continuity through countless rishis and saints, some of them world famous even as others remained unacknowledged.

Our occasion to ponder over the subject is the book An Indian Monk: His Life and Adventures by Shree Purohit Swami, first published in 1932 by MacMillan and Co., London. The present paperback edition has been published by Rupa.


The Introduction has been written by no less than Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats, who earlier wrote the introduction to Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. In his own words, "I wrote an introduction to the beautiful Gitanjali of Tagore, and now, twenty years afterwards, draw attention to a book that may prove of comparable importance. A little more than a year ago I met its author, but lately arrived in Europe, at Mr. Sturge Moore’s house. He had been sent by his Master, or spiritual director, that he might interpret the religious life of India, but had no fixed plan. Perhaps he should publish his poems, perhaps, like Vivekananda, go to America."

The book describes Shree Purohit Swami’s life and adventures. In fact, in his own words, it is about his "concrete life, not an abstract philosophy." The Swami is like a minstrel and storyteller. In his belief he can only offer to God the service learnt in service of man or woman. Shree Purohit Swami possessed heroic ecstatic passion prolonged through years, through many vicissitudes.

The Swami echoes the ideal placed before mankind by ancient rishis — "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" — the world is one family.

The most fundamental of all fundamental principles is that a supreme and unchanging Spirit pervades the entire universe and the material world is merely a manifestation of that Spirit. Thousands of years ago, India perceived this principle more clearly and understood its implications more deeply than the civilised nations do today. It is precisely because the spirit alone is the everlasting reality that the infinite mystery of the material world can never be explained merely in material terms. The vastest knowledge of today cannot transcend the buddhi of the rishis; and science, in its most advanced stage, is closer to Vedanta than ever before.

It would be hard to improve upon the sense of values that made ancient India so great. Our sages judged the greatness of a State not by the extent of its empire or by the size of its wealth, but by the degree of righteousness and justice that marked the public administration, and the private lives of the citizens. Their timeless teaching was that man’s true progress is to be judged by moral and spiritual standards, and not by material or physical standards. Sacrifice was far more important than success; and renunciation was regarded as the crowning achievement. The citizen ranked in society not according to wealth or power but according to the standard of learning, virtue and character that he had attained. The finest example of this is the story of Emperor Ashoka, a true follower of Buddha, making it an invariable practice to bow in reverence before Buddhist monks. His minister Yasha thought that it was wrong and improper for a great Emperor to bow before monks. Ashoka’s answer was: "After all, I am doing obeisance to them as a mark of my deep respect for their learning, wisdom and sacrifice. What matters in life, Yasha, is not a person’s status or position, but his virtues and wisdom. The finest minds and hearts may be hidden in ugly mortal frames."

Shree Purohit Swami, being fluent in both Sanskrit and English, was instrumental in popularising the wisdom of Indian spirituality and philosophy through his translations of ancient Indian texts. His other books include The Geeta: The Gospel of the Lord Shri Krishna, The Ten Principal Upanishads, The Song of Silence, Aphorisms of Yoga, In Quest of Myself, Harbinger of Love, Honeycomb, and Gunjarao.

The volume is an important edition on the subject and here one can find a philosophy that could satisfy the intellect and be all one wants.