Rajiv Mehrotra tells Anjana Rajan that in publishing Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s biography he had to confront his own fears
Receiving a copy of Rajiv Mehrotra’s biography of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, “Thakur — A Life of Sri Ramakrishna”, one was overcome by a strange feeling…not quite déjÀ vu, but something akin to it. Hadn’t he mentioned in a conversation over two-and-a-half years ago that he had just completed this very book?
Mehrotra sets at rest any suspicions of ESP by quickly agreeing he did. But it is also true that the book, published by Penguin, hit the stands only recently. “I just didn’t have the confidence to hand it over to a publisher,” he explains, because of the nature of the subject.
It was Swami Gahananda, President of the Ramakrishna Mission till he passed away in November 2007, who gave him the courage to go ahead. Mehrotra, known for his numerous books on spiritual masters, especially the Dalai Lama of whom he is a student, remembers vividly his meeting with the swami. The elderly monk sat in a chair while Mehrotra sat on the floor. “And he just held my gaze,” says the author. Finally the swami gave him priceless advice: “Fear not fear.”Intensely personal
If not, perhaps, the book might have remained a manuscript. “For me the book is intensely personal — for my own understanding — and hence the trepidation about presenting it to the world,” he says.
What interested him about Sri Ramakrishna was that though accepted as a spiritual master across the world, “there is the most detailed documentation of the sadhana,” says Mehrotra, contrasting this with other spiritual masters, where “there seems a need to say there was one defining, cataclysmic moment.”
The story of Ramakrishna’s quest, with all its pain and its ecstasy, is something that other aspirants can take heart from, says Mehrotra.
A challenge normally faced by biographers of heroic figures is the blending of myth with history. “But because there is so much documentation it is easy to put those aspects aside,” he remarks. For the legions of “mundane aspirants” in which group he includes himself, it is reassuring to know “that growth is attainable in the dark night of the soul.”
He also finds significant Sri Ramakrishna’s “diversity of teachers.” In an era where everyone is “hooked into my religion, my faith, my practice,” he points out, this was a spiritual aspirant who intensively practised all faiths — Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and the multiple paths of Hinduism. And it wasn’t merely study. “It wasn’t a mind only learning.” Ramakrishna worked at an emotional level before verbalising his experiences for the outside world. “That incredible intensity of feeling is so enviable,” says Mehrotra.
“It’s a very humbling experience to try and understand the true masters,” he muses. “That’s why it seems such an audacity to say humne kitaab likhi.”
For those like Mehrotra who have grown up with stories of great leaders of humanity, it is always thrilling to recall the tales. “We get so conditioned to the stories, the myths, that each time the only purpose it serves is to bring back the memory,” he says. But the challenge is for it to not merely refresh the thought, but to somehow “nudge you into a different filtering” of the experience.
It may have taken two years for Mehrotra to pick up the courage to publish this little book, but the next effort has not taken that long. His next book “The Spirit of the Muse” is due out soon. But it has a link to Thakur. “Thakur’s madness was sort of cathartic,” says Mehrotra, “— is the creative process also cathartic?”Books by Rajiv MehrotraThe Mind of the GuruUnderstanding the Dalai LamaThe Essential Dalai Lama