Tirath:The Unfettered Thinker
K. K. Khullar
Swami Ram Tirath was a modern Yogi who gave a new
meaning to Vedanta and inspired the youth of India to rise above material wants.
He brought a new cheer to the suffering millions. "The highest gift you
confer on man is to offer him knowledge", he said. "You may feed a man
today, but he will be just as hungry tomorrow. Teach him an art and you will
enable him to earn his living all his life." Born in 1873 in a village
called Muraliwala (now in Pakistan), he opted for his watery grave while
meditating in the Ganges at the age of thirty-three in the hills of Garhwal, in
the present Indian state of Uttar
Pradesh. According to Puran Singh, his biographer, Vedas were written by men
His father, Hiranand Gosain, was a priest in the temple of the village. The
child Tirath Ram was extremely sensitive. His speech was bird-like. He smiled
like a babe in his sleep, a smile which he retained till his death. The
soothsayers had predicted that the child would be a great scholar and bring
glory to his Motherland. Brought up in abject poverty, he considered poverty a
blessing. Even when he rose to the dizzy heights of popularity, he remained
poor. He stood for renunciation. Like the Sufis of the yore, he possessed
nothing and nothing possessed him except the name of God.
A Professor of mathematics at Lahore, a chance meeting
with Swami Vivekananda changed the course of his life, He stood for the
universal education of girls, as he believed that God resides in the hearts of
women. "Neglecting the education of women and children and the labouring
classes is like cutting down the branches that are supporting us, nay, it is
like striking a death-blow to the roots of the tree of nationality." He
presaged Gandhi in a number of ways, the most important being his concept of Ahimsa
and Dharma. Dharma is not religion, it is a way of righteousness.
In the words of Mahatma
Gandhi, "Swami Rama's teachings have got to be propagated. He was one
of the greatest souls not only of India but of the whole world. I adore his
ideals." His ideals symbolized the wisdom of India. Very few people know
that Swami Ram Tirath had predicted one hundred years ago that the 21st century
would be India's century and that India would regain its glory and position for
the onward march of civilization. Like Buddha, he propagated that the greatest
sin was ignorance and the greatest virtue was knowledge.
Schooled by Christian Missionaries and educated at the
Forman Christian College, Lahore, Tirath Ram obtained his Masters in Mathematics
from Government College, Lahore, with distinction. A favourite student of Prof.
Gilberton, he took the latter's classes when he was severely ill. Mathematics
was music to him. He wanted to serve God through mathematics. While speaking on
Mathematics at Amritsar he met a scholar named Narayan Swami who became his
disciple. The disciple later became Swami's first biographer. In November, 1897,
he met Swami Vivekananda in Lahore.
During the summer vacations he used to visit Rishikesh
where a dip in the Ganges would make him ecstatic. For hours on end, he would
immerse himself in the waters of the Ganges. With each dip he discovered a new
vision, a new life. It is here that he found answers to most of his questions.
He wandered among the hills, moved among the snows, sat on the highest peaks and
thought and read and wrote. His 'Jalwa-i-Kobisar' (The Spectacle of Mountains)
in Urdu is the greatest invocation of a poet to the Goddess of Mountains.
In 1899, he resigned from his job at the Government
College, Lahore, and announced his decision to explore the jungles of the
Himalayas as a mystic. And one day he renounced the world. The scene at the
Lahore Railway Station, where thousands had come to see him off, was a moving
one. One of those who had come to see him off was Dr. Mohamad Iqbal, his
colleague at the Government College. "Tirath Ram, don't go, reconsider your
decision", he said. But Professor Tirath Ram had made his decision. It is
only in the lap of the Himalayas that he found real peace, spiritual bliss and
intellectual enlightenment. It is here that he blossomed and achieved greater
perfection. It is here that Professor Tirath Ram became Swami Ram Tirath, the
Punjabi monk who gave a new message to his countrymen.
According to Puran Singh, another biographer of Swamiji, Vedas were written by
men like him. "Vedanta shows you that your happiness is your own business.
Realize the truth and you are free. According to Vedanta, your soul is not
impure or sinful by nature."
Puran Singh had met Swamiji in Japan in 1902. He
arranged there a series of lectures by Swamiji which evoked tremendous applause.
In fact, they were not lectures but divine expressions of a rare soul exalted by
suffering. He did not belong to any organized religion. Religion for him was
morality - a theme that Gandhi developed later.
This is how Prof. Takakushtra, Head of the Sanskrit
Department, University of Tokyo, described him, "I have met many pundits
and philosophers at the house of Professor Max Mueller in England and at other
places, but I have never seen a personality like Swami Ram, who is a living and
significant illustration of his whole philosophy. In him both Vedanta and Buddhism
meet. His is the true religion. He is a true poet and philosopher."
And a poet he certainly was, not only in English but
also in Urdu. He wrote about a hundred poems in English and a hundred-and-fifty
in Urdu. A collection of his poems was published with an introduction by no less
a person than C.F. Andrews.
What care for caste or creed
It is the deed, it is the deed,
What for class and what for clan
It is the man, it is the man,
What for crown and what for the crest
It is the heart within the breast.
When Swami Ram Tirath left Tokyo for San Francisco, a
Japanese Buddhist remarked, "I see his smile still floating in the air like
plum flowers." A Japanese lady remarked, "He has imparted fragrance to
our colourless flowers." Puran Singh in his 'The Story of Rama' narrates
several such instances of Ram's popularity in Japan.
He stayed in the United States for two years. The
Americans listened to him. When Ram chanted the word "OM" many
Americans felt they were lifted from the earth. "I swam in the air as a
figure of light", said an American lady. "His presence is divine. I
felt as if I were the mother of the universe, all the countries were mine and
all nations were my own children." A lady whose only child died went to
Swamiji for solace. Pointing to a Negro boy, Ram said, "Mother, take him
and love him as your own". He met President Roosevelt, by sheer chance, at
Shasta Springs on May 20, 1903. Mrs. Welman published Swami's dialogues and
letters. They run into eight volumes of four hundred pages each. Titled 'In
Woods of God's Realization' these thoughts have provided solace to tens of
thousands of readers all over the world.
Swami Ram Tirath stood for knowledge and the total
eradication of ignorance and superstitions. His Vedanta is not confined to the
man of the mountains. It also embraces the man of the world. He stood for the
freedom of thought and independence in thinking. "Independent
thinking", he said, "is looked upon in India as a heresy, nay, as the
worst among crimes. Whatever comes from a dead language is sacred." Giving
a clarion call to his countrymen he said, "Beloved orthodox people of
India, put into force the Shastras (religious texts) aright. The Dharma
of the country demands that you relax the stringent caste rules and subordinate
sharp class, distinctions to national fellow-feeling. "
According to Lala Hardyal, a freedom fighter, Swami Ram
Tirath was the greatest Hindu who ever came to America. Writing from the United
States in 1911, he said, "In this part of the country there are many
persons who lovingly cherish the memory of Swami Ram Tirath. They tell how he
lived like a true ascetic and won the hearts of villagers in the mountain
valleys of California. He was a real saint and a sage whose life mirrored the
highest principles of Hindu spirituality as his soul respected the love of the
universal spirit which he tried to realize."
And yet he said, "My religion is not Hinduism,
Islam, Christianity, Catholicism or Protestantism, but it is hostile to none.
The overlapping area covered by the sun, the stars, the rivers, gravity, mind
and body, this is the field of my religion. Are there any Presbyterian lilies?
Are there any Methodist landscapes? ... My religion is a religion without a
name. It is the religion of nature. I call it the Common Path."
He returned to India in December 1904. On the way, he
halted in Egypt where he addressed his audiences in mosques in Persian and
Arabic. When he talked of the ancient civilization of Egypt, the Egyptians
looked upon him as one of themselves. From Bombay
he went straight to the hills, spending a few days in Mathura and Vrindavan. In
November, 1905, he selected a place called Vyasa Ashram at a height of 12, 500
feet for his meditation. Here he meditated and wrote his books. In February,
1906, he set up Vashist Ashram, which afforded a panoramic view of the lofty
peaks of Badrinath,
Gangotri, Yamunotri and, above all, Mount Kailash.
On October 17, 1906, Swamiji went for a bath in the
Ganges. It was a Diwali
day (a day considered auspicious in the Hindu calendar). Swami Ram Tirath sat in
the lap of Mother Ganga in the pose of a Samadhi. His body floated in
that pose and returned floating after on week to the very spot from where he had
taken a dip. It was still in the state of a Samadhi, with arms and feet
crossed. The bier was entrusted to the holy waters where his soul found the
When Mohamad Iqbal learnt about the end of his friend's
earthly journey, he wept. In his immortal poem, on Swami Ram Tirath, he compared
him to a pearl among the shells on the seashore of knowledge, a sun among the
The author, a historian, is now a freelance writer.