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Swami Ram 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 like him.
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, Kedarnath, 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 eternal bliss.

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 stars.

The author, a historian, is now a freelance writer.





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