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KEDARANATHA'S first school was on the veranda of his maternal grandfather's puja building where many of the village boys used to gather for their education. The teacher was very forbidding, and the boys were afraid of him. The Thakura says of this: "I have some recollection of going to a school run by Karttika Sarkara when I was three years old. Even now it comes to mind, that cane he used to show."
There were many festive occasions observed in the house of his grandfather, especially Durga- or Jagaddhatri-puja, which was performed with great pomp. His mother's side of the family were mostly saktas, worshipers of Durga. Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura recalls: "Hundreds of chandeliers would hang on the puja house ... lanterns would be wrapped around all the pillars and columns. All the guards at the doors would be dressed in sepoy uniforms. Numerous stout men dressed in golden embroidered clothes would come from Ranaghat and Santipura. Many bodyguards and soldiers used to accompany all these men. In terms of people [the scene] was like a forest of humanity, and in terms of lights it was like the battle of Kurukshetra. The scene was filled with fireworks and rowdy pomp ... Late at night there would be kavi-gana [singing of poetic compositions]. At dawn I would listen, but the kavi wallahs [the reciters] would scream so loudly that it would hurt my ears ... I can remember that we used to have twenty-five or thirty brahmanas from west [Bengal] come and carry the goddess to the place of worship and perform the worship ... On the sixth day two types of drums would be beaten and the sound would shake the whole puja house. On the ninth day many goats and buffalo would be sacrificially killed ..."
Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura observed with sardonic humor, "Everybody used to enjoy this occasion, except the goats and the buffalo. Most of the brahmanas and panditas used to come solely for the taste of mutton."
He continues: "During Dola Yatra [another annual festival] there was singing and various kinds of sport. So much red dye was thrown about that everything appeared to be blood colored. At this time even the guards took part in the festivities. They would enter the temple courtyard singing and throwing dye. Because of all their commotion I would stay a little distance away from them. I would enjoy watching the festival bonfire."
When he was five years old he began his schooling, but the school was run by a cruel teacher, who instituted a system of punishments utilizing older students, which kept the younger boys terrorized. "Those who were a little older used to act as agents of the teacher and would harass the younger among us. If we came late to school these older boys would apprehend us. The rule was: whoever came to school first was hit with the stick once, whoever came second was hit twice, and whoever was third was hit three times and the number kept increasing in this way. The routine was as follows: The youngest students used to write their ka kha ga's... [abc's] on talpata with black coal. After a year they would write their numbers on banana leaves and after that they made a copy on paper. All the older boys were taught accounting, which was the work of the office of the Zamindar. From time to time, under the scrutiny of the teacher, we would learn the deliberation of a court. The youngest boys would lodge a complaint and their witnesses and evidence would be deliberated upon as in a court. In the end there would be the determination of punishment. All the decisions of the court had to be confirmed by the teacher. There were different kinds of punishment: twisting of ears, slapping, caning... and paying a fine... We saw our teacher as the personification of Yama [the judge of the dead], and the older students used to act on behalf of the teacher as if agents of Yama. Sometimes these older students would act on their own and sometimes they would arrange a court on behalf of the teacher. Some boys would make false complaints and bring false witnesses to court and other boys would administer punishment."
At one point, being intimidated by the older boys, Kedaranatha stole some jackfruit from his home for his teacher. His mother, however, found out and became very angry. "...when my teacher heard about this he became frightened. He said that I should only take things that would not be noticed. 'Don't bring big things!' 'The neighbors' children used to steal tobacco and give it to him... I used to steal soaked chickpeas and give them to him [instead]." Kedaranatha's brother, Haridas, who also attended the school, eventually became so furious with the teacher and the boldness of the older boys, that he took up a machete and entered the man's home while he slept. Kedaranatha, who chanced to be present, took the machete from him and threw it away. The teacher immediately resigned and departed that very day, and another teacher replaced him.
Up to the end of his sixth year he attended this Bengali medium school, where he studied as follows: "We would begin in the morning by standing and loudly reciting the multiplication tables, addition tables, 'ganda' tables, 'cowrie' tables and so on. The older students would recite in a loud chorus. First the older students would together say, 'Four cowries make one ganda.' Then we in the younger students' group would immediately respond, 'Four cowries make one ganda.' The recitation would proceed in this manner. When it was finished we would sit down and write it all out. As we wrote our teacher would often declare, 'Say it, say it, then write it.' We would repeat a word in a loud voice and then write it. In the [resulting] tumult no one could understand anyone else."
Then an English school opened in his maternal grandfather's home which was started by his grandmother. An Indian-ized Frenchman named Dijor Baret began to give Kedaranatha, his elder brother Kaliprasanna and some of the other boys English lessons, and a nice relationship developed between Kedaranatha and his teacher. During his play time he sometimes wandered in his grandfather's gardens and picked ripe mangoes or caught caterpillars of various kinds, which his father used to raise by feeding them appropriate leaves, eventually releasing them as butterflies. There were many beehives in the gardens and the boys used to break the hives and steal the honey. Kedaranatha used to show some restraint in his honey eating, but his brothers did not. Their mother used to feel their bodies to see if they were unusually warm from eating honey, and if so, they would be punished. The Thakura recalls: "One day, the honey bees stung us. My older brother, Kaliprasanna, was an innocent fellow, but the bees stung him so much that he had a fever for several days." His brothers were so rambunctious that they were not satisfied to simply play in their grandfather's grounds. They used to venture out and get into trouble.
Kedaranatha used to sit and talk with the gatekeepers to avoid getting into difficulty with his brothers. The soldiers used to tell him stories and recite the Ramayana, to which Kedaranatha was very much attracted, and he began to recite the stories to his mother and maid-servant. His mother was pleased and sent some gifts to the gatekeepers. In return, Shrital Teoyari, the main story-teller, would share his rotis (flat breads), dahl (bean soup) and kichari (a combination of dahl and rice) with Kedaranatha, and Kedaranatha would become very happy. These incidents serves to show how Kedaranatha was attracted to hearing about Rama and Krishna from the very beginning of his life, in preference to the playful sports of his brothers. This is a feature in the lives of great souls, as evidenced by the histories of others, like Maharaja Parikshit, Prahlada Maharaja, Uddhava, Narottama dasa Thakura, etc. whose childhoods are described in the pages of the scriptures. Their primary attraction was to God and was exhibited from the very beginning of their lives.
Sometimes the boy used to wake up at night and talk to the night guards of the inner grounds, particularly one called Officer Naph, who was very old but still used to carry his lantern, stick, club and sword. Officer Naph was a much trusted guard of Kedaranatha's grandfather. He was fearless, and a former dacoit (robber). Kedaranatha used to ask him many questions. When Naph was a dacoit, he had accidentally beheaded his own guru during a raid. Since that time he had constantly chanted the holy name of Hari. Although only six or seven and incapable of understanding all of Naph's amazing stories, Kedaranatha liked to hear him talk. Not the least of his attractions must have been the almost constant vibration of the holy name issuing from his mouth.
Since Kedaranatha's mother was the daughter of a very wealthy man and was thus unable to tolerate much physical labor, a maid-servant named Shibu took care of Kedaranatha most of the time. She was completely dedicated to the brothers, even more than to her own children: "In the morning time she would serve us a light breakfast and then take us to school. [Later in the day] she would bring us rice to eat. At noon she would find us wherever we were and supervise us while we took milk. In the evening she would take us home and put us to bed and lay down herself with us. She would give up her own happiness for our happiness. Even if her own daughter wanted to take her home, she would be reluctant to leave us."
There were doctors in residence who used to prepare various Ayurvedic medicines for Kedaranatha's family members, as well as training students who came to them to study the science. They made various medicines with herbs, as well as special potent formulas which involved the difficult processes of burning gold, oxidizing iron and grinding precious stones.
Sometimes, in the late afternoon, Kedaranatha sat in his father's parlor and told stories to him or heard stories from him. At the time of evening prayers his father would give him sandesa (a milk sweet). Most of the time though he stayed with his older brother Kali. His younger brother, Gauridas, who was very beautiful, was extremely naughty and always in trouble.
On certain festival days buffalo-elephant fights were staged. Huge buffaloes had their horns tipped with iron, and the elephants' tusks were similarly tipped, and then they were set loose to fight. Everyone would watch from the second floor of the buildings. Sometimes the buffaloes would win and sometimes the elephants. On other days, the boys would ride atop their personal elephant named Shivchandra, who would carry them to the places of entertainments during festivals. During this period his maternal grandfather was so wealthy that anyone in need could come to him for their necessities. The village was a very happy place, and no one lacked anything. Hardly a day passed without some festival taking place. "In those days Ula was free from suffering. There were fourteen-hundred good brahmana families, and there were many kayastha and vaidya families too. No one in the village went without food. One could get by with very little in those days. Everybody was cheerful-people used to sing, make music, and tell entertaining stories. You could not count how many jolly [fat] bellied brahmanas there were. Almost everybody had a good wit, could speak sweetly and was skilled in making judgments. Everyone was skilled in the fine arts, song and music. Groups of people could be heard at all times making music and singing, playing dice and chess... If anybody was in need they could go to the home of Mushtauphi Mahasaya [his maternal grandfather] and get whatever they required without any difficulty. Medicine, oil and ghee were plentiful... The good people of Ulagram did not know the need of finding work in order to eat. What a happy time it was!"
When Kedaranatha was seven, the king of Krishnanagar established a college and invited prominent landholders and neighboring kings to send their sons. Kedaranatha, Kali Prasanna (his elder brother) and other boys from their family attended. Their nursemaid accompanied them, and they lived in a house in the midst of the bazaar at Krishnanagar. Next door to them lived an oil-press man who was about to die. He had arranged for the daily recitation of Mahabharata. Kedaranatha very much liked to hear the stories from the Mahabharata, and the stories about Bhima especially attracted his mind. He humorously observed: "On certain days the speaker would get a lot of things to eat, and on those days he would be most eloquent. On those days when he received nothing, his heart would be very depressed." On Saturdays the boys would be brought home to Ula by palanquin at great speed and happily spend the weekends with their families.
Classes at the college were held at the official residence of the district magistrate, and an Englishman named Captain Richardson was the college principal. The son of the king of Krishnanagar, Bahadur Satish Chandra, was Kedaranatha's classmate. Kedaranatha excelled in English studies and received a class promotion and an award for his scholarship. After this, he was greatly praised all over Ula, especially by his father and maternal grandfather, as well as his mother and other family members. Even his former English teacher, the Frenchman, came for a visit and praised him greatly. Finally, Kedaranatha's father put a stop to his being praised in the presence of others. Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura observed, "Hearing all this praise my pride became much inflated. In my mind [the importance of] my reading and writing very soon amounted to nothing."
Kedaranatha's class performance fell off, the teachers began to chastise him, and the envious students gave him a hard time. He felt tormented and could no longer study. Instead of attending classes, Kedaranatha used to hide in the woods or pretend to be ill. His nanny was no longer present, due to the boys having adjusted well to living in Krishnanagar, but one of their servants, a man named Keshi, understood his mind and took his side.
Then one day the boys ate some impure foodstuff prepared by a well-meaning relative. Later that night Kedaranatha's elder brother, Kali Dada (Kaliprasanna) became ill with cholera. A local doctor declared it very serious, and Kedaranatha and Kali Dada set out for their home by palanquin. "Kali Dada was sinking gradually into the illness. As we crossed the river Anjana I made a strenuous effort to pacify his mind. By eight o'clock the following morning the palanquin arrived at Ula." An hour after arriving home, the boy left this world, and a great cry of grief went up from the women of the house.
After several days it was decided that Kedaranatha would remain at home, which was to his satisfaction. At this time he was about eight years old, and he went for some months without schooling. Soon, however, some respectable men organized an English school in Ula in the parlor of Kedaranatha's uncle's house. The boy soon regained his aptitude and proficiency in studying, and his teachers showed him much affection. He used to play cricket, but after being struck on the brow with a bat and bleeding profusely, he gave it up and never played again. He excelled in reading and reciting and learned Bengali and mathematics as well.
Kedaranatha's maternal uncle died, and after that, many inauspicious things began to happen to his maternal grandfather. Numerous expenses came, swindlers took advantage of the elderly gentleman's generosity, and he fell into debt. All of his sons had died, and he was given the bad advice that he should marry again and try to produce an heir, but there was no result in the union. Somehow he maintained his status despite heavy debt. However, the elephant Sivchandra died, the horse was sold, the horse-carriage also, and only a goat cart remained. The Durga festivals could only be celebrated by taking out loans.
Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura recalls the recitation of Mahabharata and Ramayana at the festivals: "When there was recitation of the Mahabharata, Ramayana etc. at the old house I would go to hear. I liked to hear about Hanuman crossing the ocean to Lanka and about the demoness Simhika. The honorable reader would speak with specific accompanying gestures, and in my mind a great love would arise. I would make a regular habit of going to hear the reading after school." Again we can observe the boy's strong, spontaneous attraction for hearing the Lord's activities in lieu of the usual attraction to childish sports and playing.
In his eighth year Kedaranatha's two younger brothers, Haridas and Gauridas, successively died. His mother and father experienced deep grief and suffering on this account. That left only Kedaranatha and his younger sister, Hemlata. Their nanny went everywhere with Hemlata on her hip and holding Kedaranatha by the hand. His mother was so worried that none of her children would survive that she put many talismans around the necks of the children.
Kedaranatha was very attracted to any kind of religious festival or puja that was being performed. If he heard of one, he would arrange to go and see it. He occasionally visited a brahmacari who performed worship according to the doctrine of tantra (sorcery). The brahmacari had cups made from skulls which were kept hidden in a small room in his house. "Some people said that if you gave Ganges water and milk to a skull it would smile. I tried to observe this and thus gave water and milk to a skull, but I saw nothing." Another person who lived in the same area used to sing devotional songs. During the Durga festivals Kedaranatha would visit the houses of the brahmanas to get prasadam. Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura recalls, "Sometimes, in the hope of getting some nice prasada, I would accept an invitation to eat. In some homes I would get good dahl along with vegetable curry and rice. In other homes I would get kichari and dahl cooked with jackfruit and other things."
At the age of nine Kedaranatha went to Jagat Bhattacharya to learn astrology. His cousin Kailash Datta also tried to learn. Kedaranatha took notes with care and committed to memory whatever he was taught.
On both the paternal and maternal sides of the family, fortunes declined. His paternal grandfather's residence was mortgaged, and other property was lost. Kedaranatha's father tried to help by securing property for his father in Calcutta, but his father refused to accept it, being very firmly resolved to stay in Orissa. Ananda-candra then tried to secure land for his immediate family, seeing the failing fortunes of both his father-in-law and father, and he got an offer to take managerial responsibility for some property from a Mr. David Farland, a friend of his father-in-law's. Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura observes: "...a man's thoughts alone produce no result, only what God desires can endure." Ananda-candra went to see Mr. Farland's land. In the meantime, upon the death of Ananda-candra's step-mother, Rani Radharani, Ananda-candra inherited six rent-free villages in Orissa. A family friend, Umacharan Vishvas, set out for Ula to report this news. Two or three days after Ananda-candra's return to Ula, after seeing the land of Mr. Farland, he came down with severe fever. The best medicines available were administered. Nothing worked. Kedaranatha was constantly by his father's side. One night while Kedaranatha slept, his father gave up his life and was taken to the bank of the Ganges at Santipura. The house was filled with lamentation. "When I rose at dawn I could not see father. There was no one around. At that time Lalu Chakravarti and Paramesvara Mahanti had come from Orissa, and they had carried my father to the bank of the Ganges. Seeing everybody crying, I also began to cry. My honorable mother, being in anxiety, was weeping, and many people were trying to console her... Loud sounds of crying filled the house. My honorable grandfather closed the door."
Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura recalls, "Even while father was living I began to become a little thoughtful. 'What is this world? Who are we?' These two questions were in my mind when I was ten years old. On some days I thought I had the answers, on other days I had none. One day, in the evening, as the moon was rising, while I was wandering about on the roof of my father's parlour, I noticed that the moon was moving with me. I thought this must be the same moon that we saw in Krishnanagar, and that this small disc exists everywhere in the same fashion. I previously thought that in different places there was a different moon. But now, seeing the moon move, I concluded that it was the same moon everywhere... I would read the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Kali Purana, Annada Mangala, etc. from Bengali manuscripts and imbibed much lore in this way. I would discuss these edifying subjects with whomever I met who was a little learned." This scrutinizing mood reminds one of Maharaja Parikshit, who examined everything around him after emerging from the womb, as he looked for Krishna, Whom he had seen there. We will observe that Bhaktivinoda Thakura had this same searching mood as a boy, and he was never satisfied in that search until, years later, the Shrimad-Bhagavatam and Chaitanya-caritamrita finally came into his hands. At that time the Object of his search was found, and his true devotional glories became fully manifested.
A learned man named Vachaspati Mahasaya would often talk to Kedaranatha about spiritual topics and told him that there was no talk between the demigods and mankind in Kali-yuga. One day, when the boy went to eat star-apples in the garden near the parlor of his grandfather, he became frightened due to fear of a ghost that was reputed to stay there. Vachaspati Mahasaya described the forms of ghosts to him in some detail, and the boy became more frightened. However, he also had a strong desire to eat the star-apples. He then spoke to the mother of a friend who was reputed to be expert in the occult, and she told him that there is no fear of ghosts as long as one chants the name of Rama. By way of an experiment, the boy went to the orchard constantly calling out the name of Rama. He then became convinced in his heart that chanting the name of Rama was protection against ghosts. From that time on he was not afraid to go out at dusk, and when he did he constantly chanted the holy name of Rama. Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura recalls, "At dusk I would always utter the name of Rama. When walking about in the streets and alleys I always chanted the name of Rama. I obtained such great satisfaction in my mind [from this] that for many days afterwards I took this medicine against ghosts. I heard that a ghost lived in the homa [sacrificial fire] building. Uttering the name of Rama, I chased the ghost away..."
Kedaranatha had an elderly friend who was a sculptor who made back-drops for the goddess Durga. He told the boy that he had no confidence in anyone but Paramesvara (the Supreme Controller), and Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura remarks, "I had faith in the words of this old man." Becoming more inquisitive, he questioned a Mohammedan guard who gave him a very imaginative explanation of the creation, but confirmed that the holy name of God is the remedy for ghosts. Kedaranatha was thinking in philosophical terms almost constantly. He recalls, "There were many thoughts in my mind. At one time I thought that this world was false-that the Lord alone was real, and that I appeared to be the Lord..." His uncle's father was an eclectic worshiper who in the mornings would first study Vedanta, then recite the Kalma like a Muslim and then pray to God as a Christian. He gave Kedaranatha the idea that God alone was the Supreme Person, that the Vedas know Him as Brahman, the Koran as Allah and that in the Bible He is called God. Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura states, "I believed him." But later he remarked, "I was greatly confused. I was young and sensitive and had many questions. Seeing all this difference of opinion my mind was not happy." His Uncle Parasurama told him, "O baba, everything comes from Nature and that is God. There is nothing separate from Nature."
Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura: "Because all the conclusions were uncertain, I never gave up the name of Rama which warded off the fear of ghosts."
Kedaranatha was eleven years old at the time of his father's death. It was a very disturbing time for him with uncertainty in all directions. He continued his studies but his heart was not in it. He began to secretly drink castor oil to make himself sick, so that he wouldn't have to go to school, and he would often get fevers. He continued to think in a very philosophical way and wrote a poem called Ula-candi-mahatmya about the deity of Ula (Durga), a book which, according to the Thakura, no longer exists.