One of my favorite Vrindavan sadhus was Svatah Prakash Swami, popularly known as Hari Baba. We have written about him previously, particularly in relation to the spreading of the Holy Names and popularizing the lila of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Uttar Pradesh, especially in the districts of Bulandshahr and Sambhal disticts, which are about 150 kilometers north of Mathura.
What propelled Hari Baba into the upper echelons of the sadhu world in northern India took place in 1922 when he inspired and led the construction of a community project to build an embankment along the Ganges to protect more than 700 villages from the near annual floods that afflicted the area. This project was completed on Ram Naumi in 1922, so we are remembering Hari Baba on Ram Naumi 2017. Only five years before the centenary.
G. Kamesh is a writer and blogger, a disciple of Akhandananda Saraswati, who visited Hari Baba’s baandh (dam or embankment) in 2015 and wrote about it on his blog. The following (with some editing) is excerpted from there.
Hari Baba (1884 – 1970) was one of the great sages of twentieth century India. He was a Jeevanmukta, one who has attained liberation while still alive. He was the humblest of humble servants of God. He attained self-knowledge at an early age, and thereafter was immersed in the path of devotion to God. He advocated the path of Bhakti, with special emphasis to Samkirtana, singing of God’s name. It was he who mobilized communities of villagers to build a dyke in the land of Ganga, to save hundreds of villages which used to be submerged in floods year after year. And this was done without any Government funding or help… It was done by common people from villages all around, singing the name of God, as appropriate to their path and religion.
When singing God’s name, he would always be seen with the “ghantaa” – a gong bell struck with a mallet… At all times, his eyes would be downcast, towards the heart….
How is one like us to even comprehend the glory of this sage? Let us see what Maharajshree (Swami Akhandananda Saraswati of Ananda Vrindavan Ashram) had to say about Hari Baba…
“Among all the sages that I have had Darshan of in my life, Sri Hari Baba Maharaj, was a distinctive Mahapurusha, completely non-worldly.
People knew of him as “Baandh waale Baba” (The sage who built the dyke on the Ganga), or as a sage who preached the way of kirtan (singing the name of God). However, I have seen him as a personification of complete non-attachment…
His faith and devotion to Guru remained firm and steady – he would wave the fan-whisk of worship to someone, but contemplation would be on his Guru. Dedication to Vedanta became second-nature to him even from the time of his youth. In his conduct, he was the mirror-image of Lord Sri Ramachandra. When he was immersed in Samkirtan, there would be the manifestation of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. While his speech, smile, glance would be dripping with affection, absolute samyama (self-restraint, a self-fettering, eyes-closed approach to the world) was also patently seen in him. Such was he, that on coming to his vicinity and protecting presence, even pretenders would become true devotees. The service that has been rendered by him to poor people, farmers, and villagers is indeed matchless.
I have seen in his life the ideal life that a satpurusha should lead. As a Jeevanmukta (self-realized sage) adopting appropriate role-play with one and all in his dealings in the world, in the same manner was the persona/role-play of Hari Baba in all his activities. He filled his time with the God’s-name, Satsanga (the company of sages and good people), and with the lore of sport of God. By his remembrance, one’s heart becomes cleansed.”
Hari Baba’s early life
Hari Baba was born in Shukla Paksha Chaturdashi of the month of Phalguna in Vikram Samvat १९४१ (this would correspond to February 28, 1885 AD), in a village in the district of Hoshiarpur in Punjab. He was born in a Sikh family of the Ahluwalia lineage. … It is said that when Hari Baba was born, an idol of Lord Rama fell into the courtyard of the house from the sky. It is also said that his parents had divine vision of Rama in their dreams, when he was in the womb.
On his birth, he was named Diwan Singh (pronounced Deevaan Singh). As a child, Diwan was the youngest of five sons in a family of five sons and three daughters. Diwan was different from other children and was often found sitting in silent contemplation. When he was four years old, he had the first darshan of his Guru, Brahmanishtha Swami Sacchidananda Giri. Seeing the innate goodness of the child, his Guru lifted him with love and blessed him.
Diwan did his schooling in Hoshiarpur and went on to join King Edward Medical College in Lahore for his professional education. He would return often to Hoshiarpur and visit his Guru. His mother tried to fix a marital alliance for him, but he sternly refused to be drawn into married life, and that was that. He left his medical education in the final year, gave up all material pursuits, and came away to his Guru. He stayed with his Guru and served him in every way. So deep was his Guru Bhakti, that it is said his Guru gave him oneness with his own state.
Upon Diwan’s request for sannyas, his Guru declined, saying that he did not give sannyas to anyone, but that when the right time came, he would become a sannyasi by himself. With his Guru’s permission, Diwan left for Kashi. He joined a college course in B.Sc and also started offering tuition to make a living. But the fire of dispassion was burning so furiously in him that he could not pursue a worldly life anymore. Giving away all his material things, he adopted vidvat sannyas himself. Living on alms, he chose a temple, the Shoolakanteshwar shrine of Siva, as his place of stay. When he stayed there, a Bengali Sadhu of name Shankaranand, gave him a kamandalu and invited him to his Ashram in Prayag (Allahabad) Draupadi ghat. Sadhu Diwan went to Prayag and chose a cave near Shankaranand’s Asram for his stay. There, he performed intense spiritual practice, living a life of terrific austerity. He would take Madhukari bhiksha once a week. From the Rotis collected, he would bury what was left over. Each day he would take out one Roti, wet it in water, and eat. That was his food for the day. A snake was his co-resident in the cave, and was even seen sitting on his head when he was immersed in samadhi in meditation.
After staying in Prayag for three years, he started his parivrajaka life again and returned to his Guru’s Ashrama in Hoshiarpur. While immersed in bliss in his heart, he was in some trepidation as he came to his Guru. Afraid of what his Guru would say on seeing him as a Sanyaasi, he came to him in the night and fell at his feet weeping. His Guru, however, was overjoyed, and told him – “Son! You have attained the aim of human birth. And by this act, you have brought fruition for me too! You have been a Sadhu even since birth. And now, since you have taken Sanyaasa yourself, you shall be called ‘Svatah Prakash’ (Self Radiant)!”
After staying for some time with his Guru, he started on his ‘wandering’ again. He went to Anandpur Saheb and served in a Gurudvara there, and continued his austerities. He would narrate the stories of Sikh Gurus to pilgrims coming there. He took on the service of cleaning the huge vessel used for Langhar. In the icy cold of Punjab winter, he would bathe in the Gurudvara pond at 3 AM, and then sit for meditation.
After Anandpur Saheb, he went to many other places, and came to Vraja in the region of Vrindavan. There he decided to be of service to an ailing, elderly Bengali sannyasi, a monk of the Gaudiya order. In his dwelling, he was intensely drawn by a picture of a saint. The sadhu told him that the picture was of Swami Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Hari Baba immediately recalled reading in the press in his Lahore college days, a statement of Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda had said that the bhavasamadhi of his Guru, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, was like that of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
Meeting with Udiya Baba
After Vraja, Swami Svatah Prakash (Hari Baba), now a monk in his early twenties, wished to go and do sadhana near the Ganga. Going past Aligarh, he came to the region of Anupshehr, and then on to a village named Bheriya. This is near the current location of Hari Baba Baandh.
It was most probably in the month of Karthik, Vikram samvat 1965 (corresponding to Oct-Nov 1908 AD).
The young sannyasi, Swami Svatah Prakash came by train and got down at Rajghat station near the bank of Ganga, not far from Narora in District Bulandshehr. Then he walked along the Ganga, northwards, and arrived at the village of Bheriya, which is some three miles south of Anupshehr. And as destiny would have it, the great Brahmanishtta sage Udiya Baba ji (Swami Poornananda Teertha) came walking to this place from the East, at the same time. This was a momentous meeting in spiritual timelessness.
Udiya Baba, like Ramana Maharshi, was a spiritual colossus. Ever established in Non-dual Brahman, he was like the Sun of Jnana. And Swami Svatah Prakash, when he became Hari Baba, was the full-moon of Bhakti. It was a meeting of Ganga and Yamuna. There struck a relationship between these two sages, which was to last all their lives. Such was the love they had for each other, that Hari Baba has said of Udiya Baba that “No one in the world has loved anyone so much, ever, as much as Udiya Baba loved me.” And Udiya Baba on his part, had the greatest respect for Hari Baba. No festival of Hari Baba was complete without the presence of Udiya Baba. It is incredible to read that in all the decades of their acquaintance, Hari Baba never once spoke directly to Udiya Baba. He would have his face down, and speak through a second person. So great was his respect for Udiya Baba…
To give an example of how much respect Udiya Baba had for Hari Baba, consider this… Udiya Baba, like Jagadguru Kanchi Paramacharya, had taken a vow to only walk. He would never ride on any vehicle – car, bus, train etc. He walked hundreds of miles, month after month, all his life. While he stayed largely in the banks of Ganga, towards the end of his life he settled in Vrindavan.
In 1947, when Hari Baba was planning to celebrate the Sivaratri festival in the Baandh, he found that Udiya Baba would not be able to come, as he was very ill. But Hari Baba could not dream of having any utsav without Udiya Baba being present. So he and Anandamayi Ma came to Vrindavan. Hari Baba tried to convince Udiya Baba to come with him in his car. But Udiya Baba had his vow and he was in no condition to walk the distance from Vrindavan to the Baandh (around 150 kms). So while Hari Baba went on pleading, Udiya Baba kept Mauna (silence), and it became midnight. Seeing how disappointed Hari Baba was feeling, Ma told him – “Pitaji! Now you may please take rest. Whatever is to happen tomorrow, shall happen by itself.” On this advise, Hari Baba retired for the night.
In the morning, when Hari Baba awoke to find that Udiya Baba had already left during the night. Ma laughed and told him – “See Pitaaji! I told you that whatever is to happen will happen by itself!”
What had happened was that Udiya Baba could not bear seeing the disappointment of Hari Baba. So, at 2 O’clock in the night, he started off in another devotee’s car, and left for the Baandh. He broke his lifelong vow of never riding a vehicle, just to keep Baba’s heart. Who can understand this love! Needless to say, that Sivaratri festival in the Baandh was observed with all joyousness, and this was followed by the festival of Holi, which too was attended by Udiya Baba.
Coming back to Bheriya, the first meeting place of Ganga (Udiya Baba) and Yamuna (Hari Baba)…
This meeting in Bheriya was at the place where a venerable sadhu from Bengal had his hermitage. Known as Bengali Baba, his sanyasi name was Sri Ramananda Giri. He was an aged monk, who was held in great reverence by all Sadhus in the region. The young Hari Baba came to his hermitage and sat down under a tree, absorbed in inner contemplation. Bengali baba recognized the spiritual fire in young Hari Baba, and asked one of his sannyasi disciples to discreetly care for this young Baba.
Bengali Baba was a great ascetic, who laid great store by Madhukari Bhiksha. He would say:
सदन्नं वा कदन्नं वा सोमपानं दिने दिने ||
Bhikshaa (food got as alms), is equivalent to a meal of fruits. It is never an acquisition (bondage). Whether the Bhikshaa food is pure/good or impure/stale, eating that is like having a quaff of the nectar of Gods, day after day!
Hari Baba becomes imbued with the mood of Gauranga Mahaprabhu
Bengali Baba’s ashram was a confluence where many sadhus would gather. One of them was Swami Achyuta Muni. He used to stay in a boat anchored near Deeppur Ghat, a few miles from Gavaan (where the Hari Baba baandh is now). Swami Achyuta Muni was a highly respected sage, well known in the Ganga region. His blissful countenance, deep scholarship, and childlike simplicity attracted many a devotee to him, scholar and lay. The Muni held classes on Vedanta treatises like Brahma Sutra, Panchadashi, Vritti Prabhakara, etc. Young Hari Baba, who would go to Ganga for his morning bath, joined these classes.
After some time, Achyuta Muni was to leave this place and go to Wardha. He extended an invitation to Hari Baba to come there, and continue his Vedanta tutelage. Hari Baba agreed, and came away to Wardha.
Achyuta Muni was a man of discipline. His rule was that his Vedanta class would commence exactly at Sunrise. Interested students would have to be there punctually. Hari Baba was as sincere as anyone could ever be. He would be up at 2 AM, walk six miles to the river to have his bath etc, do his morning exercises, meditate and be ready for the class at dawn. After the class, he would contemplate on the subject being studied. After lunch, he would take some rest, do some svadhyaya and then again attend Achyuta Muni’s class from 3 to 5 PM. After that, in the evenings, he had no fixed program. He came to know that in a place called Hanumangadi, which was nearby, there was a Satsangha where akhand (nonstop) chanting of “Shree Rama Jaya Rama Jaya Jaya Rama” mantra was going on, for last few hundred years. This place had been associated with Satguru Samarth Ramdas (saint of 16th-17th century, Guru of Chatrapati Shivaji).
Hari Baba went for this Satsangh, and his life changed.
Feeling great joy after his first Satsangha, he started going there regulary. He was being helplessly drawn into Hari Bhakti. His Guru (Swami Sacchidananda Giri) too is supposed to have had a vision of Radha-Krishna in Vrindavan, but his outward leaning had been towards Jnana. Hari Baba too had, therefore, been devoted to the path of Knowledge. But now, in Hanumangadi, he was being turned over completely. He started experiencing Bhava Samadhi during the sankirtan (music and chanting). He lost control over himself. At one stage, he started exhibiting all eight Sattvik Bhavas of pure Bhakti together. These are Ashru (tears), Pulaka (horripilation), stabdhataa (stunned stiffness), svedha (excessive sweating), kampa (trembling of body), svarabhanga (choking of voice), vaivarnya (discoloration) and, finally, moorccha (fainting).
Sri Paranjape, who was in-charge of the Satsangha there, was amazed at this sight. He, along with other devotees there, lifted him and made him lie down on a mat there. Soon, Hari Baba started making Humkaar thunder-like sounds, got up, and went and sat on the altar of the Lord. He became possessed by the Lord. Sitting there, he ordered the devotees to offer bhog, and then asked them to seek whatever boon they desired. The assembled devotees were all immersed in waves of devotion seeing this unique happening. The singing was charged now. Soon Hari Baba got up and started dancing. The crowd was in bliss. Some fell at his feet, some were laughing or crying uncontrollably – all were lost in the mood. This went on the whole night, and when the Sun rose next morning, Hari Baba fell unconscious.
Upon regaining consciousness, he felt extremely embarrassed. But Paranjape ji consoled him.
Thereafter, he started attending this satsang every evening. Soon these happenings reached the ears of Achyuta Muni. When Hari Baba went for his Vedanta class, the Muni asked him about it, whether it was true that he had been going to a math and engaging himself in singing and dancing. Hari Baba remained silent. Taking his silence as affirmation, the Muni asked him to express his view. Hari Baba then conveyed, in all humility, his views. Paraphrasing what he conveyed, Hari Baba’s view was that there is no distinction between Nirguna and Saguna. In sum – “The One reality, is worshipped with many names. He said that if we examine the views of all our ancient Acharyas, there too we will find that there is no distinction between Jnana and Bhakti. There can be no Jnana without Bhakti, and no Bhakti without Jnana. It is only when Brahmanishtha becomes ripe does one find the right way to contemplate Saguna Brahman. “
In his own case, he conveyed that the bliss he had experienced in Bhakta Mandali was beyond expression. And that experience had only strengthened his Brahmanishtha.
Achyuta Muni ji conveyed that he had no complaints against that path, and that he too had done Japa of Lord’s name one lakh times every day. By that practice, even now the Japa of the name was going on automatically. But the path of practice of pure Vedanta was divergent from the path chosen by Hari Baba, and so he was free to pursue his path. Hari Baba, then took his permission to leave, and went back to Hanumangadi.
There, Paranjape ji gave him a book about Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. It was an English book titled “Lord Gauranga” written by Sri Shishir Kumar Ghosh. He began to read the book avidly and became profoundly influenced by it and began to give classes from it to the local devotees. But eventually he found it necessary to leave when people started to think of him as a divine incarnation.
The book on Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had opened up for him the infinite heart-space of devotion. His Hari bhakti was in flood. Returning to the region of Anupshahr, he set anchor…. There, devotees found their way to him, and he spread the way of Bhakti… He would be so consumed by bhava of Krishna bhakti, that he would behave as a man possessed. In the great meadow region in the vicinity, he would wander around, jump into water bodies, with the bhava that he was jumping into Yamuna of Krishna. He would ask strangers whether they had seen Krishna anywhere… He would weep… Seeing a villager tilling the soil, he would go upto him and request him to ‘please chant the name of Hari’, and in return he would take over the plough from the man and do his job. He would be seen jumping from tree to tree, perhaps in the bhava of Hanuman…. Krishna Leela and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Leela also started happening. It was evident that the great Mahaprabhu had awakened in his heart. The transformation was complete. Swami Svatah Prakash became Hari Baba…
Once, the region was suffering from severe lack of rains. Praying for relief, the people there gathered around Hari Baba. Hari Baba said that the samkirtana of Hari would surely answer their prayers. He told them – “When Nam Bhagavan is with you, why do you have any anxiety! What is impossible for the Nam Bhagavan to accomplish? Chant the name and be free from fear!” He organized the people into a Samkirtana group. The group, led by Hari Baba, started walking around the village, singing the name of Hari. They had only milk for food. At appropriate times, they halted and had Hari Katha sessions. The plan was to do this for seven days. On the eighth day, they would gather in the Nava Vrindavan meadow nearby and the whole village would gather for a community bhajan and feast. On the eighth day, rain clouds filled the sky, and it poured.
The story of the Baandh
Word spread. People started flocking to Hari Baba. People of all communities… Around 1917 or so, during one of the Leela sessions, one person was possessed by bhava of Siva, and he told Baba that he should do the Leela of Setubandhan (the building of bridge across the sea to Lanka by Rama and the monkeys). Hari Baba smiled and said that he would do so….
The region of Ganga in Anupshahr / Badaun was a stage of periodic disaster. There were miles and miles of lowlands, and every year Ganga, during times of flood, would overrun the lands. In around 1917 a part of the Ganga had cut across and mingled with Mahava river in Badaun. As a result some 700 or more villages had been submerged in the river. But this was a regular occurrence and every year hundreds of villages were affected and the villagers has to be at the mercy of elements, sitting on trees and raised-platforms, waiting for the river to subside, living on what providence may provide. Baba was moved by the plight of the land and the people.
The time for the Setubandh leela had come….
Sometime in the month of Paush (December) 1922, Baba called for a meeting with local devotees and announced his plan to build a baandh (dyke, dam) in that area. This was a herculean aim, for not even the Government had been able to do anything like that. There was no rail connection or good roads, without which getting construction materials there was impossible. It was also impossible for railways to set up lines here, as the lands were undulating, and there was not enough time between floods for complete construction to happen. These and such were the problems voiced by his devotees. Baba was not deterred by this.
One of his devotees, Pandit Lalitaprasad, used to get the bhava of Hanuman. Baba told him that he would be crucial for this project. That he would need to invoke Hanuman in his consciousness and get on with the task. Baba quickly put the plan into motion and inaugurated the project. He put some key devotees as organizers. He said that he would take care of collecting funds. The devotees would have to gather others and get into the job of building the baandh. He himself went from village to village to galvanize the community. He did so through samkirtan. In Hindu villages he would sing the name of Rama. In Muslim villages, he sang tera zaat paak hoon.
A retired engineer from the public works department was also inducted into the project. Surveys were conducted and the project area marked out. One and all got involved. The rule was that the baandh had to be built with the constant accompaniment of the names of God. One and all had to chant God’s name and bring mud and throw it on the baandh. Baba had told the community that they should know that the baandh was God’s own form. That they would have to offer service with a sincere heart. He said that the Baandh Bhagavan would give boons, and their prayers for worldly and spiritual gains would all be answered, provided they applied themselves in all sincerity…. Within weeks, more than a thousand villagers were on the job.
Baba announced his vow that the mud-work would have to be completed by Rama Naumi, which was but a few months away. What this meant was that 34 kms of baandh mud-work would have to be built, along with six cross bandhs. Some parts of the baandh had to be much higher and broader…. Baba announced that if the work was not completed by then, he would give up his life.
The name of God filled the air. The community was in motion. One is reminded of the bridge built from Rameshwaram to Lanka during the Ramayana time.
The night before Rama Naumi came. Baba got up and went to a specific area of the baandh. And he found that the work there was far from complete. He had announced earlier that he would give up his body if the work was not completed by Rama Naumi. In keeping with this resolve, he himself started working and announced that he would not eat and give up his life if the work was not completed that night. Word of his intent spread like wildfire in the villages. The villagers rushed to the baandh and joined him in the labor… In a few short hours a mountain of mud was ready and before nightfall the task was completed.
On the night before Rama Naumi (which fell on 26th March 1923), the Baandh mud-work was complete. Baba started the stone-work the same date. Mounds of stones started getting accumulated at the site. By the dussehra of Jyestha month, most of the stone work was complete.
By sheer dint of the divine name, by the force of community participation, a 34 kms long baandh was constructed along the route of Ganga. An incredible achievement…
The Baandh Festivals
On Vijayadashami day of the month of Ashvin (Oct 1923) the first festival was held on the baandh. Since that day, countless festivals have been held here. Holi was celebrated with great festivity. This is the day of Jayanti of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The day preceding Holi was the Jayanti of Hari Baba. Guru Purnima and other festivals were all celebrated in a grand scale at the Baandh. Akhand naama samkirtan, pravachans by sages and scholars, Raasleela, Krishnaleela, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Leela etc were regularly enacted. Hari Baba would be completely immersed in the bhava of the Leela. He would be fanning the idol or the person acting the role of Krishna etc, for hours on end. During the keetans, he would be dancing and striking his heavy gong bell (ghantaa) – swinging round and round, and the whole orchestra of drummers, instrumentalists and singers would keep beat with him…. Each day was a celebration of God….
The greatest of sages of North India have graced the Baandh with their presence during these festivals. Udiya Baba would come . Without him, Hari Baba would not conduct any festival. After 1946, Anandamayi Ma also came regularly to the Baandh. Hari Baba became deeply devoted to Ma, who he saw as Jagadamba. Among other great spiritual personages who came to the baandh were Krishnanand Avadhoot, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, Brahmachari Prabhudutt ji. Paramahamsa Baba Avadhavihari sharan, Baba Gauraangdas, Shri Bhole babaji, Swami Shastranandaji, Swami Shukadevananda ji, Maharajshree Swami Akhandananda Saraswati and many others.
Baba laid great emphasis on regular maintenance of the baandh. Villagers would regularly work on applying mud, reinforcing stones etc. He also laid great emphasis on Cleanliness. He involved every single devotee in the task of keeping the whole length of baandh clean. The band of Hari Baba devotees became renowned for ‘cleaning’. Wherever they went, Baba would ask them to pick up brooms and clean the place before participating in any festival!
Sharing a clip form youtube, which shows Hari Baba at the Baandh during the later years. People are seen doing shram-daan (offering of work), working on Baandh maintenance. Anandamayi Ma is also seen, visiting the baandh.
During the baandh festivals, many divine happenings were seen. Episodes of people hearing anklet sounds, sudden fragrances filling the air, devotees seeing their Ishta Daiva etc. Any number of people had their prayers answered by coming here, participating in Baandh cleaning and maintenance, and joining the samkirtan… Baba laid terrific emphasis on sincerity and devotion. At times, when he could not tolerate the vices of some of the people in the area, he just walked away.
Once, in 1937, he simply set off to Rishikesh and walked nonstop and reached there in five days, covering a distance of 150 miles on foot. He ate nothing on the way. From Rishikesh he set off up the mountain… And his devotees finally found him in Uttarkashi, and begged and pleaded with him to come back. He finally relented and agreed to return later, and proceeded with some of them to Gangotri. After sending his devotees back, he stayed in Gangotri for a month. Taking bhiksha once a day, taking bath in ice old Ganga by dipping again and again, wearing no wool, using no angheeti (coal heater) – he stayed there. He had promised to return back to Karnavas to the presence of Udiya Baba by Guru Purnina, which he did. But the Baandh was his home. All in all, Baandh Bhagavan, as it became known, truly was the Divine in the form of a baandh.
The Vrindavan ashram, which is next door to Udiya Baba’s ashram in the Davanala Kund area, was established in 1941. More pictures can be seen HERE. His role in spreading Mahaprabhu lila throughout the Hindi-speaking areas is noted HERE.
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