Vrindavan, 2016.07.29 (VT): Yesterday, devotees gathered at the Sudama Kutir in Vamshi Vat to honor the memory of Sudama Das Baba. It has been eleven years since Sudama Dasji entered the eternal Vrindavan, but his impact on the sadhu community is still being felt.
Bhagavan Das and Sutikshna Das, his disciples and grand-disciple who succeeded him as Mahants of the ashram, lit the lamp and garlanded the murti of their guru that graces his samadhi shrine. This was followed by speaker after speaker who remembered his commitment to service, to the sadhus, to Mother Cow and to humanity at large.
Sudama Das, it was said, embodied the mantra from the Ramananandi tradition that all repeat constantly:
bhakta bhakti bhagavanta guru catura nāma vapu eka
inake pada vandana kiye nāsaiṁ vighna aneka
These four – devotion, the devotee, the Supreme Lord, and the Guru – are one in name and form. By worshiping them, all impediments will be destroyed.
Since he founded the Sudama Kutir nearly 90 years ago, it has become one of the most important ashrams in Vrindavan, and certainly the most prominent center for the Ramanandi sampradaya in the holy city.
Sudama Dasji was born to a Brahmin family in 1899 in a village in Bihar called Chipaya Farm in the Gopal Ganj district on the border with Uttar Pradesh. He was given his yajnopavita at the age of five years. Though a bright child, he only went to school up to the fifth class. After that he began spending a lot of his time at the Sita Ram temple in Matihani, where he showed his interest in reciting the Hanuman Chalisa and Ramacharita Manas. Being talented at playing the cymbals (manjira) he was always an enthusiastic participant in satsangs.
At the age of 14 he was given initiation in the Rama mantra by Ramsevak Das, the temple mahant, and continued on in this way without much interest in a worldly life until finally after seven or eight years he decided to become a vairagi.
He began traveling. His first destination was Janakpur in Nepal, which is the birthplace of Sita Devi. He spent six months there, doing a “chaurasi kos parikrama” of Janakpur Dham, getting the grace of the universal mother, Sita Devi, and then went on to Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Rama.
In Ayodhya he stayed at the Mani Ram Dasji ki Chawni, which is the largest and richest temple complex in Ram’s city, also known as Valmiki Ramayana Bhavan and later in various other places in Ram Dham. Here he established the habit of chanting a lakh of Sita Ram’s names every day, as well as studying the Ramayana. This is also where he became a dedicated servant to the sadhus, which is a strong tradition in the Ramananda sampradaya everywhere.
One day, however, he saw a performance of Radha Krishna lila by the troupe of Swami Damodar in Mani Ram Dasji ki Chawni and was completely mesmerized by it. His heart started to be attracted to Ras Bihari Krishna, whom he saw as non-different from Ram, and so a short time later, in 1926, he came to Vrindavan to stay permanently.
He stayed at various places in Vrindavan town, particularly in Gyan Gudri at the Ram mandir. He came into contact with Jagannath Prasad Bhaktamali and took to the study of Bhaktamal. After a few years of enjoying the Vrindavan life, he was invited to stay with Ram Kumar Dasji Maharaj, who had a grass hut at the current site of Sudama Kutir.
Being on the Parikrama Marg near the Yamuna, the site was frequented by many passing sadhus and sants. Maharaj would take daily bath in the Yamuna and after doing his morning bhajan would then go to beg madhukari from villages on the other side of the river. He would bring back enough to feed all the pilgrim sadhus. It is said that he also would gather wood and cowdung for fuel to cook. He then did the cooking himself and served selflessly.
In the short biography of his guru, Jagannath Das Shastri writes, “Whether begging or cooking or serving prasad, Sudama Dasji Maharaj never stopped chanting the names of the Lord. As a result it went beyond all aspects of sound and became inherent in him, automatic and continuous ajapa.”
Ram Kumar Dasji not long afterward turned the ashram over to Sudama Dasji. The seva kept growing as the ashram’s reputation spread and as Sudama started to gather followers who admired his spirit of service. Operating on the principle that Shyamasundar will provide, just as he promises in the Gita – yoga-kshemam vahamy aham – he never worried for the means to continue the seva.
There is one story that on a feast day, a repast of puris, bundi and sak had been prepared for the sadhus and around 125 of them had taken prasad. Sudama Dasji and the rest of the sewaks were about to sit down and eat when a large group of fifty sadhus suddenly appeared. The devotees panicked as the prasad was almost finished and there was not even enough in the pantry to make more for this group. The merchant who was sponsoring the feast also panicked. He did not want to commit an offense to the sadhus who had just arrived. It was a Durvasa and Draupadi’s akshay patra situation. Sudama Dasji told them not to worry, to just keep serving and he himself filled the buckets supplying them with prasad to distribute. There was enough so that all the latecomers were fully satisfied with their meal.
When the other sewaks expressed amazement, Sudama Dasji answered, “I was just filling the buckets without thinking of anything and there always seemed to be enough to fill them.”
On another occasion it is said that he did puja and prayed to the Yamuna when the rising waters threatened to destroy the buildings in the ashram grounds. In one hour the river had receded a dozen meters, and in the morning it was several hundred meters away.
One time he went to Banke Bihariji for darshan, but the curtains closed for the deity’s nighttime rest. Maharajji sat in the temple for a few minutes and then, disappointed, paid his dandavats and returned to the ashram. The next morning when he sat down to meditate on the Name, he heard a sweet voice saying, “Baba! Baba! I came. Yesterday you missed me when the doors closed, so open your eyes now and look.”
Baba opened his eyes and saw the sweet three-fold bending form of Bihariji holding his flute and a cowherd’s stick in his hands, a peacock feather crowning his head. Sudama Dasji felt his heart burst with love, his life’s purpose had been fulfilled, the unattainable had been attained. His bhajan and sadhan had born fruit, his residence in Vrindavan and his service to the Vaishnavas had resulted in this greatest benediction. There was nothing left to attain!
And just as suddenly, Bihariji disappeared, leaving only the impression of his smile.
And there are also many stories about his relation to his deities. Once in the cold season, he woke up in the middle of the night shivering and could not understand it as he was well covered with a heavy quilt. He dozed off somehow and dreamt that the deity Kaushal Kishoreji was feeling cold. He got up and went to the temple room and found that the pujari had forgotten to cover the deity properly and his quilt had fallen to the ground. Sudama Dasji picked it up and covered the Lord and went back to bed.
Sudama Dasji’s reputation grew and so did the ashram. He is credited with establishing the tradition of celebrating Ramananda Jayanti with a big parade through Vrindavan, joined by sants from the numerous other Ramanandi ashrams in the town, like Gore Dauji. There is usually a great show of martial arts with sword play and so on. And unfortunately I don’t have a picture to show you of that.
But they also celebrate the birthdays of Agradas (the founder of his lineage), the appearance of the Bhaktamal, Hanuman Jayanti and the appearance of Tulsi Das, the author of Ramcharita Manasa.
The current temple with new, larger deities of Sita Ram was inaugurated in 1972. As Sudama Dasji grew older, he relegated the service duties to his disciples and went across the Yamuna to a quieter place to do bhajan. In a short time, crowds began to follow him there also and a temple with residences for 50 sadhus, with a goshala and so on was built there. Sudama Dasji tried to get away again and went to Prem Sarovar and did bhajan there, but the same thing happened. He also left Vrindavan once to go to Rishikesh and spent a few months doing bhajan on the banks of the Ganges. There too, an ashram was given to him near Laxman Jhula. In each of these places, service to the sadhus, the cows and the local people was established, along with the religious activities of kirtan and reading from the books that are most holy to the Ramanandi Vaishnavas.
Baba lived a very long life and was deeply loved and respected by devotees from all over northern India. In 2006, on Shravan Krishna Dwadasi, he entered the nitya dham at the age of 106.