Our Vidyapith

Swami Pramathananda
President, Vedanta Society of Toronto

“We want that education by which character is formed, strength of mind is increased, the intellect is expanded, and by which one can stand on one’s own feet.”

The place was the Holy city of Benares, the year 1922. Swami Turiyanandaji was saying these inspiring words to a young monk who was going to Uttarakashi in the Himalayas for ‘tapasya’. After the passing away of Swami Brahmanandaji, the young monk, Swami Sadbhavanananda, a disciple of his, somehow got permission from Swami Sivanandaji, the then-President at Belur Math, to go for tapasya, as he was feeling completely disheartened and distraught at the Maha-Samadhi of his beloved Guru. He came to Benares to seek blessings from Swami Turiyanandaji. Swami Turiyanandaji said, “Learn some lesson from us. We have performed extreme tapasya and have almost ruined our health in the process. Why do you destroy your health? Do Swamiji’s work. Swamiji wanted some educated and sacrificing young men who would start residential schools under the Gurukula system, in order to impart ‘Western science coupled with the moral and ethical values of Vedanta’. So go back to the Math and devote your heart and soul to fulfill the wish of Swamiji. Don’t be ungrateful to him who said, ‘My faith is in the younger generation, the modern generation; out of them will come great workers. They will work out the whole problems like lions. Be lions!’”

Yet the young monk continued to argue with Swami Turiyanandaji for a couple of days to press forth his demand to go to the Himalayas, depending only on God for his needs. But finally, he agreed to come back to Belur Math with some guidelines and on the gentle advice of Swami Turiyanandaji, who told him to speak with Swami Sivanandaji, who would help him find some suitable place in Chhotonagpur, Bihar to start the noble work. Swami Sivanandaji was extremely happy to hear all these thoughts and ideas. He asked some devotees to help this young monk in this project. Swami Nirvedananda, of the Calcutta Students’ Home, came forward to support him with great enthusiasm, and he had also sent along two young monks from his Students’ Home to join him. They came to Mihijam, and started the school with four students in 1922.

This was the beginning of the Deoghar Vidyapith. These three monks were Swamis Sadbhavavnda, Kashiswarananda, and Devatmananda. Sri ‘Ma’, the recorder of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and some other direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna visited this infant school from time to time. They moved to the present place at Deoghar in 1924. In 1926, Swami Sivanandaji paid a visit to the place and, while walking on the grounds, uttered some prophetic words, saying, “There will be very great work in future.” The district of Purulia was merged into West Bengal from Bihar in 1956. Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, the then-Chief Minister of West Bengal, took up many projects to develop this neglected area. He wanted to introduce, among others, one college for boys, one for girls, one Sainik school, one B.Ed college, one Junior basic training college, one English-medium residential school, and one girls’ school. He requested the authorities of Belur Math to take up as many as they would like. But Belur Math finally agreed to start only one English-medium residential school.

Swami Hiranmayanandaji was the Secretary of Deoghar Vidyapith. He was requested by Belur Math to take up the responsibility of the school, over and above his own. Dr. Bidhan Roy entrusted Dr. D. M. Sen, the then-Education Secretary, to execute his ‘Master Plan’ in the district of Purulia. This present site was selected after trying hard in many places. During the Second World War, the British Government established one military base here. They constructed many deep wells and barracks for the army, and a small airport also. At the end of the war, this place was abandoned and remained like a ghost land, full of scorpions and cobras. The object of selecting this place was mainly because of the water reservoir and the shade of Mango and Arjun trees, as Purulia is a drought-affected area.

Swami Hiranmayanandaji chose me from Deoghar as his assistant, since I had been present from the very inception when the place was selected. Swami Nirvananandaji laid the foundation stone in the presence of Dr. D. M. Sen and many other Government officials. A great number of people from Purulia town and the surrounding villages participated in the celebrations with great curiosity. Swami Hiranmayanandaji was a great scholar and was well read in Sanskrit, Bengali, and English literature. He had a great depth of knowledge on Swami Vivekananda’s thoughts and ideas on Education, and he wanted to implement those ideas at this Vidyapith. Above all, he was a visionary. The school became a branch of Deoghar Vidyapith, with the higher section of Classes IX, X, and XI. So, he had to manage both of the centers. Every weekend he would go to Deoghar by car, a distance of 160 miles. Later on, Purulia became a full-fledged branch center of Belur Math.

Many interesting things happened in the initial stage. The first batch of students of Class VIII, with some teachers, came by bus in the summer of 1957. The election of the Boys’ Assembly was held in the bus itself, as was the distribution of different Portfolios. They took up the responsibility of managing their individual duties; namely, shrine, social service, kitchen duty, gardening, games and sports, and also other forms of recreation. There was no electricity, no running water, no proper hostel buildings or kitchen. One day during the evening meal, heavy rains started, and water came pouring from the ‘tiled roof’. The sevaka (Minister) of the social service department had to bring some umbrellas to protect them.

While moving around, they had to be very careful in order to avoid scorpion and snake bites. One teacher somehow escaped from the bite of a black cobra! Once a student had to be taken to the hospital, having been bitten by a snake – and fortunately it was not a cobra! But the students and teachers raised equal to the occasion and did not lose their enthusiasm or spirit. They considered themselves very proud to be the Pioneers of this new Vidyapith. They celebrated ‘Rabindra Jayanti’ on the 25th of Baisakh. Many people from Purulia town attended the celebration and were amazed to see the high standards of the program. One day, a report came that there was a terrible fire in the village of Surulia, very close to the Vidypith. A couple of big thatched houses were burnt and columns of heavy smoke and rising flames were visible. Immediately, a group of students and 50/60 labors, who were engaged in the construction work, rushed to the village under the guidance of some teachers. There was an extreme shortage of water. Fortunately, the Station Master of Purulia was kind enough to send an engine with a full tank of water. Our fire fighters finally brought the huge and devastating fire under control after struggling with the blaze till midnight. A similar fire was also extinguished in Bongabari village after a couple of days. The people of the Purulia town and surrounding areas were amazed to hear all this news and began to change their attitude towards the Vidyapith. They gradually became quite friendly and supportive to the cause.

Under the ‘Multipurpose Scheme’, we took up five streams of study (1) Sciences, (2) Technology, (3) Humanities, (4) Agriculture, and (5) Fine Arts. Brahmachari Satkari Maharaj was the first Headmaster. After he left the Order, I had to take over charge of the school as the Headmaster. Swami Hiranmayanandaji gave me full freedom to raise the academic standard, and to establish strict disciple and moral and ethical values through a subject, ‘Indian Culture’, as well as mass contact, village uplift work, etc. Sri Sunil Pal, a renowned sculptor of Calcutta, came forward with his students at the request of Swami Hiranmayanandaji. We will never forget his untiring effort, hard labor, and determination to give shape to the ideas and ideals, in all the buildings and temples and to sculpture them according to the dreams of Swamiji and other great architects and sculptors. Both Hiranmayanandaji and Sunil Pal used to sit and discuss this subject for hours together. At the same time, they had to keep an eye on the budget.

Dr. B. C. Roy came to inaugurate the school building, known as ‘Sarada Mandir’, in 1960. He gave a short but very inspiring talk at the ‘Amra Kunja’. He said, pointing out the Swamis sitting in front, “You see, these monks are working out big plans in the whole country like ‘Bhagirath’ of the Purana, who brought the river ‘Ganga’, known as ‘Bhagirathi’! They have been fulfilling the high ideals of Swami Vivekananda’s practical Vedanta, with the combination of jnana, karma, bhakti, and yoga!” Approaching the school building, he was amazed to see the beautiful plaque of Devi Saraswati, nine feet in height. He expressed his great appreciation when the symbolism behind it was explained. Saraswati, the goddess of learning, is descending down to touch the hearts of the students. There is a little gap between her feet and the lotus, symbolic of their hearts. They need love, devotion, and shraddha. Just at the entrance, one boy is holding a lotus, symbolic of love and devotion, and the other boy, a lamp, symbolic of shraddha and wisdom, in his hand. Over it there is a small plaque of goddess Lakshmi, who is welcoming Saraswati with many lamps in her hand. The idea behind this is that we need the combination of both secular and spiritual knowledge, that is, we must achieve all-round development in life. Swamiji’s definition of education is also inscribed there: “Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man.”

The Chief Minister wanted to know the name of the sculptor. Sri Sunil Pal, the sculptor, was present. Dr. Roy gave him profuse thanks and expressed his great appreciation to him when introduced. One of Sri Pal’s ex-students, Mr. Prabal Bose, is now in Boston and has acquired a very great reputation for his works in the West. He keeps in close touch with this Center. He has expressed a great desire to make a life-size statue of Swamiji, in his `seated ‘posture, for our Toronto Center. By way of reminiscences, he said, “We all were amazed to see Sri Pal’s undaunted energy, physical stamina, and high imagination. After working the whole day, he would ask us to show some sketch or drawing and discuss the next day’s work up to twelve midnight or even later. But I have never seen him gloomy or long faced; he was always smiling and cheerful. Sri Pal also loved ‘pan’ betel leaves very much. This pan was famous in Purulia. He also liked to have a cup of tea between breaks. Gopal and Aghore were deputed to supply these things to him in due time. I have seen how he was deeply absorbed in this work. It was his sadhana or meditation.”

To maintain order and harmony, different uniforms were introduced: Dhoti and Punjabi for the prayer in the temple, white pants and light blue shirt in the school, and other uniforms for drills, games, and sports. Sri Ramananda Banerjee, an art teacher, was appointed; as were Sri Sabyasachi Gupta and Tulasidas Bhattacharya in the music department. A beautiful gymnasium with various equipments was eventually built and an efficient games teacher arrived from Deoghar Vidyapith. Carpentry and ceramics sections were also added. A medical doctor also joined the staff, and, later on, a hospital with sixteen beds was constructed.

Swami Vivekananda, in his famous address, “My Plan of Campaign,” delivered in Madras, said, “I believe in patriotism and I also have my own ideal of patriotism. Three things are necessary for great achievements. First, feel from the heart. Feel, therefore, my would-be patriots! Do you feel that millions are starving today, and millions have been starving for ages? Do you feel that ignorance has come over the land as a dark cloud? Does it make you restless? Does it make you sleepless? . . . Has it made you almost mad? This is the first step to become a patriot, the very first step.” The second thing was to find some ‘practical solution’ to these problems. And, third, to execute this solution with tremendous will and determination in facing these ‘mountain-high’ obstacles! This was the first motivating force which inspired us to do some work for the suffering humanity in neighboring villages. Night schools, re-excavation of dried tanks, construction of shallow wells in the lower level of the paddy fields, teaching the modern method of cultivation, starting ‘small savings schemes’ through a local bank, and imparting moral and ethical values through an audio-visual unit with a 16 mm projector, were among the projects undertaken. This scheme brought tremendous joy and inspiration to the teachers and students. They were taken in batches, under the guidance of teachers, to different villages. This work helped them as ‘co-curricular’ activities. Lanterns, kerosene oil, books, slates, pencils, and maps were distributed to them in their service work. It is so elevating to hear words such as from Raju Mahato, of Bongabari village, who said, “I have learnt how to write my signature instead of just leaving my thumb impression when I get a ‘money order’ from my son working in Dhanbad. And this I’ve learnt within 15 days!”

Other positive changes came about. We learnt from Police officials that they no longer needed to send the Police-vans to watch `such-and-such’ villages at night. The inhabitants were previously all ‘wagon breakers’, but now they have settled into cultivation and other legitimate sources of income production, getting small loans from the Bank through our encouragement! They have learnt from the Vidyapith a new slogan, “Alosya chharo, Meharat karo” – “Shun inertia and work hard.” We heard from the village people that it was a great relief to them, and as if a ‘green revolution’ had begun! Gradually A liberal outlook developed, and, in due course, all classes of people, including cobblers, sweepers, and also Muslims, along with the high castes and Government officials like D.C., S.P., etc., were given permission by the orthodox Brahmins to offer flowers (‘Pushpanjali’) during Durga Puja! Inter-village swimming competitions, as well as inter-village `money earning’ competitions between individual cultivators through their yield in paddy, wheat, and other vegetables production, had a tremendous impact upon the village people.

In regard to games and sports, our boys achieved a very high standard. We had competitive sports in football, hockey, and cricket with the local Sainik School and occasionally with the Santiniketan schools. Renowned artists like Kanika Bandhopadhyay, Nilima Sen, Sailaja Mazumdar and others visited our Center on different occasions. Swami Shraddhanandaji of the Vedanta Society of Sacramento, California, U.S.A., was kind enough to send a 13-inch-diameter ‘telescope’, which has since been installed on the roof of Sivananda Sadan. This has become a great attraction to the public. In order to develop kindness and love for animals, a small deer park with twenty deer, two peacocks, guinea pigs, varieties of birds, and swans were brought in. In their leisure hours, the boys used to watch them, to their great joy. On the Academic side, our students secured very high ranks in the West Bengal Board of Secondary Examination, for which more than two hundred thousand students appeared every year. Later on, they secured the ‘First Position’ for three consecutive years, which is a record! We now annually expect to secure at least some positions within the first twenty.

In 1961, a weeklong Seminar was held at the Vidyapith, and thirty-six Headmasters and Headmistresses participated. Dr. D. M. Sen inaugurated the event, and Dr. D. N. Roy, Principal of David Hare Training College, was the Director. On the last day, the participants paid a visit to the school. The Annual Examinations were going on. To their surprise, they noticed that there were no invigilators in the examination halls/rooms. After visiting the whole building, they came to my room and asked me how it was possible! I told them that the undoubted honesty of the students had made it possible. This was possible only after a hard struggle for the last three years, with the help of the teachers and other staff! In the evening after prayer, in the prayer hall, Dr. D. N. Roy, the Director of the Seminar, said, “My dear boys, we have been watching you in the playground, dining hall, in the art gallery, and everywhere, and noticed your wonderful sense of discipline, good and courteous manners--with spontaneity and not under pressure or suppression. But today we have seen your examination halls/rooms and there were no invigilators! It was almost unbelievable nowadays! We are carrying with us a great hope that you students of this Vidyapith will be able to establish discipline, patriotism, honesty, and sincerity, in every sphere of life in West Bengal! May God bless you!”

At the direction of Headquarters, I left Purulia for Belur Math in 1962, and remained there until 1965. After that, I came again to Purulia in 1969, as the Secretary, and continued up to 1975. I was extremely happy to see Swami Putanandaji as the Chief Warden, and Swami Ramanandaji as the Headmaster. I was also very happy to see the tremendous progress made inside and outside of the Vidyapith. But the journey to reach our goal was not always smooth. We were able to overcome many crises with the sincere cooperation received from our Managing Committee, teachers, and also from the students. One such crisis was a ‘Commission’ set up by the West Bengal Government to make an inquiry against the Administration, which was held responsible for the accidental drowning of five boys at the ‘Panchet Dam’. But the S.P.s of both Purulia and Dhanbad visited the spot of the drowning and reported that it was an ‘accidental drowning’. Finally, after almost one year of struggle, the Government had to withdraw the case and settled the matter. Another crisis came during the ‘Naxul Movement’. This was also settled, though we had to pay a very high price! Under the leadership of Swami Umanandaji, the present Secretary, the Vidyapith had to face many such very grave problems! The Class IV staff, being misguided and pressurized by a local political party, declared a ‘strike’ and stopped work. The Administration had no other alternative but to declare closure of the institution in the midst of the school session. But the teachers, students, and some guardians came forward and rendered all sorts of service, including menial work. In spite of pressure and threats, the institution’s work went on smoothly and, finally, a settlement came, in favor of the Administration.

Nowadays, I continue to receive nice letters from those who studied at Deoghar and Purulia during my time: Dr. Indrajit Ganguli from Germany; Shelly from Calcutta; Kali Krishna Chakravarty from Asansol; Sougata Datta from London, Ontario; Sanjib Akuli from California; Dr. Dhruba Marjit, Amitabha Chattopadhyay (an orthopaedic surgeon), and Mohan Ghosh from Calcutta; Nabakrishna Krishna Das from Louisiana, U.S.A.; and also the present Headmaster of the Vidyapith. I have also received letters from many surrounding villages. I cannot but mention one such very touching letter! The gentleman wrote, “O Swami Bap, when will you come back? Have you forgotten us? While writing this, my tears are rolling down,” etc. And I could see some portions of the writing were actually tear-stained! It gave me an unusual kind of joy to see the same graceful atmosphere at the Vidyapith, and surrounding villages too, when I paid a visit in 1994, after twenty-two years! I could feel the same respectful attitude of the students, and the cordial and loving relationship between the members of the teaching staff. Swami Umanandaji has accomplished wonderful progress within the campus itself, and also in various villages through ‘Kalyan Organization’. He arranged many meetings in interior villages during my visit. I was overwhelmed to see the receptions given to me! Some started crying while giving their reminiscences. At the end, they shouted the old slogan in their thundering voices, “Alosya chharo, meharat karo!”

Swami Hiranmayanandaji was the real architect of this wonderful institution. Let us all pay our homage to the memory of his undying soul! Today, any passersby, while walking, cycling, driving in front of the Vidyapith, can see the beautiful marble image of Sri Ramakrishna inside the temple. Our architect, Sri Sunil Pal, has erected a huge cement concrete replica of the ‘Panchvati’ of Dakshineshwar at the top of this temple. Here, one can hear the eternal call of Sri Ramakrishna, “O my children, come! Where are you?”

And, at the gate, one can read the inscription of the inspiring words of Swami Vivekananda: “Arise, awake, and stop not ‘till the Goal is reached!”

The article "Our Vidyapith" is adapted from the souvenir of the 10th Annual Reunion of the Alumni Association of the Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapith, Purulia which took place on the 8th and 9th of December, 2001.
Click here to know more about the author, Swami Pramathananda (Dhiren Maharaj)

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