From a terrorist revolutionary sentenced to a long prison term to a spiritual ascetic and teacher would seem to many to be a far cry indeed. Yet this is exactly what happened in the case of Sri Sadguru Omkar who is today a revered octogenarian Saint who has his Ashram opposite the Nandi Hills in Kolar district’ wrote Sri Dharma Vira, Governor of Karnataka in 1970.
Nilkantha Brahmachari - Sadguru Omkar’s former name - was born on 4th December 1889 in Tanjore in an orthodox brahmin family. From a very young age in his high school, he was involved in national revolutionary activities. Their group in South India was closely connected with the Jugantar group of Bengal. Because of his activities, he had to take asylum in the French territory of Pondicherry. He was one of the group along with the poet Subrahmanya Bharati, who received Aurobindo Ghosh at Pondicherry on 4th April 1910. He was closely connected with the Mopla agrarian revolution in Kerala.
His group published the Communist Manifesto in South even before the Communist Revolution in Russia. He was the first accused in the Ash murder case and was arrested in Kolkata by Teggart. He was in prison for more than eleven years.
In jail, the transformation from a revolutionary to a spiritual Sadhaka took place as vividly described in his notes which he later collected as ‘Confessions on the way towards Peace’ now being published. After coming out of the jail, he took the “Confessions” to Sri Aurobindo, who wrote a small foreword, the next day.
After going through a spiritual itinerary, Sadguru Omkar settled down at the lower Nandi Hills in 1930 and built up a small ashram around a dilapidated Shiva Temple - which he called Omkareswara - by a rivulet, the source of the river Pennar or Penganga. Slowly his name spread and visitors from all over India and abroad began to pour in.
His talks with the visitors, friends and disciples were published in two small volumes ‘Upadesh’ and ‘Selected Talks.’ These are also included in the present volume to give a proper perspective of the thoughts of Swamiji.
About his ashram at Nandi Hills Swamiji said, ‘My Ashram is a beautiful place with all the inconveniences necessary for spiritual life, but disappointing to a lover of ease and comfort.’
Sadguru Omkar passed away on 4th March 1978 in his Ashram at the Nandi Hills at the ripe old age of 89.
From a Terrorist Revolutionary sentenced to a long prison term to a spiritual ascetic and teacher would seem to many to be a far cry indeed. Yet this is exactly what happened in the case of Sri Sadguru Omkar who is today a revered octogenerian Saint who has his Ashram opposite the Nandi Hills in Kolar District.” Thus writes Sri Dharma Vira Governor of Mysore in 1970 in a foreword to the 2nd book of upadesh “Selected Talks” by Sadguru Omkar.
We first came to know about Sadguru Omkar from his articles on ‘Dharma” in “Organiser” - a fortnightly paper - during the year 1954. The articles attracted our notice especially because of the affinity and unity of his ideas about Dharma with those of ours. His approach to Dharma was broad and universal, not narrow and sectarian. Getting his address from the editor of “Organiser”, our brother Sharad Dharmapal, who used to go to Bangalore for his business tour, visited him at his Nandi Hills ashram in March or April 1955. Sharad brought with him his first book “Upadesh” published in 1946.
After the passing away of our elder brother Bandhu Dharmapal in August 1955, we invited Sadguru Omkar to visit our place, when he comes to North India in winter to visit his friends and shishyas. He had already planned the visit in January 1956 but had to cancel it because of Language Riots. At last his first visit took place on the 25th January 1957. Thereafter he came to Calcutta almost every year till 1965 and stayed with us for a month or so. From 1965 he discontinued his visits to Calcutta and North India because of old age.
The readers will know about his philosophy, about (his) Atma Vidya and Brahma Vidya from the “Upadesh” - notes of talks he used to have with his friends, Shishyas and visitors to his ashram. Here I will only give some details about whatever little 1 came to know about his life from his personal talks.
Nilkantha Brahmachari (Sadguru Omkar’s family name) was born on the 4th December 1889 in Tanjore, South India, in an orthodox Brahmin family. From a very young age, during his high school period, he was involved in the revolutionary activities and could not continue his studies after Matriculation. He came in personal contact with the editor of a revolutionary journal, left his home and mostly stayed at the journal’s office or at the editor’s house. He was deeply involved in the terrorist revolutionary activities, then going on in South India. Once he told me, “we were the first Communists long before the Communist revolution took place in Russia to publish the Communist Manifesto of 1848 in India in English and Tamil. They were the first people to organise the Agrarian Revolution in Kerala amongst the Mopla Muslim farmers - which was immediately turned into Hindu-Muslim riots the infamous Mopla Riots by the wily British.”
Their revolutionary group had contacts with the Yugantar group of Sri Aurobindo in Calcutta. In fact he (Nilkantha Brahmachari) was arrested from Calcutta in 1911 by the notorious Police Chief Charles Teggart himself - he being the first accused in the famous Ash Murder Case (1912). Once he took me to the South Indian Hotel (the Indira Hotel) in Zakaria Street from where he was arrested. He was sentenced to seven years rigorous imprisonment. He broke the jail and escaped on the 17th September 1914- but was rearrested only after a few days and was sentenced for extra six months. He was released from jail in August 1919. He was again arrested in August 1922 and sentenced for ten years of rigorous imprisonment again for his revolutionary activities.
During his jail life he was so much depressed and frustrated sometimes that once he decided to commit suicide. One night most probably during Deepawali festivals - he had made all preparations for the suicide, when suddenly uncalled for came the kind jailor with sweets in his hand, which changed his mood!
During his revolutionary period Nilkantha Brahmachari took shelter in Pondicherry with other revolutionary leaders. He told me that he was present at the dock when Sri Aurobindo landed at Pondicherry on the 4th April 1910, along with Subrahmanya Bharati-the noted revolutionary poet of South India, Shankar Chetty and others. He was also present when Sri Aurobindo uttered the famous lines, “We belong not to the past dawns but to the future noons.”
During his jail life Nilkantha had written his diary- which he later called “Confessions”. When he was released from jail, he took the manuscript to Sri Aurobindo who came down to meet him, kept the manuscript for a couple of days, and even wrote a few lines as foreword. But later after his transformation Swamiji decided not to publish it, it being full of negative and pessimistic ideas. But even in the confessions there were the intimations of the future flowering of the spiritual life. Sri Aurobindo had noticed it and said so in his short foreword. When I visited his ashram for the second and last time in February 1977, he gave me a copy of the typed manuscript of the “Confessions” with instruction not to publish it before his passing away.
Unfortunately it still remains unpublished because of various impediments.
Swamiji humorously described how he was protrayed in the Government notice for the fugitives!
“Nilkantha Brahmachari, the First Accused in the Ash Murder Case is a most dangerous person, strongly built, short statured, with dark complexion, wearing black goggles, a chain smoker keeping a cigar all the time in his mouth.”
Nilkantha Brahmachari was released from the jail last time in June 1930, after which he totally left politics and wandered here and there for sometime. During this wandering period for a short time he officiated as personal priest and purohita of the queen of a small state-called Narasinhapuram-near Hoshangabad. But he was tired of the easy life of a priest and one night left the state without informing anybody. At last he established his small ashram at the Nandi Hills.
About his ashram at Nandi Hills, Swamiji said, “My ashram is a beautiful place with all the inconveniences necessary for spiritual life, but disappointing to a lover of ease and comfort.” How true it was, I found when we first visited his ashram in November 1972.
When Swamiji first came to Nandi Hills, he used to perform yagnas twice a year-once on Shiva Ratri day and the other’ on Durga Ashtami day. He used to distribute Vibhuti after Shiva Ratri yagna and Kumkum after Durga Ashtami Yagna. This Vibhuti and Kumkum did wonders- healing the sick etc., and slowly people used to throng at the ashram during these days. They came on foot and in carts from distant villages with their sick and disabled patients. Swamiji was embarassed by the crowd and thought, “is this the work for which I have come here, or for Sadhana of Atmavidya and Brahmavidya?” So he went up in the dense forest where people would not come and harass him. He stayed in the jungle for a couple of years and then came down to the present place of the ashram.
The ashram is situated at a height of about 3000 ft at the lower Nandi Hills called Enannagurator Channa Raya Betta. There was a small dilapidated Shiva Temple, which he got repaired and called it Omkareswar. It is by the side of the source of a small rivulet trickling down from the upper heights of the jungle. Swamiji arranged to build a small pond where the trickling water gathered and then flowed downwards. In the end it turns into a big river Penganga or Pennar or Dakshina-pinakini which meets the sea on the eastern side of the peninsula near Nellore above Chennai.
On the slope of the mountain Swamiji had constructed a small garden amongst the tall Sandal wood trees, placed a few stone benches here and there. He kept no furniture in the ashram. He himself slept on the Verandah of the Temple. Like Gandhiji in Wardha ashram, he took no electric connection in the Ashram. He kept a few hurricane lanterns and a big torch for the night watchman. There were no permanent disciples staying at the ashram. A few used to come to stay for a day or two. They too were accommodated in the same circular verandah of the Temple. For many years Swamiji himself cooked and served the guests but in his old age women from near-by village used to come to cook, whenever there were guests. Swamiji himself took only bananas and papad both the time and coffee three-four times in a day. Once in a week he used to have Khichdi with vegetables boiled together. So simple was his life. When he visited our place, he followed the same menu. His only luxury was to use a few pieces of sandal wood while cooking-which was available in plenty in the area-which spread its fragrance all over the ashram round the day.
In spite of the absence of amenities of city life, the ashram had its own very natural attraction so much so that even our son Ananda who was only four years old then was so much enamoured by the atmosphere that he cried out “Ma! I will stay here! I don’t want to go anywhere else!” He did not utter such words when we visited Sri Aurobindo Ashram a little earlier the same time! You feel that you have come to the ashram of some Rishi of the older days!
Sadguru Omkar’s philosophy, if any, was the philosophy of Self-Assertion, of Self-Affirmation! In one of the talks he boldly declares, “I have reached the Absolute: I have tasted the Absolute and have established myself in the Absolute. The Absolute alone can give the true sense of security and peace. So long as you don’t reach the Absolute, there is no Hope for you ...I have reached the absolute long ago. I live in the Absolute though in my relative individual being! I see the Absolute in every relative being and event.”
That does not mean that he had no problems or wants. Once he said, “Yes I have needs but no desires.” His personal needs were very few. But from where he stayed, he tried to help the surrounding poor villagers with whatever little he can do. He used to distribute especially books, slates, pencils etc., to the young boys and girls and also distributed ready made clothes to children, saris to women and dhoties to men during Shivaratri and Durga Puja days. Whenever he visited his shishyas and friends, he gathered from them in cash or kind all these for his small humanitarian personal activity. But when he grew older, nearing eighty, his tours outside were stopped and disciples usually did not remit sufficient funds. It seems even saints have their material fates! Sadguru Omkar writes in his last letter to me dated 28/12/1977 “My dear Gautam! The year is ending. I find myself with a lot of outstandings! I need now at least three hundred Rupees. What should I do? Please help me in anyway you can. Kindly convey my blesings to your family. Health is causing concern. I am 89 ... Blessings-Omkar.” Needless to say, I arranged to send the required amount and a little more through my friend, Raghubir Goel.
In another pasage Swamiji says, “I have not built up a big ashram, nor a big following, nor big reputation, nor a big bank account. But I have built up a beautiful philosophy of the Atman from out of the Upanishads and sized up and streamlined by personal experience to suit the needs of modern man and acceptable even to communists. The communist while denying God does not deny the hidden potentials and the need to probe, discover and develop them further. That is the Atman!”
Though in personal appearance he looked very orthodox, he was the most unorthodox and progressive saint I have ever seen in my life. I can only compare him with Sri Raman Maharshi.
Once he said, “the Vedic Age is gone. It won’t come back again. Don’t long for it and don’t work for it. It came, grew great and nourished, weakened and disappeared from the scene of life leaving as heir and substitute the post-Vedic age. The Brahmana Age, The Upanishadic Age, the Age of the Darshanas and Buddhism and the Age of the Puranas, all have come and gone. They won’t come back again. No past age will come again. But every past age left its fragrance behind, though it took its form away. A New Age is coming with the combined fragrance of the past evolving into a New Fragrance for it. If you are not going to work for it, be ready for it. The dead load of the past is always thrown away. But the living fragrance of the past can never be got rid of. Why worry?”
I cannot refrain from narrating here one incident at Keyatala Road. I was reading most probably the Taittiriya Upanishad with Shankar’s Commentary. He practically snatched away the book from my hands and said, “Don’t read the Upanishads with anybody’s commentary, even if it is of Sri Shankar or Sri Aurobindo! If you do not know Sanskrit, first try to know the superficial meaning of the words. When you have known the meaning of the words, simply sit quietly in solitude and read loudly, chant, if possible, with proper intonation the Mantras.” Then he loudly chanted some of the prapathakas of the first Adhyaya in his loud sonorous voice. The passages came down directly from his memory. He said, “If you chant the Upanishads like this, the true meaning of the words will directly flash before your mind’s eyes and you will truly understand the Upanishads and in the end it will affect your whole personality and you will truly become the Aupanishadic Purusha Yourself.”
My last visit to the ashram took place on the 4th February 1977 with Sharad, who was then staying at Bangalore. Swamiji was then getting ready for the coming Shiva Ratri Yajna, Because of the exertion at this old age of 89 he had a mild heart attack, his left side was paralysed and he did not live till the next Shivaratri.
This Saint Extraordinary passed away on the 4th March 1978 in his ashram at Nandi at the ripe old age of 89.
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