In the early 1870s when a sturdy and stubborn teenager from a middle-class Bengali Hindu family joined a wrestling gymnasium in Dacca, little did his family and friends know that this young wrestler will be extolled in the distant future as the pioneer of the cult of physical strength and courage in Bengal. At the age of 23, to prove his masculinity and extraordinary fortitude and physical strength, Shyama Kanta Banerjee chose an unusual vocation - wrestling with wild tigers. For 17 years people across Bengal were captivated by the breathtaking circus shows of Professor Banerjee, the first tiger tamer of India. At a time when revolutionary movement in Bengal was in its nascent stage, through the tiger wrestling acts, Shyama Kanta covertly spread the message of fearlessness. Wrestling with tiger was a celebration of the new physical culture movement that developed in Bengal to encourage young men to prepare themselves for a revolution to break the shackles of servitude. At the peak of his fame, at the age of 41, Shyama Kanta underwent a complete mental transformation, and renounced the material world. He became a monk, and was renamed Soham Swami by his preceptor Nabin Chandra Chakroborty alias Tibbatibaba, an advaitin ascetic. Soham Swami now started the search for the true meaning of life. His quest was finally answered through the realization of the super-consciousness or the Absolute Truth in Samadhi. Now a recluse in the Himalayas, through his literary works the enlightened monk began expounding the truth he had experienced. In the last decade of his life he was involved in taming the tiger that tyrannizes the Hindu society in the form of superstition and religious orthodoxy. With courage and candour, that he was renowned for, Soham Swami challenged the irrational religiosity and the lies that are being promoted for centuries and propounded the bitter truth of life in the light of Advaita Vedanta.
Shyama Kanta Bandopadhyay (Banerjee)/Soham Swami was a maternal uncle of my grandfather, Dr. Shukho Behari Mukherjee. My grandfather was 18, a student of Calcutta Medical College, when Soham Swami passed away. However, the legend of India's first tiger tamer and the fearless Advaita Sannyasi lingered amongst the relatives and acquaintances of Soham Swami for three generations. Unfortunately, memory falters over time with misuse. In the absence of persistent propaganda, the stories of the greatest men and women are lost into oblivion.
Soham Swami dedicated a significant time of his life as a monk in writing. In his literary works I found a trove of information on Hinduism and the philosophy of non-dualism entrenched in rationalism and free from superstition of popular religion. However, he didn't care to write an autobiography. His acquaintances ignored the importance of chronicling his extraordinary life. For a researcher and writer, collecting the bits and pieces of the life of a person and arranging them in order a hundred years after his death seemed a daunting task. Nevertheless, the seemingly difficult task became almost effortless as I started retrieving information from diverse sources. I found few myths and falsehoods that needed to be discarded to unravel the real life of a man to whom nothing was dearer than espousing the truth.
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