logo image Tracing the identity & history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

183 – The man who left home to become a renowned monk

My great grandfather (seated right) with an unidentified radio interviewer. Location Unknown. Circa 1960

Image and Text contributed by Nupur Nanal, Pune

My maternal great grandfather, Mr. Bhaskar Gangadhar Athalye owned a dairy farm in Borivali, Bombay (now Mumbai), and lived in a rented home in Shivaji Park with his wife and eight children. The dairy farm came to an abrupt halt when his entire cattle died due to a disease. (This information is unverified but he supposedly helped draft the plan for the now well known Aarey Milk Co-operative). Around 1940, with communal tensions abound, the family travelled to Baroda, Gujarat to attend a wedding and since Baroda was relatively safe from the communal turmoil and violence, he decided to extend the stay and keep his family there and look for some work. But a job interview in Delhi didn’t go as planned because of a conflict in political beliefs.

It seems that my great grandfather decided to go on travelling and visited various parts of the country. He even wrote letters to the family regularly, for a year. No one really knows what happened after because, in what was to be the ‘last letter’, in 1943, he suddenly announced a shocking decision to the family that he was no longer going to return and that he had decided to follow a spiritual path. Signed as his sanyasi (monk) name, Swami Bhaskarananda Paramhansa, there was no further correspondence with the family. I am told, in 1953, a family friend spotted him at the mass Hindu pilgrimage, Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, UP and called out to him by his family name Raja. He discovered that my great grandfather was by now a monk of great renown. The friend informed his son who then travelled to Allahabad to meet with him but the son returned alone. My mother says she did ask her grandmother (his wife) once, “Aren’t you upset with him?”, she replied, “This is my path, That is his.”

In my quest to research my great grandfather, I discovered several things incredible things about him, that I never known before. He travelled the country promoting a new spiritual movement of inter-religious co-operation known as ‘UNISM’. Unism is a philosophy which emphasizes unity among all things and human beings, a concept found in every religion. However, Unism is patently anti-religious (not anti-religion). A follower of Unism may follow tenets of religions, but the central tenet is that Unists have absolutely no emotional ties, exclusive adherence and preference to any specific religion.

For a while, it seems he even lived in Kashmir and that he wrote a small book that I found in the Jammu Archives & Library, ‘The Kashmir Cauldron’. The book, it turns out is beholden by many as ‘one the most revered works on Kashmir’. It offers a detailed analysis of the political situation in Kashmir at the time and also sheds light on the correspondence and ties my great grandfather shared with various politicians and scholars, including Jawaharlal Nehru. I found a scanned copy for myself from the University of Wisconsin, USA and the book, if I may say so, is quite well written, and unbiased towards any religion and an overall well rounded academic analysis.

How he supported himself monetarily, I am not sure. But he had come to be quite renowned and I assume that people must have helped him with his expenses. For instance, when people from all backgrounds and classes began visiting him, at his lone hilltop shelter in Kalkaji  (in Delhi) and many people including politicians volunteered to add little bits and pieces to the shelter that eventually and somehow became a Lord Shiva temple. The temple still exists and has a shrine in his honour, buried under dust and dry leaves.

For years, my mother would often mention some black & white photographs of her grandfather with monks and nuns from around the world that I hunted for but never found. I assumed that photographs were probably lost. However, I cannot explain the co-incidence of discovering them with an extended family member who found them right after I formally began researching my great grandfather. Several of the photographs are of his travels in South East Asia. But I know for a fact that he travelled to various parts of Europe, USA, and South America too. The Singapore Free Press newspaper of 1961 I have a clipping of, writes of his visit to their country, his faith and beliefs about Unism, and his upcoming plans to meet other spiritual leaders around the world including the Pope. The article also mentions that he founded a ‘World Fraternity of Monks’ and that he presided over a ‘USSR Cultural Festival’ in 1956. My great grandfather’s comment in the article above states, “ If I were to seek a career I would have been a soldier. In the real sense I wear a ‘Khaki uniform, I love discipline and I love service of mankind to the point of laying down life for a cause”. Known as Swami Bhaskarananda Paramhansa, my great grandfather passed away in 1975 due to old age.

This story of my great grandfather sounds all too extraordinary, but I have attempted to verify every aspect of it. For the last two years I have been researching him for a documentary film, and I hope that someone may recognise this radio interviewer at a radio station (it could be anywhere around the world) and if there is anyone who might know more about my great grandfather. I would be happy to learn about it all.

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