From a fighter pilot and LU HoD to selfless seeker of spiritual truth 29/11/2020

Swami Krishna Prem.

Desire begets desire. I marvel at what led this young man of 28 to move to the Himalayas, renounce the comfort of the colony and reside in a remote ashram in Almora in the 1930s. This was the time when India was still reeling under British oppression. Ronald Henry Nixon, head of the Department of English and Modern European languages, renounced the world and chose the Indian hills as his home. I salute the spirit that guided him. He chose to give up his life of privilege and became a sanyasi.

Dr Ranu Uniyal

The more I see the unrelenting quest for fame, wealth, position and power within myself and in the people around me, the more I get intrigued by the name of this selfless seeker who established the Mirtola Ashram and dedicated himself to a study of the Upanishads and Indian scriptures. I find myself getting drawn to this frail figure with a steely determination which none could equal. I often love to sit on the other side of my head’s chair and glance at all the names who have graced the chair, the illustrious figures and I stop at the name of R.H. Nixon.

As we celebrate the centenary year of the University of Lucknow, I am reminded of the first Vice Chancellor Prof Gyanedra Nath Chakravarti, who invited Ronald Henry Nixon, a young Cambridge graduate, to head the Department of English at the University of Lucknow. Ronald Nixon had served as a British fighter pilot in the First World War. A miraculous escape in mid-air compelled him to think of the transitory nature of life. He joined Kings College, Cambridge, to pursue English literature. During his stay at Cambridge, he developed an interest in Theosophy, Buddhist studies and Pali. In the mid 1920s, he came to India and took over as the Head of the Department of English, University of Lucknow.

Vice Chancellor, Gyanendra Chakravarti was a close associate of Annie Besant and Madame Blavatsky and had represented India at the Chicago Theosophy meet in USA. R.H. Nixon found a kindred soul in him who could enlighten him on matters close to the spirit. It is interesting to note that Chakravarti’s second wife Monika too was inclined towards matters close to the life of the spirit. Mother of four children, Monika expressed her desire to become a vairagin and was initiated as a nun by none other than her husband Gyanedra Nath Chakravarti into the Vaisnava fold in 1928.

After renouncing the world, Monika became Yashoda Mai and Ronald Nixon followed her to Almora in 1930. A formal guru-shishya bond was established between the two. She lovingly addressed him as Gopal. Ronald Nixon too took the vows of celibacy and chose the life of a monk. As Swami Krishna Prem, he settled in Almora and built a Radha Krishna Temple. Mirtola, an ashram near Almora, became their spiritual abode and together they practised Vaishnavism. As per the rules of monkhood, Ronald went on foot, begging for food for himself and his Guru. After the death of his Guru, Yashoda Ma in 1944, Swami Krishna Prem became the head of the Mirtola Ashram. He is considered to be the first foreigner to be initiated into the orthodox Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya. This religious movement was spearheaded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and has over the years led to the Hare Krishna Movement –International Society for Krishna Consciousness. In 1948, he came in contact with Sri Aurobindo, The Mother (Mira Alfassa) and Sri Ramana Maharishi. In his correspondence with Dilip Kumar Roy, a singer and a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, one gets a glimpse of the innate curiosity about God that led to a life-long friendship between him and Swami Krishna Prem.

During his stay in Almora, Swami Krishna Prem taught himself Hindi, Bengali and Sanskrit. He wrote extensively about the secret within the Upanishads. He was an assiduous scholar and interpreted the ancient scriptures in English. He wrote “The Yoga of the Bhagavat Gita” in 1938. Is it not surprising that while the British colonial powers continued to suppress and control India, Krishna Prem immersed himself in the study of Indian religious texts? He lived a life of contemplation by dedicating himself to his Guru. In his quest for self-realization, he chose the distant Almora as his home and a life of austerity. He gave up his family, home and his country to quench the fire within. As a seeker of truth, he surrendered himself at the feet of his Guru and wrote, “The Guru is the Light and Grace of Krishna (nothing else can be a Guru)”.

Years of selfless service, extreme devotion and passion for the Lord led him to the eternal truth that Bhakti alone can lead man to freedom and enable him to attain Moksha. He practised vairagya and chose the life of a stithpragya. In his life, we see a perfect blend of bhakti and gyana. From Theosophy to Buddhism to Orthodox Hindu traditions, his journey exemplifies an unknown quest, relentless hunger to reach the inner recesses of the soul and, as he lay on his bed waiting to relinquish the body, his final words were “My ship is sailing”.

On November 14, 2020, it was the revered Swami Krishna Prem’s 55th death anniversary. It is ironical to lay claims on one who gave up everything – his life, career and all the trapping of this earth – renounced his name, family and also his country, we are happy and proud that the Department of English was blessed by his presence and it was in Lucknow that he found his spiritual guide and mentor who opened the path of self-realization for him through Bhakti and selfless service to God.

“God-forsaken and man- forsaken I may be, but Guru- forsaken never”. His words continue to inspire me and, in moments of deep personal crisis, his frail figure flashes in my mind’s eye and my hands fold in prayer with deep humility. Here lies abundance and surrender – emptiness becomes fullness and once full there are no battles to fight, no space to conquer. Neither grief nor longing am I. I am only love.

The writer is professor and Head, Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow.

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