Chapter 6: The Tiger Swami
“I have discovered the Tiger Swami’s address. Let us visit him tomorrow.”
This welcome suggestion came from Chandi, one of my high school friends. I was eager to meet the saint who, in his pre-monastic life, had caught and fought tigers with his naked hands. A boyish enthusiasm over such remarkable feats was strong within me.
The next day dawned wintry cold, but Chandi and I sallied forth gaily. After much vain hunting in Bhowanipur, outside Calcutta, we arrived at the right house. The door held two iron rings, which I sounded piercingly. Notwithstanding the clamor, a servant approached with leisurely gait. His ironical smile implied that visitors, despite their noise, were powerless to disturb the calmness of a saint’s home.
Feeling the silent rebuke, my companion and I were thankful to be invited into the parlor. Our long wait there caused uncomfortable misgivings. India’s unwritten law for the truth seeker is patience; a master may purposely make a test of one’s eagerness to meet him. This psychological ruse is freely employed in the West by doctors and dentists!
Finally summoned by the servant, Chandi and I entered a sleeping apartment. The famous Sohong1 Swami was seated on his bed. The sight of his tremendous body affected us strangely. With bulging eyes, we stood speechless. We had never before seen such a chest or such football-like biceps. On an immense neck, the swami’s fierce yet calm face was adorned with flowing locks, beard and moustache. A hint of dovelike and tiger-like qualities shone in his dark eyes. He was unclothed, save for a tiger skin about his muscular waist.
Finding our voices, my friend and I greeted the monk, expressing our admiration for his prowess in the extraordinary feline arena.
“Will you not tell us, please, how it is possible to subdue with bare fists the most ferocious of jungle beasts, the royal Bengals?”
“My sons, it is nothing to me to fight tigers. I could do it today if necessary.” He gave a childlike laugh. “You look upon tigers as tigers; I know them as pussycats.”
“Swamiji, I think I could impress my subconsciousness with the thought that tigers are pussycats, but could I make tigers believe it?”
“Of course strength also is necessary! One cannot expect victory from a baby who imagines a tiger to be a house cat! Powerful hands are my sufficient weapon.”
He asked us to follow him to the patio, where he struck the edge of a wall. A brick crashed to the floor; the sky peered boldly through the gaping lost tooth of the wall. I fairly staggered in astonishment; he who can remove mortared bricks from a solid wall with one blow, I thought, must surely be able to displace the teeth of tigers!
“A number of men have physical power such as mine, but still lack in cool confidence. Those who are bodily but not mentally stalwart may find themselves fainting at mere sight of a wild beast bounding freely in the jungle. The tiger in its natural ferocity and habitat is vastly different from the opium-fed circus animal!
“Many a man with herculean strength has nonetheless been terrorized into abject helplessness before the onslaught of a royal Bengal. Thus the tiger has converted the man, in his own mind, to a state as nerveless as the pussycat’s. It is possible for a man, owning a fairly strong body and an immensely strong determination, to turn the tables on the tiger, and force it to a conviction of pussycat defenselessness. How often I have done just that!”
I was quite willing to believe that the titan before me was able to perform the tiger-pussycat metamorphosis. He seemed in a didactic mood; Chandi and I listened respectfully.
“Mind is the wielder of muscles. The force of a hammer blow depends on the energy applied; the power expressed by a man’s bodily instrument depends on his aggressive will and courage. The body is literally manufactured and sustained by mind. Through pressure of instincts from past lives, strengths or weaknesses percolate gradually into human consciousness. They express as habits, which in turn ossify into a desirable or an undesirable body. Outward frailty has mental origin; in a vicious circle, the habit-bound body thwarts the mind. If the master allows himself to be commanded by a servant, the latter becomes autocratic; the mind is similarly enslaved by submitting to bodily dictation.”
At our entreaty, the impressive swami consented to tell us something of his own life.
“My earliest ambition was to fight tigers. My will was mighty, but my body was feeble.”
An ejaculation of surprise broke from me. It appeared incredible that this man, now “with Atlantean shoulders, fit to bear,” could ever have known weakness.
“It was by indomitable persistency in thoughts of health and strength that I overcame my handicap. I have every reason to extol the compelling mental vigor which I found to be the real subduer of royal Bengals.”
“Do you think, revered swami, that I could ever fight tigers?” This was the first, and the last, time that the bizarre ambition ever visited my mind!
“Yes.” He was smiling. “But there are many kinds of tigers; some roam in jungles of human desires. No spiritual benefit accrues by knocking beasts unconscious. Rather be victor over the inner prowlers.”
“May we hear, sir, how you changed from a tamer of wild tigers to a tamer of wild passions?”
The Tiger Swami fell into silence. Remoteness came into his gaze, summoning visions of bygone years. I discerned his slight mental struggle to decide whether to grant my request. Finally he smiled in acquiescence.
“When my fame reached a zenith, it brought the intoxication of pride. I decided not only to fight tigers but to display them in various tricks. My ambition was to force savage beasts to behave like domesticated ones. I began to perform my feats publicly, with gratifying success.
“One evening my father entered my room in pensive mood.
“‘Son, I have words of warning. I would save you from coming ills, produced by the grinding wheels of cause and effect.’
“‘Are you a fatalist, Father? Should superstition be allowed to discolor the powerful waters or my activities?’
“‘I am no fatalist, son. But I believe in the just law of retribution, as taught in the holy scriptures. There is resentment against you in the jungle family; sometime it may act to your cost.’
“‘Father, you astonish me! You well know what tigers are—beautiful but merciless! Even immediately after an enormous meal of some hapless creature, a tiger is fired with fresh lust at sight of new prey. It may be a joyous gazelle, frisking over the jungle grass. Capturing it and biting an opening in the soft throat, the malevolent beast tastes only a little of the mutely crying blood, and goes its wanton way.
“‘Tigers are the most contemptible of the jungle breed! Who knows? my blows may inject some slight sanity of consideration into their thick heads. I am headmaster in a forest finishing school, to teach them gentle manners!
“‘Please, Father, think of me as tiger tamer and never as tiger killer. How could my good actions bring ill upon me? I beg you not to impose any command that I change my way of life.'”
Chandi and I were all attention, understanding the past dilemma. In India a child does not lightly disobey his parents’ wishes.
“In stoic silence Father listened to my explanation. He followed it with a disclosure which he uttered gravely.
“‘Son, you compel me to relate an ominous prediction from the lips of a saint. He approached me yesterday as I sat on the veranda in my daily meditation.
“‘”Dear friend, I come with a message for your belligerent son. Let him cease his savage activities. Otherwise, his next tiger-encounter shall result in his severe wounds, followed by six months of deathly sickness. He shall then forsake his former ways and become a monk.”‘
“This tale did not impress me. I considered that Father had been the credulous victim of a deluded fanatic.”
The Tiger Swami made this confession with an impatient gesture, as though at some stupidity. Grimly silent for a long time, he seemed oblivious of our presence. When he took up the dangling thread of his narrative, it was suddenly, with subdued voice.
“Not long after Father’s warning, I visited the capital city of Cooch Behar. The picturesque territory was new to me, and I expected a restful change. As usual everywhere, a curious crowd followed me on the streets. I would catch bits of whispered comment:
“‘This is the man who fights wild tigers.’
“‘Has he legs, or tree-trunks?’
“‘Look at his face! He must be an incarnation of the king of tigers himself!’
“You know how village urchins function like final editions of a newspaper! With what speed do the even-later speech-bulletins of the women circulate from house to house! Within a few hours, the whole city was in a state of excitement over my presence.
“I was relaxing quietly in the evening, when I heard the hoofbeats of galloping horses. They stopped in front of my dwelling place. In came a number of tall, turbaned policemen.
“I was taken aback. ‘All things are possible unto these creatures of human law,’ I thought. ‘I wonder if they are going to take me to task about matters utterly unknown to me.’ But the officers bowed with unwonted courtesy.
“‘Honored Sir, we are sent to welcome you on behalf of the Prince of Cooch Behar. He is pleased to invite you to his palace tomorrow morning.’
“I speculated awhile on the prospect. For some obscure reason I felt sharp regret at this interruption in my quiet trip. But the suppliant manner of the policemen moved me; I agreed to go.
“I was bewildered the next day to be obsequiously escorted from my door into a magnificent coach drawn by four horses. A servant held an ornate umbrella to protect me from the scorching sunlight. I enjoyed the pleasant ride through the city and its woodland outskirts. The royal scion himself was at the palace door to welcome me. He proffered his own gold-brocaded seat, smilingly placing himself in a chair of simpler design.
“‘All this politeness is certainly going to cost me something!’ I thought in mounting astonishment. The prince’s motive emerged after a few casual remarks.
“‘My city is filled with the rumor that you can fight wild tigers with nothing more than your naked hands. Is it a fact?’
“‘It is quite true.’
“‘I can scarcely believe it! You are a Calcutta Bengali, nurtured on the white rice of city folk. Be frank, please; have you not been fighting only spineless, opium-fed animals?’ His voice was loud and sarcastic, tinged with provincial accent.
“I vouchsafed no reply to his insulting question.
“‘I challenge you to fight my newly-caught tiger, Raja Begum.2 If you can successfully resist him, bind him with a chain, and leave his cage in a conscious state, you shall have this royal Bengal! Several thousand rupees and many other gifts shall also be bestowed. If you refuse to meet him in combat, I shall blazon your name throughout the state as an impostor!’
“His insolent words struck me like a volley of bullets. I shot an angry acceptance. Half risen from the chair in his excitement, the prince sank back with a sadistic smile. I was reminded of the Roman emperors who delighted in setting Christians in bestial arenas.
“‘The match will be set for a week hence. I regret that I cannot give you permission to view the tiger in advance.’
“Whether the prince feared I might seek to hypnotize the beast, or secretly feed him opium, I know not!
“I left the palace, noting with amusement that the royal umbrella and panoplied coach were now missing.
“The following week I methodically prepared my mind and body for the coming ordeal. Through my servant I learned of fantastic tales. The saint’s direful prediction to my father had somehow got abroad, enlarging as it ran. Many simple villagers believed that an evil spirit, cursed by the gods, had reincarnated as a tiger which took various demoniac forms at night, but remained a striped animal during the day. This demon-tiger was supposed to be the one sent to humble me.
“Another imaginative version was that animal prayers to Tiger Heaven had achieved a response in the shape of Raja Begum. He was to be the instrument to punish me—the audacious biped, so insulting to the entire tiger species! A furless, fangless man daring to challenge a claw-armed, sturdy-limbed tiger! The concentrated venom of all humiliated tigers—the villagers declared—had gathered momentum sufficient to operate hidden laws and bring about the fall of the proud tiger tamer.
“My servant further apprized me that the prince was in his element as manager of the bout between man and beast. He had supervised the erection of a storm-proof pavilion, designed to accommodate thousands. Its center held Raja Begum in an enormous iron cage, surrounded by an outer safety room. The captive emitted a ceaseless series of blood-curdling roars. He was fed sparingly, to kindle a wrathful appetite. Perhaps the prince expected me to be the meal of reward!
“Crowds from the city and suburbs bought tickets eagerly in response to the beat of drums announcing the unique contest. The day of battle saw hundreds turned away for lack of seats. Many men broke through the tent openings, or crowded any space below the galleries.”
As the Tiger Swami’s story approached a climax, my excitement mounted with it; Chandi also was raptly mute.
“Amidst piercing sound-explosions from Raja Begum, and the hubbub of the somewhat terrified crowd, I quietly made my appearance. Scantily clad around the waist, I was otherwise unprotected by clothing. I opened the bolt on the door of the safety room and calmly locked it behind me. The tiger sensed blood. Leaping with a thunderous crash on his bars, he sent forth a fearsome welcome. The audience was hushed with pitiful fear; I seemed a meek lamb before the raging beast.
“In a trice I was within the cage; but as I slammed the door, Raja Begum was headlong upon me. My right hand was desperately torn. Human blood, the greatest treat a tiger can know, fell in appalling streams. The prophecy of the saint seemed about to be fulfilled.
“I rallied instantly from the shock of the first serious injury I had ever received. Banishing the sight of my gory fingers by thrusting them beneath my waist cloth, I swung my left arm in a bone-cracking blow. The beast reeled back, swirled around the rear of the cage, and sprang forward convulsively. My famous fistic punishment rained on his head.
“But Raja Begum’s taste of blood had acted like the maddening first sip of wine to a dipsomaniac long-deprived. Punctuated by deafening roar, the brute’s assaults grew in fury. My inadequate defense of only one hand left me vulnerable before claws and fangs. But I dealt out dazing retribution. Mutually ensanguined, we struggled as to the death. The cage was pandemonium, as blood splashed in all directions, and blasts of pain and lethal lust came from the bestial throat.
“‘Shoot him!’ ‘Kill the tiger!’ Shrieks arose from the audience. So fast did man and beast move, that a guard’s bullet went amiss. I mustered all my will force, bellowed fiercely, and landed a final concussive blow. The tiger collapsed and lay quietly.
“Like a pussycat!” I interjected.
The swami laughed in hearty appreciation, then continued the engrossing tale.
“Raja Begum was vanquished at last. His royal pride was further humbled: with my lacerated hands, I audaciously forced open his jaws. For a dramatic moment, I held my head within the yawning deathtrap. I looked around for a chain. Pulling one from a pile on the floor, I bound the tiger by his neck to the cage bars. In triumph I moved toward the door.
“But that fiend incarnate, Raja Begum, had stamina worthy of his supposed demoniac origin. With an incredible lunge, he snapped the chain and leaped on my back. My shoulder fast in his jaws, I fell violently. But in a trice I had him pinned beneath me. Under merciless blows, the treacherous animal sank into semiconsciousness. This time I secured him more carefully. Slowly I left the cage.
“I found myself in a new uproar, this time one of delight. The crowd’s cheer broke as though from a single gigantic throat. Disastrously mauled, I had yet fulfilled the three conditions of the fight—stunning the tiger, binding him with a chain, and leaving him without requiring assistance for myself. In addition, I had so drastically injured and frightened the aggressive beast that he had been content to overlook the opportune prize of my head in his mouth!
“After my wounds were treated, I was honored and garlanded; hundreds of gold pieces showered at my feet. The whole city entered a holiday period. Endless discussions were heard on all sides about my victory over one of the largest and most savage tigers ever seen. Raja Begum was presented to me, as promised, but I felt no elation. A spiritual change had entered my heart. It seemed that with my final exit from the cage I had also closed the door on my worldly ambitions.
“A woeful period followed. For six months I lay near death from blood poisoning. As soon as I was well enough to leave Cooch Behar, I returned to my native town.
“‘I know now that my teacher is the holy man who gave the wise warning.’ I humbly made this confession to my father. ‘Oh, if I could only find him!’ My longing was sincere, for one day the saint arrived unheralded.
“‘Enough of tiger taming.’ He spoke with calm assurance. ‘Come with me; I will teach you to subdue the beasts of ignorance roaming in jungles of the human mind. You are used to an audience: let it be a galaxy of angels, entertained by your thrilling mastery of yoga!’
“I was initiated into the spiritual path by my saintly guru. He opened my soul-doors, rusty and resistant with long disuse. Hand in hand, we soon set out for my training in the Himalayas.”
Chandi and I bowed at the swami’s feet, grateful for his vivid outline of a life truly cyclonic. I felt amply repaid for the long probationary wait in the cold parlor!
1 Sohong was his monastic name. He was popularly known as the “Tiger Swami.”
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2 “Prince Princess”-so named to indicate that this beast possessed the combined ferocity of tiger and tigress.
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