Chapter 23: I Receive My University Degree
“You ignore your textbook assignments in philosophy. No doubt you are depending on an unlaborious ‘intuition’ to get you through the examinations. But unless you apply yourself in a more scholarly manner, I shall see to it that you don’t pass this course.”
Professor D. C. Ghoshal of Serampore College was addressing me sternly. If I failed to pass his final written classroom test, I would be ineligible to take the conclusive examinations. These are formulated by the faculty of Calcutta University, which numbers Serampore College among its affiliated branches. A student in Indian universities who is unsuccessful in one subject in the A.B. finals must be examined anew in all his subjects the following year.
My instructors at Serampore College usually treated me with kindness, not untinged by an amused tolerance. “Mukunda is a bit over-drunk with religion.” Thus summing me up, they tactfully spared me the embarrassment of answering classroom questions; they trusted the final written tests to eliminate me from the list of A.B. candidates. The judgment passed by my fellow students was expressed in their nickname for me”Mad Monk.”
I took an ingenious step to nullify Professor Ghoshal’s threat to me of failure in philosophy. When the results of the final tests were about to be publicly announced, I asked a classmate to accompany me to the professor’s study.
“Come along; I want a witness,” I told my companion. “I shall be very much disappointed if I have not succeeded in outwitting the instructor.”
Professor Ghoshal shook his head after I had inquired what rating he had given my paper.
“You are not among those who have passed,” he said in triumph. He hunted through a large pile on his desk. “Your paper isn’t here at all; you have failed, in any case, through non-appearance at the examination.”
I chuckled. “Sir, I was there. May I look through the stack myself?”
The professor, nonplused, gave his permission; I quickly found my paper, where I had carefully omitted any identification mark except my roll call number. Unwarned by the “red flag” of my name, the instructor had given a high rating to my answers even though they were unembellished by textbook quotations.1
For the tests in my other subjects, I received some coaching, particularly from my dear friend and cousin, Prabhas Chandra Ghose,2
son of my Uncle Sarada. I staggered painfully but successfully—with the lowest possible passing marks—through all my final tests.
Now, after four years of college, I was eligible to sit for the A.B. examinations. Nevertheless, I hardly expected to avail myself of the privilege. The Serampore College finals were child’s play compared to the stiff ones which would be set by Calcutta University for the A.B. degree. My almost daily visits to Sri Yukteswar had left me little time to enter the college halls. There it was my presence rather than my absence that brought forth ejaculations of amazement from my classmates!
My customary routine was to set out on my bicycle about nine-thirty in the morning. In one hand I would carry an offering for my guru—a few flowers from the garden of my Panthi boardinghouse. Greeting me affably, Master would invite me to lunch. I invariably accepted with alacrity, glad to banish the thought of college for the day. After hours with Sri Yukteswar, listening to his incomparable flow of wisdom, or helping with ashram duties, I would reluctantly depart around midnight for the Panthi. Occasionally I stayed all night with my guru, so happily engrossed in his conversation that I scarcely noticed when darkness changed into dawn.
One night about eleven o’clock, as I was putting on my shoes 3
in preparation for the ride to the boardinghouse, Master questioned me gravely.
“When do your A.B. examinations start?”
“Five days hence, sir.”
“I hope you are in readiness for them.”
Transfixed with alarm, I held one shoe in the air. “Sir,” I protested, “you know how my days have been passed with you rather than with the professors. How can I enact a farce by appearing for those difficult finals?”
Sri Yukteswar’s eyes were turned piercingly on mine. “You must appear.” His tone was coldly peremptory. “We should not give cause for your father and other relatives to criticize your preference for ashram life. Just promise me that you will be present for the examinations; answer them the best way you can.”
Uncontrollable tears were coursing down my face. I felt that Master’s command was unreasonable, and that his interest was, to say the least, belated.
“I will appear if you wish it,” I said amidst sobs. “But no time remains for proper preparation.” Under my breath I muttered, “I will fill up the sheets with your teachings in answer to the questions!”
When I entered the hermitage the following day at my usual hour, I presented my bouquet with a certain mournful solemnity. Sri Yukteswar laughed at my woebegone air.
“Mukunda, has the Lord ever failed you, at an examination or elsewhere?”
“No, sir,” I responded warmly. Grateful memories came in a revivifying flood.
“Not laziness but burning zeal for God has prevented you from seeking college honors,” my guru said kindly. After a silence, he quoted, “‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.'”4
For the thousandth time, I felt my burdens lifted in Master’s presence. When we had finished our early lunch, he suggested that I return to the Panthi.
“Does your friend, Romesh Chandra Dutt, still live in your boardinghouse?”
“Get in touch with him; the Lord will inspire him to help you with the examinations.”
“Very well, sir; but Romesh is unusually busy. He is the honor man in our class, and carries a heavier course than the others.”
Master waved aside my objections. “Romesh will find time for you. Now go.”
I bicycled back to the Panthi. The first person I met in the boardinghouse compound was the scholarly Romesh. As though his days were quite free, he obligingly agreed to my diffident request.
“Of course; I am at your service.” He spent several hours of that afternoon and of succeeding days in coaching me in my various subjects.
“I believe many questions in English literature will be centered in the route of Childe Harold,” he told me. “We must get an atlas at once.”
I hastened to the home of my Uncle Sarada and borrowed an atlas. Romesh marked the European map at the places visited by Byron’s romantic traveler.
A few classmates had gathered around to listen to the tutoring. “Romesh is advising you wrongly,” one of them commented to me at the end of a session. “Usually only fifty per cent of the questions are about the books; the other half will involve the authors’ lives.”
When I sat for the examination in English literature the following day, my first glance at the questions caused tears of gratitude to pour forth, wetting my paper. The classroom monitor came to my desk and made a sympathetic inquiry.
“My guru foretold that Romesh would help me,” I explained. “Look; the very questions dictated to me by Romesh are here on the examination sheet! Fortunately for me, there are very few questions this year on English authors, whose lives are wrapped in deep mystery so far as I am concerned!”
My boardinghouse was in an uproar when I returned. The boys who had been ridiculing Romesh’s method of coaching looked at me in awe, almost deafening me with congratulations. During the week of the examinations, I spent many hours with Romesh, who formulated questions that he thought were likely to be set by the professors. Day by day, Romesh’s questions appeared in almost the same form on the examination sheets.
The news was widely circulated in the college that something resembling a miracle was occurring, and that success seemed probable for the absent-minded “Mad Monk.” I made no attempt to hide the facts of the case. The local professors were powerless to alter the questions, which had been arranged by Calcutta University.
Thinking over the examination in English literature, I realized one morning that I had made a serious error. One section of the questions had been divided into two parts of A or B, and C or D. Instead of answering one question from each part, I had carelessly answered both questions in Group I, and had failed to consider anything in Group II. The best mark I could score in that paper would be 33, three less than the passing mark of 36. I rushed to Master and poured out my troubles.
“Sir, I have made an unpardonable blunder. I don’t deserve the divine blessings through Romesh; I am quite unworthy.”
“Cheer up, Mukunda.” Sri Yukteswar’s tones were light and unconcerned. He pointed to the blue vault of the heavens. “It is more possible for the sun and moon to interchange their positions in space than it is for you to fail in getting your degree!”
I left the hermitage in a more tranquil mood, though it seemed mathematically inconceivable that I could pass. I looked once or twice apprehensively into the sky; the Lord of Day appeared to be securely anchored in his customary orbit!
As I reached the Panthi, I overheard a classmate’s remark: “I have just learned that this year, for the first time, the required passing mark in English literature has been lowered.”
I entered the boy’s room with such speed that he looked up in alarm. I questioned him eagerly.
“Long-haired monk,” he said laughingly, “why this sudden interest in scholastic matters? Why cry in the eleventh hour? But it is true that the passing mark has just been lowered to 33 points.”
A few joyous leaps took me into my own room, where I sank to my knees and praised the mathematical perfections of my Divine Father.
Every day I thrilled with the consciousness of a spiritual presence that I clearly felt to be guiding me through Romesh. A significant incident occurred in connection with the examination in Bengali. Romesh, who had touched little on that subject, called me back one morning as I was leaving the boardinghouse on my way to the examination hall.
“There is Romesh shouting for you,” a classmate said to me impatiently. “Don’t return; we shall be late at the hall.”
Ignoring the advice, I ran back to the house.
“The Bengali examination is usually easily passed by our Bengali boys,” Romesh told me. “But I have just had a hunch that this year the professors have planned to massacre the students by asking questions from our ancient literature.” My friend then briefly outlined two stories from the life of Vidyasagar, a renowned philanthropist.
I thanked Romesh and quickly bicycled to the college hall. The examination sheet in Bengali proved to contain two parts. The first instruction was: “Write two instances of the charities of Vidyasagar.” As I transferred to the paper the lore that I had so recently acquired, I whispered a few words of thanksgiving that I had heeded Romesh’s last-minute summons. Had I been ignorant of Vidyasagar’s benefactions to mankind (including ultimately myself), I could not have passed the Bengali examination. Failing in one subject, I would have been forced to stand examination anew in all subjects the following year. Such a prospect was understandably abhorrent.
The second instruction on the sheet read: “Write an essay in Bengali on the life of the man who has most inspired you.” Gentle reader, I need not inform you what man I chose for my theme. As I covered page after page with praise of my guru, I smiled to realize that my muttered prediction was coming true: “I will fill up the sheets with your teachings!”
I had not felt inclined to question Romesh about my course in philosophy. Trusting my long training under Sri Yukteswar, I safely disregarded the textbook explanations. The highest mark given to any of my papers was the one in philosophy. My score in all other subjects was just barely within the passing mark.
It is a pleasure to record that my unselfish friend Romesh received his own degree cum laude.
Father was wreathed in smiles at my graduation. “I hardly thought you would pass, Mukunda,” he confessed. “You spend so much time with your guru.” Master had indeed correctly detected the unspoken criticism of my father.
For years I had been uncertain that I would ever see the day when an A.B. would follow my name. I seldom use the title without reflecting that it was a divine gift, conferred on me for reasons somewhat obscure. Occasionally I hear college men remark that very little of their crammed knowledge remained with them after graduation. That admission consoles me a bit for my undoubted academic deficiencies.
On the day I received my degree from Calcutta University, I knelt at my guru’s feet and thanked him for all the blessings flowing from his life into mine.
“Get up, Mukunda,” he said indulgently. “The Lord simply found it more convenient to make you a graduate than to rearrange the sun and moon!”
1 I must do Professor Ghoshal the justice of admitting that the strained relationship between us was not due to any fault of his, but solely to my absences from classes and inattention in them. Professor Ghoshal was, and is, a remarkable orator with vast philosophical knowledge. In later years we came to a cordial understanding.
Back to text
2 Although my cousin and I have the same family name of Ghosh, Prabhas has accustomed himself to transliterating his name in English as Ghose; therefore I follow his own spelling here.
Back to text
3 A disciple always removes his shoes in an Indian hermitage.
Back to text
4 Matthew 6:33.
Back to text