Swami Vivekananda met many different kinds of persons during his travels that began in 1890. There were people from different walks of life – monks, businessmen, teachers and professors, Government officials, nationalists, Christian priests and Muslim clergy. While he loved interacting with monks and religious persons, he could also engage people with different interests. He had heard of Pavhari Baba, the great mystic and saint of Ghazipur, and wanted to meet him for a long time. When he was staying at Allahabad in January 1890, he decided to go to Ghazipur to see the Baba.
Pavhari Baba was born to Brahmin parents in a village near Varanasi. He left home as a boy and went to Ghazipur, where under the tutelage of his uncle learnt Sanskrit grammar, logic and the philosophy of Ramanuja. Soon he left Ghazipur and traveled around the land, determined to attain realization of God. He is reported to have practiced intense austerity and yogic practices and soon mastered the Advaita Philosophy too. He returned to Ghazipur and built a hermitage by the riverside where he practiced intense meditation most of the time. He was rumoured to hardly eat any food and is known to have subsisted on neem leaves and a few chilies. So spare was his diet that he was called Pavhari Baba, literally meaning the ‘air-eating father’. He generally avoided meeting people and very rarely interacted with his devotees.
Swami Vivekananda got an interview with this saint after trying for many days. When he did finally meet him, he was struck by the Baba’s personality. “Through supreme good fortune, I have obtained an interview with Babaji”, Swamiji wrote to Pramadababu on February 4, 1890, “A great sage indeed! It is all very wonderful, and in this atheistic age, a towering representation of marvelous power born out of Bhakti and Yoga! I have sought refuge in his grace; and he has given me hope – a thing very few may be fortunate enough to obtain. It is Babaji’s wish that I stay on for some days here, and he would do me some good. So following this saint’s bidding I shall remain here for some time.”
Swami Vivekananda moved to a place closer to the Baba’s hermitage and started severe ascetic practices. He also fell ill during this time and suffered physically. He had come to the Baba to learn and be initiated into Raja Yoga and felt that he was not making any significant progress. The Baba hardly spoke and even when he did, was very circumspect and indirect. This went on for many days and Swamiji was getting increasingly restless. He was also having visions of his guru Sri Ramakrishna, and this left him both guilty and confused. Finally he decided that there was nothing he could gain from Pavhari Baba and decided to move on. It was then that he wrote again about the Baba to Pramadababu in a letter dated March 3, 1890, “But now I see the whole matter is inverted in its bearings! While I myself have come, a beggar at his door, he turns round and wants to learn of me! This saint perhaps is not perfected – too much of rites, vows, observances and too much of self-concealment. The ocean in its fullness cannot be contained within its shores, I am sure. So it is not good, I have decided not to disturb this sadhu for nothing, and very soon I shall ask leave of him to go.”
Swami Vivekananda was thence no longer distracted and satisfied to give himself to single-minded meditation. Though a few of his brother disciples thought that he was going away from the path prescribed by Sri Ramakrishna by indulging in the practices of the Baba, it shows his aptitude for many-sided knowledge and different perspectives. Swamiji sought only the truth and was ever willing to experiment in this pursuit of truth.