There is a beautiful story of a prisoner returning home on a train. Will he be accepted by his family? It’s a big question in his mind for which a solution has already been agreed upon between him and his family. If he is to be accepted, the family would hang a yellow ribbon on their tree close to the track. If not, a red ribbon would be hung. Anticipation high in the air, the released prisoner is unable to even look out of the train window, when suddenly he sees lots of yellow ribbons hanging from the tree.
From Lincoln to Gandhi
Trains have always added that extra bit of meaning to a story like this. Always in the background, yet they have a powerful influence on the lives of many. It was on a train, that Abe Lincoln wrote his famous Gettysburg address. It is well known that India’s freedom struggle began with a train journey in South Africa. That Mahatma Gandhi was able to inspire an entire nation to the echo of “satyagraha” was largely because he was able to travel extensively by train. It is well known that Gandhi traveled widely across the Indian subcontinent by train. And two stories relating to the Father of the Nation stand out for me: Once, one of his sandals slipped from his feet and landed on the track – he immediately took off the other one and threw it as close as possible to the first, so that the finder of the shoes would find a pair! At Madurai, during September 1921, when Gandhi was travelling by train, he was pained to see that the majority of the population did not have enough clothes. Thus, he started wearing only the dhoti, a few metres of the loincloth that characterised his simplicity. At the Madurai Railway Station, there is a memorial for Mahatma Gandhi that stands testimony to this decision taken by him. Not just politics and freedom struggle, but spirituality too travelled on tracks.
Swami Vivekananda’s train journeys and other stories
It is said that Swami Vivekananda, during his travels across the Indian subcontinent, would travel by train only if somebody bought him a ticket. Otherwise, he travelled on foot. On his historic train journey from Ramnad to Madras in the then Madras Province, he drew unparalleled crowds along the track. Who could refuse to acknowledge the beacon of light from India, who rode the world of spirituality like a colossus, with the words, “Brothers and Sisters of America”? The train journey of Swamiji was stopped at many places by enthusiastic Indians, who wanted to see the turbaned hero of India. Swami Vivekananda’s Guru, Sri Ramakrishna, travelled by ship and later by train in the 1880s, when he wanted to see Varanasi and other places. When he landed in Mughalsarai, he missed the train to Varanasi and a high ranking railway official escorted him in his inspection carriage up to Varanasi.
A train journey from Madurai to Villupuram was an important part of the journey to self discovery of Sri Ramana Maharishi when he left his home during his early age. It seems trains have played a significant role in the lives of many saints.
Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, was compared to a train engine even when he was only a few months old. “Little Mother, Thy son will be a Yogi. As a Spiritual Engine, he will carry many souls to God’s Kingdom”, was how Sri Lahiri Mahasaya, (one of India’s greatest saints), reportedly blessed Sri Paramahansa Yogananda when he was a small child. The prophecy came true when Sri Paramahansa Yogananda later went to America and captured the hearts of millions of people around the world with his classic, ‘The Autobiography of a Yogi’, where he reveals, perhaps for the first time in the history of such yogis, the intricacies of the search for God and Truth. The book, written in first person, with an eye for detail, is a veritable account of one of the most moving, personal, true stories of a person in search of God and truth. The book itself reads like a long train journey, with many saints in each compartment.
Sri Paramahansa Yogananda’s father, Sri Bagabati Charan Ghosh, was a high official in the then Bengal Nagpur Railway, and thus, the comparison of Sri Paramahansa Yogananda to a train engine well established the monumental work that he would do later in life. Sri Paramahansa Yogananda himself describes his various train journeys in his autobiography. In some of the chapters, the narration is so vivid, it is as if we are actually travelling with the author in the train! Trains have a distinct semblance to the journey of life itself, and that is why they are so powerfully appealing to children and elders alike.