The Most Bitter Medicine


by Vidagdha Bennett


In his childhood, Sri Chinmoy had an encounter with one of the largest and most powerful of cats – a Royal Bengal Tiger. He also had an encounter with one of the tiniest members of the animal kingdom – a mosquito. Which one is the more deadly? In Sri Chinmoy’s case, by God’s infinite Grace, he was not harmed by the tiger, but he did suffer greatly from the mosquito. He contracted malaria and endured a number of virulent attacks of malarial fever during his youth in Shakpura. Many years later, Sri Chinmoy told his students:

“Here in America you have not suffered from malaria and I hope nobody ever suffers from that disease. In India, how I suffered from malaria! Once, my brother and I were attacked on the same day. You cannot imagine how painful it is. All the subtle nerves and gross nerves start dancing. Such pain! You simply shout and scream. Previously perhaps you did not know any acrobatics or special exercises, but as soon as you get malaria, you become an expert. All our best acrobats you can challenge with your exercises. Pain compels you to do it. At any other time, if you had asked me to do that kind of exercise, I would have said, ‘Impossible!’ But when I had malaria, I was in such pain that I could do all kinds of acrobatics.” Ten Divine Secrets

He once told his disciple-doctor, Dr. Meghabhuti Roth, that he had so much pain during these attacks that he was “dancing all over the room, day and night.”

Malaria is an acute infectious disease that has dominated mankind’s history for thousands of years. In ancient India, it was called “the king of diseases”. Alexander the Great is thought to have caught malaria during his march through India. He was only thirty-three years old when he died from it in 323 BC, at the height of his power. Dante died of malaria in Italy in 1321; Lord Byron contracted it in Greece and died in 1824. Christopher Columbus and Napoleon Bonaparte also suffered from the disease. Eight US presidents have had malaria, including John F. Kennedy, who caught it during the Second World War.

In rural Bangladesh, the problem has always been endemic. Malaria is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito. The main larval habitats of this vector are usually marshlands, known in Bengali as beels. The larvæ also breed in tanks, permanent and temporary ponds, rice fields, pools and ditches. They favour cool, uncontaminated water with light shading and vegetation. In the Chittagong region, which has an annual monsoonal rainfall of 80-100 inches, where the delta is criss-crossed by waterways and channels, and the main crop is rice, conditions could not be more ideal for breeding. Moreover, on the Ghosh family property, there were a number of permanent freshwater ponds.

Since the mosquito feeds at dusk or during the night, the most basic preventative measure for malaria in the first half of the 20th century was the use of mosquito nets around each cot. Despite this precaution, however, the youngest members of the Ghosh family were bitten.

When someone is bitten by an infected female Anopheles mosquito, protozoan parasites enter the blood stream, multiplying within the red blood cells. This leads to fever of up to 104º F; accompanied by chills, joint pain, nerve pain, profuse sweating, nausea and convulsions.

Malaria is one of the most common infectious diseases in the world. It is estimated that there are 515 million cases each year, causing from one to three million deaths. In his book Animal Kingdom, in which he offers the spiritual significance of many animals, Sri Chinmoy equates the mosquito with torture and charges his words with the weight of personal experience:

“Mosquito, my mosquito,
You torture humanity’s breath
With your tiny body, your outer frame.
Human valour, human pride, human fame
Are at your mercy’s reign.
You prove that size is not important:
What is important is capacity’s life.
How secretly you carry
Death-King’s secret knife!”

Children are most vulnerable to malaria, particularly the form of the disease known as cerebral malaria. Sri Chinmoy’s description of unbearable pain throughout the body, prompting him to perform acrobatics, correlates with the classic symptoms of cerebral malaria. In this form of the disease, there is a clogging of cerebral micro-circulation by the parasitised blood cells. This clogging causes extreme neurological pain, leading to febrile convulsions.

No vaccination has been approved against malaria and there is no ultimate cure for the disease. Once an individual has been infected, attacks can occur cyclically for many years, but the virulence of an attack can be greatly lessened by regular doses of quinine. When talking of his own experiences, Sri Chinmoy never failed to mention quinine. It seemed that the memory of its taste lingered for decades afterwards:

“The only medicine for malaria is called quinine. It is extremely, extremely bitter. No other medicine is as bitter as quinine. But quinine is the saviour. If we do not accept the medicine, then how are we going to get rid of our fever?” Ten Divine Secrets

Although quinine has been used in Europe to treat malaria since 1631, its use only became large-scale after 1850. It was the drug of choice until the 1940’s when chemical substitutes were developed. Quinine is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree which originates in Peru. It was subsequently cultivated in large quantities by the Dutch in Java. During World War II, with the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in March 1942, the world’s major supply of quinine was cut off and the treatment of allied troops who were stationed in malarious zones, such as North Africa, India and Burma, was seriously compromised. In May 1943, General Macarthur issued the statement: “This will be a long war if, for every division I have facing the enemy, I must count on a second division in hospital with malaria and a third division convalescing from this debilitating disease.”

For ordinary Indians in British-controlled India, the situation was even more dire. Over 680,000 deaths from malaria were recorded in 1943 and over 763,220 in 1944. Supplies of quinine were inadequate to non-existent. In the light of these disturbing statistics, we can perhaps date Sri Chinmoy’s malarial infection as pre-1942, that is, aged ten or under, since he received prompt and effective medical attention and was prescribed quinine tablets. Had he contracted the disease between 1942 and 1945, his chances of survival would have been significantly reduced.

Quinine can be administered in various forms, but it seems that Sri Chinmoy was given quinine sulphate orally, which accounts for his memory of the bitter taste. Many patients cannot tolerate the extreme bitterness of these tablets and vomit after ingesting them. Since the tablets have to be administered every eight hours until the fever abates, it was truly an ordeal to stomach the correct dose, especially in the case of young children.

The pain of the disease and the unpleasantness of the treatment together provided Sri Chinmoy with a potent metaphor to convey the necessity of embarking on a difficult and potentially unpleasant course of action in order to cure oneself of spiritual ailments. He refers, for example, to the fact that discipline may be extremely bitter and painful, but it is the only antidote for ignorance – which, in its own way, is also life-threatening. He writes:

“Right now, ignorance lords it over us. Ignorance is our master, but we do not want this master any more. We need somebody stronger than our present master who can overthrow him. We want knowledge to be our master. Knowledge comes in the form of discipline, which is like quinine. If we accept this discipline, then only can we conquer ignorance. So we have to allow discipline to be our new master, our new guide, our new saviour. Let us give the highest post to discipline. Right now, when we think of discipline, we feel that it is nothing short of punishment, which we are facing all the time. Instead, we have to feel that discipline is our help, our guide, our inspiration, our aspiration, even our realisation.” Ten Divine Secrets

He emphasises that in the spiritual life, as in the outer life, medicine is not always sweet, but adds, “If you do not take the medicine, the disease will not be cured.”

Sri Chinmoy moved to New York in 1964 at the age of thirty-two. When he was in his seventies, he suffered greatly from fevers. I once asked him if these recurrent fevers might not be a residue from the malarial fever of his childhood. He reflected for a moment and then answered that he did not think so. He thought that by that time, after living in America for so many years, the malaria was no longer in his system. But I believe the question remains whether the intensity of his early bouts of malarial fever did not ultimately cause some undiagnosed neurological damage which contributed to the suffering he experienced during the last few years of his life.