Swami Akhandananda, or Gangadhar Ghatak, as he was called in his pre-monastic life, was born on 30 September 1864, in Calcutta. Even from his boyhood he was of a deeply religious turn of mind and had extremely orthodox habits. He bathed several times a day, cooked his one daily meal himself, read the Gita and other scriptures, and—regularly practised meditation. This was his mode of life when he came in contact with Sri Ramakrishna probably in 1883 at Dakshineswar, which he visited with his friend Harinath (Swami Turiyananda). The Master, as was customary with him, received him cordially, and asked him if he had seen him before. The boy answered that he had, when he had been very young, at the house of Dinanath Bose, a devotee who lived at Baghbazar. The Master made him stay overnight, and when he was taking leave the next morning, Sri Ramakrishna asked the boy, in his characteristic way, to come again. Then began that close association between the Master and the disciple which afterwards ripened into a strong urge for renunciation of the world on the part of Gangadhar, and his dedication to the service of God in man.
With Sri Ramakrishna
Every time he visited Dakshineswar he was charmed to see some new phase of Sri Ramakrishna’s God-intoxicated life. He felt the silent transforming influence of his love and received practical instructions from him on spirituality. Under this tutelage, Gangadhar gradually dropped his over-orthodox observances, which the Master described as ‘oldish’, saying, ‘Look at Naren (Swami Vivekananda). He has such prominent eyes! He chews a hundred betel rolls a day and eats whatever he gets. But his mind is deeply introspective. He goes along the streets of Calcutta seeing houses and chattels, horses and carriages, and everything as full of God! Go and see him one day. He lives at Simla (a district of Calcutta).’ The next day Gangadhar saw Narendranath and at once understood the truth of the Master’s remark, to whom he reported his impressions, and the Master wondered how the boy could learn so much in a single interview. Gangadhar said, ‘On reaching there, I noticed those prominent eyes of his and found him reading a voluminous English work. The room was full of dirt, but he scarcely noticed anything. His mind seemed to be away beyond this world.’ The Master advised him to visit Narendranath often. This was the foundation of his abiding devotion and allegiance to Swamiji, the hero of his life.
Gangadhar went often to Dakshineswar and subsequently to Cossipore to meet and serve the Master till the latter finally entered into Mahasamadhi in August 1886.
As a Wandering Monk
When the Monastery at Baranagore was started, he kept close contact with his brother disciples there and particularly with Narendranath, whom he loved dearly. But though he did not join the monastery immediately, he was fired with the ideal of leading the unfettered life of a wandering monk and started in February 1887, on a long pilgrimage to the Himalayas and Tibet. He crossed over to Tibet thrice and finally returned to India in 1890.
After his return, he was full of the grandeur of the Himalayas and Tibet, had frequent correspondence with Swami Vivekananda, then at Ghazipur, who induced him to join him in travelling in some places of the Himalayas. Accordingly, Swami Akhandananda came to Baranagore monastery, and after spending a few happy months with his brother disciples, sharing his experiences with them, he set out in July 1890 with Swami Vivekananda on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas. Visiting important places on the way they reached Almora, whence they proceeded to Karnaprayag on the route to Badrinath. But illness of the one or the other prevented their proceeding farther, and they returned after some weeks, via Tehri, to Dehradun, whence Swami Akhandananda went to Meerut for treatment. Soon after this, he was again joined by Swami Vivekananda, who had been taken seriously ill while practising austerities at Rishikesh, the great resort of monks at the foot of the Himalayas. He brought with him some of the other brother disciples, including Swami Brahmananda. When, after five delightful months of association of the brothers, Swami Vivekananda, impelled by an inner hankering to remain alone, left them to make a tour of the country as a wandering monk, Swami Akhandananda, unable to bear his separation, followed his footsteps from province to province, determined to find him. But at every place he visited, he got the disconcerting news that Swamiji had left it a few days ago. He persisted in his search with unflagging resolve, till at last, he discovered the object of his search at a port called Kutch Mandvi in distant Kutch. He, however, yielded to the leader’s earnest desire to be left alone, and each continued his pilgrimage separately
Serving the people
Shortly after Swami Vivekananda’s departure for America in May 1893, Swami Akhandananda learnt from Swamis Brahmananda and Turiyananda at Mt Abu, that the real motive of the leader’s journey to the West was to find bread for the hungry masses of India. For the sight of their crushing poverty and misery was too much for him, and he considered it absurd to preach religion to them without first improving their material condition. This communication made little impression upon Swami Akhandananda at the time. Then he fell ill and went for a change to Khetri, where, after six months’ rest and treatment, under the care of Maharaja Ajit Singh, a staunch disciple of Swami Vivekananda, he regained his health. But those months gave him ample opportunity to come in close touch with all sections of people, high and low, rich and poor, and it was then that he realised the truth of Swami Vivekananda’s words. Now himself also burning with the desire to serve the poor and helpless masses, he wrote to Swamiji in America asking for his permission. The encouraging reply he received pushed him on, and in 1894, he began his campaign against poverty and ignorance. It did not take him long to realise that the appalling poverty of the masses could not be removed without proper education. Hence education became his first objective. He talked with the Maharaja and his courtiers, impressing upon all the need of educating their children, and succeeded by strenuous efforts in raising the strength of the local High School from 80 to 257, as well as in improving the teaching staff. He next visited the villages around Khetri and started five primary schools for the village boys. The Maharaja of Khetri was induced by him to make an annual grant of Rs 5,000 for the spread of education in his territory. At the instance of the Swami, the Sanskrit School at Khetri was converted into a Vedic School, and as the students were too poor to purchase books, the Swami raised subscriptions, purchased books, and had them distributed free to the boys by the Political Agent. He also induced the Maharaja to lift the ban against the admittance of his poorer subjects from seeing him on durbar days.
Next year the Swami happened to visit Udaipur, where he was much pained to see the condition of the Bhils, the aboriginal inhabitants of the place. With the help of a friend, he had them sumptuously fed one day. He also took great pains to start a Middle English School at Nathadwara, and founded at Alwar and other places of Rajputana a number of societies which regularly discussed useful social, religious, and educational topics. Finally he left Rajputana and returned in the end of 1895 to the monastery, which was then at Alambazar.
Famine Relief Work
Here also he was not idle. Whenever a cholera case was reported in the neighbourhood, he would run to the spot and try his utmost to nurse the patient to recovery without any regard for personal safety. At the beginning of 1897, he started northwards on foot along the Ganga till he came to a village some twenty miles from Berhampore, in the district of Murshidabad, where he met a poor Mohammedan girl weeping: she had broken her pitcher, the only one in the family, and there was no means to replace it. The Swami had only four annas with him. He bought a pitcher from a shop for the girl and gave her half an anna worth of popped rice to eat. While he was resting there, a dozen emaciated old women in rags surrounded him for food. He immediately spent his little balance in purchasing some food for them. Shortly after this, he came to learn that a famished old woman was lying sick and helpless in that village. He at once went there and did what he could to help her.
This was his first contact with famine. The farther he proceeded, the more frightful spectacles he met, till at Mahula he cried halt. He resolved not to move from the place until he had relieved the famine-stricken people, and so wrote to the Alambazar Math asking for help. Swami Vivekananda, who had returned to India about three months before, despatched two of the monks with some money to the scene. And so on 15 May 1897, the first famine relief work of the Ramakrishna Mission was inaugurated with Mahula and Panchgaon as centres, and it lasted for about a year. In the course of it, Swami Akhandananda had to take charge of two orphans, and the idea of founding an orphanage first entered his mind. With encouragement from the district officers the Swami, after taking temporary care of a number of orphans, founded in May 1898, at Mahula, the orphanage entitled the Ramakrishna Ashrama, which was removed shortly after to a rented house at Sargachhi. After continuing there for thirteen years the Ashrama was moved to its own premises in the same village, which it has been occupying since March 1913.
The Swami, from the foundation of this institution to the last day of his life, bestowed his best attention on its improvement, and it saved a good number of orphan boys from starvation, illiteracy, and degradation. Many of these were put in a position to earn an honest living. Under the Swami’s supervision, the Ashrama also conducted during these years a day and a night school for the village boys and adults and an outdoor dispensary, which afterwards developed considerably and treated thousands of sick people every year.
From 1900 to 1910 the Ashrama ran a vocational school, teaching weaving, sewing, carpentry, and sericulture. The handicrafts turned out by its boys won first prizes for several successive years at the Banjetia Industrial Exhibition organized by Maharaja Manindra Chandra Nandi of Cossimbazar, who, by the way, was a staunch patron of the institution. Unfortunately, for want of accommodation, the school had to be discontinued.
The Swami not only attended to the general education of the Ashrama boys but also paid due regard to their spiritual training, the chanting of prayers morning and evening being compulsory for them. Select passages from the sacred books like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were read and explained to them. Orphans were admitted into the Ashrama without any distinction of caste or creed. Thus a few Mohammedan boys were also maintained at the Ashrama for several years, and trained so that they might develop faith in their own religion.
The training given at the Ashrama had enough scope for the culture of the heart as well. Through example as well as precept Swami Akandananda encouraged his boys to do noble acts of service whenever there was any outbreak; of pestilence or any other calamity in the neighbouring villages. Thus hundreds of cholera patients were nursed by them and saved from untimely death, while prophylactic measures were adopted in many villages with satisfactory results.
Even after the opening of the orphanage, Swami Akhandananda could not help taking succour to the distressed in distant places. During the heavy flood at Ghogha, in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar, he forthwith started a relief work in which fifty villages were helped for ten weeks, and himself nursed a large number of cholera patients on the occasion. Again, during the terrible earthquake in Bihar in 1934, he, old as he was, personally inspected the scenes of the ravage at Monghyr and Bhagalpur and gave impetus to the Mission’s relief work in those areas. His whole life was full of such disinterested acts. To him, all human beings in distress were veritable divinities, and he found intense joy in serving them. In this, he literally carried out Swami Vivekananda’s behest: ‘The poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted—let these be your God. Know that the service of these alone is the highest religion.’
Serving silently at Sargachi
He loved to work silently and unobserved among the dumb masses, and this is why, in spite of his indifferent health, he stuck to the village work at Sargachhi. He was made the Vice President of the Ramakrishna Mission in 1922, and President in March 1934, on the passing away of Swami Shivananda. The duties of the latter post required his presence at the Belur Math, but he preferred the solitude of Sargachhi, and was quite happy with his orphan boys, supervising the agricultural work and taking care of the valuable collection of trees and plants in the orchard. Routine work was distasteful to him. Throughout his life, however, he was a lover of books and gathered a great store of knowledge on diverse subjects. He had a prodigious memory, which, coupled with his strong power of observation and dramatic sense, made him a first-rate conversationalist. His adventurous life as a penniless itinerant monk throughout Northern and Western India, particularly his experiences in Tibet, furnished him with inexhaustible materials for conversation, and he would keep his audience spellbound with narrations of the privations and dangers he had gone through and the rare experiences he had gained in exchange for them. He was an authority on Tibet, having visited that little known country long before the late Rai Bahadur Sharat Chandra Das, and he had had great opportunities of studying the people at close quarters on account of his knowledge of the language. He had a special aptitude for learning languages. While in Rajputana he mastered the intricacies of Hindi grammar. He knew Sanskrit as well as English, and his particular interest was in the Vedas. Not only could he recite and explain choice passages from the Samhitas, but he was at one time keen about founding institutions in Bengal for the study and propagation of Vedic culture, for which purpose he visited and tried to enlist the cooperation of scholars and persons of distinction. He was a forceful writer in his mother tongue and occasionally contributed serial articles to magazines, such as the unfinished ‘Three Years in Tibet’ in the Udbodhan, the Bengali organ of the Ramakrishna Order, and his reminiscences in the monthly Basumati, left, alas, incomplete by his sudden passing away. He was an extempore speaker too, though he was extremely reluctant to appear before the public in that role. His impromptu speech at the memorial meeting in honour of the late Nafar Chandra Kundu, who gave his life to save two sweeper boys from a manhole in Calcutta, was much appreciated.
Above all, like many a great saint, he loved fun. In fact, the boyish element was uppermost in him, so much so that even in the midst of a serious conversation he could make his audience laugh with some droll anecdote. His brother disciples, knowing this lighter side of his nature, would tickle him by creating humorous situations, which he, too, relished. One such incident has been narrated in the chapter on the life of Swami Brahmananda, who was a past master in this game.
The love which the children of Sri Ramakrishna bore towards one another is indescribable. Swami Akhandananda was the favourite of all. Swami Vivekananda loved him particularly, and affectionately addressed him ‘Ganges’ (the English equivalent for ‘Ganga’); but he did not on that account spare the young Swami when it came to indulging in practical jokes. The Master himself was a great lover of fun and used it as an effective means of imparting spirituality and all his disciples shared this attitude towards life. Even if the joke was at one another’s expense, it endeared them all the more to one another.
After his assumption of the Presidential office, Swami Akhandananda was called upon to initiate disciples. Though he showed reluctance at first, perhaps out of humility, he soon overcame the scruple, and during the last three years blessed a good many earnest seekers of both sexes. He insisted on their observing a high standard of purity and moral excellence in their everyday life.
About a year before his death he had a premonition of the approaching end and told some of his disciples about it. With this in view, he arranged the recital of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in his presence. Near the end, he expressed his desire to celebrate the Vasanti Puja, the vernal worship of the Divine Mother Durga, at the Ashrama. But knowing that two of his predecessors had had that desire and passed away without seeing the ceremony performed, he had misgivings about his own case too, and expressed himself to that effect. He had a shed erected for this purpose and said to the Ashrama workers, ‘If I do not live to see the worship, at least I have the satisfaction of raising this Mandapa for the Mother. You will do the rest.’ Like the independent man that he was, he often pooh-poohed the idea of suffering long on his deathbed. Chafing under the infirmities of old age and at having to accept through sheer necessity the loving services of his attendants, he would occasionally declare that he sometimes had a mind to break away from these ties and wander alone, away from the haunts of men. He loved Sargachhi dearly and never liked to be away from it for long if he could help. But it was a cherished desire of his to give up the body, not there but at the Belur Math, the place that was sanctified with a thousand and one memories of his beloved brother disciples from the great Swami Vivekananda downwards. This wish of his was providentially fulfilled since he was taken to Calcutta for better medical treatment, a couple of days before his passing away. A month earlier, Swami Akhandananda had written to the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, asking for the wording of a Sanskrit couplet that had appeared in the April number of the Prabuddha Bharata in 1927, in an article entitled ‘Neo-Hinduism’. It ran as follows:
न त्वहं कामयेराज्यं न स्वर्गं नाऽपुनर्भवम् |
कामये दुःखतप्तानां प्रणिनामार्तिनाशनम् ||
‘I do not covet earthly kingdom, or heaven, or even salvation. The only thing I desire is the removal of the miseries of the afflicted.’ The idea expressed in the couplet was so much after the Swami’s heart that even after the lapse of ten years, on the eve of his departure from this world, he wanted to know its precise reading. Swami Akhandananda entered Mahasamadhi at the age of 72, at the Belur Math on 7 February 1937.