Swami Vijnanananda, before he took orders, was known by the name of Hariprasanna Chattopadhyaya. He was born on 30 October 1868, in a respectable family of Belgharia, which is within a couple of miles of Dakshineswar. When studying in the first or second class of a High school, Hariprasanna saw Sri Ramakrishna at Dewan Govinda Mukherji’s house. But Hariprasanna was too young then. The real meeting came off two years later. It was in the year 1883 that Hariprasanna, then a student of the St Xavier’s College, went to Dakshineswar with his fellow students Sharat (Swami Saradananda) and Barada Pal. The Master, as was his wont, showed great love and kindness towards Hariprasanna, which bound him indissolubly to the Master. Young though Hariprasanna was, it did not take him much time to find out that here was a man who was extraordinary in every sense of the word, and he was as much captivated by his words of wisdom as he was drawn by his charming naivety. As the Master soon left for Mani Mallik’s house in Calcutta, the three friends followed him there. Naturally, Hariprasanna returned home very late that night. His mother had been waiting anxiously for him, and when she learnt that he had been to that brahmin of Dakshineswar, who was then considered crazy by a section of people, the good lady said in an angry tone, ‘So you had been to that mad brahmin who has deranged the brains of no less than three hundred and fifty young men?’ In later days, after recounting the event, he used to comment, ‘Derangement of brain indeed! The brain is still deranged.’ And he would add, ‘Had I not been caught in the influence of that mad man, who knows where I should have been now—wallowing in the welter of the world?’
‘Derangement of brain indeed! The brain is still deranged.’ And he would add, ‘Had I not been caught in the influence of that mad man, who knows where I should have been now—wallowing in the welter of the world?’
He said that he met the Master thus at Dakshineswar five or six times. One afternoon Hariprasanna went to Dakshineswar, and on the request of the Master stayed there for the night. The Master himself took almost nothing at night, but a special arrangement was made for the meal of the boy. Then very affectionately, the Master himself hung a mosquito curtain and spread a mat for young Hariprasanna to sleep in his own room—a privilege which was reserved for only the chosen few. When Hariprasanna was lying on his bed, the Master came near and began to talk to him. Very tenderly he said, ‘Do you know why I love you all so much? You are my own people. The Divine Mother has shown me this.’ The conversation lasted for some time, during the course of which the boy began to feel sleepy. After a while Hariprasanna found the Master going round and round his bed clapping his hands and muttering something indistinct. He began to wonder whether Sri Ramakrishna was really a mad man as some supposed him to be. Afterwards, he used to say that on that night the Master gave him all that was to be given to him.
With Sri Ramakrishna
Sri Ramakrishna’s love for his young disciples or future apostles was immense. If any of them did not go to Dakshineswar for a considerable time, the Master would send for him or inquire about him through a messenger. At one time Hariprasanna did not visit Dakshineswar for a rather long time, and the Master sent word to him through Sharat to come and see him. When Hariprasanna arrived at Dakshineswar and met the Master, the latter, in an aggrieved tone, asked, ‘Why is it that you don’t care to come here? It is difficult to get you here even after sending a messenger!’ The young disciple very frankly said, ‘I don’t always get the mood to come, so I don’t.’ At this, the Master simply smiled and said. ‘You practise a little meditation, I believe?’ ‘I do try to meditate, but how to have good meditation? I don’t have any real meditation at all’, replied Hariprasanna. The answer astonished the Master, who remained quiet for a while. Hariprasanna was looking at his face eagerly awaiting the words that would drop from his lips. As he was doing this, the face of the Master changed; he looked grave and said, ‘All right, just go to the Panchavati now and try to meditate.’ Then he beckoned him to come nearer and wrote something on his tongue with his finger and sent him to the Panchavati. Hariprasanna wended his way towards the Panchavati, but after the Master had touched him, he was in a state of intoxication and could hardly walk. As he sat for meditation at the Panchavati, he became for a long time oblivious of his surroundings and of the outside world. When Hariprasanna returned to his senses, he found the Master seated by his side smiling and gently passing his hands over his body. After a while the Master broke the silence and asked, ‘What? Did you have meditation today?’ ‘Yes, today I had the experience of a good meditation’, said Hariprasanna in surprise. ‘Henceforward you will find that you will have good meditation every day’, the Master assured him further. Sri Ramakrishna then went to his room accompanied by Hariprasanna, to whom he very affectionately gave many instructions about the intricacies of spiritual life. Swami Vijnanananda would say afterwards, ‘I was amazed to see his love for us that day. Repeatedly did this occur to my mind: “Indeed, how much does he think for us!” I had no idea of this. There can be no comparison with his love.’ It was on that day that the Master told him, ‘Beware of the wiles of sex-attraction. Be very, very careful on that point. You boys are the chosen people of the Divine Mother. She will get many things done through you. So I say to you, ‘Be very, very careful.’ Swami Vijnanananda obeyed this instruction in letter and spirit throughout his life.
How very free and intimate was the Master with his disciples is revealed from the following interesting incident, narrated by Swami Vijnanananda: ‘I wrestled with the Master out there on the verandah (pointing out of the west door of the room of Sri Ramakrishna, overlooking the Ganga). He was such a little man, and I was big and strong, so I put him down easily. His body was so delicate, so soft, just like a baby’s.’ But though victorious in the bout, Hariprasanna felt that some energy had passed into him from the Master through the physical contact, and he felt awed.
One of his class-friends says that as a student Hariprasanna was very spirited and would be upset at the sight of any moral turpitude or social injustice. After passing the First Arts Examination from Calcutta he went to Bankipore, Bihar, where he was when Sri Ramakrishna left his mortal body. He related that he had a vision of the Master at that time. He graduated from the Patna College and then went to study Civil Engineering at Poona.
After taking his degree of L C E, he joined the Government service and rose in the course of a few years to the position of a District Engineer. By that time the monastery at Baranagore had been founded, and the monastic disciples of the Master often became his guests at different places. The flame of renunciation, however, that had been kindled in him by the Master was burning within him, and he found it impossible to remain in the world for a long time. Even as an officer Hariprasanna was taciturn, would mix with few people, and remained in his bungalow absorbed in his own thoughts. But his colleagues and assistants were surprised at his uncommon degree of integrity as well as his strictness in regard to the discharge of his duties. And those who came in close touch with him revered him almost as a god—such was the force of his character, pure, spotless, and at the same time humble and unassuming.
At Alambazar Monastery
In the year 1896, shortly before Swami Vivekananda returned for the first time from his triumphant mission in the West, Hariprasanna joined the Brotherhood at Alambazar, where the monastery had meanwhile been shifted. Hariprasanna was very devoted to his mother, and it was only for her sake that he had accepted a job and continued in it for some years. But when he had collected enough money to meet her future maintenance, he felt his conscience free. He was then at Etah. Before the final decision for renunciation was taken, he had two repeated visions of the Master who urged him to give up the world. So with his worldly duty over and conviction firm he joined the Ramakrishna Math.
Swami Vijnanananda accompanied Swami Vivekananda on his trip to Rajputana and elsewhere. Just before the monastery was removed to its permanent home at Belur in 1899, the task of constructing the necessary building was entrusted to Swami Vijnanananda, who later also supervised the construction of the embankment on the Ganga in front of the main building. Swamiji, who was then living at the Belur Math, one day saw him at work in the hot sun, and, as a favour, but mostly in fun, sent him, through a disciple, the little remnant of a glass of cold drink. Swami Vijnanananda took the glass and, although he noticed the minute quantity of the sherbet sent, he quaffed it just the same. To his wonder, he found that those few drops had completely allayed his thirst! When he next met Swamiji, the latter asked him how he had enjoyed the drink. He replied that though there had been very little left, yet it had the effect of quenching his thirst. Thereupon both laughed. This is but a solitary instance of the pleasant things which took place to sweeten the relationship among the brother disciples.
Another humorous incident illustrative of their cordiality deserves mention. While the construction work was going on at the Belur Math, some materials were being eagerly expected. One evening Swami Brahmananda said that the materials would arrive by boat before the next morning, which Swami Vijnanananda doubted. Thereupon a wager was laid and both retired for the night. In the early hours of the morning, Swami Vijnanananda got up to see whether the boat had come. It had not; so he returned to his bed elated at the prospect of winning the wager. A little later, the other Swami also came out, found the boat moored and quietly retired again. After daybreak Swami Vijnanananda, without suspecting anything, came to him and joyously demanded the wager. ‘What for?’ said the other. Then the disconcerting truth dawned upon Swami Vijnanananda, and finding the tables turned on him, he said, ‘Well, I have no money, you pay it for me!’ General laughter followed. On another occasion, a similar result greeted his prediction about rain. Afterwards, the Swami would narrate those incidents by way of tribute to his illustrious brother monk.
Swamiji, as is well known, was a man of varying moods. Sometimes he was playful, then everybody could approach him with freedom. But at other times he became very grave when none dared face him with unpleasant facts. One day he was having a talk with Swami Vijnanananda, when the latter, encouraged by his light mood, not only had the boldness to differ from him but even went so far as to say, ‘India won’t follow your social message!’ Swamiji’s countenance changed. He became very serious, and after a few moments he called out to Swami Brahmananda, ‘Look here, Rakhal, he tells me that I won’t be followed!’ Swami Brahmananda made light of the incident, remarking, ‘Why do you listen to him? He knows nothing!’ Meanwhile, Swami Vijnanananda, who had seen his mistake, apologized, and everything was all right.
The plan for Belur Math
Swamiji had a great desire to raise a big memorial temple to the Master at Belur Math and entrusted the task of planning it to Swami Vijnanananda, giving him specific instructions for it. The Swami, in consultation with a noted European architect of Calcutta, prepared a design of the proposed temple, which had the approval of Swami Vivekananda. Swamiji’s premature passing away in 1902 nipped the project in the bud. But the serious thoughts of spiritual giants never die out; they only bide their time. Thirty years after Swami Vivekananda’s exit from this world, a magnificent offer of help came from some of his devoted American students, which made it possible for the authorities of the Belur Math to erect the present beautiful temple of Sri Ramakrishna after the design left by Swamiji. The foundation stone of this noble edifice was set in its proper place in July 1935, by Swami Vijnanananda as Vice President of the Order.
Swami Vijnanananda, visiting many places as a wandering monk, came to Allahabad in the year 1900. He became the guest of a doctor friend and wanted to pass a short time in that sacred place of pilgrimage. At that time there was in Allahabad a group of young men who met together in a rented house which they called Brahmavadin Club, and they made attempts to improve themselves morally and spiritually through scriptural study, discussions, and worship. This group of boys was organized by a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna who had gone to Allahabad some years back and who left for Calcutta in the year 1900. Then the boys had to manage their own affairs without any superior guidance. When they heard that a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna had come to the city, they thought it a stroke of good fortune and at once went to the Swami to request him to come to their place and stay there for some time to guide and supply them with the help and inspiration. The keen earnestness and sincere devotion of the boys persuaded the Swami to visit their place, and after seeing everything, he felt inclined to put up there for a period. This was the beginning of great events. For in this place the Swami passed eight precious years of his life in hard tapasya, study, and meditation till he afterwards established a permanent centre of the Ramakrishna Math in the city, where he spent the rest of his life as a unique spiritual force. At the Brahmavadin Club, the Swami had to pass through much hardship—being his own cook and servant, depending for subsistence on what chance might bring. But he hardly felt the suffering, for his mind and thought were centred on a plane where these things could not reach. Most of the time he would spend in meditation and study, seeking no company, but not refusing any help to persons who sought it. Thus through the silent influence of his example as well as through personal contact, he changed the course of many lives. It was only in the evening that outsiders were generally allowed to see him. For them he would sometimes hold scriptural classes or would otherwise solve their problems through informal talks. The Swami was always loth to talk much. Specially with regard to spiritual matters he would dismiss the whole problem with as few words as possible—sometimes in fun and sometimes in a serious mood. But he had a wonderful capacity to satisfy the inquirers even with his short conversations. To persons who would come with any big philosophical problem, he would say ‘Just follow the maxims which you have read in the copybooks, namely, ‘Always speak the truth’; ‘To take a thing without the consent of its owner is to steal’, and so on. It would be very difficult to draw him out specially on spiritual things, but when he was in a mood to talk, he would at once change the atmosphere and supply spiritual food to the listeners which would give them sustenance for many years to come, if not for their whole lives.
From the Brahmavadin Club the Swami removed himself to the Ramakrishna Math, Muthiganj, which he founded in the year 1910. Here also he lived the same austere life as in the Club, only his sphere of activity was now wider. In the course of time, a dispensary was opened as a part of the activities of the Ashrama. But these activities touched but the outer fringe of his life which always flowed inwardly beyond the possibility of the knowledge of ordinary people. With reference to him, Swami Brahmananda who had great spiritual insight would say, ‘It is very difficult to know him. He always keeps himself hidden. But he is a knower of Brahman. He has known the Self and is thus satisfied.’ He was eager to send those boys who had special spiritual aptitude to Allahabad to grow under the inspiration of Swami Vijnanananda.
Swami Vijnanananda was also a great scholar. He was a voracious reader and had varied intellectual interests. He was a great friend of Srijut Srish Chandra Basu and Major B D Basu, two noted scholars of Allahabad at that time. At their instance, he also undertook some literary work. Besides writing a two-volume work in Bengali entitled Jalsarvaraher Karkhana (A Manual of Engineering and Waterworks), he translated from Sanskrit into English the voluminous Purana, Devi Bhagavata, two ancient astrological and astronomical works, Varahamihira’s Brihajjataka and Surya Siddhanta, the latter into Bengali as well as English. Towards his last days, he was engaged in translating the Ramayana into English, which works he left unfinished.
Love for solitude
Swami Vijnanananda loved retirement. He was, therefore, not actively engaged in the main work of the Ramakrishna Mission. But whenever his help was necessary he would ungrudgingly give it. His knowledge of engineering was particularly useful in this respect. He supervised the construction of some buildings of the Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service, Varanasi, as also of the Swami Vivekananda Temple at the Belur Math. Besides, he helped with valuable advice in regard to the construction of other buildings.
On account of his humility and love of retirement, he refused for years on end to be a trustee of the Ramakrishna Math. But when in 1934 after the passing away of Swami Shivananda, the then President of the Ramakrishna Order, the necessity arose for his becoming a trustee, he could not decline it any longer. He became Vice President of the Order that very year, and on the demise of Swami Akhandananda, the next President, he became the President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in March 1937. Feeling in his heart of hearts the urge to initiate people—weary pilgrims in the wilderness of life—he broke towards the end of his life his lifelong practice of not initiating anybody although he was pre-eminently qualified to be a guru. This sense of duty marked him throughout. Through his grace hundreds of men and women were placed on the path of spiritual progress. During the last few years of his life he travelled extensively and visited many centres of the Ramakrishna Order including Colombo and Rangoon. Everywhere his presence was the occasion of spiritual awakening to innumerable persons.
Although he would not usually talk seriously with those who approached him with big philosophical problems and the like for the sake of mere discussion, when sincere inquirers approached him with the pressing problems of their inner life, his face would light up and with great affection, love, and sympathy, he would talk, and the problems, which—to the persons concerned appeared knotty, would dissolve immediately, and they would go away with their heavy burden removed. Living, as he always was, on the spiritual plane, to make supreme efforts for the realisation of Truth was the burden of his advice given to the devotees. ‘God-vision is the true aim of human life, for that alone can give us real and lasting satisfaction. Man hankers after the things of the world, wealth, sense enjoyment, honour, and so on, in the hope that these can give him happiness in life. But it is the experience of all that the pursuit of these has only a reverse effect on the mind. Not only do we fail to realise the desired end through that, but the restlessness of the mind is even increased, and we are rendered more unhappy than in the beginning. Through wealth and honour our egotism is bloated up, and there is no greater obstacle in the spiritual path than egotism … The supreme duty of man is to remember Him always, whether one is engaged in consciously repeating His name or not. Every breath of ours should be associated with Him, in our mind. We should consider that we breathe in God to make the inside pure, and we breathe out God to make the outside pure’, he said to a group of devotees who met him in Madras.
‘But how can we have peace seeing that there is so much conflict and suffering in the country owing to trade depression and political struggles?’ asked one of them. ‘Why do you make so much of these struggles that are going on in the outside world?’ the Swami asked in reply, and he added, ‘Do you think that they will stop, supposing you gain your immediate end and the present phase of the struggle passes away? Certainly, they will not. Restlessness arises not from these external struggles, but from our own internal hankering and our clinging to the things of the world. Even if God were to appear before us to bring peace unto our souls, we would refuse to recognize Him. For when He comes, He takes away our worldly possessions, and few of us are ready to make this sacrifice.’
Sometimes precious little gems were hidden in the words he uttered in fun. For instance, he asked a devotee, ‘Have you ever seen a ghost?’ ‘No, sir’, was the reply. ‘Why they are already in your body’, said the Swami, ‘not one, but five altogether.’ As the devotee could not follow, and looked at him for explanation, he said, ‘The body is made up of five bhutas (the word meaning both ghosts and the constituent material elements), and as one would call on Rama to get rid of the fear of ghosts, so also one must take refuge in Rama to be saved from the lures of these elements.’
Absorbed as he always was in his own thought, there was an atmosphere of aloofness about him. He would always prefer to be left to himself. In later days, when streams of devotees would meet him, he would abruptly say, ‘I would like to be quiet.’ In this matter he was no respecter of persons. He could not submit himself to any social code of conduct. To one who did not know him well, his manner, dress, and mode of life might have seemed a bit out of the way. For instance, he dressed in a very peculiar way, with a loose coat hanging down to the knees and having a number of big pockets. His cap, too, would look odd. When walking on the Allahabad streets, someone might be looking at him with wonder, noticing which he would merrily say, ‘What are you looking at? I am just a monkey (devotee) of Ramji, a monkey of Ramji to be sure.’
At times he would be full of wit, humour, and mirth and throw the audience into roaring laughter. In many things he was just like an innocent child. His frankness was beyond comparison. The same trait made him a very plain-speaking person, but his straight words would not give offence to any man.
Though he had a very retiring disposition, he was not insensitive to the misery and suffering around. In Orissa some poor people who took initiation from him brought some presents to the guru. That upset him immensely, and he declared he would not give initiation if such people brought any offerings. His renunciation was very great and spontaneous. There was a delightful naturalness about it. A rich disciple once gave him a purse as a humble offering. ‘You have no place to keep that, I suppose? And so you are thrusting the responsibility of keeping the money on me!’ said the Swami jocosely but unawares giving out his attitude towards worldly things.
He had many spiritual visions and experiences about which he was discreetly silent. Only now and then in unguarded moments would he give out some secret. Once in the course of conversation he said that he felt the all-pervasive presence of God. At Pegu in Burma he saw an image of Buddha in a pagoda. ‘It is not like the one I saw’, he said in astonishment. ‘What other image do you mean, Maharaj?’ asked the attendant. Then the Swami described how in one of his visits to the sacred spot of Sarnath he had a vision that everything was dissolved in a sea of pure consciousness and out of that appeared a form of Buddha—so sweet and so affectionate! Suddenly the Swami awoke to the consciousness that he was giving out things which he should not. Then he began to make fun about what he had said, in order to neutralize his statements. To him the evidence of the existence of the Master, though not in the physical body, was as strong and as natural as that of things seen in broad daylight. That faith kept him calm and joyous under all circumstances. In illness he would not take any medicine, nor would he allow attendance on him beyond the least that was necessary. During the last years of his life, he suffered from many ailments. People were hardly aware of them all. Once a rich devotee prayed to him that she might call in the best doctors of Calcutta to examine him. The Swami replied, ‘I am under the treatment of a doctor better than the best physician you can think of.’ This precious information was a great relief to her: she thought that some great physician was attending on him. ‘What is the name of that doctor?’ asked the devotee in eager expectation for an answer. ‘The Lord Himself is my doctor’, said the Swami. This simple answer silenced all controversy as to the necessity of calling in a doctor. From the time when the construction of the Sri Ramakrishna Temple at Belur began, he was anxiously watching its completion in order that he might install his great Master there as early as possible. In view of his failing health, it was decided to have the installation ceremony done just after the completion of the main shrine. On 14 January 1938, Swami Vijnanananda performed the dedication of the temple and the consecration of the marble image of Sri Ramakrishna amidst imposing rites—a function which was witnessed by about fifty thousand devotees and spectators. Having done this, he felt that the great task of his life was finished, and he got ready to join his beloved Master. He paid only one more visit to Belur, and that was only on the occasion of the Master’s next birthday. He looked very much emaciated, and those who saw him then were apprehensive of the approaching end. Still he initiated hundreds of aspirants, lay and monastic and answered their queries.
The Swami returned to Allahabad and entered Mahasamadhi on 5 April 1938. The body which he gave up like a rejected garment, but which was the vehicle of supreme spiritual achievement and great spiritual ministration, was consigned with appropriate ceremonies to the sacred waters of the Triveni, at the confluence of the Ganga and the Jamuna in the presence of a large number of monks and devotees.