One day Sri Ramakrishna saw a vision which threw his whole body into a shiver. He saw that the Divine Mother pointed out to him a boy as being his son. How could he have a son? The very idea was death to him! Then the Divine Mother consoled Her disconsolate child and said that the boy was his spiritual son and not a son in the worldly sense. Sri Ramakrishna breathed a sigh of relief. Afterwards when the same boy came to him as a disciple, Ramakrishna at once recognised him to be the one he had seen in his vision. He was later known as Swami Brahmananda.
The early name of Swami Brahmananda was Rakhal Chandra Ghosh. He came of an aristocratic family in a village not far from Basirhat in the district of 24 Parganas. His father Ananda Mohan Ghosh was a zemindar. His mother was a pious lady and a devotee of Sri Krishna. Perhaps it was she who gave her son the name Rakhal (meaning the boy-companion of Sri Krishna) when the latter was born on 21 January 1863. Unfortunately, the mother died when Rakhal was only five years old. Soon after, his father married a second wife who brought up Rakhal.
Rakhal grew up a very healthy and fine-looking boy. There was something in his very appearance which endeared him to one and all. His education began in the village school which was started by Ananda Mohan chiefly for the sake of his son. During those days the village schoolmasters were famous for using their rods. Rakhal would feel pained if any of his classmates had to undergo corporal punishment. This attracted the notice of the teacher, who afterwards gave up the practice of caning altogether. As a student Rakhal was remarkable for his intelligence. But even as a boy he had varied interests in life. Physically he was much stronger than the average boy of his age. His companions found it hard to cope with him in wrestling or at play. He would take part in many village games and show unsurpassed skill in them. But play and games did not absorb the whole of his attention. Nearby was a temple dedicateds to the Goddess Kali. Often enough, Rakhal would be found in the precincts of the temple. Sometimes he would play at Mother-worship along with his companions. Sometimes he would himself make a beautiful clay image of the Mother and remain absorbed in worship. Even at an early age Rakhal had great devotion to Gods and Goddesses. During the time of Durga Puja in the family, he would be found seated still and calm witnessing the ceremony, or at the hour of darkness, when the evening service was being performed, Rakhal would be seen standing before the Deity in great devotion.
Rakhal, from his boyhood, had instinctive love for devotional music. When begging friars sang songs in praise of Krishna, the flute-player of Vrindavan, or when anyone sang songs about the Divine Mother, he would become lost to himself. Sometimes he would repair with his companions to a secluded spot in the midst of the field close to the village, and they would sing devotional songs in chorus. In the course of singing, he would occasionally lose almost all outward consciousness, his mind soaring up to a higher region.
After he had finished the primary education, Rakhal was sent to Calcutta in 1875 and admitted into an English High School. In Calcutta he came in contact with Narendranath, afterwards known as Swami Vivekananda, who was then leader of the boys of the locality. Narendra, with his dynamic spirit and born leadership, cast his influence over others and carried them along the path he thought right. Rakhal, meek, quiet, and soft-natured as he was, easily came under his spell, and there grew a close friendship between the two which culminated in a common discipleship at Dakshineswar and bore far-reaching results.
Rakhal and Narendra practised physical exercises in a common gymnasium along with their other companions. And it was Narendra who took Rakhal to the Brahmo Samaj, where they promised not to worship any image. Rakhal’s inborn religious tendencies began to unfold themselves more definitely at this stage. He would be found brooding over the mysteries of life and death, and his mind longed for the realisation of the Eternal Verity. He was intelligent and sharp, but he now lost all interest in his school work. His guardians became alarmed at his indifference to studies. At first they tried to change his attitude through loving persuasion. When that failed, they became stern and strict. But as all measures proved abortive, Rakhal’s father got him married, thinking that thereby his interest would turn towards worldly things. Such, however, was the irony of fate that this marriage itself brought Rakhal into contact with the one who afterwards changed the whole course of his life.
Rakhal married the sister of Sri Manomohan Mitra of Konnagar, an important village up the Ganga on the right bank, a few miles from Dakshineswar. Both Manomohan and his mother were great devotees of Sri Ramakrishna. After this marriage, one day in the middle of 1881, Manomohan took him to Dakshineswar to meet the Master. When Rakhal bowed before the Master, the vision the latter had seen came before his mind, and he was swept by a wave of joy, but he did not give vent to his feelings except by the fact that he treated Rakhal with utmost kindness. Rakhal was charmed with the wonderful love of the Master and thought that he had never received such affection from anybody before. Naturally, the thought of the Master haunted his mind even after he had returned home.
As a result, some time afterwards, Rakhal one day went to Dakshineswar alone. The Master was in ecstasy at the sight of Rakhal, and the latter stood dumbfounded.
With Sri Ramakrishna
Rakhal now frequented Dakshineswar as often as he could. He began also sometimes to stay there. Though a young man of eighteen or nineteen, in the presence of the Master he felt like a child of four or five, and he actually behaved that way. In the Master, Rakhal found the deep affection of his long-lost mother and the tender care of his father, only in a degree infinitely more intense. The Master also treated him exactly as his child. He would feel concerned for him as for a helpless infant. Whereas other disciples attended to the comforts of the Master, the latter himself would often take care of Rakhal. And there was such a spontaneity and naturalness in this strange relationship between the two, that a bystander would rather enjoy it than feel astonished at it. Whereas other disciples would consider it a great favour and privilege if they were allowed to do the least service for the Master, Rakhal would sometimes refuse pointblank to perform work which he was called upon to do by the Master. Instead of being annoyed, Sri Ramakrishna was rather amused at such behaviour; for it indicated the intimacy which had developed between them. But Rakhal would usually be eager to attend to all the comforts of the Master. He was more than a personal attendant to him. A son does not serve his father with so much loving devotion as Rakhal served the Master. And in addition to such services, he would carefully guard the body of the Master when the latter’s mind was lost in samadhi. At times, when the Master would walk about in his ecstatic moods, Rakhal would guide his footsteps by holding his body and giving loud directions about the things to be guarded against.
When Rakhal’s visits to Dakshineswar became frequent, and sometimes he began to stay there to the detriment of his studies, his father was annoyed and afterwards alarmed. He tried his best to persuade Rakhal to be mindful of his future worldly career, but it was impossible for Rakhal to think of his future in terms of material happiness. Persuasion having failed, Ananda Mohan kept Rakhal under surveillance, but Rakhal managed to escape and run to Dakshineswar. When all measures failed, Ananda Mohan gave up the case of Rakhal as hopeless. Rakhal now felt relieved that he could stay with the Master without any interference from home.
Rakhal received from the Master not only the tender affection of a parent, but also the guidance of a spiritual guru. It was the unsurpassed love of the Master which at first drew Rakhal to him, but the latter soon found that behind that human affection there was a spiritual power which could transform lives by a mere wish or thought. Through the Master’s incomparable love, Rakhal began to undergo a great spiritual transformation.
The Master was very keen in regard to the spiritual training of his beloved son. If need be, he did not hesitate to scold Rakhal for the least failing noticed in him. One day when Rakhal came before the Master, the latter asked him why there was a shadow of darkness over his face. Was it the result of any wrong he had committed? Rakhal gaped in wonder. He could not remember to have done anything wrong. But after long cogitation he recollected that he had told a fib in fun. Then the Master cautioned him not to tell a lie even as a joke.
One day the Master went with Rakhal on invitation to attend a religious festival. But the organisers of the festival were busy with rich and influential people and showed scant courtesy to the Master. This was certainly more than young Rakhal could bear. Like a petulant boy he asked the Master to leave the place at once. But the Master would not listen to his counsel, and put up with any amount of indignity. Afterwards he told Rakhal that if they had left the place in resentment that would have caused harm to the master of the house. Rakhal saw the depth of meaning even behind the trifling acts of the Master, and himself got a lesson in humility and self-effacement.
Sometimes in a spiritual mood Sri Ramakrishna would quite unexpectedly bestow the highest gifts on his chosen disciples. Once Rakhal was in meditation in front of the Kali temple when the Master arrived on the spot. Finding him seated in meditation, the Master accosted him and said, ‘This is your sacred Word and this is your Chosen Ideal.’ Rakhal looked up and was vouchsafed the vision of his Chosen Deity. He was beside himself with joy at this unexpected stroke of favour.
As he continued his stay with the Master at Dakshineswar Rakhal’s spiritual life began to progress rapidly. There were many occasions when he would be so much absorbed in meditation that he would lose all consciousness of the sense-world, and the Master had to come to his aid to bring his thought down to the plane of ordinary consciousness. The Master was so much pleased with the spiritual progress Rakhal was making that he would sometimes publicly praise him. In those days Rakhal would be constantly in communion with God. He would day and night repeat the Holy Name, and his moving lips would betray what was going on inside. The very sight of this would now and then throw the Master into ecstasy. Out of the fullness of joy at having such a worthy disciple Sri Ramakrishna began to teach Rakhal the intricacies of Yoga and various forms of spiritual practice. But Rakhal hated any publicity in these things. He would undertake his spiritual practices as secretly as possible. But his appearance, modes of thought and conduct, and, above all, the radiating sweetness of his nature would indicate the inner transformation he was undergoing.
Spiritual life is not, however, all smooth-sailing. There are ups and downs even there. Rakhal also had to pass through difficulties. One day Rakhal sat for meditation in the music hall of the Kali temple, but however much he tried, his mind wandered about till he got exasperated. He was filled with remorse and self-disparagement. He had received the blessings of a saint like the Master and everything in the atmosphere was favourable to spiritual progress, and yet such was the condition of his mind! Perhaps he was not fit for spiritual life. Such stormy thoughts assailed him, and in sheer disgust and agony he left the seat of meditation. By a strange coincidence Sri Ramakrishna was just then passing that way. Looking at Rakhal he inquired why he had got up from his seat after such a short time. Rakhal in all frankness narrated what was passing through his mind. The Master looked grave and pensive for a while and then asked Rakhal to open his mouth. While muttering some indistinct words, the Master wrote something on his tongue. It had the instantaneous effect of unloading the burden of Rakhal’s mind. He felt relieved, and an inner current of joy flowed through his mind. The Master smiled and asked him to try to meditate again.
Rakhal was having a blissful time with the Master at Dakshineswar. But trouble came. He began to have repeated attacks of fever, which made the Master very anxious. At that time the great devotee Balaram Bose was about to go to Vrindavan. With him Rakhal was also sent for a change of climate. There again Rakhal fell ill. That made the Master all the more anxious for he had known in a vision that Rakhal was a companion of Sri Krishna in a previous incarnation, so that he was apprehensive of Rakhal’s giving up his body if the recollection of the past came to his mind. Hence he prayed piteously to the Divine Mother for his spiritual son, and was not relieved till he got an assurance from Her. After three months Rakhal returned to Dakshineswar much improved in health, and the Master was glad beyond measure to receive him.
The number of devotees and young disciples who were attracted by the personality of the Master was steadily on the increase. Some of the young disciples were Rakhal’s old friends and acquaintances; so he was happy to have a tie of common discipleship with them. But they were not to enjoy the holy company of the Master long. For he fell ill of throat trouble which developed into cancer. He was removed to Shyampukur, Calcutta, and then to Cossipore for facilities of better treatment. Under the leadership of Narendranath, Rakhal and others threw themselves heart and soul into the work of nursing the Master. These were days of service to the guru as well as of strenuous spiritual discipline. Rakhal was by nature introspective, but now he grew more and more serious and indrawn. One day the Master said, ‘Rakhal has the wisdom and capacity to administer a vast kingdom.’ Narendra understood what it meant. The young disciples held Rakhal in great esteem, because he was so much loved and admired by the Master. One day Narendra suggested to his brother disciples, ‘Henceforward let us address Rakhal as “Raja”(meaning king).’ Everyone gave a spontaneous assent to the proposal. When the news reached the ears of the Master, he was glad and remarked, ‘Indeed it is an appropriate name for Rakhal.’
The disciples were hoping against hope that the Master would recover. But his health was gradually turning from bad to worse. One day Rakhal in agony asked the Master to pray to the Divine Mother for recovery. But it was impossible for the Master to pray for any particular thing against the will of God, much less for his health. He simply replied, ‘That rests with God.’ Yes, God’s will prevailed against all human efforts. In spite of the best medical care and treatment, the Master began to sink and passed away on 16 August 1886.
Austerity and Pilgrimages
After the passing of the Master, Rakhal joined the monastery at Baranagore along with the other young disciples. Subsequently they took sannyasa ceremonially and changed their names. Thus Rakhal became Swami Brahmananda. but his brother disciples preferred to address him as ‘Raja’, as a mark of deep love and respect, and in subsequent years, he was known in the Order as Raja Maharaj or simply Maharaj.
If the period of stay in the company of the Master was one of supreme bliss, the days at Baranagore were of hard tapasya. The young disciples were ready to lay down their lives, as it were, in search of the great Unknown. They did not care about physical comforts, they did not care about food and drink; the one supreme thought of their lives was how to realise the Self or rather how to make the realisations they had in the presence of the Master a permanent factor in their lives.
After some time even the life at Baranagore seemed to them too secure for their spiritual growth. They wanted to be lost in the wide unknown world with no help and guide excepting God. Some of them began to go to places of pilgrimage to practise tapasya in seclusion. Maharaj (Swami Brahmananda), spurred by such a spirit of renunciation, went to Puri. He stayed there for some time begging his food here and there and passing his days in the thought of the Lord. The devotees and disciples of the Master could never bear the idea that Maharaj should suffer any hardship, for was he not the special care of the Master? So when Balaram Bose, who had a big estate in Orissa and a rich establishment at Puri, heard that Maharaj was undergoing great austerities, he began to press the latter to stay with him in more comfort. Maharaj, finding thus that at Puri he could not follow his own way of life, returned to Baranagore, but was seized with intense longing to make harder efforts to realise the goal of life. He expressed his desire to go to North India and to practise tapasya somewhere there. The leader, Narendranath, reluctantly agreed to allow his beloved brother disciple to embrace the wandering life. But he directed another brother disciple, Swami Subodhananda, to accompany him, so that ‘Raja’ would not have to suffer much inconvenience. Swami Brahmananda went to Varanasi via Deoghar and stayed there for some time. From Varanasi he went to Omkarnath on the bank of the Narmada. It is said that while practising tapasya on the bank of the holy river, he was once, for six days at a stretch, in an ecstatic mood, almost oblivious of the outward world. After Omkarnath he, with his brother disciple and a devotee visited other places of pilgrimage like Panchavati, holy with the association of Ramachandra and Sita, Dwaraka, where there is the famous temple of Sri Krishna, Porbandar, Girnar, Ajmer, and so on, and afterwards returned to Vrindavan. For a soul like Swami Brahmananda, visiting these holy places did not simply mean the satisfaction of the idle curiosity of a sight-seer, but at every place he would identify himself with the deeper spirit of the environment. As a result he was constantly absorbed within himself, and though his lips were closed, his face indicated the spiritual fire within. Many were the persons who were attracted to him merely by his placid countenance and indrawn look. They would feel it a privilege to be of some service to him, and pressed Maharaj to receive it, but one whose mind was soaring high was altogether indifferent to any material comfort. It was difficult, if not impossible, to persuade Maharaj to accept any gift. If extremely pressed, Maharaj would agree to accept something, but that would be so little and of such a trifling nature that it would cause more astonishment than pleasure to the giver.
In Vrindavan and Hardwar
It was for the second time that the Swami came to Vrindavan. Here he passed the days in severe spiritual practices. He was burning with a desire to reach the ultimate goal of life, and in the attempt to realise this desire any price was not too great for him to pay. Throughout the day he would be engaged in one or another form of spiritual practice. Swami Subodhananda was there with him. But they hardly talked. Swami Subodhananda would fetch food for him; but sometimes he would eat it and sometimes be oblivious of it. The great saint Vijay Krishna Goswami, who had seen Rakhal at Dakshineswar and knew how he had been loved by Sri Ramakrishna, was at this time staying at Vrindavan. When he saw the severe austerities Maharaj was undergoing, he asked him: ‘What necessity have you for so much austerity? Has not the Master given you all that is covetable in spiritual life?’ To this Maharaj simply smiled and replied, ‘What I got from him I want to make a permanent possession.’ After some time Swami Subodhananda left for a pilgrimage to Hardwar, and Maharaj lived alone. This gave him greater freedom of life and an opportunity to practise harder tapasya.
At Vrindavan he heard the news that the great devotee Balaram Bose had died. This upset him so much that he left Vrindavan and went to the Himalayan region at Hardwar for greater solitude. He stayed at Kankhal near Hardwar for some time. Afterwards he would say that the atmosphere of Kankhal was very favourable for spiritual growth. While he was living there, Swamiji (Vivekananda), with Turiyananda, Saradananda, and Vaikuntha Sanyal unexpectedly came from Almora to meet him. The joy of such a meeting can be better imagined than described. Swami Vivekananda feared that perhaps Swami Brahmananda would impair his health by hard tapasya and living alone; so he compelled him to accompany him on his way to Meerut. After some time, when Swamiji left his brother disciples in order to wander alone, Swami Brahmananda, accompanied by Swami Turiyananda, started on a pilgrimage to Jwalamukhi and from there he visited various other sacred places in Punjab, Sind, Bombay, and Rajputana. At Bombay they met Swamiji who was then preparing to sail for America to attend the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. With the Swami they travelled up to Abu Road Station, from where they returned to Vrindavan. Here both of them gave their time entirely to spiritual practices, Swami Turiyananda also taking care of Maharaj. They had a very enviable time at Vrindavan, both of them being absorbed day and night in communion with God. Afterwards they would very delightfully recount many happy incidents of their lives there.
While the two brother disciples were enjoying spiritual bliss in the holy atmosphere of Vrindavan, the news reached them that a tremendous success had attended the mission of Swamiji in America. They were very glad to see that the prophetic utterances of the Master with respect to their leader had come true. Swamiji was constantly writing to his gurubhais to plunge themselves into work for the regeneration of India as well as for the welfare of humanity. Repeated requests began to come from Swamiji, as also from the monastery which had now been removed to Alambazar from Baranagore, asking the two brothers at Vrindavan to return to Bengal, so that all might organise themselves together into a band for future work. At first Swami Turiyananda returned, and he was followed also by Maharaj at the end of 1894.
Swamiji and Maharaj
The arrival of the ‘Raja’ at the Math created a great stir and enthusiasm. Everybody was so glad to have the privilege of his company. His very presence had an uplifting influence on the atmosphere. Maharaj also was glad to see that the message of the Master made such a tremendous appeal to the world. Knowing the Master as he did, he was not surprised at that, but he wanted to make the Math a more powerful vehicle for the spread of that message. Once he said to his gurubhais: ‘Your life, your Math will be the source of solace, hope, and inspiration to all who are weary and heavy-laden. Just build up your life accordingly.’ When Swami Vivekananda heard in America that ‘Raja’ had returned to the Math, he was highly delighted. For he had always a great regard for the judgement and opinion of Swami Brahmananda. And had not the Master said that Rakhal possessed the capability to rule a kingdom? Swami Vivekananda fell upon the world like an avalanche. He moved like a whirlwind from one end of the world to the other to impart his message. He was too busy and dynamic. He had no time, as he said, to give his message a finish. He had some big plans in his hand, which required sustained effort for fruition. But he knew that his life was short. Hence after launching some of his schemes very successfully, he needed somebody to carry them out faithfully. So far as the Ramakrishna brotherhood was concerned, Maharaj, with his infinite calm and patience, extraordinary common sense and wisdom, and faithfulness to the leader, was the very man to make that message fruitful in the soil of India. Swamiji came upon the world as a thundering voice. Maharaj’s life was like the gentle dew that falls unknown and unperceived but brings in the rich autumnal harvest.
Two years after Maharaj had returned to the Math, Swami Vivekananda also had returned to India. When the great Swamiji met Maharaj, he handed over to the latter all the money he had collected for the Indian work, and said: ‘Now I am relieved. I have handed over the sacred trust to the right person.’ Maharaj was the ‘friend, philosopher, and guide’ of Swamiji in everything concerning the management of the monastery and the philanthropic works of the Mission. He gave advice about his plans, and followed his ideas in action. He also took care of his health. When the Ramakrishna Mission Society was started, Swamiji became the General President and Maharaj was made the President of the Calcutta centre. But in the beginning of 1901 Swamiji relinquished his position. Swami Brahmananda was then elected to that place on 10 February 1901 and he worked as the President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission till his last day.
The relation between Swamiji and Maharaj was wonderful, and very enjoyable to anyone who witnessed it. Both were beloved of the Master. Both were termed by the Master as Nityasiddhas and Ishvarakotis, that is souls who are eternally free and belong to the divine class but come down to earth for the good and guidance of humanity. Both knew each other intimately from their school days, and their lifelong relationship only increased their love and respect for each other. When Swamiji returned from America, he bowed down to Maharaj saying, ‘The son of the guru is to be respected as much as the guru himself.’ Maharaj too did not lag behind in his sense of humour. He returned the compliment saying, ‘To the elder brother is due the respect that is given to a father.’ To impress on others’ minds the spiritual eminence of Swami Vivekananda, Maharaj said: ‘Where else would you find a holy man like Naren?’ He also remarked that when one sat in meditation with Swamiji, one’s mind naturally became meditative, to which he himself would bear witness.
With this spiritual background the human relationship between the two was very interesting. Sometimes with his practical common sense and intimate knowledge of local affairs Maharaj had to modify plans given by Swamiji. At that the latter would at times become angry and upset. But afterwards when he understood his own mistake, he repented in such a way that the supposedly aggrieved party felt embarrassed, and regretted the suffering caused to Swamiji. Swami Vivekananda was fond of animals; Swami Brahmananda was a lover of gardens. When the animals of one would damage the garden of the other, there would ensue a quarrel the seriousness of which would cause side-splitting laughter to the bystanders.
Swamiji had infinite faith in the loyalty of Maharaj to his cause. He would say: ‘Others may desert me. But Raja will stand by me till the last.’ The two giants put their shoulders together to further the cause of the work started in the name of the Master. The new monastery at Belur was established in 1899. A permanent centre was started in Madras, another was opened in the retreat of the Himalayas. Other centres in India were growing. The Vedanta centres in New York and San Francisco came into existence in 1894 and 1900 respectively. The work was progressing apace. But the two Swamis could not work together long. The life of Swami Vivekananda was prematurely cut short in the year 1902.
The passing away of the leader was a great blow to the work he had started. And it was a great shock to his brother disciples, especially to Maharaj on whom the whole responsibility now fell and who was looked up to for guidance by the whole institution. But suppressing the feeling of personal bereavement at the passing away of Swamiji, he turned his attention to the discharge of the duties that devolved on him.
President of the Ramakrishna Order
Maharaj’s method of work was wonderful. Though his responsibility was too great for any ordinary mortal, his calmness was never disturbed, the serenity of his mind was never ruffled. About the secret of work he once said: ‘Give the whole of your mind to God. If there is no wastage of mental energy, with a fraction of your mind you can do so much work that the world will be dazed.’ The truth of this was exemplified in the life of the Swami himself. Who could have believed on seeing him that he was bearing such a heavy burden? Rather it seemed as if he was indifferent with regard to the affairs of the organisation and that his whole mind was given to God. It was as if only by an effort that he could bring his mind down to mundane things. His far away look, his half-closed eyes, deeply calm composure indicated that his thoughts did not belong to this plane of existence. Yet he was sure of the progress of the work for he relied more on the spiritual attainments and character of the members of the organisation than on the outer circumstances, though he never neglected the latter. He had intimate knowledge of the minds of the different members working even in distant centres. He could read characters at a glance and guide them accordingly. Every member of the vast organisation felt that his interest was safe in the hands of the Swami. His gentle wish was more than a command to all the workers.
The interests of the Swami were varied. He could give wise directions for the design of a building, he could formulate plans for relief works, his suggestions on the methods of education were valued by educationists, his advice regarding the principles to be followed in editing books was at once found to be extremely sound, and in every Ashrama, he visited or stayed in, he encouraged people to have flower and kitchen gardens. His love of flowers was great. To his spiritual vision, the flowers that bloomed in the gardens were the offerings of Nature to the all-pervading Deity. Anyone plucking a flower or injuring a flower plant would incur the greatest displeasure of Maharaj. He would see that the accounts of public money were kept with the strictest regularity. He would not tolerate the slightest carelessness in this respect.
In spite of all these interests, one could vividly see in him that here was a mind which could not be brought down to the level of ordinary work. It was very difficult to persuade Maharaj to attend the meetings of the Trustees of the Math or of the Governing Body of the Mission. He had a happy knack of feeling ‘slightly indisposed’ on such occasions or of giving suggestions that the meeting might be postponed. Those who were responsible for convening such meetings had a hard time with Maharaj in this respect. They felt that they were trying to bring within the constitution of the law a soul which eternally soared above all laws. They felt greatly pained at the thought of what a great torture it meant to the Swami. But once he could be brought to the meeting his opinions and suggestions were invaluable. Experiences showed that his counsels were so very correct that nobody, even in the course of the debate, later on, would feel inclined to dispute what he had said. And there was hardly any debate at such meetings. What the Swami would say or even remotely suggest would invariably be accepted by all. Swami Saradananda, who was the Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission, once said to a young worker, ‘When I say a thing, you should judge and discriminate whether I am right or wrong, but when Maharaj says a thing you may safely accept that as true without the slightest doubt.’
Swami Brahmananda could count on such implicit allegiance just because he kept the Master’s spiritual ideal above all other considerations. Two illustrations will suffice. A rich man of Calcutta, who had lost his only son, came to live at Belur to be near the monks for whose philanthropic work he had great respect. After a few days, he proposed to donate all his property to the Ramakrishna Mission for charitable purposes. When this was communicated to Maharaj by Swami Premananda, Maharaj said: ‘How strange it is, my brother, that this man should imbibe our renunciation by living in our company, and we should get his worldliness from him!’ Swami Premananda understood and felt ashamed so that the matter was dropped. Maharaj knew that the man’s renunciation was temporary, brought on as it was by his grief, and as such, monks were not to take advantage of this.
The other incident was related to the movement for national liberation. Some young men, connected with the revolutionary movement, approached Maharaj for his opinion of their activities. For ordinary people this might be a very embarrassing situation. As Indians, all wanted liberation, so that, even if they avoided encouraging a revolutionary movement in public for fear of the police, they talked eulogistically of this in private, as otherwise they would be branded as anti-national. Maharaj also might have taken the help of such a subterfuge; but instead of doing so, he told the revolutionary young men, even in that private interview that, according to him, the way for progress chalked out by the Master and Swamiji was the only true one, for without a strong moral and spiritual basis, no movement could succeed.
Swami Brahmananda made several tours in North and South India. By the inspiration of his presence existing centres received a fresh impetus and new centres began to spring up. Wherever he went there came a crowd of visitors—young and old—to see him. They were invariably so much impressed by his love, kindness, and the force of his personality, that they became lifelong friends and supporters of the Mission.
In his talks with the monks of the different centres, one of the problems that repeatedly cropped up was with regard to the adjustment between work and meditation. He knew that humanitarian work, without any spiritual inspiration behind it, leads to egotism and becomes a danger to one’s religious life. At the same time there is the other danger of sliding back into indolence in the name of meditation. Maharaj’s aim was to strike a balance without undermining the primacy of spirituality. He had to raise humanitarian work to a spiritual level. ‘We have to work so hard that we do not get sufficient time for meditation’, said a disciple expecting to get the sympathy of one whose whole mind was given to God. ‘You should feel ashamed to say that, my child!’ replied Maharaj, ‘You are monks, you ought not to complain of hard work. It is not the quantity of work but the vagaries of the mind that create obstacles in the way of meditation.’ ‘Just sacrifice this one life for the sake of the work of Swamiji (Swami Vivekananda), even if you consider it a loss. Have you not lived countless lives before? But if you give yourself up wholeheartedly to his cause, rest assured, through his grace, your spiritual life will progress with the speed of a rocket.’ ‘Don’t be ungrateful to Swamiji’, he said to some young men on another occasion, ‘he worked himself to death for you and the country. Just plunge yourselves into his work and repay the debt due to him.’
When he visited any centre, he would not go so much into the details of the work as he would be interested in giving the members a spiritual uplift. According to him, one cannot do really unselfish work unless one’s whole mind is given to God. He would say to the monks, ‘Fie on you, if after giving up the world, cutting yourself from the love of your parents and relatives, you cannot devote the whole of your energy to the realisation of God.’ He would exhort one and all to make the realisation of God the one and only aim of their lives. He would say: ‘Create dissatisfaction in your mind even by an effort. Ask yourself whether you are devoting the whole of your energy to your spiritual welfare. Ask yourself at night how much of the time has been spent in communion with God and how much in other things. The time that has not been given to God has been spent in vain, has been wasted.’ Yet, strange to say, though he laid the main emphasis on spiritual growth, the work of the Mission steadily grew under his care, for it was the spirituality in practice that the Mission really stood for.
Maharaj knew that ordinary mortals had not the aptitude either to carry on or appreciate a long spiritual talk. So he came to the level of ordinary conversation, through which he revealed and imparted higher spiritual truth and knowledge. It was very difficult to draw him into purely spiritual conversations. But when he did talk, his words scintillated with fire, and those who heard him got a lifelong inspiration. As a result of his influence many young men joined the Order. Sometimes a doubting mind found its scepticism vanish by merely coming into his presence. One could rarely argue with him, nor was he given to theoretical discussion. His presence was enough to solve many complex problems which had troubled people for many weary years. Innumerable persons had such experiences. Those who had known both Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Brahmananda used to say that Maharaj represented some of the characteristics of the Master; there was some similarity even in physical appearance.
Wherever he would go there would be so much joyous festivity that all found themselves immersed in it. But there was this characteristic about it, that it was highly uplifting. Once there was so much disaffection amongst the members in a certain centre that the whole atmosphere was vitiated. When all other remedies failed, Maharaj was approached and persuaded to visit the centre. When he went to the place, he did not at all inquire into the grievances of the individual members. Yet his presence created such a great wave of spiritual enthusiasm that all petty problems were automatically solved.
In Northern India
After the passing away of Swami Vivekananda, the first thing that Maharaj gave his attention to was the consolidation of the work at the headquarters. After about one year, when he had put the day-to-day work of the organisation in the hands of Swami Saradananda and the management of the Belur Math in charge of another brother disciple, Maharaj left for Varanasi. In Varanasi at that time there was a centre of the Ramakrishna Math, called Advaita Ashrama, meant exclusively for meditative life, and there was also a philanthropic institution started by some young men under the inspiration of Swami Vivekananda. When Swami Brahmananda reached Varanasi, the Committee of the latter institution formally handed over the management to the Ramakrishna Mission. Maharaj stayed at Varanasi for about a month. Some years later, on another visit, he laid the foundation-stone of the Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service on a new plot of land. Some of the buildings that have been constructed there were according to his plan and design.
From Varanasi he went to Kankhal, near Hardwar, where Swami Kalyanananda, a young disciple of the Order, had started medical work for the sick and the needy. In the quiet of the holy atmosphere at Kankhal, Maharaj remained day and night absorbed in divine communion. Here as elsewhere his silent presence gave impetus to the work of the institution and the Ashrama began to improve after he had been there. From Hardwar he went to Vrindavan where Swami Turiyananda was practising tapasya. Arriving at Vrindavan, Swami Brahmananda again felt an urge to devote himself exclusively to tapasya. He stayed there for a period along with Swami Turiyananda, spending his time in hard spiritual practices. He would at that time get up regularly at midnight for meditation. It is said that one night he was fast asleep and the time to get up was almost over when he suddenly felt a push. He woke up, to find a good spirit beckoning and reminding him to meditate.
From Vrindavan, Maharaj went to Allahabad, where Swami Vijnanananda, a brother disciple of his, was staying and building up the nucleus of the future Ramakrishna centre. He next went to Vindhyachal, a sacred place of pilgrimage associated with the memory of the Divine Mother. At this place he was in a highly ecstatic mood. One night, at the temple of the Divine Mother, he asked an attendant to sing some song. As Maharaj stood before the Divine Presence listening to the song, tears flowed down his cheeks, and soon he was so much absorbed in communion that he lost all outward consciousness, and the bystanders had to take care of him. He had a similar experience in another temple at Vindhyachal. After staying at this holy place for a few days, he returned to the monastery at Belur.
In the month of June 1906, he went to Puri. Of all the holy places he liked Varanasi, Vrindavan, Puri, and Hardwar most. When at Varanasi, he would be full of the thoughts of Vishwanath and Annapurna, the presiding deities; at Vrindavan the association of Sri Krishna would throw his mind into ecstasy; at Puri his emotion would be stirred by the remembrance of Chaitanya and Jagannath, whereas at Hardwar his mind would be absorbed in contemplation of the all-pervading Presence. At different places he would be in different moods each as inspiring as another.
In Southern India
In October 1908, at the earnest request of Swami Ramakrishnananda, head of the Ramakrishna Math at Madras, Swami Brahmananda started for South India. With his wonderful devotion Swami Ramakrishnananda considered Maharaj as a veritable representative of the Master on earth. So when Maharaj arrived at Madras, Swami Ramakrishnananda told the innumerable devotees who came to see the new Swami, ‘You have not seen the Master. Just make your life blessed by seeing his beloved son.’ The childlike simplicity and very unassuming nature of Maharaj, hiding within an extraordinary spiritual personality, made a wonderful impression wherever he went. If anybody approached him with a question, he now and then said with his inborn humility: ‘Just go to Shashi (Swami Ramakrishnananda). He is a great scholar. He will answer your question.’ But if the inquirer persisted and could persuade the Swami to speak, his words removed a heavy load from the mind of the aspirant.
In those days the gulf of separation in the social lives of brahmins and non-brahmins was much greater in Southern India. During Maharaj’s stay at Madras Math, a non-brahmin devotee invited him to his house. He accepted the invitation readily. And to the house of that devotee, along with Maharaj went brahmins, non-brahmins, Christians, Brahmos, all of whom took their meal together. There was no fuss about social reform in this inter-dining. It was inspired by a spontaneous feeling of brotherhood that arose in the presence of a saint.
From Madras City he went on a pilgrimage to Rameshwaram and Madura. As he entered the temple of Meenakshi at Madura, he began to utter the name of the Mother like a child, and he soon lost all outward consciousness. Swami Ramakrishnananda, who accompanied him, immediately took hold of the Swami lest he should fall down. It was nearly an hour after when he came down to the normal consciousness. Maharaj usually had great control over his spiritual emotion. Rarely could a person detect what was going on within him. His spiritual experiences, of which he had a great many as circumstantial evidences indicate, are a sealed book to the outside world. But at times a floodtide of feeling would break down all barriers of control even in such a powerful personality, and the bystanders could then be blessed by seeing the outward signs of his spiritual experience. From Madura he returned to Madras and from there went to Bangalore to open the new building of the monastery there.
It was in July 1916, that Maharaj went to visit the South for the second time. On 4 August, he laid the foundation-stone of the new building of the Ramakrishna Math at Madras and after a week went to Bangalore. At the monastery at Bangalore many untouchables would meet in the main hall for prayer and worship. Maharaj was specially pleased at this sight. One day, of his own accord, he suddenly visited the quarters of the untouchables, saw the shrine-room they had built, and encouraged and blessed them. It was beyond the farthest limit of their imagination that such a great saint, whose presence had created a stir amongst the elite of the town and to see whom even the big people of the place were very eager, could feel so interested in them as to go to their place unasked and mix with them so freely.
This time Maharaj visited many sacred places in the South including some notable temples in Travancore. During this visit he laid the foundation stone of an Ashrama on a beautiful spot on the top of a hill in Trivandrum overlooking the sea. And on 6 May 1917, he laid the foundation stone of the new building of the Ramakrishna Mission Students’ Home in Madras and soon after left for Bengal. His last visit to the South was in 1920, when he opened the new spacious building of the Ramakrishna Mission Students’ Home in Madras.
In the meantime, in 1916, he went to Dacca in East Bengal to lay the foundation stone of the local Ramakrishna Mission on a new site. He took advantage of this occasion to visit the holy shrine at Kamakhya in Assam. Then he went to Mymensingh and visited Narayanganj as also Deobhog, the birthplace of Durga Charan Nag, a great devotee of the Master.
It has been mentioned that he went to North India several times. He would usually stay at Varanasi or Kankhal and visit other sacred places occasionally. Whenever he visited a sacred place or a temple, a large number of monks and devotees would accompany him, for to go with him was to get an added inspiration. On such occasions he would often take with him some musicians whom he would ask to sing devotional songs in the presence of the Deity. The combined effect of all these was simply marvellous. Those who were present on such occasions would be lifted up to a plane beyond the reach of any earthliness. And the one who was the centre of all this would remain absorbed within himself oblivious of his surroundings. Once while he was hearing devotional music in Ayodhya standing in front of the Deity, there came a downpour. Still he stood steadfast almost unconscious of the rains. Others came hurriedly and took care of him. It was long after the rains had ceased that the Swami came back to the conscious plane.
He had a great love for music. Later, it became a rule to arrange for good devotional music, vocal or instrumental, at evening wherever he happened to be. During such performances, he would sit quiet in the midst and his very serenity would create such an atmosphere that nobody would dare whisper a word lest there should be disturbance. Such occasions brought to the listeners the blessings of a spiritual bath as it were.
With respect to Swami Brahmananda, Sri Ramakrishna used to say in his inimitable way, ‘Rakhal is like a mango which does not give any outward indication when ripe.’ He meant that Rakhal had within him great spiritual potentiality which he would keep hidden from the outside world. But in spite of all his attempts to keep his powers hidden, people in larger and larger numbers began to flock to him when his spiritual personality began to unfold itself. And they were of all classes—actors and dramatists, lawyers and doctors, old and young men. They all wondered what was in him that attracted them so much. They always failed in their analytical estimation of his personality; but the total spiritual effect was so irresistible that they could not help going to him. He would not necessarily talk of spiritual things with them. As a matter of fact, he was very taciturn in that respect. He would talk of all sorts of things, but if any spiritual question was put to him, he would look grave, and the questioner would not like to press his point. But still there were many who would feel miserable if they had not seen him at least once in the course of the day.
Perhaps one of the secrets of this magnetic attraction was his deep love for one and all, though there was hardly any sentimental expression of his love. He would say, ‘The love that expresses itself outwardly is not sufficiently deep.’ Behind his silence people could not gauge how deep was his concern for them. They would feel drawn by a strong current, as it were, but they could not understand the why and wherefore of it. Innumerable were the lives that were changed by his touch. Many would come, with whom he would crack jokes and make fun, but afterwards they would find to their great astonishment that their lives had taken a new turn. There were persons who thought no sacrifice too great to fulfil his slightest wish. Many young men, caught in the current of his love, gave up the world and worldly prospects. They felt that in comparison with the love they got from him, the love of their parents dwindled into nothingness.
In the earlier years it was very difficult to get initiation from him. He was very searching about the aspirants, and the standard he demanded was an extremely high one. But later, he was more liberal in this respect. The method of his giving initiation was novel. Once he said that in giving initiation he had to find through deep meditation the exact Mantra and the Chosen Deity of the disciple. Until he could get that, he would not give initiation. He was conscious of the fact that to make a disciple is to take upon oneself the spiritual responsibility of the person concerned. And until the disciple gets his salvation, the guru willingly forgoes his own desire for that. Naturally, he was careful to give initiation to only those who were really earnest about their spiritual life.
His human relationship was wonderful. We have seen how everybody felt the touch of his infinite love. His courtesy and dignity were remarkable and revealed more a prince than a monk. He had actually the majestic appearance of a prince. If nothing else, his mere appearance compelled reverence from others.
He had also his moments of fun or play with children. He identified himself so completely with them that one would hardly take him to be Swami Brahmananda, the head of the Ramakrishna Order, before whom the monks bowed and big men felt themselves humble. His fund of humour was great, and no less was his capacity for mischief-making. One of his brother disciples, Swami Akhandananda, wanted to take leave of him to go to his field of work. Maharaj reluctantly agreed to the proposal. A palanquin was engaged which would carry the brother disciple to the railway station for the night train. Before the palanquin started Maharaj whispered something to the bearers. The bearers, instead of going to the station, walked throughout the whole night to the tune of their droning sound of ‘hoom, hoom’ and returned with the inattentive brother disciple at sunrise to the place from which they had started. Maharaj came out and greeted his brother there gravely, the brother disciple realised the mischief. The condition of his mind can well be imagined; but he did not know whether to get angry or to admire the cleverness of his brother. It was difficult to cope with Maharaj in such matters.
The last important act of Maharaj was to build under his personal supervision, an Ashrama at Bhubaneshwar, in Orissa. He was of the opinion that Bhubaneshwar had such a congenial atmosphere that progress would be very rapid if one undertook spiritual practices there. He saw that many monks of the Order had to work so hard that they did not find sufficient time for tapasya. And the health of those who went to Rishikesh and other places for this purpose broke down due to too much hardship. He desired very much that there should be a place where the monks could get proper facilities for spiritual practices. He had an idea of personally carrying out the development of the place according to this plan; but he did not live long to see his dream fulfilled.
After his last Madras tour he returned to Bengal, stopping on the way for some time at Bhubaneswar. While at the headquarters, he sometimes stayed at the house of Balaram Bose in Calcutta, made sacred by the visits of Sri Ramakrishna. In the last week of March 1922, Maharaj went to stay there. Suddenly on 24 March, he had an attack of cholera. The best doctors were called in, the best attendants were engaged. But he had hardly recovered from the attack when symptoms of diabetes developed which took an alarming turn. Out of great anxiety, different kinds of treatments were tried, different physicians were called in, but there was no sign of any improvement. He had great suffering attended with various ailments. But even in that state he began to talk of high spiritual things punctuated with masterly strokes of sudden humour. In a great spirit of compassion he began to bless one and all. The devotees apprehended that this might mean his bidding farewell. Sri Ramakrishna once had a vision that floating on the waters of the Ganga there came a thousand petalled lotus illuminating the whole surroundings. On the lotus stood a boy holding the hands of Sri Krishna. When the Master first met Rakhal, he identified him as that boy. But he kept that vision secret, giving it out only to a select few, and said that if Rakhal recollected his true identity, he would give up his body.
Now Swami Brahmananda, in an ecstatic state, began to refer exactly to the same vision that the Master had seen. People grew more alarmed at this. Another day passed. The following evening, on 10 April, Swami Brahmananda closed his eyes in deep samadhi, and the spirit which had put on mortal flesh for the benefit of humanity fled away.
So long as the devotees and disciples lived with Maharaj they were enveloped in ceaseless bliss. But now everybody felt as if a great Himalayan peak had suddenly been bodily removed. Everyone began to ask himself, ‘Now, what about the future?’ And those who had moved with him closely thought within themselves, ‘Was it a fact that we lived with a soul like that of Maharaj? Indeed, what have we done to deserve that blessed privilege?’ A great dream had faded away all too suddenly.