Swami Advaitananda in his pre-monastic days was known as Gopal Chandra Ghosh. He was the oldest of the monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, being older than even the Master by a few years. Besides, as there were two Gopals, Sri Ramakrishna would address Swami Advaitananda as ‘aged Gopal’ while others would call him Gopalda or Gopal the elder brother. His father was Govardhan Ghosh, and he was born in a village called Jagaddal in 24 Parganas, but usually, he lived in Sinthi near Calcutta. Gopal was an employee in a shop in Chinabazar, Calcutta, belonging to Beni Pal of Sinthi. Beni Pal was a devout Brahmo, and in the religious celebrations which he performed at his place, the Master would also occasionally be present on invitation. Perhaps it was at these meetings that Gopal first met the Master.
With Sri Ramakrishna
Gopalda was a married man. At the death of his wife, he received such a great shock that he did not know what to do. A friend, who was a devotee of the Master, asked him to go to Dakshineswar, which he did. Gopalda did not profit much by the first visit, nor did he find anything very remarkable in the Master. But his friend insisted on his repeating the visit, for holy men do not often reveal themselves at once. Gopalda complied, and this time he was caught in the love of Sri Ramakrishna. As he began to frequent Dakshineswar, the overwhelming burden of his grief was completely removed. The Master’s simple explanation of the unreality of the world made a deep impression on his mind, and he began seriously to think of giving up the world in search of God. Ultimately he renounced the world and devoted himself heart and soul to the service of the Master in his last illness. He was very neat and clean and the embodiment of method and orderliness. These traits in him received great appreciation from the Master. His service to the Holy Mother was equally wholehearted. As the bashful Mother did not talk with anyone except the old Gopalda, the young Latu, and a few others, Gopalda used to attend to her needs.
One day Gopalda expressed a desire to the Master to distribute some ochre cloths and rosaries to monks. On this, the Master replied, ‘You won’t find better monks than these young boys here. You may give your clothes and rosaries to them.’ Thereupon Gopalda placed a bundle of saffron cloths before the Master, who distributed them among his young disciples.1 Thus was sown the seed of the future Ramakrishna Order.
At the Cossipore garden-house Swami Vivekananda, then Narendranath, when sitting one day in meditation was lost to outer consciousness. His mind flew beyond the realm of relative consciousness and was merged in the Absolute. Gopalda became terrified and rushed to the Master to report that Narendra was dead. The Master understood that it was a case of Nirvikalpa Samadhi and assured Gopalda accordingly. After some time Narendra regained normal consciousness.
Tapasya in Varanasi
After the passing away of the Master, Gopalda had no home to go to. So, with himself and Shivananda as the first inmates, was started the monastery at Baranagore. After staying in this monastery for a few years, he went to Varanasi where he practised austerities for about five years. One who had the privilege of staying with him at Varanasi says that his regularity in spiritual practices was wonderful. Very early in the morning, even in the severe wintry days of Varanasi, he would get up and go to the Ganga for a bath. From there he would return shivering with cold but his mind absorbed in reciting some Sanskrit hymns. The programme of the whole day was fixed, and he would follow it without the least deviation for days, months, and years. At that holy city, he lived on Madhukari, small quantities of cooked food collected from various houses so that it might not be taxing to a single individual. Adjacent to a place where an image of Shiva was installed, he occupied a small room, but how neat and clean that small room was! Everything kept in its proper place, the room at once gave indication of great taste and orderliness. His steadiness would cause wonder to those who watched him. He was quite indifferent to worldly sights and sounds and followed his own tenor of life in the contemplation of the divinity from day to day without any break.
Life at Belur Math
When Swamiji returned to India and organised the Ramakrishna Brotherhood, Swami Advaitananda, the name he was given when he became a monk, returned to the Math at Alambazar. Afterwards, he stayed mainly at the new monastery at Belur Math, where he looked after the management of various affairs of the monastery, specially the garden work. But all work he undertook or supervised had to be done very systematically and with scrupulous care. The young novitiates could hardly rise to his standard of perfection as regards work and for that reason they had a very hard time with him. Many of them would receive mild rebukes from old Gopalda, but they would take his criticisms more as a token of affection than as any indication of bitterness. Gopalda, however, would say later, ‘The Master has shown me that it is He who is manifested through all. Then whom to blame or whom to criticise?’ After this experience, Gopalda ceased from finding fault with anyone however great might be the latter’s errors.
Even in his old age, he was self-supporting. He would not like anybody to take the trouble of attending to his personal needs.
Being the oldest in age, he was looked upon with affectionate regard by all his brother disciples. But they also enjoyed making fun with him. Swamiji composed a comical verse in order to tease Gopalda, but that really indicated in what great esteem Gopalda was held by all.
Old Gopalda, too, had his moments of humour, though it might be at the cost of others. Swami Vijnanananda related one such incident. ‘He (Gopalda) and Nityananda Maharaj were staying at Belur Math with several monks and brahmacharins. Calling them, Swami Nityananda said, “Well, look here, come and dig up this plot of land. I shall raise brinjals and potatoes here.” They started digging up. Seeing this Gopalda said, “Oh, what a hard labour they are put to! Come away, all of you boys. Should they be made to work so hard?” Gopalda took them along with him. Then he told them quietly, “You brothers dig up this plot for flower beds.” The soil of the latter plot was harder than the first. Swamiji and other monks had a hearty laugh when they heard Gopalda saying that. I am, therefore, always reminded of Gopalda when someone takes pity on another and wants to make him comfortable.’ In those days of hard work, the monks knew how to lighten the burden through humour.
But Gopalda was not always successful with all. He disliked tea, while Swami Subodhananda cherished it. Gopalda warned all that if they drank tea, it would lead to dysentery. But Swami Subodhananda asserted emphatically that each drop of tea in the cup would produce a drop of blood.
After his return to the monastery, Gopalda’s special duty was to look to the levelling of the newly purchased land at Belur and the repair of the old structures there. The land had been in use for repair of steamers and was hence full of pits and canals. All this meant strenuous work. When the monastery became fully established there, Gopalda willingly took up the duty of looking after the comforts of the monks and producing vegetables. for offering to the Master.
Gopalda made strenuous efforts to mould his life according to the life and example of the Master, and would sometimes express disappointment that he fell so short of the ideal. But this feeling of disappointment indicated only his real spiritual height. Because of his age, Gopalda did not engage himself in any public activity, philanthropic, missionary, or otherwise, so that his monastic life was quite uneventful. But so long as he was in the physical body, he definitely set an example to all, and he was the source of inspiration to many. His uniform steadfastness in sadhana till the last days of his life elicited admiration, if not reverence, even from his brother disciples. His love for truth was wonderful. He heard the Master say that one should not twist truth even to make fun. Gopalda obeyed this instruction in letter and spirit and insisted on others doing likewise.
He travelled extensively and visited, at one time or other in his life, sacred places like Kedarnath, Badrinarayan, and Hardwar in the north, Dwaraka in the west, and Rameswaram and other places in the south. He kept sound health till the good old age he lived to. After suffering for some time from stomach trouble, he passed away on 28 December 1909, at the age of eighty-one.