By Vinayak Lohani
Swami Atmananda (1929-1989) is perhaps the most eminent monk of the Ramakrishna Order to have originated from the Hindi heartland. He joined the Order when most monks came either from Bengal or the Southern Indian states – areas where centers had been started by the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. He was a very dynamic monk who inspired youth to follow a life of service as per the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. Dozens of young men were inspired to join the Ramakrishna Order after coming in touch with him. Many others started independent centers, with the philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda as their guiding force. More than twenty centers came up in various locations of Madhya Pradesh (MP), Chhattisgarh (then part of MP), Bihar, Odisha, and Maharashtra through his initiative and involvement. Through his efforts, not only is the philosophy of Ramakrishna – Vivekananda being propagated, but selfless service too continues to be rendered to a large number of poor and needy people.
Atmanandaji Maharaj, was born Tulendra Verma, in the village Barbanda near Raipur in 1929. He was a bright student right from his early childhood. His family was very pious and that instilled in Tulendra love for a deeper life right from his childhood. For a certain period, his father served at the Gandhian Ashram in Wardha. Tulendra was able to see Gandhiji there and live in that ambience of idealism. His father was also imprisoned during the Freedom Movement, instilling the ideas of patriotic service and sacrifice within the family. Once, when he was around thirteen, Tulendra saw the picture of Swami Vivekananda at his friend’s place. Below the picture appeared the following quote, “The old religion said one who does not believe in God is an atheist. But the new religion says one who does believe in himself is an atheist.” That very moment, Tulendra became captivated by Swamiji’s appearance. He asked himself “who this person is – he does not appear to be an ordinary man. No ordinary man has eyes with such luminosity.” He inquired and came to know that the picture was that of Swami Vivekananda, the monk who took universal message of Vedanta to the West and upon return awakened his countrymen into realms of strength, fearlessness and empathy. He searched for books on and by Swami Vivekananda but except for a few booklets that presented him in patriot – saint light, he could not find enough sources much to quench his thirst.
Students Days at Nagpur Ashrama
After his schooling, Tulendra got admission in the prestigious Hislop College of Nagpur, about 300 km from Raipur. A very old Ramakrishna Math was started there during the early twenties with the blessings of Mahapurush Maharaj (Swami Shivananda), direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and second President of the Ramakrishna Order. Tulendra’s father got him admitted to the Students’ Home run by the Ashrama. As an inmate of the Students’ Home, Tulendra came in close contact with several monks of the Order, learning a lot more about the ideals of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda movement. He found himself completely at home in this elevating ambience and, participated in the Arati and other activities. During his post-graduation, Tulendra moved to the University hostel and would regularly attend the Arati at the Ashrama.
These early years of association with the Ashrama, a place where the ideas and values like purity, selfless service, and dedication were being put into action, had a profound effect upon Tulendra. It was during this time that he received Mantra-Diksha (initiation) from Swami Virajananda, an initiated disciple of Holy Mother Sarada Devi, who had received Sannyasa-Diksha from Swami Vivekananda, and who was then the sixth President of the Ramakrishna Order. Following his Mantra-Diksha, Tulendra wrote to the Swami, confiding in him his intense desire to embrace monastic life. The Swami advised him to first successfully complete his post-graduation which was then already underway, and only after that consider a life of complete renunciation. Tulendra followed this advice in letter as well as in spirit and won the Gold Medal in his Masters in Mathematics from Nagpur University.
During that time he appeared for the civil services examination (for IAS and other top government services), clearing the written stages of the examination with very high scores. When called for the interview, Tulendra introspected as to why he was pursuing this when his goal was to advance on the path of renunciation and supreme realization. He had already lost interest in any worldly career and thought it highest and noblest to mould his life in the way that Swami Vivekananda had envisaged for his monastic disciples. He thought success might create egotism and pride within him, even if he rejects it, and at the same time could possibly cause a dilemma within him for worldly success. Tulendra chose not to appear for the interview, decided to focus only towards spiritual advancement and working towards the ideals of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda.
Taking up Monastic Life
It is interesting how Tulendra left home to join the Order. For a long time, he felt unable to share his feelings with his parents. But he knew he had to do it some way or the other. On the day when he finally decided to leave his parents’ home, he just approached his mother when she was busy in her kitchen and merely said that he was leaving. His mother, not suspecting anything unusual, gave her approval casually. He repeated the same twice, and after getting the same response finally left home. On coming to know that his son had left home, Tulendra’s father rushed to Calcutta (supposing that his son might have come to the Belur Math). By then Tulendra had sent a letter to his parents informing them of his whereabouts. Returning from Calcutta they received the news from other sources that Tulendra was staying at the Nagpur Ashram. Reaching Nagpur Ashrama, the mother met Tulendra with tears flowing profusely. However, his father expressed his annoyance and confronted Swami Bhaskareshwarananda, the Head of the Ashram and a highly respected monk, about the matter. The Swami in turn simply and calmly told him that Tulendra was free to leave the Ashrama if he wished so. Tulendra maintained his resolute stand and also hinted that if disturbed again he would leave for some unknown place to pursue his Tapasya, where no one would be able to find him. The parents realizing that he was firm in his decision blessed him and returned.
Tulendra began to settle into his new life at the Nagpur Ashrama where he studied the scriptures and various works on Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda. In particular, he made a serious study of all the volumes of Swamiji’s Complete Works. He also studied articles published in journals of the Ramakrishna Order and other secondary literature on the Ramakrishna Movement. He visited the headquarters of the Order – Belur Math -a place spiritually charged and sanctified by the presence of Swami Vivekananda, and other disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. Swamiji had established the Math with the vision of spiritual regeneration for the entire world, making the prophecy that the spiritual current emanating from the Math would last for several centuries. Tulendra also immersed himself in all the regular chores of the Ashrama. As the Nagpur Ashrama was the biggest centre of Hindi works within the Order, Tulendra had also been assigned work in their publication department. Shortage of manpower at the Ashrama necessitated his involvement in many other tasks too. He was an outstanding singer and would sing Bhajans during the evening vesper service – something enjoyed immensely by everyone who attended. As there was a smaller congregation at the time of the early morning Mangal-Arati, Swami Bhaskareshwarananda asked Tulendra to sing bhajans during that time too, which had the effect of attracting many more people during this early morning hour.
After about 5 years Tulendra received Brahmacharya Diksha from Swami Shankarananda, the then President of Order. He was given the name of Teja Chaitanya.
At Vasistha Guha, Rishikesh
During this time Teja Chaitanya felt a deep desire to practice Raja-Yoga under an expert teacher. On the suggestion of two eminent monks of the Order – Swami Saradeshananda (Gopesh Maharaj) and Swami Ranganathananda – Teja Chaitanya went to see Swami Purushottamananda, an ascetic who resided at the Vasistha Guha and considered a master of Raja-Yoga. Swami Purushottamananda, an initiated disciple of Swami Brahmananda (the first President of the Order and regarded as the Manas-Putra or the spiritual son of Sri Ramakrishna), who hailed from Kerala, and had settled in the hilly forests into a life of Tapasya. Earlier known as Bhakta Maharaj he was a close associate of Swami Nirmalananda (Tulasi Maharaj) and helped the latter in spreading the message of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda in Kerala. He had since then retired to the forests of Garhwal where he taught keen spiritual aspirants. He had a reputation of being a hard taskmaster.
The Vasistha Guha was situated in deep forests having plenty of wild animals. Teja Chaitanya, due to his fear of travelling through the forests found it difficult to adjust to the surroundings. Swami Purushottamananda sensed this, and not very pleased, advised him to return, communicating that he was unfit to live in that place. When Teja Chaitanya, extremely dejected, pleaded with the Swami, he was allowed some more time to adjust himself to the place. The Swami asked Teja Chaitanya about what caused him so much fear. The Swami said that if dying at the hands of a tiger or a leopard was his destiny then it would inevitably happen. At the same time if he was destined to live long then no harm could come upon him even if such beasts were to meet him head-on. This logic, though appearing very simple and apparently fatalistic, suddenly impacted the young brahmachari deeply. It was probably because it was said with such great conviction by that great Yogi. The Swami asked him to meditate upon this idea continuously.
One night the Swami asked him to deliver a parcel to a village across the forest at a very late hour. For this Teja Chaitanya had to walk for many hours almost throughout the night through the deep forests. First gripped with fear he continued to bring his mind upon the thought the Yogi had planted within him. He suddenly felt that if God was with him then what could be against. He felt that his whole life and destiny was placed at God’s altar and he, at that very instant, became free of any fear. He felt an indescribable joy experiencing the strange freedom that had come upon him and spent the entire night strolling in the forest singing in ecstasy. It seemed like a Siddhi (special power) of ‘Abhaya’ (fearlessness) had come upon him. At daybreak he came to the Swami, who by then had come to know of the previous night’s happenings. The Swami smilingly asked him, “So, how was it?” Teja Chaitanya responded by expressing his joyful feeling at having overcome fear. The Swami too was delighted at this transformation. After spending a few months and receiving instructions in meditation, Teja Chaitanya, receiving the Yogi’s blessings, returned to his centre.
Starting of the work at Raipur
Shortly before leaving for Vasistha Guha, Teja Chaitanya had a series of dreams in which Swami Trigunatitananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, appeared in his dream pointing to the city of Raipur. It is not a very commonly known fact that Swami Vivekananda had spent two years of his boyhood in Raipur. As the year 1963 was to be the year of Swamiji’s centenary, celebrations were planned throughout India and abroad. However, nothing special had been planned for Raipur. Teja Chaitanya felt that a befitting celebration in Raipur ought to be done as the city had a special association with Swamiji. Teja Chaitanya believed that this was the reason he had been having the recurring dream where Raipur was highlighted to him. Even after his return from Vasistha Guha, the idea did not leave him. He wrote to Swami Madhavananda, the then General Secretary of the Mission suggesting a tribute to Swamiji in form of a permanent memorial in Raipur during his centenary celebrations.
Swami Madhavananda was a very senior monk of the Order, and an initiated disciple of the Holy Mother Sarada Devi, having received monastic vows from Swami Brahmananda. He had joined the order in 1909 and had been General Secretary for a very long time. Revered for his exemplary Sadhu-life as well as administrative abilities, he had a reputation of being a strict disciplinarian in the organizational and administrative matters of the Order.
In his reply to Teja Chaintanya, Swami Madhavananda asked him to concentrate on his assigned duties at the Nagpur Ashrama. Teja Chaitanya wrote back again, this time sharing with him the revelations of his dream. At this Swami Madhavananda became a bit vexed, and asked him to give up the thought of any enterprise that was not a part of the Ramakrishna Order’s official plans for Swamiji’s centenary celebrations.
By this time Teja Chaitanya had already stationed himself at Raipur and had a support group comprising young men, some of whom too took to monastic life at a later date. Teja Chaitanya and this support group decided to live in a rented accommodation and work from there. These youngsters spent a lot of time there, occupying themselves in studies, spiritual discussions, and formulating their plans about the best way to celebrate Swamiji’s centenary in Raipur. In the meantime he continued his efforts to get the Order’s official sanction for his initiative. However, Swami Madhavananda warned him that if he did not return to Nagpur it would be assumed that he was leaving the Order and the same would be announced in the Order’s bulletin.
Teja Chaitanya, though in great mental anxiety, could not give up on the initiative that he had already embarked upon. As a result the inevitable happened; it was officially declared in the Order’s bulletin that Teja Chaitaya had left the Order. Distraught at the severance with the holy Order, but with the inner drive to execute his plans, Teja Chaitanya kept going. He had deep faith in the Holy Trio and never doubted that whatever he was doing was having their sanction.
Now there was no looking back. A Seva Samiti was officially registered. As resources were scarce, the youth volunteers went home to take their day meal and brought food in a box for the Brahmachari Maharaj. The simple evening meal was cooked together by the whole group with Brahmachariji also lending a helping hand. There was one cot which Brahmachariji used because of the loving persuasion of everyone. The others rolled their beddings on the floor. They devotedly followed the daily regimen of the Ramakrishna Order’s ashramas and had a shrine-room for Thakur-Seva (worship of Sri Ramakrishna).
Sannyasa and Vivekananda Centenary Year
Teja Chaintanya realized that a group of young men now looked up to him as their mentor. With this responsibility on his shoulders, he felt that would have to continue even without the support of the Order. He held the belief that for him to teach with authority the vows and life of Sannyasa would be a prerequisite. He believed that the Indian people considered the life of an all-renouncing spiritual teacher in much higher esteem as compared to someone with mere intellectual achievements and scholarship. He therefore decided to take monastic vows himself before the image of Sri Ramakrishna at Amarkantak – the place of origin of the river Narmada and considered to be a very sacred place since times immemorial. He then assumed the name Atmananda. The young Sannyasi now surged ahead in his mission with renewed vigour.
During this time Atmanandaji Maharaj also realized that, he should also step up his efforts towards propagating the message of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda in the region. He began to deliver lectures on the Gita every Sunday at Raipur’s Municipal Hall and used teachings of Thakur and Swamiji to illumine the age-old wisdom that is given in the Gita. Soon he began to receive invitations to speak from small towns and interior villages. Being an ardent Karmayogi he went to all those places and very soon he became quite well-known in the region.
Many eminent civil servants and figures in public life in Madhya Pradesh also became charmed by this gifted young monk and this led to a gift of a plot of land, about 93,000 sq ft in area towards development of the Ashrama in Raipur. Slowly with small donations from the public for which his young band of volunteers sweated a lot, even facing insults on several occasions, construction began at the Ashrama site. By the time of Swamiji’s Centenary year in 1963, a few buildings had already come into existence. Maharaj named this Centre as ‘Vivekananda Ashrama’. A library was started, as also a Students’ Home, based on the principles and values of the Nagpur Ashrama where he himself had been shaped in his student years. A dispensary was also started for serving the poor of the area. The Hindi journal ‘Vivek Jyoti’, which he himself edited, was also launched. This journal, based on the ideals of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda and containing articles on spiritual life and character-building, is now the foremost Hindi journal of the Ramakrishna Order.
The celebration during the centenary year saw a number of programs and generated considerable interest and attention among the general public of the region. Building upon this momentum, Maharaj continued with his missionary zeal of propagating the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda ideals in all parts of Central India and even beyond this region.
Reunited with the Order
Around the mid-sixties there was a huge rehabilitation initiative going on for the uprooted immigrants from East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) in a place called Mana near Raipur. The Madhya Pradesh Government was conducting some relief measures, but the magnitude of the task was such that there was also a deep need for voluntary agencies to help in this. Maharaj had made up his mind to work there and serve the displaced people in the camps. When he came to know that the Ramakrishna Mission also wanted to send a team to undertake relief and rehabilitation operations in the area, he wrote to Swami Vireswaranandaji Maharaj, the General Secretary of the Order, expressing his eagerness to work together with the Mission for this. Swami Vireswaranandaji wrote back informing that Swami Gambhirananda, a senior functionary of the Mission – and later eleventh President of the Order – was to tour the region and plan the execution of the relief work. He suggested Atmanandaji Maharaj to get in touch with the Swami and explore ways to engage in the undergoing efforts. Boosted by this response, Maharaj along with his volunteer corps, collaborated with the Mission team, and worked together for ten months with great enthusiasm. The fact that he was well- known in that region helped the objective of the Mission’s efforts in the area in a significant way. During that period Atmanandaji got opportunities to travel with Swami Gambhirananda in many interior tribal districts like Bastar (now in Chhattisgarh) and Koraput in Orissa. The duo also had deliberations with regard to the future possibilities of working in these highly poverty-stricken areas for amelioration of the condition of the hapless denizens of these regions.
All this while, Maharaj was sending updates of his work to the senior monks of the Order. Even immediately after Swamiji’s Centenary celebrations, Maharaj had written to Swami Madhavananda that the task for which he came to Raipur had been achieved and if he were to be re-inducted in the Order, he would most gladly take up whatever role was assigned to him. Swami Madhavanandaji, who had by then become President of the Order, wrote back saying that Atmanandaji should continue with his efforts and let things take their own course. Although he was like a soldier on a lonely front, Atmanandaji Maharaj always felt that the Ramakrishna Order was his real home.
Swami Vireswarananda, who became the President of the Order upon the passing away of Swami Madhavananda in 1966, had long been observing the dedicated efforts of Atmanandaji Maharaj, and found that all the work that Maharaj had been doing was totally in line with Mission’s ethos. He, therefore, began to take a keen interest in Maharaj’s work, paving way for his re-entry into the Order. It had never been Swami Atmananda’s intention to sever ties with the Order and so when the opportunity came he was completely ready for it. When the authorities of Belur Math proposed to officially take the Raipur Ashrama under the Ramakrishna Order and reinstate Maharaj along with his group of young monastic probationers, the Swami did not have to give this much thought and readily consented. The volunteers and others associated with the Vivekananda Ashrama in Raipur initially harboured anxiety and apprehensions with regard to losing the inspiring leadership of Maharaj that they had become so used to. However, Maharaj had the foresight to explain to them that all the streams of the Ramakrishna Movement were one family and it would be only be good if the small channel flowed back into the mother-river. He explained this in unequivocal terms that it would be the greatest day for their Ashrama when it unites with the Maha-Sangha of the Ramakrishna Movement.
As per the Order’s conventions, Swami Atmananda, even though he had taken Sannyasa vows himself, had to undergo the process of taking the same from Swami Vireswaranandaji Maharaj who was the Order’s President at the time. Atmanandaji Maharaj requested that his current monastic name not be changed, as the general public in MP-Chhattisgarh and other parts of Central India, had become quite familiar with his name. He thought it would create unnecessary confusion in their minds and might consequently hamper the work. The authorities acceded to this requests and on 7th April 1968 on the auspicious occasion of Rama Navami the Vivekananda Ashrama of Raipur was affiliated to the Ramakrishna Mission. Maharaj was also given the charge of the Raipur Ashrama and thus he could continue on the same trajectory of his ongoing efforts. Many of the volunteer-associates, from among his support group, later joined the Order and took up monastic life. Among them were his two younger brothers – Devendra and Rajendra – who came to be known as Swami Nikhilatmananda and Swami Tyagatmananda respectively.
A Ramakrishna-Vivekananda soldier
Maharaj now doubled up his efforts to spread the message of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda in Hindi belt of Central India along with Vidarbha and Odisha. He would travel widely, giving discourses in diverse forums, and leaving a powerful impression on the audience. He organized local groups of devotees and urged them to start small centers aiming at spiritual advancement through studies, discussions and humanitarian service activities. Through his efforts several such centers came into existence or developed further in places such as Indore, Jabalpur, Gwalior, Bhilai, Bilaspur, Bhopal, Rewa, Amarkantak, Buldhana, Akola, and Amravati. Many of these centers were manned by young men who, though not formally belonging to the Ramakrishna Order, had taken up monastic lives. Maharaj acted as their mentor, arranged for their Diksha and also helped them subsequently to receive the Sannyasa vows. He also supported these centers in financial as well as organizational levels by developing a local social support base through his wide contacts.
Maharaj also used to accompany the senior monks of the Order whenever they visited the Hindi heartland. His memory was phenomenal. Very often, after a senior monk made a speech in English, Maharaj was asked to translate it into Hindi. He was known for his ability to translate and reproduce the entire lecture, which on many occasions was over an hour long in duration, verbatim with remarkable spontaneity. The audiences used to marvel over this. Over the years his talks, on a plethora of themes, were broadcasted through various Radio stations. In Raipur, during the late seventies, he began to speak on the Bhagwat Gita at regular Sunday gatherings, expounding the text verse by verse. This practice continued for several years, and 78 of the 213 talks delivered by him during these weekly gatherings have been published the form of two volumes of ‘Gita Tattwa Chintan’. He had a great understanding of the Ramacharit Manas and often spoke on various themes from Ramayan. He also invited great scholars and speakers on Ramayana like Pandit Ramkinkar Upadhyay and Swami Rajeshwarananda.
During the seventies Maharaj endeavoured to strengthen the Raipur Ashrama by building a Universal Temple of Sri Ramakrishna, on lines similar to those of the Temple at the Belur Math. Atmanandaji Maharaj fervently felt that for the Raipur Ashrama to become the epicenter of propagation of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda ideals, it required a Universal Temple dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna. The Shilanyasa (foundation-ceremony) had been performed by the Order’s then President Swami Vireswaranandaji Maharaj. After the completion of the foundation-ceremony, Maharaj worked towards collecting funds for the temple construction. The fundraising progressed at a slow pace and continued for a considerable length of time. In 1974 Chhattisgarh was in the grip of a severe drought. People in the villages were in condition of severe affliction due to extreme paucity of water. Maharaj lost no time in organizing massive relief efforts there. Living each moment by Swami Vivekananda’s teachings of ‘Divinity of human beings’, which emphasized the human body to be the highest temple where God resides, Maharaj felt that the temple construction should be postponed for some time and that the need of the hour was to serve the suffering human-gods. To achieve this, he decided to use the funds collected for the temple construction towards the relief efforts. The Raipur Ashrama under Maharaj’s leadership worked towards design, construction, and maintenance of many wells, canals, and water-bodies across many severely affected villages in Chhattisgarh and did yeoman service towards amelioration of miseries of ill-fated people in the region.
After these herculean efforts Maharaj also successfully completed the Temple construction and its Prana-Pratishtha was performed on the Rama Navami day in 1976.
His Swansong :The Abujhmarh Project
Swami Atmananda’s greatest contribution in the arena of humanitarian service was to come in the eighties towards the end of his illustrious life. While touring the predominantly tribal district of Bastar, which was then the largest district in terms of area within the entire country, Maharaj became very distressed upon witnessing the subhuman living conditions there. He pondered over the possibilities of initiating institutional efforts to ameliorate the suffering of the inhabitants of this region. One particular tribe called ‘marhia’ was the most deprived of all and lived in forested terrain known as Abujhmarh. Abujhamarh was having an area of about 1000 sq km with Government records being insufficient with regard to the information about the region. Maharaj initially discussed his ideas with Swami Atmasthananda, a senior Trustee of the Order (and later the fifteenth President of the Order), who gave him a great deal of encouragement to formulate a plan of action for the region.
Maharaj then plunged into this work, involving devotees who wanted to volunteer for such service. This included retired government functionaries, doctors, youth volunteers, as well as his youngest brother Dr. Om Prakash, who then taught at the Raipur University. They set up a small base camp at a village called Narainpur in the Abujhmarh region. Plans were formulated to establish residential schools, agriculture training farms, and health clinics. It was also decided to start fair-price shops in order to protect the Marhias from being exploited by unscrupulous traders in village markets who bartered commodities in grossly unfair exchanges. Comprehensive plans were drawn up and proposal sent to the Government of Madhya Pradesh, which extended substantial support in terms of grants worth (Rs 2.25 Cr) for the first 5 years for this much needed multi-pronged program in the region. Furthermore, it also sanctioned a large piece of land, approximately 42 acres in area, to the Mission. Since then significantly more land has been added to the original area for the purposes of developing more service facilities.
Today there are over 1500 resident students who stay and study at its main centre at Narainpur and a few other feeder centers. Students from this institution have gone ahead to become engineers, doctors, government functionaries and taken up various other professions. The agricultural farm demonstrates the best modern agricultural practices to the local population, thus increasing their income levels significantly. A 30- bed hospital ‘Vivekananda Arogya Dham’ was also started as well as some satellite health clinics in various places all over the Abujhmarh region. This came as a stupendous piece of service providing the much needed respite to the local marhia community.
Maharaj had the foresight to envisage the setting up of parallel initiatives for the welfare of girls in order to provide well balanced social development within the region. The Ramakrishna Math and Mission being a monastic Order, where each project is managed under the supervision of a male monastic worker, evidently posed constraints in managing projects such as running of residential institutions for girls as this required a significant involvement of women functionaries. Monks had their limitations as far as closely engaging and collaborating with women was concerned. Moreover, Swami Vivekananda himself wanted women themselves to be empowered and enabled and given freedom to conduct their own affairs. Towards this end, Maharaj founded another organization managed by non-monastic volunteers with a significant presence of women. This organization was named VISHWAS (Vivekananda Institute of Social Health, Works and Service) and Maharaj arranged similar government financial support towards it. UNICEF too extended support towards the construction of girls’ hostels under the auspices of VISHWAS. Starting from humble beginnings, this initiative too has scaled to the level where it now runs residential institutions where more than 1000 girls are receiving education. Together the initiatives of the Ramakrishna Mission and VISHWAS have ensured a balanced approach to service delivery and empowerment in the region.
Now after three decades of its start, the Abujhmarh project, the foundation of which was laid by Atmanandaji Maharaj, operates on a gigantic scale. The Agriculture Training and Demonstration Centre spread over several acres is functioning at a big scale and equipping the local tribal population in modern ways of more productive agriculture. Similar work is being conducted at the Industrial Training Centre with 300 trainees learning several trade disciplines. It is considered best of its kind in the whole country as has achieved highest national laurel in its field.
There are more than a hundred Anganwadis and mini-anganwadis being run through the Ashram. There is also a big Computer Education centre and also a complex for providing supplementary education to about 1800 non-residential children from the area. In that hitherto interior and isolated region where all this was beyond any imagination, it was one great Karmayogi who had the power and resolution to translate his vision into reality.
The region has also witnessed a lot of trouble due to the Naxalite activities. However the Mission’s activities have been, more or less, left undisturbed and have commanded a high degree of respect from everyone. The work of Ramakrishna Mission Narainpur has always been held in high esteem by both the Central as well as State Governments and, has been received many awards and recognitions, including the Indira Gandhi National Integration Award.
Swami Saradeshananda (Gopesh Maharaj), a very senior monk of the Order, and disciple of the Holy Mother Sarada Devi, had once told Maharaj that having setup an institution for the poorest forest-dwelling tribals, he should now attend to the other great wish of Swami Vivekananda i.e. ameliorating the condition of those from the lowest rungs of the society such as scavengers, cobblers etc. Maharaj due to his untimely departure could not take up this task. However, as a tribute to him, many of his admirers from Raipur, under the leadership of his brother Dr. Om Prakash Verma realized the dream of establishing a residential institution for students from the lowest rungs of the society, in the form of Vivekananda Vidyapeeth at Raipur, which has 400 residential students from the socially downtrodden castes. Of late it has grown to offer many more courses to the people with scarce means.
His Untimely Departure
Persons who had the opportunity of being in proximity to Swami Atmananda state that he had a certain premonition of his death during his final few years. He used to say that he will not live to see sixty; incidentally Swami Vivekananda had said that he will not live to see his forty. Maharaj was often seen working at breakneck speed until it was well past midnight, and then again starting early in the morning. When his colleagues expressed their concerns, he would merely say that he did not have much time left and hence had to hurry. In 1989, a few months before he was to turn 60, he visited Bhopal for some work with the State Government. During a lecture which he delivered then at the BHEL establishment in the city, Maharaj was seen to be in an uncharacteristically subdued mood. While returning to Raipur he met with a serious accident near Rajnandagaon when his jeep hit a culvert at high speed. He was thrown out of the vehicle with the vehicle rebounding on his body and passed away there itself. When the news that Swami Atmananda’s passing away spread, his admirers throughout the country were grief-stricken. The Chhattisgarh region was particularly saddened with this news. The Madhya Pradesh Government paid its respect to this great son of the land by having a twenty-one gun salute at his funeral.
His many sides
Atmanandaji Maharaj was an extremely playful, humorous and fun-loving person. He was very proficient at sports and games and engaged in them whenever he got an opportunity. He was always fond of mingling with young people wherever he visited. Once while inaugurating a swimming pool at the Ramakrishna Ashram at Gwalior, as soon as he had cut the ribbons, he was seen diving into the pool and swim all the way through. At Gwalior Ashrama where there was a provision for table tennis, he was often found enjoying his game and busy defeating his opponents gleefully during his visits. A table-tennis table frequently used by him is still placed at the Ramakrishna Kutir ashrama at Amarkantak.
A monk of the Order Mahesh Maharaj, who passed away in 2020, had narrated an interesting story to this writer. He was serving as Headmaster at the Ashrama at Indore in 1960s when it was still not affiliated to the Order. Atmanandaji was to visit the city for some lecture-program and had informed Mahesh Maharaj (who was not a monk then) that he would reach by night and stay there. As it got late and Maharaj not yet in sight, Maheshji thought Maharaj was not likely to come. He retired for the night in his room on the first floor after locking the building. Around midnight he was awakened by a pat on his back and saw Maharaj standing and rebuking him mockingly of not waiting for him. Maharaj had apparently ascended through pipes and parapets. Maharaj then asked him to bring whatever was left in the kitchen. After this when Maheshji thought Maharaj will go to bed he was told by Maharaj that the latter was not feeling sleepy and suggested that they play carrom. So at that hour the pair sat for playing carrom. It was not until Maharaj had sufficiently enjoyed at the board that they finally retired .
Maharaj, even while being a monk who had formally renounced a normal life in the world, was completely at ease in all situations and with all kinds of people whether householders, brahmacharins under his tutelage, senior monks of the Order, or persons from different orders and traditions. Although he was eminently well-known and quite a senior monk of the Order himself, he would very often sit on the floor in presence of monks senior to him and gently massage their feet. He did not interpret taking up a monastic life as severing of earlier ties, but moving from the confines of a smaller family to the state of embracing the whole world as one’s own family. In addition to his two brothers, many more young men like Girish Dwivedi (later Swami Srikarananda), Santosh Jha (later Swami Satyarupananda), Prabodh (Swami Nikhileshwarananda) and several others joined the Order and dedicated themselves to the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda ideals. Some young women too like Hemlata (later Pravrajika Nirvananprana) and Kumud (Pravrajika Amitaprana) inspired by him joined the Sri Sarada Math (Women’s monastic Order of the Ramakrishna tradition) as nuns, dedicating themselves to the mission of the Holy trio of Ramakrishna-Sarada- Vivekananda. Maharaj’s youngest brother Dr. Om Prakash, while being an academician, also continued on the path of serving ‘Divine in Man’ through ‘Vivekananda Vidyapeeth, the institution he founded.
Maharaj also took his mother on a pilgrimage to Amarnath in 1976 after dedication of the Universal Temple in Raipur. During the pilgrimage, his mother passed away resting her head in his lap. He was also present when the last rites were performed, bidding a tearful farewell to her.
With younger associates and their family members he was always jovial and encouraging. The junior monks and brahmacharins who were directly posted under him found in him as a great mentor for building up their spiritual lives. His ever-loving nature along with his great dynamism and devotion to the mission of Thakur and Swamiji made him a role-model for them to emulate.
One cannot help feeling that the untimely departure of Swami Atmananda snatched away a highly dynamic and distinguished soldier of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda movement still at the peak of his powers. It would not be wrong to say that in the Hindi speaking belt of the country, no other person has done as much to spread the ideals of Ramakrishna – Vivekananda as Atmanandaji Maharaj. He left behind an enduring legacy of his devotion to the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda ideals in the form of various institutions he nurtured as well as the band of dedicated individuals – both monks and householders – mentored by him, who live by the same guiding ideals. He was a sterling exemplar of a fine synthesis of all four Yogas (Bhakti, Karma, Jnana, and Raja-Yoga) that Swami Vivekananda envisaged in a single personality.