A Biography by His Eastern and Western Disciples


The Swami left Lahore attended by Swami Sadananda, who had hurried down thither from Almora on the receipt of a wire from him. They arrived at the monastery at Belur on October 18. The Swami’s unexpected appearance made his brother-monks and disciples very happy but their joy gave place to pain when they saw how pale and ill he was.

Among the members who had joined the monastery both before and during his absence were those who later became Swamis Vimalananda, Bodhananda, Kalyanananda and Somananda; the former two had joined when the Math was at Alambazar and the latter at Nilambar Mukherjee's garden-house. These, with the other disciples, had followed regular courses of study on the Vedas, Hindu theology and even material science. Paramount, of course, were the worship of the Master, and hours of meditation and devotion.

Notwithstanding his failing health the Swami resumed his old life with the monks. Hours were spent in religious converse and question-classes were held; the scriptures were read and commented upon, and he took up seriously the work of training the members. He instituted regulations and monastic discipline with spiritual and intellectual work for certain hours of the day. On the very day of his arrival he thrilled his auditors by reading, with his characteristic eloquence and depth of feeling, the three poems composed by him in Kashmir. Every word of the poems, as uttered by him, seemed ensouled with his own realisations. On the nineteenth and the twentieth he performed the Homa ceremony. The next three days were given over to the services and gatherings of the lay disciples of the Order on the occasion of the great religious festival of Durga Puja. On the twenty-fourth the Swami Turiyananda arrived from Almora. Everything was now being centred, as it were, in the monastery, and the devotional fervour of the Baranagore days seemed to shine forth anew.

From November 1, the Swami’s movements alternated between the monastery and the residence of Balaram Babu in Baghbazar. On the fifth of the month he received at the Math, Mr. Rishibar Mukherjee, the Chief Justice and Mr. Nilambar Mukherjee, the Prime Minister of Kashmir. On the following day he had as his guests there the European disciples who had accompanied him to Kashmir and who had now returned to Calcutta, after a tour of the historic cities in Northern India.

Three days after, on November 12, the day preceding the Kali Puja, the Holy Mother, accompanied by a number of women devotees, visited the site of the permanent abode of the Ramakrishna Order. The monks were all present and had made elaborate arrangements for worship. The picture of the Master worshipped in the Math had been taken by them thither. The Holy Mother had also brought her own image of the Master, and with special worship she blessed the place. In the afternoon she with her party, as also the Swami with Swamis Brahmananda and Saradananda, returned to Calcutta to perform at the request of the Swami, next morning, the opening ceremony of Sister Nivedita Girls' School in Baghbazar. At the end of the worship of the Master by herself the Holy Mother “prayed that the blessing of the Great Mother of the universe might be upon the school and that the girls it should train be ideal girls”. And of this blessing Sister Nivedita herself has written: “I cannot imagine a grander omen than her blessing, spoken over the educated Hindu womanhood of the future.”

From his first meeting with Sister Nivedita, the Swami had discussed with her at great length about the situation of Indian women, and his plans for the education of Hindu girls. She was well known as an educator in England and had come to India expressly to be of service to Indian women. He had talked with her, in an especial sense, about his plans for the amelioration of the conditions of the women of his native land. It was understood, during her stay both in Calcutta and Almora, and later during her wanderings with the Swami in Kashmir, that at the first opportunity, she would open a girls’ school in Calcutta, so as “to make some educational discovery, which would be qualitatively true and universally applicable to the work of the modem education of Indian women” at large. With this in mind, after touring in Northern India with the group of her European companions she decided to forget that she was European and came to live with the Holy Mother. Later, a separate house near by was rented for her, but she spent her nights with the women devotees of the Holy Mother’s household. The Swami, when in Calcutta, saw her frequently and gave her additional insight into the Indian consciousness and into the nature of work she had assumed; this insight she has embodied in her book, The Web of Indian Life. At the Holy Mother's residence she came in touch with several orthodox women who were well versed in the epics, the dramas and the religion of Hinduism, and whose lives were examples of the value and realisations of Hinduism to their European guest. This was of especial advantage to her, and she herself lived the life of a Hindu Brahmacharini and soon became altogether Hinduised.

This marks the beginning of Sister Nivedita’s work in India. The Swami evinced the most interest in it at the time. He gave her perfect liberty in the elucidation of her ideas. She was to be free from collaborators, if she so chose; above all, she might, if she so wished, give her work “a definite religious colour” or even make it sectarian. But he added knowingly: “You wish through a sect to rise beyond all sects.” Eventually it should include all sects, not only within, but without the pale of Hinduism. The Swami once told her, “If amidst their new tasks the Indian women of the future would only remember now and then to say, ‘Shiva! Shiva!’ it would be sufficient worship.” In giving his idea of what a worker in the cause of womanhood should be, he once said to Sister Nivedita, “Yes, you have faith, but you have not that burning enthusiasm that you need! You should be consuming energy.” Then he blessed her and “she became a consuming energy in its cause”.

Though the ceremony of consecration of the Ramakrishna Math took place on December 9, the consecration of the newly-bought Math grounds had been celebrated long ago, in one of the early days of March, 1898. On this latter occasion, the Swami himself performed all the sacred rites, helped by his Gurubhais and disciples, on the new monastery grounds. The proceedings, throughout, were most impressive and inspiring. After making ablutions in the Ganga, the Swami put on a new Gerua robe, entered the chapel and sat in meditation on the worshipper's seat. He then worshipped the relics of Shri Ramakrishna with great veneration, burying them under heaps of flowers and Bilva leaves, and became again absorbed in deep meditation. Swami Premananda and the other monks of the Brotherhood stood at the door watching him worship.

After worship a procession was formed of the whole Brotherhood, which wended its way by the bank of the Ganga from Nilambar Mukherjee’s garden-house to the site of the new monastery, led by the Swami who carried on his right shoulder the urn containing the hallowed remains of Shri Ramakrishna. The sound of the blowing of conch-shells and the beating of gongs resounded across the river. On the way the Swami said to a disciple, “The Master once told me, ‘I will go and live wheresoever it will be your pleasure to take me, carrying me on your shoulders — be it under a tree or in the humblest cottage!’ With faith in that gracious promise I myself am now carrying him to the site of our future Math. Know for certain, my boy, that so long as his name inspires his followers with his ideals of purity, holiness and loving spirit of charity to all men, even so long shall he, the Master, sanctify the place with his hallowed presence.” When the Math was in sight, the Swami spoke of the glorious future which he felt it was to have: “It would be a centre in which would be recognised and practised a grand harmony of all creeds and faiths as exemplified in the life of Shri Ramakrishna, and only ideas of religion in its universal aspect would be preached. And from this centre of universal toleration would go forth the shining message of goodwill and peace and harmony to deluge the whole world.” He warned them of the danger of sects in time arising within its fold.

Laying the sacred urn on the special seat spread on the Math grounds, the Swami and with him all the others prostrated themselves in fervent salutation before it. After the solemn Puja rites he lit the sacrificial fire and performed the Viraja Homa, at which only the Sannyasins of the Order could be present. Having himself cooked the Payasanna, or sweetened milk-rice, with the help of his Sannyasin brethern, he offered it to the Master. This concluded the consecration ceremony. The Swami then addressed the congregation as follows: “Do you all, my brothers, pray to the Lord with all your heart and soul, that He, the Divine Incarnation of the age, may bless this place with His hallowed Presence for ever and ever, and make it a unique centre, a Punyakshetra, of harmony of all the different religions and sects, for the good of the Many, for the happiness of the Many!” All with folded palms, responded to the call by joining in the prayer to the Lord. Then the return procession formed, Sharat Chandra, the Swami’s disciple, carrying, at the injunction of his Guru, the sacred urn on his head.

This particular day was a “red-letter day” in the history of the Ramakrishna Order. The very atmosphere vibrated with spirituality. The Swami was jubilant, ecstatic. Now, he felt, was accomplished the tremendous task of finding a permanent place and sufficient means to build a temple for the Master with a monastery for his Gurubhais and the future generations, as the headquarters of the Order, for the perpetuation and propagation of his Master’s teachings. He said: “By the will of the Lord is established today His Dharmakshetra. Today I feel free from the weight of the responsibility which I have carried with me for twelve long years. And now a vision comes to my mind! This Math shall become a great centre of learning and Sadhana. Pious householders will erect houses for themselves on the grounds round this future religious university and live there, with the Sannyasins in the centre. To the south, the followers of the Lord from England and America will come and make their abode!” Turning to a disciple, he asked triumphantly, “What do you think of it?” The disciple having reverently expressed his doubt if this “most excellent piece of fancy” would ever be materialised, the Swami cried out, “Fancy, do you say! Hear me, O, you of little faith! Time will fulfil all my expectations. I am now only laying the foundation, as it were. Great things will come later on. I will do my share of the task; and I shall instil into you all the various ideas which you will in the future have to work out! The highest principles and ideals of religion have not only to be studied and comprehended, but brought into the practical field of life. Do you understand?”

A few days later, the same disciple had the privilege of hearing some of the Swami's ideas of the scope and ideals of the Math, and the regulations and disciplines which he wished to be observed there in the future. These have been recorded by the disciple from which the following extracts will be found most suggestive and illuminating, as they outline the Swami's schemes of national education and of philanthropic work in his own country. As he was walking to and fro on the grounds of the new Math he said, pointing to an old cottage:

“There will be the place for the Sadhus to live in. This Math will be the central institution for the practice of religion and the culture of knowledge. The spiritual force emanating from here will permeate the whole world, turning the currents of men’s activities and aspirations into new channels. From here will be disseminated ideals harmonising Jnana, Bhakti, Yoga and Karma. The time will come whcn by the mere will of the Sannyasins of this Math life will vibrate into the deadened souls of men. All these visions are rising before me.

“On that land to the south will be the Temple of Learning, modelled after the manner of our ancient Tols. In it will be taught Grammar, Philosophy, Arts, Science, Literature, Rhetoric, Hindu Codes of Law, Scriptures, and English. There the young Brahmacharis will live and study the Shastras. The Math will provide them with food, clothing, etc. After five years’ training these Brahmacharis will be at liberty to return to their homes and lead the householder’s life; or, if they prefer, they may take the vow of Sannyasa with the sanction of the Superiors of the Math. If any of these Brahmacharis are found to be disorderly or of bad character, the Math authorities will have the power to turn them out. Here boys will be taught irrespective of caste or creed. But those who would like to observe the orthodox customs of their respective castes and creeds, will have to separately arrange for their food and so forth. They will attend the classes only in common with the rest. The authorities shall keep a strict watch on their character too. No one will be entitled to admission into the monastic order who has not received his training here. Thus, in course of time, the Math work will be conducted wholly with a personnel drawn from them.”

Disciple: “Then, sir, yon mean to re-introduce the old Gurukula system in the country?”

Swamiji: “Why, assuredly, yes! There is no scope whatever in the modern system of education for the unfoldment of the Brahmavidya. The old institution of Brahmacharya must be established anew. But its foundation must be laid on a broad basis, and many changes and modifications suited to the needs of the times will have to be introduced into it, of which I shall tell you later on.

“That plot of land adjoining ours in the south should be acquired in time. There will be the Annasatra or a Feeding Home of the Math in the name of Shri Ramakrishna, where proper arrangements will be made for serving food to those who are really poor and needy, regarding them as forms of Narayana. The scope of its work will be regulated according to the funds at its disposal; it may even be started with two or three people. Enthusiastic Brahmacharis will have to be trained to conduct this Annasatra. They themselves should find means for its support, even by begging from-door to door. The Math will not be allowed to lend any pecuniary aid to it. When the Brahmacharis have completed their five years’ training in this Home of Service in that way, then only they will have the right of admission into the Temple of Learning branch of the monastery. Thus after ten years of training in all, they will be entitled to enter the Sannyasa Ashrama after due initiation by the Math authorities — of course if they have a mind to become Sannyasis, and if the latter find them fit for it. But the President of the Math may, in the case of some specially gifted Brahmachari, waive this rule and give Sannyasa at any time in spite of this rule. You see I have all these ideas in my head.”

Disciple: “Sir, what is the object of establishing these three separate branches in the Math?”

Swamiji: “Don’t you see? There should be, first, Annadana, or the giving of food and other necessaries of physical life; next, Vidyadana, or the imparting of intellectual knowledge; and, last of all, Jnanadana, or the conferring of spiritual knowledge. The harmonising of these three aspects which conduce to the making of Man, must be the sole duty of the Math. By devoting themselves to the work of the Annasatra in the manner indicated, the idea of working for others by practical means and that of serving humanity in the spirit of worship will be firmly implanted in the minds of the Brahmacharis. This will gradually purify their mind, leading to the development of Satttvic thoughts and aspirations. And such alone are capable of receiving and retaining the Apara and the Para Vidya, the secular and the supreme knowledge and thus become eligible for Sannyasa. . . .”

Disciple: “Sir, your words encourage me to learn something more of your ideas about the Annasatras and Sevashramas.”

Swamiji: “There should be well-ventilated rooms in these Homes, in each of which two or three of the poor or the diseased would live. They should have comfortable bedding and clean clothes. There should be a doctor for them who would come and see them once or twice a week, or as often as convenient. The Sevashrama will be a department of the Annasatra, in which the diseased will be nursed and well taken care of. In time, as funds permit, a big kitchen will be built and any number of hungry people will be fed at all times of the day to their hearts’ content. None shall be refused under any circumstances. The gruel strained off from the cooked rice, draining into the Ganga will turn its water white! Oh, how glad at heart I shall be to see an Annasatra working on such a grand scale here!”1

Speaking thus the Swami stood for a while gazing dreamily at the Ganga, as if fathoming the future to see that day. He broke his reverie by saying affectionately to the disciple:

“Who knows when the sleeping lion will be aroused in one or other of you! If the Mother but kindles in the soul of any one of you a spark of Her Divine power, hundreds of such Annasatras will be opened all over the country. Know this, that Jnana, Bhakti and Shakti are already in every living being. It is only the difference in the degree of their manifestation that makes one great or small. It is as if a curtain were drawn between us and that perfection. When that is removed, the whole of Nature is at our feet. Then, whatever we want, wiiatever we will, will come to pass.

“If the Lord wills, we shall make this Math a great centre of harmony. Our Lord is the visible embodiment of the perfect harmony of all ideals. His throne will remain unshaken in the world of spirituality if we keep alive that ideal of harmony here. We must sec to it that people of all sects and creeds, from the Brahmana down to the Chandala, will find on coming here their respective ideals manifested. The other day when we installed the image of Shri Ramakrishna on the grounds of this Math, I saw his ideas emanating from here flooding the whole universe with their radiance! I for one am doing and shall do my best to elucidate his broad ideas to all people; you all also do the same. What avails the mere reading of Vedanta? We have to exemplify the truth of the pure Advaita in practical life. This Advaitavada has so long been kept hidden in the forests and mountain-caves. It has been given to me to bring it out from seclusion and scatter it broadcast before the workaday world and society. The sound of the Advaita drum must resound in every hearth and home, in meadows and groves, over hills and plains. Come all of you to my assistance and set yourselves to work.”

Disciple: “But, sir, my mind inclines rather to realise the Advaita state through meditation than to manifest it in action.”

Swamiji: “Why! What is the use of remaining always stupefied in Jadasamadhi? Under the inspiration of Advaita why not sometimes dance like Shiva, and sometimes remain immersed in superconsciousness? Who enjoys a delicacy more — he who eats it all by himself, or he who shares it with others? Granted that by realising the Atman in meditation you attain Mukti, what of that to the world? We have to take the whole universe with us to Mukti! We shall set a conflagration in Mahamaya’s dominion. Then only you will be established in the Eternal Truth. O, what can compare with that Bliss, immeasurable, ‘infinite as the skies’! In that state you will be speechless, carried beyond yourself, by seeing your own Self in every being that breathes, and in every atom of the universe. When you realise this, you cannot live in this world without treating everyone with exceeding love and compassion. This is indeed practical Vedanta.”

The great ceremony narrated above was only that of the consecration of the place. The grounds were as yet not in order; the old buildings, previously used as the residential quarters of a boat-building centre, were undergoing considerable additions and alterations, and consequently, were not as yet ready for habitation. Under the Swami’s orders the building was begun in April 1898, and though it was pushed through with all haste, it was not completed till the beginning of the following year. An entire upper storey with a verandah facing the Ganga had to be built, and at the same time, the building which contains the refectory of the monks and the chapel of Shri Ramakrishna had to be constructed. It was not until January 2, 1899, that the Math was finally removed from Nilambar Mukherjee’s garden-house to what is now called the Belur Math, although on December 9, 1898, the installation ceremony of the image of Shri Ramakrishna had been celebrated in the new monastery and the Swami and several monks lived there from that time on.

  1. ^Complete Works, Vol. 7.