Reminiscences of Swami Shivananda
Swami Shivanandaji or Mahapurush Maharaj was a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and the second President of the Ramakrishna Order. The following reminiscences of Swami Shambhavananda are taken from the book Mahapurush Maharaj as We Saw Him, published by Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, pp. 157-164.
Great men are essentially simple. To all outward appearance they are so simple that we often underrate them. But once we begin to live with them or come into intimate contact with them, their greatness, slowly but surely, unfolds itself before us.
I was indeed very fortunate, not only to have seen, but also to have had close personal contact with two such great men in the holy dawn of my spiritual life in the Ramakrishna Order. They were Swami Brahmanandaji Maharaj, the spiritual son of Sri Ramakrishna, the then President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, and the Vice-President Swami Shivanandaji Maharaj, who was called Mahapurush by Swami Vivekananda himself and hence was popularly known as Mahapurush Maharaj both to the monks of the Order and to the devotees.
After the inauguration of the Ramakrishna Mission Students’ Home in Madras in July 1921, both the Swamis came to the Bangalore ashrama along with their party. As the news of their visit had been circulated earlier, the monks and brahmacharins of the ashrama and also the local devotees were eagerly awaiting their arrival. Swami Nirmalanandaji Maharaj, the then President of the Bangalore ashrama, received them with due respect and accorded them a hearty welcome. We the ashramites naturally felt immensely pleased and proud to have the two divine souls in our midst.
Swami Brahmanandaji Maharaj (popularly known as Maharaj) was mostly indrawn. He loved solitude and hence could not always relish the company of people. Blessed was he who was lucky enough to have the slightest touch with his life characterised by solemn samadhi and tapasya. He was, as it were, the very personification of spirituality and had the power to infuse spirituality into others as well.
Mahapurush Maharaj was, however, of a different type and temperament. Though he also spent long hours in meditation, he could also mix with all and talk to them on religious subjects, and especially on Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda.
It was the usual custom in our monasteries during those days, as it is even now, for the monastic members and the devotees to sing devotional songs after the vesper services every day and also have Rama Nam sankirtan conducted on ekadashi days. Some members of the party of Maharaj were good musicians. They used to sing bhajan in the evening, in the prayer hall of the ashrama, and Mahapurush Maharaj also would often join the chorus. This would invariably enthuse the party as also the listeners.
Regularity and discipline were very significant in the life of Mahapurush Maharaj. Even as early as 3 a.m. he could be found seated in deep meditation which continued till daybreak. He would then go out for a morning walk, mostly to the Lal Bagh, about a mile away. On his return he would meet Maharaj and both of them would then receive pranams of other monks and devotees.
After breakfast he would attend to his correspondence. Though Swami Anantananda was his attendant, he would himself carry out most of his duties and work without depending on him. A little later in the day he would go to the garden in the company of Maharaj. Both of them took a very keen interest in the garden, since they loved gardening.
They stayed at Bangalore that year for a little over three months. Taking advantage of their presence, the elite of the local society arranged for occasional religious talks and bhajans in devotees’ houses. Mahapurushji gladly joined in all these functions, delighting the minds of the devotees.
I had the good fortune to render some personal service to Mahapurushji during his stay at Bangalore. That gave me an opportunity to come into close contact with him and thus get acquainted with some of his noble traits. Bangalore is situated at a height of about 3,200 feet above sea level and so has an equable climate. Every morning I used to spread his warm clothing and blankets in the sun before leaving for the market. On my return I used to bring them back to his room and stack them up after duly folding them. One morning, I had gone for shopping after spreading the clothes as usual. When I returned, however, I did not find any of them in their place. I thought that someone else might have taken them inside. Later on I came to know that all of them had been stolen! Naturally I was very much upset. But I was completely surprised to find that Mahapurushji never took me to task! He took this loss just as a matter of course. His love and affection for us was so great that our acts of omission and commission were always pardoned even without our asking for it. This incident increased my respect and devotion for him.
In Bangalore a big flower show is arranged during the first week of August every year. This flower show is perhaps the biggest in South India. Thousands of people visit the show. The superintendent of the government gardens specially invited the two Swamis to the show, and they visited it along with other monks. The glorious assembly of hundreds of varieties of flowers immensely pleased all of them, and especially Maharaj, who was a specialist in gardening.
Swami Sharvananda who was the President of the Madras Math at that time, expressed his desire to worship Mother Durga in the image. Maharajji agreed and arrangements were made for it. Maharajji started for Madras along with Mahapurushji and others on the 4th of October. That was his last visit to Bangalore as he entered into Mahasamadhi on the 10th of April the following year in Calcutta.
Many are inclined to think that Swami Brahmanandaji Maharaj brought Mahapurush Maharaj to Bangalore and other places of South India in 1921, and introduced him to the different branches of the Math and Mission and also to the monks of the Order and to the devotees, so that he might guide their destinies as his worthy successor. Later events lend support to such a surmise.
Mahapurushji came to Bangalore again in 1924. Before coming there he stayed for a time at Coonoor in the Nilgiris for recouping his health. Taking advantage of his stay there, the devotees of Ootacamund and nearby, embarked on starting an ashrama there. Two acres of land were made available for this purpose by a washerman of that place. To satisfy the long felt desire of the devotees Mahapurush Maharaj laid the foundation stone of the ashrama on the 11th of July 1924. More than once he had gone there to advise and encourage the devotees to start an ashrama. On his way to Bangalore from the Nilgiris, he broke his journey at the Nattarampalli Ashrama (on Chennai-Bangalore national high way) for a few days and gave initiation to a few devotees, much to their delight. This helped greatly in the spreading of the message of Sri Ramakrishna in that part of the country.
During those days after spending a long time in meditation in the early hours, Mahapurush Maharaj would have religious discussions with sadhus and devotees. The discussions were continued in the afternoon also. It was a part of his daily routine to attend the evening service at the temple. Like a humble devotee he would stand with folded hands while the arati went on. He would also later take part in the chorus bhajan.
In that year he also initiated a few devotees. Being specially invited to the Anna-Vasathi-Sangham of the Bangalore Cantonment, he went there along with elderly monks. The organizers of the meet and the other devotees there felt greatly inspired by his presence. He prayed for the success of their work and pleased them all with his simple religious instructions. One of the sannyasins who had accompanied him, delivered a lecture, which was followed by bhajan and kirtan.
The Kaveri was in spate that year, rendering thousands of people homeless. Mahapurush Maharaj was greatly moved to learn about that catastrophe. Almost immediately the Madras Math started relief work to give succour to the flood-stricken people. The president of the Bangalore Ashrama also left for Kerala with two other monks on a similar work. Consequently the whole responsibility of the ashrama automatically devolved on Mahapurush Maharaj, who managed things efficiently. Since I was an old inmate of the Bangalore Ashrama and knew the local conditions, the responsibility of many work came and fell on me, and I too carried on all the work according to his instructions. This again gave me a good opportunity of close personal contact with him. I was really charmed by his benevolence and large-heartedness as also by his absence of pride.
I used to regularly do physical exercise in order to keep good health. Mahapurush Maharaj used to encourage me in this respect also. He was so pleased that he gave me thirty rupees to buy Terry’s Chest Developer, which further increased my enthusiasm for improving and developing my health.
His presence at the Bangalore Ashrama definitely helped to intensify the spiritual atmosphere there. Under his inspiration, bhajan, meditation, puja and chanting became a significant part of our daily routine. Those devotees who were blessed with initiation by him during those days, remained loyal and sincere, and also later on, rendered great help and service by spreading the message of Sri Ramakrishna.
I particularly remember a devotee who came to Bangalore from Madras. He arranged for a special worship of Sri Ramakrishna and took initiation from Mahapurushji. As a token of respect he offered some costly clothing as dakshina, as also Rs. 1,001 in cash, which was a fairly big sum in those days. But Mahapurush Maharaj did not accept them; instead he distributed them among the various branches of the Math and Mission. He would often say, ‘It is Sri Ramakrishna who is really the world-teacher, preceptor and Guru. I am only a servant of the Lord, and His messenger,’
Though he had become the venerable President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, there was no change at all in his simple and unostentatious way of life. Here let me narrate an incident from his life which corroborates the statement made above. As the President of the Order he found it necessary to remove the head of a particular ashrama. In doing so he did not consult the trustees of the Math and the Mission, though it was constitutionally necessary to do so. The trustees took this as a serious mistake and reversed the decision. This would have been a terrible blow to the ego and self-respect of anyone, but Sri Mahapurush Maharaj however took the whole thing calmly as if nothing serious had happened. He continued to be simple and childlike and showered his love and affection as before on the Swami who was reinstated, showing not the least sign of bitterness. This behaviour of his struck us all as really remarkable.
We had the good luck to have Mahapurush Maharaj again in our midst at Bangalore during 1926. From Madras he went to Ooty where he stayed for about five months and then came to Bangalore on the 22nd of October. Swamis Gangeshananda, Apurvananda and a few others accompanied him.
This time also his visit resulted in giving a fillip to the Ramakrishna Movement in the Mysore State. Under his direct inspiration and guidance the devotees of Mysore City established an ashrama in a rented house on the Dewan’s Road. Swami Siddheswarananda was appointed its President.
Since Mahapurushji loved bhajan and kirtan, arrangements were made for the singing bhajans in the evenings after the vesper service. Different bhajan parties would come to the ashrama and take part in the bhajan. At the close of the bhajan, offered sweets as prasadam used to be distributed.
This article will become rather long if I am to state all the details regarding how Mahapurush Maharaj impressed us, how we received him on all the occasions of his visit and how the various incidents connected with him were unforgettable. I shall close this memoir by telling how I found him at the Belur Math when I met him in 1930.
Though he was very much delighted to see me at the Math, I was very sorry to find him ailing. My mind went back to those days at Bangalore when I had seen him full of peace and radiance. The thought of the old days came to me time and again and made me very sad. I found that his love and affection for all had increased greatly. He would often enquire of me whether I suffered from any inconvenience and would take all possible steps to make me happy and comfortable. One day he sent me to Dakshineswar along with another Swami as a guide. On my return he affectionately enquired how I liked the visit. I told him that I really enjoyed my pilgrimage to Dakshineswar. Every nook and corner of the sacred place was very familiar to me as I had read the Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita earlier. Only Sri Guru Maharajji was not there, in human body! I had actually felt his absence. Sri Mahapurush Maharaj said, ‘The place is very much alive, it is a holy place of pilgrimage and is a great help to increase one’s enthusiasm for a heightened spiritual life.’
After all these long years, whenever I look into the past and think of my holy and happy association with him in 1921, 1924, 1926 and 1930, my heart gets filled with a sense of gratitude to him. Though I did not have the power then to realize his high spiritual nature, I have always cherished him in my heart as the personification of love, purity and affection.