By S. Venkateswaran
Swami Brahmananda was one of Sri Ramakrishna’s closest disciples and was considered the spiritual son of Sri Ramakrishna. The first President of the Ramakrishna Order, Swami Brahmananda—also known as “Raja Maharaj” or simply “Maharaj” was a great mystic who taught as much by example as by words. His very presence had a transformative affect on those who met him. This article was originally published in the March-April 1969 Vedanta and the West magazine.
Swami Brahmananda was one of Sri Ramakrishna’s foremost disciples who occupied a place among them second only to Swami Vivekananda. The latter was a man of immense energy and dynamism, the former was very nearly his opposite—quiet, indrawn, and contemplative. If Vivekananda had the talent to establish branches of the Ramakrishna Mission in various parts of India and surrounding countries, Brahmananda had the equally commendable ability to strengthen and sustain those branches with his discipline and spirituality. Swami Brahmananda did not possess his brother-disciple’s oratorical power—he spoke few words—but to be in his presence was itself an experience more valuable than the reading of a hundred books on religion.
In the spring of 1921, Swami Brahmananda, who was then the President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, was invited to come to Madras to formally dedicate the new Students’ Home there, whose foundation had been laid by him in 1918. He was accompanied on his trip by Swami Shivananda and several other swamis of the Mission. At that time I knew very little of Swami Brahmananda. In fact, I was not too well acquainted with the Ramakrishna Mission, although I was living at the Ramakrishna Mission Students’ Home. I had, however, heard of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda as being two great personalities born on Indian soil. And I knew about Vivekananda’s visit to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, and the great fame he had won for himself and his motherland. During this period I was visiting the Ramakrishna Monastery at Mylapore, Madras on Sunday evenings to attend classes on Vivekananda’s Karma Yoga conducted by a brahmachari known as Abani Maharaj, now known as Swami Prabhavananda. I would also attend the various pujas held at the monastery and take part in various activities such as cutting vegetables and so forth, in helping to feed the poor.
When I heard that Swami Brahmananda had arrived at the monastery, something inside urged me to go and see him. I went to the monastery and found the Swami seated in an easy chair next to Swami Shivananda. I prostrated before him. Although he did not speak a single word to me, it seemed that some power, like a magnet, was drawing me to him. I felt that I was in the presence of a great personality to whom, I, a small boy, had no words to say. I sat before him for a few minutes and then returned to the Students’ Home. But the urge to see him continued, and I began to visit him regularly every day, sometimes more than once. His presence became more and more familiar to me, though I still did not dare to speak to him; nor, for that matter, did I know what to speak to him. But at no time was there any bar to seeing him.
I should mention here my initial impression of Swami Brahmananda. The first thing I noticed in him was that he was most nearly always in a meditative mood and would sit with his head turned slightly upwards. I felt him to be an embodiment of spirituality. There was absolute calm and peace in his presence.
It was decided to perform the opening ceremony for the new Students’ Home. We formed a procession, carrying pictures of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, a tulsi plant, pot full of water, rice, milk and other items, all the while singing Vedic hymns. No sooner had we arrived at the new site, then Swami Brahmananda drove up in a car. I remember that he immediately took a seat on the floor of the new Library hall and closed his eyes in meditation as the priests and others in the assembly repeated Vedic hymns and conducted the opening ceremony.
After the dedication, and at the invitation of the Secretary of the Home, Swami Brahmananda decided to live at the Home for a few months. It was during this period that I came into close contact with this great Swami. The time was summer, so most of the students had left for their homes and very few of us remained behind. Therefore, I had an excellent opportunity to live closely with Swami Brahmananda. As often as possible I would sit in his presence, and sometimes he would ask the other swamis there to give me some fruit. In course of time, I began to do small errands for the other swamis who had accompanied Swami Brahmananda. I was also asked to bring flowers to the Swami every morning. I did not know then that he had a particular liking for lotus flowers, but I had a feeling that he would be pleased with them. So I used to collect the flowers from a pond in Mylapore. He would always receive the flowers with great pleasure, after which I would prostrate before him. He would take the flower in both hands and himself adorn the pictures of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and Holy Mother which hung in his room. This increased my enthusiasm for collecting lotus flowers, and I considered it my first duty in the morning to bring the flowers to him regularly.
One day as I was about to enter the water to pluck some lotus flowers, I saw a snake, nearly three feet long, lying at the edge of the bank. I ran back in fear and my first tendency was to leave without taking any flowers. But the thought of disappointing Swami Brahmananda came to me, and I did not have the courage to use this as an excuse for my failure. Finally, I picked up my courage and collected the flowers as usual. I do not think that as long as the Swami remained in the Home, did I ever fail to bring lotus flowers to him.
It was usual for the disciples of Swami Brahmananda to sit around him in the morning and evening for an hour or so and meditate. During these times he would sometimes speak a word or two, but usually he remained silent. Often Swami Shivananda would talk to those of us who had gathered together, usually relating some anecdotes about himself and the other disciples and their life with Sri Ramakrishna, the beginnings of the Ramakrishna Mission, and the difficulties they underwent. As the days passed, both Swami Brahmananda and Swami Shivananda took an interest in me and would speak a few words to me now and then. But being Bengalis, they had difficulty in pronouncing my name properly. Swami Brahmananda would call me “Benkatam,” and the other swamis also began to call me by that name.
I always felt a great pleasure in the company of Swami Brahmananda and would try to be with him as much as possible; shortly I found myself able to approach him whenever I wished, whether he was sleeping, eating, meditating, or at any other time. The other swamis told me that this was, indeed, a rare privilege—few were able to have this freedom with him. In fact, many had been waiting months to see the Swami. Even the sannyasins did not have the freedom which I had. I would accompany the Swami during his walks, often acting as an interpreter during his conversations with the laborers constructing the new Students’ Home. Occasionally he would joke with them and give them a few small coins.
While he was staying at the Students’ Home, he asked both the students and the swamis of the monastery to chant Ram Nam on every ekadashi day and days of the new and full moon, alternately in the home and the monastery. This practice is still going on.
Swami Brahmananda had a great liking for a South Indian dish known as rasam. I was asked to take rasam to him every day at 11 a.m. during his stay. I considered myself the recipient of a great honor. After taking rasam to him, I would stay until he had finished it and find out whether he liked the rasam that particular day. On one occasion, I forgot to take it to him at the appointed time. No one came from the monastery to remind me of my negligence. Suddenly, about 1:30 p.m., I thought of it and felt quite ashamed over my carelessness. I fixed the rasam and left for the Monastery. To my great surprise, I found that the Swami had not taken his food, so sure was he that I would bring the rasam. When I confessed my forgetfulness to him, he simply laughed and said, “But I knew that you would bring it.”
Despite his often serious nature and great spirituality, Swami Brahmananda had a childlike simplicity. In the afternoons, he would often send for his cook, playfully joke with him, and then perhaps dictate humorous letters to be sent to the cook at Belur Monastery—signing them with his own cook’s name. He loved both of the men very much and they enjoyed the Swami’s humor. They, in turn, would reply to his letters and thus a regular exchange of correspondence would begin. As the letters were in Bengali, I could not learn their contents, but I was told that mixed with the humor were many spiritual and thought-provoking words.
Also in the afternoons, the Swami would walk up and down the hall of the monastery and I would accompany him. He would discuss a variety of subjects. On occasions, he would suddenly grow quite serious and close his eyes. This would fill me with a feeling of awe and reverence, and I would not say another word to him until he spoke again. In the mornings and evenings he would take walks between the home and the monastery, and I would go with him. On such occasions he would take some small coins with him. One morning we went to the vegetable market at Mylapore. He asked the vendor the cost of a huge basket of eggplant. Thinking he was only curious, the man did not reply. The Swami went to the next vendor and asked the same questions. The man said that altogether they would cost between twenty and thirty rupees. Then Swami Brahmananda gave the vendor one pie [one-twelfth of an anna] and received one eggplant. He did the same thing with a vendor selling spinach. After leaving the market place, he told me to give these two vegetables to the cook and have them served him that day. When I told this story to the other swamis, they only laughed. But later on I learned that within a few minutes after Swami Brahmananda had purchased the two vegetables, those two lots were sold away. The next time that the Swami visited the marketplace, every vendor asked the Swami to purchase a vegetable from him. But he ignored them.
It was Swami Brahmananda’s habit to walk among the workmen and distribute copper coins. He would often keep giving them the coins until they said they were satisfied. One day, while he was walking among the workmen, he suddenly became greatly attracted to a young masonry helper, a girl about nine or ten years of age. He asked me to tell her to go to the monastery early the next morning for a bath and some food, and told me to be sure that she was not late. He also invited me for a meal at the same time. When I arrived at the monastery the next morning I found that great preparations were being made to receive the girl. When the girl arrived, she was asked to have an oil bath and wear a new sari which the Swami had specially purchased for her. After she ate her meal, Swami gave her some flowers and coins, and sent her home content and happy.
During Swami Brahmananda’s stay at the Ramakrishna Monastery, he arranged to have the Durga puja performed in accordance with Bengali customs. The huge image of Durga was delivered in a special wagon from Calcutta, accompanied by Ramlal Dada, the nephew of Sri Ramakrishna who had succeeded him as priest of the Kali temple at Dakshineswar. Swami Nirmalananda, the President of the Ramakrishna Mission at Bangalore, also came for the function. Swami Brahmananda showed great interest in the puja, which continued for several days.
Also while staying at the monastery, Swami Brahmananda gave sannyas to a number of brahmacharis, and initiated several others. Others also urged me to take initiation from Swami Brahmananda. At that time I did not really understand the significance of initiation and was unsure of how to approach him. But one day I told Swami that I wanted to be initiated. “You want initiation?” he said. “Why?” When I insisted, he told me to come to him at noon the following day after my bath.
When I arrived for initiation, he went to the shrine room and began to meditate in front of Sri Ramakrishna’s picture. Then he initiated me. Immediately afterwards, I felt supremely happy, as though I now possessed the greatest thing imaginable. Before his departure from Madras, he presented me with a string of rudraksha beads to be used for japa.