By Swami Atmajnanananda
Swami Atmajnanananda is Resident Minister at the Vedanta Center of Greater Washington, DC. This article was originally published in the January 2009 edition of Prabuddha Bharata.
It is extremely difficult to fathom the greatness of the direct monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. All were men of the highest realization and purity of character. Swami Vivekananda was the bearer of Sri Ramakrishna’s message to the world and the inheritor of his spiritual power, and Swami Brahmananda was looked upon by Sri Ramakrishna as his very own spiritual son.
Swami Shivananda, however, has the special distinction of being addressed, even by Sri Ramakrishna’s other disciples, as ‘Mahapurush’, great soul, a name given to him by Swami Vivekananda himself in recognition of Shivananda’s perfect celibacy in married life. More often, though, he was simply addressed by his brother disciples and others as ‘Tarak-da’, elder brother Tarak, an indication not merely of his being senior in age to almost all of the direct disciples, but also of their great reverence and love for him.
Very often, our own introduction to these great souls is through the writings and reminiscences of those who had the good fortune to be blessed with their holy company. Mahapurush Maharaj lived to the ripe old age of eighty, was president of the Ramakrishna Order for nearly twelve years, and had many disciples, so the number of reminiscences we have of him is quite large. The original Bengali version of his reminiscences, Shivananda Smriti Sangraha, fills three volumes. I was fortunate enough to be part of an editorial team under Swami Swahananda working on translations of some of these reminiscences into English; the result of our efforts was the book Mahapurush Maharaj as We Saw Him.
Prior to working on these reminiscences, I had great devotion for Swami Shivananda as one of Sri Ramakrishna’s great monastic disciples and as the second president of the Ramakrishna Order. But my love and reverence for Mahapurush Maharaj increased tremendously after I read the descriptions of him in the words of his own disciples. I could feel the strength of his personality and the touch of his love through their words, and it is that feeling that I will try to convey in this short sketch of his life. Of course, the basic facts of his life are well known to all, and therefore I will mention them only briefly. But I shall try to also include a few of the incidents that are perhaps not as well known and which are found in the reminiscences of his own disciples and devotees.
Mahapurush Maharaj was born into a devout brahmin family in 1854 in a small town east of Kolkata, called Barasat. Since his mother had prayed to Shiva for the birth of a son, he was given the name Taraknath, and was known simply as Tarak. Like Swami Vivekananda’s father, Tarak’s father, Ramkanai, was both a successful lawyer and an extremely generous man. He and his equally pious wife, Vamasundari, maintained nearly thirty poor students in their home on different occasions. But Tarak’s father was not merely a generous man, he was also a great Tantric sadhaka. In fact, it was Ramkanai who recommended that Sri Ramakrishna wear an amulet containing the name of his ishta devata in order to cure him of the burning sensation he was experiencing at that time. Ramkanai used to visit the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, both in his capacity as attorney for the Rani Rasmani estate and as a spiritual seeker, and it was on one of those occasions that he met Sri Ramakrishna for the first time.
The seeds of dispassion were sown in Tarak’s life from an early age. His mother died when he was only nine years old, and although his father remarried, his stepmother could not take the place of his own mother in his heart—it was only after coming to Sri Ramakrishna many years later that Tarak once again felt that same motherly love and affection. In addition to this, his elder sister also passed away, leaving behind two children, and a brother-in-law died leaving his second sister a widow.
Tarak was a good student in school, though he was rather indifferent to his studies. When his father’s income fell due to lack of work, Tarak—who was in the tenth grade then—left school to take a job. He worked for the railways in northern India, and spent his spare time in spiritual practice. He spent long hours in meditation during this period, with the one desire of attaining samadhi. He would later say: ‘Then the idea of samadhi would agitate my mind. How to be absorbed in the bliss of samadhi, forgetting the world—this keen desire occupied me most of the time. I was very fond of the meditation pose of Shiva and Buddha. I tried to attain samadhi month after month—I rarely slept at night. I had that one thought—how to attain samadhi.’
We often hear that Shivananda was a grave and serious man, that prior to becoming president of the Ramakrishna Order he was a little indrawn and stern, and that after becoming president his heart expanded and he became a great, loving soul. However, when we examine various incidents in his earlier life, we find that that great heart and intense love were always there, only perhaps a little hidden. One of the first intimations we get of this is the story of his marriage.
Because of the poor financial condition of his family, his father could not afford the dowry for his daughter’s marriage. One prospective family offered to give their son in marriage if their daughter could marry Tarak at the same time. In that way there would be no exchange of dowry and the double marriages could go ahead without any hitch. Though Tarak was not at all interested in marriage, and actually was determined to lead a monastic life, he agreed out of love for his sister and respect for his father. It is well known that he and his wife lived as brother and sister for the short period of their marriage—she passed away in 1883.
Tarak first met Sri Ramakrishna in May or June of 1880, in the home of Ramchandra Datta. The room was filled with devotees, and Sri Ramakrishna was speaking on the very subject that had become the passion of Tarak’s life: samadhi. Tarak seated himself nearby and listened spellbound. As there was no opportunity for him to talk with Sri Ramakrishna during this first meeting, Tarak went to Dakshineswar the next month. As soon as he bowed before Sri Ramakrishna, he experienced a tremendous reaction. He felt as if he had once more got his own mother back. He placed his head on Sri Ramakrishna’s lap, and Sri Ramakrishna caressed him like a child. Many years later Tarak explained: ‘At once I felt a deep attachment for the Master. I felt as if I had known him for a long time. My heart became filled with joy. I saw in him my tender, loving mother waiting for me. So, with the confidence, faith, and certitude of a child, I surrendered myself to him, placing myself entirely in his care. I was certain that at last I had found him for whom I had been searching all these days. From then on I looked upon Thakur as my mother.’
Tarak’s second or third meeting with Sri Ramakrishna was very much like that of his brother disciple Narendranath. Sri Ramakrishna went into an ecstatic mood in his presence and touched Tarak lightly on the chest. Tarak lost all outer consciousness of the world and remained absorbed in that joyful state for a long time. He recalled: ‘As a result [of Sri Ramakrishna’s touch], everything became revealed to me. I realized that I was the Atman, eternal and free. I realized that the Master was the Lord born as man for the good of humanity, and that I was born on earth to serve him.’ Not long after this incident, Sri Ramakrishna initiated Tarak by writing a mantra on his tongue, as he would often do. Once again, Tarak lost all outer consciousness of the world, and only regained his normal consciousness when Sri Ramakrishna touched his chest with his fingers.
Tarak was the first of all the disciples to renounce the world. After his wife died in 1883, he quit his job and told his father of his decision. As his father was also a highly spiritual soul, he blessed his son, and with tears in his eyes said: ‘May you realize God! I myself tried to renounce the world and realize him, but I failed. Therefore, I bless you that you may attain God.’ Tarak spent the next three years of his life, that is, up until the time of Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away, living mainly at the home of Sri Ramakrishna’s great householder disciple Ramchandra Datta. Here he cooked his own food and spent the greater part of his time in meditation and spiritual practice, either in some solitary place or in a nearby cremation ground. After Sri Ramakrishna was diagnosed with throat cancer and was moved to the Kashipur garden house, Tarak, along with many of Sri Ramakrishna’s monastic disciples, moved into Kashipur to serve him. Here also Tarak spent all of his spare time in intense austerities in the company of Narendra and his other brother disciples. Sometimes they would pass entire nights in meditation, either in the Panchavati at Dakshineswar or at Kashipur itself.
Since Tarak had already decided to lead a monastic life years earlier, it was only natural that he would be one of the disciples to form the first monastery of the Ramakrishna Order. He had accompanied Baburam—later Swami Premananda—along with Narendra and others, to his ancestral home in Antpur, and was present on that auspicious Christmas Eve when they vowed to live the life of monks. Because of his great devotion to Shiva, as well as his calm, dispassionate nature, he was given the name Shivananda by Narendranath. Since he was already free of all social responsibility and attachments to the world, Shivananda, who was later more commonly known as Mahapurush Maharaj, became the first resident of the newly formed Baranagar Math, along with Swami Advaitananda. Here, he and his brother monks practiced intense spiritual disciplines, often spending entire nights immersed in meditation.
As was his nature, Mahapurush Maharaj remained indrawn much of the time. This period of his life was one of great austerity, simplicity, and joy. Even then, the call of the wandering life beckoned him to leave the Baranagar Math, and he took to the solitary life of the itinerant Indian sadhu. Because of his Shiva-like nature, he was drawn to the Himalayas, traveling on foot as far as possible and preferring to move about alone. He made several pilgrimages to such places as Kedarnath and Badrinath and spent a great deal of time in Almora and Uttarkashi. Later, at the bidding of Swami Vivekananda, he laid the groundwork for a future centre in Almora, and also traveled to Sri Lanka, again preparing the ground for an ashrama there.
During Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Varanasi in 1902, the Maharaja of Bhinga had offered him five hundred rupees for starting an ashrama there. At that time Swamiji refused, but later relented and requested Mahapurush Maharaj to go to Varanasi and take up the work there. Shivananda left for Varanasi at the very end of June 1902, just a few days before the passing away of his beloved brother, Swamiji. Though he was spared the heart-wrenching sight of Swamiji’s death, there is no question that Swamiji’s early departure from the world left a tremendous void in the heart of Mahapurush Maharaj and greatly increased the burden of responsibility to carry on his work for his brother monks. Despite the great sense of grief Shivananda must have felt, he carried out Swamiji’s will and remained at the new ashrama in Varanasi—Sri Ramakrishna Advaita Ashrama—until 1909.
This period of Mahapurush Maharaj’s life is of great interest. We begin to get a picture of his nature and behavior from the early monks of the Order who joined under him in Varanasi. And we find a beautiful blend of the two aspects of Shivananda’s character that seem to best define him: his austere, and seemingly serious, nature, and his very soft heart, often lost sight of behind his grave demeanor. Though it is true that the sweet side of Shivananda’s nature was first seen after he became president of the Ramakrishna Order in 1922, and further developed after the passing away of his dear brother Swami Saradananda in 1927, we also find from a few events that took place during his years in Varanasi that his compassionate and loving nature was part and parcel of his character throughout his life.
Mahapurush Maharaj led an extremely austere life in the new ashrama in Varanasi. He slept on the bare floor in the library room with only a little straw and a tiger skin beneath him for comfort, even in the cold of winter. He would often awake at two o’clock in the morning and sit for meditation near the fireplace. Due to his grave demeanor, many were hesitant to approach him; yet, at the same time, like a loving mother he looked after the young boys who had come to join the ashrama. There is a beautiful incident from this period, narrated by Swami Gaurishananda: A brahmachari named Rishi had come to the ashrama to study Sanskrit. After some time, he was suddenly stricken with fever and dysentery. There were only two latrines at the ashrama. Mahapurush Maharaj was using one of them and the other was occupied by one of the other monks. Brahmachari Rishi felt a sudden urge to use the latrine, but did not feel bold enough to say anything. In his feverish condition, he stood outside the two latrines and, unable to control himself, soiled his cloth.
As soon as Mahapurush Maharaj came out and saw Rishi standing there, he understood what had happened. With great affection he said, ‘You are standing here, feverish, and in this condition. Why did you not call me?’ Mahapurush Maharaj requested Rishi to go in and clean himself up. After he had done so, Mahapurush Maharaj insisted that he leave his soiled cloth and go back to his room. Rishi was naturally hesitant to do so, but at Mahapurush Maharaj’s ardent request he had to comply. Then Mahapurush Maharaj, without saying anything to anyone, washed Rishi’s soiled cloth, demonstrating both his wonderful spirit of service and love, as well as his perfect humility.
Gaurishananda also relates an incident which shows how Shivananda’s compassion was not limited to human beings, but also included other creatures, especially dogs, for whom he had a lifelong love. In those days, a dog was kept at the Advaita Ashrama and was fed four chapattis a day. The financial condition of the ashrama was quite poor, and perhaps some of the residents resented ashrama food being used to feed the dog. In any event, one day one of the monks had beaten the dog so badly that it had become lame. Mahapurush Maharaj lovingly called the dog to him, but when he saw the dog was unable to move, he understood what had happened. Again, he did not request the help of anyone else; he himself began to nurse the dog back to health. If any of the other monks would offer assistance, he would chide them and say, ‘No, you have no feeling of mercy or compassion. You are just interested in your own spiritual practices, so go ahead and remain busy with them.’ We have a further sign of Mahapurush Maharaj’s compassion and feeling for others during this period: he started a free nursery school for the poor children of the area during his stay in Varanasi.
Shivananda left Varanasi in 1909 and returned to Belur Math. Brahmananda was then president, and Premananda acted as manager of the Math. Whenever Premananda was away, Mahapurush Maharaj would take his place as Math manager, and after the passing away of Premananda in 1918, he became the permanent manager. During this period, two wonderful characteristics of Mahapurush Maharaj could be clearly seen. The first is the very high standards he set for the monks. If any of them did not execute his duties with great care and devotion, he could expect a good scolding from the swami. To some, this was a sign of Mahapurush Maharaj’s critical and serious nature, but the truth was that he had high hopes for the young boys who had joined and wanted to see them develop to their full potential. The other factor was that he always felt the living presence of Sri Ramakrishna at the Math and could not bear to see any defect in his service.
The second trait that we see during this period, and also after he became president of the Math, was an ability to completely let go of any anger or irritation he felt with any of the monks. He might have given one of them a good scolding, but it left no mark on him, and he was found to be his old self again within moments. In that way he was a living example of the Bengali expression ‘sadhur rag jaler dag; the anger of a holy man is like a mark on water’. We can see this in a particular well-known incident which, though more often cited with regard to Sri Sarada Devi than to Shivananda, tells us a great deal about the forgiving nature of Mahapurush Maharaj as well. Whenever Mahapurush Maharaj became extremely displeased with one of the monks, he would respond by saying that he was unfit to live at the Math and should leave. He had his own creative and interesting way of expressing it. He would say to one of the older monks, ‘Give that boy two paise’. That was the cost of taking the ferry to the other side of the Ganga, and it was Mahapurush Maharaj’s way of saying that the person concerned should pack up and go home. But Mahapurush Maharaj would secretly tell the older monk, ‘Give him four paise. If the fellow wants to come back, where will he get the money?’
One day, Brahmachari Nagen committed some indiscretion, and someone was sent to bring him to Mahapurush Maharaj. The brahmachari had just come from his bath in the Ganga and was wearing only his towel round his waist. The person who was sent to bring him felt compelled to warn him first and said, ‘It looks like it is your fate to get your two paise today.’ Immediately Nagen understood what was in store for him and got so terrified that he took off then and there, with nothing to cover him but his towel, and started walking to Jayrambati to take shelter with Holy Mother. He walked for two days, with no money and no food, until he reached Arambagh. There one sadhu took pity on him and gave him a little food, a place to sleep, and a tattered gerua cloth to wear. The next day, Nagen reached Jayrambati, fell at Holy Mother’s feet, and explained everything. Holy Mother consoled Nagen and sent a letter to Mahapurush Maharaj: ‘My dear son Tarak; what mistake has the younger Nagen made? Fearing that you would ask him to leave the Math, the boy has come to me all the way on foot, at great hardship to himself. My dear son, can a child commit any offence in the eyes of his mother? I am sending him back to you. Don’t say anything to him.’
Mahapurush Maharaj wrote in reply that they were all worried about the boy and were relieved to learn he had gone to her. He also said that they would gladly accept him back. Nagen returned to Belur Math and met Mahapurush Maharaj. In a letter he wrote to Swami Gaurishwarananda, he described his meeting with Mahapurush Maharaj: ‘When I reached Belur Math, I first made my pranams in the different temples and then went to Mahapurush Maharaj’s room. He was seated on his cot, but as soon as I entered, he got up and embraced me. Then he said, “You fellow, you went to the High Court to lodge a complaint against me!” How many other affectionate things he said to me! He really showered me with love.’ There are a few small incidents that show us how this wonderful humility of Mahapurush Maharaj remained with him throughout his life.
Once, when Swami Swaprakashananda was staying at Belur Math and performing the worship of Sri Ramakrishna, he went to make pranams to Mahapurush Maharaj after the evening worship was completed. As the swami was sitting in an indrawn mood, Swaprakashananda very quietly made pranams without touching his feet and then walked away. As Swaprakashananda was leaving the room, Mahapurush Maharaj called out to him and asked, ‘Have you made pranams over there?’ He was referring to the room where Swami Vivekananda stayed before his sudden passing away in 1902. After learning that he had not, Mahapurush Maharaj became displeased and scolded him saying, ‘You should always make pranams there first and only afterwards here. Do you not know that Swamiji—the veritable Shiva—is residing there? If you make pranams there, it is enough. What is there to bow down to here?’
Swaprakashananda also relates that when Mahapurush Maharaj would rise from bed early in the morning, he would go downstairs and use the lavatory there. He would never use the lavatory upstairs, which Swamiji used to use, despite the extreme inconvenience that was caused by using the far more primitive arrangements below. From this we can easily understand how great was his reverence for Swamiji, and how complete was his humility! Perhaps the greatest example of his humility was the attitude he showed at the time of becoming president of Belur Math. His regard for Brahmananda was so great that he could never think of himself as the president. In his mind that position always belonged to Brahmananda. After Brahmananda passed away, he said: ‘Maharaj is gone. I have no desire to continue living. The Math belongs to Maharaj. He was its head, he was its charm, he was its wealth. He was everything to the Math. We are his servants and are working according to his wishes.’ Mahapurush would only agree to take the position of president as a representative of Brahmananda. He never looked upon himself as the actual president or thought of himself as a guru, though he initiated large numbers of devotees and monks into spiritual life.
There are no doubt many more aspects of Mahapurush Maharaj’s life that are worthy of discussion: his great forbearance in the face of terrible physical suffering and disability, his immense kindness toward the devotees and young monks, his deeply indrawn and spiritual nature, which made samadhi and other great heights of spiritual experience something quite natural to him, and several more. While there is no space here to include the many incidents we read about these aspects of his life, we hope that sharing a few of them helped us be closer to a soul whose ‘home is that high Power from which proceed name and form’, as was told of Mahapurush Maharaj by Sri Ramakrishna.