Swami Shivananda’s whole life was one of self-surrender to god, and this can be clearly seen in all his letters. And to those who wrote him he would advise them similarly – surrender yourself to god and call on Him with a longing heart. Along with this, however, he gave to each of the disciples and devotees who wrote him loving, practical advice, like a father, he guided them in their times of happiness and in their times of sorrow. He was like a mighty ocean liner, which could take many souls across the frightening sea of the world and bring them to eternal bliss. Fortunately for us, many of his letters have been preserved, and they still touch the hearts of readers today very much the way they must have affected those to whom he wrote. His blessings are still there on every page.
The bright light that was Sri Ramakrishna disappeared from this earth in 1886, but before it went out, other lights had been kindled from it. The brightest of these were Sri Sarada Devi (the Holy Mother) and the sixteen monastic disciples, all of whom dedicated themselves to living and spreading their Master’s teachings.
Among those monastic disciples was Swami Shivananda (1854-1934), popularly known as Mahapurush Maharaj. Even when he was very young he longed to become a monk and devote his life to the realization of God. After meeting his Master, Sri Ramakrishna was bedridden with throat cancer, a group of young disciples left their homes and dedicated themselves to nursing him. Then, soon after Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away, these disciples banded together to form a monastery, which eventually became the nucleus of the RamaKrishna Math and Mission.
Like all of the disciples, Swami Shivananda was then carried away by divine madness to realize God or die in the attempt. Sometimes he stayed in the monastery and sometimes he went to one or another holy place to practice even more austerities in solitude. Later, at the call of Swami Vivekananda, he joined with the other disciples to establish the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, and he eventually became the second President of the order. His saintly and dedicated life left an indelible impression on the hearts of his disciples. Thought all kinds of good work found him sympathetic, he never failed to stress the spirit which should be at the back of all activities. So his advice was always behind word there should be meditation; without meditation, work cannot be performed in a way which conduces to spiritual growth. Nor is work nicely performed without having a spiritual background.
This book is translation of most of his letters written in Bengali. A brief biographical sketch has been added as an introduction, and an article Swami Shivananda wrot about his Master is given in the appendix.
All of Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples were extraordinary people, just as he himself was. Right from his childhood, Sri Ramakrishna’s chief concern was how to realize God. The disciples also had the same concern, and it was this that brought them all to Sri Ramakrishna. As each one came, Sri Ramakrishna behaved as if he had been waiting for him, and he immediately began training the disciple for the role he wanted him to play in later years. Sri Ramakrishna made his disciples feel that they had come to the world to assist him in his work. But what work? To uplift humanity. Sri Ramakrishna loved his disciples and the disciples also loved him. This love for the master knit them together to form the nucleus of what later came to be known as the Ramakrishna Order.
Swami Shivananda (1854-1934), some of whose letters from the contents of this book, was born Taraknath Ghosal, son of Ramkanai Ghosal of Barasat, a village near Calcutta. He was among those disciples who had come to Sri RamaKrishna, as if driven by an invisible force. He was, in fact, looking for a person who had attained ecstasy. A friend had told him about Sri Ramakrishna, but it was a long time before he was able to see him. He first saw Sri Ramakrishna at Ram Chandra Dutta’s house in Calcutta. Sri Ramakrishna was then an indrawn mood, which meant he was close to ecstasy. When Tarak saw him, he knew he had found the person he was looking for, and he took the earliest opportunity to go and visit Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar. As they met, Tarak felt that he was seeing his mother, whom he had lost at an early age. He placed his head in Sri Ramakrishna’s lap and was overwhelmed with deep emotion. Sri Ramakrishna then stroked his head with great affection. Till the end of Tarak’s life Sri Ramakrishna was his mother, father, master, friend, everything. In fact, Sri Ramakrishna was his all in all.
After a few visits, Tarak was not the same person any more. His mind was always on God, and nothing in the world interested him longer. He had to marry against his wish, but when his wife died prematurely he felt free to live the life of a monk, which he had always longed to do. He then sought permission from his father to leave home. He gladly gave it. His father practiced tantra and was known to be highly advanced spiritually. Sri Ramakrishna knew him and held him in high esteem. It is no wonder then that he so promptly gave his son permission to devote himself to religion.
Tarak left home, but he did not take formal monastic vows till after some years. All he wanted then was to be near Sri Ramakrishna, though he had nowhere to stay. For some time he lived at Dakshineswar. Then Sri Ramakrishna came to his help and asked his disciple Ram Chandra Dutta to find him a place to stay at his house. While at Ram’s house, Tarak would often spend his nights in meditation at Beadon Square, Hedua, Kalighat, or Keoratala. Later he moved to Ram’s garden house in Kankurgachi. Usually boiled rice and a few pieces of roasted potato brinjal were all that he had to eat. But some days he remained satisfied with whatever he could get by begging.
When Sri Ramakrishna was moved to Cossipore for the treatment of his throat cancer, a group of young dis- ciples gathered there to take turns looking after him. Tarak was one of them. When they were not attending on Sri Ramakrishna, the young disciples meditated and studied the scriptures. Narendra (Swami Vivekananda) was their leader in everything they did. Once Narendra took Tarak and Kali (Swami Abhedananda) to Bodh Gaya, and they spent a few days there in intense meditation. One day at that time, Narendra saw a light issuing from the image of Buddha and entering into Tarak's body. Narendra was struck by this. With tears in his eyes, he embraced Tarak.
Before passing away, Sri Ramakrishna gave the ochre robe to each of those young disciples, including Tarak. By this he made it clear' to them that he wanted them to live a monastic life. To make it still clearer he also asked them one day to go and get food by begging, as monks do. When they returned, Sri Ramakrishna himself partook of the food, saying that such food obtained by begging was very holy. During those days Sri Ramakrishna was often seen closeted with Narendra. The Master was obviously having private talks with his chief disciple about what he wanted the young disciples to be and to do. He also sometimes talked to each of the other disciples, perhaps to help solve their personal problems. 1110se days-with the Master were the happiest the disciples could ever think of. It was obvi- ous that Sri Ramakrishna was dying, but they were full of hope and courage. Sri Ramakrishna's mere presence raised their minds to the highest level. They felt that the goal of life was almost within their grasp so long as the Master was with them.
When Sri Ramakrishna passed away on 16 August 1886, the ground suddenly slipped away from under their feet. They did not know what to do or where to go. The householder disciples told them to go home, and some of them did, though they did not like it. But Tarak had cut off his tieswith his family long before. There was no question of his going back home. He left for Vrindaban and from there went to Benares.
While at Benares, Tarak received a message from Narendra urging him to return to Calcutta immediately. A very important development had taken place which neces- sitated that Tarak come back to Calcutta. Soon after Sri Ramakrishna's passing away, he appeared one day to his disciple Surendranath Mitra and asked him to rent a house so that his young disciples could live together and start a monastery. Surendranath immediately went to Narendra and told him about his vision and added that he was pre- pared to pay whatever money was needed to start a monas- tery. A house was found at Baranagar, and Narendra thought that Tarak, given his age and experience, was the most fit person to start the monastery.
At Narendra's request, Tarak returned to Calcutta, and the monastery was started. Those who had gone back home came and joined the monastery. The monks had the hardest life imaginable, but they were happy because they were struggling to realize God, which was the goal their Master had set before them. While Narendra kept inspir- ing them, Tarak saw to it that his brother monks did not suffer undue hardships. He took upon himself every pos- sible chore that needed to be done.
After they had been together a few months, they felt the urge to take formal monastic vows according to the tra- dition. They also changed their names. N arendranath Dutta became Swami Vivekananda, Rakhal Chandra Ghosh became Swami Brahmananda, Taraknath Ghosal became Swami Shivananda, and so on. Swami Shivananda also had another name given by Swami Vivekananda: 'Maha- purush,' the Great Soul. Swamiji gave him this name in rec- ognition of his great self-restraint.
After taking formal sannyasa, the young monks started going on pilgrimages, visiting holy places. Swami Shivananda had already visited some of them, but he wanted to visit more of those places. He covered the whole of North India, and then went to other holy places of the country. For years he wandered like this. Sometimes he had a brother monk with him, but more often he was alone. Sometimes he slept in the open and sometimes he had nothing to eat. In his later life he would refer to those days with great joy and pride.
Swami Shivananda was in South India when news came of Swami Vivekananda's success at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. When people came to know that Swami Shivananda was a brother disciple of Swami Vivek- ananda, they urged him to tell them about Swami Vivek- ananda and their Master, Sri Ramakrishna. In compliance, Swami Shivananda addressed several gatherings in South India. Swami Vivekananda was highly pleased when he heard of this.
In 1897 Swami Vivekananda returned to India. Swami Shivananda was among those who received him. Soon after, at Swamiji's request, he went to Colombo to preach Vedanta. Again at Swamiji's request, he started a centre at Almora, and theri one in Benares. He also took part in the plague-relief work in Calcutta.
By nature, however, Swami Shivananda was retiring. He avoided company as far as possible and never liked speaking unless forced to do so. But he was always ready to give his best, should the interests of the Order demand it For instance, when Belur Math was founded, he was, for some time, put in charge of training the junior monks and teaching them the scriptures. He did it gladly and as well as he could. When Swami Premananda's health broke down, Mahapurush Maharaj was asked to take over his position as manager of the monastery. Then, on Swami Brahm- ananda's passing away in 1922, Swami Shivananda was elected President of the Ramakrishna Order. With humility he accepted the honour as Sri Ramakrishna's wish.
It was difficult for someone to fill Swami Brahm- ananda's place, but Swami Shivananda did it very well. Pre- viously he was known to be a lover of solitude, but now he loved company. He was kind, generous, and warm-hearted. And he was particularly concerned for the poor and the lowly. Once a thief was caught red-handed. When the thief said that poverty had driven him to steal, Swami Shiv- ananda let him go, but not before he had fed him well and given him some money and a new piece of cloth.
Swami Shivananda considered himself responsible for the well-being of everyone in the Order. If a monk was ill, he would personally supervise his nursing. Sometimes he himself would feed the monk. His care for the cows in the dairy was the same. Each cow had a name, and he remem- bered the names of all of them. Every day he would enquire how they were keeping. But of all animals, dogs were his favourite. As a boy, he used to have dogs sharing his bed, and this love for dogs continued to the last day of his life. Pointing to one of them, he used to say, 'He is my dog and I am the Master's dog.'
As head of the entire Ramakrishna Order, Maha- purush Maharaj naturally had many disciples. But he did not like anybody to think he was his or her guru. He would rather that they think Sri Ramakrishna was the real Guru, and he was only his servant. He also did not like too much formality while initiating a disciple. He made the initiation as simple as possible. It was nonetheless most inspiring. This was because he was inspired. He himself and every- thing he did was inspired. He looked like he was divine.
Swami Shivananda's closing years saw him softer than ever before. A stroke had crippled him, and the left hand was the only limb he could move. This hand was almost always seen raised to indicate that he was blessing every- body. The smile and the sparkle in the eyes were further proof of his love and affection.
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