Swami Ranganathananda - a monk with a mission
A great monk passed away on April 25 2005. India lost a great son.
"Mother Saraswati will dance on your tongue," was the blessing of Swami
Akhandananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, to this monk. And
the blessing became true. A true disciple of Swami Shivananda of the
Ramakrishna order, Swami Ranganathananda became the head of this holy
order like his own guru and led a movement of spirituality from the
forefront till his passing away.
"They alone live who live for others. The rest are more dead than
alive," declared Swami Vivekananda. In Swami Ranganathananda one could
find an example of those who lived only for others. Here was a complete
personality. But such personalities aren't widely known. Our print and
electronic medias usually pay little attention to spiritual greatness.
Yet great men never stop serving the world. Thus we had a personality,
who was totally dedicated to working silently for the good of the
It was not so long ago. We were in Bangalore. Swami Ranganathananda,
then in his seventies, arrived at Ramakrishna Ashrama Bangalore, to
deliver a series of lectures.
With him, came a small "tiffin box", which could contain food enough
for a Kindergarten child. When he arrived in Bangalore, it was late at
night. He entered the Ashrama, and after exchanging greetings, sat on a
bench, and ate from his little box. All along his life he suffered from
digestion problems. Put in simple language, he could hardly digest
Anyone else would have broken down and remained bedridden for long.
But not Swami Ranganathananda. In spite of such a debilitating health
problem, he was always strong and steady, and ready to serve. Even in
his nineties he walked straight, with the gait of a lion.
Wherever he went, he delivered discourses on numerous topics and
inspired people. And what grand lectures they were! One day he spoke on
Srimad Bhagavata, a well-known Purana, for instance, in Bangalore
Ashrama. In about two hours of a thrilling lecture, he taught the
audience the essence of the whole of Bhagavata.
There was no place to sit in that big ashrama - thousands were
listening enraptured. Such was his erudition. Apart from scholarship,
his heart was always panting to serve the poor and the needy. After the
lecture, someone came to talk to the Swamiji. That man said he had been
suffering from severe blood pressure and other health problems because
he was not receiving his pension for the past five years. Immediately,
the swami phoned some official, discussed the problem, and the matter
was settled then and there.
Between 1946 and 1972, Swami Ranganathananda travelled to over fifty
countries of the world, alone, without much help, and totally depending
on God and what chance might bring. He as the spiritual ambassador of
India to the West. He pierced through the Iron Curtain, he faced the
Second World War, he has seen communal violence at its worst, and he
endured hardships by the hundred. How many interesting anecdotes he had!
There are interesting incidents to show how even cold countries had
seekers of Vedantic knowledge, and when Swami Ranganathananda spoke,
hundreds heard him with awe and wonder. It was because of his
inspiration that several centres of the Ramakrishna order sprang up in
different parts of the world.
Since his childhood, the Swami was a great student. Though he did not
have much of secular learning, he was a miracle of God because of his
immense scholarship. He was an embodiment of learning. He had studied
Sanskrit and English, and Vedas, Gita, Indian and Western philosophy,
comparative religion and so on, very deeply. The swami could deliver
lectures in several languages and speak in many more.
A senior monk of the Ramakrishna Order, who had travelled with Swami
Ranganathananda once, reported that Ranganathananda never wasted a
single moment in his life. Whether it was in train or bus or flight, he
would continue reading, making notes, thus utilising his time
fruitfully. He had a huge collection of personal books, all of them
having been read thoroughly, and highlighted with his delightful
observations. He has furnished several libraries by gifting his personal
books. And being a monk of the great order of Sri Ramakrishna,
Ranganathananda was naturally enough a deep spiritual aspirant too.
The combined force of spiritually and philosophical wisdom par
excellence made Swami Ranganathananda a fit instrument to embark upon a
mission: that of spreading the glorious message of the ancient sages of
India to the world. India's mission was his mission.
The mission of Vivekananda was his mission - that of awakening the
world to spirituality. It was thus that he became the spiritual
ambassador of India to the West, moving from country to country, meeting
people, speaking about the glories of Vedanta, solving problems by the
hundreds, and inspiring one and all to lead lives of enlightenment.
Whether it was the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavata, Ramayana, modern
scientific knowledge, social developmental ideas, or any such subject,
Swami Ranganathananda would deliver master discourses, which would touch
the hearts of the listeners and inspire them to lead wonderful lives.
As a Sanskrit couplet says, 'vidvan sarvatra pujyate'. This sage of
learning and enlightenment was indeed venerated everywhere. People in
far off countries like Brazil remember with gratitude the inspiration
that they received from this swami as long back as 1967.
It is said that during his days as Secretary of the Ramakrishna
Mission, New Delhi, stalwarts like Jawaharlal Nehru would squat on the
lawns of the Missions to listen to his enthralling discourses. Swami
Ranganathananda had admirers from all walks of life. It is a well-known
statement that Swami Ranganathananda knew only to make friends, and
never to lose any.
Apart from being a world-renowned speaker, the swami was also a great
writer. Among his greatest works are the message of the Upanishads, 'A
Pilgrim Looks at World' (2 vols), 'Bhagvad Gita', 'Brihadaranyaka
Upanishad', 'Spiritual Life of the Householder', and so on.
His books have been translated into many languages, and millions of
copies have been sold out. These apart, the swami was also a great
administrator. He worked as secretary and librarian at the Ramakrishna
Mission Centre at Rangoon from 1939 to 1942 and thereafter as head of
the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in Karachi from 1942 to 1948, then as
head of New Delhi Center till 1962, was Secretary of Ramakrishna Mission
Institute of Culture in Kolkata for several years, and headed the
Hyderabad centre for 30 long years.
He was one of the members of the Board of Trustees of the Ramakrishna
Math and Ramakrishna Mission for over forty years. Wherever he served,
he built that ashrama into a great center of learning and spirituality.
New Delhi and Hyderabad centers, for instance, stand as living examples
of this statement.
When India became politically free, he was in Karachi, as head of the
Ramakrishna Mission centre there. Partition painfully halted the
progress of the Vedanta activities in Karachi, and the Missions had to
be closed down. The swamis there had to come back to India under
All the same, Swami Ranganathananda managed to collect a huge
quantity of rice and send it to the impoverished masses. During his
lifetime, Swami Ranganathananda helped countless individuals and
organisations in every way.
During his long tenure as Vice-President of the order and then as the
President, Swami Ranganathananda inspired thousands of spiritual seekers
to lead spiritual lives. He was a great admirer of Swami Vivekananda,
and had read his 8 volume complete works at least 75 times! His disliked
weakness and sorrowful faces. Even till the age of about 80 years he
could be seen playing volleyball. Such was his spirit. A true sannyasin
that he was, he shunned awards and accolades, though deserving much more
than they wanted to give him.
Swami Ranganathananda thus embodied the ancient and eternal Indian
spirit of a harmonious combination of physical vitality and mental
strength, deep intellectuality and spiritual dynamism, intense
practicality and profound idealism. Such persons are born not always on
India alone can produce such sons who become living demonstrations of
spiritual vitality combined with down-to-earth practicality. Swami
Ranganathananda, as everyone knows, was a gift of Kerala to the world,
in which state he was born on 15 December 1908. He lived every moment of
his 96 years on earth, breathing life into everyone he met till the end.