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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 humanity.

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 anything.

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 stressful conditions.

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 this earth.

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.

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