At the feet of Swami Ranganathananda

January 9, 2009

Friends, thanks for the enthusiastic response to my inaugural post.

I was wondering what to share with you today, because there is so much to share. Elections to the 15th Lok Sabha are fast approaching. Naturally, much of my communication will be political in nature and election-oriented. However, I must confess that I do not regard politics to be the be-all-and-end-all of our national life. Indeed, politics – and all else in public life -become meaningful and fulfilling only when they are guided by higher values and ideals rooted in India’s spiritual heritage. And there is so much that politicians and those in other professions have to learn from India’s spiritual masters, both ancient and modern.

The Monk Without Frontiers A few days ago, a new book landed on my table – The Monk Without Frontiers – Reminiscences of Swami Ranganathananda. It is the latest publication of the Ramakrishna Mission, and has been brought out to commemorate Swamiji’s birth centenary (2008). Swami Ranganathananda, as I have recorded in my autobiography (My Country My Life , published last year by Rupa & Co), “was one of the brightest spiritual lights that shone upon Indian society in our times”. I was very pleased to see that the book carries an excerpt from my autobiography in which I have written about my close association with this noble soul in Karachi, where I spent the first twenty years of my life (1927-47). The book also carries a short extract from a speech I delivered at a memorial meeting at the Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi, on 15 May 2005. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and former Prime Minister Shri I.K. Gujral were also present on the occasion to pay homage to Swamiji, who passed away on 26 April 2005.

Seeing these excerpts, I thought that I should share it with you in my blog.
Please do send me your comments.

* * * Shri Lal Krisha Advani
During the last three years of my life in Karachi, I was exposed to another life-transforming influence. Every Sunday evening, I started going to the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram to listen to the discourses on the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Ranganathananda. I was as fascinated by Swamiji’s personality as I was by his elucidation, in clear, direct and profound manner, of Lord Krishna’s mesmerising philosophical dialogue with warrior Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata war.

Swamiji was, at that time, the President of the Ramakrishna Mission in Karachi, where he lived for six years propagating the teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and his disciple Swami Vivekananda. He had come to Karachi after having served for several years in the Ramakrishna Mission in distant Burma. And he hailed from Kerala! Swamiji, who had taken to the path of spirituality and humanitarian service at a very young age, was a disarmingly simple and amiable person. He soon developed a great fondness for me. In no time, his dedicated, mission-oriented and intellectually towering personality began to hold great attraction for me.

‘I should develop these qualities,’ I told myself.

The Ramakrishna Mission in Karachi

The Ramakrishna Mission in Karachi

Initially the audience for the Gita discourses was small-about fifty to hundred. But the number increased week after week and soon reached a thousand! As the Ashram was located in a Muslim locality, some Muslims also began to attend the lectures, as did Christians and Parsis, including Jamshed Nasarvanji Mehta, the former Mayor of Karachi. The Ashram also became a beehive of voluntary social service, in which I too contributed my bit. I recall the Bengal famine of 1943, in which millions died due to British war time policy. Swamiji issued an appeal to mobilise food and other relief material for the famine-stricken people. It evoked a generous response and nearly fi ve lakh rupees were collected in no time. Swamiji used the funds to purchase rice and requested the Sindh government for an export permit to send it to Bengal in a steamer via Sri Lanka. An officer told him, ‘You have to wait for your turn. The Muslim League also wants export permit for the same purpose. We’ll give you the quota after they have used theirs.’ After some weeks, the same officer told Swamiji, ‘The Muslim League sent only sixty tons. The rest of the quota is all yours.’ The Ashram sent 1240 tons!

Swamiji used to invite many distinguished personalities to visit the Ashram. I recall a memorable visit by Dr S. Radhakrishnan*, the great philosopher who was then the Vice Chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), in October 1945. He delivered two talks, one at the Ashram and the other at D.J. Sindh College, both of which drew large crowds. Dr Radhakrishnan had requested Swamiji to collect some donations for BHU. The residents of Karachi gave him a purse of Rs 50,000, which was quite a significant amount those days.

* Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was one of the most internationally renowned Indian philosophers and educationists of the twentieth century. He was the first Vice President of India (1952-62), and the second President of India (1962-67).

I left Karachi in September 1947, whereas Swamiji continued living there until it became impossible to carry on the activities of the Ramakrishna Mission in the city. With a heavy heart, he closed down the Mission and left Karachi in August 1948. My association with him continued almost till the time he passed away in February 2005, at the age of ninety-eight.

I would meet him regularly when he was the head of the Ramakrishna Mission in Delhi in the 1960s, and also when he headed the mission in Hyderabad for a long time thereafter. My last meeting with him was in 2003, when I had gone to Kolkata for a function, and Swamiji, after having become the all-India President of the Ramakrishna Mission, was living at Belur Math, the mission’s headquarters in the city.

Our conversation at this last meeting centred on our days in Karachi, the tragic developments triggered by Partition and the role of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Swamiji, in particular, lauded Jinnah’s historic speech in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947 and said, ‘The true exposition of the meaning of secularism can be found in this speech.’ In a subconscious way, this last conversation with Swamiji was to play a decisive contributory role in my own remarks about Jinnah when I went to Pakistan in May-June 2005.

Swami Ranganathananda

Swami Ranganathananda was one of the brightest spiritual lights that shone upon Indian society in our times. He was an evolved soul, a seeker who began his life by working as a cook and dishwasher in the Ramakrishna Math, and rising to become one of the most revered propagators, both in India and abroad, of the teachings of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. He was not a conventional spiritual preacher concerned predominantly with an individual’s quest for self-realisation. His inspiringly crafted motto was: ‘Godward passion transmuted into manward love.’ His was a lifelong mission to tell the world that the myriad problems and challenges confronting it can be addressed only through a radical spiritual reorientation to human affairs.

Swamiji was prolific with both the spoken and the written word. A wandering monk, he gave thousands of lectures in cities across India and the world. For a spiritual leader who was completely detached from the material world, his lectures and writings covered a wide range of topics, including the role of teachers, administrators, scientists and businessmen in nation-building. He also interacted with political and social leaders from diverse backgrounds, leaving a positive impression on all of them. His four-volume work Eternal Values for a Changing Society pays respectful tribute to the teachings of all religions.

I recently came across a concise edition of Swamiji’s four-volume writings on the Bhagavad Gita . Titled The Charm and Power of the Gita , Swamiji in the book gives an example to illustrate the difference between the traditional orientation towards the Gita and the new man-making and nation-building orientation towards the Gita , which was imparted by Swami Vivekananda. ‘In the past’, Swamiji writes, ‘people mostly read the Gita as a pious act, and for a little peace of mind. We never realized that this is a book of intense practicality. We never understood the practical application of the Gita’s teachings. If we had done so, we would not have had the thousand years of foreign invasions, internal caste conflicts, feudal oppression and mass poverty. We never took the Gita seriously; but now we have to. We need a philosophy that can help us build a new welfare society, based on human dignity, freedom and equality. This new orientation, this practical orientation was given to the Gita for the first time in the modern age by Swami Vivekananda.’

In September 2007, I was invited to release a biography of Swami Ranganathananda at Ramakrishna Math in Paranattukara in Trichur district in Kerala, not far from his birthplace. In that biography, I came across an essay by Dr T.I. Radhakrishnan, a longtime associate of Swamiji, who records an interesting incident. Once when Swamiji was delivering a lecture on Islam and Prophet Mohammed in Karachi, one person entered the hall and sat in the last row. It was Mohammed Ali Jinnah. After the lecture, Jinnah reportedly rushed to the dais and said, ‘Swamiji, so far I had believed that I am a real Muslim. After listening to your speech, I understand that I am not. But with your blessings, I will try to become a real Muslim.’ The author of this essay says that Swamiji had similar experiences with Christians when he lectured on ‘The Christ We Adore’.

* * *

Adi Shankaracharya of the present age

When* I read that Swami Ranganathananda was born at Thrissur in Kerala in 1908, it occurred to my mind that his birthplace is not far from Kalady, the birthplace of Adi Shankaracharya. I think, Swami Ranganathananda is the Adi Shankaracharya of the present age. Adi Shankaracharya was a great monk as well as a great scholar who could give lucid expositions of the intrinsic philosophies of the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, the Puranas and other scriptures. Swami Ranganathanandaji came some centuries after Adi Shankaracharya with all the virtues and extraordinary characteristics of his predecessor. In every respect, the Swami was identical to Shankaracharya.

From Karachi, when the Swami came to the Delhi center of the Ramakrishna Mission as its head, I used to attend his lectures. Then he was posted at Hyderabad. But whenever he visited Delhi, I had the privileges to interact with him. It is unique that all the eminent personalities who were earnest to build our country – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Vajpayeeji and others – used to see him to get inspiration and wise advice. It speaks of his greatness and outstanding personality.

* This is a select portion of Shri Advani’s Hindi speech on Swami Ranganathananda delivered at a memorial meet at the Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi, on 15.05.2005. It has been translated by Monica Sengupta.

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