By Vinayak Lohani
Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj (1904-1991), was one of the brightest stars that shone in spiritual firmament of the Ramakrishna Order in the twentieth century. His life was a shining example of austerity, devotion, knowledge, a very high degree of inner poise, and dedicated serviceful action – thus, a fine synthesis of Bhakti, Karma, and Jnana as taught by Swami Vivekananda.
Joining the Order at the young age of 22, he served it with sterling distinction for the next 65 years, leading an exemplary monastic life. Among his notable contributions to the Order are the 275 bedded Ramakrishna Mission Hospital at Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum), which he built to such a large scale from a small dispensary that it was, when he first took its charge, and the multi-dimensional development of Madras Math, particularly as the foremost publication centre of the Ramakrishna Order. Besides, he had a prolific literary output full of invaluable contributions to the corpus of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda-Vedanta literature. Through his deep spiritual life he was a role-model to countless brahmacharins and monks who came in touch with him.
He served as the President of the Madras Math, which is second only in importance to the Belur Math (the Order’s headquarters) in the Ramakrishna Movement. In that capacity he directly influenced the moulding of monastic careers of a large number of monks as well as devotees. Towards the end he was also the Order’s Vice President, a role in which he gave Mantra-Diksha (spiritual initiation) to a large number of devotees and help mould their spiritual lives.
His practice of severe austerity in his personal life was legendary within the Ramakrishna Order and also a source of both inspiration as well as wonder. It was as if each action of his was manifesting the meaning of his name ‘Tapasyananda’ – one who finds joy in Tapasya (Austerity).
Family Background and Early Life
The premonastic name of Swami Tapasyananda was was K.P. Balakrishnan Menon. He was the first child of Shri Achutha Menon and Smt Parukutty Amma. Balakrishnan (called Balan in his young days) lost his father when he was just 2 years old. His mother, at that time just 18, was carrying her second child at that time. Though his family was reasonably privileged – particularly from mother’s lineage – Balan’s father’s passing away brought considerable hardships to the family.
Smt Parukuttu’s life itself was not an ordinary one and had a very strong impact on the life of Maharaj. She had lost both her parents when she was 8, and even after being widowed at 18 was not one to curse her fate and slip into permanent gloom. She was of a different material and extraordinarily devotional by nature. She maintained shrine at her home and did regular worship. She was knowledgeable in Malayalam as well as Sanskrit and even composed verse in highly Sanskritised Malayalam. When her husband had gone to Madras to pursue higher studies both of them used to correspond with each other in Sanskrit. She used poetry to convey greetings on weddings and birthdays, condolences on bereavement, advice on married life to newly wedded couples etc. She also had friends who themselves were well-versed in Sanskrit and with them she regularly corresponded.
Right from his childhood days Balakrishnan had a penchant for discipline and decorum. When he was about 15 years old, once he had a number of ripe, luscious mangoes to be distributed among small boys of the neighbourhood. So he sat down grass and asked all the children to make two queues and receive the mangoes one by one in a decorous manner. But when the children despite repeated entreaties remained indecorous he calmly got up and threw the entire lot into the ditch and walked away.
It is said that one of the pastimes that Balan engaged in as a small child was conducting sort of a mock ritualistic worship. Even as a child he would be absorbed in that for a long time.
But Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj himself narrated an incident that during his childhood he was could be quite naughty and one of the pranks he and his friends indulged in was layering the teacher’s chair with glue.
It was when he was in his early teens that the family came in touch with Ramakrishna Movement through a very remarkable monk of the Order – Swami Nirmalananda, also known as Tulasi Maharaj – who was the pioneer in propagating the ideals of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda in Kerala. In order to understand this influence on Balan’s family it will be educative to know a bit of early history of Ramakrishna Movement in Kerala and its key protagonist Swami Nirmalananda.
Background of the Ramakrishna Movement in Kerala
Swami Vivekananda during his visit to Kerala during his days as a Parivrajak in 1892 was very much disturbed on seeing the inhuman treatment meted out to those considered to be ‘untouchables’ then. The practice of untouchability had been prevalent across the country to varying degree, but its severity in Kerala was of such that Swami Vivekananda compared the region to a lunatic asylum.
That this question was very much in his mind is evident from a letter he wrote to Sister Nivedita asking her to provide all possible support to a petitioner from Kerala visiting Britain to bring this issue before the attention of the British Parliament.
The Ramakrishna Movement in Kerala got a fillip by the visit of Swami Ramakrishnananda (Shashi Maharaj), an eminent direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who had founded the Math at Madras and made all possible efforts to disseminate the Master’s message all over South India. The Swami visited Kerala in 1904 and thereafter delegated the propagation work to Swami Nirmalananda (Tulasi Maharaj) who had based himself in Bangalore since 1906. Tulasi Maharaj had received Sannyasa vows from Swami Vivekananda but also had the great blessing of meeting Sri Ramakrishna on several occasions. He had been to America in 1903, and upon return in 1906, stationed himself in Bangalore. He was a very impressive and eloquent monk and was very good at meeting people and influencing them. He used to visit Kerala quiet frequently where, not knowing Malayalam, he spoke only in English. He could influence quite a few people among the intelligentsia in the places he visited. Upon visiting a town, he would usually stay at a devotee’s place for a few days, and meet new people. In this way, speaking from his own experience of having personal contact with Thakur and Swamiji, he brought those people in contact with the ideals of the Ramakrishna Movement.
In course of time he set up many Ashramas all over Kerala – with a large number of them in rural areas. He also played a crucial role in bringing people of all castes together – a difficult thing to do in highly caste-ridden society of Kerala of those days – and the Ashramas set up by him were open to everyone. Many persons from downtrodden classes joined as brahmacharins in these Ashramas. The shrines of these Ramakrishna Ashramas were open to everyone which was not the case with other temples where lowest castes were barred from entering. He also started the practice of community dining (Samooha Panthi Bhojanam) in which devotees from all castes and classes sat together to partake the Prasadam. All this was much before the starting of the Harijan welfare work under the Gandhian influence. Tulasi Maharaj directly derived it from Thakur’s teaching that devotees had no caste, and also Swamiji’s central theme of ‘essential divinity in all human beings’.
Tulasi Maharaj then brought Swami Brahmanandaji Maharaj to Kerala in 1916 and quite a few people were privileged to receive Mantra-Diksha from Maharaj, regarded as the Manas-Putra (spiritual son) of Sri Ramakrishna. Tulasi Maharaj had established more than 15 Ashramas, many of them in villages and small towns. He had also started a journal in Malayalam called ‘Prabuddha Keralam’ on lines of the Order’s English journal, ‘Prabuddha Bharat’. This journal is still in publication and has done singular service in propagating the ideals of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda in Kerala.
Such was the scenario in Kerala region in the first two decades of the twentieth century when Balan was growing up.
Coming in touch with the Ramakrishna Movement
When Balan was about 11 or 12, his mother moved to Calicut with an idea of getting them better education. They moved to live with her brother in a house which was rented to them by a certain K.A. Menon. This gentleman was an initiated disciple of Swami Brahmanandaji Maharaj. Sri Menon’s son, studying in the same class as Balan, was his close friend. Thus, Balan and his younger brother Apu used to visit Shri Menon’s house quite frequently. This household maintained a shrine which had pictures of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother Sarada Devi, and several direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna to whom regular worship was offered. It came as a completely new experience to Balan, who had till then only seen ritualistic worship to granite statues of Pauranic deities or traditional Avatara figures like Sri Rama or Sri Krishna.
During this period Swami Nirmalanandaji visited and stayed at this house. One night during 9 pm when the kids had already gone to sleep their mother came and rousing them from sleep gave them some Prasadam (which was actually a portion of food taken by Tulasi Maharaj) telling them that this was the Prasadam of a very great soul. Later Balan had opportunities to see Tulasi Maharaj on some more occasions, as Sri Menon’s house was where Maharaj camped during his visits to Calicut.
In his later life Swami Tapasyananda reminiscenced about this, “Till then (seeing TuIasi Maharaj) I had no positive ideas of a spiritual personage, beyond that of legendary Rishis and sages of the Puranas. In daily life one came across only Brahmin Pundits and ritualists who expounded Puranas or officiated at temple and domestic rituals, and in their outlook and activities there was nothing to distinguish them from ordinary worldly man. The other types one associated with religious life were ochre-robed beggars who passed for Sanyasins and wandering ascetics who put on matted locks and weird dress and sat under trees before lighted fire to impress credulous public with the idea that they were holy men with mysterious powers. None of these could any way inspire or even impress one with the idea that exclusive pursuit of religion-centred life had anything ennobling in it.
“I had found a striking and startling contrast in Swami Nirmalanandaji’s personality. He was so unlike the ochre-robed fraternity I had seen. With his athletic frame, his sonorous stentorian voice, his excellent command of simple, clear and well-articulated English, and his astonishing capacity to give ready and crushing reply to mischievous questions I found him more than a match for the self-accredited intelligentsia of the locality consisting of lawyers, officers, teachers etc. who could only take contemptuous view of a Sannyasin till then. To this inherent worth of the Swami was added the halo of association with Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda.”
Thus, this association planted a seed in Balan’s young mind and was a key influence in his future development.
When he was 15, he was also introduced to ‘Prabuddha Bharat’ – the English journal of the Ramakrishna Order with articles on Vedanta, spiritual life, and Ramakrishna-Vivekananda ideals. He was fascinated upon reading the ‘Life of Swami Vivekananda By his Eastern and Western Disciples’. In Maharaj’s own words, ‘it evoked a passionate admiration for Sri Ramakrishna and Swamiji in my mind and engulfed all other devotional allegiances I had till then.’
Smt. Parukutty Amma, after being introduced to the teachings and divine life of Sri Ramakrishna, set up a shrine at her home. She began to send simple gifts with great devotion like arcanuts to Belur Math, and in return received acknowledgments and blessings from the Sri Ramakrishna’s direct disciples, something she counted as divine grace and deeply treasured. This must have been a great boost to her devotional life at that time. Such was the life she was living at that time – hardships of a widowed life with two children to bring up on one hand, and strong devotion and yearning for deeper spiritual fulfillment on the other. She was very keen to have the darshan of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, who at that time lived at Bagh Bazar in Calcutta. She wrote to Tulasi Maharaj to see whether this could materialize, but by then the Holy Mother was in a very broken health, and scarcely anyone being allowed to meet her. Later, Parukutty Amma was disconsolate upon receiving the news of Holy Mother’s Mahasamadhi in 1920.
All through those years she had a regular contact with Tulasi Maharaj, and was blessed to have his holy company whenever the latter was in Calicut or Ottapalam. Many of her relatives too, directly or indirectly, came in touch with the Ramakrishna Movement through her. On a couple of occasions Tulasi Maharaj was given receptions at Kamakhya Printing Press, a venue owned by her brother-in-law Sri K.R. Menon, who in his later life took Sanyasa with the monastic name of Swami Amalananda.
But the greatest blessing for Parukutty Amma was to come in the year 1921. It was when the two great direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna – Swami Brahmanandaji and Swami Shivananda – came to Madras. Not one to miss such an opportunity, Parukutty Amma and with her two sons, planned to travel to Madras along with a group of devotees from Kerala. As none in the group was proficient in English, it was thought that Balan would play the role of an interpreter should the need arise. Upon arriving at the Math, the group was before the Swami Brahmananda, who mostly remained in his characteristic indrawn mood. He spoke very little but conveyed a great feeling of elevatedness in the hearts and minds of all. Parukutty Amma was to remark later that it was more difficult for Maharaj to descend to the mood of normal conversation than it is for ordinary people to shift their minds from worldly thoughts to a higher realm. Their experience in meeting Swami Shivananda was much different. The latter had a stronger disposition towards engaging in conversations. He cheerful in a carefree manner and had marked universal benevolence, something that instantly relaxed those in his company. This was in considerable contrast to the forbidding solemn presence of Swami Brahmananda. During this initial interview the elders in the group prayed for being granted spiritual initiation (Mantra-Diksha) and a date was fixed.
It is said that that Parukutty Amma at the time of her Mantra-Diksha prayed to Maharaj for a blessing that one of her sons become a monk. The party, feeling blessed after those days at Madras returned to Kerala. As it turned out, Balan’s services as an interpreter were not required, as wherever needed the interpretation was done by Brahmachari Gopal (who belonged to the princely family of Cochin), and later became Swami Siddheswarananda – founder of the Vedanta Centre in Gretz in France, and who played a significant role in propagating Vedanta and Ramakrishna-Vivekananda ideals in that continent.
The party returned joyfully to Kerala and ever since then Sri Ramakrishna became the mainstay of Parukutty Amma’s life. She used to keep the charanamrita of Swami Brahmananda in a bottle. She engaged in spiritual practices with greatest sincerity. It is said that towards the end she had become established in spontaneous Japam of the mantra of her Ishta.
Much later, in 1971, some days before Smt Parukutty Amma passed away, Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj went to see her and on her behest poured water into her mouth, in a symbolic act of son’s duty towards one’s parents. At the moment of final departure she had a gentle smile on her face. She always used to say that she was not afraid of death as she knew she would be going to Sri Ramakrishna Loka.
At Madras as a student
In just a couple of months after this visit to Madras with his mother, Balan was back in Madras having joined the Presidency College in the city. This gave him many more opportunities to visit the Math. Swami Brahmananda and Swami Shivananda were still there. The period also had the first ever Durga Puja at the Madras Math in the mighty spiritual presence of these two great disciples of Sri Ramakrishna The occasion was also made special because of the presence of Ramlal Dada, nephew of Sri Ramakrishna. Balan attended many sessions of this great worship. During this time he also met a few other youngsters who were also visiting the Math like him. Among them were Krishnan Nambiadiri (who later took monastic vows and was known as Swami Agamananda and later did impactful work in addressing deep-rooted caste-prejudices in Kerala society then), Chinu (who later became Swami Chidbhavananda and founded the Ramakrishna Tapovan), and T.S. Avinasalingam (later an eminent social worker, freedom fighter, and founder of a huge complex of service institutions in Coimbatore, since then taken over by the Ramakrishna Mission). All of them also got the opportunity to interact with Mahapurush Maharaj, who in his characteristic manner jovially conversed with them, inspiring them for the future course of their lives.
During the months when Balan saw the great Swamis at the Madras Math, there were a few moments and images that remained firmly etched in his mind all his life. One such memory was of the incident that happened during the Kumari Puja (worship of a small girl in form of Divine Mother). There he witnessed the unique scene of Mahapurush Maharaj doing Pranam before the little girl with great spiritual fervor, who out of embarrassment tried to run away. Another scene that Balan could never forget was seeing all three Swamis – Brahmananda, Shivananda, and Nirmalananda – walking together with their faces having a visible glow and affectionate bonding among themselves.
As a student of the reputed Presidency College at Madras Balan showed extreme thrift as far as usage of resources was concerned. His younger brother Apu also studied in the same college and stayed in the same hostel in Madras, and their mother used to send a stipulated amount of money to them periodically. While Balan, not having spent the money in hand, mostly had to ask her not send any more money, Apu would have to write for more money having spent what he had. This used to surprise the mother who used to chided Apu for this. She could never understand how it was possible that one brother found money in surplus while the other always short of it, when both of them stayed in the same hostel and had similar needs.
It was in February 1924 that Balan got the blessed opportunity to receive Mantra-Diksha from Mahapurush Maharaj, who by then had become the President of the Order following Swami Brahmanandaji’s Mahasamadhi in 1922. The manner in which Mahapurush Maharaj blessed him with his hands uplifted was an image that remained in Balan’s mind throughout his life. Maharaj instructed and assured him that through the practice of the Holy Mantra he was sure to develop Jnana, Bhakti, and Vairagya.
In the same year Balan and Apu spent nearly two months at Nettayam, a beautiful Ashrama at Trivandrum, located beautifully on a hillock and having a granite temple. The Nettayam Ashrama, had just been consecrated then and was dedicated to the revered memory of Swami Brahmanandaji Maharaj. The brothers volunteered in the Ashram where a lot of manual work had to be done for leveling the land.
Joining the Order
Throughout his college days for the 5 years at Madras, Balan was a frequent visitor and volunteer at the Math, and hence had become reasonably familiar with the idea of Ashrama life and the ways of a monk’s life lived in monastic fraternity. His ideas about the new type of monkhood dedicated to twin aims of spiritual advancement and service of ‘divine in man’ also became more clear and well-assimilated, and by the time he finished with his university education he was fully prepared to join as a monk in the most holy Ramakrishna Order. The fact that his mother herself had wished for that and had given total encouragement to him to build up his spiritual life must have acted as an incalculably valuable booster to him. It is said that when he broached this to his mother she blessed him and asked him to become a Yathartha Sannyasi – a Sannyasi in the truest sense. He always regarded his mother as his first spiritual teacher who prepared him for the lofty path he eventually took up.
Upon joining the Order, Balan was first given duties at the Students’ Home in Madras, which was then under the management of Swami Sharvananda. The Students’ Home was a unique institution that started as an orphanage, housing students from extremely poor backgrounds. Around that time Swami Yatiswarananda (monastic disciple of Swami Brahmananda and hugely respected in the Order for his exemplary spiritual) became the President of the Math, and thereafter all his life Swami Yatiswarananda held a very high opinion of Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj. Much later he is supposed to have said about Tapasyanandaji, “God normally keeps the brain in the head of a person, but for Swami Tapasyananda, He had kept it from head to toe.”
In 1928, Balan went to the Belur Math to receive the vows of Brahmacharya. He took along his mother, who always had a keen desire to visit the Math. It was Balan’s wish that his mother, who was his earliest spiritual teacher and one who had guided and prepared him for the kind of life he was embarking upon, be with him on this momentous occasion. Mahapurush Maharaj initiated him into brahmacharya vows, giving him the name ‘Purna Chaitanya’. Mahapurush Maharaj himself was present during the Homa ceremony on this occasion.
In May 1931, even as a Brahmachari, he became the editor of the Order’s premier English language journal – the Vedanta Kesari and discharged this duty for 8 years. His editorials were brilliant and some of them have been brought together after his passing away in form of a volume titled ‘Sri Ramakrishna’s thoughts in a Vedantic perspective’.
During this period in Madras he authored the first ever English biography of the Holy Mother. For this he traveled to different places in Bengal, and also visited Kashi and Allahabad and met Sri Ramakrishna’s direct disciple Swami Vijnanananda and also Saraladevi (later Parivrajaka Bharatiprana – the first President of Sri Sarada Math – women’s monastic order) who had the blessed fortune of living with and serving the Holy Mother. Later Maharaj appended another chapter to this book titled ‘The Holy Mother as the revelation of Motherhood of God’. This book written at a time when the extraordinary nature of the Mother’s life was understood by few can without doubt be said to be a pioneering and trend-setting endeavour by Maharaj, who was still quite young in his monastic life then.
In Trivandrum : In service of ‘Divine in Man’
In 1940, the authorities of Belur Math decided to transfer Maharaj to Trivandrum to manage the dispensary at Sasthamangalam, which was about 6 km away from the Ashrama at Nettayam.
This dispensary at Sasthamangalam, started in 1937, was among the last initiatives of Tulasi Maharaj. It had been affiliated to the Mission after his passing away. It was operating in a shed at that time with no provision for anyone to live. The Math authorities wrote to the Nettayam Ashrama that the Swami who was being sent there was rather careless about his health and comforts, and so it would be the duty of the Ashrama devotees to take care of him.
Maharaj initially based himself in the Nettayam Ashrama and walked six kilomteres to the dispensary and back on a daily basis. How he transformed this shed into a 200 bed modern, well-equipped hospital is a saga of Tapasya in itself.
After his initial stay at Nettayam he moved to stay at Sasthamangalam. The hall which had two benches for patients to sit was where he slept at night, combining the two benches together. He continued in this way for many years. A very small room served as his bath and toilet. Many people later wondered how one could take bath in such a small room barely enough for someone to stand. Later he stayed in a room adjacent to the shrine. There used to be a wooden cot in his room, the bedding of which was rolled up during day time. Maharaj would spread the bedding only when he wanted to lie down, which was never the case during the day. He was usually found sitting on a chair, reading books or instructing his assistants and allocating duties to workers. A sheaf of papers and books were always before him. There was an almirah in the room which had heavier tomes which he used to consult once in a while.
He used to get up well before 5 a.m. and had his round of morning Japam and meditation. He also spent one hour in chanting mantras and devotional hymns. Then at 7 a.m. he would join other monastics for breakfast which usually consisted only of idlis. Maharaj always had a penchant for eating idlis which he considered to be the safest food. He often mentioned that idlis were first conceived during the reins of the Rajendra Chola.
Since Sasthamangalam was a medical centre where work done by the monks could not be limited to any fixed hours, it was thought best to keep ceremonials at the shrine at a minimal level. Swami Madhavananda, the General Secretary of the Order, had also suggested the same. Therefore, Maharaj himself did a simple Puja at the shrine using two incense sticks and a few basil leaves and flowers. Maharaj used to chant the Sri Lalita Sahasranama, which he particularly liked. In the evenings Maharaj would walk in the courtyard in front of his office. Maharaj would then sit on the eastern side of the verandah and watch the Arati, which was done by some other monks. He would then sit meditating there till 8pm.
When Maharaj first moved to Trivandrum he was helped in a significant way by some extremely dedicated devotees of the Ramakrishna Movement. Foremost among them was Dr Raman Thampi, Chief Medical Officer of Travancore State and ‘Physician to the Palace’, becoming Honorary Physician to the Resident on his retirement. Dr Raman Thampi and his elder brother Shri Padmanabhan Thampi were very important pillars in the early history of the Ramakrishna Movement in Kerala. Both were closely associated with Tulasi Maharaj and were instrumental in founding of some of the earliest Ramakrishna Ashramas in Kerala. Shri Padmanabhan Thampi in his later life took Sanyasa and was known as Swami Parananda. It was a common sight, long remembered by many, to see Dr Raman Thampi visiting the dispensary with coat pockets filled with medicines to be distributed freely to patients. Dr Thampi’s elder son, Dr R. Kesavan Nair, also worked tirelessly for the Hospital for many decades. All those who rendered selfless service to Sasthamangalam were deeply attracted by the spiritual aura of Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj and considered it to be their privilege to work shoulder to shoulder with him in the divine mission of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.
During his stay at Trivandrum, Maharaj fully immersed himself towards the task of transforming the small dispensary into a full-blown medical facility. He slowly acquired adjacent plots of land and systematically planned the expansion of work. A maternity ward was started in 1944 and the first Operation Theatre in 1948. The centre was a pioneer in starting of a dedicated Psychiatry and Mental Health Wing in 1952, something not common in those days. A Nursing School was started in 1962, and in the Silver Jubilee of the centre a plan was drawn to build a four-storey building as an annexe having 100 beds mainly for women and children and a second Operation Theatre. A separate building for the maternity ward having 16 beds was constructed in 1967. In the three decades of Maharaj’s stay the hospital grew over an area of 1.5 hectares with an in-patients department of 200 beds, a sizeable out-patients section, and well-equipped operation theatres. A good percentage of these beds were completely free and wherever charged the fee was kept at a very affordable level even for the poor. The Hospital thus was a huge blessing for those from poor sections of the society who could be assured of best medical services rendered with a high degree of empathy and care. All the work in the hospital was conducted in the spirit of ‘Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva’ (service of ‘Divine in Man’) as taught by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda.
There were many eminent dignitaries who visited the hospital and were highly appreciative of the ideal and its practice at the Hospital. Among them were the Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, the Dewan of Travancore who opened the Out-Patient Wing in 1943 and Lady Mountbatten who inaugurated the In-Patients Ward in 1948. Just before Maharaj left Trivandrum, the Annexe building was inaugurated by the then President of the Mission, Swami Vireswarananda.
In achieving all this Maharaj had to count each and every penny. He could not tolerate wastage of any kind. In the early days of the hospital, when there were no disposable needles available, everyone was expected to use and handle each needle with great care, and keep it clean and sterlised by boiling. When a high pressure steaming machine was purchased Maharaj himself studied the intricacies of its design and working, and learnt to operate it himself. He also taught the same to others and warned them not to make any careless mistakes.
Maharaj had the attitude of being meticulous not just in big matters but also with regard to smallest of things; this where he was vastly different from most people. During the construction of various facilities at the Hospital, bricks would be brought to the site in bullock carts in consignments of 1000 pieces in 3 carts at a time. Maharaj would personally inspect each and every brick with utmost care, making sure that they were well-baked and well-shaped. The ones appearing to be defective were immersed in water to see whether they were absorbing water too fast, in which case they were kept aside to be returned to the vendor.
Most of the workers he selected for the Hospital were from weak socio-economic conditions. He trained them into spirit and ideals of service as given by Swami Vivekananda and this also led to improvement of their socio-economic condition.
As the entire work at the Trivandrum hospital was looked upon by Maharaj as worship and highest spiritual practice, he always took a keen interest even in technical matters related to medical care. He read a number of books on medicine and surgery and was particularly knowledgeable about design and functioning of medical equipments and also the latest trends and practices in the field. It was a common sight to see Maharaj being present in the Operation Theatre in attire and mask along with doctors and nurses and keenly observing the entire process of surgeries. Very often he would be found in the laboratory, familiarising himself with the usage of various equipments and discussing the same with doctors and technicians. One doctor recalled that even though he had been using these equipments for many years he could claim as much knowledge about various components and design intricacies as Maharaj. In the library Maharaj subscribed to many medical journals and read them studiously.
Whenever he used to visit Madras he would make it a point to visit various hospitals, often incognito, just to study the systems and process there. He often said that he got to know much more that way in comparison to what he would know if the hospital management gave him a guided tour. He also visited various vendors and manufacturers of medical equipments and had long-standing relationships with them. They used to marvel at the astounding knowledge in that field of that ochre-robed Sannyasi. Whenever he used to go to Madras he would go to Parry’s Corner for purchasing medicines from wholesale suppliers at a cheaper price. He would return with sackful of medicines with his face beaming with joy.
After Maharaj was inducted as a Trustee of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission he used to visit Belur Math thrice a year for the Trustee Meetings. For that he always travelled in a train – a journey which involved three nights and two days. He used to carry all his books, papers, and writing materials and never considered train journey to be a waste of time. Maharaj never used a car for travelling. While going to railway station he used to either walk on a foot or board a bus to the station with an ashrama worker carrying the luggage on cycle.
Maharaj always took idlis in such long train journeys as they could last entire duration. Often he used take bananas and chose different types of bananas, some ripe, some which would ripen after one day, some after two days – so that all could be used properly in course of his train journey. During his stay at Belur Math, he would utilise his time in studying and writing, and on occasion also receive junior monks and brahmacharins who would seek his counsel and benefit from his elevated company.
During these visits to Belur Math he would also visit and stay overnight at the Mission’s Seva Pratishthan Hospital (now a 700 bed General Hospital) which was even then a very big medical establishment. He used to spend time with Swami Dayananda (the founder of Seva Pratishthan) and Swami Gahanananda (who steered the institution for a long time) and exchange notes with them on the development of both the hospitals. Maharaj also sent a number of girls from Kerala (mainly from poor families) to Seva Pratishthan to be trained in various courses like General Nursing and Midwifery (GNM). On his trips to Kolkata he would also meet them and enquire about their well-being.
Maharaj’s mother used to send him a certain sum of money to be used by him for his personal necessities. While he did not decline his mother’s affectionate gifts he never used them for himself. He spent them for various needs of poor around him. With this accumulated money he started a welfare fund for workers of the Ashrama.
In addition to the running and building up the hospital, Maharaj was also involved in Bhava-Prachar (propagation of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda ideals) throughout Kerala. He regularly conducted classes for devotees at the Ashrama ,and also went to other centres and devotees’ study circles to guide and motivate spiritual aspirants in those places. He conducted monthly retreats at Quilon, 50 km away, for which he would walk 3 kilometres to reach the bus stand with an umbrella and a small bag, and then board the bus.
The Nursing School at Trivandrum Hospital offered the course in Auxillary Nursing and Midwifery (ANM) in which girls mostly from poor backgrounds were enrolled. In the early days of this course it was very difficult to get proper textbooks for girls with inadequate English education. To meet this need Maharaj himself prepared a textbook for usage by those nursing students.
Once he drew the attention of a devotee towards water being pumped up through a motor. He asked what will happen if the motor is switched off. To which the devotee naturally answered that water will not rise. Maharaj then said, “Mind is like that only. If the motor of spiritual practices is switched off the mind will come down to a lower level.
Once the Kerala Government decided to impose tax on the Mission Hospital. Revered Maharaj took up the issue vigorously for the continuance of exemption status as a very substantial percentage of patients received free treatment.
In 1971, the Order authorities decided to transfer him from Trivandrum to Madras Math as its Head. He first expressed his disinclination towards it and said that he already about 67 years old, had lived mostly in Kerala and did not know any Tamil. He said transferring him at that stage would be like transplanting a fully grown coconut tree from Trivandrum to Madras. He also said that for the previous 30 years he had worked at the Hospital centre, and the Madras Math, being mainly a publication and propagation centre with a large number of monastics and devotees, would offer hugely different challenges which might be difficult to handle at his age. His suggestion was that a young and dynamic Tamil-knowing person should be made in-charge of the Madras Math. But the authorities insisted that he was the only suitable person at that time. When Maharaj came to know even President of the Order Swami Vireswarananandaji Maharaj wanted him to relocate to Madras, he complied in keeping with the high reverence he had for him.
But once his mind was made up, it was remarkable to see how detached he became towards decades of service he had done at Trivandrum, which he had built from scratch. He was never heard referring to Trivandrum centre lest that indicate self-praise. In his farewell speech at Trivandrum he said that a Sanyasi is supposed to stay in one place only for three days but that in his life one day had extended to one decade, resulting in his three decade stay at Trivandrum.It is said that when he left Trivandrum for Madras he brought only a photograph of Holy Mother and an image of Om.
Completely new areas of work awaited him in Madras. Unlike Trivandrum centre, which was primarily a hospital centre and all activities centred around the hospital work, Madras was a very old Ashrama sanctified by the presence of Holy Mother and many great direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. It was the Order’s oldest centre in the South and had many traditions which had to be carefully followed.
Maharaj added more vigour into the daily lives of monks as well as general activities of the Math on his advent. He deputed two monks as managerial functionaries to run the Math in a dynamic way. Every monastic could get options and facilities of studying Sanskrit, scriptures, music, and other subjects of interest. Classes and discourses became more systematised for general devotees. The celebrations and festive days took a deeper spiritual orientation. He encouraged devotional singing in the shrine after regular Arati.
Maharaj would attend the Mangalarati at 5 am almost till his last age. Then he would do Japam, meditation and chanting of the stotras till 7 am and would come to the dining hall for breakfast.
He was very particular about the monks being disciplined in their daily spiritual practice. When he used to go to Belur Math (he went thrice a year for Trustee Meetings) his train reached Madras at 4:30 a.m. But he never wanted anyone to come and receive him as it would disturb their morning spiritual practices. He would not mind waiting at the platform till 6:30 am. He himself would never attend any public function beyond 6:30 pm. He used to do Japam, meditation and Parayanam (chanting of Stotras and Suktas and other devotional hymns). He would sit on his meditation seat, and with hands folded near his chest recited the devotional hymns with great fervor. On a daily basis he recited Sri Narayaneeyam, Sri Lalita Sahasranama Stotra, and Sri Vishnu Sahasranama. During those recitations, Maharaj would keep the book in his left hand and make gestures with his right hand as though he was addressing God. He also translated a number of such hymns for the benefit of spiritual aspirants in form of book called Stotranjali.
At 9 a.m. sharp Maharaj would come with an umbrella or a walking stick in one hand, and clutching some books in another, walk towards the Prayer Hall. He would stand before the temple and after saluting the Master slowly proceed towards the office. He would enter through the book-stall and monitor the proper display of books. He would then enter into his office after passing through the manager’s office. Very often he would not wear any upper garment but only a towel on his shoulder. He did not use the fan in his room despite severe Madras heat. Till 11:30 a.m. he would busy himself in reading, writing, or proofreading. For his own writing he would always use paper which was already printed on one side. There would be heaps of such paper in his room. To the many visitors wanted to meet him he would talk only to the point and dispose them off quickly. From regular devotees, visitors or monastics, he would not even like frequent pranam as he thought it is a waste of time for him as well as them. He liked everyone to be very mindful of not wasting time. He never indulged in idle talk.
Maharaj would come to the dining hall for lunch Prasadam around 12:30 pm. By then other monks would have already taken their meals and left. Quite often, the food would become cold by that time. Unbothered, he would eat whatever he got. He was quite unmindful of taste of food and never commented upon the same. Even on days of feasts, when many delicacies would be prepared, he would still eat his simple food and refrain from taking any special items. He did not like anyone to wait on him. If he needed anything he would get up and take that from the shelf than calling someone to do that. He would advise the cooks to add very little salt and boil the vegetables well. He would ask for salt to be kept separately for those who preferred to add it in greater quantity. He once read an article on harmful effects of excessive salt consumption and put the article on the notice board, advising everyone to reduce salt consumption for maintaining a good health which would help them physically and also in their spiritual life.
After lunch he would briefly spend time in reading newspapers or journals and take short rest. He was especially fond of National Geographic and said English in it was very crisp. By 2 pm he would again be at the office and continue with his work of reading, writing, and correspondence. He would then have his tea at 3:30 pm and return to his room around 4:30 pm. He would then take a brisk walk on the terrace or near the library. Very often some junior monks or devotees would accompany him and ask him some questions related to spiritual life which he would patiently answer.
At the time of Arati he would be in his room doing Japam and meditation. He would then spend time in study of scriptures or his writing work. After dinner there would be, what is usually referred to as the ‘evening class’, for all monastic members in the Math in keeping with the tradition in all Ramakrishna Order centres. It is more of a short session in which some reading (generally from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna) is done and some matters of general information, or important developments of the day are discussed. Often after some reading Maharaj would ask some monk or brahmachari to restate that in his own words, and sometimes encouraging them to critically examine the reading, leading to stimulating discussions. Sometimes when visiting monks from other centres came they would speak during that time. Maharaj would be in a jovial mood during that time and even make humorous jokes.
Work at the Madras Math
The Math also ran schools and Maharaj took keen interest in their continuous development. He also undertook the shifting of the National Primary School ,which had a glorious history of being started by Swami Ramakrishnanadaji (Shashi Maharaj), to another place in the Mint area of North Madras as the original building had become dilapidated and unsafe. He would also visit these schools and interact with the young students. His mantra to them was “Eat well, study well, play well and pray well”. He inspired the teachers by constantly reminding them that in their role they are finely suited to propagate the ideals of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. He, thus, always instilled a sense of pride in them.
Maharaj also had great affection for the poor children of the locality of Ramakrishnapuram where the Math conducted coaching classes and value-oriented programs. He would enjoy talking to them whenever those kids visited the Math.
Maharaj also streamlined the services given by the Madras Math Dispensary. Here, like in Trivandrum, he emphasized on the spirit of service and always ensured that the highly subsidised services to the public should in no way mean a compromise on quality or condescending disposition towards the beneficiaries. He took much interest towards suitable expansion of the facilities like better equipment for diagnosis and also building of the pediatric floor on top of the small dispensary. During his time Ultrasound services, physiotherapy, ECG, pediatrics, and rural medical work were added to the dispensary services of the Madras Math.
In 1986, a Mobile Dispensary unit was started in villages around Madras through which, every Sunday, a team of doctors, paramedical staff and volunteers visited the villages to administer medical aid.
At present the dispensary provides services to more than 2 Lac people annually. And many other departments like ENT, Dental, Diabetology, Gynecology, Orthopedics, Homeopathy, and Cardiology have also become a part of the Dispensary services.
In 1988, Maharaj initiated a program called Rehabilitation of Leprosy Afflicted Persons (LAPs) which aimed at integrating such persons back into the society. They were encouraged to form Self-Help Groups, imparted vocational training to produce simple household goods, and also given counseling and psychological support to enable them lead a normal life.
At Madras, Maharaj was also interested in gardening and had a number of coconut plant saplings which in time yielded coconuts in good measure. He also wanted greens and vegetables to be planted for the consumption of the Math inmates. Maharaj was very knowledgeable in gardening. He paid complete attention to details like soil, methods to maximize yield, and other such technical matters. He had special fondness for coconut trees and considered them to be most useful. He used to say, “They not only provide coconuts, but the leaves can be used for thatching the roofs, the hard portion of the leaves for fencing, and one would get different types of coconuts like tender ones, fully ripe ones, and dry ones. Even the trunk can be used as a pillar.”
His own temperament
Maharaj’s own temperament was inclined more towards the Visistadvaita philosophy of Sri Ramanuja. He did not like it when people meant only ‘Advaita Vedanta’ while referring to Vedanta. That motivated him to write a fine scholarly study of various other Vedantic schools like those of Ramanuja, Madhvacharya, Nimbaraka, Vallabha, and Chaitanya titled ‘Bhakti Schools of Vedanta’. He himself referred to his own disposition as ‘intellectual love for God’. Maharaj would hold study and quest for knowledge to be as important a pillar for spiritual life as meditation, Japam, and other conventional practices. He would always say that study is necessary for keeping up the flow of ideas. Maharaj was well-versed in Buddhist philosophies too. He considered their study to be important for understanding Advaita Vedanta and in turn other schools of Vedanta. Among Buddhist philosophical literature Maharaj particularly advised a serious study of Nagarjuna’s philosophy. All in all, Maharaj continuously inspired his monastic brethren towards the ideal of a scholar-monk of which he was a paragon. He always admired purposeful action and considered purposeful hard work as cornerstone of spiritual life.
It was because of his intellectual approach to Bhakti that he became interested in what he called ‘theo-philosophies’. He had maintained a respectful attitude towards myths and legends, even those involving miraculous and extraordinary incidents. In his preface to his work ‘Bhakti Schools of Vedanta’ Maharaj writes, “Most of the miraculous and extraordinary incidents in lives of the Acharyas may largely be the projections of the pious imaginations of their followers. These too are to be respectfully received and not pooh-poohed as mere cock and bull stories. It is the way of the Indian mind to convey the idea that these Acharyas were endowed with extraordinary divine powers. But for these extraordinary powers in them, their teachings could not have survived through so many centuries influencing the lives of innumerable generations of men.” It is remarkable that Maharaj understood this as a unique Indian genius, which saw the practical utility of such imaginations that strengthened Bhakti, and through that led to understanding the underlying philosophies of great teachers and incarnations.
While maintaining a minimalist lifestyle marked by high austerity and steeped in finest traditions of orthodox Sannyasa, Maharaj was also very modern in approach. It was not his temperament to travel from place to place as monks of the yore did. He was extremely selective even in visiting pilgrimages. In fact he hardly did any pilgrimages. He was not very fond of travel in general. When once asked to relocate to a foreign centre Maharaj replied by saying, “Do not export me.” His whole monastic career of 65 years was spent in only two centres – Madras and Trivandrum. It was only after becoming the Vice-President, the role in which he had to give Diksha that he began to travel to different places, mostly in South India.
His training of monastics
He wanted every monastic member of the Math to be present in the Mangalarati in the shrine at 5 a.m. He would have attendance taken and those who missed it more than once or twice in the whole month were personally called by him and questioned.
He would always ask the young brahmacharins to be mindful of the fact that they had come to become sanyasins and they should have the attitude of college students living in a hostel. He always asked them to live up to the lofty ideal of a Ramakrishna Order monk. He always emphasized that it required one to become God’s full-time worker, and that it was not a part-time vocation.
He would keep a close watch on all new Brahmacharins who joined under him. He would call them once a month and ask about their studies, spiritual disciplines, physical exercises etc. He would guide them on what to study, advising them to keep at least two hours of studies. He would ask them not to ‘read’ but ‘study’, which involved a much greater and systematic application of mind. He also advised them to make notes of whatever they studied.
Maharaj arranged for the study of Sanskrit and Vedanta texts under the renowned scholar Sri Kalyanasundara Sastrigal, known as Bhashyabhavajna. Those classes were held twice a week and Maharaj himself would often attend his classes which were held in Sanskrit as Sastrigal had limited knowledge of English while many monks were not familiar with Tamil. This helped those who attended these classes to strengthen both their scriptural knowledge as well as Sanskrit. Sastrigal, who received many gifts and honours from various quarters of the society, used to feel deeply moved upon receiving a simple dhoti and chaddar from Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj; such was the deep pride he took in his association with the Ramakrishna Math and Mission.
He also wanted ordained brahmacharins to take classes for devotees or other new probationers. He was a believer in the idea that ‘teaching strengthens learning’. He would say that one had to study and prepare well in order to take classes. At the same time in order to ensure that one had one’s feet on ground he also said that by giving lectures no one would become a Jagadguru. It had to be seen as an exercise of learning together and clarifying one’s own concepts and thinking.
Maharaj had set up a badminton court at the Math where he expected young monks and brahmacharins to play regularly for physical exercises. He would walk up and down in the evening and kept a view on who were playing. The ones who were absent were called and asked for an explanation. He also asked a few to undertake regular jogging in order to become more fit and kept a vigilant eye on their overall health. He would say that one should spend time to do physical exercises than spending both time and money on medicines and treatment upon falling sick. His advice to brahmacharins was that doing physical exercises is a part of brahmacharya.
Maharaj always wanted to be kept updated about health of all the inmates of the Ashrama. He wanted even any minor ailments that any monastic or brahmacharins was suffering from to be reported to him. Maharaj’s concern was not limited to the monastic members alone. Even for the proper medical treatment of the workers of the Math, he did his best, even if that entailed heavy expenditure. He always said that they were doing Sri Ramakrishna’s work and their lives were precious.
Maharaj gave a talisman for resolving dilemmas in spiritual life of monastics of the Order. He said whenever one takes up something ask oneself three questions. 1. Is it necessary? 2. Is it spiritually useful for me or anybody else? 3. Is it useful for this Holy Order? Then one will arrive at whether a particular work should be done or not.
Once a brahmacharin expressed that he was unable to meditate, and as soon as he closed his eyes many thoughts flushed in. Maharaj simply advised him to see God with open eyes. He advised the brahmacharins to always speak the truth and never lie as they had left their hearth and home for the sake of truth.
Once a newly joined Brahmacharin’s brother wrote a threatening letter to Maharaj blaming him for misguiding his brother and that he would go to hell for taking him into the Math. Revered Maharaj simply asked the brahmacharin to write back to the brother that Maharaj was ready to go to hell for this noble cause.
Similarly, when two staff members wanted to join the Order, he encouraged them to join at Madras Math itself. He told them that they should overcome any possible opposition from their home by facing it boldly there itself, and not by going away to faraway places for joining.
He hardly ever lost his temper and the maximum he would scold when dissatisfied with someone was by saying, ‘fool’ or ‘you have no brain’. That too was said in manner that the person receiving that scolding actually enjoyed it. He would never order any junior monk about any task but would gently say, ‘Are you free?’, ‘Is it possible to do this work’, or ‘Can you do it?’ He was always careful not to make any personal demands on others and his questions and requests were always made in a suggestive and non-intrusive way. He was not given to display of emotions as he firmly believed that people fritter away their emotions on worldly things and have nothing left to spare for God.
Maharaj did not like monks and brahmacharins coming to offer Pranams before he left or returned to the Math, a common practice in Ramakrishna Order monasteries. He would rather want them to devote that time for study and work.
Along with Swami Ranganathananda, Maharaj was responsible in institutionalizing many changes in the training system of brahmacharins during their mandatory probationary period at Belur Math which included elements of learning in scriptures, philosophy, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature.
Developing the Publication Work
At Madras, Maharaj paid serious attention to upgradation and widening of the subscriber base of the Tamil and Telugu journals – Ramakrishna Vijayam and Ramakrishna Prabha (now published from Hyderabad Math), published from the Math. He encouraged monastics to regularly contribute articles to these journals. Due to Maharaj’s reputation and influence many outside scholars began to write for these journals. While Maharaj advised everyone to improve their English (‘Butler English’ will not do was his constant refrain’) he never wanted monastics to neglect their mother-tongues and encouraged them to develop writing skills in those languages too so that they could render service to the Ramakrishna movement through them. Many under his tutelage subsequently became editors of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam journals of the Order. The subscriber base of the Tamil journal increased from a couple of thousand to nearly a Lac as a result of his vision and leadership.
Maharaj realized that in order to increase and systematize the publications of the Madras Math it had to have its own printing press. So the press was set up and was located right at the entrance of the Math. This also led to some noise and when this was pointed to Maharaj he simply brushed this aside saying that the press was an important instrument in propagation of ideals of the Movement and the great message of Sri Ramakrishna and not a business enterprise. He used to say that people would in due course understand its proper significance.
His literary output
In addition to the pioneering biography of the Holy Mother, Maharaj also authored biographical works on Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. He also wrote a biography of Swami Ramakrishnananda titled ‘The Apostle of Sri Ramakrishna to the South’ which delineated the early history of the Ramakrishna Movement in South.
His brilliant original work was the ‘Bhakti Schools of Vedanta’ which studied in great detail the lives and philosophies of the key exponents of dualistic and qualified non-dualistic philosophies, like Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha, Nimbarka and Chaitanya. He also realized that some condensed works on the multi-dimensional teachings of Swami Vivekananda were required for interested public which might not have the time or resolve to go through the entire corpus of his works. To this end he wrote books like ‘Four Yogas of Swami Vivekananda’, ‘The Nationalistic and Religious Lectures of Swami Vivekananda’, and ‘The Philosophical and Religious Lectures of Swami Vivekananda’.
But a significant portion of his time was dedicated to translating valuable old Sanskrit texts into English. He translated Vishnu Sahasranama, Lalita Sahasranama, Bhakti Ratnavali, Adhyatma Ramayana, Sundara Kandam, Narayaneeyam, Saundarya Lahari, Sivananda Lahari, Sankara Digvijaya, Kapilopadesha, Prasnottara-ratna-malika, Laghu-Vasudeva-Mananam, and the Bhagavad Gita. He also brought out compilations on Aratrika Hymns and Ramanama, and Stotranjali – his compilation of various hymns, many of which he were a regular part of his daily devotional practice.
When once asked why he was mostly doing translation and not authoring original works, Maharaj, considered as one of the greatest scholars of the entire Ramakrishna Order replied in humility, “What new things can we write? Our great saints have already left enough spiritual treasures. Is it not a good fortune to translate these and make them available for a wider public? Is not this work a spiritual practice in itself?”
Perhaps Maharaj was mindful that literary output and publications of the Ramakrishna Order were bent more towards the Vedantic texts. To be sure he considered Vedanta to be the mainstay of Hindu religion, as he had himself once autographed for a devotee. But he also firmly believed that the Puranas had a great potentiality to create Bhakti in its audience and hence he wanted to work towards preserving them too as an ideal foil for the Vedantic philosophical texts. In the Ramakrishna Order he can be said to be a pioneer as far as writing and interpreting the vast Pauranic heritage is concerned.
This even led to exchange of humorous remarks between him and some other stalwart monks of the Order. Like one day, Swami Ranganathananda, Maharaj’s monastic contemporary and another highly distinguished monk (and later President of the Order) and a world-renowned orator, after delivering a lecture in Madras, while passing by Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj’s room remarked, “Write, write, who will read your abstract Puranas!” To this Maharaj retorted, “Lecture, lecture. How many will understand and follow you”
His work on Srimad Bhagavatam
But his four-volume translation of Srimad Bhagavatam running into 2500 pages is a marvel of scholarship and enterprise, and needs to be narrated in some detail. How this was done speaks volumes of the inner stuff Maharaj was made of.
Some monks suggested to him that there is a demand of such a valuable text as Srimad Bhagavatam in English but because of its length and complexity no one had attempted thus far. He was also told that the public expected such works from the Ramakrishna Mission. Maharaj was already over 75 then. Attempting such a work could be said to life’s work for any scholar. He first did not say anything. After about a week he called the monks and said that if he took up that work it would call for a single-minded effort for at least 2 years. He then asked them to get him a bulk quantity of one-side printed sheets (as it was his wont never to use new, fresh paper for writing). In a few days time he asked for a slate and chalk, saying that this translation had to be attempted and erased many times and he would not want to waste paper. Thus slate became his working draft. He first wrote with chalk on slate, and only when he thought it did not need any correction that he put it on paper.
All this made the work proceed at a very slow pace, as there were many other claims on his time. After a few days he decided to get up at 3 a.m. in order to devote an extra hour to this endeavour. His subordinates became worried on account of the toll it would take on his health at that age. But they knew no amount of persuasion would deter Maharaj once he had his mind made up. After a month Maharaj called a subordinate and told that the electricity department had imposed a ‘pay as per slabs’ on power usage which meant that the user had to pay double the amount per unit for the units that exceeded the allocated quota. This worried him as he had been using electricity from 3 a.m. onwards for translation work. The subordinate monk was happy that this would force Maharaj to stop such back-breaking work and get back to his normal routine. But a surprise was in store for him. Maharaj then asked him to get a lantern in light of which he would do his work during those hours. When told that it would be severely damaging to his eyesight, he merely said he was used to it as that is how he studied during his student days. And that is how Maharaj worked for many weeks, until electricity department withdrew the restriction.
Maharaj himself later said that while working on the Srimad Bhagavatam there were occasions when his brain would get so tired that he would not be able to carry on. He would then just sit quietly with eyes closed without any thoughts and feel refreshed.
The manuscripts each day were typed and the same was discussed by Maharaj with Shri C.S. Ramakrishnan, a scholarly devotee who also had the experience of working at the editorial level with the Vedanta Kesari and had considerable authority on Vedantic texts, Sanskrit as well as English. Maharaj would seek his suggestions and accepted them wherever he liked. Their discussion, sometimes even over a single word or an idea would be very engaging and could go on for a great length of time with onlookers marvelling at the sight of these two intellectual giants at work together.
Upon completing he gave, with visible satisfaction, the huge bundles of manuscript running into thousands of pages to the monks responsible for publications. But if Maharaj displayed tremendous grit and determination in undertaking and completing this monumental task, what followed is perhaps the highest example of detachment. When in a few days time he was told that in order to bring the work out in four elegant volumes of about 600 odd pages each, the cost of printing would be around Rs Two Lacs, he decided against printing it at that time and simply asked him to pack the manuscript and keep it aside. The brother-monks tried to convince him that the money spent would be recovered in time with the sales but Maharaj remained unconvinced as there was no certainty of number of interested readers for such a scholarly as well as bulky work. When pressed upon, he reluctantly agreed but with the idea that he himself will go on lecture tours for raising funds for this publication. Maharaj, who had been a completely reluctant traveler and never even inclined for pilgrimages for the first time went abroad to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and through lectures raised money for this publication.
When younger monks would ask him who would read such a scholarly and lengthy work, Maharaj replied that it was for the posterity. Srimad Bhagavatam is a very difficult text with abstruse language and frequent untranslatable idiom, but Maharaj surmounted all these difficulties in his translation. He explained in very insightful terms complex elements like its cosmology and geography which would otherwise appear extremely perplexing to the modern mind.
Swami Vivekananda had once said that the most difficult thing to achieve is to get attached at one moment and detach the very next at will. The entire episode of how Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj brought out his work on Srimad Bhagavatam is an illustration of the same idea.
Engagement with devotees
Maharaj did not believe in simply giving Prasad (food) to the devotees. He was of the firm view that the effect of giving books as Prasad can be much more lasting and transformative. For this he would purchase books out of the Pranami money he received and gift them to devotees who he felt would really be interested.
He was very reverential of the premises of the Madras Math because of the place being sanctified by the visits of Sri Sarada Devi, and many direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. He never approved of anyone loitering in the Math premises.
Maharaj used to deliver lectures on Sunday evenings between 5:30 and 6:30pm. He thought that in order to propagate the ideas of Thakur and Swamiji, the language had to be simple.
His devotion to the Holy Trio was the bedrock of his spiritual life. Once asked whether Sri Ramakrishna was an Advaitin or a Visishtadvaitin, he replied that Sri Ramakrishna was one who was beyond and surpassed the principles of Advaita and Visistadvaita. God’s gracious energy led to the birth of Sri Ramakrishna.
Speaking on Swami Vivekananda he described him as the vibhuti of Sri Ramakrishna and that Swamiji was like ‘Mahabharata’ from where everyone can get what they wanted. Once on the occasion of Buddha Purnima, Maharaj said, “After Buddha, it was Swami Vivekananda who brought about a system where everyone, without any caste considerations, could become a Sanyasi. Hence, in this respect Swami Vivekananda can be hailed as the spiritual heir of Bhagawan Buddha.”
Once a lady raised a question, ‘In Hinduism there is no such thing as women renouncing the world and living as nuns. But Swami Vivekananda wanted to establish a nunnery. Is he not antagonist to Hindu ideals.” Maharaj replied, “What Swami Vivekananda preached is the real ideal of Hinduism. Swami Vivekananda was, in fact, the protector of Hindu ideals.”
Maharaj said that Swami Vivekananda had given a variety of teachings and to follow all his teachings would not be possible for any single person as they were expressed in some particular context and to a particular audience. His teachings were meant for entire humanity. The Ramakrishna Order had taken only his teachings on Sanyasa.
While referring to Eleanor Stark’s book – ‘The Gift Unopened : A New American Revolution’ which talked of Swami Vivekananda’s gift of spiritual treasure to the Americans, Maharaj used to say that ‘unopened gift’ was as much for India as for America.
Revered Maharaj would normally converse in English with everybody. With devotees from Kerala he would speak in Malayalam. Only to those who knew only Tamil, he would speak in Tamil.
He held a great respect for selfless and dedicated service. Once mentioning the names of a few devotees, Maharaj said that if at all anyone would get salvation, it would be those people. Not such spiritual aspirants, who were so rigid about their timings, food, Japam, meditation etc that they would often, thinking about their own selves, become unsuitable as far as doing Thakur’s work was concerned, while selfless devotees never thought of time or health.
Maharaj could be very humourous with his repartees. Once a devotee said to him, “Maharaj, last night you had come in my dream and told me something. Kindly tell that again.” Maharaj retorted, “Sir, tonight, you can try again; I shall come in your dream and tell that.”
His Austerity and other facets
There were so many anecdotes related to Maharaj’s austere way of living and thinking. Though he was quite empathetic to varying needs of other monks and devotees, his own temperament led him to assume and expect a certain level of toughness within everyone.
It was remembered with glee how he had very simply asked a senior monk to walk from Sasthamangalam to Nettayam Ashrama – a distance of more than six kilometers – suggesting it is just walkable distance. For a senior visiting monk from Belur Math who wished to visit Kanyakumari from Trivandrum, Maharaj booked a bus ticket, which was retracted only after entreaties from monastic brothers, and a vehicle was arranged. To devotees offered tea by Maharaj it was jokingly suggested that the devotee in question was indeed privileged to have been able to extract rare hospitality from Maharaj.
He had not put any fans in the dining hall of the Madras Math. While no one exactly knew the reason for this, the monks speculated that Maharaj did that in order to ensure that no one spent more than the necessary amount of time in dining hall in chatting, and perhaps overeating.
Revered Maharaj hardly cared for what food he was served. He would eat whatever was served to him. Once he mixed orange juice with rice mistaking it for Rasam. When requested by others to leave that plate and take fresh rice, he ignored the plea saying, “Is it not food?”
The bath towel of Maharaj had a number of holes. Fellow-monks entreated him to discard it and take a new one. “I am not going to wear it outside. I am only using it for wiping my body after the bath. It is perfectly useful as a towel”, used to be his response.
Once Maharaj asked a brahmacharin how many sets of clothes he had. When the brahmacharin responded that he had five, Maharaj promptly advised him that two sets are enough for a monk. He himself had only a couple of dhotis, shirts and chaddars which were always faded and worn out. He was a firm believer that nothing could be discarded as useless. When the dhoti became unsuitable to be worn even by his standards, he used it as a bed sheet. He used to combine two or three such dhotis as a pillow. He used Lifebuoy soap till it was reduced to a tiny piece. He would even then not throw it away and put it in a tin. After many small pieces were collected he would combine them into one and use the same again. He kept a stone for sharpening of shaving blade and did not throw them away upon getting blunt but sharpened them with the help of that stone.
He only used one-side blank sheets and never any fresh paper for his writing. He would get sheets of old calendars cut to size and then use them as writing paper in order to stretch the usage of resources to the maximum.
In his younger days at Madras Math sometimes his brother Achutha Menon used to visit. Maharaj allowed him only to stay but have him eat outside in a nearby hotel. When senior monks asked Maharaj to let his brother eat there only, he said that his brother was not a devotee in the strict sense and hence it was only appropriate that he dined outside.
His austerity and insistence to preserve resources of the Math often led to situations of personal discomfort which he gladly faced. He used to go for meetings at Sarada Vidyalaya and also had to occasionally consult a dentist for tooth-ache in that area. He invariably took appointments with dentist only on days when he had to go for the meeting at Sarada Vidyalaya so that no additional trip was required for the doctor visit. He did not mind bearing the pain and discomfort for synchronizing the dentist appointment with work at Sarada Vidyalaya.
Even during his last days when Maharaj had been on prolonged hospitalization he was quite uncompromising on his life-long austere habits and had asked to keep the fan switched off. A small fan was kept running under his bed without his knowledge in order to ensure aeration.
In the summers before his demise he had been in broken health and the doctor suggested that an air-conditioner be provided for him at the Math. The monastic brothers knew that it will be impossible to get Maharaj agree to it and so they asked a devotee to broach this topic. With folded hands the devotee said to Maharaj, ‘Maharaj, I have a new air-conditioner at my home which is yet to be installed. I very much wish and consider it a blessing if you use it for a month or two till you recover from your illness.” But Maharaj replied, “My dear friend, just walk behind our Ashrama where you find people living in slums. Among them there are people who are more aged than me. Can you provide air-conditioner to all of them? To be frank, I am a Sanyasin and a beggar, Sri Ramakrishna, out of compassion, has provided a room, a cot, a fan and what not. I am quite happy with whatever Sri Ramakrishna has provided.”
Maharaj would use only a measured quantity of 10 litres for bath. Maharaj would quote ‘Aapo vai brahma’ – water is Brahman, and whether by wasting water could one really grow spiritually. He often used to say one can have a bath even with a couple of large mugs. In the water crisis that Madras faced in 1973 Maharaj advised everyone to bathe only with a few mugs of water.
Maharaj’s austerity extended even in conducting the shrine affairs. When one devotee presented to him a costly silk saree for Holy Mother’s picture at Madras Math, Maharaj accepted it quite unwillingly saying that the Holy Mother lived her life with extreme simplicity and so the idea of using costly gifts for her worship did not quiet appeal to him.
Once while visiting Belur Math Maharaj was taken to the inner chamber of Thakur’s shrine and the Pujari Maharaj gave him arghya to be offered to Thakur. Maharaj politely declined and said, “What right do I have to offer this arghya? Did I plant the trees which gave these bilva leaves and flowers? Did I at least do something for these plants to grow? When I have not done any of these things, what right do I have to pluck and offer them to Sri Ramakrishna?”
He always wanted visitors to first go to the shrine and after offering salutations to Thakur proceed with their purpose. He used to say, “Wherever and whenever you go to a Ramakrishna Math, first go the shrine. Even if you come across any monks on the way, first visit the shrine and thereafter offer pranams to them.”
He used to say ‘Our ancestors, by reciting slokas in the morning, and doing parayana of stotras started their day in an auspicious manner. But the only stotras that modern generation read are the newspapers. As a result we commence our activities for the day with a confused mind instead of a composed one.
Maharaj showed no interest in any sort of entertainment and this only strengthened his image as a very dry and austere Sadhu. He was a believer in the idea that ‘God-vision and television do not go hand in hand.’ He could be pretty unbendable in making compromises, and had the resolve to practice it to levels which others would consider far too much. But he could do so since that had become his very nature and he was established in highly austere ways of living. Once at the Belur Math there took place a screening of a very rare footage which showed Mahapurush Maharaj (Maharaj’s Guru) walking on the grounds of the Math. Maharaj, who was then at the Belur Math, remaining true to his ideas did not attend this screening. At Madras Math, there used to be plays on spiritual themes but Maharaj never attended them.
To a worker in the ashrama in Trivandrum who had a liking for going to cinema, Maharaj would say, “Where is the need to go to a cinema? Whenever you visit the wards and Operation Theatres you witness smiles and tears, laughter and wailings pouring into your ears. It is in no way different from what you get in a cinema.”
Maharaj hardly ever went on pilgrimages. Even while visiting Belur Math thrice a year for meetings, he did not visit Dakshineswar – just half an hour from the Math – and spent all the time in studies, writing, or talking to sincere aspirants who sought his counsel. When asked whether he had ever been to the Himalayas, he brushed aside the question saying “oh, no, no.” He spoke of making a pilgrimage unto one’s inner self, and saw himself being in sadhana since the day he had joined the Order. Maharaj would humorously say that there were two types of body constitutions – one was the Subrahmanya type (which was disposed to travel around the world) like Swami Ranganathananda who travelled widely for propagating Ramakrishna-Vivekananda ideals, and the other was Ganesha type (meant to stay put at one place) like himself.
When one views his life in totality, one gets a feeling that practicing austerities while working every minute for Sri Ramakrishna was what constituted the bedrock of his spiritual life
On passing away of Swami Vireswarananda, Swami Gambhirananda became the President of the Order and the Trustees chose Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj as the Vice-President. When he received the call from Belur Math informing of this decision he was initially reluctant to take up that position which entailed giving Diksha to spiritual aspirants, but later agreed to the wish of the trustees. He remarked that “I am reminded of the Holy Mother saying that a broomstick may be dirty but still it is used to clean dirty places. Such was his humility.
After becoming the Vice-President of the Order in 1985, he gave his first Diksha at Cossipore Garden House in Calcutta. He humorously remarked to some brother-monks that he was a bit nervous before the ceremony as that was his ‘debut show’
He gave initiation to thousands of aspirants and used the Pranami money he received for Thakur’s work. He was never inclined to accept any personal gifts. Generally, when he went to any centre of the Order for giving Diksha, he left whatever he received as Pranami at that centre itself.
For Maharaj, the real Guru was Sri Ramakrishna and he and others were mere instruments. He disapproved any Guru cult around individual Gurus of the Order.
He would not be contented unless every recipient of Diskha fully understood its import and spirit. Once when an engineer who had hearing and speech disability had come for Diksha, Maharaj sat with him in his room writing down all the instructions, and spent a significant amount of time ensuring that he understood all that was communicated.
Once an old lady who was illiterate expressed her desire to get initiation. When coming to know that for Diksha she should have at least read the biographies of Thakur, Ma, and Swamiji the lady felt very dejected. When Maharaj came to know of this he asked her to have her grandchildren read those books out to her and thereby get qualified to receive Diksha. She did that and subsequently received Diskha from Maharaj.
Once when asked the way to improve concentration during Japa, Maharaj said, “There are two ways. First is, along with every repetition of the Mantra, one should think that one is offering a flower at the Lord’s feet. Or the second way is to listen to the mantra while repeating it silently.”
Maharaj would say that Diksha is a vow to hold on to the Ishta and his name. One has to hold on to it regardless of whether one is getting any results or not. The results are not generally perceptible but a certain transformation does come in time.
His Final Days
In 1981, Maharaj was taken ill during his visit to Belur Math for the Trustees’ Meeting and admitted to the Seva Pratishthan Hospital. There he was found to be diabetic. Upon return to Madras he humorously told other monks that a sugar factory had been discovered in him. After that he always used a walking stick.
Once being administered anesthesia he was operated for the urinary tract but the operation was unsuccessful. The monks and doctors were hesitant in telling Maharaj about the same. But seeing them, he guessed the situation, and made light of the whole matter.
In the last one year Maharaj was in and out of hospitals quite often. He was very reluctant to stay in the hospital. He wanted to leave his body at the Math.
When he was admitted into Vijaya Hospital and had to be operated upon, he requested the doctors to give him only local anesthesia so that he could carry on his Japam. He kept asking the doctors, “Has the operation started? Am I co-operating” and “Is it over?”, when the surgery had been completed.
Maharaj could face excruciating pain with great forbearance. When injected through a central nerve by the nurses he would remain unmoved. Nurses also marveled at his capacity to be totally calm in situations generally extremely painful to other patients.
In February he was hospitalized with symptoms of hypoglycemia. Though improved a little, later in June he had serious complications due to, among other ailments, acute broncho pneumonia. Admitted again into Vijaya Hospital from the 27th June to the 18th July, he was attended upon round the clock by monastic members and a team of reputed specialists. He showed some improvement but then on the 6th September he was admitted to the BSS Hospital. After a detailed examination the doctors confirmed the earlier diagnosis of tuberculosis. On the 25th September, at 11 a.m., he went into a coma. As he experienced breathing difficulty he was put on a ventilator.
Ten days before his demise, he had enquired when the next Ekadasi would be. Probably he had selected his day of departure. He eventually went into coma and was put on a ventilator. Liquid food was administered through a tube. On 3rd October, 1991, at 6:32 pm just as evening vespers were going on at the Math Maharaj’s pulse rate came down rapidly and he passed away. His mortal remains were taken in an ambulance to the Math. Hearing that a great Mahatma had passed away, there was a big crowd of people to have a darshan of his mortal remains.
His body was kept in the Library and the funeral procession started in the afternoon on the next day. Thousands of devotees took part in the procession. His cremation happened at the Mylapore crematorium. Sandalwood pieces were arranged over his body and tins of ghee were poured for the cremation. In the Math there was chanting of all 18 chapters of the Gita, some Tamil scriptures, as well as some other chanting.
The sad news was broadcast over radio and television that evening and was carried by newspapers the next morning. Special Puja and Bhandara were held both at Belur Math and Madras Math on the 15th October . The memorial meeting held at Madras Math on the same day was presided over by the General Secretary.
Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj was full of impersonal love for everyone, which is not binding in nature, and which can only be practiced only in highest freedom. Maharaj embodied the two cardinal values of Sanyasa – Jnana (Knowledge) and Tapas (Austerity) to a very high degree. These were the foundation of his monastic life and he applied them in fullest measure to service of ‘God in Man’. Swami Vivekananda had once said that Jnana and Tapas are the cornerstone of any monastic order. Seeing the life of Swami Tapasyananda countless monks of the Ramakrishna Order drew inspiration and got an archetype of an ideal monk to emulate.