The family name of Swami Trigunatitananda was Saradaprasanna Mitra. He was born in an aristocratic family of 24 Parganas on 30 January 1865. His parents believed that Sarada was born to them through the grace of the Divine Mother Durga, and therefore they named the child after Her.
For education, Sarada was sent to Calcutta. As a student, he showed great brilliance, and by his charming behaviour and sweet manners, he endeared himself to all. While a boy of fourteen, he was admitted into the fourth class of the Metropolitan Institution of Shyampukur where Mahendranath Gupta or ‘M’, the great devotee of Sri Ramakrishna, was the headmaster; and he passed the Entrance Examination from there. Everybody expected that Sarada would pass the examination with great distinction and win prizes and scholarships, but fate was against him. Sarada lost his gold watch on the second day of the examination through some carelessness. This so much upset him that he could no longer normally write examination papers, and he passed in the second division to the great disappointment of all. This made Sarada so grief-stricken, that for weeks together he kept sorrowing over his lot.
‘M’ loved Sarada dearly. Finding his favourite boy so much depressed in spirits, he one day (27 December 1884) took Sarada to Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar. Thus a trifling thing like the loss of a gold watch became the indirect cause of great future events. A pure soul like Sarada was at once attracted towards the saint of Dakshineswar, and he began to go to him whenever he could make time.
From his very boyhood Sarada showed a rare religious disposition and found delight in worship. In this he was greatly helped by his father who spent the greater portion of his day in spiritual practices. Sarada began to read scriptures, and so retentive was his memory that even at an early age he learnt by heart more than a hundred Sanskrit hymns. The contact with the Master further stimulated his religious spirit, and the Master also kept a keen eye on the training of his boy devotee.
With Sri Ramakrishna
Brought up in the atmosphere of an aristocratic family, Sarada looked upon some works as reserved only for menials. But one hot day when Sarada had arrived at Dakshineswar, the Master asked the boy to bring water and wash his feet. There were many friends of Sarada standing near, which made the situation all the more embarrassing. Sarada’s face became flushed with a sense of humiliation. He did not know what to do. But the Master definitely asked him again to do the work. There was no other way. Sarada willy-nilly obeyed. But this incident forever broke down the feeling of aristocracy in the innocent boy and implanted in him a spirit of service.
Sarada now joined the Metropolitan College. In the first year, he prosecuted his studies regularly and acquired a name as a bright student, but as his visits to Dakshineswar became more and more frequent, Sarada began to show growing indifference to secular learning. His parents became alarmed at this. They thought marriage might give a turn to his mind, and without his knowledge made all arrangements for it. But as soon as Sarada got the scent of this, he fled away from the house.
He first went to see the Master to tell him of his plan to go to Puri on foot, carefully suppressing the fact that he had left the house without the knowledge of his parents. On the way to Puri, he had varied experiences. Once for two days, he was without food. Hungry and tired, he walked on. He thought he would find some village in the evening. But to his utter dismay, he found himself in a deep forest, and deeper became the forest as he advanced. In that helpless condition, he took shelter in the branches of a tree for the night. But when he was asleep, he was called by a stranger and given food. In the morning Sarada searched the whole forest, but as he saw no human habitation in it, he was at a loss to find wherefrom had come the stranger who had befriended him in the night.
His parents, however, made their way to Puri and caught him. Sarada was brought back home. There was only one month more before the First Arts Examination. Though Sarada had been out of touch with his books for almost the whole year, with only one month’s preparation he passed the examination creditably.
As Sarada’s father did not like his son visiting Sri Ramakrishna too frequently, Sarada could not stay with the Master at the Cossipore garden-house, though he snatched at every opportunity to serve him there. After the passing away of the Master, Sarada again showed indifference to worldly things. Now and then he began to absent himself from the house. He actually wanted to give up the world, but the thought of the shock to his parents deterred him from his purpose.
To change the mind of Sarada by some supernatural means, his elder brother performed a sacrificial ceremony lasting for about a month and a half and costing a good deal of money. At the end of the ceremony, however, the priests declared that the mind of Sarada would be difficult to change; he was destined to be a sannyasin. Never daunted, this brother of Sarada tried various other means to put obstacles in the path of his renunciation. But as everything failed, he frankly prayed to the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna to persuade Sarada to take to worldly life. When Sarada knew all these things, he got annoyed and joined the monastery at Baranagore. But here, too, he would often be disturbed by his relations, to avoid whom he once actually made an unsuccessful attempt to fly away. At this Math, the young disciples of the Master took sannyasa ceremonially and changed their old names. Sarada was named Swami Trigunatitananda, or Trigunatita as he was usually called.
(Swami Vivekananda once taunted him for his long name and asked him to shorten it. So Trigunatita became the usual name.)
Swami Trigunatita had always a great hankering for places of pilgrimage, but his love for Swamiji kept him confined to the Baranagore Math. At last, in 1891 he started on a pilgrimage and visited Vrindavan, Mathura, Jaipur, Ajmer, and Kathiawar. At Porbandar in Kathiawar, he unexpectedly met Swamiji, who during that time wanted to keep his whereabouts secret from his brother disciples. After visiting some other places on the way, Swami Trigunatita returned to Baranagore. Some years afterwards, in 1895, Swami Trigunatita again started on a pilgrimage—this time for Kailash and Manasarovar. It was the most difficult pilgrimage one could undertake. His indomitable spirit carried him through. It was the month of June or July. The snow had just begun to melt. The beautiful natural scenery which he saw there amply repaid the hardship which he had undergone in that difficult journey. He had a very daring and adventurous spirit. On more than one occasion his life was in danger in the course of the pilgrimages he performed. But every time he was mysteriously saved. These experiences deepened his faith in God all the more.
After finishing the pilgrimages he stayed in Calcutta for some time at the house of a devotee and spent his time in deep studies. At this time he developed fistula which required surgical operation. The doctor came, but the Swami would not subject himself to chloroform. The operation continued for a full half an hour and the incision was long and deep, but the Swami stood it calmly without the least betrayal of any sign of pain. As soon as he recovered, he again plunged himself into studies. He was buried in books or remained absorbed in doing some literary work. Occasionally he would take scriptural classes at different places. After some time the Swami went to stay in the monastery at Alambazar. There also he carried with him his habit of study. His room was packed with books with which he would be found constantly busy.
During this period he started three centres in Calcutta for the training of students. But the plan had to be given up after some time.
Famine Relief in Dinajpur
In 1897, when the district of Dinajpur was in the grip of a terrible famine, the Swami went there and organized relief work. On this occasion, his wonderful spirit of service was in evidence. Himself living on ‘bhiksha’ (alms) or sometimes on scanty or no meals, he laboured day and night in distributing food to the starving population.
Swami Trigunatita had a strange capacity as regards food. He could live for days together with only one piece of fruit for his daily meal. And if he liked, he could eat the quantity of food which it could take four strongly built persons to consume. Having this capacity, he would sometimes in fun bewilder or embarrass his friends. Once, on one of his pilgrimages, he went to a hotel for his meal. But he began to eat so much that the poor hotel-keeper had to approach and request him with folded hands to stop taking further food, and said that he would not charge the Swami anything for what he had already taken. In later days the Swami greatly enjoyed narrating this incident.
The Genesis of Udbodhan
For some years he had an idea of starting a magazine in Bengali for spreading the Master’s message. Swamiji also had blessed the idea from the West. The idea took practical shape, a few days after the Ramakrishna Math had been transferred from Alambazar to a rented house near the present site of Belur Math. Swamiji now offered to supply all the money needed for giving a start to this project. Accordingly a press was bought and Swami Trigunatita was put in charge of the whole thing: he was the editor of the paper, the manager of the press, and as a matter of fact, everything. To organize the publication of the periodical, which Swamiji named Udbodhan, Swami Trigunatita had to undergo herculean labour. He did not care about his daily meal and he did not care about his physical comfort or illness; Udbodhan became the one absorbing interest of his life. When Swamiji heard of the labour and hardship which Swami Trigunatita was passing through, he remarked that such an amount of work and hardship was possible only for a disciple of the Master who lived only for the good of humanity.
Though Swami Trigunatita was killing himself, as it were, in the work of Udbodhan, whenever he heard of anybody being ill, he was sure to be by his bedside. In fact, no work would give greater delight to the Swami than serving others. Once an employee of the Udbodhan Press was attacked by cholera. Swami Trigunatita made all arrangements for his treatment and himself attended the case constantly. The poor servant was dumbfounded at the conduct of the Swami: could he believe his eyes that a master was doing so much for a paid hand !
As a result of the vigilant care and ceaseless industry of Swami Trigunatita, the work in connection with the Udbodhan was being well organized. But Swamiji asked him to go to San Francisco in America to replace Swami Turiyananda who was returning to India. Swami Trigunatita was ready to obey any command of the leader, and he agreed to go to the West however much it might interfere with his Indian mode of living. But, unfortunately, Swamiji passed away unexpectedly on 4 July 1902, to the great grief of all his brother disciples. Swami Trigunatita’s departure was thus delayed. He, however, sailed for America via the Pacific, some months after this sad event, and reached San Francisco on 2 January 1903. The matter of dress for the new country he settled by going in oriental costume. As regards the question of food, he determined to maintain a strict vegetarian diet, and not being able to get accurate information as to the vegetables and fruits are grown in the United States of America, he started on his voyage with the resolution to live, if necessary, on bread and water. He afterwards found, of course, that vegetables and cereals of all kinds were grown in abundance in that country.
When the Swami arrived in San Francisco there was a group of loyal friends and students of Vedanta to greet him, and he was taken at once to the home of Dr M H Logan, the President of the San Francisco Vedanta Society. A few weeks later, he went to the home of Mr and Mrs C F Peterson, where he was to make his headquarters. Soon after, old and new students of Vedanta began to come from all directions. The news that another Swami, again a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, had come to take up the work, spread far and wide, and very soon the Swami’s time was filled to overflowing.
Classes were organized and a hall secured where lectures were given on Sunday afternoons. The home of the Petersons soon proved too small for the large attendance at the classes, and the decision was made to find more commodious quarters. A flat was taken on March 1903, giving larger space for the classes and lectures. Classes were regularly held on Monday and Thursday evenings for members.
In the year 1904, in response to calls, the Swami found a fertile field for work in the city of Los Angeles in Southern California, 425 miles from San Francisco. But after organizing classes there, he found a difficulty in carrying on the work at that distance: so in the same year, he wrote to India for an assistant Swami to take charge of that work. The Swami who came to take up the new work was compelled to return to India for reasons of health at the end of the year.
First Hindu Temple in the West
In 1904 the work had grown to such proportions that Swami Trigunatita felt the time had come when the Vedanta Society of San Francisco should have a building of its own. With Swami Trigunatita, to think was to act, and a committee was at once appointed to look for a suitable site. Soon a meeting of all the members was called, the funds were quickly raised, and a plot of land was purchased in the name of the San Francisco Vedanta Society. Plans were immediately commenced for the building under the supervision of the Swami, and at last, took form in what was to be known as the first Hindu Temple in the whole Western world. The call for subscriptions went out, and almost without exception the entire membership, with many friends of the movement, responded. Rich and poor, old and young, came with their offerings and before long, sufficient funds were subscribed to commence operations. In the month of August 1905, with appropriate ceremonies, the cornerstone was laid. Here at last, in San Francisco, the city beside the Golden Gate, a permanent centre was established, a channel through which the Truth could flow to quench the thirst of thousands of world-weary souls with its life-giving waters. With regard to the future of the Temple, the Swami said, ‘Believe me, believe me, if there is the least tinge of selfishness in building this Temple it will fall, but if it is the Master’s work, it will stand.’ The Temple was dedicated to the cause of humanity on 7 January 1906, and the first services were held on Sunday, 15 January.
Shortly after this, an idea of starting a monastery in connection with the Vedanta Society occurred to him. There were a number of young men attending the lectures and meetings of the Society who had an inclination to live the life of brahmacharins. About ten of them became the inmates of the monastery. This number was added to occasionally, but the newcomers were not always permanent, and the number remained at an average often. The young men were all engaged in various occupations and continued to earn their own living, contributing according to their abilities their share of the expenses of the monastery upkeep, until such time as they might either desire or were ready in the Swami’s judgement to take the vows of brahmacharya.
These young men were subjected to strict discipline. They had to rise early in the morning, meditate regularly and do all household duties such as cleaning and sweeping. The Swami instructed them that all work connected with the Temple was holy and, if performed in the right spirit, would purify their minds and advance their meditation.
The Swami was fond of forceful maxims. When someone recited the great watchword of the American Republic, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’, he made him repeat it. Some of the mottoes hanging in every room of the monastery were: ‘Live like a hermit, but work like a horse’; ‘Do it now’; ‘Watch and pray’; and one which he constantly quoted, ‘Do or die, but you will not die.’
The Swami thoroughly believed in singing as a spiritual exercise. In the early morning, he often took the young men up on the roof of the monastery to sing devotional hymns and songs. Half a mile distant was the bay of San Francisco, and sometimes the Swami took them thither for the morning singing and meditation. At that early hour, none were astir except the fishermen in their motorboats and an occasional ship putting out to sea. Usually, the air was calm and still, and, as the voices rolled out over the waters of the wide bay, it must have been a source of wonder to the listening sailors and fishermen.
The Swami’s life was an example to others in every respect. But he was under the continuous scrutiny of some young men for any deviation from his own precepts. There were those who never questioned, but there were some doubters or unwilling believers, and these were eventually satisfied. For all that they found in his character was the one consuming purpose to give his life for the salvation of others, and that all of his undertakings were only means to that end. A great disciplinarian of the highest order, his was the brightest example of what a disciplined life should be. He ever maintained his sannyasin life and, notwithstanding his various ailments, insisted on sleeping on the floor of his office, a light mattress being the only concession he would make to the entreaties of those concerned for his health and comfort. In addition to his unceasing daily labours, the Swami cooked all the meals for the monastery, so that the young men might eat pure, Sattvika food, so very essential for the growth of spiritual life. Always to bed later than the others, he was yet the first to rise. This he did, not for a day or a month, but from year to year. He was the model of punctuality and regularity. This discipline in punctuality was all the more remarkable when it is remembered that, in the first place, it was not natural to him, and in the second place, his mendicant life aimed at destroying the very idea of time itself. Seeing, however, the value of the virtue of punctuality in the lives of spiritual aspirants, he bent his will to be punctual himself and then required it of his disciples.
As he had his mind fixed on the inner core of things, possible external bad results never deterred him. To the genuine disciple, he would say, ‘I don’t mind if I break every bone in your body, so long as I can drag you up to the shores of the Ocean of Immortality and throw you in; then my work will be finished.’
Sometimes young men came to the Swami expressing their desires to live the ascetic life under discipline. Some had read the lives of saints, and in their mind’s eye was the picture of a monk’s cell with its association of many forms of asceticism. To such, the Swami suggested, they should first spend a few months in the Temple monastery as a preparation for the solitary life. They were then assigned sleeping quarters, usually in the same room with others, and subjected to the limitations of privacy which such close contact brought. This was the first step in the discipline as nearly all were accustomed to sleeping in a room alone. Then to their surprise, they sat down at least twice daily to wholesome and substantial meals. Nothing seemed to accord with their idea of asceticism. After two or three months, they discovered that some of the hardest disciplines lie in the conquest of the ego under the constant friction of this daily association. Some would make complaints of others to the Swami. He would reply, ‘Did you not ask for discipline?’ ‘Yes’, they would answer, ‘but not that kind’, and then would leave the monastery. Those who endured and made the best of everything conquered themselves and learnt the true spirit of service to others. Some of them afterwards looked back on the years of their monastery life as among their most delightful memories.
The life of the Swami was one long sacrifice, and those who were privileged to be in his presence found their doubts and troubles melt away like snow before the sun. He veritably radiated holiness, for he ever lived in the consciousness of the Divine Mother. Every moment of contact with him was one of increasing education, conscious and unconscious.
From the year 1913, one by one, by death and other reasons, the monastery membership began to diminish until only a few remained and the monastery was finally closed with the death of Swami Trigunatita himself.
The Swami also started a nunnery as a separate community at the earnest entreaties of some women disciples who wanted to live a life of discipline under the personal spiritual instruction of the Swami. The women disciples were full of earnest zeal and lived the life most sincerely. They did all their cooking and household work in the spirit of worship and service to God and faithfully adhered to the rules laid down by the Swami as regards eating, hours of rising, and general spiritual conduct. They worked hard but were happy at the thought that they were working out their salvation for the ultimate goal of realization and freedom. The Swami’s hope was that the nunnery might be the seed of awakening a spiritual life among the women of the USA and that great results might accrue from its apparently small beginning.
In 1909 the Swami started a monthly magazine, called Voice of Freedom, as a channel through which to reach many souls who either did not attend his lectures or who were too far away to come to them. The magazine ever and always held constant to the high ideals of the truths of the Vedanta philosophy and the variety of materials published soon attracted a wide circle of readers. The magazine continued for seven years, after which period it was stopped to the disappointment of many Vedanta students.
Every year the Swami would lead a selected group of students to ‘Shanti Ashrama’—a peace retreat in the San Antone Valley, eighteen miles south-east of Mt Hamilton, California, the site of the world-famous Lick Observatory. Situated at a picturesque spot, the Shanti Ashrama, as named by Swami Turiyananda, who first took up the work there at the instance of Swami Vivekananda, was an ideal spot for spiritual culture. It reminded one of the ancient Ashramas of the Indian Rishis in the Himalayas, and the very atmosphere of the place was spiritually invigorating. Practically the whole day—from 3.45 in the morning when everyone was to get up, till ten o’clock in the night when lights were out—the inmates were busy meditating, attending scriptural classes, listening to discourses, and so on. Even eating was regarded as one of the most important functions of the spiritual life, and the Swami devoted the meal times to chanting, instruction, and scriptural reading, himself taking his own meals apart from the class.
One day a week was set apart as a day of individual solitude and fasting, as a voluntary asceticism. All who participated retired to their cabins, where they could spend the entire twenty-four hours in meditation or other spiritual practices. To some, in that holy place, there came revelations and experiences in the twenty-four hours which silenced doubts, satisfied anxious longing, and gave new impetus to their spiritual aspirations. The minds of all, however, seemed to be like an open book to the Swami, and individuals found that their inmost motives and actions had become known to him, and more than one was thus sometimes checked in rash impulses and extremes of conduct. Others, during the time of meditation, received spiritual visions and felt themselves transported into a different world. Sometimes on the nights of the full moon, the Swami held what might be called a dhuni (fire) ceremony, when under the open sky, round a fire, the students would sit and spend the whole night in spiritual practices. That was one of the valuable exercises for every student.
In order to relieve any strain that might result from a diet of too great seriousness, the Swami declared two afternoons a week as holidays, and a stream of genuine fun and merriment followed. The Swami himself was the leader in the fun.
Those who were privileged to attend the Shanti Ashrama classes could hardly forget their unique experience there; they found the desire ever recurring in their minds to renew their visits and spiritual inspiration.
How every act of the Swami was sanctified, surcharged with spiritual motives, could be evidenced from the instructions he gave to select students who were asked to do platform work in the Hindu Temple. A discourse was to be made an occasion for the application of Vedanta philosophy in practical life. A lesson or a lecture was ‘to be taken sincerely as a spiritual service and religious practice for one’s own spiritual advancement’. In preparing themselves, the students were to ‘meditate that the grace of God was being conferred on the subject, that it was being sanctified by His Divine touch’. The subject was to be received through prayer, and at the time of delivery, the speaker was to remember that he was ‘talking to God, that God was the only audience’.
The Swami would very often say, ‘That mind which is attached to more than one thing can never reach the goal.’ ‘Learn to see God in everything about you. Smear God over everything, and your mind will think of Him alone.’
The second-year after the Swami’s arrival in San Francisco, his health suffered from an attack of rheumatism and other physical troubles. The different climate, the new confining life due to his intense devotion to the work, all told upon a constitution weakened by the merciless rigours of early asceticism on the path to realization. For one to whom the body had ceased to be the means to an end and was now only kept for the purpose of service to humanity, it was irksome to take proper precautions for its protection, and various ailments secured a foothold, resulting later in serious illness. As the years drew on, the Swami’s ailments increased in number, but he never allowed them to interfere with his work. For the last five years of his life, he suffered constantly, day and night, from chronic rheumatism and Bright’s disease. So complicated were his physical troubles that he used to say, ‘This body is kept together only by the force of will; whenever I let go, it will just fall to pieces of its own accord.’
Notwithstanding this great handicap of ill health, he arose regularly at 4 a.m. daily; and while meeting the demands of all his other duties, he never failed to conduct the regular lectures and classes. If anything, his activities increased. So resolute and determined was his will that only a few knew the true condition of his health, but unmistakable signs began to appear showing that the body was yielding gradually to the heavy burdens imposed upon it. But alas, nobody knew that the end would come in an unexpected and tragic way!
In December 1914, two days after Christmas, which had been celebrated with wonderful solemnity in the San Francisco Hindu Temple, Swami Trigunatita was holding a Sunday Service when a live bomb was thrown to the pulpit. It was the act of a young man, a former student of the Swami, who did it in a fit of depression and an unbalanced state of mind. Immediately there was an explosion, and a cloud of dense blue smoke obscured the platform. When the smoke cleared, it was found that the young man himself had been killed, and that the Swami had received severe injuries. It was immediately arranged to remove the Swami to a hospital. On his way to the hospital, the Swami said, ‘Where is Louis, poor fellow?’ In the midst of excruciating pain, his mind was yet filled with pity that anyone should do such a rash act.
Although medical skill did all it could, the shattered condition of the Swami’s constitution, for years ready to disintegrate, was such that the system could not resist the infection from the wounds. Although every waking moment was one of intense suffering, no word of complaint ever passed his lips. From time to time he gave instructions to one disciple after another to be faithful to the cause to the end and, even to the last, his thoughts were never for himself but for the Master’s work and mission.
On the afternoon of 9 January, the Swami aroused himself out of an apparently unconscious state and in the course of the conversation with the young disciple in charge said that he would leave his body the next day, January 10, the birthday of Swami Vivekananda (janma tithi, the date of birth according to the lunar calendar followed by the Hindus). Just before 7.30 p.m., on January 10, the young man was called out of the room for a few minutes, and when he returned the Swami had already left the body for that plane from which he had been attracted to the earth by his Master to take up the work of the salvation of humanity.
Thus passed a great soul whose life was devoted to the spiritual unfoldment of man—a great yogi and the servant of all. In what great esteem Swami Trigunatita was held in San Francisco could be judged from a large number of people who attended his funeral service. These were not simply his students and disciples but represented many sections of society.