( 1917 - 2007 )
Birth and Early Life
What, perhaps, struck people most about Swami Gahanananda was his fearlessness and tranquillity. Join these with his keen observation and discriminating judgement, and one gets a small glimpse of the depths- gahana– of his personality. Monks and devotees who knew him a little closely were amazed to see his frugality in food and scant need for sleep. Their amazement was heightened, seeing Revered Maharaj’s boundless energy- at all times of day and night. What was the source of this indefatigable energy? It was not merely a regulated life that included daily exercise, not merely his meditation; no, it sprang from his absolute dependence on Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda.
Maharaj was always impeccable in bearing and manners, and his carriage clearly marked him as one with authority. His pre-monastic name, Naresh, Lord of men – also pointed towards this aspect of his personality. Organized and methodical, he was imperturbably patient when dealing with difficult people, and showed tenacious grit in the face of adversity. His actions and speech were controlled, announcing his self-mastery, but he reached out to people with warmth and humour, endearing them all to him.
Beginning of Monastic Life
It was at the quiet and verdant Ramakrishna Math, Bhubaneswar, in 1939, that Swami Gahanananda’s monastic journey began. He was then twenty-two. The novice had been inspired by the lives and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda right from his school days, in his village of Paharpur (now in Sylhet, Bangladesh). As a youth, he was also fortunate to meet some senior monks of the Ramakrishna Order. He had derived great enthusiasm for spiritual life from his cousin Swami Prabhananda (Ketaki Maharaj)- who pioneered the service activities of the Order among the Khasi people of north-east India- and even in his advanced years fondly reminisced about him. Maharaj also felt blessed to have met Swami Abhedananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna.
The year 1916, in which Swami Gahanananda, as Naresh Ranjan Raychoudhury, was born, was a difficult one for India and especially Bengal. Not much is known of his family, for Maharaj was reticent about this subject. The roots of Maharaj’s deep sympathy for the poor, sick, and distressed must have taken hold in him during his youth when the terrible poverty of the Indian people and social upheaval due to the freedom struggle against British dominion had turned the whole of India inside out.
A few months after joining the Bhubaneswar Math, Maharaj received formal initiation from his guru, Swami Virajananda. Swami Virajananda was a disciple of the Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi, and had received sannyasa from Swami Vivekananda. Maharaj had the great opportunity to live with Swami Nirvanananda – legendary disciplinarian and loving soul – who had served Swami Brahmananda, and who would later become vice president of the Order. Swami Nirvedananda was to guide him carefully through the intricacies of monastic life. The future monk came to embrace the new type of monasticism established by Swami Vivekananda, which was to combine the dynamism of meditation, work, devotion, and knowledge, for one’s own liberation and for the good of the world.
The novice was diligent in his duties; this diligence was tested during the visit of Swamis Shankarananda, and Achalananda, to Bhubaneswar and Puri. In 1942, he was transferred to the Advaita Ashrama’s publication department in Kolkata. The Second World War caused shortages of all kinds of goods and materials, including paper for printing Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Vedanta literature. Swami Gahanananda was very resourceful in procuring and storing paper and other commodities. In 1944, his guru initiated him into the vows of Brahmacharya, naming him Amritachaitanya. Despite his busy schedule, Amritachaitanya could visit Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, in the Himalayas, in the winter of 1947-48, for intense studies and meditation, spending over four months there. Soon after his return from Mayavati, he was invested with the sublime vows of sannyasa, and received from his guru the name Swami Gahanananda. Towards the end of his tenure in Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, the young swami was made the manager.
In 1952, he left Advaita Ashrama for the Ramakrishna Mission centre in Shillong. There he was fortunate co receive affectionate guidance from Swami Saumayananda, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda. He twice organized the Ramakrishna Mission’s experience of peoples extreme suffering during chose disastrous floods brought about a radical change in him. Keen on service co the helpless, Swami Gahanananda was shifted from Assam back to Kolkata in 1958, now to the Ramakrishna Mission Seva Pratishthan, a small hospital serving primarily poor mothers and their infant children. He was also guided and inspired by Swami Dayananda, secretary of the hospital and a disciple of the Holy Mother. For the next twenty-seven years, twenty-two of them as secretary, he served at this institution, transforming it into one of the most comprehensive health care facilities in the city and elms bringing succour to millions. The volume of work shouldered by Maharaj during chis period was enormous. He organized mobile medical vans, which bring free medical services and medicines to rural areas, and are a great boon for villagers. He also organized massive relief work during the 1971 Bangladesh war, when millions of Hindu refugees were pouring into India, into living conditions that could be best described as hellish.
At the Helm of the Sangha
In 1965, Swami Gahanananda was elected a trustee of the Ramakrishna Math and member of the governing body of the Ramakrishna Mission. Appointed as assistant secretary of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission in 1979, he continued to run Seva Pratishthan till 1985, and then shifted to Belur Math to devote more time to the growing administrative work. In 1989 he was made the general secretary, a post he ably held for three years. In 1992., Maharaj was elected a vice president and was appointed the head of the Ramakrishna Math, Yogodyan, in Kankurgacchi, Kolkata. His worldwide spiritual ministry commenced, and he began initiating people into spiritual life.
Swami Gahanananda looked for sincerity and faith in Sri Ramakrishna as the main qualifications for disciples desiring Diksha, spiritual initiation. He was equally comfortable visiting and initiating simple villagers living in rural areas, where modern living facilities were unavailable, as he was ministering to cosmopolitan people living in modern cities. His calm demeanour, loving attention, and competent handling of spiritual, psychological, social, and even mundane matters endeared his disciples and devotees to him. He encouraged many private centres and study-circle groups. He traveled extensively in India and abroad, pushing his body to extreme limits.
In May 2005, Swami Gahanananda was elected the fourteenth president of the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission. He continued his spiritual ministry with renewed vigour. Disciples, devotees, admirers, and friends flocked to him for succour and guidance, and he was ceaselessly engaged in meeting their demands. His mere proximity would infuse hope and strength in people, and those with persistent problems found their problems disappearing in his smiling presence.
Swami Gahanananda’s sturdy body was finally breaking down. Age was prevailing over his strong constitution and stronger willpower. He was admitted to Seva Pratishthan on 4 September 2007 for investigation and treatment for various old-age complications. Despite the best medical attention of prominent experts and the fervent prayers of thousands of disciples and devotees, his condition slowly deteriorated, until, on 4 November 2007, the spirit left the body to soar into the Infinite.