( 1864 - 1937 )
Birth and Early Life
Gangadhar Gangopadhyay, the name by which Swami Akhandananda was known in his pre-monastic life, was born on 30 September 1864, in the Ahiritola area of western Calcutta. His father Srimanta Gangopadhyay, was a priest and a Sanskrit teacher. Gangadhar’s Mother, Vamasundari, was a devout woman.
From his childhood, Gangadhar was so compassionate that he once gave his own shirt to a poor classmate whose shirt was torn. He was fascinated by the mendicants and by their stories about the holy places of India. Gangadhar was very orthodox in his early days and scrupulously observed all the brahminical customs in accordance with the scriptural injunctions.
In the company of Sri Ramakrishna
Gangadhar and his friend Harinath saw Sri Ramakrishna, in 1877 at Dinanath Basu’s house. Seeing the Master in samadhi, Gangadhar’s spiritual longing increased. Sometimes he would go to the cremation ground and imbibe the mood of renunciation by observing the impermanence of human life.
In May 1883, Gangadhar visited Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineshwar. The Master received Gangadhar cordially and made him sit on a small cot. He then asked, “Have I seen you before?” Gangadhar responded in the affirmative that he saw him at Dinanath Basu’s house.
As a Wandering Monk
On Christmas Eve, 1886, Gangadhar went with other disciples to Antpur and took vows of renunciation.
In Feb 1887, Swami Akhandananda took the ochre cloth that the Master had given him and left the monastery without telling anyone. His first stop was at Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained Nirvana. Near the Brahmayoni Hill of Gaya, he met the famous yogi Gambhiranath of the Natha sect. While in Varanasi he met the great saint Trailinga Swami. He then went to see Swami Bhaskarnanada with Pramadadas Mittra. Bhaskarnanda was a great Sanskrit Scholar and he expressed his willingness to teach the Vedas to Gangadhar. The young man replied, ” The power of sight which I would use for attaining knowledge by reading books, please turn it inward, so that I can experience the Atman.” Bhaskarananda marvelled at him and remarked, “I see you are a Yogi.”
It is thrilling to read Gangadhar’s entire travel account, which he recorded in his book Smriti-Katha( From Holy Wanderings to The Service of God in Man). He travelled hundreds of miles in the dangerous mountains of the Himalayas without carrying any money or extra clothing, depending only on God.
In June 1890, Gangadhar returned to the Baranagar Monastery. Vivekananda and the other brother disciples were extremely happy to have him back and to hear of his adventurous travel.
Swami Vivekananda now wanted to practice austerities in the Himalayas, so in mid-July he left the monastery, taking Akhandananda as his companion. Before their departure, they went to Holy Mother for her blessing. She blessed them and told Akhandananda: “My son, you know the way of life in the mountains. Please take care of Naren, so that he may not suffer from lack of food.”
Visiting important places en route they reached Almora, where they joined Swami Saradananda and Vaikunthanath Sanyal. But the illness of the one or the other prevented their proceeding further, and they returned after some weeks, via Tehri, to Dehradun, whence Swami Akhandananda went to Meerut for treatment. Soon after, he was joined by Swami Vivekananda, other brother-disciples.
After spending five delightful months of association with his brothers, Swami Vivekananda, impelled by an inner urge to remain alone, left them to take a tour of the country as a wandering monk. Swami Akhandananda was unable to bear this separation and followed him from one province to the other. But at every place he visited, he got the disconcerting news that Swami Vivekananda had left a few days ago. He persisted in his search with unflagging resolve until he discovered Swami Vivekananda at Mandvi.
Akhandananda went to Khetri, where he became the guest of Raja Ajit Singh. Akhandananda lived in Rajasthan for 8 months. He observed the pitiful condition of the masses as well as the luxury of a handful of rulers and rich landlords. His heart melted for the downtrodden, and he drew his concerns to the local rulers’ attention, asking them to ameliorate the poor conditions of the masses.
The Swami happened to visit Udaipur, where he was much pained to see the condition of the Bhils, the aboriginal inhabitants of the place, and with the help of a friend had them sumptuously fed one day. He also took great pains to start a Middle English School at Nathadwara and founded at Alwar and other places of Rajputana a number of Societies, which regularly discussed useful social, religious and educational topics. Finally, he left Rajputana and returned to the monastery, then at Alambazar, early in 1896.
This was his first contact with famine. The further he proceeded, the more frightful spectacles he met, till at Mahula he cried halt. He resolved not to move from the place until he had relieved the famine-stricken people and wrote to the Alumbazar Math asking for help. Swami Vivekananda, who had returned to India about three months ago after his four years’ epoch making work in the West, was staying there at the time. He despatched two of his monks with some money to the scene, and on the 15th May 1897, the first famine relief work of the Ramakrisha Mission was inaugurated with Mahula and Panchgaon as centres, which lasted for about a year. In the course of it, Swami Akhandananda had to take charge of two orphans, and the idea of founding an orphanage first entered into his brain. With encouragement from the district officers, the Swami, after taking temporary care of several orphans, founded in May 1898, at Mahula, the orphanage entitled the Ramakrishna Ashrama, which was removed shortly after to a rented house at Sargachhi. After continuing there for thirteen years, the Ashrama has been occupying its premises in the same village since March 1918.
From its foundation right up to the last day of his life, the Swami bestowed his best attention on the improvement of the institution, which has saved a good number of orphan boys from starvation, illiteracy and degradation. Many of these have been put in a position to earn an honest living. Under the Swami’s supervision, the Ashrama has all these years been continuing a day and a night school for the village boys and adults and an outdoor dispensary, which has of late developed considerably and treats thousands of sick people every year, the daily average of attendance being no less than 45. From 1900 to 1910 the Ashrama ran a full-fledged industrial school, teaching weaving, sewing and carpentry, as also sericulture for part of the period, which was the pride of the locality. The handicrafts turned out by its boys won first prizes for several successive years at the Banjetia Industrial Exhibition organized by Maharaja Manindra Chandra Nandi of Cossimbazar, who, by the way, was a staunch patron of the institution. Unfortunately, for want of accommodation the school had to be discontinued and has never been revived since.
The Swami not only attended to the general education of the Ashrama boys but also paid due regard to their spiritual training, the chanting of prayers morning and evening being compulsory for them. Select passages from the sacred books like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were read and explained to them. Orphans were admitted into the Ashrama without any distinction of caste or creed. Thus a few Mahomedan boys also were maintained at the Ashrama for several years and trained so that they might develop faith in their own religion.
The training given at the Ashrama had enough scope for the culture of the heart as well. Through example as well as precept Swami Akhandananda encouraged his boys to noble acts of service whenever there was an outbreak of pestilence or any other calamity in the neighbouring villages. Thus hundreds of cholera patients were nursed by them and saved from untimely death, while prophylactic measures were adopted in many villages with satisfactory results.
Even after the opening of the orphan age, Swami Akhandananda could not help bringing succour to the distressed in distant places. During the heavy flood at Ghogha, in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar, he forthwith started a relief work in which fifty villages were helped _ for ten weeks, and himself nursed a large number of cholera patients on the occasion. Again, during the terrible earthquake in Bihar in 1984, he, old as he was, personally inspected the scene of ravages at Monghyr and Bhagalpur, and gave impetus to the Mission’s relief work in those areas. These are only a few of the hundreds of instances of his over flowing sympathy for the poor and helpless. His whole life was full of such disinterested acts. To him, all human beings in distress were veritable divinities, and he found intense joy in serving them to the· best of his might. In this, he literally carried out Swami Vivekananda’s behest:
The poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted-let these be your God. Know that the service of these alone is the highest religion.
At the Helm of the Sangha
Space does not permit us to do even a semblance of justice to this large hearted great soul. He loved to work silently and unobserved among the dumb masses, and this is why, in spite of his indifferent health, he stuck to the village work at Sargachhi.
Swami Akhandananda was made the Vice-President of the Ramakrishna Mission in 1925, and President in March 1934, on the passing away of Swami Shivananda. The duties of the latter post required his presence at the Belur Math, but he preferred the solitude of Sargachhi, and was quite happy with his orphan boys, supervising the agricultural work and taking care of his valuable collection of trees and plants in the orchard. Routine-work was distasteful to him. Throughout his life, however, he was a lover of books and gathered a great store of knowledge on diverse subjects. He had a prodigious memory, which, coupled with his strong power of observation sense, made him a first-rate story-teller. His adventurous life of a penniless itinerant monk, throughout northern and western India, particularly his experiences in Tibet, furnished him with inexhaustible materials for this, and he would keep his audience spell bound with narrations of the privations and dangers he had gone through, and the rare experiences he had gained in exchange for them. He was an authority on Tibet, having visited that little known country long before the late Rai Bahadur Saratchandra Das, and he had great opportunities of studying the people at close quarters on account of his knowledge of the language.
Swami Akhandananda had a special aptitude for learning languages. While in Rajputana, he mastered the intricacies of Hindi Grammar in four short days. He knew Sanskrit as well as English, and his particular interest was in the Vedas. Not only could he recite and explain choice passages from the Samhitas, but at one time he was keen about founding institutions in Bengal for the study and propagation of Vedic culture, visiting scholars and persons of distinction for this purpose. He was a forceful writer in his mother tongue and occasionally contributed serial articles to magazines, such as the unfinished “Three Years in Tibet” in the Udbodhan, the Bengali organ of the Ramakrishna Order, and his Reminiscences in the monthly Vasumati, left, alas, incomplete by his sudden passing away. Sometimes also he diverted himself by writing under a pseudonym in the daily Vasumati. He was an extempore speaker too, though he was extremely reluctant to appear before the public in that role. His impromptu speech at the memorial meeting in honour of Nafar Chandra Kundu, who gave his life to save two sweeper boys from a man-hole in Calcutta, was much appreciated.
Since his assumption of the Presidential office, Swami Akhandananda was called upon to initiate disciples. Though he showed reluctance at first, perhaps out of humility, he soon overcame the scruple, and during the last three years blessed a good many earnest seekers of both sexes. He insisted on their observing a high standard of purity and moral excellence in their everyday life.
About a year ago he had a premonition of the approaching end and told some of his disciples about it. With this in view, he arranged the recital of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in his presence. Quite recently he expressed his desire of celebrating the Vasanti Puja, the vernal worship of the Divine Mother Durga, at the Ashrams. But knowing that both his predecessors had had that desire and passed away without seeing the ceremony performed, he had misgivings about his case too and expressed himself to that effect. He had a shed raised for this purpose and said to the Ashrama workers, “If I do not live to see the worship, at least I have the satisfaction of raising this Mandapa for the Mother. You will do the rest.” Like the independent man that he was, he often pooh-poohed the idea of suffering long in death-bed. Chafing under the infirmities of old age, and the loving services of his attendants that he had to accept through sheer necessity, he would occasionally declare that he sometimes had a mind to break away from these ties and wander alone, away from the haunts of men. He loved Sargachhi dearly, and never liked to be away from it for long if he could help it. But it was a cherished desire of his to give up the body not there, but at the Belur Math, the place that was sanctified with thousand and one memories of his beloved brother-disciples, from the great Swami Vivekananda downwards. This wish of his was providentially fulfilled.
A month before his passing away, Swami Akhandananda wrote to Mayavati asking for the wording of a Sanskrit couplet that had appeared in the April number of the Prabuddha Bharata in 1927, in an article entitled “Neo-Hinduism.” it ran as follows:
न त्वहं कामयेराज्यं न स्वर्गं नाऽपुनर्भवम् |
कामये दुःखतप्तानां प्रणिनामार्तिनाशनम् ||
I do not covet earthly kingdom, or heaven, or even salvation.
The only thing I desire is the removal of the miseries of the afflicted.
The idea expressed in the couplet was so much after the Swami’s heart that even after the lapse of ten years, on the eve of his departure from this world he wanted to know its precise reading. Could there be more touching evidence of his burning love and sympathy for the suffering and the miserable?
Swami Akhandananda entered Mahasamadhi at the age of 71. The melancholy event took place at the Belur Math on 7 February 1937 at 8-7 P.M. The Swami had been suffering from diabetes and other ailments incident to old age, but there was nothing to show that the catastrophe was so imminent. Immediately on receipt of the news from Sargachhi (Dt. Murshidabad) that he was seriously ill, he was removed to Calcutta for treatment, attended by doctors. A coma set in during the journey, and despite the best efforts of the attending physicians, the condition of the Swami rapidly declined, and the very next afternoon he entered into Mahasamadhi. After the last homage was offered by the monks and devotees, numbering about four hundred, the body was cremated with appropriate ceremonies on the Math grounds the same night.