( 1919 - 2017 )
Birth and Early Life
Whenever one stood in front of Swami Atmasthananda ji for offering pranams, it seemed like his eyes are piercing through your very being and getting all the information about your past and future while you stood shyly not ready to reveal your inner thoughts. But he would instantly change that fear into joy by throwing toffees to you that you had to catch immediately. Thus, he merrily tested your presence of mind. He had only blessings showered through those toffees. Such was the personality of Swami Atmasthananda ji who would take control of your mind when in his presence. What struggles and hardships he would have gone through to build such a lofty character that stands like the Himalayas humbling everyone who came in front of him? That is the path we all seek to tread behind these great souls.
Swami Atmasthananda was born on the holy Buddha Purnima—the thrice-blessed day on which Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and entered nirvana. He hailed from Kshetripara of Dinajpur, now in Bangladesh. He was born in Sabajpur, his maternal house, near Dhaka in May 1919. His pre-monastic name was Satyakrishna. He passed the Entrance Examination from Dinajpur Zilla High School after which he studied IA in Guwahati Cotton College of Assam. During this time he would visit the Ramakrishna Ashrama at Dinajpur and got closely acquainted with Swami Gadadharananda, the head of the ashrama and a disciple of Swami Shivananda. Here Satyakrishna was attracted to the lives and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda under the loving guidance of Swami Gadadharananda. Their bonding was so full of love and trust that Gadadharananda instructed Satyakrishna—a boy belonging to Brahmin family with a tradition of worship at home—to perform regular puja and arati in the ashrama temple even before he had spiritual initiation.
After completing IA he took admission into the BA course in Scottish Church College and then he shifted to Presidency College, Kolkata. He was staying at that time as a student of Ramakrishna Mission Calcutta Students’ Home at Dum Dum, now in Belgharia. While studying there, he was inspired by the personality of Swami Nirvedananda, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda and the founder of the Students’ Home, who emphasised brahmacharya and God-oriented life, especially for students. After graduating with honours in philosophy, he took admission into the MA course in philosophy at the Calcutta University.
Student life is a time for receiving life-long inspiration and strength-giving ideas. During this period if one meets a pure and inspiring spiritual personality, then one’s spiritual aspirations take an upward turn and one is instantly attracted to lead a pure and holy life like an iron filing getting attracted to a powerful magnet. Similar things happened with Satyakrishna who met a number of stalwart monks of the Ramakrishna Order during this formative period of his life. Swami Achalananda, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda and the erstwhile Vice-President, was one among them who persuaded him to join the Order without completing the final MA examination. Swami Atmasthananda would fondly remember how once this disciple of Swamiji scolded him for delaying his decision to renounce the world.
Beginning of Monastic Life
When he was a college student, he received mantra Diksha, spiritual initiation, from Swami Vijnanananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, in 1938 at Belur Math. Till Swami Atmasthananda was keeping well, he would joyously narrate on every Buddha Purnima day the details of his initiation by Swami Vijnanananda to the sadhus and devotees present there. He reminisced: ‘As he was giving us the mantra and reciting God’s name, it appeared as if he was intoxicated. The atmosphere was indescribable.’ Among the other direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, he also met Swami Akhandananda in his boyhood days in Dinajpur and Swami Abhedananda at Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, Kolkata, in his student life.
At the age of 22 years, Satyakrishna joined the Ramakrishna Order at Belur Math on 3 January 1941. After joining, he was sent to Deoghar Vidyapith and then he was transferred to Mayavati Advaita Ashrama. At Mayavati, he worked as the assistant to the Editor of the English journal Prabuddha Bharata. His wonderful reminiscences about life at Mayavati were published in the March 1999 issue of the journal. He cherished special love and admiration for Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, throughout his life and extolled its spiritual significance.
He also got the opportunity to serve Swami Virajananda, the erstwhile President of the Order, for a long time, a rare privilege! Thus he spent his life in the holy company of Swami Virajananda in the solitude of Shyamla Tal for many years. In 1945 Swami Virajananda initiated him into brahmacharya vows and gave the name Shantichaitanya, and in 1949 initiated him into sannyasa vows and gave the name Swami Atmasthananda. After sannyasa, he took leave for a few months and performed spiritual practices in a lonely place. When Swami Virajananda entered into Mahasamadhi in 1951, he again got leave and spent his time in Japa and meditation, and also studied Vedantic scriptures under Swami Jagadananda, a scholar and disciple of the Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, at Kishanpur Ashrama. After the end of the leave, he was posted to Ranchi TB Sanatorium as an Assistant Secretary and worked hard to expand its service in many ways. He was sent to Rangoon Sevashrama in Burma, now Myanmar, as the secretary in 1958 and he developed it into a modern hospital, which was the best in Burma at that time. When military rulers took over Rangoon Sevashrama, he returned to India in 1965 and went for a pilgrimage to South India. He was posted to Rajkot as the head in 1966. He learned Gujarati language and spread the message of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother, and Swami Vivekananda in the whole of Gujarat and influenced the intellectuals, descendants of the local kings, and common people. He took the initiative to build the beautiful temple of Sri Ramakrishna in Rajkot. Even after many years of leaving Gujarat, he was heard speaking fluent Gujarati with the people visiting him from there. During natural calamities in Gujarat, he had conducted various relief works and other service activities in the rural areas. So, even rural folks remembered him endearingly and felt he is one of their own. In every aspect of his life, he reflected the quality of a true monk of the Ramakrishna Order, who has harmonised in his life all the four yogas, while setting himself up completely as an aspirant after liberation as well as the good of humanity. He once pointed out: ‘Uplift of the poor masses, work as worship, dissemination of both spiritual knowledge and secular knowledge, organisational integrity and efficiency—these are some of the main ideals that Swami Vivekananda set for the Ramakrishna Mission.’
At the Helm of the Sangha
He was elected a trustee of the Ramakrishna Math and a member of the Governing Body of the Ramakrishna Mission in 1973. In 1975, he was appointed as an Assistant Secretary of the twin organisations. He also became the Secretary of relief operations of the Math and Mission. Under the stewardship of Swami Atmasthananda, the Math and Mission conducted massive relief and rehabilitation services in various parts of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. There were occasions when he had to risk his life while participating in relief operations.
He was the key person to organise the Pallimangal activities in Kamarpukur and Jayrambati. At the instance of Swami Vireshwarananda, the tenth President of the Order, he started surveying and planning the work of Pallimangal. Those who witnessed his devoted labour for realising Swamiji’s dream of upliftment of the poor in the form of Pallimangal and other such activities are inspired by the amount of dedication he exemplified in his own life. In spite of knowing well the difficulties in doing something for the underprivileged people, he was the impetus behind tribal welfare activities at Narainpur of Bastar district of Chhattisgarh and Youth Training Centre, Samaj Sevak Sikshana Mandir at Saradapitha, Belur. He was also involved in the building of the TB Sanatorium in Ranchi. All the time he emphasised Swamiji’s teachings of ‘Serving God in Man’. He believed and preached that great spiritual glory can be attained by practising this teaching. He was particularly interested in serving the womenfolk seeing them as the manifestations of the Divine Mother.
He had a great concern and respect for senior and elderly monks. He took the initiative to build Arogya Bhavan at Belur Math and the Old Age Homes at Barisha in Kolkata, Varanasi, and Ulsoor, now Halasuru, in Bengaluru. He boldly took appropriate steps to restore Swami Vivekananda’s Ancestral House in Kolkata, which was entangled in property disputes and illegal encroachments. He had the virtuoso to collect money for various projects of the Math and Mission and also helped to complete the projects of many branch centres of the Order.
He became the General Secretary of the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission in 1992 and continued to be in that post for five years till 1997 when he became a Vice-President of the Order. On 3 December 2007, after the passing away of the then President Swami Gahanananda, Swami Atmasthananda was elected the President of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. He was the 15th President of the Order.
As a Vice-President of the Math and Mission, Swami Atmasthananda travelled extensively to various parts of the country and visited many Branch centres of the Order and some unaffiliated centres.
In 1998, he visited the centres of USA, Canada, Japan, and Singapore. He also went to Malaysia, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Bangladesh at different times. In all these places, he spread the message of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda and also gave mantra diksha to thousands of spiritual seekers. He used to easily influence whosoever came in contact with him.
Though living an intensively busy life, he never skipped his regular practice of japa and meditation. His daily routine was strictly disciplined. Even in his nineties, he would be seen sitting in the padmasana, lotus seating posture, for hours.
Swami Atmasthananda entered Mahasamadhi on 18 June 2017 at about 5.30 p.m. at Ramakrishna Mission Seva Pratishthan hospital, Kolkata. He was 98.