Evergreen Reminiscences of a Mahapurusha

To record my reminiscences about His Holiness Swami Ranganathananda is like undertaking a pilgrimage through the sacred shrines of the Himalayan Mountains. I am privileged to be allowed to go on this pilgrimage.

The word pilgrimage occurred to me while thinking about the Swami, because of a special reason. The title he has given to his two-volume publication about the Memoirs of his travel across the globe is A Pilgrim Looks at the World. The Swami, who was the accredited but unofficial cultural ambassador of India, considered himself a pilgrim of the world. Wherever he went, stayed or spoke was some thing sacred to him. It was an act of worship. What a wonderful expression of the highest principles of Vedanta of which he was probably the best exponent, next only to Swami Vivekananda!

I had the rare privilege of coming into contact with Swami Ranganathananda on innumerable occasions, difficult to count, but impossible to forget! Every time I heard him or met him or exchanged ideas with him or sought his guidance, the experience was indelibly imprinted on my mind, despite the passage of time. Such was his wonderful personality and the intimacy of relationship which he established even within seconds!

The Swami, as an orator and authentic spokesperson for the Vedanta philosophy and Indian culture, is acknowledged by one and all. People thronged to hear him, especially elite English-educated intelligentsia. The impression he created effortlessly on his audience was profound. He would walk into the assembly and take his seat gracefully with pranam. He was tall with his back absolutely straight and face adorned with a serene, courteous smile. His upright, unbending posture proclaimed that Vedanta needs no apology; it is the tallest philosophy and rightfully unbending. He was the very embodiment of the greatness of the philosophy he preached.

Auditorium used to be full and overcrowded even before the Swami reached there. Only a few, very bold organizers used to organize lectures in the 3000-seat FICCI auditorium of Delhi, because the chance of filling half the seats were rare. But, whenever Swami Ranganathananda used to visit Delhi, there used to be at least one lecture in that spacious Hall. I have experienced more than once that it always used to overflow with the elite of Delhi, much before the scheduled time.

The Swami’s lectures always were remarkable. People would always expect the best and he never disappointed them even once. It was amazing how he kept his audience spellbound without artificial gesticulations or low-level criti cism or cheap humour or ever hitting anybody below the belt. He always maintained a high decorum. His language was simple and went straight to the heart. It had an unruffled, melodious ring. He spoke about the highest principles of Vedanta but his style and expressions were never too lofty for the average member of the audience. Quotations from the Upanishads and other scriptures flowed from him along with the meanings rendered in straight and simple English. What was really astounding was his ability to remember lengthy quotations from great authors of the East and West without the least halt or hesitation. After the lecture, as the Swami came down from the podium, it was usual to see people surrounding him to touch his feet, to catch a glimpse, to hear a word from him. He never distanced himself from his audience. Not only that, he would exchange words of courtesy, enquire about the health or other relevant details which revealed his genuine personal concern for the well-being of one and all. He never forgot names and persons, even details of their family members. The personal warmth that exuded from the impersonal personality of the Swami conveyed the message that Vedanta, though absolutely impersonal, has enough room for warm inter-personal relationship as well. Vedanta is as much a religion of the heart as it is of the head.

Even in the midst of his hectic schedule, I never found Swami Ranganathananda inaccessible. Even acute health problems could not prevent him from meeting sincere devotees. I had met him many times in my capacity as RSS pracharak, Director of the Deendayal Research Institute, Director of the Bharatiya Vich ara Kendra, and President of the Vivekananda Kendra. I have met him in all these capacities to invite him to various programmes and he always found time to attend such functions. I vividly remember that while I was in Delhi as Director of the Deendayal Research Institute, I invited him to address a gathering at the prestigious Sapru House over which the Prime Minister, Sri Morarji Desai presided. Morarji spoke at length about abstract philosophy followed by the Swami whose address was mainly regarding the need and the approach for the socio-economic development which the country at that time required. His lecture was of course, geared towards the Vedantic perspective. It must have been a highly instructive eye opener for the Prime Minister of India. The Swami’s resourcefulness was quite evident in his speech as also his intimate understanding of the country’s socio-economic problems.

Even during the days of his failing health, the warmth of his relationship and the commitment to the cause were the same as when he was in the pink of his health. Once he was convalescing at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Gol Park after a prolonged treatment. Myself and Sri Balakrishnanji, General Secretary of the Vivekananda Kendra went to meet him. Lying down on bed he beckoned us to sit. After preliminary exchange of courtesy, I conveyed to him the purpose of my visit. I wanted a message from him to be read out in the “Gita International”, a big international seminar scheduled to be held in Thiruvananthapuram. In that condition of his health, I would have been more than happy if he had agreed to send a message at the appropriate time. But, no! Then and there, the Swami called his personal assistant, dictated a beautiful message, got it typed, made some corrections and got the final copy delivered to us in hand. We were dumbfounded and our eyes filled with tears as we touched his feet and took leave.

Swami Ranganathananda was a born leader. Like every great leader, he was always on the look out for talent and used to encourage it, wherever found. Thus he brought out and developed positive qualities in all those who came into his contact. For social workers who had devoted their life to a great cause, he had a special affection and great concern. He used to give encouragement in words as well as in deeds to those householders even who had unselfish character and service mentality. He would even arrange financial help for causes which deserved it, in his own characteristic way.

I have been a privileged recipient of his patronage on certain occasions. Once I had written a small monograph which was a critical and comparative evaluation of the various ideologies such as communism, socialism, etc. I had tried to show how the relevance of these ideologies was circumscribed by time and place. On the other hand, I had tried to show that Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma was relevant to all times.

Swami Shakrananda, the then head of the Thrissur Math, took a fancy to the book and decided to publish it. Without my knowledge, he sent it to Swami Ranganathananda for perusal. The Swami was at that time in Chennai. He was to come to Cochin by air. On the flight itself, he went through the monograph carefully, made some corrections here and there, which, of course, added beauty and substance to the text and to cap it all, wrote a brief and beautiful foreword to the booklet. To my great surprise and satisfaction he had also given a most befitting title to the book, Beyond all isms to Humanism . I still marvel at how generous and large-hearted was the Swami, who could give such care and encouragement to an ordinary worker like me!

Swami Ranganathananda was a universalist, like ev ery true Vedantin. But, that never detracted him from his special love and concern for Hindu Dharma. He was constantly aware of the challenges Hindu Dharma faced from proselytizing religions. I had a personal experience. The Swami had come to Sri Ramakrishna Sevashram at Cochin for an important function. As usual, I went and prostrated myself before him. After the function when it was time to depart, he called me to his side and told me to meet him at the place where we were closeted for minutes. Without any introduction, the Swami went straight into the question of rampant conversion going on in Kerala. In all seriousness he told me that everything needed to be done to see that Hindus did not defect to other religions, leaving their svadharma whatever be the reason. He suggested service activities among the poor and the downtrodden, the most vulnerable section among the Hindus. He never wanted publicity or fanfare for it because he said it would be counter productive and could invite unnecessary reaction. But I could understand how concerned he was about the Hindu society.

One thing I greatly admired about the Swami – a quality which had been experienced by all those who had the opportunity to come into contact with him even once – was that he was always positive. There was not the least shadow of negativism in him. I am reminded of Rabindranath Tagore’s remark about Swami Vivekananda . Tagore said, " In him everything is positive. There is nothing negative" . Similarly, there was always an aura of positive flavour around Swami Ranganathananda which always attracted people.

My last meeting with him was at Belur Math. The Swami was too sick to sit or talk. But everyday, a short time was set apart for darshan. We took the chance. The attendant swami tried to discourage us, but finally let us in with a stern warning not to take more time than to offer a simple pranam . We went in. The Swami recognized us, bade us to sit down and went on talking for more than fifteen minutes laving the attendant swami naturally fretting and fuming. It was a lesson that God’s compassion for devotees is unconditional.

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