Swami Vivekananda, known in his pre-monastic life as Narendra Nath Datta, was born in an affluent family in Kolkata on 12 January 1863. His father, Vishwanath Datta, was a successful attorney with interests in a wide range of subjects, and his mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi, was endowed with deep devotion, strong character and other qualities. A precocious boy, Narendra excelled in music, gymnastics and studies. By the time he graduated from Calcutta University, he had acquired a vast knowledge of different subjects, especially Western philosophy and history. Born with a yogic temperament, he used to practise meditation even from his boyhood, and was associated with Brahmo Movement for some time.
With Sri Ramakrishna:
At the threshold of youth Narendra had to pass through a period of spiritual crisis when he was assailed by doubts about the existence of God. It was at that time he first heard about Sri Ramakrishna from one of his English professors at college. One day in November 1881, Narendra went to meet Sri Ramakrishna who was staying at the Kali Temple in Dakshineshwar. He straightaway asked the Master a question which he had put to several others but had received no satisfactory answer: "Sir, have you seen God?" Without a moment's hesitation, Sri Ramakrishna replied: "Yes, I have. I see Him as clearly as I see you, only in a much intenser sense." Apart from removing doubts from the mind of Narendra, Sri Ramakrishna won him over through his pure, unselfish love. Thus began a guru-disciple relationship which is quite unique in the history of spiritual masters. Narendra now became a frequent visitor to Dakshineshwar and, under the guidance of the Master, made rapid strides on the spiritual path. At Dakshineshwar, Narendra also met several young men who were devoted to Sri Ramakrishna, and they all became close friends.
Swami Brahmananda , whose original name was Rakhal Chandra Ghosh, was son of a zemindar in the Basirhat area. He was born on 21 January 1863 at Sikra Kulingram, 36 miles to the N.W. of Kolkata. Rakhal was devoted to God and used to practice meditation even in boyhood. At the age of 12 he was brought to Kolkata for his studies. There while studying at the Metropolitan Institution at Kolkata, he met Narendranath Dutta (later known as Swami Vivekananda) in a gymnasium. He was influenced by Narendranath to join the Brahmo Samaj. According to the practice common in those days, he was married at the age of 18 to Vishweshwari. Soon after marriage, his brother-in-law, Manmohan Mitra, who was a close devotee of Sri Ramakrishna, took Rakhal to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Prior to that the Master had had a vision in which he saw the Divine Mother showing him a child who would be his son. As soon as Rakhal came to Dakshineswar, Sri Ramakrishna recognized him to be that child, and treated him like a son. After a few visits Rakhal came to Dakshineswar to live permanently with Sri Ramakrishna. Under the Master’s guidance, he practiced intense spiritual disciplines, and attained high levels of spiritual illumination. After the Master’s death in 1886 when the new Monastic brotherhood was formed at Baranagar, Rakhal joined it. He underwent sannyasa ordination and assumed the name Brahmananda. Two years later he left Baranagar Math and was a wandering monk for some time, living an intensely contemplative life at Varanasi, Omkarnath, Vrindaban, Hardwar and other places. During this period he is said to have scaled the highest peak of non-dualistic experience and used to remain absorbed in Samadhi for days together. In 1890 he returned to the Math. When Swami Vivekananda, after his return to India in 1897, wanted to give a new turn to monastic life, Swami Brahmananda whole-heartedly supported him. There was deep love between these two monastic brothers.
When Ramakrishna Mission was formed as an Association on 1 May 1897, at Baghbazar in Calcutta (now Kolkata) Swami Vivekananda was elected its General President and Swami Brahmananda was elected the first and only ever Calcutta President. After establishing Belur Math monastery when Swami Vivekananda got Ramakrishna Math registered as a Trust, Swami Brahmananda became its President. He held this post till the end of his life.
During his tenure as President, the Ramakrishna Order underwent great expansion, and several new branch centres were opened in India and abroad. The Ramakrishna Mission, which had been founded by Swami Vivekananda as an Association, was revived and registered during his time. His stress on contemplative life served to counterbalance the activities undertaken by the monks. During those difficult formative years he gave great stability to the Sangha. For his kingly qualities of administration, Swami Vivekananda gave him the appellation ‘Raja’, and since then he was respectfully referred to as ‘Raja Maharaj’ by all. He was one of the six disciples of Sri Ramakrishna whom the Master regarded as ishvarakotis.
He spent a good portion of his lifetime at Puri and Bhubaneswar. He was main instrument responsible for setting up of Ramakrishna Ashramas at Puri and Bhubaneswar.
He gave up his body, after a brief illness, on 10 April 1922. At the place where his body was cremated in Belur Math, a temple now stands in his memory.
Swami Yogananda, whose original name was Jogindranath Chowdhury, belonged to an aristocratic family that had declined. His father was a devout Brahmin and he was devoted to religious affairs from a young age. Popular as Jogin, he came in touch with Paramahamsadev when still at school but his family did not approve of his touch with Paramahamsadev and forced him into marriage. He joined Paramahamsadev subsequently. He had a critical mind and often criticised Swami Vivekananda’s actions. He remained with Saradama till his death.
Swami Premananda, whose original name was Baburam Ghosh, was born at Antpur in Hughli district. His sister was married to Balaram Bose, one of the persons in close touch with Ramkrishna Paramahamsadev. He studied under Mahendranath Gupta at the Metropolitan Institution, Kolkata. Mahendranath Gupta, was closely associated with Ramkrishna Paramahamsadev and later became famous for his Ramakrishna Kathamrita. Rakhal Chandra Ghosh (later Swami Brahmananda) took him to Paramahamsadev in 1882. Swami Vivekananda and eight other disciples met in the house where he was born and took of serving the cause of their master as sannyasis. He virtually presided over the Ramkrishna Math (monastery) at Belur from 1902 to 1916. He devotedly looked after the young monks and novices in his charge.
Swami Niranjanananda, whose original name was Nitya Niranjan Ghosh, had clairvoyant powers. When he came in touch with Paramahamsadev at the age of eighteen, he told him, “If you let your mind dwell on ghosts, you'll become a ghost yourself. If you fix your mind on God your life will be filled with God.” That brought about a change in his thinking and he joined Paramahamsadev. He was devoted to both Paramahamsadev and Saradama. He died of cholera.
Swami Shivananda whose original name was Tarak Nath Ghosal was born in an orthodox Brahmin family. His father, Ramkanai Ghosal, had been a legal adviser of Rani Rashmoni and had met Paramahamsadev a number of times. He was a member of the Brahmo Samaj, and met Paramahamsadev in 1880. After Paramahamsadev’s death, he became a wandering monk. He spent some time preaching Vedanta in Sri Lanka. In 1902, he opened a monastery at Varanasi and initiated work for monastery at Almora. Second president of the Ramakrishna Mission from 1922 to 1934, he was also known as Mahapurush Maharaj.
Swami Saradananda, whose original name was Sarat Chandra Chakravarty, first came in touch with Paramahamsadev with his cousin Sashi Bhusan and others when he was 18 years old. He had joined Calcutta Medical College to study medicine but gave it up to serve Paramahamsadev when he was ill. When Swami Vivekananda advised him to take up work in the West, he met him in London in 1896 and then sailed for New York. There he remained head of the Vedanta Society until his return to India in 1898. Back in the country, he was engaged in different types of work and later became the first Secretary of Ramakrishna Math and Mission. He directed the magazine named Udbodhan (Awakening) founded by Swami Vivekananda. He decided to build a house at Bagbazar that would serve both as an office for Udbodhan and a residence for Saradama. He was the author of Sri Sri Ramakrishna Lila Prasanga.
Swami Ramakrishnananda, whose original name was Sashi Bhusan Chakravarty, was born in an orthodox Brahmin family. He was initiated early in life into a devotional life. He had joined the Brahmo Samaj and served for sometime as private tutor of Keshub Chunder Sen’s children. He met Paramahamsadev in 1883 and was immediately attracted towards him. Considered a great devotee of Paramahamsadev, he collected his relics after his death and made a shrine of them. Sent by Swami Vivekananda, he founded the Ramakrishna Mission at Chennai (then known as Madras) in 1897 and remained in charge of it till his death.
Swami Abhedananda, whose original name was Kali Prasad Chandra, was a scholar in Sanskrit and had studied western philosophy. He was initially attracted towards Christianity but turned towards Hinduism after listening to the lectures of Brahmo leaders. Having become fascinated by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, he was eager to find someone who could teach him to follow the methods of meditation they prescribe. On the advice of a friend, he went to Dakshineswar and learnt the practice of yoga from Paramahamsadev. In 1896, Swami Vivekananda wanted him in England. He went and from there on to New York after a year and took charge of the Vedanta Society there. He stayed in America until 1921 teaching and lecturing. On return to Kolkata, he founded his own Sri Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in 1923 and Sri Ramakrishna Vedanta Ashram at Darjeeling in 1924. He was author of several books: Gospel of Ramakrishna, Reincarnation, How to be a Yogi, India and her People, Atmabikash, Vedantabani, Hindu Dharme Narir Sthan. He edited a monthly magazine Viswabani for nine years.
Swami Adbhutananda was a very simple person and was absolutely devoted to his master. His earlier name Rakhturam was shortened to Latu. He was born of humble parents in a village in the district of Chhapra in Bihar. “Latu is the greatest miracle of Sri Ramakrishna,” Swamiji once said, “Having absolutely no education, he has attained to the highest wisdom simply at the touch of the Master.” He was the first among the disciples to come to Paramahamsadev.
Swami Turiyananda, whose original name was Harinath Chattopadhyay, was born on 3 January 1863 at North Calcutta (Now Kolkata) in a well known family. Hari lost his parents in boyhood and grew up under the care of his eldest brother. After passing the school final examination he did not go to college. Instead, he devoted his time to meditation and the study of Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta.When he was about 17 years old he visited Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar for the first time in the ancestral home of Kalinath Bose in Baghbazar, and after that he started going to the Master frequently. The Master regarded him as a yogi. Hari was a member of the team of youngsters who served Sri Ramakrishna during his last illness at Cossipore. After the Master’s death, Hari joined Baranagar Math and underwent sannyasa ordination assuming the name Turiyananda. After three years he left the monastery and spent his time doing tapasya at different places, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of his brother monks. When Swami Vivekananda went to the West for the second time, he took Swami Turiyananda with him. When Swamiji went back to India, Turiyananda continued his work first in New York and Boston and later in California. However, his health deteriorated and he left America in June 1902. On his arrival in India, he was shocked to hear of the death of Swami Vivekananda. Turiyananda spent the next several years practicing intense contemplation in Vrindavan, in different places in the Himalayas, in Dehra Dun, Kankhal, Almora, etc. He finally settled down in Varanasi in February 1919. During the last few years he suffered much from diabetes. He died on 21 July 1922 at Varanasi. Moments before dying he repeated the Upanishadic mantra 'Satyam, Jnanam Anantham Brahma' meaning 'God is Truth, Wisdom and Infinity' along with his brother disciple Swami Akhandananda after which he was heard muttering in Bengali 'Brahma Satyam Jagad Satyam. Sab Satya. Satye Pran Pratishtitha' which means `God is Truth, the World is also Truth, Everything is Truth. Life is based on Truth'. This was radically different from the orthodox 'Brahma Satyam Jagad Mithya' meaning God is Truth and the World is false. These unorthodox last words, which were spoken impromptu has generally been taken as the vision seen by an illumined sage who sees God everywhere.
Swami Advaitananda was oldest of the Ramakrishna's disciples. His original name was Gopal Chandra Ghosh. He came to Ramakrishna at the age of 55 sometime in March or April 1884, for solace when his wife died. At this first meeting there seemed no connection between Ramakrishna and Gopal Ghosh. It was only after some persuasion by a friend that he paid a second visit. It was on this visit that Ramakrishna spoke to him about detachment. On the third visit Gopal recalled "The Master possessed me. I would think of him day and night. The pang of separation from the Master gave me chest pain. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't forget his face."
Ramakrishna accepted Gopal as his disciple and addressed him as "the elder Gopal" or "Overseer" because he was eight years older than Ramakrishna. The other disciples called him "Gopal-da" (da denotes elder brother). He soon became a close attendant of Ramakrishna and assistant of Holy Mother. Ramakrishna praised his management of household matters and his sweet behavior with people. Several years later it was Gopal that gave Ramakrishna the ochre cloth which Ramakrishna used to initiate several of his disciples (including Gopal) into monastic life. In September 1885, when Ramakrishna moved to Shyampukur in Calcutta for treatment of his cancer and then in December to Cossipore, Gopal moved with him to attend him, giving him the medicine, washing the cancerous sores and assisting Holy Mother.
After the death of Ramakrishna in 1886 Gopal took sannyasa vows and became Swami Advaitananda. He had no place to go and, due to the kindness of a devotee, Surendra, a place was rented for him and the other monks to stay or visit at Baranagore, in the Calcutta suburbs. He was the first to take up residence in what became the first math. He then lived with the other monks at the Baranagore Monastery but left in 1887 and went first to Varanasi then Kedarnath, Badrinath and Vrindaban. In 1890 he accompanied Holy Mother as she performed holy rites for ancestors at Gaya, and then he met up with Swami Vivekananda and six other monastic disciples in Meerut, staying together for a few weeks.
In 1887 Swami Advaitananda moved to Alambazar and then Nilambar Babu's garden house joining Swami Vivekananda and other monastic disciples in building and developing the newly purchased site at Belur on the banks of the Ganges. He took responsibility for closely supervising the workers in leveling and clearing the former dock site. He also started a vegetable garden and dairy farm, despite the fact that he was the eldest of the monks.
Swami Turiyananda once said,
"We are much indebted to Gopal-da, because we learned the secret of work from him. He was organized and concentrated on everything he did. And he was very methodical in his habits. Until his last day he regularly practiced meditation."
In 1901 he was made one of the trustees of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, later becoming the vice president. Even in his old age he declined any personal assistance, believing that monks should be self-reliant. He chanted the Gita daily and accompanied the other monks on tabla when they sang.
Swami Advaitananda died on 28 December 1909 at the age of 81, chanting the name of Shri Ramakrishna.
Swami Trigunatitananda, was born on 30 January 1865 at Naora, a village in 24-Parganas in West Bengal, India. His name prior to taking to monastic life (pre-monastic name) was Sarada Prasanna Mitra, He belonged to a rich land-owning family and studied under Mahendranath Gupta (popularly known as M.) at the Metropolitan Institution, Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). After Sarada passed the school final examination, M. one day took him to Sri Ramakrishna. Owing to his parents’ opposition Sarada could not visit the Master frequently. When the Baranagar Math was established, Sarada joined it and took his monastic vows assuming the name, Swami Trigunatitananda.
He spent a few years visiting the holy places and doing tapasya. He was physically strong and possessed raw courage. In 1896, at the command of Swami Vivekananda, he bought a press and started the monthly journal Udbodhan in a rented room. This is the first journal of the Ramakrishna Order and is the oldest surviving religious journal of its kind in India. After Swami Yogananda’s dying, he served the Holy Mother for three years. At the behest of Swami Vivekananda he went to America in 1902 in place of Swami Turiyananda who was returning to India, and took charge of the San Francisco centre. His saintly life, selfless love and unmistakable signs of spirituality attracted a good number of students many of whom became his disciples. He was noted as a strict disciplinarian.
One of his major successes in San Francisco was the construction of a new building for the centre. Incorporating certain unique architectural features, this building, known as ‘The first Hindu temple in the West’ was built under his supervision at San Francisco in 1906, still stands as a monument to the timeless truths of Vedanta and the immortal spirit of human being. One day when he was conducting a spiritual discourse, a former student of his who had become mentally unbalanced, threw a crude bomb at him, killing himself and seriously wounding Swami Trigunatitananda. The Swami remained calm and enquired about the student. He finally succumbed to the injuries on 10 January 1915.
Swami Subodhananda, whose original name was Subodh Chandra Ghosh, was also known as Khoka Maharaj. He belonged to the family of Shankar Ghosh, who owned the famous Kali Temple at Thanthania, in Kolkata and had tremendous power of meditation even in his younger days and that improved since he met Paramahamsadev in 1884.
Swami Akhandananda, whose original name was Gangadhar Ghatak, had met Paramahamsadev at Bosepara when he was just 13 years old. Later he introduced him to Swami Vivekananda. As a boy he performed strict spiritual disciplines, bathing four times a day in the Ganges, he cooked his own vegetarian food and practiced so much pranayama (breathing exercise) that his body perspired and shook. He also practiced kumbhaka (retaining the breath) by diving in the Ganges and holding a stone. When he was eight he had an abscess between his eyebrows, but ordered the doctor to cut it without anesthetic. His intelligence allowed him to memorize the English alphabet in one day, but he was not much interested in formal education. Later he memorized the Gita and Upanishads. Even as a child he was compassionate by nature and he gave his shirt to a school friend when his got ripped and frequently gave food to beggars secretively so his parents would not know.
At the age of twelve he was given the sacred thread and afterwards repeated the Gayatri Mantra three times per day, and often made a clay image of Lord Shiva and worship him. Gangadhar and his friend Harinath met Sri Ramakrishna at Dinanath Basu's house in Baghbazar in 1877. Ramakrishna was in Samadhi and this intensified his spiritual longing. It was at the same age he disappeared with a monk without telling his parents and only returned home to his anxious parents when the monk suggested he was too young.
He met Ramakrishna for the second time at age nineteen in May 1883 at Dakshineswar, staying overnight and returning and staying overnight a few days later again. After that he regularly visited, usually during the week to avoid crowds. Later he observed that Ramakrishna had said most of his habits - eating only food cooked by himself, vegetarianism, practicing austerities - were for old people. Why, he thought, shouldn't he give them up? But later Ramakrishna explained to some visitors that it was due to his habits in previous lives that he acted so, after which Gangadhar maintained his practices.
On one occasion a beggar asked Ramakrishna for money. Ramakrishna called Gangadhar and told to him to give the beggar some coins, but to wash his hands in Ganges water afterwards. Afterwards he viewed money as dirty, and later wandered as a mendicant for fourteen years around India without touching money.
Once Ramakrishna moved to Cossipore for treatment of his throat cancer Gangadhar would spend as much time as possible helping there, otherwise meditating on the banks of the Ganges with his friend Harinath. His father accepted his son was not going to complete his education and so arranged for him to work in an office. Gangadhar gave this up after a few days and fully engaged himself in serving Ramakrishna.
After Ramakrishna gave up his body Gangadhar went, on Christmas Eve 1886 to Antpur, and took vows of renunciation, just a few weeks later, in February 1887, he took the ochre cloth that the Master had previously given him and left the Math without telling the other monks and traveled around the Himalayas and into Tibet several times only returning after three years to the Baranagore Monastery in June 1890. The following month Swami Vivekananda persuaded him to take the final monastic vows before Ramakrishna's picture and became Swami Akhandananda. Soon after Swami Vivekananda took him back to the Himalayas as his guide so he could fulfill his own longing to travel and practice there. At one point both Vivekananda and Akandananda became sick and traveled to join Turiyananda at Dehradun to recover. Later they met again in Meerut and were joined by Brahmananda and Advaitananda, so that Meerut became a second Baranagore Monastery.
He continued his travels, ending up in Rajpur as a guest of a wealthy disciple of Vivekananda's. He was distressed to see how poor so many of the inhabitants of Rajasthan were, while a few rulers and landowners were very wealthy. He wrote to Vivekananda who replied,
"No good will come of sitting idle and having princely dishes and saying 'Ramakrishna, O Lord!' unless you can do some good for the poor...It is preferable to live on grass for the sake of doing good for others. The ochre robe is not for enjoyment. It is the banner for heroic work...The poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted - let these be your God. Know that service to these alone is the highest religion."
In 1894 he began his campaign. He realized the main cause of the problem was lack of education so he went door to door in Khetri encouraging people to get their children educated. As a result, the enrollment at the local school soared from only 80 to 257. He also established five primary schools in the surrounding villages. He then went on to Jaipur, Chittor, Udaipur and many Rajpur villages asking local rulers to establish schools, distribute food and support local cottage industries. This was not always well received and some threatened his life, but he continued regardless.
On 15 May 1897 Akhandanada began famine relief work in Mahula - it was the first organized relief work of the Mission that Vivekananda had started only two weeks before in Calcutta. He opened an orphanage and started schools as well. In Sargachi his work for the poor created unhappiness amongst some wealthy villagers who wrote letters of complaint to Vivekananda against him. In response Vivekananda told him to continue his work adding, "Criticisms are like ornaments to a pioneer." Other friends form his previous years told him a monk should travel, meditate and study scriptures. Akhandananda replied those days were gone. He raised money and built an ashram and orphanage instead, often discarding his ocher monk robes and wearing the clothes of a poor farmer to till the land and grow food for the orphans. He taught the children during the day and the adults in the evening. Gradually, over many years, the ashram and orphanage grew, and he bought more land and increased the scope, adding an industrial school which taught many skills and crafts. It also had a library, dispensary and later a temple.
On the death of Brahmananda in 1922 Shivananda became President and Akhandanada vice-president, and on the death of Shivananda, was President of the Ramkrishna Mission from 1934 to 1937 when he died on 7 February aged 72.
Swami Vijnanananda, whose original name was Hari Prasanna Chaterjee, was an engineer and had met Paramahamsadev early in life but family commitments kept him away. His discipleship under Sri Ramakrishna was mostly known only to his friend Swami Nirmalananda who apprised other disciples of the facts. Under the encouragement of his friend Swami Nirmalananda, who met him three times when he was serving as Engineer, and finally convinced by a spiritual vision of Sri Ramakrishna, he became a monk in 1896 in the Alambazar Monastery.(These facts were mentioned by Swami Vijnanananda himself in Nettayam in Trivandrum, as seen in Life of Swami Nirmalananda by Swami Vishadananda). Swami Vivekananda, after his return from America, entrusted him with the task of building the Math campus as also preparing suitable plans for a memorial temple for Paramahamsadev. He prepared it in consultation with a noted European architect of Kolkata and Swamiji approved of the same. However, due to the sudden demise of Swamiji and lack of funds, the project had to wait for a long time to be taken up. It was completed and dedicated by Swami Vijnananda himself on 14 January 1938. He was President of the Ramkrishna Mission in 1937-38. He established Ramakrishna Sevasram at Allahabad.
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