Swami Brahmananda – The Great Administrator

Extracts from: Ramakrishna and his Disciples ; Christopher Isherwood Advaita Ashrama; Mayavati; June 1965

… Rakhal, the gentle and yielding boy … became the almost super-humanly wise and powerful Brahmananda.

Under his direction the Ramakrishna Math and Mission were shaped and Vivekananda’s plans translated into action.

Brahmananda was a great administrator of the Mission’s activities, but he constantly reminded his disciples and fellow-workers that spirituality comes first, social service second. ‘The only purpose of life is to know God,’ he would tell them. ‘Attain knowledge and devotion; then serve God in mankind. Work is not the end of life. Disinterested work is a means of attaining devotion. Keep at least three fourths of your mind in God. It is enough if you give one fourth to service.’

He was very particular about the source of any money that was offered to the Mission, and about the motives with which it was offered. A millionaire once came to them saying that he was ready to renounce the world; they could have his entire fortune. But Brahmananda refused. He was aware that the man, although quite sincere, was only acting on the impulse of the moment. He would have regretted his offer later.

Brahmananda was far more concerned for the spiritual growth of his disciples than for their practical efficiency. He once reprimanded a senior monk who had been put in charge of a novice: ‘Did I send this young boy to you to make into a good clerk?’ The success of a religious order, he said, must be judged by the inner life of each of its members, not by its achievements in social service.

As head of the Order he was of course empowered to make the final decision whether or not to expel a monk who had been guilty of serious misbehaviour. But he never made such decisions. Often he did not deal directly with the offence itself; instead, he would send for the culprit and have him meditate daily in his presence and render him personal service. On such occasions, the effect of his immense spiritual power and love would be witnessed by all. The culprit would become transformed. Brahmananda’s care for others extended far beyond the ordinary human limits of compassion; indeed it was supernatural, for, as he occasionally admitted, he was at all times in mental communication with everybody in the Order and aware of all their problems. He knew that he could give spiritual help whenever it was needed, even at a long distance; and this knowledge made him magnificently unanxious and serene.

However, it should not be supposed that he was over-lenient with his disciples. He would even subject a monk to public humiliation and dismissal from his presence; especially if he regarded that monk as having exceptional qualities and if he wished to train him for some difficult duty. Often, the apparent offence was something quite trivial. For example, a young monk who was performing the ritual worship had used three matches instead of one to light the lamps before the shrine; Brahmananda scolded him severely for lack of concentration. This caused some of the disciples to suspect that Brahmananda’s rebukes were not what they seemed to be, but perhaps a method of destroying the disciple’s bad karma. As one of them has written, ‘The chastening of a disciple never began until after he had enjoyed several years of love and kind words. These experiences were painful at the time but they were later treasured among the disciple’s sweetest memories. It often happened that even while the disciple was being rebuked by Maharaj he would feel a strange undercurrent of joy. The indifference of Maharaj was the only thing we could not have borne, but Maharaj was never indifferent. The very fact that he could speak to us in this way proved that we were his children, his own.’

It has been said that Brahmananda was so entirely fearless that others could not feel fear in his presence. Once, when he was walking with two devotees in the woods of Bhubaneswar, a leopard appeared and came straight towards them. He stood still and confronted it calmly until it turned tail. Again, while he was going along a narrow lane in Madras, attended by two monks, a maddened bull came charging to meet them. The young men tried to protect their guru, who was already an elderly man, by standing in front of him; but he pushed them behind him with extraordinary strength and fixed his eyes upon the bull. It stopped, shook its head from side to side, and then trotted quietly away.

Brahmananda was tall and well built, with eyes that were sometimes deeply searching and sometimes apparently unseeing, as though they were regarding an altogether different reality. His hands and feet were beautifully formed. His back strikingly resembled Ramakrishna’s – to such a degree that Turiyananda once caught sight of Brahmananda walking ahead of him in the gardens of Belur and believed for a movement that he must be having a vision of the Master himself. Once, in a crowded railway station, one of his disciple overheard the conversation of two men who had been watching Brahmananda with great interest. One of them remarked that it was impossible to guess his nationality; he didn’t seem to belong to any of the Indian races. The other man agreed, adding, ‘but you can see very well that he’s a man of God’.

Brahmananda did not have the eloquence of a Vivekananda. He inspired people by his silences quite as much as by his words. It is said that he could change the psychological atmosphere in a room, making the occupants feel talkative and gay and then inclining them to silent meditation, without himself saying anything. For the most part, his teachings were very simply expressed. ‘Religion is a most practical thing. It doesn’t matter whether one believes or not. It is like science. If one performs spiritual disciplines, the result is bound to come. Although one may be practising mechanically – if one persists one will get everything in time… And if you go one step towards God, God will come a hundred steps towards you… Why did God create us? So that we may love him.’ When one of his disciples asked permission to practise some severe spiritual austerities, Brahmananda asked, ‘Why need you do that? We have done it all for you.’ He treated Ramlal, Ramakrishna’s nephew, with the greatest respect and made the young disciples bow down before him, because he had the blood of the family into which the Master had been born. But Ramlal would protest that he himself had never truly recognized his uncle’s greatness until his eyes had been opened to it by Brahmananda. Once, when a famous musician was performing, a devotee complained that he had played no devotional songs. Brahmananda, who loved music, replied, ‘Don’t you realize that sound itself is Brahman?’

‘It’s good to laugh every day,’ he used to say, ‘it relaxes the body and the mind.’ There are many stories of his fondness for practical jokes. On one occasion, Akhandananda, who had been staying with Brahmananda, said that he must leave next morning and return to his own mission centre at Sargachi. Brahmananda pleaded with him to stay a little longer, but the Swami insisted; so a palanquin was hired to take him to the railway station, several miles away. As the train left very early, it was necessary to start in the small hours of the night. Akhandananda did not notice that Brahmananda had whispered some instructions to the palanquin bearers. Having said good-bye to Maharaj, he settled down to doze in the darkness, with the curtains of the palanquin drawn. The journey seemed very long and the stops were frequent. The Swami called anxiously to the bearers from behind the curtains; he was afraid that he would miss the train. They reassured him, saying that there was plenty of time. At last they put down the palanquin and asked him to alight. When he parted the curtains to do so, there stood Brahmananda, as if ready to welcome him back after months of absence. Then Akhandananda realized that he had simply been carried round and round the compound in the dark. Brahmananda embraced him and the two of them laughed like children.

Brahmananda spent the last years of his life in a state of high spiritual consciousness, coming down from it only in order to help and teach others. He began to have the vision of Ramakrishna almost every day; not only seeing him but also talking with him. And yet, in conversation with strangers who came to visit the Mission, he would discuss a variety of worldly topics with intelligence and apparent interest; only his intimate disciples were aware that he remained completely detached.

In 1922, shortly after the celebrations of Ramakrishna’s birthday, Brahmananda had a slight attack of cholera. This was followed by a serious diabetic condition. He suffered greatly for several days, but his mood was ecstatic; for he had visions of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and other brothers who were no longer alive in the body. He heard Krishna calling him to dance, and he exclaimed, ‘Put anklets on my feet – I want to dance with Krishna!’

There was no coma at the end, as is usual in cases of diabetes. He had clear consciousness of his surroundings. His eyes were brilliant. He was perfectly calm. His last words to his disciples were, ‘Do not grieve, I shall be with you always.’ On April 10, 1922, he left the body in samadhi.