Swami Vijnanananda, before he took orders, was known by the name of Hariprasanna Chatto-padhyaya. He was bom on October 28, 1868, in a respectable family of Belgharia, which is within a couple of miles of Dakshineswar, the place immortalised by Sri Ramakrishna’s superhuman devotional practices and the scene of his wonderful spiritual ministration to thousands of thirsty souls. It was in the year 1883 that Hariprasanna, then a student of St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta, first had the privilege of meeting Sri Rama-krishna at Dakshineswar. The Master’s fame as a religious teacher par excellence had already spread far and wide, thanks to the publicity given to it by Keshab Chandra Sen, the great Brahmo leader. One of Sri Ramakrishna’s favourite disciples, Sarat—afterwards known as Swami Saradananda—happened to be a college mate of Hariprasanna, and it was in his company that he met Sri Ramakrishna. He retained vivid recollections of that first visit, and the profound impression he received on that memorable occasion subsequently culminated in his renouncing home and worldly connections. The Master, as was his wont, showed great love and kindness towards the new-comer, which bound him indissolubly to him. Young though Hariprasanna was, it did not take him much time to find out that here was a man who was extraordinary in every sense of the word, and he was as much captivated by his words of wisdom as he was drawn by his charming naivety. He saw the Master only a few more times in his life as he was compelled by force of circumstances to live at Bankipore, Bihar, but the influence of these few visits was enough to change the whole course of his life.
At that time Sri Ramakrishna was being taken to be a mad man by a section of people. Hari-prasanna's family members belonged to that class. One afternoon Hariprasanna went to Dakshi-neswar, and on request from the Master stayed there for the night. Sri Ramakrishna himself took almost nothing at night, but special arrangement was made for the meal of the boy. Then very affectionately, the Master himself hung a mosquito-curtain and spread a mat for young Hariprasanna to sleep on in his own room—a privilege which was reserved for only the chosen few. When Hariprasanna was lying on his bed the Master came near and began to talk to him. Very tenderly he said: "Do you know why I love you all so much? You are my own people. The Divine Mother has shown me this." The conversation lasted for some time during the course of which the boy began to feel sleepy. After a while Hariprasanna found the Master going round and round his bed clapping his hands and muttering something indistinct. He began to wonder whether Sri Ramakrishna was really a mad man as some supposed him to be. Afterwards he used to say that on that night Sri Ramakrishna gave him all that was to be given to him.
An interesting experience was waiting for him at home when he returned there next morning. The mother of Hariprasanna had passed the night in anxiety as there had been no information about him, and consequently she rebuked him severely on his return. In an angry tone she said, “You passed the night at the place of that mad Brahmin, I suppose?” Silence was the only answer that the young boy with guilty conscience could give to his mother on such an occasion. Then his younger sister also joined in and said, “That mad man has deranged the brain of no less than three hundred young men, I hear.” Hariprasanna quietly remonstrated, “Why should he be a mad man?” “Ah, dear brother, he has deranged your brain also, I see,” exclaimed the young sister though very naively. With reference to this incident, Swami Vijnana-nanda used to say afterwards, "Had I not been caught in the influence of that mad man, who knows where I should have been now—wallowing in the welter of the world ? ’ ’
Sri Ramakrishna's love for his young disciples or would-be apostles was immense. If any of them did not go to Dakshineswar for a considerable time, the Master would send for him or inquire about him through a messenger. At one time Hariprasanna did not visit Dakshineswar for a rather long time and the Master sent word to him through Sarat to come and see him. When Hariprasanna arrived at Dakshineswar and met Sri Ramakrishna, the latter, in an aggrieved tone, asked: “Why is it that you don’t care to come here? It is difficult to get you here even after sending a messenger for that! ’ ’ The young disciple very frankly said, “ I do not always get the mood to come, so I don’t.” At this the Master simply smiled and said, “You practise a little meditation, I believe?” “ I do try to meditate, but how to have good meditation ? I don’t have any real meditation at all,” replied Hariprasanna. The answer astonished the Master, who remained quiet for a while. Hariprasanna was looking at his face eagerly awaiting the words that would drop from his lips. As he was doing this, the face of Sri Ramakrishna changed, he looked grave and said, “All right, just go to the Panchavati now and try to meditate.” Then he beckoned him to come nearer and wrote something on his tongue with his finger and sent him to the Panchavati : Hariprasanna wended his way towards the Panchavati, but aftgr the Master had touched him he was in a state of intoxication and could hardly walk. When he sat for meditation at the Panchavati he remained for a long time oblivious of his surroundings and of the outside world. When Hariprasanna returned to his senses, he found the Master seated by his side smiling and gently passing his hands over his body. After a while the Master broke the silence and asked, “What? Did you have meditation to-day?” “Yes, to-day I had the experience of a good meditation,” said Hariprasanna in astonishment. “Henceforward you will find that you will have good meditation every day,” further said the Master. Sri Ramakrishna then went to his room accompanied by Hariprasanna and very affectionately gave many instructions about the intricacies of spiritual life. Swami Vijnanananda would say afterwards: “I was amazed to sec his love for us that day. Repeatedly did it come to my mind, indeed how much docs he think for us ! I had no idea of that. There can be no comparison with his love.” It was on that day that the Master told him: ‘ ‘ Beware of the wiles of sex-attraction. Be very very careful on that point. You boys are the chosen people of the Divine Mother. She will get many things done through you. So I say to you, ‘Be very very careful.’ ” Swami Vijnanananda throughout his life obeyed this instruction to the letter and to the spirit.
How very free and intimate was Sri Ramakrishna with his disciples is revealed from the following interesting incident, narrated by Swami Vijnanananda himself once when he went to visit Dakshineswar in his old age:
"I used to wrestle with the Master out there on the verandah (pointing out of west door of the room of Sri Ramakrishna, overlooking the Ganges). He was such a little man and I was big and strong, so I could put him down easily. His body was so delicate, so soft, just like a baby. But we would wrestle and I would always put him down.”
One of his class-friends says that as a student Hariprasanna was very spirited and would be' upset at the sight of any moral turpitude or social injustice. After passing the First Arts Examination from Calcutta he went to Bankipore, Bihar. He graduated from the Patna College and then went to study Civil Engineering at Poona, where he was when Sri Ramakrishna left his mortal body. He said that he had a vision of the Master at that time.
After taking his degree of L. C. E. he joined the Government service and rose in the course of a few years to the position of a District Engineer. By that time the monastery at Baranagore had been founded, and the monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna often became his guests at different places. The flame of renunciation, however, that had been kindled in him by the Master was burning within him, and he found it impossible to remain in the world any longer. Even as an officer Hariprasanna was taciturn, would mix with few people, and remained in his bungalow absorbed in his own thoughts. But his colleagues and assistants were surprised at his uncommon degree of integrity as well as his strictness in regard to the discharge of his duties. And those who came into close touch with him revered him almost as a god—such was the force of his character, pure, spotless, and at the same time humble and unassuming.
In the year 1896, shortly before Swami Viveka-nanda returned for the first time from his triumphant mission in the West, Hariprasanna joined the Brotherhood at Alambazar, where the monastery had meanwhile been shifted, and came afterwards to be known as Swami Vijnanananda. It is said that Hariprasanna was very devoted to his mother, and that it was only for her sake that he accepted a job. But when he had collected a sum of money sufficient to give to his mother for her future maintenance, he felt his conscience free and told her his long cherished intention of renouncing the world. The affectionate mother saw the intensity of the longing of her son for the noble ideal and gave him permission to follow the walk of life he was hankering after.
Swami Vijnanananda accompanied Swami Vivekananda on his trip to Rajputana and elsewhere. Just before the monastery was removed to its permanent home at Belur in 1899, the task of constructing the necessary buildings was entrusted to Swami Vijnanananda, who later also supervised the construction of the embankment on the Ganges in front of the main building. Swami Vivekananda, who was then living at the Belur Math, one day saw him at work in the hot sun, and, as a favour, but mostly in fun, sent him, through a disciple, the little remnant of a glass of cold drink. Swami Vijnanananda took the glass and, although he noticed the minute quantity of the sherbet sent, he quaffed it just the same. To his wonder, he found that those few drops had completely allayed his thirst! When he next met Swamiji, the latter asked him how he had enjoyed the drink. He replied that though there had been very little left, yet it had the effect of quenching his thirst. Thereupon both laughed.
This is but a solitary instance of the pleasant things which took place to sweeten the relationship among the brother-disciples.
Another humorous incident illustrative of their cordiality deserves mention. While the construction work was going on at the Belur Math, some materials were being eagerly expected. One evening Swami Brahmananda said that the materials would arrive by boat before the next morning, which Swami Vijnanananda doubted. Thereupon a wager was laid and both retired for the night. In the early hours of the morning Swami Vijnanananda got up to see whether the boat had come. It had not; so he returned to his bed elated at the prospect of winning the wager. A little later, the other Swami also came out, found the boat moored and quietly retired again. After daybreak Swami Vijnanananda, without suspecting anything, came to him and joyously demanded the wager. “What for?" said the other. Then the disconcerting truth dawned upon Swami Vijnanananda, and finding the tables turned on him, he said, "Well, I have no money, you pay it for me!" General laughter followed. On another occasion a similar result greeted his prediction about rain. Afterwards the Swami would narrate those incidents by way of tribute to his illustrious brother-monk.
Swami Vivekananda, as is well known, was a man of varying moods. Sometimes he was playful, then everybody could approach him with freedom. But at other times he became very grave, when none dared to ask him questions.
One day he was having a talk with Swami Vijnanananda, when the latter, encouraged by his light mood, not only had the boldness to differ from him, but even went so far as to say: “What do you know? You know nothing!” Swami Vivekananda's countenance changed. He became very grave, and after a few moments he called out to Swami Brahmananda, “Look here, Rakhal, he tells me that I know nothing!” Swami Brahmananda made light of the incident, remarking: ‘' Why do you listen to him ? He knows nothing!” Meanwhile Swami Vijnanananda, who had seen his mistake, apologised, and everything was all right. On another occasion Swami Vivekananda, at the end of a spell of deep thought, suddenly put this question to Swami Vijnanananda: " Suppose there is an elephant, and a worm has got into its trunk; it is slowly working its way up, and growing at the expense of the animal. What will be the ultimate result?” Swami Vijnanananda could not make out exactly what was in Swamiji’s mind, and said he did not know. Swamiji, too, did not answer it himself. Swami Vijnanananda had not the courage to press for a solution of the problem at the moment, nor did he happen to raise it afterwards. Questioned later as to what he thought of it, he replied that it might have had a reference to the condition of India. By way of a solution he laconically said that if the elephant could not eject it, it was anyway sure to outlive it by overwhelming odds.
Swami Vivekananda had a great desire to raise a big memorial temple to the Master at the Belur Math and entrusted the task of planning it to Swami Vijnanananda, giving him specific instructions for it. The Swami, in consultation with a noted European architect of Calcutta, prepared a design of the proposed temple, which had the approval of Swami Vivekananda. Swamiji’s premature passing away in 1902 nipped the project in the bud. But the serious thoughts of spiritual giants never die out; they only bide their time. Thirty years after Swami Vivekananda's exit from this world, a magnificent offer of help came from some devoted American students of his thought, which has made it possible for the authorities of the Belur Math to erect the beautiful temple of Sri Ramakrishna after the design left by Swamiji. The foundation-stone of this noble edifice was set in its proper place in July, 1935, by Swami Vijnanananda as Vice-President of the Order. More of this later.
Swami Vijnanananda, visiting many places as a wandering monk, came to Allahabad in the year 1900. He became the guest of a doctor friend and wanted to pass a short time in that sacred place of pilgrimage. At that time there was in Allahabad a group of young men who met together in a rented house which they called Brahmavadin Club, and they made attempts to improve themselves morally and spiritually through scriptural study, discussion and worship. This group of boys was organised by a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna who had gone to Allahabad some years back and who left for Calcutta in the year 1900. Then the boys had to manage their own affairs without any superior guidance. When they heard that a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna had come to the city, they thought it a stroke of good fortune and at once went to the Swami to request him to come to their place and to stay there for some time to guide and supply them with help and inspiration. The keen earnestness and sincere devotion of the boys persuaded the Swami to visit their place, and after seeing everything he felt inclined to put up there for a period. This was the beginning of a great thing. For in this place the Swami passed ten precious years of his life in hard Tapasya, study and meditation till he afterwards established a permanent centre of the Ramakrishna Mission in the city where he spent the rest of his life as a unique spiritual force. At the Brahmavadin Club, the Swami had to pass through much hardship—being his own cook and servant, depending for subsistence on what chance might bring. But he hardly felt the suffering, for his mind and thought were centred on a plane where these things could not reach. Most of the time he would spend in meditation and study, seeking no company but not refusing any help to persons who sought it. Thus, through the silent influence of his example as well as through personal contact, he changed the course of many lives. It was only in the evening that outsiders were generally allowed to see him. For them he would sometimes hold scriptural classes or would otherwise solve their problems through informal talks. The Swami was always loth' to
talk much. Specially with regard to spiritual matters he would dismiss the whole problem with as few words as possible—sometimes in fun and sometimes in a serious mood. But he had a wonderful capacity to satisfy the inquirers even with his short conversation. To persons who would come with any big philosophical problem, he would say, “Just follow the maxims which you have read in the copy books—namely, ‘ Always speak the truth,’ ‘To take a thing without the consent of its owner is to steal,’ ” and so on. It would be very difficult to draw him out specially on spiritual things, but when he was in a mood to talk he would at once change the atmosphere and supply spiritual food to the listeners which would give them sustenance for many years to come, if not for their whole lives.
From the Brahmavadin Club the Swami removed himself to the Ramakrishna Math, Muthi-gunj, which he founded in the year 1908. Here he also lived the same austere life as in the Club, only his sphere of activity was now wider. In the course of time a dispensary was opened as a part of the activities of the Ashrama. But these activities touched but the outer fringe of his life which always flowed inwardly beyond the possibility of the knowledge of ordinary people. With reference to him, Swami Brahmananda who had great spiritual insight would say: ,“It is very difficult to know him. He always keeps himself hidden. But he is a knower of Brahman. He has known the Self and is thus satisfied.” He was eager to send those boys who had special spiritual aptitude to Allahabad to grow under the inspiration of Swami Vijnanananda.
Swami Vijnanananda was also a great scholar. He was a voracious reader and had varied intellectual interests. He was a great friend of Srijut Srish Chandra Basu and Major B. D. Basu, two noted scholars of Allahabad at that time. At their instance, he also undertook some literary work. Besides writing two works in Bengali entitled A Manual of Engineering and Waterworks, he translated from Sanskrit into English the voluminous Purana, Devi-Bhagavata, two ancient astrological and astronomical works, Varaha-mihira’s Brihajjataka and Surya Siddhanta, the latter into Bengali as well as English. Towards his last days he was engaged in translating the Ramayana into English, which he left unfinished.
Swami Vijnanananda loved retirement. He was, therefore, not actively engaged in the main work of the Ramakrishna Mission. But whenever his help was necessary he would ungrudgingly give it. His engineering knowledge was particularly useful in this respect. He supervised the construction of some buildings of the Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service, Benares, as also of the Swami Vivekananda Temple at the Belur Math. Besides he helped with valuable advice in regard to the construction of other buildings.
On account of his humility and love of retirement he refused for years on end to be a trustee of the Ramakrishna Math. But when in 1934 after the passing away of Swami Shivananda, the second President of the Ramakrishna Order, the necessity arose for his becoming a trustee, he could not decline it any longer. He became Vice-President of the Order that very year, and on the demise of Swami Akhandananda, the third President, he became the President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in March, 1937. Feeling in his heart of hearts the urge to initiate people—weary pilgrims in the wilderness of life— he broke, towards the end of his life, his lifelong practice of not initiating anybody although he was pre-eminently qualified to be a Guru. This sense of duty marked him throughout. Through his grace hundreds of men and women found the spiritual path. To each of them he gave instructions in brief, so that they might in their lives practise the truths he taught. During the last few years of his life he travelled extensively and visited many centres of the Ramakrishna Order including Colombo and Rangoon. Everywhere his presence was the occasion of spiritual awakening to innumerable persons.
The Swami did not give lectures or formal talks. But in the informal conversations and homely talks he would have with devotees and inquirers his words would emit fire. Although he would not usually talk seriously with those who would approach him with big philosophical problems and the like for the sake of mere discussion, when sincere inquirers would approach him with the pressing problems of their inner life, his face would light up and with great affection, love and sympathy he would talk, and the problems which to the persons concerned appeared knotty would dissolve -immediately, and they would go away with their heavy burden removed. Living, as he always was, on the spiritual plane, to make supreme efforts for the realisation of Truth was the burden of his advice given to the devotees. “God-vision is the true aim of human, life, for that alone can give us real and lasting satisfaction. Man hankers after the things of the world, wealth, sense enjoyments, honour, etc., in the hope that these can give him happiness in life. But it is the experience of all that the pursuit of these has only a reverse effect on the mind. Not only do we fail to realise the desired end through that, but the restlessness of the mind is even increased, and we are rendered more unhappy than in the beginning. Through wealth and honour our egotism is bloated up, and there is no greater obstacle in the spiritual path than egotism.... The supreme duty of man is to remember Him always, whether one is engaged in consciously repeating His name or not. Every breath of ours should be associated with Him, in our mind. We should consider that we breathe in God to make the inside pure, and we breathe out God to make the outside pure," he said to a group of devotees who met him in Madras.
“ But how can we have peace seeing that there is so much conflict and suffering in the country due to trade depression and political struggles?” asked one of them.
“ Why do you make so much of these struggles that are going on in the outside world?” replied the Swami. "Do you think that they will stop, supposing you gain your immediate end and the present phase of the struggle passes away? Certainly they will not. Restlessness arises not from these external struggles, but from our own internal hankering and our clinging to the things of the world. Even if God were to appear before us to bring peace unto our souls we would refuse to recognise Him. For when He comes, He takes away our worldly possessions, and few of us are ready to make this sacrifice."
Sometimes precious little gems were hidden in the words he would utter in fun. For instance, he would at times ask, in Hindi, " Darshan saf hat?"—meaning, Is your vision clear? It is said that amongst a section of monks in North India there is a practice that when one meets another he makes this inquiry regarding the latter’s spiritual progress. So the Swami now and then would ask people half in affection, half in fun,—“Is your vision clear?”
Yes, how many of us can say that our vision is clear ? All trouble in the world arises from the fact that our vision is not clear. Where one should see Divinity, one sees wickedness and iniquity; where one should see love, one sees hatred and tyranny. The only solution of all the ills of life is to make one’s vision pure and sanctified, then only will the problems of the world be solved as surely as snow melts away before the sun.
Absorbed as he always was in his own thought, there was an atmosphere of aloofness about him.
He would always prefer to be left to himself. In later days, when streams of devotees would meet him, he would abruptly say, “ I would like to be quiet.” In this matter he was no respecter of persons. He had lost all distinction between the high and the low, the rich and the poor. He lived on a plane where such distinction does not exist. He could not submit himself to any social code of conduct. To one who did not know him well, his manner, his dress, his mode of life, might seem a bit out of the way, but to those who knew him closely these things made him all the more lovable, for there was an air of childlikeness in them. At times he would be full of wit, humour and mirth and throw the audience into roaring laughter. In many things he was just like an innocent child. His frankness was beyond comparison. The same trait made him a very plain-speaking person, but his straight words would not give offence to any man.
Though he had a very retiring disposition, he was not insensitive to the misery and suffering around. At Orissa some poor people who took initiation from him brought some presents to the Guru. That upset him immensely, and he declared he would not give initiation if such people brought any offerings. His renunciation was very great and spontaneous. There was a delightful naturalness about it. A rich disciple once gave him a purse as a humble offering. "You have no place to keep that, I suppose? And so you are thrusting the responsibility of keeping the money on me!” said the Swami jocosely but unawares giving out his attitude towards wordly things.
He had many spiritual visions and experiences about which he was discreetly silent. Only now and then in unguarded moments would he give out some secret. Once in the course of conversation he said that he felt the all-pervasive presence of God. At Pegu in Burma he saw an image of Buddha in a pagoda. "It is not like the one I saw,” he said in astonishment. “What other image do you mean, Maharaj ?” asked the attendant. Then the Swami described how in one of his visits to the sacred spot of Sarnath he had a vision that everything was dissolved in a sea of pure consciousness and out of that appeared a form of Buddha—so sweet and so affectionate ! Suddenly the Swami awoke to the consciousness that he was giving out things which he should not. Then he began to make fun about what he had said, in order to neutralise his statements. To him the evidence of the existence of the Master, though not in the physical body, was as strong and as natural as that of the things that are seen in broad daylight. That faith kept him calm and joyous under all circumstances. In illness he would not take any medicine, nor would he allow attendance on him beyond the least that was necessary. During the last years of his life he suffered from many ailments. People were hardly aware of them all. Once a rich devotee prayed to him that she might call in the best doctors of Calcutta to see him. The Swami replied, " I am under the treatment of a doctor better than the best physician you can think of.” This precious information was a great relief to her: she thought that then some physician was attending him. “What is the name of that doctor?” asked the devotee in eager expectation for an answer. “ The Lord Himself is my doctor,” said the Swami. This simple and unsophisticated answer silenced all controversy as to the necessity of calling in a doctor.
From the time when the construction of the Sri Ramakrishna Temple at Belur began, he was anxiously watching its completion in order that he might install his great Master there as early as possible. In view of his failing health, it was decided to have the installation ceremony done just after the completion of the main shrine. On January 14, 1938, Swami Vijnanananda performed the dedication of the temple and the consecration of the marble image of Sri Ramakrishna amidst imposing rites—a function which was witnessed by .about fifty thousand devotees and spectators. Having done this he felt that the great task of his life was finished, and he got ready to join his beloved Master. He paid only one more visit to Belur, and that was only on the occasion of the Master’s birthday. He looked very much emaciated, and those who saw him then were apprehensive of the approaching end. In spite of this, however, he initiated hundreds of aspirants, lay and monastic, and answered their queries.
The Swami returned to Allahabad, and entered Mahasamadhi on April 25, 1938. The body which he gave up like a rejected garment, but which was the vehicle of supreme spiritual achievement and great spiritual ministration, was consigned with appropriate ceremonies to the sacred water of the Triveni, at the confluence of the Ganges and the Jumna, in the presence of a large number of monks and devotees.