Swami Abhedananda was one of those rare souls who gathered around the magnetic personality of Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar and afterwards became instrumental in the fulfilment of his divine mission. The name by which the Swami was known before his taking orders was Kaliprasad Chandra, he was born on 2 October 1866, in an enlightened family at Ahiritola in Calcutta. His mother Nayantara Devi was intensely devoted to the Goddess Kali, to whom she offered her whole-souled prayer for the birth of a gifted son. It was in response, as it were, to her ardent prayer that the child was born, and she named him ‘Kaliprasad’ to betoken the grace of the Divine Mother. Kaliprasad’s father, Rasiklal Chandra, was a senior teacher of English in the Oriental Seminary of Calcutta. He was no less pious than his devoted wife. No wonder that a child, who in after years shone as a bright luminary in the spiritual firmament of India, should be born of such a worthy couple. His school life began at the age of five, and he excelled all his schoolmates in study, games, paintings, and similar other pursuits. He often listened with rapt attention to the inspiring stories of the great Indian epics from the lips of his dear parents who, knowing the mental make-up of the boy, always tried to kindle in him an aspiration to emulate the lives of the great spiritual heroes of the land.
From his very boyhood he was inclined to Sanskrit studies. At the age of eighteen he creditably passed the Entrance Examination from the Calcutta Oriental Seminary, in which, as already mentioned, his father was a teacher of English. Gifted with a genius for philosophic contemplation the boy soon began to interest himself in solving the various intricate problems of life. His desire to become a philosopher was greatly stimulated when he read for the first time in Wilson’s History of India that Shankaracharya was the propounder of the Advaita system of philosophy. This opened a new chapter in his life. His perusal of the Gita served only to intensify all the more his yearning to follow in the footsteps of the great Acharyas (propounders of systems of thought) and to study their philosophies. But along with this ever-increasing thirst for acquiring spiritual wisdom, he felt as well a strong urge to widen the bounds of his intellectual knowledge by studying the masterpieces of great savants of the East and the West. Even at this tender age he finished reading not only such abstruse books as John Stuart Mill’s Logic, Three Essays on Religion, Herschel’s Astronomy, Ganot’s Physics, Lewis’ History of Philosophy, and Hamilton’s Philosophy, but also the great works of Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, Banabhatta, and other eminent poets of our land, a fact which gives ample evidence of his prodigious intellect and extraordinary genius.
His intellectual allegiance was not confined to any particular school of thought. He developed even at this early age a remarkable sympathy for all faiths. That is why we find him so intently listening to the illuminating lectures delivered by the distinguished leaders and exponents of Christianity, Brahmoism, and Hinduism. In 1882-83 he attended a series of public lectures delivered by the noted Hindu philosopher, Shashadhar Tarkachudamani, on the six systems of Hindu philosophy. He was deeply impressed when he heard his pregnant discourse on the Yoga system of Patanjali and learnt about the infinite possibilities of the human soul. Thenceforth he made a special study of some of the most authoritative books on the subject and felt a strong desire to practise Yoga. But he was told by his friends not to follow any of the methods described in the Yoga Sutras without the proper guidance of a competent preceptor. The boy now began to search for a suitable teacher who would make him a real Yogi and teach him how to attain to the Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the crowning glory of man’s spiritual experiences. One of his classmates, with whom he discussed the matter, told him of Sri Ramakrishna and directed him to go to the great saint.
With Sri Ramakrishna
Kaliprasad grew restless to see the Master. But for some reason or other, he could not get a suitable opportunity to go to Dakshineswar for a long time. At last, one day in the middle of 1884, he started at noon for the temple-garden in the grilling heat of the sun. But great was his disappointment when he came to learn after reaching the place that Sri Ramakrishna had gone to Calcutta and would not return till after nightfall. Sorely perplexed, he sat down with a heavy heart under a tree. After a while, a young man, Shashi by name (afterwards Swami Ramakrishnananda), appeared there and asked him in loving accents the reason for his coming to Dakshineswar. Kali opened his heart to him. Shashi, coming to know that Kali had not eaten anything at noon, at once made arrangements for his meal and midday siesta. Kali passed the whole afternoon in a breathless thrill of expectancy. The day rolled on into night, but still the Master did not come! The joy of the boy, however, knew no bounds when at about nine o’clock Sri Ramakrishna came back to Dakshineswar. The boy silently entered the Master’s room and made obeisance to him. Without any hesitation, he expressed his desire to learn Yoga from him so that he might attain to the highest state of samadhi. At the very first sight, the Master fathomed the depth of the boy’s soul, and was delighted to notice the vast spiritual possibilities latent in him. He instinctively felt that Kali belonged to the inner circle of his young devotees. Sri Ramakrishna was overjoyed to hear the words of the boy and said, ‘You were a great Yogi in your previous birth. This is your last birth. I shall initiate you into the mysteries of Yoga practices.’ So saying he endearingly drew him to his side, wrote a mantra on his tongue and placed his right hand on the chest of the boy. The mystic touch of the Master brought about a wonderful revolution in his mind, and he immediately became buried in deep meditation. After that Kali began to practise religious disciplines in right earnest under the loving guidance of the Master, and through his grace was blessed with many spiritual experiences.
He now began to avail himself of every opportunity to run away from the stifling atmosphere of his home and to sit at the feet of the Master in the calm and elevating environs of the temple-garden of Dakshineswar. His thirsty soul drank deep at the perennial fount of heavenly wisdom which issued from the lips of the Master for the spiritual comfort of eager aspirants. As time rolled on, Kali found in him the embodiment of the Absolute Truth inculcated by the highest philosophy as well as of the universal religion which underlies all sectarian religions of the world. From the Master he eventually realised that the three orders of metaphysical thought—dualism, qualified monism, and monism are but stages on the way to the Supreme Truth. They are not contradictory but complementary to one another. Thus the validity of all stages that are harmoniously knitted in a graded series of spiritual experiences culminating in the realisation of the Formless Absolute—the One without a second—was made clear to him by the Super-mystic of Dakshineswar. Kali soon became intimately acquainted with Narendranath, the chief disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, and he often held learned discussions with him on various abstruse points of philosophy, both Eastern and Western. During the illness of the Master at Shyampukur and Cossipore in 1885-86, Kali, along with others, devoted himself heart and soul to the service of the Master and, after his passing, he renounced the world and became a sannyasin with the monastic name of Swami Abhedananda.
Call to the forest
At the Baranagore monastery where one by one the young disciples of the Master gathered together and banded themselves into a holy fraternity of monks under the leadership of Narendranath, Kali used very often to shut himself up in his own room for intense spiritual practices as also for a systematic study of Vedanta and Western philosophy. This rigorous course of spiritual discipline and his deep devotion to the study of Vedanta received the admiration of all and earned for him the significant epithets of ‘Kali Tapasvi’ (the ascetic Kali) and ‘Kali Vedanti’. During this time he composed beautiful Sanskrit hymns on Sri Ramakrishna and the Holy Mother. The latter was deeply impressed when she heard the excellent hymn composed about her own self, and she blessed him heartily, saying, ‘May the Goddess of Learning ever dwell in your throat.’ Indeed this blessing of the Holy Mother came to be fulfilled both in letter and in spirit.
But very soon the ‘call of the forest’—a tendency to embrace a wandering life according to the orthodox traditions of monastic life—was most irresistibly felt by Swami Abhedananda. And he travelled barefoot from place to place, depending entirely on whatever chance would bring to him. He endured all sorts of privation and hardship and practised austerities of all kinds. He walked up to the sources of the Ganga and the Yamuna, spent most of the time in contemplation of the Absolute, visited sacred places like Kedarnath and Badrinarayan, Hardwar and Puri, Dwaraka and Rameswaram, and met in the course of his extensive travels some of the greatest saints and scholars of the time in various centres of religious culture. While at Rishikesh he made a special study of Vedanta under a celebrated monk named Swami Dhanraj Giri who was noted for his profundity of scholarship and was well versed in the six systems of Hindu philosophy. Needless to say, this rich and varied experience of his itinerant life made him eminently fit to deliver to humanity at large in after years the lofty and universal message of his Master.
Up to this time the ideal of these young monks had been to strive for their personal liberation and realisation of the Supreme Atman by severe penance and meditation, remaining as much as possible aloof from the world in consonance with the prevailing Hindu idea, sanctified by tradition and sanctioned by the sages and seers from hoary antiquity. But Swami Vivekananda, who was then in America, brought home to the minds of his gurubhais, through his inspiring epistles, the fact that the mission of his life was to create a new Order of monks in India who would dedicate their lives to serve others and scatter broadcast over the entire world the life-giving ideas of the Master. The idea of personal liberation, he pointed out, was unworthy of those who believed themselves to be the favoured disciples of a prophet. Because of his profound faith in the leader, Swami Abhedananda, together with other brother disciples accepted his views knowing that the voice of Swami Vivekananda was the voice of the Master. Thus a new orientation of outlook on monastic life came upon him.
First public lecture
In response to an invitation from Swamiji who was then preaching Vedanta in London, he went there in the latter part of 1896. By way of introducing him to the London public Swamiji announced even before Swami Abhedananda’s public appearance that a learned brother disciple of his, who had just arrived from India, would deliver a lecture on Advaita Vedanta at the next meeting to be held in the Christo-Theosophical Society of London. The new Swami was taken by surprise as he had not been previously consulted in the matter! His name was flashed in handbills and newspapers even without his knowledge! He was sorely perplexed and became extremely nervous, inasmuch as he had not before this stood on any public platform to deliver a speech either in English or in any Indian language. It was indeed a fiery ordeal for him. He strongly remonstrated with Swamiji for this step which he thought unwise, but all his arguments were of no avail. Swamiji heartened him with the inspiring words, ‘Depend on him who has ever given me strength and courage in all the trials of my life.’ These words comforted him, and relying entirely on the infinite grace of the Master, he appeared at the meeting on the appointed day.
The hall was packed to suffocation, and all eyes were fixed upon the radiant countenance of the heroic soul who stood to discharge his responsibility at that crucial hour. The maiden speech which Swami Abhedananda delivered before the Society was a splendid success. At this, Swamiji’s joy knew no bounds. Referring to this happy occasion, Mr Eric Hammond, an English disciple of Swami Vivekananda, writes: The Master (Swami Vivekananda) was more than content to have effaced himself in order that his brother’s opportunity should be altogether unhindered. The whole impression had in it a glowing beauty quite indescribable.
It was as though the Master thought, “Even if I perish on this plane, my message will be sounded through these dear lips and the world will hear it.” ’ Hearing this lecture, Captain Sevier, another English disciple of Swamiji made the pertinent observation, ‘Swami Abhedananda is a born preacher. Wherever he will go, he will have success.’
Swami Vivekananda was fully confident that even in his absence Swami Abhedananda would be the fittest person to carry on, with success, the work which had been started in London. So he entrusted him with the charge of his classes on Vedanta and Raja Yoga and left for India in December 1896. Swami Abhedananda continued his classes and delivered public lectures in churches and religious and philosophical societies in London and its suburbs for one year. During his stay in London he formed acquaintance with many distinguished savants including Prof. Max Muller and Prof. Paul Deussen. His eloquence, his lucid exposition of Vedanta philosophy and, above all, his depth of spiritual realisation made a profound impression on all who came in touch with him and listened to his illuminating lectures. It reflects much credit on his many-sided genius that even within this short period he succeeded in creating in the minds of the Western people a deep-seated regard for the richness and integrity of Indian thought and culture.
At New York
In 1897 a new chapter was opened in his eventful life. At the request of American friends and with the approval of Swamiji, Swami Abhedananda crossed the Atlantic and landed in New York on 9 August to take charge of the Vedanta Society which had already been started there. He was almost penniless at this time and had to work hard to push on the work. By dint of perseverance, self-confidence and unflinching devotion to the Master he was soon able to create a field for himself and tide over the swarm of difficulties that surrounded him at the initial stage of his work. But his success soon excited the jealousy of the Christian missionaries, who began to fabricate scandalous lies to bring the Swami into disrepute. Nothing daunted, Swami Abhedananda carried on his work with his usual vigour and sangfroid. He was soon acclaimed as a great exponent of Hindu thought and culture and was invited to speak before various learned societies. His profundity of scholarship, incisive intellectual powers, oratorical talents, and his charming personality made him so popular that in New York itself, in the Mott Memorial Hall he had to deliver ninety lectures to satisfy public demand. Even the greatest savants of America became greatly impressed by his intellectual brilliance. On one occasion in 1898 Prof. William James held a discussion with him in his house on the problem of the Unity of the Ultimate Reality. It lasted for nearly four hours, and Prof. Royce, Prof. Lanman, Prof. Shaler, and Dr. Janes, the Chairman of the Cambridge Philosophical Conferences, took part. Prof. James was finally forced to admit that from the Swami’s standpoint it was impossible to deny ultimate unity, but declared that he still could not believe it.
In most of his lectures he called upon his audience to cultivate purity of thought and a spirit of love for all, irrespective of caste, creed, or nationality. ‘Whether we believe in God or not,’ said the Swami, ‘Whether we have faith in prophets or not, if we have self-control, concentration, truthfulness, and disinterested love for all, then we are on the way to spiritual perfection. On the contrary, if one believes in God or in a creed and does not possess these four, he is no more spiritual than an ordinary man of the world. In fact, his belief is only a verbal one.’ The Swami was never tired of making it distinctly clear to his Western audience that the religion or philosophy taught in Vedanta is not merely an intellectual assumption, but is the result of a long and arduous search and inquiry into the ultimate principle of this universe. It is this Supreme Principle—the Unchangeable Substance—which has been expressed by human minds under various names such as God, Creator, Designer, First Cause, the Father, Jehovah, Allah, or Brahman, in different systems of thought. ‘If we wish to know this Ultimate Truth,’ said the Swami, ‘we must go beyond the pale of nature and seek the explanation in the realm of the Absolute. Nature with her manifoldness deludes us and lands us in uncertainties. The scientists, even after a careful scrutiny of natural phenomena, have arrived at certain conclusions which are like conclusions in which nothing is concluded. The latest finding of science is that the ultimate goal of everything is unknown and unknowable. Here Vedanta comes to the rescue and advises its students to study not merely nature, but our Self or Atman which is beyond nature, beyond name and form, beyond multiplicity. All confusion will be removed when the Absolute Truth, as taught in Vedanta, will be realised.’ The Swami’s learned exposition of Vedanta in the light of modern scientific knowledge carried in it such an irresistible force of appeal that he was able to enlist such adherents as would not be convinced unless shown that Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, or Kant agreed in substance with a particular view advanced by Vedanta.
He travelled extensively all through the United States, Alaska, and Mexico and delivered addresses on various phases of Vedanta philosophy in almost all the principal cities of America. He made frequent trips to Europe also, delivering lectures to appreciative audiences in different parts of the Continent and making contact with eminent scholars. He proved himself not only an able and efficient teacher, but furthered the success of his work in every way by his remarkable organising ability, sound judgement and well-balanced opinion, and by his power of adaptability to Western methods of work and teaching. Contemplative by nature, he was able to maintain a poise and calm even in the midst of his strenuous activities, that added grace and beauty to his manifold works and acted with telling effect upon all who came in contact with his magnetic personality. His scholarship was the despair of many, and his intellectual brilliance, dignified bearing, as also his nobility of character, commanded loving homage from even the most aristocratic sections of the American people. Under his able leadership, the seeds sown by Swami Vivekananda on the American soil went on ever growing vigorously as days passed, striking their roots deep into the heart of the nation. Except for a short visit to India in 1906, he thus spent almost a quarter of a century in this laudable work of spreading the message of the Master in prominent centres of alien culture.
He was not only a powerful speaker, but also a prolific writer. If his spoken words moulded the lives of hundreds of persons, his printed thoughts influenced a wider circle of people in different countries. His writings contain deep philosophy with a great wealth of information couched in a very popular style. As such, they have been of immense help in broadcasting the philosophical and spiritual ideas of India. As a matter of fact, they constitute a valuable legacy to the spiritually inclined souls all over the world.
Return to India
Swami Abhedananda, after a long and successful work in America, returned to India in 1921. On his way home he visited Japan, China, the Philippines, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Rangoon and spread the message of the Master in those places also. The Swami was now fifty-seven years old. Even at this advanced age his spirit of adventure was not diminished in the least. After reaching India, he started on a long tour and went as far as Tibet and Kabul. He also visited Peshawar, the Punjab and other important places of Northern India on his return journey and reached the Belur Math in 1923.
To carry on Vedanta work in India according to his own plan and method, he soon established a centre under the name of Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in the heart of Calcutta. Attracted by his personality, many distinguished men of the metropolis soon gathered round him and helped him in spreading the Master’s message far and wide. A Bengali monthly under the name of Vishwavani was soon published to facilitate his missionary activities. In fact, his soul knew no rest, and he spent the last drop of his energy for the spiritual benefit of those who came in touch with him. But this unusual strain on his nerves at this age began to tell seriously upon his health. His iron constitution broke down almost beyond cure under the pressure of work. But his weakness and ailments notwithstanding, the Swami did not lack his wonted fire and enthusiasm when he was called upon to preside over the Parliament of Religions held at the Town Hall, Calcutta, on the occasion of the birth centenary of Sri Ramakrishna in 1937. He rose equal to the occasion and he never forgot to emphasise in the course of his learned address the synthetic message of the Master, ‘the mission of Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna’, said the Swami, ‘was to show by his living example how a truly spiritual man, being dead to the world of senses, can live on the plane of God-consciousness … For the first time it was demonstrated that all religions were like so many paths leading to the same goal, that the realisation of the same Almighty Being is the highest ideal of Christianity, Mohammedanism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, as well as of all other religions of the world. Sri Ramakrishna’s mission was to proclaim the eternal truth that God is one but has many aspects, and that the same one God is worshipped by different nations under various names and forms; that He is personal, impersonal, and beyond both; that He is with name and form and yet nameless and formless.’ In conclusion the Swami observed, ‘I hope that this Parliament of Religions will sound the death-knell of all communal strife and struggle, and will create a great opportunity for promoting fellowship among various faiths.’ This was indeed his last public utterance and bears eloquent testimony to his deep-seated loyalty to the Master as also to the sterling stuff he was made of.
The Swami left the mortal frame on 8 September 1939, and passed into the realm of eternal bliss to enjoy a well-earned rest. The passing of such an outstanding personality from the arena of Indian life was mourned by a large number of people in India and abroad. He was one of the remarkable spiritual and cultural ambassadors of India to the outside world. His was indeed a life in which we find a happy blending of profound spirituality and a spirit of service—a life dedicated to the spiritual uplift of humanity. He came to the world in obedience to the Divine Will to fulfil the mission of the Master, and after his task had been finished, he went back to the Source of Light and Life from which he came.