I had the blessing of meeting revered Swami Yatiswaranandaji (hereafter ‘Maharaj’) for the first time in the last week of December 1958. I was introduced to him by revered Swami Agamanandaji Maharaj, who was a disciple of revered Swami Brahmanandaji Maharaj and one of the great men Kerala produced in modern times. A few days later, Maharaj blessed me with Mantra–Dìksha (spiritual initiation). A distinctive feature of Maharaj’s initiation was the unique technique of meditation that he taught. This meditation is a movement from the Formless aspect of God to the form of the Istha-devata. It is a process of connecting the centre of one’s consciousness to Divine Consciousness. The soul and the Deity are two aspects of an infinitude of Divine Consciousness: this awareness was what Maharaj attempted to communicate through initiation.
As I understood in later years, spiritual initiation has three main functions. In the first place, the aspirant receives a Mantra from the Guru. A Mantra is a special kind of linguistic formula which has (as stated by Patañjali in his Yoga Sutras I.29 and II.44) the intrinsic power to remove obstacles on the spiritual path, awaken spiritual consciousness and reveal the Chosen Deity. Secondly, through the initiation the spiritual aspirant learns a particular technique of meditation developed by the Guru. This enables him to stick to a definite spiritual path, and steadfastness in one path is very much necessary to attain success in spiritual life. Lastly, spiritual initiation admits a seeker into a spiritual community. What this implies in the Ramakrishna Movement is that the soul of the seeker gets plugged into the powerful spiritual current generated by Sri Ramakrishna, the Holy Mother and the disciples of the Master.
In my first meeting with Maharaj I expressed my wish to join the Order, but he did not show much interest in it. When I met him next year, I again expressed my wish to become a monk of the Order. This time he was pleased to see my determination.
On that occasion he gave me three instructions:
‘Hereafter you learn to look upon yourself as the Atman, the inner Spirit. In monastic life the thought of woman would come, but in the Atman there is no gender. Always identify yourself with the Atman.’ ‘If you think it is wrong to do something, don’t do it.’
‘When you get problems and difficulties, what will you do? Take them all to Sri Ramakrishna. Pray to him intensely. He will always protect and guide you.’
These three instructions gave me lifelong guidance.
Early Days with Maharaj in Bangalore
Revered Swami Yatiswaranandaji had been the President of Ramakrishna Ashrama, Bangalore, from 1951. In those days the Ashrama was very calm and quiet, full of trees, and looked like a Tapovan, a forest hermitage.
When I joined Bangalore Ashrama in mid-1961, Maharaj was away on a visit to Singapore and Rangoon. While going through the old issues of the Order’s journal Vedanta Kesari in the library, I came across the notes of class talks given by Maharaj in Germany and Switzerland from 1933 to 1939. I started copying those notes, and wrote to Maharaj about what I was doing. In reply he wrote: ‘We have an idea of bringing out another book on practical spirituality. The work you are doing now may be of help in the preparation of the book in future.’ Maharaj’s wish and blessing was fulfilled nineteen years later when the book Meditation and Spiritual Life was published in 1979. The notes I had prepared formed the nucleus of this book.
Living with an illumined soul like Revered Yatiswara-nandaji Maharaj is a continual process of liberal education. The benefits of gurukulavâsa, living with the guru, which was the system of education followed in ancient India, can be understood only by those who have had the blessed opportunity for it. Maharaj kept a watchful eye on the lives of the monastic inmates of the Ashrama, and corrected us whenever we erred or failed to measure up to monastic ideals. He was not only a teacher but was also like a fond mother, sincerely concerned about our all-round welfare.
Maharaj did not encourage what is known as ‘personality cult’. Owing to his sweet and loving nature, he was adored by his disciples and many others. But he wanted all their adoration to be directed towards God. He wanted that Sri Ramakrishna should be the object of all love and adoration, and everyone else was to be loved through Him and for his sake: this was a basic teaching and attitude of Swami Yatiswaranandaji.
Power of Selfless Service
The first duty assigned to me after Maharaj returned to Bangalore from Burma and Singapore was that of ‘Bhandari’, looking after the kitchen and dining hall. In those days this service involved a lot of work as there was no other help except the cook. Before joining the Order I used to spend several hours in contemplative life, but now I could manage to get hardly two or three hours. As a result of the conflict between work and meditation a kind of discontent began to grow in my mind. I did not tell anybody about it, but Maharaj seemed to have sensed it.
Every day he used to come to the kitchen at about ten in the morning to inform the Bhandari about the number of guests expected to have noon Prasad that day. One day I was sitting in the kitchen dressing vegetables when he came to the door. After telling me about the number of guests for noon Prasad, he stood there for a few minutes more and said, ‘You see, when you do selfless work for Guru Maharaj (Sri Ramakrishna) some Power will come and lift you up.’ He then left the place without saying anything more.
The next few days I thought deeply about the significance of Maharaj’s forceful utterance. It gradually dawned upon me that I had set too much store by meditation, and that the amount of time I spent on meditation was not directly proportional to the spiritual progress that I had attained. Selfless work is generally regarded as a long-drawn-out process of purification of mind. Maharaj’s statement that selfless service opened the door to Divine Power revealed to me a new vista or dimension of spirituality, which is a basic principle in the ideology of the Ramakrishna Movement. It actually unifies the two ideals of the motto, ‘For one’s own liberation and for the welfare of the world.’ As enunciated by revered Swami Tapasyanandaji Maharaj, all the activities of Ramakrishna Math and Mission are based on the faith that the Avatarhood of Sri Ramakrishna has opened a new pathway to Mukti: whoever performs any work as service to Sri Ramakrishna and surrenders the fruit of his actions to Him will, by His grace, become spiritually uplifted and will eventually attain liberation. What the contemplatives, as for instance, the monks of certain Buddhist sects who are said to practice twelve hours of meditation every day, attain through hours of contemplation, may be attained by a person who renders selfless service to suffering people as worship of Sri Ramakrishna with the aim of attaining purity of mind and spiritual elevation.
Building up One’s Spiritual Life
Everyone is born with certain inherent tendencies. It so happened that from boyhood I had a desire to live in a cave in the Himalayas, and used to read avidly books and articles on travels in the Himalayas. This desire persisted even after joining the Order. I never told anybody about it, but Maharaj seemed to have sensed it. One night when I went to his room to fill his thermos with hot water, he asked me to sit down on a chair near him. He then talked to me for nearly an hour and a half. The first thing he told me was: ‘If you think of a wandering life now itself, you will only become a vagabond. Live in one place and build up your spiritual life.’
Maharaj then narrated the experiences he had when he practised tapasya on the banks of the rivers Kaveri and Tamraparni and on the seashore at Tiruchendur—all in Tamil Nadu. The Prasad given from temples to pilgrims was his food. In Shiva temples only plain rice used to be given to pilgrims. After living on plain rice for one or two months he felt as if ‘every cell in my body called for nourishment.’ He talked to the priests, and they gave him chutney-pudi (dal powder mixed with spices) and buttermilk. The reason for his narrating all this to me was to impress upon my mind the fact that remaining in one Ashrama and building up my spiritual life was far more important than leading a wandering life.
Some of the other important points in his talk are given below in his own words.
- It is good to learn different kinds of work so that you can serve the Order in different ways.
- Too much introversion and too much extroversion are to be given up. Mingle with all people freely without losing your inner composure and remembrance of God. You don’t have to indulge in gossip; talk to people about what you gain from spiritual life. Maharaj said: ‘When I was in Madras I did all kinds of work, but I avoided talking to people. Raja Maharaj noticed this, and asked me, “I say, why you don’t talk with people?” I replied, “Maharaj, what shall I talk about?” “Why, what you learn through your studies, through your spiritual practices, speak of that.”’
- The joy and calmness you feel in meditation must be brought to bear in your work also. Maintaining an undercurrent of thought of God during work is as important as doing meditation at stated hours. All your work must be done as service to Sri Ramakrishna. ‘I don’t do anything other than service to the Lord,’ he said with great emphasis.
- Our ideal is Âtmano mokshârtham, jagad hitâya ca. If you think, ‘Let me realize God first and then serve others’, it will never happen. As Raja Maharaj has taught, work and worship must go hand in hand. Our ideal should be, ‘I want to realize God along with others. I want to share my life with others.’ Very often, in the name of doing spiritual practices, we think too much of ourselves, become too much self-centred. Think of the welfare of others. Referring to the life of the Direct Disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, Maharaj said, ‘I have seen Mahapurush Maharaj, Baburam Maharaj, Khoka Maharaj and other disciples of Thakur; they had no other thought but the welfare of others. From morning till night they worked for others. They all laid their lives for the Sangha. You should also do the same.’
- I told Maharaj, ‘I am not much bothered about work. But I feel unhappy to think that even after so many years I haven’t attained much progress in spiritual life.’ Maharaj replied, ‘Don’t try to be a saint overnight. Leave everything to Guru Maharaj. Let Him do whatever He pleases. You must have more faith in Sri Ramakrishna.’
- Maharaj then spoke about the vision he had had before going to Europe in 1933. A letter had come from Germany requesting the authorities of Ramakrishna Math, Belur Math, to send a Vedanta teacher to Germany, and the Trustees chose Swami Yatiswaranandaji. But Maharaj was reluctant to go. The Nazis under Hitler were coming to power in Germany and the whole of Europe was in a state of unrest. Revered Mahapurush Maharaj wrote to Yatiswaranandaji advising him to accept the proposal, but the letter got stuck in the postbox and was therefore not delivered. Unable to decide, Yatiswaranandaji Maharaj went on praying to Sri Ramakrishna. After a few days when he woke up early in the morning, he saw Light coming from all directions and entering him, and he felt an Infinite Presence. He then realized Thakur (Sri Ramakrishna) was everywhere and his going to Europe was His will. He decided to agree to go to Germany. That day itself the postman delivered revered Mahapurush Maharaj’s letter to him.
I was listening spellbound to Maharaj’s talk. When he ended, it was 11 o’clock at night, I knelt down in humble submission, and he blessed me by placing his holy hands on my head.