Swami Sarvagatananda -A Person of Inspiration

By Rev. Edward G. St-Godard

On Sunday, May the third at eight o'clock, I was preparing to go over to the church for the morning Mass, when the phone rang. I thought it was someone asking for the hours of Mass but instead it was Joan from the Vedanta society in Providence, telling me that they had just gotten news that Swami Sarvagatananda had passed away during the night. Swami was a ninety-six year old mystic and saint who had been a member of the Ramakrishna Order since joining in 1935. He had been born in India in 1912 and having been inspired by many of the Monks, he decided to enter religious life as well.

Ramakrishna was one of the saints of Hinduism who gathered many disciples around him and inspired them to renounce worldly things. The most famous of these followers was Vivekananda who eventually in 1897, founded the Ramakrishna Order. This Order founded in Calcutta, is one of the largest and most respected groups in India today. Vivekananda traveled to the United States to share the teachings of Ramakrishna as practiced by the Vedanta Society. He spoke at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago at the turn of the century. People were very impressed with him and so he was able to establish Vedanta houses throughout the United States. The term Vedanta is used because this branch of Hinduism stresses the principles of Hinduism in the "Vedas" -ancient Hindu philosophies.

Eventually, a twin Vedanta Society was established with a center in Providence and one in Boston. It is to these centers that Swami Sarvagatananda was sent as an assistant in 1954. Swami would spend half his week in Providence beginning with an afternoon service at 5pm then pursuing ministry the first half of the week in Providence, The second half of the week he would go up to Boston for ministry ending with a Sunday morning service after which he would return to Providence to begin the cycle again.

I met up with Swami in the mid sixties when I was stationed in St. John the Baptist parish in West Warwick. I had been asked to give classes in theology to nuns in the West Warwick area. Part of my program was to give the Sisters an awareness of ecumenical theology. I would give a class on a particular denomination; the following week I would invite a clergy person of that denomination to give their side of the story; the third week we would visit their church or center.

We had been concerned only with other Christian groups but eventually I decided to add on Judaism and Hinduism. Hence my becoming acquainted with Swami Sarvagananda. Once we got by the linguistic difficulties we found the Swami absolutely fascinating.
On later occasions I brought Swami to speak to the Carmelite Nuns in Barrington as well as to the Trappist Monks in Spencer, Massachusetts. In the eighties I was president of the Blackstone Valley Clergy Association and organized a series on "Spirituality in the various Traditions". I asked the Swami to speak on Hindu spirituality and then I asked Sister Vilma of the Carmelites in Barrington to speak on Monastic spirituality and I was impressed by the similarity of both programs.

When I celebrated my 25th anniversary of ordination, Swami was one of the three speakers at the celebration. In return I was one of the contributors to a book honoring his 40th anniversary in Providence.

One of my last recollections of Swami was when the Vedanta Society in Providence was celebrating their anniversary and I was asked to speak. Swami was carried in to the Hall for the program but could not stay for the whole of it. I was happy that he could hear my talk. But this would be the end of his active ministry in Providence. He moved to the Boston Center where he lived in retirement, still doing some counseling when his health permitted.
And now he is gone. In Christian tradition, I am sure he would be in heaven. In Hindu tradition, he has either assumed another life or more likely, because of his holiness, been assumed into the God he loved and served so well.




Swami Tathagatananda, The Vedanta Society of New York


With a heavy heart we announce that on May 3, 2009 our most Revered Swami Sarvagatanandaji of hallowed memory passed away peacefully in the early morning hours while he was sleeping.  I believe he was 96 years old.  He lived in full awareness nearly to the very end of his life.  I spoke to him over the phone from New York on April 15 and he was fully conscious at that time.


The Revered Swami was the senior-most monk of our Order working in the West.  He joined the Ramakrishna Order in 1935.  His Guru, Revered Swami Akhandanandaji was a direct disciple of Shri Ramakrishna and President of the Ramakrishna Order.  In Bombay, Swami Akhandanandaji gave spiritual initiation to Swami Sarvagatananda and told him to walk barefoot all the way from Bombay to the Ramakrishna Ashrama at Khankal, U. P.  With remarkable optimism, he faced the difficulties and hardship of the journey and despite much suffering he fulfilled his Guru’s command with a cheerful heart.  Narayan Maharj (his pre-monastic name) hailed from South India.  He was in his early twenties.  His Herculean journey, beset with numerous difficulties, conspicuously reveals the mettle of his character.  He walked nearly a thousand miles without much money, trudging through unknown regions, without knowing the local language, with no road map in his hand.  With a cool brain, with Lord’s Name on his lips, and a dynamic spirit, he achieved the goal.  He reached Khankal on February 7, 1935 and remained in Khankal for nine years until February 1943. 


Revered Swami Kalyananda was a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, who had commanded him to serve the poor at Khankal.  Swami Kalyananda worked for thirty-six long years at Khankal before passing away in 1937.  Revered Swami Sarvagatanandaji was a unique monk and a great Karma Yogin.  With perseverance, patience, and wholehearted loving service he stayed in the Khankal Ashrama and never spared himself in serving Swami Kalyananda.  This made him very dear to the Swami.  Though he was a junior brahmachari, Swami Sarvagatananda was eminently trustworthy—his entire mind was focused in rendering various types of service with a compassionate attitude.  In this way he endeared himself to one and all.  Therefore, Swami Kalyananda and the Ashrama depended on his service. 


When Swami Kalyananda had to leave Khankal due to ill health, he handed over the key to the ashrama’s safe to Swami Sarvagatananda, even though he was the junior-most brahmachari.  He asked him to manage the Ashrama in consultation with the secretary of the Ashrama and other senior swamis.  Several senior monks were present at that time.  When Swami Sarvagatananda refused to accept his new responsibility, Swami Kalyanandaji told him that by taking the key, he would not be the “boss”—he would be the servant of all.  He advised him to consult with everyone first and then to manage the Ashram.  That itself reveals his trustworthiness and competence.  Subsequently, Headquarters instructed all future secretaries of that Ashrama to work in consultation with Narayan.  I believe that during the entire period of his work in Khankal, he never took leave for tapas or pilgrimage.  Then, at the request of Headquarters, he was sent to work in the Karachi Ashrama during the crucial period of 1943 when India was going through a critical political situation.  Understandably reluctant to leave Khankal, Swami Sarvagatanandaji nevertheless went with a loving heart to serve Swami Ranganathanada at the Karachi Ashrama.


Revered Swami Sarvagatanandaji also served as the head of the Vizag Center for some time before receiving the order from Headquarters to go to Boston.  I believe it was 1954 when he arrived in America to work as the assistant minister to Revered Swami Akhilanandaji of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Boston and Providence.  His noble qualities of head and heart were now pressed into service for the development of the two Ashramas.  After the passing away of Swami Akhilananda in 1962, he became the head of these two centers and began his meaningful, loving and inspired ministry.  He had to face innumerable difficulties created by a group of devotees, including threats to his life.  They created a pandemonium during the memorial ceremony of Swami Akhilananda.  Mr. Pellini and other trusted devotees always protected the Swami.  No other Swami that I can recall ever faced such a critical situation in this country.  Through the grace of Shri Ramakrishna, in due course of time, peace prevailed in the Ashrama and Swami Sarvagatanandaji was able to lead his normal, peaceful life. 


The Marshfield area that had been lying fallow was gradually developed at his initiative.  Our dear Brother George labored hard and many devotees rendered valuable service over the years to make it a retreat center that today supplies spiritual food to thousands of people.  


For more than fifty years, without ever sparing himself, he single-handedly managed the two centers and conducted spiritual retreats every summer.  Such a heroic and overwhelming task would completely unnerve an ordinary person.  Working diligently with unique devotion and dynamism, he steadily built up his congregation.  He achieved signal success as an inspiring speaker and witty humorist—this is known to us all.  He was a genial, sympathetic, and loving counselor with pure ideals who consoled and inspired thousands.  He was a familiar and distinguished figure in the intellectual community around Boston.  He also conducted services in the chapel of M. I. T. and occasionally spoke in the chapel at Harvard University. 


Swami Sarvagatanandaji was more than a man of eminent qualities; he was an earnest man sincerely endeavoring to do a very serious work in the world.  He was one-pointed in looking after the interests of all his devotees.  He was so dedicated to these aims that he never traveled within this country or beyond it for his own purposes.  Greater still was his ethical stature, noble spiritual life and exemplary character.  He did much to broaden, sweeten and deepen the intellectual, moral and spiritual consciousness of his congregation.  Everyone received new light from him.


He was a man of integrity of character.  He tried to implement all that he preached in his own life—there was no dichotomy between his life and teaching.  Hundreds and thousands of people were highly benefited by his genial manner, compassionate heart, patience and forbearance.  Under his inspired guidance, four girls embraced the monastic life: one in Hollywood, two in San Francisco and one in India.  His zeal to serve the Lord, his enthusiasm, and his loving behavior inspired the cooperation of hundreds of devotees who have benefited immensely through their association with the Swami.  One Dutch couple was particularly fond of him; the Dutch lady remained for some time in Boston to be near the Swami.  Swami Sarvagatanandaji went to India in 1971.  Swami Sarvagatananda knew Swami Ranganathananda intimately from his Khankal days; then he worked with him in Karachi.  Due to their loving friendship, when Swami Ranganathananda was President, he repeatedly and earnestly requested Swami Sarvagatanandaji to visit him in India.  So Swami Sarvagatanandaji went again with a group of devotees.  On this second visit to India he also went to Holland, much to the joy of that Dutch couple.  In spite of his advanced age and failing health, he accepted the challenge and boldly faced the difficulties of this arduous journey to see Revered Swami Ranganathananda.


Great souls make a deep and lasting impact in the hearts of devotees.  The devotees of Revered Swami Sarvagatanandaji at both centers give ample testimony of his loving nature.  In this regard, the prominent name of George comes to my mind.  George came to the Boston Center and became a full time worker.  His numerous services there contributed to its growth, particularly his allegiance to Revered Maharaj, which is remarkable.  Out of sheer devotion, George cheerfully assumed a difficult task despite his heavy duties at the Center.  Culling from Revered Swami Sarvagatananda’s weekly lectures, George compiled and published them in two large volumes.  It is a work of great devotion.  By glancing through these books, any reader will discover the depth of Swami Sarvagatananda’s knowledge of the scriptures.  His scholarship in these two volumes has created a deep impact in the minds of readers all over the world.   George took care of Revered Swami Sarvagatanandaji during his last days.  It was only a year ago that, advanced in age and failing in health, our dear Brother George could no longer cope with the strain of looking after the Swami. 


To all of us, Revered Swami Sarvagatananda was known as an earnest spiritual seeker.  Here we have what was central and vital in him.  His life was one of spotless integrity and honor.  He led a simple, unostentatious life.  Through his purity of heart and loving nature, he rendered valuable AND commendable service to his congregation and to many others.  He was very close to our Center, and many of our older devotees knew him very intimately.


To my mind, he was a great and venerable monk of our Order—I am making no distinction, but my inner mind compels me to think of him as a great venerable monk of our Order.  I am extremely fortunate to have seen and to have known him a little during my thirty years of life in New York City.  Although I did not have much personal contact with him, by reading his book, You Will Be a Paramahamsa, I have formed my opinion about his sterling qualities of head and heart.  It has been a great blessing to know a Swami of such caliber in our Order, even a little intimately.  I pay my reverential homage at the Lotus Feet of the Revered Swami.  May his soul rest in peace.


Swami Tathagatananda

The Vedanta Society of New York

May 3, 2009


Swami Sarvagatananda

- by Christopher Sparks

To be in the presence of Swami Sarvagatanandaji was to experience that tremendous grace and ineffable bliss which only the great teachers of the world can bestow. Even towards the end of his earthly life, when Swamiji seldom spoke, he continued to bless the devotees and to guide them on their respective spiritual paths. Like all great teachers, Swamiji taught many lessons by example. It is with deep appreciation, reverence, and humility that we reflect on the various lessons he taught us more recently about old-age and the process of death. Up until his mahasamadhi, even as his body grew very frail, Swamiji served the devotees of God as veritable manifestations of the Divine Itself.

When devotees entered his bedroom to give pranam, his eyes opened wide and his face glowed with a look of absolute love and compassion. The entire atmosphere of his room was imbued with spiritual consciousness. When one reads Swamiji's book, You Will Be a Paramahamsa, one gets a darshan of the tremendous spirit of service Swamiji appropriated from his mentor Swami Kalyanananda. Indeed, Swamiji's entire life was a manifestation of his burning love for God and his selfless devotion to God's devotees. By his example, Swami Sarvagatanandaji inculcated the lessons of selfless service in the heart of his devotees. To watch the devotees, nurses, and other Swami's care for Swami Sarvagatanandji was to bear witness to that tremendous flame of love that fuses all beings into the one divine reality. All the while, it was the grace of Swami Sarvagatanandji being poured into their hearts as they followed Swamiji's example of selfless service and surrendered everything at the feet of the Lord.
Salutations to Swami Sarvagatanandaji!