Swami Vidyatmananda: The Making of a Devotee
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Chapter Eleven

The Devotee As Aide to a Holy Man


Swami Ritajananda was born on 9 December, 1906, in Mylapore, Madras. He is from an orthodox South Indian brahmin family, his forebears having been temple priests. His father's name was T.P. Narayanaswamy and his mother was called Visalakshmi. His mother died when he was twelve, and he went to live with his grandfather — a disciplinarian so restrictive that the boy decided — as he told me once — to be as permissive toward others when he grew up as his grandfather had been severe toward him. He seems to have been a shy youth, perhaps rather lonely, and convinced that he was not particularly attractive to others. He felt sure that the acquaintances he made were likely to find him uninteresting and were bound sooner or later to drop him.

He thus became rather defensive and developed a hesitancy to commit himself for fear of being disappointed. He turned into a bookish, solitary, self-contained person. He kept his thoughts as well as his emotions to himself. He learned early to keep his own counsel, not to reveal his true feelings; this quality manifested itself in later life as an admirable self-possession.

From his earliest days the future Swami Ritajananda admired English literature and was interested, also, in French books and writers. He read Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo in English translation when he was in his teens. He attended the University of Andhra, where he specialized in mathematics. At Madras he associated with monks of the Sri Ramakrishna Math at Mylapore, including Swami Yatiswarananda and Swami Siddheswarananda, both of whom, curiously, were to be his predecessors in Europe.

In 1931 at the age of twenty-five, on the birthday of Sri Rama, the future Swami Ritajananda arrived at Belur Math to join the Order of Sri Ramakrishna. His father opposed this move and appealed to the authorities of Belur Math for the return of his son; but the postulant vigorously rejected all such appeals, even warning his father than he would take up the life of an anonymous, itinerant sadhu if the authorities at Belur Math rejected him because of the disapproval of his family. He obtained his diksha initiation from the then President, Swami Shivananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. He took brahmacharya in 1936 from Swami Akhandananda, another direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, and sannyas in 1940 from Swami Virajananda, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda.

Being a novice in a busy monastery in Bengal was very different from being a student in comfortable circumstances in South India. The food was foreign to him, and the language had to be learned. (Always interested in languages, he soon mastered Bengali; he already knew Sanskrit and English, as well as Tamil and Telegu. Later he was to learn Sinhalese while serving in the Ramakrishna Mission in Sri Lanka, and, after 1961, French.) The Bengali temperament is as distinct from that of the South Indian's as is, say, the Mediterranean personality from that of members of the Nordic nations. During his early years in the Order, thus, that same sensation of alienation known from his youngest days persisted.

During the period when he was a brahmachari Swami Ritajananda worked as a school teacher at the Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapith in Deoghar, Bihar, where he taught mathematics. During the war years he headed the Ramakrishna Mission school system in Sri Lanka, which consisted of several schools and an institution for orphans; it was a period of privation due to food and other shortages. In 1946 he was appointed proctor of the great Vivekananda Students' Home in Madras, where he remained till 1954. This large institution comprises a technical school, a high school, and a hostel. Academic work always appealed to the Swami. He is a natural teacher and likes young people. Former students from Deoghar, from Colombo, and from Madras continue to keep in touch with him.


In 1954 Swami Nikhilananda requested Swami Ritajananda's presence in New York as assistant minister of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre, 17 E. 94th Street. Having few duties there other than giving class talks weekly and occasional Sunday lectures, the Swami was able to read widely and start work on a biography of Swami Turiyananda. This was published in English in 1962 and in French in 1979. He also had time for friendships, and began to become known among the congregation as soneone ready to listen to one's problems or just be companionable. It was thus that Swami Ritajananda began to exercise his extraordinary talent for friendship. That old sensation of considering himself an outsider disappeared. He told me that at a certain point — I don't know when this was — he had decided to see how many friends he could acquire! This process began in earnest in New York. The Swami had developed a sunny, permissive personality; one sensed that one could tell him anything and that he would be interested. Moreover he would not judge or condemn, and he would keep one's confidences. Unassertive in most fields of activity, he often takes a strong lead in attracting and cultivating new contacts. He is especially interested in those individuals having adjustment problems: the misfits, the friendless, the inept. His early problems thus fitted him to understand and sympathize with others. And how they do respond to his advances! Here he is assertive. I once told him he was a obsessive collector of wounded birds!

In New York Swami Ritajananda never assumed any of the prerogatives of a guru — traditionally exercised only by the head of the center. But perhaps his easy popularity with the devotees displeased his superior. In any case, Swami Nikhilananda requested his replacement. Thus in 1959 Swami Ritajananda was transferred to the Vedanta Society of Southern California as temporary, second assistant minister, the first assistant minister being Swami Vandanananda, who later returned to India to become for a time General Secretary of the Order.

One suspects that Swami Ritajananda was hurt by his dismissal from the New York work, but he never said so. He never talked about it at all, and certainly never expressed public criticism of Swami Nikhilananda. The quality of not criticizing is firmly established as a part of his personality. When someone does something clearly unwise or obviously wrong, Swami Ritajananda's usual observation is: "But he's like that, that's his nature. What can he do?" And then he will probably add, "But he will surely change." That's the final line of the few negative assessments of people I have heard the Swami utter: "He will suffer from the course he is taking and that will force him to change."

How many times I have heard those words from him: "He (or she) will surely change." He never really looks at people according to the weaknesses that they manifest at the given time. Rather he considers them as, certainly not bad, but merely immature. He believes in the future spiritual success of everybody he comes in contact with; and it is this belief in them that attracts so many people to him.

Devotees from New York followed Swami Ritajananda to Southern California or kept in close touch with him by mail. And he made many new friends in Hollywood. By now receiving and answering letters was becoming a major part of his schedule. This "problem" of correspondence kept augmenting. In the 1980's at Gretz he was receiving ten or twelve letters a day, often long and complicated recitations of personal problems, and of course expressed in several different languages. Once he pointed out the stack of unanswered correspondence and confessed that he was overwhelmed by it. I reminded him: "But Swami, don't forget that you told me that you had once decided to acquire as many friends as possible. Here is the result!" I must add that his conscientiousness in responding to needs expressed is remarkable. Even boring people or those with difficult handwriting or those of clearly unstable personality receive his positive attention. Noticing the flood of correspondence waiting to be answered, I asked on another occasion what it was that all these people wrote about. His answer was: "It's very simple. They want to tell somebody something that's important to them and assume that that something is interesting to the person to whom they are writng. So I try to reply, even a few lines. Generally not giving advice, but just being friendly and encouraging. It gives them comfort." I have thus a daily object-lesson of what Swami Prabhavananda tried to inculcate in me and which I have been slow to learn. I can hear him still in that insistent, tender tone: "Feel for others, my child. You must learn to feel for others."


In 1961, as I have said, Swami Ritajananda was appointed President of the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna at Gretz, France. The old process continued. Old New York friends came to visit when they could, as did the more recent friends from Hollywood, or continued to write regularly. And gradually there were established contacts throughout all of Europe.

At first the situation for the new leader was very difficult. I have described the troubles of this period in Chapter Ten. To someone who had long contended with the problem of rejection, what occurred at this period was very difficult indeed. As I said, I visited Gretz in the summer of 1964 and found Swami Ritajananda in a dejected mood. He even expressed the fear that the Centre might slowly waste away. Twenty-five years later, of course, such fears show themselves to have been unfounded.

Swami Ritajananda took his elevation to Head-of-Center modestly. He was now empowered to give initiations, and over the years he was to make many disciples. In addition to giving counsel by correspondence he now began to receive people in interviews, so much so that as the years passed he gained a reputation in Europe as a sort of wise man or seer from whom one could solicit advice on almost any aspect of human or divine behavior. He became the recipient of widespread adulation. But he never accepted such marks of reverence as meant for himself. He deflected them to Sri Ramakrishna. I never heard him use the word "initiation" in connection with his activities, nor did I ever know of him referring to someone as his disciple. Rather he would say that X had asked for a mantra or that Y had come to be thrown at the feet of the Lord. "Only God is guru. I have done what was expected of me — now let Sri Ramakrishna do his job."

Of course occasionally close devotees have grown indifferent and have left. But now there is a confidence and an assurance of success which keep him from taking these defections badly, certainly not as disloyal actions or as rebuffs. The early fear of betrayal seems thus to have been entirely surmounted. "Why yes, they may find what they are looking for elsewhere. We have done what we could. It is good for them to try elsewhere."

In matters of administration I have rarely seen Swami Ritajananda initiate any action or departure on his own. He much prefers that someone else act as agent. Often he seems not to know what he wants, and this lack of decision sometimes baffles his assistants. One supposes that, in these cases, he is waiting to learn the will of God. Or it may be that he is diplomatically waiting for an intended course of action to show itself acceptable to all concerned, for a consensus to emerge. When there appears a conjunction of all elements, one may consider that the proposed action is indicated and should be undertaken.

This, when I arrived in Gretz in 1966, was a type of personality I had never before worked with. How different this approach was from Lyle Spencer's aggressive drive and Prabhavananda's assertiveness! I was baffled by the Swami's silence, by the fact that he was often so non-committal. He didn't tell me what to do, although since I was at that time still of an enterprising nature and rather brash, he quietly cautioned me, as non-French and a newcomer, as to several things not to do. He didn't seem to depend on me, didn't have any preconceptions of what my functions were to be, almost made me feel as though he didn't actually need me; but I was welcome to stay in Gretz if the situation suited me. The ashrama wasn't "his" place: it was the Lord's. I was given no responsibilities, no special status. "Let us see what the Lord wants" was the answer to everything. I had come to Gretz on a year's trial basis; so I went to Swami Ritajananda on the closing day of that first year and asked him if my performance had been satisfactory and if I should continue. Blandly he took no position on the question at all. "Who am I to answer that? I'm nobody here." I should do what seemed best to me. Of course I stayed.

It is not my purpose to talk about myself in this description of Swami Ritajananda. But because I have worked closely with him for many years and have found my own character changed and my outlook modified by the contact, I can perhaps describe him most effectively by making personal references to his effect upon me.

As a person habituated to direct lines of commands and to business methods, I was unused to the non-directive mode of operating which Swami Ritajananda followed, finding it extremely disquieting. I was unmanned by this, to me, inscrutable attitude for years. The place I was eventually to occupy at the ashrama formulated itself naturally as duties others had abandoned fell upon me, or as I saw the need to take up projects no one else cared about. It was a tactful fashion for a newcomer and foreigner to become integrated into the work. But in the early years I had a hard time accepting the fluidity of the situation.

Even to this day Swami has never uttered a word of appreciation. He's never expressed satisfaction with my work, never said thank you. It took me years not to be hurt by this and to understand it. "Who am I to praise or blame? It's not I for whom anyone is working. You do what you do for the Lord and for your own development. I won't make ours a business arrangement." This evidence of confidence now seems more valuable to me than would utterances of the usual kind of routine thanks.

Try as I did, I could never manage to involve Swami in personal or vocational problems. Any complaint was turned aside blandly: "Moods change." His policy when he was himself scolded or complained against was to remain silent. Just to sit silently until the other had run out of words. No self-defense, just silence. This response had the effect of disarming the assailant and finally forcing him to desist, defeated. Swami is thus hard to quarrel with. Once, however, when I was really irritated about something he had done I made up my mind to "have things out" with him. He listened in silence to my angry words and then answered calmly: "You know you are angry. So your reason is disturbed. We'll wait a little while for the emotion to go, and then we'll discuss the matter like the good friends we are."

I see now that only a modest and wise man could act in the ways I have described. The early discomposure I felt has turned into admiration. I have tried to learn to follow the same mode of behavior myself. "Be patient, be positive, and let things work out." "Who can tell what is good, what is ultimately bad, what is progress, what is success? It all depends." "Don't get excited. There are so many criteria; spiritual unfoldment is too subtle to analyze. Who knows how God works? Who knows what God wants?" Could this mode of operating be called spiritual improvisation?

For Swami Ritajananda the purpose of religion, as I have indicated, is to produce a change in the individual who practices it — a change of character, a change in his habitual reactions, a fundamental change in that person's very thought patterns. A genuinely spiritual man or woman is one who has learned to live at peace with himself, who lives in peace with others, and who copes competently with the vagaries of the everyday world in which human beings are forced to live. The Swami is not impressed by claims made concerning mystical experiences or celestial emotions when not accompanied by a corresponding amelioration in the individual's life style. Have you become a mature person? would be his question. Spiritual practice, properly applied, should transform an individual into something of a sage. And the means of reaching this state is meditation, steadily, relentlessly practiced.

Despite his commitment to the non-directive mode of operation, Swami Ritajananda has succeeded in bringing into being numerous positive developments in ashrama procedures. Shortly after he arrived he initiated the construction of an auditorium for the Sunday lectures; these had previously been given in the rather inadequate public rooms of the main house. In 1968 the Swami began to give a class on the Bhagavad-Gita at 6 Place des Etats-Unis, Paris, the residence where Swami Vivekananda had stayed as the guest of the Leggetts in 1900. This bimonthly class was continued regularly over a period of seven years. In 1976 the Center published a new version of the Bhagavad-Gita which the Swami had translated directly into French from the Sanskrit, and in 1986 he brought out a book on meditation. The quarterly revue "Védanta", begun in 1966, continued to appear regularly. He has undertaken the translation of the Gospel of Sri Ramakishna from the original Bengali directly into French.

During all these years Ritajananda has traveled widely in the main countries of Western Europe, meeting with people individually or in groups. These contacts gradually swelled the number of friends wishing to make retreats at Gretz, thus rendering the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna a very flourishing and truly international religious community. Thus have been planted the seeds which will surely sprout one day into full-fledged Vedanta centers in Germany, Italy, Spain, and other European countries.

There was, however, one project concerning which Swami Ritajananda took from the beginning a strong position. He felt that the Center should have a proper meditation hall. The chapel established by Swami Siddheswarananda was adapted from a former bedroom on the top floor of the main house. In the early days of the work in France a certain discretion was considered indispensable. Only intimate devotees were permitted to know of the existence of the chapel and to have access to it. With the change of attitude toward meditation and the coming of Swami Ritajananda, any visitor interested in attending a meditation session or a religious office is permitted to go to the chapel. Thus the old chapel soon proved itself to be inadequate. Swami Ritajananda aspired always that there should be an suitable locale expressely designed for meditation. But during many years there simply was not enough money to consider building such a structure. But the determination to produce a new chapel never left the Swami's mind, and by the year of his twenty-fifth anniversary as leader of the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna the project could finally be realized. The new facility serves well the devotees and remains a monument to Swami Ritajananda's steady belief in the transforming power of meditation.


Having observed at close hand the application of what has been called the directive and nondirective methods of operating in a center, ] conclude that the nondirective approach is superior. It is slow, aggravating, and demands a high degree of committment from those applying it. But for any leader or manager trying to pursue a spiritual objective, attempting to work purely for the spiritual benefit of those he is responsible for, I believe that the nondirective method is preferable.

The technique is simply to stand back and "let the Lord work things out". Where the directive method is employed, there exists a subtle danger that when one makes and imposes a decision one may be, without knowing it, expressing an impulse coming from one'e own wishes, prejudices, or will. Not being all-knowing — as the Lord is — one may be making a mistake. My own doubts began at Science Research Associates long ago when confronted with the uncertainties inherent in what was referred to as human engineering. In all active human situations more variables are involved than the human mind can take account of, and before a therapist can achieve results the variables tend to increase in number and change their character. I can recall examples where courses of action I was sure were indicated were subsequently shown to be, if carried out, clearly erroneous. As I have watched the working out of the nondirective style over two and a half decades, my conclusion is that it gives results no less effective than those reached where the style of leadership is more aggressive; and probably ultimately better for all from a spiritual standpoint.

Of course this is a debatable subject. An impressive example of gratuitous goodness is given in Section 9 of Chapter Twelve where I speak of the "non-hissing" proclivities of Swami A. The reader is directed to this passage.


There is an Indian expression which runs like this: "God is at the disposal of his devotees." Quite an idea. Years of observation have shown me that a genuine guru or holy man is equally at the disposal of any seeker who wishes to "take advantage" of him. He is a hostage to his own committment, victim of his own goodness, prisoner of love — of his own impersonal compassion — that which Buddhist writers term the Great Compassion. Well, God can take it, but the poor earthly guru is only a man!

Some observers might believe that being a guru is an enviable lot. All that adulation, all those gifts!. But no. That's the least part of it, and a negligible part, since no genuine guru accepts such marks of esteem as due to him personally. One recalls Shakespear's masterly treatment of Henry V's meditations as he, the King, disguised, walked among his soldiers in the night before the battle at Harfleur: "What infinite heart's ease must kings neglect that private men enjoy!" It's the comfort-station duties, the emergency-ward responsibilities which cost. The long letters to be read and responded to encouragingly, the interviews replete with tedious details of the disciple's resentments and regrets, the sheer childishness of attitudes of the interviewee, the advice he is implored to give, often on matters purely secular. The embarrassing revelations he must listen to, the trouble-making potentialities of the unstable and the mad, that he must defuse. Yes, and the denunciations he must face from disciples who temporarily or permanently choose to change their allegiance.

God is at the entire disposal of his devotee. The corollary to that is that the holy man or guru, performing as he should, is indeed more godlike than he or we can possibly comprehend.

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