The Death of a Swami, and His Bliss
Cambridge, MA. On May 3, Swami Sarvagatananda, a senior monk of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society and long-time head of the Vedanta Society in Boston, died at the age of 96. While his death did not make national headlines, it is good to reflect for a moment on his life and its meaning, so I will tell you something about him, and what his life can mean for us.
First, the facts, succinctly detailed in the notice I received: “Born in 1912, Swami Sarvagatananda joined the Ramakrishna Order in 1935, received mantra-diksha [an initiation akin to “first vows”] from Revered Swami Akhandananda Maharaj in the year 1936, and sannyasa [“final vows”] from Revered Swami Virajananda Maharaj in 1944. He came to the United States in 1954 to assist Swami Akhilananda Maharaj. He became the head of the centers in Providence and Boston in 1962, and continued in that position until 2001 (Providence) and 2002 (Boston). Even after his formal retirement from active work, he continued to meet with devotees and to guide them. His untiring service to the Vedanta work in Boston and Providence, his unbounded love for devotees and, above all, his sterling spiritual life have been, and will continue to be, a source of inspiration to all.” (You can also read an interesting interview with Swami.)
The record in itself is impressive: more than 70 years a monk, and more than 50 years of unbroken service to the members of the Vedanta Society and a wider mix of Hindus who came to the Boston and Providence Centers. It would be very hard to count up the number of Sunday services, weekday classes in basic Hindu and Vedanta texts, classes at Harvard and MIT for interested students and staff — plus the many hours of counseling he offered to anyone coming to seek his guidance.
Yet still more can be said about this compassionate, joyful and loving man. There is a 1996 volume that was published in Swami’s honor, The Lamplighter: Swami Sarvagatananda in the West. It contains about 50 reminiscences from friends and disciples who knew Swami over the years: testimonies to his wisdom, love, sense of humor, his great joy and perennial hope for the spiritual advancement of the human race in its quest to realize God. It is clear that he was able, again and again, to communicate divine love and joy to people of all kinds and backgrounds. (I was honored to contribute my own reflection to the book.)
Reflection on Swami's legacy reminds us to keep our balance in reflecting on pluralism. The diversity of religions is of course a major factor facing all of us today, and we know that discussions of religious diversity have been delicate and difficult in most Christian Churches. Even if almost all of us admit by now that diversity will be with us for a very long time — it shows no sign of waning, quite the opposite — we still and rightly want to avoid a mindless relativism, and we do not want to settle for a merely tepid witness to our faith. So we need to think carefully about diversity and how we are to interpret our faith amidst the many religions.
But even as we take both our own and other religions seriously, it is important to admit more simply that there are all around us graced persons who radiate wisdom and compassion, in their own words in their own religions. We need to study the theologies and great texts, indeed, but we need also simply to recognize and honor the presence of saintly persons who in some simple but most evident way witness to divine love. Swami, , in his very long life and ministry in Boston, is one of these persons: however we explain Christ and the world religions, we have to be diligent in our gratitude for persons such as Swami Sarvagatananda. Our faith must make room for his faith.
Swami invited me to preach at the Center three times, and I found it a moving spiritual moment to be with him at those Sunday services. In turn, I invited him to the Boston College campus as well, and each time he came, even when he was quite elderly, he made a powerful impression on our students. His message was simple, and stressed the value of knowledge of the self, the possibility and value of spiritual progress, the presence of God everywhere, and the harmony of religions.
I remember one time when a student asked him if he thought there would ever be a single world religion, Hindu or other. He replied simply, “I hope not! The ways to God are rich and varied, we learn about God and ourselves by enjoying all the many ways people seek and find God. May there always be thousands of paths to God!” It seemed to me that he really did live up to the charism of Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century mystic and saint who found God — His Mother, Kali — in all things, and was the inspiration for the Vedanta Society to which Swami gave his life. Swami also lived up to his name, Sarva-gata-ananda: “He whose bliss (ananda) reaches (gata) all things (sarva),” or perhaps better, “He whose bliss is in the One who has reached everywhere.” Or, as a Jesuit might say, “He who finds God in all things.”
I close with a prayer found in The Lamplighter: “We offer our salutations to the All-Loving Being who endows all beings with consciousness. We meditate on the Lord, who is the origin of the universe. Lord, you abide in all. You are all; You are Existence, Knowledge, and Bliss. Salutations unto You! May the World be peaceful. May the wicked become gentle. May all creatures think of mutual welfare. May their minds be occupied with what is spiritual and abiding. May our hearts be immersed in selfless love for the Lord. Peace, peace, peace be unto all.”