Ambaanandha-gurum vandhe ahaidhuka-dayaanidhim ||
I salute Ambananda guru, whose life is merged in Sri Ramakrishna,
who is the loving child of Sri Sarada Devi and who is an abode of boundless compassion.
Steamer and Raft
Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna said once: 'As a large and powerful steamer moves swiftly over the water, towing rafts and barges in its wake, so when a saviour comes, he easily carries thousands to the haven of safety across the ocean of maya.' He himself is now adored by millions as a Saviour of mankind and the Incarnation of the Age. If he is the 'large and powerful steamer', the great souls who had shaped their lives in his mould were 'rafts and barges', who also in their turn carry people across the ocean of death and birth. Swami Ambanandaji, blessed by Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, the divine consort of Sri Ramakrishna, was one such noble soul. He had been blessed by Swami Vivekananda, as also by several other direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna.
Swami Ambanandaji was born in 1874 in Mavelikkara, a small town in Kerala and his original name was Madhuranayakam Pillai. Chockalingam Pillai, his father, was a renowned Magistrate and respected for his impartial and unfailing judgments. He was an adept in mesmerism. There had been instances of his using his power for good purposes. There was a ruffian who had been a nuisance to the public. One morning Chockalingam Pillai, on his way to the court, happened to see him scaring the public by his unruly behavior. Pillai went straight to him, ordered him, 'Stand still there!' and left the place for his business. To the astonishment of all, the rowdy stood there as if petrified. He could not move an inch from there till the magistrate returned from the court in the evening. After he came and commanded him to move then only he was able to take a step aside. After this incident the ruffian got his life transformed and lived a normal life.
As his father, Swami Ambanandaji was a staunch upholder of moral virtues. But he was not destined to live long with his father. He lost him when he was sixteen and also his mother after two years. He and his five younger brothers and a younger sister had been brought up by his uncle.
Swami Ambanandaji was a brilliant student especially interested in mathematics. He was given much to physical exercises and as a result developed a very good physique. After his school studies he graduated from the Science College, Trivandrum. Later he was sent to Engineering College at Guindy in Chennai. As he was taught there by the English professors he earned a good command over English. He became a tennis champion too.
First Seed: Swami Vivekananda's Blessing
When the swami was in the third year, the first seed of spiritual life was sown in his mind, and that too, was by none other than Swami Vivekananda himself. It was 1897, the year of the triumphal home-coming of Swami Vivekananda. He was coming back to India after successfully broadcasting the message of Hinduism and making India stand once again with an uplifted head among the world nations. He was to be in Chennai between February 6 and 14. Great enthusiasm prevailed in Chennai and its environs for weeks over the event of his coming to Chennai. For days in advance, the Chennai papers carried editorials about him and announced the programme of welcoming him. The railway station and streets were lavishly decorated, and triumphal arches erected. Mottoes such as 'Long Live the Venerable Vivekananda!' were blazoned on all sides. Never since its earliest days had Chennai witnessed such an enthusiastic reception accorded to anyone, European or Indian. Of all the official receptions that were ever held in Chennai, none could equal the one given to Swami Vivekananda.
Swami Ambanandaji was amazed at this ovation of welcoming a monk. He too, like anyone else in the city, was eager and excited to have the darsan of Swamiji for whom the whole city had been agog since several days. On the D-day, i.e. on 6 February, he and a friend of him went out to see that there was almost no place to wait or even to stand. It was as if the whole city was filled with human heads. On both the sides of the road through which Swamiji and his companions would be riding from Egmore to Ice House (present Vivekanandar Illam, a sub-centre of Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai) Marina beach, where Swamiji would be staying, the crowd was surging denser and denser. Finding no other way left, the two friends climbed a tree near the Presidency College wherefrom they could get a good view of the convoy.
At last the procession was in sight and what a sight it was! In earnest enthusiasm the youngsters had unharnessed the horses and pulled the carriage themselves! At every move, the carriage had to halt repeatedly to enable the people to make offerings to Swamiji. There was a perpetual shower of flowers at every point on the route. Swami Ambanandaji was wonderstruck. His eyes got riveted on Swamiji and Swamiji alone who was shining like a sun. But a miracle was to follow. As he was gradually getting drawn to the face of Swamiji he could notice a halo of golden light, as that was seen with the rising sun, around his head. He rubbed his eyes again and again and focused his gaze towards Swamiji's face to assure himself; he found it was. This mystical experience had a profound influence in the life of Swami Ambanandaji.
Naturally Swami Ambanandaji was eager to meet Swamiji personally. But there seemed to be no possibility as there was overflowing crowd constantly around Swamiji and he had tight schedule. One day Swami Ambanandaji attended a conversation session of Swamiji held at early morning 6 o' clock. But he was waiting for an opportunity to meet him closer. One day he and his friends had been walking on the Marina beach. Suddenly they saw Swamiji walking in front of them, a little farther, with a friend (Partasaraty Iyengar) of him. Not waiting to lose the chance, the friends hurried their steps to catch up with Swamiji. At first Swamiji did not notice them following him. When he noticed he stopped, turned around and asked:
Swamiji: Why are you following me, boys?
Swami Ambanandaji: Nothing Particular.
Swamiji: We have some confidential matter to discuss. When we found that it was not possible there at the Ice House we came here. We left instruction also there that no one should follow us. I am sorry, now I would not be able to talk to you. We shall meet and talk afterwards. You must be students! It is already dusk. Go and study. We shall meet later.'
These few words directly from Swamiji were enough for Swami Ambanandaji. Later he was blessed to hear two of Swamiji's historical lectures in Chennai. Meeting Swamiji was the first ray of light that led him through the golden path to the Source. (Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda by Swami Ambananda in Tamil)
After meeting Swamiji, his holy face and nectar-like words ever remained pivoted in the firmament of Swami Ambanandaji's mind. He started reading the works of Swamiji and forgot everything else. The inevitable happened—his studies got affected and he, the brilliant student, failed in the examination. Then he was twenty-three.
With Swami Ramakrishnanandaji
Next year, in 1897, Swami Ambanandaji continued his engineering studies. By that time, Swami Ramakrishnanandaji, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and a God-realized saint, at the instance of Swami Vivekananda, had established a centre of Ramakrishna Math at the Ice House. This became a blessing to Swami Ambanandaji. He intimately associated himself with Swami Ramakrishnanandaji and received many instructions from him for his practical spiritual life. (Reminiscences of Swami Ramakrishnananda by Swami Ambananda)
The blessings two great monks kindled the fire of renunciation in Swami Ambanandaji. But due to family responsibilities he had to wait some more years to become a monk. His uncle got him married when he was twenty-three. However, this marriage didn't last long. He got divorced after a year and half at the instance of her. But he still had the responsibility of looking after his younger brothers and sister who had been with him. During this period he left home thrice to become a monk but could not succeed. His love and the sense of responsibility for the younger ones dragged him back home every time. He had to work as a school teacher for earning money.
During this period he had an opportunity of meeting Swami Nirmalanandaji, another direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. He had been spreading the message of his master Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna in Kerala.
At the Holy Feet of Sri Sarada Devi
It was Swami Nirmalanandaji who became the instrument for Swami Ambanandaji to receive the greatest blessing of his life—to receive mantra diksha from Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi. (Reminiscences of Mother by Swami Ambananda) It was during the Navaratri days (Durga Puja in Bengal) of 1914.
Mother blessed him with the holy mantra diksha on the appointed day. At first she initiated him with the mantra of Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna. Afterwards she asked him what his family deity was. The swami could not answer as did not know it. Then Mother closed her eyes and meditated for a while and told, 'Your family deity is Kali. I shall give you Her mantra. You should repeat daily this mantra too.' To his astonishment Swami Ambanandaji learned later from the elders of the family that Mother's words were utterly true. The elders informed him that they did have a shrine dedicated to Kali where She was being worshipped symbolically in a sword.
As we see from the reminiscences of Swami Ambanandaji that he could worship the sacred feet of Mother and could have the charanamrita as her prasad and also a rudraksha mala not only blessed by her but even worn by her. These two sacred objects were to become his lifelong companions.
Apart from having the darsan of Mother, Swami Ambanandaji could get the darsan of a few more direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna such as Swami Premanandaji and Swami Saradanandaji. On his way back he visited Varanasi where he had the darsan of Swami Brahmanandaji, another direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna.
As a Monk
Even with all this spiritual wealth Swami Ambanandaji could not become a monk immediately and had to continue his life as a teacher. So, he went on with his spiritual practices at home, though the spirit of renunciation was burning bright within. Ultimately, after his retirement in 1932 he joined the Ramakrishna Ashrama at Nettayam (Kerala) when he was fifty-eight. Swami Nirmalanandaji was the president of that ashrama then. Later, he ordinated Swami Ambanandaji into the life of brahmacharya and in 1935 blessed him with sannyasa diksha.
The Sage at Vellimalai
After living at Nettayam for two more years Swami Ambanandaji left the ashrama and founded Sri Vivekananda Ashrama (originally, Sri Vivekananda Mandiram) at Vellimalai in 1940 and lived there the rest of his life. Gradually people started gathering around him. Swami Madhuranandaji and Swami Satyanandaji, both disciples of Swami Ambanandaji had left lively reminiscences of him. From these we get a vivid picture of the great life he lived. Selected portions follow:
Swami Satyanandaji writes:
'Swami Ambanandaji used to address me as brother though I was like his grandson. I was much attracted to his conversation. He would forget the world and make the listeners too forget everything else when he talked about Sri Ramakrishna, Mother or Swami Vivekananda. His words would go deep into the soul of the listener. At the same time there would be no dearth of humour too.
'He taught us never through words but through his own life. He used to do all his personal works by himself and never allowed us to serve him; rather, he served us often. He would fetch water for us to take bath from the well atop the hill.
'He used to get up very early in the morning. Then perform japa for long hours for the peace of the world and for the good of his disciples. He would do exercise using dumbbells. Then he would pluck flowers for the puja. All through the work and other business he would chant the holy name of Sri Ramakrishna unceasingly.
'When he visited the house of devotees he would get old clothes from them, bring them and distribute them among the poor.
'We used to go and salute him by prostrating before him daily in the morning and evening. Then he would give us Mother's charanamrita without fail. A bottle of charanamrita would be always with him. Whoever salutes him would get a share of it. Whenever he went out, along with charanamrita, he would carry a few packets of offered flattened rice to distribute to devotees.
'He was all love and love and love alone. That light which illumined the hut of Vellimalai then, burns bright in the depths of my heart ever.'
Swami Madhuranandaji writes:
'Swami Ambanandaji's life was, in short, a commentary on Mother's last message: 'I tell you one thing—if you want peace, do not find fault with others. Rather see your own faults. Learn to make the world your own. No one is a stranger, my child; the whole world is your own. He loved all as his own, as his life was merged in Sri Ramakrishna, the Universal Spirit. He never condemned, criticized or rebuked anybody for he could not see the fault of anybody. He remained love-personified. This was the experience of all who had the rare fortune of having his holy company.
'He was a poet. He has written hundreds of songs in Malayalam. Each of his song is his heart poured out. His first song, the commentary of which was his own life, reads as follows:
It is love and love alone that pervades the whole universe
Oh Ramakrishna! bless me so that
That love grow in my heart and pervades my whole being.
'He would not begin writing a letter without beginning with writing "Om Namo Bhagavate Ramakrishnaya" first. Apart from pleasantries and business matter every letter would contain a few sayings of Sri Ramakrishna, Mother or Swamiji. His letters were wonders. He could accommodate the matter of three letters in a single post card, that too legibly. His handwriting would challenge print. It was the days of World War II; paper and note books were rare. So, he would take care that no piece of paper was wasted. He wrote on one-side papers and even on paper bits. Again, Ramakrishna literature in print was rare in those days. He made handwritten copies of several books in English and in Malayalam and lend them to devotees, sometimes present to them, thus spreading the message of Sri Ramakrishna.