"The Death Of a Swami, And His Bliss," a Commentary by Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

May 8, 2009

Author: Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

Source: America Magazine


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.