A Lifetime of Spritual Service
From Renga Patten to Swami Pranavananda Saraswati
— Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
« Il nous faut être des militants de dharma »
– Francois Rivière
Nearly 150 devotees attended the satsang held at the Chinmaya Mission, Beau Bassin, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Swami Pranavananda’s joining the Sandeepany Ashram in Mumbai as a trainee brahmachari: the one who lives a disciplined life of self-control so as to gain the Supreme Knowledge — Brahmavidya — and then put it into practice.
Renga Patten, as he then was, had a yearning to seek the true meaning of life. Responding to this call from within, he travelled from England and reached the Sivananda Ashram in the Himalayas. With a recommendation to Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda from Swami Chidananda, he entered the portals of Sandeepany Ashram on 12.12.72. As he briefly narrated yesterday, in his inimitable style tinged with sparks of humour enshrining subtle messages, the transformation began on that very day.
After he had had his scalp shaven except for the characteristic tuft of residual hair, he discarded his street clothes and donned the white clothing worn by brahmacharis, ready to begin the rigorous training that he would go through for the next three years under Pujya Gurudev, rising before dawn everyday – a habit that will continue for life. And on Wednesday 12.12.12, Swamiji reminded us that that is what we must do too, get up early daily and read from the scriptures, the Upanishads in particular.
In fact, Swamiji recited the Taittriya Upanishad on that evening, beginning with the powerful call from it that we must honour our parents as Gods (and not shove them in homes as was the trend these days!), ‘Matru devo bhava, pitru devo bhava’. He went on to elaborate on this text, quoting from others as well, for the next 45 minutes almost. He emphasized the importance of the disciplined life for the family as a whole, the need for parents to ensure that their children obtained spiritual knowledge and learnt the relevant practices, and how all of us must be involved in constructing a better society based on the values and principles contained in the scriptures.
He spent some time explaining that instead of asking others to change, we must change ourselves rather. We did not fail to catch the irony of his remark in the current context, to the effect that so many public declarations were being made in favour of changes without the protagonists being willing to change themselves. And that the recent change in situation in the country was being doctored to suit each one’s convenient way of explaining away.
But that is our Swamiji, an acute observer and commentator on human society both at the individual and the collective levels. After all, meeting as he does with so many people and being in a position to give the best advice for our personal progress within the enlarged social context, fully cognizant of its realities as he is, whenever he pronounces himself we have no choice but to be mindful of his actionable remarks. And all of us who drink from the fountain of his fathomless spring of knowledge are only too happy to do just that.
Swamiji expressed his joy and gratitude at seeing many of those who had supported him and been with him since his return as a brahmacharis in 1976. He mentioned in particular his sister and Mrs Govinden. He also greeted another disciple who had been with him for nearly 36 years, Francois Rivière of Reunion island, who was in the audience along with his wife. Swamiji requested him to say a few words towards the end.
Francois started by reciting the Krishna vande mantra, and briefly mentioned how he had gained so much from being with Swamiji all these years, although ce n’est pas toujours facile! And how! Because as we know Swamiji is a very hard taskmaster most of the time, but although we sometimes reel from that aspect of his relationship with us, of one thing we are absolutely certain: his unconditional love for all of us, and his constant prayers for our welfare. And that is why and how we are able to accept that he has to be as he is for our own betterment.
This is also the only way to be ‘militants’ for dharma. Dharma can be construed as the overarching universal value that underlies existence from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic level, the software that makes the universe function smoothly and without which it would collapse – in much the same way as without the Higgs boson there would be no universe to speak of. For, according to Swami Sivananda, dharma is ‘that which holds this world, or the people of the world, or the whole creation from the microcosm to the macrocosm’ or, again, ‘that which elevates you and leads you to the path of perfection and glory.’ It may be noted that Swami Sivananda, founder of the Divine Life Society, was a very successful medical doctor.
Francois also informed us that at the very moment when the satsang was going on, the devotees of Swamiji in Reunion were too holding a satsang, the subject being the 12th sloka or verse of the Upadesha Saaram (Essence of the Message of the Upanishads) of late Ramana Maharishi, known as the sage of Arunachal. We had the privilege of a more extended expose of this text last September, in a 5-day workshop held at the Institute of Vedanta. The resource persons were a couple, Phaniraj and his wife, known to Swamini Karuna who is the Spiritual head of the Institute, and they run an ashram near Bangalore in South India. The sloka is as follows: ‘The mind and the praana are endowed with the ability to know and to act respectively. These two are like two branches stemming from one power.’
Maya and her Baal Vihar (Children’s group) rendered beautifully several elevating mantras, and a Form I Student, Yakshini (granddaughter of the Vice-President of the Ashram Shri Ramjee Samboo), danced most elegantly to the playing of Ganesha Vandana by the Baal Vihar. Later I learnt that she had just started to learn dancing under a guru at the Maharashtra Bhavan, which is all the more to her credit as a fresher and at such a tender age. Our children really do us proud.
The evening was rounded off by a nice bhojan-prasad (meal) served under the pergola.
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SSR hosts the Brahmachari
I was the President of the Chinmaya Ashram when the Mahakumabhishekam for the new temple was held in 2003, and before that I had been following Swamiji’s Sunday morning classes on Adi Shankarachraya’s text, Vivekachudamani. But I had occasion to interact with Swamiji very often on other subjects too, and that’s how I got to know about how he came to meet Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. In fact, his family, the Pattens, and SSR were quite well known to each other, and when Swamiji came back he did meet SSR in social settings a couple of times. It seems that it was his elder brother, Amba (who migrated to Canada), who used to meet the latter more frequently.
Be that as it may, SSR once hosted Swamiji. Seated between SSR and Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo at Government House, he was requested by SSR to address the other people present. He has told me how SSR also hosted Pujya Gurudev at his residence in Desforges Street when Gurudev was on a visit to Mauritius, and personally donated the best basmati rice available then along with ghee for consumption by Gurudev.
Swamiji also said that SSR was quite knowledgeable about the scriptures, and that he used to read one sloka of the Bhagavad Gita daily. I have also learnt from other sources that SSR was a regular reader of the Bhavan’s Journal, a magazine of Indian culture and philosophy that is published from Mumbai since 1935, and currently has a circulation of nearly a million per issue. It is the Nalanda Bookshop that used to import the magazine, and as soon as it was received, the first copy was sent to SSR.
It is nice to know that the first Prime Minister of this country possessed such a breadth and depth of genuine culture, and of its importance in the life of a country, a feat unparalleled to this day.