Biographies > Swami Brahmananda - Bhakta Supreme

by Peter Holleran

   Swami Brahmananda (1863-1922), born Rakhal ("the shepherd boy"), was the second-most famous disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, and considered by many to be his spiritual son. As a child he was fond of "playing church" with his companions, in which he would mold a clay image of the Divine Mother and worship Her. He loved music and enjoyed singing the praises of the lord. Two of his more favorite pastimes, which he continued throughout life, were gardening and fishing. Rakhal did not do well in school as he neglected his studies, more often than not, in favor of prayer and contemplation. He met his close friend, Naren (later Vivekananda), at a local athletic club where he two would wrestle together when they were both twelve years old. Their temperaments were very different, for Naren was always the supreme rationalist, not content without getting to the bottom of things, while Rakhal was from birth more devotionally inclined. Of course, this was all but on the outer level, for Ramakrishna said that the two were both born with God-knowledge and belonged to the class of the "Ever-perfect."

   When he was still in his teens Rakhal met Sri Ramakrishna, who recognized him as the pure-hearted companion he had prayed for and seen in a vision. He called Rakhal his "mind-born son", after having received a vision of the Divine Mother who placed a boy in his lap, saying, 'This is your son - not an ordinary son, but an all-renouncing, mind-born son'. Ramakrishna had another vision in which Krishna was dancing on a lotus with a young boy. Immediately afterwards Rakhal walked in the room, and Ramakrishna was wonderstruck, as 'Rakhal' was not only the boy he had seen in his vision, but the name of the playmate of Krishna in Vrindivan! Ramakrishna later confessed to having been an incarnation of Krishna. Rakhal was therefore one of his closest friends from lifetimes past.

   Rakhal began spending much of his time with Ramakrishna, and his father, in a last-ditched attempt to save him for a worldly life, had him locked in the house. This was to no avail, however, for at the first chance the boy slipped away to be with his Master. Several days later his father went after him, but this time, seeing the unusual affection with which his son greeted him, had a change of heart and let him stay.

   In his early days with Ramakrishna Rakhal was in ecstasy much of the time, and practised many hard ascetic disciplines. Even so, he once begged his Master for the power of transcendental vision. Ramakrishna was silent at first, and then spoke to Rakhal very harshly, causing him to be angry and hurt. Later on Ramakrishna revealed that there had been a purpose in provoking his pain and anger, saying that "medicine acts only after the sore has been opened." At other times he spoke of the need to "lance the boil." Shortly thereafter Rakhal went into samadhi (in this instance, superconscious trance) for the first time.

   After Ramakrishna's death, Rakhal (now Brahmananda) plunged himself into spiritual practices, saying that what Ramakrishna freely gave him before he now wanted to win through is own efforts. One of his practices was known as the 'python discipline', in which he would only take food that would come to him of itself. He became the first head of the Ramakrishna Monastic Order, taking direct charge of many of his Master's disciples, and also went on pilgrimages and spent much time in contemplation.

   Swami Prabhavananda tells us that, while Brahmananda developed spiritually under Ramakrishna's guidance and grace, perpetual samadhi was not his possession until ten years after his Master's passing, as a result of intense spiritual effort fueled by profound dispassion towards the world, and the final touch of an aged Vaishnava saint in a temple in Vrindiban. (1) In this respect he was similar to Swami Vivekananda who also spent significant time with another guru, Pavhari Baba, after Ramakrishna’s death.

   During this period Brahmananda described himself as, even in periods of normal consciousness, having "a fullness of God in his heart, and all around him nature vibrating with joy." Elsewhere he referred to the Mandukya Upanishad for his view on samadhi: "The knot of the heart, which is ignorance, is loosed, all doubts are dissolved, all evil effects of deeds are destroyed, when he who is both personal and impersonal is realized." This hints that he may have gone beyond nirvikalpa to jnana or even sahaj Samadhi, but of the this we cannot be certain. The fact that he said he had a 'fullness of God' in his heart, even in periods of 'normal' consciousness, suggests that most of the time he was not in normal consciousness, and was, perhaps, defined by the tendency for mystical ascent common among Indian yogis. Even so, of nirvikalpa samadhi he remarked, “some say that that state is the end of spiritual experiences, but I believe it is the beginning." (1) This is a true insight into the limits of yogic realization. According to vedantist V.S. Iyer, true realization is “not seeing God in everything, as yogis often proclaim, but in seeing everything as the Self.”   A “fullness of God” in ones heart must then yield to seeing both the self and world as Brahman. Sages such as Paul Brunton ("PB") and Ramana Maharshi, therefore, might have taken this pronouncement of Brahmananda one step further and said that the true beginning of spiritual life is not the initial attainment of nirvikalpa, but the realization and 'non-attainment' of sahaj, which is the union of the mystic with his divine Soul and the recognition of the world and Self as non-separate. This second feat, says PB, is the harder of the two.

   There is an ongoing debate in non-dual circles over whether it is necessary to achieve nirvikalpa samadhi, in either its yogic (trance) or gnanic (open-eyed) form before realizing sahaj, some saying yes, while others saying no. In any case, V.S. Iyer tells us:

   "The self, the awareness, was present before and after the Yogi enters Nirvikalpa samadhi. When he says or thinks anything, the Atman is there first. It is always there whether he has got duality or not. Hence he talks nonsense by saying that Nirvikalpa samadhi can produce Brahman."(2)

   “Every Yogi has to come out of Nirvikalpa Samadhi and immediately duality confronts him again. His peace goes, for it depended on the non-duality of samadhi-sleep. Hence no yogi attains true peace, but imagines it.”

   “When you see the second thing and though seeing it know it to be none other than Brahman, then you get Gnana. On the other hand, Nirvikalpa Samadhi is the non-seeing of the second thing; hence cannot yield Gnana, for the yogi does not see and does not know what the world is.”

   “That Atman remains as the sole real factor, means that there should be realization of Brahman as the sole entity and not a mere absence of the cognition of the world; otherwise there would be no such thing as emancipation in life.”

   “Nirvikalpa Samadhi helps one to renounce attachments, it is a corrective medicine to remove the disease; hence it is for seekers only who are still on the disciplinary level. For peace of mind does not necessarily indicate truth; I can get it by taking opium or hemp....No Hindu Sastric text says that Nirvikalpa Samadhi can get you gnana. It comes after samadhi, using the latter as a preparation. Hence Patanjali’s claim for realization through yoga is merely bait to seekers to adopt his preliminary state, but it is not literally true. Yoga cannot give gnana...By shutting your eyes in Samadhi you do not know the universe. Hence the universe can’t be known as Brahman through Yoga alone....there must be inquiry so that you can find non-duality whilst you are awake...When can you say there is no error in your knowledge? When you see all beings in yourself; then there will be no doubt - says the scripture. Hence you must see the beings and objects, if you are to see them in yourself. But sleep and samadhi does not show them to you.”

   “Yoga can never give you the fundamental thing, that the world is an idea. Only Vedanta can give it. Nirvikalpa Samadhi is unquestionably the same as deep sleep
[except entered into voluntarily], and all ideas are refunded back there too. For you must learn what ideas are, when all the ideas of the world-existence go back into your mind through Yoga. Then you learn this. [But] how are you to learn that all this world is Brahman if you stop at Nirvikalpa Samadhi? Without perceiving the world, and having a duality before you, it is impossible.”

   “You can’t shut your eye to the world as in samadhi of yoga and see supreme reality. You can know it only by keeping the mind clear and open. The yogi must add discrimination to his quest, says Shankara.”

   Brahmananda was a great soul, held in the utmost respect by Vivekananda as well as his own disciples. Of all Ramakrishna’s disciples he most embodied the devotional ideal of bhakti. His mind was frequently withdrawn from the world, and he had the "bewildered gaze," a phrase used in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna to describe the Master's eyes. While Vivekananda (known in the fellowship as 'Swamiji') spread the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna far and wide, Brahmananda (known as 'Maharaj') spiritually initiated many souls. Vivekananda said, "In spirituality he is the greatest of all of us." Swami Brahmananda was President of the Ramakrishna Order for twenty-five years until his death in 1922.

   What is interesting about the three noble figures in this series: Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and Brahmananda, was their unquenchable desire for truth, and their unhesitation in seeing other teachers for further training. In the case of the latter two, even after being initiated by their root guru, Ramakrishna, they were enamored and achieved further realization and understanding through meeting other saints and, in the case of Vivekananda, even ordinary people. These characteristics are those of true seekers.

1. Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal Companion (Hollywood, CA: Vedanta Press, 1970), pp 46-48
2. V.S. Iyer, Commentaries, Vol. 2,( ed. by Marc Scorelle, 1999), 72
3. Ibid, Vol. 1, p. 103-107