Swami Sarvagatananda; monk who inspired many

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 12, 2009
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In a world where religious differences too often lead to strife and sometimes to violence, the Revered Swami Sarvagatananda could always detect within the clamor a rich peaceful chorus, a persistent harmony among denominations.

The most senior monk in the West for the Ramakrishna Order, he also spent more than four decades as a chaplain for Hindu students at MIT and formerly was the leader of his order’s centers in Boston and Providence. But he befriended all and was invited to speak at places such as Boston College, where the Rev. Francis X. Clooney, a Jesuit, recalled one exchange in which a student asked whether there would ever be a single world religion.

Writing in a blog entry posted on, Clooney said: “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!’ ’’

Swami Sarvagatananda, who was known to friends and followers simply as Swami, died in his sleep May 3 in his home at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston. He was 96.

A gentle mentor who insisted that he learned as much from students as they did from him, Swami used as his greatest teaching tool the example of his own life.

“As far as he was concerned, religion was something to be lived,’’ said Kumar Murty, who chairs the mathematics department at the University of Toronto, and who was a graduate student at Harvard when he met Swami. “He would say, ‘It is not your belief, but your behavior that counts. It is not your faith, but your function that counts. And it is not your convictions, but your character that counts.’ He always insisted that if you want to live a spiritual life, it has to show up in your actions.’’

In his own life, Swami’s actions spoke louder than the voice he used to teach in the Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday services he led in either Boston or Providence, or during the Friday lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A biographical sketch that Swami Tathagatananda of the Vedanta Society of New York prepared after Swami’s death recounts how, as a young man living in India, he met with his guru, the Revered Swami Akhandananda, to say he wanted to join the order in 1935.

Swami Akhandananda tested the young disciple by instructing him to walk barefoot from what was then Bombay to the Ramakrisna Ashrama in Khankal, in the northern part of the country.

“He walked nearly a thousand miles without much money, trudging through unknown regions, without knowing the local language, with no road map in hand,’’ Swami Tathagatananda wrote. “With a cool brain, with Lord’s Name on his lips, and a dynamic spirit, he achieved the goal.’’

No less impressive, followers and friends say, were Swami’s teachings during lectures or services.

“I would call him a holy man, and you might even say a saint,’’ said the Rev. Robert Dunbar, an Episcopal priest who formerly lived in Boston, where he met Swami and attended his lectures. “In my opinion, holiness is not denominational, and when you meet it, you’d better recognize it and honor it and worship it.’’

Dunbar added that “Swami was a saint maker, and that was not my distinction, that was his. He would use that term in his lectures, though not in reference to himself. A saint maker is someone who, when you’re around him, made you better. You can’t be small or mean. When you were in Swami’s presence, you were better. It was the power of love, I suppose.’’

Narayan Maharaj, Swami’s pre-monastic name, was born in Andhra Pradesh, in the southern part of India. He was 22 when he met Swami Akhandananda.

“Through him I understood the main theme of the Ramakrishna order, which is unselfish loving service,’’ Swami Sarvagatananda said in a 2004 interview with Ranjani Saigal that is posted on

After walking from Bombay to Khankal and joining the order, Swami stayed at the ashrama there until the early 1940s, when he took his final vows. He served in Ramakrishna centers in Pakistan and elsewhere in India before moving in 1954 to the United States, where he was appointed head of the Boston and Providence Vedanta centers in 1962.

Conducting weekly services in the chapel at MIT, and speaking occasionally in a chapel at Harvard, Swami drew students from both colleges, including many who studied math or science.

“In many ways, I think he extended the scientific method of research into the mental realm,’’ said M. Ram Murty, a professor of mathematics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “He gave a scientific approach to spirituality.’’

Murty, who was a graduate student at MIT when he and his brother Kumar attended Swami’s services, added: “I can tell you for a fact that I would have been an incomplete person if I had not met him. I would have been a mathematician, nothing more.’’

Along with teaching weekly classes on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Sanskrit Hindu scripture, Swami offered the inaugural prayer during Paul Gray’s investiture as MIT president. He also offered the invocation at several MIT commencements, including in 1998 when President Bill Clinton was a speaker.

Special worship services were held after the death of Swami, who had continued teaching with words and actions after retiring as head of the Boston and Providence centers years ago.

“Life is a process. It is not an end,’’ he said in the 2004 interview with Saigal. “We are here to learn. After we die our learning is the only thing that remains with the soul. . . . We are constantly learning until we die. I am 92 and I am still learning every day. I learn from everyday experiences. I even learn from the children who come to learn from me.’’