Worshipful homage unto the Supreme Cosmic Spirit Divine. Reverential prostrations to the Guru who is representative on earth of the Supreme Being or God. Loving adorations to holy saints of Bharatvarsha, our spiritual motherland which has brought into being countless saints, sages, seers and Brahma-Jnanis of God-realization and such towering personalities like Maharshi Vyas, Vasishta, Yagnyavalkya and others of yore. These Great Ones, having attained the highest experience of the Absolute Transcendental Reality or the Eternal Truth, lived on to distribute the spiritual light of their Jnana and the indescribable Ananda of their God-experience through Bhakti to all their fellow-beings of their own contemporary times. May their blessings be upon all.
Meeting between two individuals in this world is always brought about by the Prarabdha Karma of both concerned. Having met once, the continuity of their relationship in the Vyavaharic world is also the resultant outcome of the Prarabdha Karma of both concerned. This has been clearly stated in the Sanatana Dharma or Vaidic Dharma, popularly referred to as Hinduism. Such a meeting between two Jivatmas born as human individuals in this world, comes about in various ways–sometimes in very peculiar and curious manner as well. I will relate here the way in which life brought me into contact with the exalted blissful personality whom the whole world knows as Papa Ramdas before ending my spiritual journey at the feet of Gurudev Sri Sivanandji Maharaj.
I was born in Mangalore which is a riverside town (today it is a big city) situated in the West Coastal region of South India. Mangalore is 69 kms from Anandashram in Kanhangad Railway station on the Mangalore-Madras route. I was born on 24th September 1916 in the house of my maternal grandfather, Sri Nellikai Venkat Rao and his Dharmapatni Smt Sundaramma. Both were pious and extremely generous hearted, especially to the poor and the needy. My mother’s name was Smt Sarojini Devi. Grandparents simply adored her because she was the first child to survive in their family after grandmother had lost 11 male children, one after the other. Mother Sarojini Devi was born in 1900 and passed away when she was 25 years of age. She had five children. My elder sister Hemalata was 11 years of age and myself nine years when mother passed away.
Just as my mother was the first surviving child in the family, it so happened that I was the first male child in the family and hence I became the apple of the eye to grandmother. Grandmother and mother used to vie with each other in showering their love upon this being whom they named as Sridhar. Father’s family lived in Madras. After my birth, I was expected to be brought home to my father’s house. In my case, however, the maternal grandparents pleaded and prayed that being the first male child in the family, I may be allowed to remain with them in Mangalore and be brought up and educated there. Unexpectedly, almost miraculously, my father Sri Sreenivas Rao understood their heart’s earnest longing and very generously granted their prayer. Thus it was that for the first 16 years of my life, I was brought up and given a good education in Mangalore town, in close proximity to Kasaragod and Kanhangad with which Ramdas’ early life was closely connected. Later as a student, he (Papa Ramdas) shifted to Mangalore and did his High School at the Mission High School run by the German Basel Mission. Later, after taking a course in textile technology at Bombay and having served in a number of textile mills in different places, Papa Ramdas finally came back to Mangalore and set up a small textile business in the form of a handloom factory at Falnir, beyond Hampankatta. What happened to Vittal Rao (as Papa Ramdas was called in his younger days) during that period is too well-known a story for me to relate anything about it. It is rendered in great detail in Papa Ramdas’ well known book In Quest of God. This book was a narration of his wandering all over India, steeped in the all-absorbing power of the divine Name. His wanderings covered the whole of the year 1923, he finally returned to Mangalore and secluded himself in some cave in the Kadri hills on the outskirts of the town, chanting Ram Nam all the time. There he was prompted to write down a brief account of his wanderings and he did so during 1924.
In Mangalore, there was a pious good gentleman called Bolar Vittal Rao (by chance, coinciding with Papa Ramdas’ earlier name given to him by his parents). Bolar Vittal Rao owned a printing press called Saraswati Printing Press, located at one corner of the old Police maidan behind St. Paul’s Church.
A member of Papa Ramdas’ family gave the manuscript of In Quest of God to Bolar Vittal Rao, requesting him to print it in a paper back type book. He printed the book under the title In Quest of God and the price was half a rupee or eight annas. Bolar Vittal Rao and Nellikai Venkata Rao, my grandfather, were very good friends. Every day, after closing the press, in the evening, Bolar Vittal Rao used to drop in at “Manohar Vilas” and spend half an hour chatting with grandfather over a cup of excellent coffee. Over the years, Bolar Vittal Rao was in the practice of bringing along with him one copy of whatever matter was printed by him on that day at his printing press and give it to grandfather. In accordance with this habit, Bolar Vittal Rao brought along with him one copy of the very first 1924 edition of In Quest of God and gave it to grandfather. Though religious-minded, grandfather was not interested in saints and spiritual teachings. Thus, the very first copy of In Quest of God, which was given to him by his friend, was taken by grandfather inside the house and deposited on the top of a chest of drawers which contained numberless novels and other story books of grandmother who was a voracious reader of English fiction. I liked to read English novels of grandmother. On this occasion, as I felt with my hand on the top of the chest of drawers, my hand fell upon Papa Ramdas’ In Quest of God and I took it with me. Somehow, the photograph of Papa Ramdas taken in front of the Kadri caves (appearing as frontispiece in In Quest of God) fascinated me and drew my gaze like a magnet. The more I looked at it, the more I wanted to go on looking at it. I did not want to put the book down. Afternoon after afternoon, lying down on a sofa in the upstairs hall, within a week, I finished reading the book cover to cover.
At that time I was a youngster of nine years of age. I had just lost my mother and was studying in the 4th class in the primary school. Reading the book In Quest of God opened up before me a whole new vista of what India was as I had never before known or imagined. For the first time, I came to know of the various religious places Papa had visited in his wanderings. I heard the name ‘Himalayas’ and the sacred river ‘Bhagirathi Ganga’. I came to know the name of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and also the Kali Temple of Bhavatarini at Dakshineshwar near Calcutta. The names ‘Kedarnath’ and ‘Badrinath’ became part of the thought forms of my mind where they had not existed before. The words ‘Annakshetra’, ‘Bhiksha’, ‘Ram Bhajan’ etc became part of my vocabulary. The terms ‘samadhi’ and ‘ecstasy’ were first encountered in my life. My new vision revealed to me the way of life people were leading in India, unknown hitherto to my limited vision confined to home and school, and school and home. From the time I started reading the book In Quest of God, I was consumed with an overwhelming desire to meet Swami Ramdas face to face. When Sadhus came to the house to ask for alms. I used to run in and fetch the book and show them the picture of Swami Ramdas and eagerly ask them, “Have you seen this person?” One Sadhu who knew a little English said, “Yes, I have seen this person. He used to come to the Maidan sometimes. I have also seen him in Kadri cave. But, I do not know where he is now.” I was greatly disappointed. Then, one day, a person told me: “Oh yes, this Swami is now settled down in a place called Kanhangad close to Kasaragod. His Ashram is a couple of miles from Kanhangad Railway station.”
That is how at last I was able to locate where Papa Ramdas lived. I was overjoyed that it was very close to Mangalore and I decided to take my first chance to go to Kanhangad and have Darshan of Papa. It was 1932 and I was 16. Father demanded that both myself and my younger brother Raghavendra be shifted from Mangalore to Madras as, he said, if we continued further in Mangalore, we would gradually lose all touch with the paternal family at Madras. In Madras, as we did not know Tamil language, we were admitted into English medium teaching section and we took Sanskrit as our vernacular second language. This is how I had the good fortune of coming into contact with the wisdom of our own country and the wise sayings of our forefathers on Dharma, noble character, good conduct, righteousness and idealism in life etc through poetical compositions called Subhashita. At about this time, my elder sister Hemalata Bai who was given in marriage to a Sanskrit professor or lecturer in the famous Annamalai University near Chidambaram town, was in the family way and I was requested to accompany my sister to my grandparents’ house in Mangalore for her first delivery as mother had passed away some years earlier. Some 3 or 4 months later, summons again came to me from my sister to take her and her first-born to Coimbatore where her in-laws lived and then onwards to Annamalainagar. Obediently, I had to travel again to Mangalore. I was happy to do so.
My heart was filled with a strange sensation, which I cannot describe when the Madras-Mangalore Mail passed Kanhangad Railway station. I was almost tempted to make a break of journey there. But the thought that some one or other was waiting with a vehicle at Mangalore Railway station obliged me to wistfully continue my journey. Reaching Mangalore, I had to wait till my sister was ready to depart with the child. At the last moment, after tickets were purchased and berths reserved, something unforeseen cropped up and we had to cancel the tickets, as my sister had to ‘sit out’ for her monthly period. When this happened, I suddenly realised that God had taken compassion upon me and given me a chance to make a trip to Kanhangad. Hurriedly, I packed a spare towel and pyjama in a handbag, told grandfather I would be away for a day, took some money from him and boarded some train at Mangalore station going south. It reached Kanhangad sometime mid-forenoon. I got down and enquired from some people the way to ‘Anandashram of Swami Ramdas’. They pointed out the direction of the town and told me to enquire further. Thus, being guided by people from time to time, I proceeded further in the direction of Anandashram and soon stood at the gateway of Anandashram. There was a long inner driveway that seemed to lead straight to the Bhajan Hall.
When I arrived at the Bhajan Hall, it was midday, roundabout between 12 and 1 p.m. Swami Ramdas was having his midday meal, sitting in his chair with his back towards the entrance of the Bhajan Hall and facing towards the kitchen and dining hall–at the back of the Bhajan Hall. He was about three-fourths through with his meal. But, seeing my eagerness to see him, he made no formalities and they took me straight into his presence. At last my dream came true! My heart’s longing was fulfilled. I was face to face with the writer of In Quest of God. Swami Ramdas was wreathed in smiles. His legs were stretched on a pillow kept on a suitable wooden stool, some distance in front of the chair. I knelt on the floor, and with his permission, took both his soft feet in my hands. Bowing low, I placed my head beneath his feet and gently pressed his feet on top of my head as though in benediction. Only, it was Ashirvad or blessing with his divine lotus feet instead of with his hand. Thus I experienced ‘heaven upon earth’ with this first Darshan of Papa in this wonderful centre of Ram Nam, Anandashram. It was an unforgettable experience. Even to this day, it is fresh in my memory. Afterwards, conversation took place between us. I asked him a number of my questions. Some of them he answered, others he countered by asking some questions himself. After some time he enquired whether I had taken my food. When he heard that I had come straight without taking anything, Swami Ramdas very kindly asked them to take me to the kitchen and serve me my meal. Looking back, I think it was Pujya Mataji Krishnabai who served me my meal that day. I remember how she was all kindness and loving concern lest due to my shyness, I may not eat sufficiently, being a newcomer on my first visit to the Ashram.
I ate and rested a while. They pressed me to stay for the night but I declined and told them that after Papa’s rest, I would take leave from him and return to Mangalore the same evening. They took me to The Vision office and I purchased a new copy of In Quest of God. Then, taking leave of Swami Ramdas, I came back to Kanhangad Railway station and boarded a local train reaching Mangalore in the evening.
During those days (’30s), one well-known and popular publisher and writer called M S Kamath used to publish a weekly newspaper called Sunday Times from Madras. It was very popular and liked by the public because of the variety of features it contained. There was always at least one page (sometimes two) exclusively set apart for religious subjects. One Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised to see Swami Ramdas’ picture on the religious page and I was excited to read also an announcement that the Swamiji would be visiting Madras at the invitation of the Saraswat community of the city and give a few discourses while there. It gave the programme with the date and time of the meeting. One day it was a discourse at a well-known venue called Gokhale Hall in the evening. On another day, it was an informal and midday Satsang talk with Ram Bhajan and darshan as well as meals that followed. Before leaving, I enquired about details of how to reach the Gokhale Hall because our family lived far away from the busy part of the city, with our house located at the very outskirts of Madras just where the municipal corporation limits ended and District Board area commenced.
When I reached Gokhale Hall, I found it completely packed to capacity. I could not even enter the hall. Very many persons were standing at the back as all the seats had been filled. As it had taken some time for me to locate the hall, Papa Ramdas was already speaking when I reached there. My eyes beheld a strange sight. The usual formal seating arrangement on the dais with a table in front and a few chairs behind did not seem to have met with his approval and he had the chairs pushed back to the wall and the table moved forward until it was almost at the edge of the dais. He was seated on the table in his usual pose with legs folded, body absolutely straight and hands moving with appropriate gestures in keeping with what he was saying. He was speaking in Konkani. Words poured out of him in a ceaseless torrent. He was in an inspired mood. He was speaking about the glory of Ram Nam and the need to lead a disciplined life. The audience was listening spellbound, taking in everything he was saying, without missing a word. Before I left, I enquired from the organising persons where Papa was staying in Madras. I was told he was staying in the house of one Dr Gopal Katre in a well-known locality called San Thome which was at the southernmost end of the famous seaside Marina of Madras, where the clear open beach road ended and residential locality started.
The next day, eager to have darshan and Satsang with the holy saint, I went all the way from Chetpet to Mylapore where the bus terminated. Then I had to walk further Eastwards towards the seashore to reach San Thome. San Thome Road also was a long stretch of road parallel to the sea with a few residential buildings on either side. When I went past the Mylapore locality and came to San Thome Road, I asked a couple of persons where Dr Katre lived. They did not seem to be certain and gave me some vague reply. Actually, from the spot where I questioned these persons, Dr Katre’s house was merely within a furlong’s distance to my left side. But, some how, due to unfamiliarity I turned right and started walking, stopping now and then to ask local persons where Dr Katre lived. I must have walked more than a mile in the hot sun. Then I halted and asked another person, who happened to be a devotee and perhaps a South Kanara man. He replied: “Oh, Dr Katre? You mean where the holy man Swami Ramdas is staying?” I said, “Yes,” nodding my head vigorously. He told me that I had travelled in the opposite direction and was going farther and farther away with each step I took. He said I would have to go all the way back, even past the turning into Mylapore and would find a double-storeyed house standing in its own garden to the back of the road, to my right hand. Thanking him, I walked all the way back. It was hot and I was perspiring. It was now about mid-afternoon. At last, I located Dr Katre’s house and went into the house and climbed upstairs. I was told that Swami Ramdas was about to leave for some engagement in the city, that I had better hurry up and take my chance of not missing him altogether.
I ran up the stairs and came to the second floor room. Sure enough, Swami Ramdas had put on his sandals and taking his walking stick in his hand, was coming towards the staircase to step down. Someone took me forward and told Swami Ramdas Maharaj: “This young man has come to see Your Holiness and get blessings.” I immediately knelt down, touching his feet with my forehead. Swami Ramdas bent down, resting one hand on his walking stick and gave me a strong and hearty pat with the other on my back. He said: “Ramdas’ blessings are there. Ramdas has to leave now. Take Ram Nam–remember God,” and he went down to the waiting car. Such was my brief encounter and second darshan after my first darshan and meeting him at Anandashram.
Two years later, the World War extended across the Pacific to Japan. Japanese Air Force invaded Hawaii and bombed Pearl Harbour. On 6th of March, Japanese aircraft bombed Nagapatnam Harbour, a Japanese aircraft flew over Calcutta in an attempt to bomb it. However, the British RAF immediately took to the air, intercepted the Japanese aircraft and drove it away.
Now, the British authorities all along the East Coast began to feel insecure. Three very important streets along the Madras Harbour line, viz: the 1st Line Beach Street, the 2nd Line Beach Street and Linghi Chetty Street, were evacuated by the British authorities. Obligatory darkness was imposed on all residences of Madras, not a single light should be visible in any house, not even a candle-light. People closed all their windows. After sunset, the city looked like a graveyard. Then, under the Governor’s order, the Mayor announced to all the citizens that the authorities could not guarantee either the safety or the security of the citizens. They said all the citizens should go away, to wherever they had a place or relatives. They would provide special trains to evacuate the city.
I had then just completed 25 years in age. My elder cousin brothers, myself and some youngsters of our joint family supervised the shifting from Madras to Coimbatore where the family estate was situated. It was a nightmarish experience. To this day, I am not able to understand how we managed to accomplish this complex and complicated process of uprooting ourselves from a bungalow in Madras which was our home from childhood, to the big town of Coimbatore.
It was early March 1942. During the past ten years, from 1932 to 1942, since I left Mangalore and arrived in Madras, an inward transformation was slowly taking place within me, a veritable holy Sangam of three spiritual streams was created within my life. At Madras, I came into possession of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna some time in 1933 and the Life of Sri Ramakrishna in 1936, his birth centenary year. Secondly, I read about Sri Ramana Maharshi in M S Kamath’s Sunday Times in a special issue with the narration of the young Ramana’s renunciation at the age of 17 when he was a schoolboy. The article carried Sri Ramana Maharshi’s picture also. This article evoked within me a state of renunciation and an idea of seeking Self-realization. Thirdly, I began to read Swami Sivananda’s spiritual literature from Sri P K Vinayarangam’s My Magazine of India and a book of Gurudev’s quotations published by him. All these three saints hammered one single central line again and again into my mind viz:
Life is meant for God-realization. Goal of life is God-realization. If you die without attaining God-realization, your life is in vain. You have wasted away this precious gift of human birth given to you by God.
Now, my heart was filled with an intense fire of Vairagya. The idea of renouncing the world and going away in seclusion somewhere in the Himalayas dominated my mind day and night. I was in a dilemma. Even though unmarried, and quite free from one point of view, I felt myself bound by ties of duties and responsibilities towards both the junior members of the family as well as my seniors whom I had to serve. Father’s health was not in the best of condition, the forced departure from Madras had been something of a shock to his sensitive nature. My duty as the eldest son held on to me. On the other hand, the keen longing to renounce everything in the form of worldly ties pulled me powerfully. Sometimes I would suddenly wake up from sleep after midnight and find myself shaking with fear with the thought that I may never be able to take to the Nivritti Marga or the life of total renunciation. This all the more pressed upon me the urgency of taking necessary steps into the fire of dispassion, renunciation, penance and deep meditation.
Somehow 8 or 9 months passed this way at the now R S Puram residence. I began to feel powerfully that I should not delay any further. Something from within me urged that I must take this final step at an early date, without waiting any more. Slowly a plan began to take shape in my mind. I would start from home telling them that I wished to go to the holy Tirupati to have Lord Venkateswara’s darshan and spend a few days there. I knew they would readily agree to this because we were all devotees of Tirupati Venkateswara and I had taken a vow to go to Tirumala, walking up all the seven hills from Tirupati town below. From Tirupati I wrote to them that I had made a similar vow to visit Shirdi Sai Baba’s Samadhi sthan and having come to Tirupati, I might as well fulfill my second vow also.
While the reasons for visiting these two places were quite authentic and genuine, I had actually no intention of returning home at all. My step was the final renunciation. I had already written letters to five spiritual personalities, praying for their blessings for an “important step” I was about to take in my life. One letter was to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, one was to Swami Ramdas, one to Swami Rajeshwaranandaji (Guru of the famous philosopher Dr T M P Mahadevan) and one more was probably to revered Sri Malayala Swamiji of Vyasashram, near Yerpedu in Andhra Pradesh, ten miles from Tirupati. I was already in touch with Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji through correspondence.
Sri Ramana Maharshi’s letter briefly informed me that my letter was placed before Bhagavan and herewith was Bhagavan’s Prasad. A packet of Vibhuti and another of Kum Kum came with the brief reply. Swami Ramdas’ reply was typical. Swamiji wrote: “Beloved Ram, you have not told Ramdas what step you are going to take. So, how can Ramdas bless you without knowing your step? However, all good undertakings have Ramdas’ blessings.” I was writing home from the places I was visiting, giving the family the impression that I would be returning home while, all the while, I had no intention of ever coming back. This ‘deception’ was with the intention of not giving them a rude shock that I had gone away forever and that they were never likely to see me ever again. Because, in those days, Himalayas was a far, far distant region of India. After a month’s stay at Shirdi, I wrote to the family that I would visit Mathura and Brindavan. I spent 3 weeks in Brindavan in Sri Rama Krishna Seva Ashram there. I visited Mathura also. From there I took a train to Delhi and got a connection to Haridwar. While I was in Brindavan, I had written to Gurudev Sri Swami Sivananda Maharaj that I was coming to his Ashram “to surrender myself at your feet and to serve you.” The reply was: “Your letter. Oh, yes, you may come. Regards, Prem and Om.”
After leaving Delhi and arriving at Haridwar, I stayed for ten days in Sri Rama Krishna Seva Ashram at Kankhal, Haridwar. They were very kind to me due to the letter of Swami Asheshanandji Maharaj that I carried from Madras math. At Kankhal, revered Swami Ajoyananda was the head of the Ashram. He knew Gurudev very well. I took his leave and left for Rishikesh on 19th May 1943, which was the sacred day of Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanti. I reached Sivananda Ashram, which was one-and-half miles beyond Rishikesh town, mid-afternoon and someone there gave me a little corner in the hall of a Dharmashala which was close to the Sivananda Ashram premises.
Some time after sunset, in the twilight, Gurudev Sri Swami Sivananda followed by a Brahmachari carrying a hurricane lantern, came down from the upper part of the Ashram with a big long staff in his hand. As he came near, I fell flat upon the ground in dandawat namaskar. He enquired from someone nearby ‘Who is this person?’ They told him I was Sridhar Rao of Madras who had been corresponding with Gurudev. He kindly asked me to get up. I did so and felt that I had reached my destination. I felt blessed by God. This is how my entire life was offered at the feet of Gurudev Sri Swami Sivananda Maharaj. It was the culmination of my physical journey upon the outer plane of this world. My spiritual journey now commenced.
(EPILOGUE: In 1944 or 1945, Sri Kashiram Gupta, a Marwadi devotee of Swami Sivananda and father of Sri Ram Niwas Gupta, who was very close to Sri Gurudev, came to the Ashram on a visit. Swami Sivananda called him to his Ganga bank Kutir. When Sri Kashiram Gupta entered the Kutir, Gurudev told him to be seated and enquired whether he was well-accommodated and comfortable. After Sri Kashiramji, an elderly person, assured him that he was perfectly at home, Gurudev suddenly looked at him and told him: “O jee! My successor has already come!” Sri Guptaji was somewhat surprised and asked Swami Sivanandji who that successor was. At that time Sri Sridhar Rao (later Swami Chidananda) had gone to the river bank and taken his dip and was drying himself, with a towel around his waist. Swami Sivananda pointed a finger in the direction of Sridhar Rao and told Sri Gupta: “Look there! See that young man on the riverbank? That is my successor.” So, it seemed that already Swami Sivananda had made up his mind about his successor. It was indeed Pujya Swamiji’s sankalpa which inspired student Sridhar Rao on the spiritual path and later drew him irresistibly to Rishikesh, to the feet of the Master. Sridhar Rao was conferred Sannyas by Gurudev six years after he arrived in Sivananda Ashram, in 1948, on Guru Purnima day, and thus was born Swami Chidananda Maharaj).
HARI OM TAT SAT