Swami Akhandananda or Gangadhar Gangopadhyay (Ghatak), as he was called in his pre-monastic life, was born on 30th September 1864, in Calcutta. Even from his boyhood he was of a deeply religious turn of mind, and had extremely orthodox habits. He bathed several times a day, cooked his one daily meal himself, read the Gita and other scriptures and regularly practised meditation.
This was his mode of life when he came in contact with Sri Ramakrishna probably in 1883 or 1884 at Dakshineshwar, which he visited with his friend Harinath (Swami Turiyananda). The Master, as was customary with him, cordially and asked him if he had seen him before. The boy answered that he had, when he had been very young, at the house of Dinanath Bose, a devotee who lived at Baghbazar. The Master made him stay overnight, and when he was taking leave the next morning, Sri Ramakrishna asked the boy, in his characteristic way, to come again.
Then began that close association between the Master and the disciple which afterwards ripened into a strong urge for renunciation of the world on the part of God in man. Every time he visited Dakshineshwar he was charmed to see some new phase of Sri Ramakrishna's God -intoxicated life. He felt the silent transforming influence of his love and received practical instruction from him on spirituality. Under this tutelage, Gangadhar gradually dropped his over - orthodox observances, which the Master described as "oldish", saying "Look at Naren (Swami Vivekananda). He has such prominent eyes! He chews a hundred betel rolls a day, and eats whatever he gets. But his mind is deeply introspective. He goes along the streets of Calcutta seeing houses as full of God! Go and see him one day. He lives at Simla (a district of Calcutta). The next day Gangadhar saw Narendra Nath and at once understood the truth of the Master remarks, to whom he reported his impressions, and the Master wondered how the boy could learn so much in a single interview. Gangadhar said, "On reaching there, I noticed those prominent eyes of his and found him reading a voluminous English work. The room was full of dirt, but he scarcely noticed anything. His mind seemed to be away beyond this world". The Master advised him to visit Narendra Nath often. This was the foundation of his abiding devotion and allegiance to Swamiji, the hero of his life.
Shortly after Swami Vivekananda's departure for America in May, 1893, Swami Akhandananda learnt from Swami's Brahmananda and Turiyananda, at Mt. Abu that the real motive of the leader's journey to the West was to find bread for the hungry masses of India. For the sight of their crushing poverty and misery was too much for him, and he considered it absurd to preach religion to them without first improving their material condition. This communication made little impression upon Swami Akhandananda at the time. Then he fell ill and went for a change to Khetri, where, after six months' rest and treatment, under the care of Maharaja Ajit Singh, a staunch disciple of Swami Vivekananda, he regained his health. But those months gave him ample opportunity to come in close touch with all sections of people, high and low, rich and poor, and it was then that he realised the truth of Swami Vivekananda's words.
Now himself also burning with the desire to serve the poor and helpless masses, he wrote to Swamiji in America asking for his permission. The encouraging reply he received pushed him on, and in 1894, he began his campaign against poverty and ignorance. It did not take him long to realise that the appalling poverty of the masses could not be removed without proper education. Hence education became his first objective.
Again, during the terrible earthquake in Bihar in 1934, he old as he was, personally inspected the scenes of the ravage at Monghyr and Bhagalpur and gave impetus to the Mission's relief work in those areas. His whole life was full of such disinterested acts. To him all human beings in distress were veritable divinities, and he found intense joy in serving them. In this he literally carried out Swami Vivekananda's behest: "The poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted - let these be your God. Know that the service of these alone is the highest religion."
He loved to work silently and unobserved among the dumb masses, and this is why, in spite of his indifferent health, he stuck to the village work at Sargachhi. He was made the Vice President of the Ramakrishna Mission in 1925, and President in March 1934, on the passing away of Swami Shivananda. The duties of the latter post required his presence at the Belur Math, but he preferred the solitude of Sargachhi, and was quite happy with his orphan boys, supervising the agricultural work and taking care of the valuable collection of trees and plants in the orchard. Routine work was distasteful to him. Throughout his life, however, he was a lover of books and gathered a great store of knowledge on diverse subjects.
He had a prodigious memory, which coupled with his strong power of observation and dramatic sense, made him a first rate conversationalist. His adventurous life as a penniless itinerant monk throughout Northern and Western India, particularly his experiences in Tibet, furnished him with inexhaustible materials for conversation, and he would keep his audience spell bound with narrations of the privations and dangers he had gone through, and the rare experiences he had gained in exchange for them.
It was a cherished desire of his to give up the body, not there but at the Belur Math, the place that was sanctified with a thousand and one memories of his beloved brother-disciples from the great Swami Vivekananda downwards. This wish of his was providentially fulfilled, since he was taken to Calcutta for better medical treatment, a couple of days before his passing away.
A month earlier, Swami Akhandananda had written to the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, asking for the wording of a Sanskrit couplet that had appeared in the April number of the Prabuddha Bharata in 1927, in an article entitled "Neo-Hinduism". It ran as follows:
"I do not cover earthly kingdom, or heaven, or even salvation. The only thing I desire is the removal of the miseries of the afflicted." The idea expressed in the couplet was so much after the Swami's heart that even after the lapse of ten years, on the eve of his departure from this world, he wanted to know its precise reading. Swami Akhandananda entered Mahasamadhi at the age of 71, at the Belur Math on 7th February 1937.
Some Saying of Swami Akhandananda
Be quite sincere and straightforward, and never be crooked. Your heart will expand along with your sincerity and straightforwardness. Be always open and above board in all your dealings, never play at hide and seek.
Straightforwardness is a great virtue. A man's heart is pure in proportion, as he is open in his behaviour. Try always to have a pure mind and holy thoughts, and also physical cleanliness.
The Lord has to be served with one's body, mind, and possessions. Merely to sit quiet and make Japa will not do. Do serve Him a little with your body, mind, and possessions. Merely to sit quiet and make Japa will not do. Do serve Him a little with your body as well. And what can mere sitting quiet do? For I find you getting irritated at the slightest provocation; your mind is full of anger, can that be the result of long meditation in the shrine? The Master used to say that attainment of perfection means becoming gentle. Maintain your equanimity under all circumstances.
One should not blame anyone without knowing facts fully. One should rather find fault with oneself first. Know it for certain that pride goes before a fall. This I know from my personal experience.
Recommended for further reading:
Swami Akhandananda, by Swami Annadananda
God Lived with them, by Swami Chetanananda