Swami Prabuddhananda, Minister-in-Charge of the Vedanta Society of Northern California, San Francisco since 1970, passed away on July 2, 2014 at the age of 84. He was born in Karnataka state, India, in 1929, and joined the Ramakrishna Order in his early 20s. Before coming to the United States, he had served as President of the Bangalore Ramakrishna Ashrama, a large center of the Order in South India. He was highly respected for his purity of character and unflinching dedication to the monastic ideal. He was also a loving guide to many disciples and other spiritual aspirants. During his long stewardship of the San Francisco Center, he encouraged and presided over considerable expansion of the Society’s facilities and activities, including the establishment of women’s and men’s retreat houses at the large Olema Retreat property in Marin County, opening the retreat facilities to spiritual seekers of all traditions, and the institution of the Annual Memorial Day interfaith program at the Retreat, open to the public and drawing nearly 1,000 participants annually. The San Francisco Temple (built in the late 1950s) was nearly doubled in size to include a large multipurpose room, a beautiful new library, office space, and a new bookshop. The swami approved major renovation of the Old Temple in San Francisco, the first Hindu temple in the United States, now under way. The swami was active and highly respected in the interfaith community, and spoke at various schools and colleges in the Bay Area.
We offer our readers some reminiscences of Swami Prabuddhananda by monks and devotees.
Swami Tathagatananda, Minister-in-Charge, Vedanta Society of New York
Revered Swami Prabuddhanandaji is no more with us. We have lost in him a real sadhu (monk) who sincerely lived a noble life. I had the opportunity to see him two or three times at the Bangalore Center when I was posted at the Mylapore Center in Madras. When I was the Head of the Baranagore Center, he kindly paid a visit to my Center, and encouraged me to accept the Headquarters’ order to go to New York.
I came to New York on Feb 15, 1977. During the summer, I used to go to the West Coast every year and spend the whole summer at different Centers.
Revered Swami Prabuddhanandaji invited me to visit his Center. So on July 5, 1977, I left New York and reached San Francisco. To my great surprise, Swami had arranged for a reception at the Olema Retreat along with Swami Swananda, Head of the Berkeley Center, who also reached the US in the same year. I had many occasions to know Swami Prabuddhananda. On two occasions, I spent fifteen days at the Olema Retreat. At that time, the Retreat was vibrant with many swamis and brahmacharis (novices). One time Swami Prabuddhananda took me in his car to visit a devotee’s house near San Francisco. In the car, the Swami told me that initiated devotees were very dear to him.
At his invitation, I stayed at Lake Tahoe along with Revered Swami Shraddhanandaji, Swahanandaji and others. We all had a boat ride with Swami Prabuddhanandaji. Some years back I was in Texas, and came to know that Swami Prabuddhananada was staying at some devotees’ house near where I was staying. I immediately went to see him and spent about an hour with him. He was going to Brazil accompanied by some devotees. That was the last time I saw him personally. Only one other time when he was at the San Francisco Center, I had a telephonic conversation for a little while.
Headquarters has issued a bulletin in August 2014. In their bulletin, Headquarters wrote that Swami Prabuddhanandaji “was highly respected for his saintly life, sterling monastic qualities, calm demeanor and dignified manners. He served as a source of inspiration for the monks and devotees in the West. In him the Order has lost a precious member among those serving in the West.” This is the real estimation of his noble life.
The maladies of materialism are many; of them goallessness, aimlessness and purposelessness are more pronounced. What we want is a balance of material and spiritual life.
In this connection, I quote Swami Vivekananda “1 remember a story told by Prof. Max Muller in one of his books, an old Greek story, of how a Brahmin visited Socrates in Athens. The Brahmin asked, “What is the highest knowledge?” And Socrates answered, “To know man is the end and aim of all knowledge.” “But how can you know man without knowing God?” replied the Brahmin (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 1, page 432).
Revered Swami Prabuddhananda spent his entire life extolling the beauty of spiritual life. He was an ideal monk. His integrity of character, sympathetic behavior, and calm and quiet life have left a rich legacy of genuine spiritual life.
I humbly pay my respectful homage to the departed soul.
Swami Chidbrahmananda, monk at Vedanta Center of Greater Washington D.C.
Swami Prabuddhananda was not a man of words; he was a man of presence. He was alone in every room he entered. He made his point by simply being and steered conversations with a glance. He never scolded or instructed me directly; but, I would be hard-pressed to find enough paper in the world to write down all that I learned from him. He was a solid among liquids and those around him were ever stronger because of it.
I lived in the San Francisco Monastery with him for nearly fifteen years. I never saw him do a single thing for his own enjoyment. If I needed to find him I never looked more than three places. He was either meditating in his chair, studying at his desk or meeting with the devotees in his office. He had two distinct sides. For the devotees he was a generous, encouraging and warm soul. For the monks he was a stern call to renunciation, intent on putting their strength in God alone lest they should grow to depend on him personally. I think he smiled at me no more than three times in a year; but the sincerity and sweetness of it made it worth the wait. As rare as it was, it is what I remember him for the most.
I was alone in the monastery with Swami for several years. I remember at the beginning of that stretch of time there was a moment when I did not think I could endure the isolation. I was standing at the top of the stairs one day, leaning on the railing and feeling sorry for myself and my situation when Swami entered the monastery from his office. Coming up the stairs he asked, “What is this?” Meaning my current mood and pose. I responded with my complaint of loneliness, expecting a response of empathy and encouragement. He, however, continued past me and walked to his room saying, without a glance, “Go to the shrine.” I was furious inside and mentally abused him for his coldness, but I went to the shrine. I got a gift there that day, a lesson that has strengthened me ever since. I learned that God was a living refuge. I learned that practice could change the “real” world. I became aware of all the lesser refuges in my life that had become dependencies. I learned I had a better one.
Swami Prabuddhananda never answered a question that required a yes or a no. These questions were left to simmer in time. The first deadline would come and go; followed shortly by the second one. “Let us see,” would be his response to your exasperation. In the end we would see. However, what we could have had a month to do would now be done in a day. As frustrating as that seems, it steeped the Center in a deep wisdom and steadiness. It left no regrets.
I remember sitting at a stoplight one afternoon with Swami in the passenger seat. He was watching the bustle of the city out of the window with a certain intensity. He looked at me for a moment and paused. “Where are they all going?” he asked in a playful smile. In that heartbeat I understood the temporary nature of the world…the unending twist of Maya. I laughed for a moment at the pretense of the play. I had learned again with only five words from his mouth.
It was my first week in the monastery. Evening meals were left to our own devices. In my new-monk cleverness I had filled the freezer with delectable instant dinners. They were shelved like books for my perusal after arati. Swami came into the kitchen while I was doing lunch dishes and opened that freezer. He stood there silently staring into my treasure trove of non-Indian cooking. He took his two steps to the center of the kitchen. “What is this?” he asked slowly. I knew no answer could breach what was coming. “Seeee,” he said in a long drawn out emphasis that went from high to low and back to high again, “Laziness (tamas) is always trying to find its way into monastic life. We must guard our every entrance.” Those beloved book-stacks of instant cooking were never replaced. Our entrances were guarded and locked.
I made breakfast for Swami every day for fifteen years. Oatmeal, one dry toast and soaked almonds with pumpkin seeds. It only took me ten years to ask him if he wanted something different. I couldn’t imagine that the boredom of that combination had not yet driven him crazy. He looked at me with his toast in hand. “Seeeee,” he said only from high to low, “that dropped off long ago.” Lesson witnessed and learned. His bliss never came from the taste of food.
I was struggling hard in the first years of my monasticism. I confessed it to swami one day, thinking that he might tell me monastic life was not for me. I was in tears and ashamed when he sat me down and pulled up a chair in front of me. “You are a child of the Mother. Where do tears come from in that?” he asked. “For those in the world it is enough to let things drop off over time, but you are a monk. You must burn them out with your sadhana.” He said it as if I had already done it. His confidence was infectious. He had in one sentence picked me up, dusted me off, slapped me on the back and sent me happily on my way. I am a child of the Mother after all.
It seemed unlikely, but Thakur and Ma called me to become a monk; through Swami Prabuddhananda they made me one. Each day since his passing I am more indebted to him for his gifts. He made me wait until he was gone to open them; but one by one they are becoming apparent. I love him deeply; I saw my ideal lived through him. I have been shown how to live boldly; how to live in a steady equanimity; and how to die with Mother’s name on my lips. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Salm, Member, Vedanta Society of New York
In his serious, kind and gentle ways, Swami Prabuddhananda was always ready and willing to help each of us when we needed it, and particularly when we most needed it. In the many years I had contact with him it always struck me how little fuss he made about anything, how much generosity and kindness came from him, and how much wisdom and love he gave, in a very quiet and unassuming, almost in a silent way. He listened to me with great attention and focus, he encouraged, looked after and took a personal interest in whatever I discussed with him. He was, for many years, a guiding and protecting hand in the life of my whole family, and quite recently when he was lovingly advising me about coping with a problem that caused me tremendous heartache, he said something I can never forget: “This is how it becomes a yoga for us. It is the Yoga of Desperation, you see. First chapter of the Gita, Arjuna’s desperation… it was not meant just for saints and sages in ancient times. It is for you!—and for me!— and now!” Email: email@example.com
Swami Prabuddhananda pierced my life with ‘a deep call’ as I sat with him in his office, in the temple on Sunday’s with Vedic teachings, out at Olema Tuesdays for women, on retreat at Tahoe, Olema for many years…..No matter what I shared with him there would be one basic statement that he would give: “Very good….now GO DEEPER!”
One time he reprimanded me with the deep adjustment: “You should know better!”
Also, the time I asked him this question: “When does the doubt go?” He simply replied: “When you KNOW!”
Everything he placed upon my heart has fertilized the soil of consciousness which continues to grow beautiful fruit all the time….the fruit of Love and Service. I give thanks to the Indweller for having come to my life as Swami P. May I fulfill his request.
Hope Rolland, Member, Vedanta Society of San Francisco:
I remember once asking Swami Prabuddhananda if Vedantins must believe in reincarnation…before he could answer I jumped in and said, “I understand it as a concept and a possibility, but I don’t feel I’m coming back”…to which he replied, “Well, then, hurry up.” It’s one of the many wise things he shared over the years, and I’ve never forgotten it. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“In the battle with yourself, you must always win.”
I heard Swami Prabuddhananda say this several times. Now I think about it all the time. When I think about what to prepare to eat, when I think about having an extra dessert, when I want to sleep in another hour instead of getting up and going to yoga, when I put off doing something—all those small challenges of life. I wish I could win every time, as I’m sure Swami did when he battled with himself. I’m working on it.
Occasionally when making pranams to Swami he would lightly tap some fortunate person on the head. It was a sign of affection from him and an honor to be a recipient of it. It didn’t happen to me often, but I remember when it did.
For those of us who were able to attend Swami’s retreats, they were all a joy. The longer they were, the more intense they became. He made us feel like we had been transported into a better place. The world and our minds, our entire beings, became calmer, saner, spiritually infused. We were in a synchronized rhythm with life, with Swami, with each other. The last day of each retreat was bittersweet: he had given us so much on the one hand; on the other, the retreat was coming to an end: how would we, on our own, be able to hold on to that elevated spirituality? Email:email@example.com
“Come on! Come on!”
Swami Prabuddhananda came into my life 20 years ago when I was at a crisis point and essentially alone in San Francisco. It’s impossible to describe what he meant to me, and, after many attempts to do so, I fully recognize my limits. It’s like trying to describe what fresh mountain air feels like—it’s so subtle, beautiful and comforting. You can’t see it, hold it, or compare it to anything else, but it’s real and permeating and joy-giving unlike anything else.
Swami brought an undiminishable source of love and wisdom to my life that was a real glimpse of God’s love. Many a Saturday after I finished my reception desk duties, he’d call me up to his office. I can’t believe now that, at times, I didn’t want him to call me up because I was embarrassed about all my flaws and failures to follow his sage counsel. Nevertheless, he found a way to make sure that I couldn’t sneak out the door. I’d stand outside his office door and he’d say “Come on! Come on!” and beckon me in to take a seat. I would instantly feel and know that everything was going to be okay; that I could try again; that I was doing better than I thought; and that God is actively operating in my life.
I can hear it so clearly: “Come on! Come on!”
When I walk by the room my altar is in, usually with the intent to keep going and skip meditation practice or prayer, I can hear him gently calling, “Come on! Come on!”
For all the words I could say about Swami Prabuddhananda, it comes down to this: I love you, Swami Prabuddhananda, and I am eternally grateful for your love and commitment to being an instrument of God’s peace. You fully and completely embodied the Saint that your American city was named for. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1999, the annual business meeting was intensely focused on ways to celebrate and otherwise observe the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Vedanta Society in San Francisco in 2000. The old temple (the first Hindu temple in this country) was nearly filled with members that afternoon and the discussion was energetic as we brainstormed multiple ways to mark the auspicious date.
I particularly recall one member offering to talk with a friend of considerable stature at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. He thought we might well be able to secure a two page spread in that well-read publication. He noted that we had many things to showcase, accomplishments that deserved recognition, among them the Society’s generous opening of its beautiful retreat in Olema (rural Marin County) to the community at large regardless of religious denomination. This suggestion in particular was enthusiastically endorsed as its author concluded that such publicity would “bring us a lot of new members.”
All the while, Swami Prabuddhananda, who was seated at the front of the temple and facing the membership, had been silent. Finally, he spoke in his characteristic soft and calm tone. I paraphrase here, but it was something like, “You see, we don’t really want a lot of new members. What we want is a few serious spiritual seekers.” The room fell silent.
I was relatively new to Vedanta at that time, and I was stunned by Swami’s unwavering clarity of purpose. What religious organization, I thought, is not focused above all on increasing its membership? Swami’s focus on the priority of spiritual growth was resolute and unfaltering. I knew in that moment that by some unknown good fortune I had found Swami and Vedanta in this life. Email: email@example.com
Bill Macan (Santa Das):
My experience with Swami Prabuddhananda could take a lifetime to share. Sixteen years ago, I met Swami P. for the first time. It was a foreign experience for me, coming from a Catholic background; but, in the long term, it became a blissful one.
It was four years ago that I decided to go to Nursing School with the support of my guru, Swami Swahananda. He said in his last few months of life, “go take care of the monks.” So I did. Swami Prabuddhananda was my first patient for the next 4 years. For whatever reasons Swami had, he allowed me to enter in his reserved and quiet circle to attend to his needs. I was very excited, but somewhat nervous at the beginning. As time went on, we developed a relationship that was so special on many levels.
From good days to not so good days, Swami persisted. He was determined to complete his tasks, whatever they were, for the devotees, monks, and nuns. Through his many medical challenges, he was not going to go until he accomplished all of what he needed to do.
As Swami’s health became more complicated, the more devotees got more involved volunteering their time to help: giving medications, reading scriptures, or just sitting quietly. Swami would always say, “So many devotee’s are helping; may Mother bless them.”
Swami never complained once about the medical challenges. He always thanked everyone for anything they did for him. We all know it was from unconditional love. If anyone thanked Swami for helping him, he would be clear that it was through Holy Mother and Sri Ramakrishna—that it was not from him. You felt this true love, and you knew it was the truth—Atman. Swami lived the Gospel, the Upanishads, and the Gita. They were his life. He gave without expectation; he loved unconditionally.
Swami Prabuddhananda’s lessons to us were nothing but spirituality, truth, discipline and true love. Swami was “the real deal”; he was an enlightened soul; he was full of blissful touches to each and every one.
My time with Swami became so much more than a Nurse’s role; it became a gift—of how to surrender, of how not be attached and of how to know oneself—how to know God. He said to me many times, “Be free.” For the first time in my life, I knew what it was to have a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a friend and a teacher. What a gift!
Swami Prabuddhananda and I were together when Swami Swahananda passed. After meditating, while Swami Swahananda’s life support was being terminated, Swami P. looked me and said, “emotions have their place, they can be a distraction, your Guru never leaves, he’s always in your heart.”
As Swami’s life was coming to and end, it became more difficult physically to communicate verbally. So, his right arm was his form of communicating. By raising it up, he indicated to chant quietly in Mother’s name, or no, if he did not want something. I knew time was short in coming and I whispered in his ear, “I love you,” he grabbed my wrist and whispered, “I know.” Finally, on the day before his passing, I came by to give him his bath in the hospital. He reached out to me with his right arm and struggled to put his head slightly up to say, “Thank you for everything.” Once again, he made sure that everyone was taken care of. This was the day he stopped, by his own decision, all food and medications. He was in transition to land in Mother’s lap.
Courageous, strong-willed, humorous, comforting, peaceful, gentle, intelligent, generous, non-judgmental and full of unconditional love. When I use these words, I think of Thakur, Holy Mother; when I feel these words, I think of Swami Prabuddhananda.
My time with Swami Prabuddhananda, was and is like a precious gem. A gem that is tucked away in my heart, where the truth really is. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org