Even as a young boy, Swami Swahananda showed a love for books. At the age of eleven he began attending the Habiganj Ramakrishna Mission (formerly India; now Bangladesh). The swami often referred to the fact that within three months of daily attendance he had become the “librarian” and had read every book in their library. He became the keeper of the prized “library key.”
In tenth grade, he requested permission to miss one day of school so he could go into town and read the entire autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru. He was confident that he could complete the book in one day since he was a voracious and fast reader.
He continued to read a variety of books and his interest in various subjects expanded. He always enjoyed reading biographies and autobiographies. Decades later, while in Santa Barbara for the weekend, the nuns offered to loan him a book they had just received, My Life by Bill Clinton. Although it is over 1,000 pages he finished it in one weekend, but kept it for a while longer to study it more deeply.
When asked about the first thing he learned in English he said: “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” a rhyme that most American children learn quite early in life. The India he grew up in was the British Raj, and as he proceeded in his education, many of his teachers and professors were trained in England or by British teachers. So, it is little wonder that as a young boy one of his teachers taught his class a British rhyme, which fifty years later he still remembered.
As a young man, he earned two Masters degrees: one in English and another in English Literature. When he was deciding whether to join the Order or go for a doctorate (in Education) in progressive America, he asked Swami Madhavanandaji, then General Secretary of the Order, for advice. It was suggested he “flip a coin” if he was not more than fifty percent certain of what to do. He joined, and attended the Mysore Study Circle, an elite group of monks chosen to spend two years studying with scholars and delving deeply into spiritual texts. Most of these monks were later sent to the West. The habit of deep thinking was ingrained in him from his early days and continued throughout his life.
Later, when the swami was head of the Vedanta Society Berkeley, there were several of us who were working on our doctorates. He told us that he was going through the process vicariously through us.
Before coming to the states he read books about or by Americans, to learn about the psyche of the American people. When speaking about knowledge or information in general he often said, “You don’t need to know everything, but you need to know where to find it.” His advice was useful for those of us in graduate school and also to younger people.
Swahananda advised many monastics to memorize spiritual songs (the arati songs sung in the Ramakrishna Order), poems, and other religious quotes, including chapters of the Gita. He also advised devotees to memorize meaningful passages from spiritual readings while still young so that later in old age, when reading books might be difficult, the memory of those passages would be preserved. He also suggested this to parents, regarding their children.
Swami Swahananda came to America in 1968, having been the youngest swami to lead one of the largest centers in India, the Ramakrishna Mission in New Delhi. He had once been advised by a senior swami to have a hobby, and told a devotee, “Everybody needs a hobby. My hobby is reading. You see, not much is involved in taking care of books.”
I was fortunate to witness his joy as he re-read books over and over again, such as The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Letters of Swami Vivekananda, or any of the Upanishads, the Gita and other books with which he was very familiar. Some of these he had memorized earlier in his life. Every morning he would not get up without reading at least a line or more of The Gospel, which he read in Bengali. He read at least several paragraphs before going to sleep for more than 80 years.
When he read Bengali books, it was usually Ramakrishna Vedanta literature, although he was familiar with Bengali literature. The swami was always reading, often in English and mostly non-fiction.
In the 70’s there was a long-time devotee named Lila, who was a research librarian at the University of California Berkeley Library. She saw all the library’s new books as they were brought into their system, and supplied the swami with hundreds of books over the years that she thought would interest him. Within days they had discussed the book, with the swami giving a short review of the contents, author’s style, etc.
It was interesting to watch Swamiji talk about what he had read, and add his thoughtful and sometimes humorous comments. He was particularly interested in politics, especially American and Indian politics, and read many books about both. He loved discussing politics, based on his extensive reading and knowledge of different cultures.
Shortly after arriving in Berkeley the swami assigned me the task of reading all eight volumes of the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda — and after that everything else that was then available about Vivekananda, including the original four-volume Life of Swami Vivekananda. The fact that I was a full-time graduate student, with two part-time jobs and spending much time doing service at the Center, had nothing to do with whether I had time to read Vivekananda or not. I was to read it.
On the evenings when there were no scheduled classes in Berkeley, after Swamiji ate dinner, I met him in his office and he would say, “Get that book!” He was referring to Sister Nivedita’s The Master as I Saw Him. Being an American, I found Nivedita’s Victorian English difficult and awkward to read. When I would say, “Not again,” he replied, “You are going to read it until you like it.” And eventually I did like and appreciate Sister Nivedita.
The swami devoured any newly published spiritual books he received in the mail, or from a swami or devotee returning from India. He loved reading books “hot off the press.” Since they were usually his personal books I often either borrowed them or he gave them to me to read. I loved to see what parts of the page or book he had underlined. He enjoyed sharing new publications with those who shared his love for books and always inscribed them with a meaningful message.
There were many people whom he referred to often in his lectures including, but not limited to Aldous Huxley, Arnold Toynbee, Carl Jung, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schlesinger, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith. He sometimes teased American devotees about how women had taken leadership positions in many countries, including India, Israel, Bangladesh, etc., but America lagged behind.
Besides his love for books and especially literature he had a wonderful way of encouraging those around him (nuns, monks and close devotees) to begin writing articles and later books. This would help develop deep thinking and understanding of the subject matter.
He himself had already translated two major Upanishads into English (Chandogya and Pancadasi), and wrote numerous books and articles. He had a missionary spirit in spreading the message of Vedanta, Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, and appreciated anyone else who did so. He was most receptive to suggestions when we edited his writings and was the best proofreader around. He could catch the tiniest mistakes and any writer knows there will always be mistakes in a manuscript. He read and corrected anything the monastics wrote for journals and publishing houses.
When the swami was transferred to the Vedanta Society of Southern California in late 1976, he began doing “simultaneous” translations of Bengali books, mainly reminiscences of the direct disciples, into English in classes and gatherings with monastics and devotees. Everyone was amazed that he was reading the Bengali to himself but translating it instantly into English. Later, many of these translations that were recorded were transcribed, edited and published, including those on Swami Shivananda, Premananda, Premeshananda and others.
Swami Swahananda enjoyed teasing the devotees about their strong positions and prejudices, knowing that strong likes and dislikes tend to limit one’s perspective on the world. That is why literature was so important to him because it broadens one’s knowledge. His love and appreciation of literature deepened his understanding of people, cultures and traditions, providing him with a more embracing and catholic world-view.
Amrita M. Salm, Ph.D. met Swami Swahananda in 1974 in Berkeley and served him for over 35 years as his secretary/assistant; she also was Secretary for the Vedanta Society of Southern California for many years. She is the editor of A Portrait of Sri Ramakrishna (the translation of Sri Sri Ramakrishna Punthi); Mother of Mayavati: The Story of Charlotte Sevier and Advaita Ashrama; and an upcoming book on Sarah Ellen Waldo.