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Swami Tarananda Giri
Tarananda - The Legend
I was very eager to meet Swami Tarananda from the time I was told that my teacher Swami Dayananda had studied from that great saint. My teacher related the story of how he lived in a hut in Rishikesh from 1964 to 1967, amidst a settlement of monks on the banks of the Ganges. He would walk the two kilometres distance daily along the river bank to Kailash Ashram to learn Vedanta from Swami Tarananda.
It took some years for me to actually meet Swami Tarananda in person. He had recently moved to Haridwar near Rishikesh, and he lived there, close to the main pilgrim centre, in an independent setup. My teacher would visit him frequently, and I got an opportunity to meet the great man during one such visit.
Tarananda was around sixty years of age, slim tall, and fair. He had shiny eyes and wore a shy smile. He wore a piece of cloth on his head which looked like a cap. Soft spoken, polite and self-willed, he won the hearts of his fellow monks and his devotees. His usual routine in Haridwar was to get up early in the morning, bathe, prepare tea, pray, and go for a brisk walk. After his return, he would inspect the ashram premises, eat fruit, receive visitors in his room, take lunch, and rest till two in the afternoon. Later, he would take tea, read, teach a class or two, go for an evening walk, socialise with fellow monks, and retire for the night after prayers and dinner.
The meeting between my teacher and Tarananda was mostly spent in pleasantries. Each enquired about the other’s health and welfare. The discussions were in the local language. Tarananda wanted to know about the two young men who had accompanied him. My teacher introduced my colleague and me by name, saying that we had completed our Vedanta studies and were eager to learn further. Tarananda was extremely pleased and welcomed us to stay with him and study whenever we wished to. He was used to the local college students approaching him to learn the basics of Sanskrit grammar, logic, and oriental philosophy. At the end of the meeting, before we left him, Tarananda distributed some cardamom pods as a token of his blessings. I was deeply touched by this gesture of his.
A year later, my friend and I opted to study the advanced texts under the grandmaster. He was pleased and invited us to stay with him. The next day, we moved in with our bags and books, ready and keen to begin. It surprised us no end to see him in his room, standing on a ladder leading to the attic above. He was busy directing his assistant in the attic to pull out some books stored there. Tarananda smiled at us after he had finished and taken his seat. He told us that the Vedanta book we wanted to study had been stored in the attic and had to be taken down. While he had taught other Vedanta texts to many people, he was teaching the Brahmasutras for the first time after an interval of twenty years. All the hairs on my body stood up at this piece of information. I knew that twenty years before, it was Swami Dayananda who had studied the text from Tarananda. I felt doubly blessed and fortunate to be associated with such august and revered personalities.
The time we spent studying with him flew past very quickly. He instructed us to take our afternoon meal at a neighbouring ashram where monks and college students ate everyday. Since the two of us were students wearing white clothes, he sent word to the manager to let him know that we were spiritual students and not local college students. It was an exhilarating experience to be in the company of monks and be treated like one. On some occasions, we accompanied a group of monks who went round the area daily collecting food from door to door. At night, we helped in cooking dinner for the inmates staying with Tarananda.
On rare occasions, he would chat with us about his own past. As a child, he had listened to the mythological story of young prince Dhruva, who was ill-treated by his step-mother and left home in quest of God. Inspired by such stories, Tarananda left his home in search of realization and went on to become a monk at Kailash Ashram. He was a contemporary of Harihara Tirtha, and the two young monks studied the scriptural texts from Swami Vishnudevananda who headed the Ashram.
Tarananda was a simple man hailing from a remote village and did not have much exposed to the social mores of society. He expressed surprise one day when the postman brought in a parcel for me and found a bottle of pickles wrapped up in it. It was sent to me by a friend from another city who wanted me to taste home cooking for a change. Tarananda was wonderstruck and remarked: “Can people really send food items by post?”
He preferred simple meals consisting of flat bread, lentils, and cooked vegetables. He had his one of his residential students to cook for him in an open hearth heated with twigs and wood shavings. The student cooked the food, but was not used to eating the bread, and said he preferred rice. When asked why, the boy said that wheat did not agree with him and it would upset his stomach. Tarananda could not digest this fact and exclaimed: “What kind of stomach do you have?”
A stickler of routine, he would be up early to complete his morning rituals. As an incentive, he chose to make hot tea for us at 4.30 in the morning. While the warmth of the tea was welcome, especially during winter, we had to finish bath in cold water under a running tap which was open to the sky. A little bit of tardiness meant that we had to settle for cold tea, as the tea pot was kept out in the open, just outside his room.
His teaching competence came through in his classes. Often he would quote examples from the Classics to illustrate subtle Vedanta concepts. He could reel of the Sanskrit grammar aphorisms and drill it into us until it got imprinted in our heads. He could effortlessly explain the nuances of comparative philosophy and was at home with Jainism, Buddhism, and other Indian Systems. At one time he even displayed his knowledge of comparative languages by pointing out the similarities in Sanskrit and Persian grammar.
Tarananda was genuinely concerned about our learning. His classes were in the local language. He was happy that we were taking notes of his lectures, but was slightly taken aback when he saw that our notes were in English. One of his new students kept nodding continuously in class one day, while a dialectical topic in philosophy was being explained. Tarananda watched patiently for some time, and then admonished him: “Write it down. Or else, you will forget!”
In all, I spent about two seasons studying different Vedanta texts under him. After my studies, I settled in Mumbai, and began conducting classes for groups of interested students. I kept meeting Tarananda frequently, once every two years or so, over a period of twenty years. He was every happy to see me, and fondly recalled the good old days together. During his last days, he became weak in health, so my teacher requested him to stay at Rishikesh. Tarananda consented, and a separate room was provided for his convenience.
He stopped taking classes, but continued his routine of morning and evening walks as long as he could. Disciples of Swami Dayananda from all over the world came to meet him at take his blessings. They kept him informed about my teacher’s activities, and Tarananda was happy that the Rishikesh setup was thriving and growing.
In his lifetime, Tarananda had reached the point of peace within himself in the best way, and he lived a peaceful life. He passed away as peacefully as he had lived, with a smile of contentment passing through his lips during his last breath. I was one of the fortunate pall bearers of this great sage in his journey to the holy Ganges where he was laid to eternal rest. This great soul had finally become one with the universe.