I started going to the Hollywood Vedanta Society in the fall of 1970 and, although I visited the temple fairly regularly, I kept mostly to myself. As a result, I had little to no information about special temple events or visiting VIP guests. My attendance depended on my intuition and the call of Sri Ramakrishna whom I trusted would surely get me in touch with whoever I was supposed to meet.
One sunny day in 1972, I saw revered Swami Gambhiranandaji walk across the temple courtyard. Being a novice spiritual aspirant, I kept to the back and watched the crowd of monastics and devotees greet the revered guest Swami. I overheard Swami Chetanananda, who was then the assistant minister there, saying to a group of devotees standing nearby: “If you want to get close to a real holy man, you try to get close to Swami Gambhirananda.”
Right from the start, I never addressed him as Swami in my letters. I always wrote: dear Father. He never corrected me. I wrote to him every three months or so and also sent a little money as an offering. Without fail, he always replied. At first, his letters were very formal. While I addressed him as “dear Father,” he addressed me as “Dear Elizabeth Harding.” I knew that Swami had very bad eye sight and did not write himself, but his various attendants would not have written in such a formal way had he not dictated the letters in this style.
In the ‘80s, Swami Gambhirananda’s letters to me got less formal, and he addressed me as “My dear Elizabeth.” I remember how excited I was to receive his letters. I would hold his letter, turn it from side to side and, with great relish, anticipate the blessings contained within. He never let me down. Reading his letters, I literally would feel his love and blessings pouring out toward me. “I pray that the Divine Mother may graciously help you achieve your spiritual aspirations and let you gain inner strength to cope with the vagaries of the world,” Swami Gambhirananda wrote in one of his letters, adding “You have my blessings, too.”
In 1986 I visited India for the first time. The experience of India was much richer than I had ever anticipated. I met Swami Gambhirananda again in person after so many years, but this time, I did not stay in the back. It was like seeing my dear father again after many, many years. Although my eyes saw him looking stern, my heart felt his by now familiar love. I was not shy and felt free around him like a child feels sitting next to dad.
Every evening I would go for darshan to his quarters, and he would always lovingly ask: “What did you do today?” Then he would patiently listen to all my ramblings about what I did and thought that day. He especially wanted to hear all about my adventures at the Dakshineswar Kali temple. He wanted to know even minute details. How long did I stay in the inner shrine, how much dakshina did I give to the priests, when did I go to Dakshineswar and when did I return and how.
I am convinced that Swami Gambhirananda’s blessings made it possible for me to spend much time at the Dakshineswar Kali temple. He handed me a golden key as it were to the inner shrine of Kali. Like the priests there, I could go in and out from Ma’s sanctum. I wasn’t a foreigner. I was home. Moreover, I took a series of photographs of Ma Bhavatarini that later on led me to write the book “Kali, the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar.”
Swami had the photo framed and hung it in his bedroom. When Swami Bhuteshananda moved into this room after Swami Gambhirananda’s passing, he kept this photo of Ma Bhavatarini on the wall.
Swami Gambhirananda had a lot to do with getting me started on writing a book on Ma Kali. Originally, I had wanted to give my photos of Ma Bhavatarini to Belur Math and ask Swami Bhajananandaji to write a book on the Divine Mother. After Swami Gambhirananda asked Swami Bhajanananda twice to talk to me and got a negative reply, Swami Gambhirananda said to me: “You write the book on Kali.”
I had never written a book before. Although I had written numerous articles and was trained as a journalist, the thought of writing a book was scary. I returned to America , and somehow Swami’s strength had entered into me and his words had struck a cord in my heart. How could I fail when I received so many blessings?
“I hope that you succeed in your plans to complete and publish the book on Mother Kali,” wrote Swami Gambhirananda in one of his letter to me. “May you receive in abundance the grace of Mother Kali and Sri Ramakrishna to reach the fountain of all bliss and peace.”
I returned to India in 1987 and, with great joy, sat again at revered Swami Gambhiranandaji’s feet. He taught me so many things even when he was not directly talking to me. I used to love sitting on the bench outside his room. Swami’s kind attendants let me be and did not chase me away. Sitting there on the bench I could feel the presence of Swami Gambhirananda.
One hot afternoon, I was sitting on this bench watching swarms of mosquitos buzzing around my body. I thought: what if a mosquito lands on my knee, will the stinger go through the sari? What if a mosquito lands on my face, how bad will it sting? What if a mosquito flies at my neck, could it crawl under my chadder? Some time went by, and I was very busy working out “what if scenarios.” All of a sudden, I heard Swami’s voice coming from somewhere inside me, saying: “Stop it. Stop thinking about what might happen! Think of God alone.” Lost in the thought of God, it does not matter if a mosquito stings or not.
I asked Swami Gambhirananda once about seeing Sri Ramakrishna seated in my heart. “Swami, how does Thakur sit in my heart?,” I asked. “Does he face me?”
“No, he looks in the same direction you are looking,” said Swami Gambhirananda with great conviction. After a while he added,” Don’t think about it so literally.”
Although I felt I knew Swami Gambhirananda with my heart, I knew little about his personal habits. I am very grateful to his attendants who sometimes explained Swami’s actions to me. I am especially indebted to Swami Atmaramananda for his untiring patience and kindness toward me.
One day as I was sitting at Swami Gambhirananda’s feet, he suddenly reached out and with great precision placed his hand on my head. He held it there for a long time. I was delighted and took it as a token of affection he extends to all visitors. Later on Swami Atmaramanandaji explained to me that this moment was truly special because Swami Gambhirananda rarely showed open affection.
Swami Gambhirananda liked to tease me. Once he asked me: “Who are you? Are you Elizabeth or are you Usha or are you Miss Harding?” I looked at his noble face, and immediately it flashed across my mind. I said, “I’m the Atman, Maharaj.” He clapped his hands and laughed. “Look, look, how quickly she replied,” he said.
One morning after mangal arati, I hid behind some bushes in the monastery near Swami Brahmananda’s temple. I wanted to take photographs of Swami Gambhirananda taking his morning walk. I knew that he wouldn’t see me. His attendants saw me hiding behind bushes but kindly did not mention it and walked past me. When I came for evening darshan that day, Swami Gambhirananda said to me: “I heard some clicking this morning during my morning walk. Did you take photos?” I sheepishly replied: “Yes.” Swami threw his head back and laughed, saying, “You break all our rules.” But since he laughed so heartily, I didn’t take it as a scolding.
When visiting a holy man, it’s auspicious to bring a gift. Following this custom, I always brought fruit, flowers or sweets when I visited Swami Gambhirananda. One day I was late for my appointment with the Swami. I had bought very nice grapes for him but I didn’t get a chance to wash them. So I quickly ran to Swami’s quarters, the grapes still wrapped in a newspaper. As soon as I pranamed to him, Swami Gambhirananda said to me: “What have you brought for me today?” I told him that there were grapes in the package. He held out his hands saying,” Give them to me.” I replied that I’ll give them to his attendant who could serve them nicely later on. Swami insisted. He held out his hands and said that the Indian way was to hand the fruit to him. When I handed him the bunch of grapes wrapped in newspaper, to my horror he began eating the unwashed grapes.
“Swami, please don’t eat these grapes,” I protested, feeling bad. “They are not washed. You may get sick.” Swami Gambhirananda smiled and said: “The Indian way is to put fruit directly into my hand.”
From then on, I always put everything I brought for him directly into his hand. I was also careful not to be late so that I could have plenty of time to wash the fruit I brought.
I visited Swami one day when I was quite sick. Swami Gambhirananda with a very loud voice kept repeating: “May you live a long life. May you live a long life. May you live a long life.” It was as if he was chasing my sickness away in order to assure that I’ll live long.
Swami Gambhirananda knew that I was concerned about his life. When I pranamed to his holy feet at Belur Math in 1987 about to leave for America, Swami Gambhirananda leaned forward and said: “Don’t worry, I will not die. I will wait until you come back.”
In September 1988 Swami Gambhirananda wrote what was to be his last letter to me. “During the first part of the present tour I managed to have a few pages of your writing on Kali read out to me. I hope you will be able to complete the work soon and get it published. May the Mother be pleased to bring success to your persistent efforts.”
I became very restless in October of the same year. Ma Kali’s eyes were haunting me, drawing my mind to Kolkata. I wanted to go to India. When I finally couldn’t stand it any longer by November, I booked a ticket to Kolkata. A few days before departing the U.S., I bought a video camera. Day and night I kept thinking that I wanted to take a close up of Ma Kali’s eyes – zoom deep into Her beautiful eyes.
Since there was not much time to learn how to use the video camera, I decided to study the manual on the plane to India. I arrived at Belur Math on December 24 and heard that Swami Gambhirananda was to arrive from one of his tours in the morning. I was looking forward to seeing him again and be at his quarters to receive him. So I sat on the bench in front of his room. One of the Swamis at President Maharaj’ quarters got upset with me for sitting there and asked me to leave. I begged him to let me stay for a while, and when I saw that he was really getting irritated, I consented to leave.
As I was about to walk outside, Swami Gambhirananda’s car pulled up. The Swami who had asked me to leave now told me to stay. “Now you will have to wait until Swami Gambhiranandaji has walked to his room. You can’t be in his way,” he said.
I was happy. I quietly sat back down on the bench. Swami Gambhirananda was being helped out of the car. I will never forget this scene. One attendant was leading Swami by one hand while he used his other one to support himself on a cane. He slowly walked past me toward his room. Although his body walked into the opposite direction from where I was sitting, his being came toward me. There was no doubt about it.
They told me that Swami Gambhirananda was not well and most probably would have to go to the hospital for a check up. He was running a slight fever.
I left his quarters to go to the Math office. On my way back to the guesthouse where I was staying, I met one of the servants who told me to go back to President Maharaj’ house. I thought it odd because I had just left there after seeing Swami Gambhirananda go to his room. So, I didn’t pay any attention and proceeded toward the guesthouse. Another person came and told me that I should go to President Maharaj’ house. I still did not pay attention. When a third person told me that, I felt that perhaps this was the will of the Divine and that I should go.
I reached President Maharaj’ house and saw a small group of monks standing outside the entrance. I felt shy. Uncertain about what to do, I stood in front of Swami Vivekananda’s temple. Swami Atmaramananda saw me and came toward me. He told me that Swami Gambhirananda would see me now.
Coming in from the bright sunshine, my eyes had to adjust to the darkness in Swami Gambhirananda’s room. The Swami sat on a chair that looked like a lawn chair with a yellow towel draped over it. When he heard me enter the room, he stood up. To my great surprise, he threw out his arms wide and with a loud voice said, “Welcome, welcome home.” I mumbled something about being very happy to see him and that I had bought a video camera and wanted to take snaps of him. He patiently listened to my stammering and, after some time he softly said, “I shall take rest now.”
When I bowed to his holy feet, I did not know that these were the last words I was to hear him speak while he was alive. Somehow it did not occur to me that he could die. I was told that he would depart for the hospital soon. So, instead of going back to the guesthouse for my lunch, I walked to the main gate to see his car go by toward the hospital. That was the last glimpse I got of Swami alive.
Days went by and, every day, I would go to President Maharaj’ house to inquire about Swami in the hospital. Some days I heard that he was better and on others that he needed more treatment.
On December 28, 1988 I got my wish. In the morning I went to Dakshineswar and was allowed to take a video of Ma Kali in the inner shrine. I am familiar working with a camera but shooting a video was still quite new for me. In a way, I struggled as much with my excitement of being in the inner shrine as I did with working the video camera. What a pity. I wish I would have known more about shooting videos. I could have had a fantastic video of Ma. As it is, it’s a bit of a bumpy viewing -- a shaky camera zooming in and out.
That night, I happily went to bed. I got my Divine Mother safely in my video camera. I was still smiling and going over the scene in Dakshineswar when the guesthouse servant loudly knocked on my door around 10:30 p.m. “Get up! President Maharaj has died.”
How could this be? That is not possible. I somehow put on a sari and was about to leave for the Arogya Bhavan where Swami’s body was laid out when my eyes fell on my two camera bags. For some reason I did not pick up my camera but took my video camera. Like a sleepwalker I followed the servant to the Bhavan. It was very dark and a crowd of monks had already assembled even though the body had just recently arrived. In the middle of a bare room lit by a couple of dangling light bulbs was a bed. Swami Gambhirananda’s dead body was lying there with great dignity.
Monks and lay members were chanting amid shock, grief and excitement. Somehow I got pushed toward the foot of the bed and stood in front of Swami’s holy feet. I could not think. A tremendous wave of pain made me numb. Tears shot like fountains from my eyes.
Something inside me made me pick up my video camera, assemble it and start shooting. Nobody paid any attention to me.
I was transfixed on Swami Gambhirananda’s noble face surrounded by fragrant garlands. It was too painful to be me. I was in deep shock. My voice changed and became very low. My body became rigid. My eyes became the video camera and my body became the tripod as an incessant flow of tears rolled down my eyes. As I sat next to Swami Gambhirananda’s dead body, scenes rolled past my mind like a movie. I saw with great clarity the deeper meaning of my relationship with the great Swami and realized what a giant soul he was. I realized how much his silent influence had affected me in so many positive ways. Things I thought I had done and actions I thought I had successfully completed were in reality performed by his giant will.
I missed my opportunity to thank him. My upper sari was wet with tears. I could not talk to him any longer. I could not tell him that I now knew how great he was. I was left alone with this knowledge. So much pain.
Although some Swamis encouraged me to take rest and go to sleep, I did not leave Swami Gambhirananda’s body all night. I knew that in the morning thousands of people would come to pay their obeisance, and I most probably could not remain seated next to the holy body. Moreover, wanting to enshrine these last moments within my heart, I did not dare to look away from his face, fearing I’d loose a second of seeing his glowing face.
He did not allow me to look away from the pain. I felt I was made to be the witness, thereby taking part in the death experience. In agony I walked behind the procession of monks carrying his body.
When I came back to the U.S. and watched the video I took of Swami Gambhirananda’s cremation, I knew that it was not only for me. It was a document that vividly showed that death could not touch this giant being we called Swami Gambhirananda. The video was much less shaky than the one I had taken of Ma Kali at the Dakshineswar Kali temple. My body, being in a deep shock, was very rigid and served well as a tripod.
For the next two years, I did a lot of research on Swami Gambhirananda’s life and teachings. I interviewed many revered Swami’s of the Ramakrishna Order such as Swami Bhuteshananda, past president of the Ramakrishna Order, Swami Kashishwarananda, Swami Shivaswarupananda, Swami Atmasthananda, Swami Chetanananda, Swami Atmaramananda, and Swami Kamalananda.
A few times a week, I would drive over an hour after work to meet with a professional video editor and sometimes work late into the night. I had never worked on a video before, and it was difficult for me to create a storyboard and write the script. By Master’s grace, slowly all came together.
I went to Bombay and asked Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia to play original music for this video. Hariji hired a small studio and, looking at the video, he played his flute. When the video finished playing, we found out that the sound technician had made a mistake and nothing got recorded. Luckily Hariji liked the video. Instead of getting upset, he shrugged his shoulders and said,” Well, that was a long rehearsal.” When we watched the video again and Hariji saw the cremation of Swami Gambhirananda’s body, he played his flute with such sadness that he made me cry.
When the video production was completed, I took it with me to Belur Math, and Swami Atmasthananda arranged for a viewing at the great library. Many senior monks and brahmacharins attended. Swami Atmasthananda also invited me to the event. I was a little scared that I might get a scolding for there were some sections in the video that I shot without permission. For instance, I took a video of mangal arati in Sri Ramakrishna’s temple hiding my camera under my chadder. I also took a video of Holy Mother’s shrine. I stood in front of Her living picture, asking Mother’s permission to shoot. Usually, there are so many people and guards there. But when I asked her plaintively, suddenly all people left and, from within me, I heard. “Shoot now.” I did. A little later, many people came to bow before Her.
By Mother’s grace, I didn’t get scolded, and I believe the video was well perceived. Back in America, I organized a screening at one of the large movie studios in Hollywood. I wanted Swami Gambhirananda to be a movie star for one night. My mother and I went to Sony Pictures and rented two screening rooms at the Executive quarters at the old MGM studios. They were very elegant.
When I talked to the studio executive about my project, he was interested and charged me only a fraction of the cost that he usually charges for these fancy screening rooms and the projectionist. I hired the studio catering staff to provide refreshments in the foyer. These were three girls who immediately took a liking to my project. They understood that I had wanted to build a monument for Swami Gambhiranandaji who I feel was my real father. The day of the screening, they went to all the studio parties and events, took away the fancy flower arrangements and brought them to the foyer. Needless to say, the hundred people or so who attended the premiere showing of Swami Gambhirananda’s documentary video were treated to a lavish event. When people entered, they received a yellow rose and were then treated with fancy delicacies and soft drinks. As the guests mingled speaking softly about Swami Gambhirananda, the atmosphere was festive and laden with spirituality in an environment that is at other times extremely worldly.
Although this video deals mostly with Swami Gambhirananda’s death, it is rather clear that it was only his body that is gone. Shortly before his passing, Swami Gambhirananda told one of his attendants: “I feel I’m nearing the house of death.” Then, quickly, he corrected himself and said, “No, I am not. There is no death for the Knower of God.”
This article by Elizabeth Usha Harding was originally published in a Bengali edition of reminiscences of Swami Gambhirananda as well as in "Footfalls, Swami Gambhirananda and Other Journeys" by Bibhas De.