Swami Pranavananda was one of the earliest devotees to come to Bhagavan. He visited Bhagavan in 1910, in the Virupaksha Cave. His integrity and strong spiritual aspirations earned him an enviable place among Bhagavan's devotees. He was one of Bhagavan's intimate companions. His love for Bhagavan was so great that he surrendered himself unconditionally at Bhagavan's feet, relinquishing all worldly attachments, and this filled his heart with joy and peace. He was very modest and never spoke about himself and his speech was restricted to the barest minimum. Though he did not consider himself a teacher, his life itself served as a valuable lesson in spirituality. Pranavananda belonged to the Sarvepalli family, which was highly esteemed in the village of Venkatapuram, near Tiruttani in South India. The Sarvepalli family was a stronghold of learning in the Vedas, sastras and puranas. The family deity was Lord Yoganarasimha of Sholingapuram, and Pranavananda was named Narasimham after the family deity. He took the name of Swami Pranavananda at the time of becoming a sannyasi.
Dr.Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the world famous philosopher and one of the most illustrious Presidents of India, was Narasimham's nephew. Surprisingly enough, Dr. Radhakrishnan, who is esteemed for his erudition and wisdom, was rather dull as a child. His father was very much upset by Radhakrishnan's nature, and concerned about his future. Narasimham offered to take the boy to Vellore and take care of his education. Upon reaching Vellore, Narasimham initiated his nephew in the Ramataraka Mantram. Constant repetition of this potent Mantram resulted in the blossoming of Radhakrishnan's intellect and he grew into a brilliant student. He joined the Uris College in Vellore and passed his Intermediate course. By taking care of Radhakrishnan during the formative years of his life, and by helping him through the initial stages of his academic career, Narasimham can be said to have laid the foundation for Radhakrishnan's success in later life.
The Sarvepalli family was not a wealthy one. It is said that though Goddess Saraswati (the Goddess of Learning) showered Her Grace upon the family. Goddess Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth) looked askance at them! Though they were never reduced to extreme poverty, the family never enjoyed the comforts of affluence. With the intention of acquiring some wealth, some members of the Sarvepalli family migrated to Madras, where they were able to make some money by giving discourses in sastras and puranas. Later on, some of the members settled down in Tiruttani. Narasimham was well versed in the three South Indian languages namely Telugu, Tamil and Kannada. He was also a Sanskrit scholar. Ironically enough, Narasimham did not get through the Matriculation Examination, but his scholarship in English was remarkable. Englishmen themselves used to marvel at his mastery over the language!
Narasimham joined the Arcot Christian College as a teacher. The authorities were so impressed by his scholarship and his capacity as a teacher that they appointed him as a Munshi (a teacher who trained foreigners in the use of local languages) to teach Telugu and English to the members of the mission and the managers of the institutions under their care.
Narasimham also trained some of the members of the mission in the techniques of meditation. Some of his students, like Paul Adiseshayya and Ida Scudder (who founded the CMC Hospital in Vellore) were so impressed by the clarity of thought obtained through meditation that they were prepared to embrace Hinduism if Narasimham advised them to do so. Narasimham did not believe in religious conversions, and did not think that only Hindus could benefit from meditation. He declared that one could meditate on God even if one did not profess any religion. He told his students that one could serve mankind and live in peace even if one did not belong to any recognised religion. Narasimham's beliefs and his teachings astonished the authorities of the mission.
Narasimham made several visits to the Vellore Central Jail, to meet the prisoners and to talk to them about moral values. He initiated the prisoners into the Ramataraka mantram and persuaded them to give up their lawless ways. Through his influence, Narasimham helped in reforming and rehabilitating many of the criminals in the jail. He left the Mission because of some difference of opinion with the authorities, and took up the job of Munshi in the Police Training College. Many of the Europeans who came to Vellore during that period had the good fortune to learn the local language from Narasimham. Those who were spiritually inclined found an able guide in him, and his classes became very popular satsangs (spiritual congregations). Very soon, Narasimham gained the reputation of a capable teacher and a spiritual guide.
While Narasimham was serving as a Munshi in Vellore, Kavyakanta Ganapati Muni was working as a Telugu Teacher in the same town. In 1910, Narasimham and Ganapati Muni went to Tiruvannamalai and met Bhagavan. At that time, Bhagavan was staying in the Virupaksha Cave. In the very first meeting, Bhagavan's look of grace entered deep into Narasimham's heart and destroyed all the doubts that had been troubling him till then. From that moment onwards, Narasimham's heart was full of peace. It was during this period that F.H.Humphreys came to India as an Assistant Superintendent of Police. As soon as he reached Bombay, he fell ill, and had to be hospitalised. Upon being discharged from the hospital, he came to Vellore. He reached Vellore on March 18th, and Narasimham went to him on the same day, to start the Telugu classes. As soon as he saw Narasimham, Humphreys asked him whether he knew any astrology. Narasimham said he did not. Humphreys then requested Narasimham to get him a particular book on astrology. Narasimham obtained the book from the local library. The next day, while returning the book, Humphreys asked Narasimham whether he knew any mahatmas (great souls) in Vellore. Narasimham did not feel like divulging any such information to an inquisitive foreigner and so he said that he did not know anyone. At their next meeting, Humphreys said, "Why, Munshiji! You told me you did not know any mahatmas in this town. But last night I saw your guru in my dream. He was sitting beside me and saying something, but I could not understand him. You were the first person I saw in my dream while I was in Bombay, and I felt that you would lead me to my guru."
Narasimham replied, "I have never travelled beyond Guntakal. I never went to Bombay." Humphreys then gave a detailed description of the vision he had had while lying in the hospital in Bombay. He said that even as he lay upon the hospital bed in Bombay, he had gone to Vellore in his astral body. He had seen some people in Vellore, and Narasimham was the first person he saw. Narasimham was impressed by the yogic powers of his new student, but he wanted to test him further. When Narasimham came to teach Humphreys that afternoon, he brought some pictures of Bhagavan, Ganapati Muni, Seshadri Swami and some others. He put these pictures on the table and, without meeting Humphreys or giving him any kind of explanation, he went to teach another student. When Narasimham returned, Humphreys was waiting for him eagerly. Holding out Ganapati Muni's picture, Humphreys said, "This is the person I saw in my dream yesterday. Is he not your guru? Please tell me the truth." Narasimham was amazed, and he admitted that it was indeed the picture of his guru, Sri Ganapati Muni. Narasimham had become Ganapati Muni's disciple in 1906, and the Muni had explained Bhagavan's teachings, and trained him in the method of Self-enquiry as taught by Bhagavan. A fortnight later, Humphreys fell ill again. He was sent to Udagamandalam (Ooty), to recuperate. While in Ooty, Humphreys kept up a regular correspondence with Narasimham. After returning from Udagamandalam, Humphreys sketched the picture of a cave with a mountain spring at its entrance, and a Muni standing in front of the cave. He showed the picture to Narasimham and told him that it was the representation of what he had seen in his dream the previous night. Humphreys asked Narasimham whether he could identify the sage in the picture. Narasimham was amazed to see that Humphreys had drawn a picture of Ramana Maharshi standing in front of the Virupaksha Cave. When he was told about this, Humphreys expressed the desire to meet Bhagavan.
Humphreys had been asking Narasimham to take him to meet Ganapati Muni. It so happened that Ganapati Muni came to Vellore around that time. The Muni was on his way to Tiruvannamalai, and had stopped in Vellore because he had been invited to give a discourse in the Theosophical Society there. While he was in Vellore, Narasimham took Humphreys to meet him. When the Muni resumed his journey to Tiruvannamalai, Humphreys took a day's leave from work, and accompanied the Muni and Narasimham to Tiruvannamalai. Thus it was that Humphreys had his first darshan of Bhagavan in the Virupaksha Cave, in the year 1911, and Narasimham was instrumental in bringing about this momentous meeting. While he was teaching Telugu to the officials in the Police Department, Narasimham used to translate several spiritual texts, including the Ramayana, for the benefit of his students. The Englishmen were highly impressed by Narasimham's mastery of their language, and his lucid style. They held him in high regard, both for his scholarship and for his spiritual achievements. Most of Narasimham's students were very wealthy people, in important, influential positions. But Narasimham treated all his students equally, without fear or favour. He made no demands, but the Englishmen used to send a motor buggy to pick him up from his house and to drop him back after classes. The chauffeur used to salute Narasimham as though he were the Governor! Very rarely was such reverence shown to an Indian during the days of the British Raj. Though he was just a teacher of local languages, Narasimham commanded the respect of a large number of foreigners.
Though Narasimham had originally accepted Ganapati Muni as his guru, he was proud to declare himself a devotee of Bhagavan Ramana. He led a very simple life; but he never hesitated to help those in need. Though his was a very modest house in a crowded street (named Avalkaran Veedhi), there were at least ten students staying with him at any given time. He boarded them free of charge, and his wife fed them all with the loving concern of a mother. Narasimham had no male issue. This fact did not bother him, but his wife longed for a son. One day, she requested Ganapati Muni to bless her with a male child. With the Muni's blessings, a baby boy was born, but he did not survive beyond early childhood. Narasimham's wife was an ardent devotee of Lord Yoganarasimha of Sholingapuram, and she often visited His temple on the Ghatikachalam hill. Late one evening, while she was sitting in meditation behind the idols of the Saptha Rishis (Seven Sages) the temple priests, who had not noticed her, locked up the temple for the night and went home. The lady claimed that, on that occasion. Lord Yoganarasimha Himself brought her out of the locked temple and sat her on the steps leading up the hill. Narasimham had no special feeling towards his family deity, Lord Yoganarasimha. His whole concentration was on the Vichara Marga (path of Self-enquiry) as taught by Bhagavan. In course of time, Narasimham renounced the world and became a Sannyasi, assuming the name of Swami Pranavananda. However, the ritual was a mere formality, as Narasimham had always been a Sannyasi at heart, living a life of detachment and devoting his time to spiritual pursuits.
Pranavananda considered Bhagavan the very personification of the Vedas and the Upanishads, and so he had great love and reverence for him. Bhagavan, too, had a special regard and concern for Pranavananda. The following anecdote serves as an illustration of Bhagavan's concern for him: Pranavananda used to compile Bhagavan's teachings into books. One of the devotees owned a printing press, and he printed the books that were brought to him by Pranavananda. One hot summer afternoon, Pranavananda was returning to Tiruvannamalai with a copy of one of the books. He had just one rupee with him, and, not wanting to engage a bullock cart, he decided to walk to Ramanasramam. He somehow made it to the gate of the ashram, but the terrible heat had taken its toll-Pranavananda could not proceed any further. He sat down in the shade of a tree for a short rest before entering the ashram. At that moment, Bhagavan happened to look out of the window. Seeing Pranavananda's exhausted attitude, Bhagavan immediately came out to him. Sitting down beside him, Bhagavan poured cool water over Pranavananda's sore feet and spoke to him in gentle, compassionate tones, saying, "Why do you put yourself to such strain? Did I ever ask you to go out in this heat?" Such was the Masters concern for his disciples welfare! Pranavanada was instrumental in printing several books of Bhagavan's teachings. He priced these books at half-anna or one anna and gave them to the ashram. It was his desire that Bhagavan's teachings should be made available to the maximum number of people at affordable cost. It was Pranavananada who first translated Bhagavan's Who am I?, Vicharasangraham, Vivekachudamani and Devikalottaram into Telugu. His style was very simple and lucid. In addition to these translations, Pranavananda also wrote several original books, including Rama-no. Maharshi Charitramu, Advaitabhoda Dipika, Tatwamali Dhyanamu, Sri Guru-Anugraha-avataramu, Dipamu Choodandi and Sri Ramana Stutipaatalu.
For Pranavananda, spirituality was not mere intellectual exercise but the very way of life. From his childhood, he had great faith in the Rama Taraka mantram. He used to impart this mantram to his students, so that their hearts and their brains could acquire clarity and brilliance. He used to teach the Ramayana to his students, and they learned to appreciate and admire this priceless epic. One day, Bhagavan was sitting on the verandah with some devotees. Suddenly, a crow flew in at greatspeed and fell at Bhagavan's feet. Bhagavan picked it up and stroked its feathers gently. He saw that the crow was mortally wounded, and tried to revive it, but it died in Bhagavan's lap. "Some Siddha purusha has left his body today", said Bhagavan, and gave instructions for entombing the dead crow. While this was going on, Pranavananda came to the ashram. Upon seeing him, Bhagavan said, "The entombment of the crow is over." All the other devotees seemed to be impressed by the gravity of the moment, but Pranavananda remained unmoved and said to Bhagavan, "Why should Bhagavan expect us to be impressed by this incident, as though it is some great achievement? Is it really such a wonderful thing to have happened?" Everyone was taken aback by Pranavananda's inexplicable reaction, but Bhagavan remained grave and dignified. Suddenly, Pranavananda broke into tears and said, "Why Bhagavan, is this really a great deed that you have done now? Did you not grant liberation to Jatayu in the last yuga? Now you have done the same for a crow. There is nothing strange about this ... it is just a routine affair for someone like you!" Hearing this, the devotees were moved by Pranavananda's devotion to Bhagavan, and his unshakable faith in Bhagavan's divine nature. Bhagavan himself looked on silently, as though he accepted everything. Once, Pranavananda asked his grandson Hariprasad to attend Bhagavan's jayanti Celebrations. He instructed the boy to get up early in the morning, have his bath and take his breakfast with Bhagavan, and to leave immediately for giripradakshinam. As the boy was about to leave, Pranavananda slipped a letter into his pocket and told him to give it to Bhagavan.
Hariprasad followed his grandfather's instructions; he woke up early in the morning and had his bath. Then he went and prostrated to Bhagavan. Bhagavan made enquiries regarding the welfare of all the family members, and told Hariprasad to have the iddlies and chutney that had been prepared for that day's breakfast. While he was eating, Hariprasad told Bhagavan that he wanted to set out on Giripradakshinam immediately after breakfast. Bhagavan said, "First of all, let me read the letter your grandfather has written to me", and he took the letter from the boy's pocket. Bhagavan asked for one more idii to be served to the boy, and read the letter while Hariprasad finished his breakfast. The letter contained the information that the Maharaja of Mysore was planning to visit Ramanasramam. Even though the boy had forgotten his grandfathers instructions, Bhagavan made sure that the letter was handed over to him. Pranavananda had an ashram in Gudivada, in the Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh. However, he stayed in Vellore most of the time. Kulumani Narayana Sastri, a devotee of Bhagavan, also stayed in Vellore, and he was a close associate of Swami Pranavananda. He was devoted to both Bhagavan and to Seshadri Swami. Kulumani Sastri came to Bhagavan while Bhagavan was living on the Hill. At the very first meeting, he surrendered himself to Bhagavan. There is an interesting story about Kulumani Sastri. It is as follows: Kulumani Sastri had written an abridged version of Valmiki's Ramayana in English prose. He wanted to have the first reading of the completed work, in Bhagavan's presence. Accordingly, he started up the Hill with his manuscript, and a big bunch of bananas as an offering for Bhagavan. On the way, he saw a Vinayaka temple and offered a few bananas from the bunch to Lord Vinayaka. This was done mentally; he did not actually remove the fruits from the bunch and leave them in the Vinayaka temple.
Kulumani Sastri went up the Hill and prostrated to Bhagavan, and laid the bunch of bananas before Bhagavan. The usual custom was for the attendant to put away all offerings safely, until they were distributed among the devotees, at an appropriate time. When the attendant came to remove the bananas, Bhagavan stopped him, saying that the fruits offered to Lord Vinayaka had yet to be removed from the bunch. The attendant and the other devotees were puzzled. Kulumani Sastri was stunned! He told the gathering that it was indeed true that he had mentally offered a few fruits to Lord Vinayaka on the way up the Hill, but had forgotten to separate those fruits from the bunch. Everybody was amazed at Bhagavan's omniscience. Before Sastri even mentioned the purpose of his visit, Bhagavan himself said, "Sastri! Why don't you start reading the Ramayana?" Sastri was even more amazed than before! It was as though Bhagavan had photographed Sastri's mind and could see every detail in it. One day, Pranavananda asked his grandson, Hariprasad, to fetch Kulumani Sastri. As soon as Sastri reached their house, Pranavananda asked him to recite Rudra Namakam and Chamakam along with him. At the end of this recitation, Pranavananda closed his eyes and repeated 'Hari Om'. With the Lord's Name on his lips, he merged with the divine. Thus ended Pranavananda's glorious life.
Pranavananda merged with Bhagavan in the year 1969, and his mortal remains were entombed on the banks of the River Palar, in Vellore. Though Pranavananda is no more with us, his memory lives on, through the numerous books he has written.