Munagala S. Venkataramiah

(Swami Ramananda Saraswati)

My great-grandfather was a remarkable person -- an academic of profound intellect, yet great simplicity and humility. His career was in industrial chemistry, but his heart was in philosophy. Later in life, he turned full-time to philosophy, living with Ramana Maharshi, and compiling the Talks with Ramana Maharshi. This book is part philosophy, part historical document: it is considered an authoritative rendition of Maharshi's life and teachings over a span of four years (1935-39). It is widely read and cited even today, some eighty years after it was written. Towards the end of his life, he renounced all worldly possessions and took up Sannyasa.

The biography below was written by his son, M. V. Krishnan in 1979; I have abridged it a bit and added hyperlinks, but have kept most of the content and spirit intact.

MUNAGALA S. VENKATARAMIAH was born in the year 1882 at Sholavandan, Madurai District, Tamil Nadu. One of seven siblings, he alone received an English education. In his thirteenth year Venkataramiah married his uncle's daughter. 
Picture of Munagala Venkataramiah
Academic Career in Chemistry (1900 - 1918)

After studying for four years in the Madras Christian College, he moved to Mumbai and joined the laboratory of the pioneering industrial chemist, Tribhuvandas Gajjar. Here he supported his family by tutoring and by translating Tamil letters received by Mumbai businessmen. He and his wife were blessed with a daughter in the year 1900 while he was still a student.

In the year 1908, he returned to Chennai. In 1910 he presented himself for his final examinations. When the results were known, Venkataramiah stood first among the successful candidates of the whole Madras Presidency. He was awarded the Arni Jagirdar Gold Medal in Chemistry. (This medal was considered very prestigeous: two of India's Nobel prize winners in physics, C. V. Raman and S. Chandrasekhar, won this medal in different years.)

In 1911, he joined the Noble College, Machlipatnam as a Chemistry Lecturer. From 1912 to 1917 he worked as a Senior Chemistry Lecturer in the Madras Christian College. In 1918, he lectured at Madras Pachayappa's College.

During these years, Venkataramiah was in contact with Sri Baba Narayan Guru, a Bengali sadhu. Under his guidance, Venkataramiah studied the ten Upanishads, the Bhagwad Gita and the Brahma Sutras.

Turn to Philosophy (1918 - 1932)

In 1918 his daughter passed away, and Venkataramiah lost all interest in life. However, thanks to the guidance of his guru, he was able to regain his former composure. Venkataramiah's first visit to Ramana Maharshi took place at Skandasram in 1918.

In 1919 he left Chennai and began to work as a chemist with the Madras Government in the Department of Small Industries, Ootacamund. This town was far away from Venkataramiah's guru, but as luck would have it, Venkataramiah was soon made the Superintendent of the Government Industrial Institute, Chennai, close to his guru's residence. During the evening he used to spend an hour with his guru after office hours.

His guru passed away in 1922. Between 1922 and 1927 Venkataramiah studied almost all of the published works on Advaita Vedanta although he had not previously studied Sanskrit. In undergraduate school he had studied Tamil and in college, Latin. As a result of his interest in Vedanta he took up the study of Sanskrit and gained sufficient mastery to understand the various texts.

Venkataramiah's second visit to Ramana Maharshi was in 1927. From then on he would visit the Maharshi every summer with his family and spend a month with him.

Life at Ramana Ashram (1932 - 1963)

In 1932, after having put in twenty-three years of work, Venkataramiah was retrenched from service. He had no means of livelihood. During this difficult period of his life, he came to Tiruvannamalai to reside with Ramana Maharshi at Ramana Ashram. He became a regular inmate of the Ashram where he answered English letters from devotees from India and abroad. He also interpreted the Maharshi's replies in Tamil to the questions raised by devotees in English.

Under the guidance of Maharshi, Venkataramiah studied the Tamil works of the Saiva Samayacharyas and all the works of Sri Sankara. He also studied the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and Srimad Bhagavatham. His stay at the Ashram and association with the Maharshi marked a very productive period. He compiled the Talks with Ramana Maharshi over a four year period (1935-39). He also translated several philosophical works by the Maharshi from Tamil into English, as well as translated into English works like Tripura Rahasya, Advaita Bodha Deepika, and Kaivalya Navaneeta. The Maharshi often quoted from these works (particularly Tripura Rahasya, which he considered as one of the greatest works that expounded Advaita philosophy), and regretted they were not available in English. As a consequence, Venkataramiah took up translation of these works as another labour of love.

Ramana Maharshi passed away in 1950. In 1954, Venkataramiah had a heart attack. He renounced all worldly possessions and took up Sannyasa. In 1955 he went to Calcutta, where he met Sri Sankaracharya Krishnabodhasramji Maharaj of Badrinath and got his sannyasa regularized. This guru gave him the name of Sankara Swamy Bodha Jyoti Swami, but people knew him only as Swami Ramanananda Saraswati. In 1959 Venkatararniah returned to the Ashram where he remained until his Mahanirvana in February 1963. With his beatific smile and gentle ways, he aided and taught other devotees during the final years of his life more by example than by precept.