Swami Sarvagatananda, a former chaplain for Hindu students at MIT who touched the lives of thousands of community members during his 45 years at the Institute, died on May 4. He was 96.
Swami Sarvagatananda was born in 1912 in Andhra Pradesh, India, and joined the Ramakrishna Order as a monk in 1935. He came to the United States in October 1954, a time in which religious activity on most American campuses was confined to Christianity and Judaism. At the time, MIT President James Killian had initiated the construction of a chapel in which all the religions of the world were invited to worship. Swami Sarvagatananda was invited to the chapel's dedication ceremony on May 8, 1955, and subsequently began his long tenure as an MIT chaplain.
For the next 45 years, until he retired in 2000, the swami faithfully served the MIT community with great love and dedication. The swami's Friday evening classes at the MIT Chapel on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Sanskrit Hindu scripture, provided a fresh outlook, much-needed balance and respite from a week of MIT's grueling course work.
The swami gave the inaugural prayer for the investiture of President Paul Gray, and the invocation for several MIT Commencement exercises. On Oct. 4, 1996, MIT organized a special celebration in his honor, recognizing the spiritual leader for being, among many attributes, "a store of wisdom and strength for this community."
Prior to coming to the United States, Swami Sarvagatananda served the Ramakrishna Order for several years in various capacities; in a hospital in the foothills of the Himalayas serving poor and illiterate people; in Karachi, offering shelter to victims of the Hindu-Muslim violence at the time of the partitioning of India and Pakistan; and as warden of students at a major university in southern India.
During his time in America, Swami Sarvagatananda also served as the head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Societies of Boston and Providence. Harvard University invited him to join its Harvard-Radcliffe United Ministry in 1984.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 3, 2009 (download PDF).