Swami Sivananda

Swami Satyananda Saraswati - Given at the Zinal Conference in Sept.

Right from the beginning-less ages, the world has been guided by spiritually illumined people who come from time to time to raise man's consciousness and to remind us of the way we must go. Swami Sivananda was one great soul who was born to give the word of spiritual life to thousands and thousands of people all over the globe. He never came to the west and he never went to the east, but today he is everywhere.

A man who could convince the intellect

Of the many great men who have come in the galaxy of spiritual life in the last thirty to fifty years, I have met most. I have utmost faith, respect, devotion and acceptance for all of them, for their sterling personalities, but I have met practically no one in life who has been able to convince my keen intellect. I have always been critical about everything, including myself. But it was Swami Sivananda whose way of life, whose daily routine, external dealings and expression of personal spiritual power were so convincing and impressive that I made him my guru. I am proud, or rather, I feel I am very fortunate to have Swami Sivananda as my guru.

I do not mean to draw a comparison between others and Swami Sivananda, but definitely, when I was young, and when I grew up as a sannyasin, I had my own doubts about personalities. If I saw a man who could perform miracles, my intellect used to ask: 'What is the necessity?' and 'If he can perform miracles, then why not this one?' and I would create a particular miracle in my mind. If I heard a person talking about the universality of religions and equality of man, my intellect used to put forth the question: 'Why don't you practise it?' and I used to think, 'What is the use of talking about it? I can also do that.' If I came across a great man who had renounced everything and preached detachment, I would look at him and a question would form: 'Then why don't you really live it rather than just trying to convince others?'

Like this I went on criticising throughout my life right from the age of ten. My intellect was always unconvinced about some point or other. But when I lived with Swamiji, from 1943 to 1956, I was very keen on observing each and every action he performed and each and every thing that he wrote in his books. I found that there was no gap between his preaching's, his practices, and his personal life. Therefore, I summed up that when there is absolutely no gap between a man's thought, speech and action, such a man is a mahatma, one who has universal consciousness.

His inner personality

The life of Swami Sivananda, as I know it, was the life of a simple, innocent child. In fact, he did not have even a trace of the ego of a yogi. When you reach a high point in spiritual evolution, you become a child- not meaning childish, but innocent, like a child. Everything in Swami Sivananda was so natural. He did not have to practise it, nor did he need to think about it. It was as though his personality, mind, body and spirit were all emanating a type of fragrance.

There are two types of people- those who express their nature and those who express their intellect. I have seen many people who are very humble, but that is not their nature. They are shrewd people, but they behave humbly with others. I have seen people with charity and compassion, but I can smell it. That is not their nature; they have faith in it, so they do it. I have seen people with purity, continence, chastity and generosity, but I definitely know these were not part of their nature; they were expressions of their faith.

You may be compassionate, humble, charitable and pure, but is this what you really are, or is it just the way you have trained yourself to be because you know that these are very good qualities? Swami Sivananda was not an artificial good man, he was intrinsically, basically and primarily good because that was the element in him. In my eyes that is the one thing that made Swami Sivananda completely different from all others I have met in my life.

His life

Swami Sivananda was born on 8th September, 1887 in the south of India on the banks of the Tamrapurni River. There were prophesies that the next incarnation of divinity would be born on these banks. In his family, about three centuries back, there was 'another saint who was highly honoured as a great teacher and devotee of Lord Shiva. So naturally, Swami Sivananda imbibed all the greatness from his family lineage.

He became a doctor, went to Malaysia and served as a medical man up to 1922. When he realised that man's maladies were deeper in nature, he left the profession, returned to India, and was initiated into sannyasa in 1924. From 1923 he remained in Rishikesh until his death in 1963. He did not mean to develop an ashram, but one grew up around him. He did not intend to make disciples and become a guru, but disciples rallied around him and made him a guru.

The band of disciples grew year by year until finally they had to search for a place where they could all live together. At the site of the present Rishikesh ashram, there was a dilapidated cowshed which Swamiji and his young disciples acquired and occupied. Around this cowshed grew the ashram where the international structure of the Divine Life Society is situated.

My first meeting with Swami Sivananda

I came to Swami Sivananda's ashram on 19th March, 1943 in the early morning. When I met Swamiji he was sitting in a small room which was his office. As soon as he saw me, he got up and greeted me with 'Om Namo Narayanaya' and bowed down at my feet. I was about nineteen then. He made me sit down and asked me what I had come for. I said that I was searching for something. In the first meeting it was not possible for me to tell everything. He said that I should stay there, and so I stayed for twelve years. During these years I lived with a person whose every act was in absolute conformity with what we call God's behaviour, divine enactment. The more I think about it and compare that with my own life, the more I understand what the word perfection really means. I know that all of you will not have the chance to witness an example of perfection unless, of course, somebody else comes down like him. But surely, in the case of Swami Sivananda, perfection was an absolute expression of the beauty and magnanimity of his personality.

Life in the ashram

During the years with Swami Sivananda, I did not learn hatha yoga, raja yoga, bhakti yoga, tantra, Upanishads, or Gita. Right from dawn to dusk, and sometimes during the night as well, I worked and worked and worked, like a donkey, because he gave me just one command: 'Work hard, then you will be purified. You don't have to bring the light; the light is in you.'

It was not intellectually possible for me to understand what he was telling me, but because I had accepted him as my guru, I had accepted his commandment. For twelve years I lived a life above time and space, and worked as though I was having hysteric fits. I did everything from cleaning the toilets to the management of the ashram.

The first years of ashram life were so difficult that if I imagine them now, I think it must have all been a dream. I am sure none of my disciples would have been able to survive there as swamis! Along with many of the other young sannyasins, I helped to build the ashram step by step. In those days we never knew what we were going to eat the next day. Whenever I went to Swamiji he would say, 'You look so lean and thin; you should eat a lot.' The only thing I could reply was, 'Where from?' Then he would smile and tell me, 'No matter, prana is inside you and from it you can get the energy you need.' His smiles were wonderful. I think that if a hundred young women laughed I would not be won over, but one of Swami Sivananda's smiles was enough to kill me.

As well as having little to eat, we had no place to sleep, no room, no roof and no blankets. I never saw a mosquito net the whole time I was in the ashram; I only saw masses and masses of huge mosquitoes. For drinking water we had to descend 300 steps, and of course we had to ascend them again after we had finished drinking. When I had diarrhoea it was a great problem. Every session involved a one and a half mile walk. By the time I finished one session and came back, I had to go again! Of course there would be no water left in my bucket and I would have to descend 300 steps again, get more water and hurry to the jungle.

Once I had jaundice and I never knew it. I was returning from the market one morning when an elderly swami called out, 'Hey, you've got jaundice!' I did not know what he meant by jaundice because disease was something I had never experienced before. When I returned to the ashram I asked Swamiji, 'What is jaundice?' He said it was some kind of disease in the body. Anyway, I forgot it and nothing happened. Another time I had paratyphoid and, being away from the ashram, I had nobody to look after me. I was unable to cook food for myself and I became so hungry that I went to the garden, picked some green papayas and ate them raw. Next day I had cramps in my stomach. Oh my God, I was in so much pain! But this also passed.

During the difficult periods which were ultimately intended for our evolution, we were unconsciously working day and night in constructing rooms, writing books and printing them. We never knew that we were working. It was a transcendental life and work was relaxation. I can definitely tell you that during those twelve years I did not really have any mental turmoil. Even if there was anything troublesome within me, it never dared to raise its head.

Living in the presence of a saint

To live with Swami Sivananda was to live with a little baby. In his presence you were never aware of your ego. Hold a little baby on your lap, then you will find out where your ego is. Whatever your age, whether you are a big officer or businessman, the president of a large company, the prime minister of a nation, or even a criminal, how do you behave with a baby on your lap? Differences, formalities, personalities, no longer exist. That was the effect of Swami Sivananda's personality, and this is how a saint lives. It is very difficult to talk of such great men, because what can we say about them? It isn't easy to fathom the spiritual illumination of a person. The mind and logic are finite, but the spiritual attainments are infinite. So, with the finite scale you cannot fathom the infinity of spiritual life.

Learning at the feet of the master

Swami Sivananda gave us complete freedom of expression. We had to manage all the ashram affairs from building construction and publishing books, to taking care of the guests or finance. Whatever problem the ashram had or whatever things the ashram needed, we had to manage ourselves. If we made a mistake, we were not chastised. Swamiji believed that everybody had come to the ashram with a noble intention, and he had complete faith in the sincerity, purpose and intentions of his disciples. Even if Swamiji heard about the swamis fighting amongst themselves he said, 'It's just a momentary diversion, relaxation!'

Many outsiders used to bring complaints to Swamiji about swamis fighting, or abusing each other. He said, 'They are swamis, sannyasins who have renounced with a purpose and an intention. This is a temporary maya on them. They will be all right soon.' That is what kept his disciples around him. It was not Swami Sivananda who created the whole illusion, the whole maya, but his disciples, and he was just the seer of that. He gave us plenty of chances to learn things, and that is why his disciples are doing such marvelous work all over the world today in a very sattvic and humane way. They do not work in a rajasic manner, but in a calm, quiet and simple way.

During my stay with Swami Sivananda, people from different ashrams used to come to me because they knew I was a brilliant Sanskrit scholar. 'What does your guru teach you?' they asked. 'Nothing,' I replied. 'He doesn't teach you hatha yoga?' they pursued. 'No,' I said, 'I type his letters.' 'Does he give you shaktipat?' they inquired further. 'I don't know anything about this shaktipat business', came the reply. 'Has he given you some siddhis?' they asked. 'No', I answered, 'nothing'.

Frankly speaking, what I say in lectures, what I have written in books, the hatha yoga I teach, etc. has not come from studies or teachings. I have not read books about all these things, but they are very clear to me, and definitely I am an authority on hatha yoga, tantra and kundalini. You see, the knowledge does not come from outside; it is an unfoldment of what is already within. That which is in me is also in you. The only difference is that I had one watchword in life- service to guru, without any motive, without expectation. This was my passion, my joy and my pleasure.

Once a very powerful leader of politics came to the ashram. He told me: 'Look here my boy, you are wasting your time in this place. You are so brilliant and such a fine orator, you could influence the whole country. Come with me and I'll tell you what to do.' I kept quiet and thought, 'This is a test my guru has sent to me.' That was the greatest temptation because he wanted to make me president of a big federation, a leader of thousands of powerful people, but I did not accept that offer. I remembered what Swamiji had told me, 'Work hard and purify yourself, then the light will unfold from within you.' And I felt sure it would come true.

Swami Sivananda's divine charity

I have heard many mythological stories about great men of charity, but I have never seen one except for Swami Sivananda. Nobody went away without taking something. If one asked for money, clothes, blankets, food, shelter, medicine, love, affection, recognition, certificate, recommendation letters, anything one wanted he received. That was the greatness of Swamiji's heart. It was not that he was rich, in fact, for many years the ashram was under a very heavy debt.

If anyone told Swamiji about the ashram's financial situation he would say, 'It's not me; it is God who gives.' If something was not available in the ashram, we had to bring it from Rishikesh market. If it was unavailable there, it would be brought from Dehra Dun, (26 miles away), or from Delhi.

Swamiji's generosity was one of the greatest problems for the institution. His behaviour, attitude and personality became a very big liability, so much so that the moment money was received through the Post Office, it was immediately distributed to different people, leaving nothing in the balance. Then, every time Swamiji asked about money, we would tell him there was none. When he realised what we were doing, he began to directly give away the money that was placed at his feet.

His attitude to criticism

Not everyone in Swami Sivananda's ashram spoke well about him; some criticised him day in and day out. Some people even came to the ashram to ridicule and mock not only Swamiji, but everything that concerned him. Swami Sivananda knew this very well. When it was brought to his notice, the only thing he said was, 'God's creation is beautiful, and we all have to be different from each other. If there is no resistance or criticism, the evolution of man will come to a dead end. If you think, wish or believe that everybody should accept you, your advice, philosophy, way of life, and agree with you totally, then you are hoping for a world which can never be.'

The world is a mixture of the three gunas. As such, you will always find people representing different compositions of these three qualities. If everybody in your institution was like you, it would be like an organ or harmonium with only one note, not seven. In music, as in life, each note is entirely different from the others. If you don't know how to combine these notes when you play the harmonium, you will only produce a lot of noise and disturbance. But if you can combine the notes well, you will be able to create beautiful music out of the different sounds. In the same way scandal mongers, tale carriers, backbiters and other such people should exist and they always will, so you have to learn to live with them and not let them disturb you.

This is a very difficult philosophy to live by, but it is inevitable that you do. If you cannot live with different types of people in society, in your family, in an institution, then you are doomed to miseries, frustrations and all kinds of mental problems. You know it very well.

An instrument of God

When people came to him with troubles, Swamiji's attitude was so natural and free from vanity, show and egoism. I have never seen anyone else like this.

Many people who have siddhis make a show and give a type of stage performance, or they credit themselves, but he never did this. Whenever people came to him with a problem, he always said, 'I will pray for you' or 'You should practise this mantra and meditation' or 'God is very kind and he will listen to your prayers. You will be all right'.

If anyone told Swamiji they had been helped by his spiritual power, he would immediately reject it. He would say, 'No, God is great, he has done it. I've only helped him.' Many people have marketed their spiritual power, or they have cashed it in for political influence, or for obtaining disciples. This is still being done in the world today and it has been happening throughout the ages. But Swamiji was never a part of this.

According to Swamiji, spiritual power which comes to you by dint of sadhana is an expression of God's wish. Therefore, you are only an agent, an instrument. That much credit can go to you. You are the tool, but you are not the maker of miracles. You are not the healer; you are not the prophet, it is he. This is the greatest self-control a sadhu, a sannyasin or a saint must have.

Once a scorpion stung me twice on the toe and it was a very horrible experience. I was actually crying like a child, not from fear, because I do not know fear, but on account of the unbearable pain. It was so great that I wanted to cut off my toe, but before I could do it I met Swamiji. He asked, What happened to you?' I said, 'Scorpion.' 'Let me see,' he demanded, and when he touched it, I was all right. Then I asked, 'How did you do that?' His reply was, 'Oh, I happened to remember the right mantra for it'. I know he was reciting mantras, but he would not take the credit upon himself.

His departure from the world

On 13th July 1963 I was at Monghyr, and that night when I was sleeping, I had a very clear vision. I saw Swamiji traveling across the Ganga in Rishikesh on a very big ship. I was standing on the bank of the river while the ship was moving towards the opposite side. The dream was over and I knew that Swamiji had left his body. The physical body of guru leaves at any moment, it is inevitable, but his spirit remains forever if the disciple can remain in tune with him. Then he guides him at all times, in dream, in thought and emotion, and in actual life.

Satsang on Saints

Please explain the difference between mahatmas, munis and saints.

Mahatma means great soul, one with expanded consciousness. Muni means one who has acquired peace, silence within and without. Santa or saint means a spiritual person, a sadhu. Seer means one who is able to see beyond the present times. Siddha means one who is able to control the mind and materialise the thoughts. Avadhoot means one who has entered the unconscious body, who is beyond hatred, jealousy love, compassion, mercy, filth and purity. These are the titles given to great men according to the different spiritual capacities acquired during their sadhana.

Please tell us a little of your own experience and contact with other realised beings.

As a child I was fortunate to have the contact of many swamis and saints who were passing through my place on their way to Mt. Kailash. It was the advice of one of them which ultimately directed me to search for a guru. During my stay with Swami Sivananda, I met many mahatmas and saints.

After leaving my guru's ashram in Rishikesh, I lived for short periods of time with Ramana Maharshi at Tiruvanamalai, Swami Ramdas of Kalhamghat and Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry. It was during this time that I met a saint called Swami Nityananda. He was a person who, in orthodox language, could be said to have been a kundalini yogi. He lived close to Bombay in a place called Bhadreswari. Swami Muktananda is his disciple. Swami Nityananda was not in his normal consciousness. There were many people who wanted to see him, but he didn't know anyone. He used to talk to himself and was oblivious of everyone else.

When I met him he was very old and only wore a loin cloth. I went up to him and as I came closer, I felt that I was almost touching an electrical cable. He was not even aware of me until I received the shock. Then he said, 'They can't carry the burden, yet they want it.' You see, we want spiritual power but we are not capable of holding it. When I confronted him, he would say, 'Everything is useless!' Some people had donated a lot of blankets to the ashram and he said, 'Why do you throw all these useless things to me? This is all waste paper for me.' He would say, 'These idiots are only fit to teach, preach and lecture.' I am one of those idiots; he was a kundalini yogi.

Many saints suffer from serious illness and die when they are still quite young. Why is this so?

Most of them were not yogis. They were beyond yoga. A yogi is very aware of his body and he looks after it, but a saint is like a young baby, an innocent child. If there is a cobra, he will just hold it. If he is given dirty food, he will just eat it, because he does not know the difference. He is beyond the three gunas.

When the mind crosses the boundaries of the three gunas- tamas, rajas and sattva, he becomes completely ignorant of the processes taking place in the body. His experiences are something like this: 'I am not this body; I am not the senses; I am the self, the atma.'

When these people realise the higher being, they transcend the body, mind and senses. So long as you live in the three gunas, you live according to the laws of nature. You rise in the morning, go for a walk, bathe and then practise asanas and pranayama. However, when the mind and senses withdraw completely into the self, and the higher self becomes effulgent, when the inner experience becomes vivid and higher consciousness takes hold of your mind, who cares what happens to the body?

That was exactly the case with Ramana Maharshi. His body was here, but he was in the seventh plane. He was not the body, not even the seer of the body. He had completely divorced himself from bodily affairs. His body was not properly looked after. For days on end he would stay in one posture and practise endless trataka. He did not talk to anyone; it was as though he did not exist. If the laws of the body are ignored one falls ill, and that happened to Ramana Maharshi.

Similarly, if you have a house and abandon it for a better one, the old one remains neglected. Maybe you will visit periodically, but your interest in the old one is finished. You may take care of it while you are temporarily there, but you have little to do with it any longer.

Up to the age of forty five, Swami Sivananda maintained all the rules of health. But after that he transcended these rules; his entire consciousness was switched off. He used to say, 'This body is perishable. Why do you take so much care of it? Are you a cobbler that shines shoes?' All his instructions had changed.

It is similar with Swami Vivekananda and others who died early, but their cases are slightly different. These people are born with a mission; they have something to say, to do or accomplish. The moment their work is over, they go away. Swami Vivekananda has clearly written, 'I have finished my work; there is no reason why I should live any more.' Another saint, Rama Tirtha, also died before forty saying, 'My work is finished, now I can go.'

Remember, the practice of yoga is not the end; it is a means. Samadhi is not the end; it is a means. There are very high stages in spiritual life, and the nearer you are to the absolute self, the further you are from the body. As a jumbo jet soars so far from the earth that you are unable to distinguish a house or a garden, similarly, when the consciousness soars high, things on this mundane plane look so insignificant.

It is said when you have that absolute experience in which the identification with the body is eliminated, then wherever you are, you are not there. Wherever you are, you are in samadhi. So, for such a man, it matters little how he dies. Diseases do not matter. Otherwise, we would have to say, if Christ was the son of God, how could he have been crucified? There is a reason, and the reason is that when you go to the supreme spirit, you don't care for your body.

With so many gurus and saints in India, why is there so much poverty?

Up to the 17th century, India was a very affluent country. It supplied food, navy, men and materials, even gold to many other countries. However, every country has its own political horoscope and none can be spared by nature. So, things went a little bit differently during the British period. Even now, the picture which is being painted is not so grim.

Indians, by nature, live a very simple life, with a few dhotis and not many things. We don't believe that material advancement is the real advancement. We don't believe that industrial revolution is a mark of progress. We are not in a hurry to industrialise the country. We like villages very much. We prefer to draw water from the well rather than from the tap. We prefer to go to the toilet in the jungle and bushes rather than in the toilet. We like to take bath outside in a pond, lake or river, and not in the bathroom. Unless it is raining heavily or too cold, we prefer to sleep outside in the courtyard, in the field, or even in the corner of the street. That is the way Indians live.

Therefore, India has produced more gurus, because we respect the people who have deeper wisdom and greater intuition. We know how the rich people live. We know their private, personal and public life, and we don't want to be proud of having produced a Ford or Rockefeller. Wisdom is the greatest mark of man. If man can develop his mind beyond the non-frontiers, then that is the fulfillment of his humanness. In India, people seek the association of saintly and wise people. So the social and economic situation has been limited to the extent that we get the proper opportunity to open ourselves up to their influence.

Why do saints, sadhus and sannyasins prefer the Himalayas to any other place in the world?

In the Himalayas the earth, water, air, vegetation, people, everything is pure. The atmosphere there contains more ions than anywhere else. There water flowing in the rivers is amrit, ambrosia. The purity that has descended from this holy place in the form of Ganga, the Vedas, yoga and tantra, quenches the spiritual thirst of society.

When kundalini awakens, sadhus need such a place where the atmosphere is pure, and they can meditate all day without being disturbed either emotionally, mentally, psychically or spiritually. This can be found particularly in the areas of Gangotri, Uttarkashi, Bhadrinath and Khedarnath. These are the four places where rishis and gurus live in absolute seclusion for many centuries in quiet samadhi. The spiritual energy generated by them is so powerful that it even affects the physical ecology. It is like going to a place where they have an atomic reactor and there are nuclear radiations all around. Wherever there is a reactor, there is a leakage of energy. In the same way, these mahatmas are powerhouses of spiritual energy, and if you go anywhere near their vicinity, you are going to be affected by their spiritual radiations. Therefore, all aspirants should try to visit these places at least once in their lives.

Please tell us about your experiences when you visited Kailash and Manasarovar.

It is a lovely place. There is no temple, idol or pujari; no mantra, ritual or formality; yet everything is there. You never feel that you are in a desolate region. Manasarovar is a crystal clear lake, overshadowed by the snow peak of Mount Kailash. You have nothing to do there, just sit down and close your eyes, like a god. There is no sound, no vibration. When I sat down after taking bath, I saw Lord Shiva in padmasana. I became aware that it was my mind's creation, that I was visualising it, and shook my mind. But still it was there. With my eyes open or closed, it was so clear, so pressing. Kailash/Manasarovar area is the abode of the gods. It is a place which is so far that now I cannot say whether it was a dream, vision, perception or hallucination.