Glorious Physician

In Swami Sivananda were incorporated all the attributes of the ideal healer. His early medical training and practical background had equipped him with a high level of clinical expertise, and through the production of his medical journal, 'Ambrosia', he had developed an outstanding ability to communicate the principles of good health in simple language to doctors and patients alike. This practical wisdom was combined with humility, deep felt devotion and faith in God as the Supreme Healer, which were dispensed in equal measure along with the more traditional medicines. Because he recognized all the creations of nature as alternate aspects of the One, the eternal Brahman, he was able to perceive and extract the value from every different therapeutic system, without getting overly fixated on any particular one. Similarly, his open heart easily penetrated into the root cause of disease - the imbalance of mind, body and emotions. Perhaps most important of all, as a Vedantin, he never lost sight of the Atman, the immortal, disease-free Self which lies beyond the body and the mind; he never failed to remind his patients that 'You are not the body; you are not the mind; you are That.'

'Health is your birthright'

'The first wealth is health', often wrote Swami Sivananda, stressing the importance of physical and mental well-being as a prerequisite to other more advanced forms of spiritual sadhana. Without a strong body and mind, neither karma yoga, hatha yoga nor raja yoga can be successfully practised. Even in the practice of bhakti yoga, the body is regarded as the instrument of the Lord, the temple of the spirit: 'The best worship of Durga is to maintain this body in a proper condition, to enable it to work out Her will in the best manner possible.'

Swami Sivananda's concept of good health was much broader than just the absence of disease; he defined it as a positive, dynamic energy state in which the internal organs work in perfect harmony and concord, and the external behaviour is smooth and relaxed. A truly healthy person sleeps, eats and works well. 'Health is your birthright,' he concluded, 'It is as natural to be well as to be born.' He warned against complacency, though; this state of physical actualization never arises out of indulgence or neglect. It must be cultivated and deserved.

Just as the whole universe is governed by the laws of physics and mathematics, so also are the functions of the body governed by the immutable laws of health and hygiene. When these laws are disregarded, disease and disharmony result. Swami Sivananda laid the responsibility for health and disease squarely on the individual: 'Man is the only breaker of laws and violater of rules in the universe.' Of course, he acknowledged that other factors, such as heredity and karma, also play a part in shaping the structural weaknesses which give rise to different forms of disease. However, the actual manifestation of the disease itself is not simply a random attack on a hapless victim, but rather the 'summing up of the results of life-long violations of the laws of life'.

'The body is only a shadow of the mind.'

These rules of health pertain not only to the physical body, but to the mental body as well. Ultimately, all diseases can be traced back to an imbalance in the mind or the emotions, and it is the responsibility of every person to live in accordance with the laws of the mind as well as the laws of the body. Through their effects on the endocrine system, negative emotions such as anxiety, hatred and fear generate toxins in the blood. Swami Sivananda compared these states of mind to the grain of sand which forms the seed of the pearl in the oyster. In response to the irritation of the sand, the oyster surrounds it with many layers of mother of pearl. In the same way, a little bit of fear can be the seed of a serious disease, by gathering around it more and more anxiety, tension and worry.

Any agitation of mind creates a simultaneous agitation in the body, which affects the sensory organs and channels, and hence feeds more negative stimuli back into the mind. This negative cycle results in a grave disturbance of the prana, or vital force. Instead of pervading the body steadily and equally, the prana begins to vibrate in a scattered fashion, at unequal rates and in different directions. The nadis which conduct the pranic energy lose their organization and steady position and 'begin to quiver'. This loss of entropy in the pranic body is then translated into a disease state in the physical body.

Therefore, both the primary diseases of the mind, and the secondary diseases of the body, can be prevented by cultivating purity of mind and thought. That is why, in any therapeutic system, the health of the mind ought to take first priority, it is even more important than physical health. Once you have treated the mind, control over the body develops naturally. 'The body is only a shadow of the mind, the mold prepared by the mind for its expression,' Swami Sivananda reminds us, 'If you can conquer the mind, the body will become your slave.'

Physical origins of disease

On the other hand, Swami Sivananda did not believe in rejecting or denying any of the valid conclusions of modern medical science about the causes of disease. He readily accepted the so-called 'germ theory' of disease, and constantly emphasized the importance of hygiene in the prevention of infection. Unlike many natural healers, he did not dismiss germs as false or imaginary; in fact, he regarded them as present everywhere, all the time, even in the bodies of perfectly healthy people.

However, germs can only trigger disease when a person's vitality is at a low ebb, never when he is in a vigorous and healthy state. When disease germs invade the body, the antibodies and various elements of the immune system are marshalled in its defence. If the vitality of prana is low, this defence system is weakened, and the germs increase in number, and eventually may overrun the immune system itself. The waste products of this fierce battle collect in the blood in the form of toxins and poisons. Again, if prana is low, the organs of elimination are not able to cope with the added strain, and cannot dispose of these toxins. They then remain in the blood, obstructing the normal functioning of all the organs and systems of the body.

Of course, not all physical diseases are caused by infection; many can be traced to a physiological imbalance in the metabolism - the unceasing process of destruction and construction of cell life in the body. Elimination is one important aspect of the metabolic process, and the other is digestion. Swami Sivananda cites the loss of digestive power as the first step in the development of every disease. He also attributes the chief cause of most diseases to overeating; 'The vast majority of persons dig their graves with their teeth,' he claimed, perhaps with tongue in cheek.

His single most valuable recommendation for staying healthy and happy was to remain a little hungry at all times, and never overload the stomach.

'You are what you eat.'

The primary cause of weakened digestive fire is unsuitable, impure diet. Therefore, the right foods, taken in the right amounts, are essential for good health and spiritual sadhana. Each particle of food we eat is in actuality a quantum of energy. Unwholesome food contains negative energy and disrupts the body with its discordant vibrations. This in turn throws the mind into a state of oscillation and disequilibrium. The elevated thinking and concentration which can only come about through fine, harmonious vibration naturally suffers. In the Upanishads it is written that 'Food, when eaten, becomes divided into three parts. The roughest part becomes faeces; the medium part becomes flesh; the subtlest part becomes mind.' Because of this intimate relationship between the food you eat and the state of your consciousness, purity of diet is essential for psychological and spiritual evolution.

Swami Sivananda classified foods according to the three gunas. Tamasic foods such as beef, wine, garlic and onions, and also tobacco, he explained, 'fill the mind with anger, darkness and inertia' and are unwholesome and unfit for those who seek spiritual and moral growth. Rajasic foods excite the passions and make the mind restless, unsteady and uncontrollable. In this category are fish, eggs, meat, salt, and spices. The most beneficial foods are of the sattvic variety, which render the mind calm and pure. Swami Sivananda included in this category milk, barley, whole grains, butter, cheese, tomatoes, honey, dates, fruits, almonds and sugar candy. (Apparently even the arduous spiritual path has its occasional sweet rewards.)

How you eat can be just as important as what you eat. Swami Sivananda, in his inclusive, straightforward style, lists a number of dietetic rules which combine common sense with uncommon wisdom. The most salient ones relate to cultivating a positive state of mind while eating:

  • Eat only when really hungry.
    Do not eat anything which you don't like, but do not eat everything which you like most.
    Eat only four or five different types of foods in one meal, in compatible combinations.
    Do not eat when angry; poisons are secreted by the glands
    and thrown into the blood stream.
    Take food as medicine; give up gluttony.
    Be regular in taking meals and don't eat or drink between meals.
    Don't overcook your food, or discard the cooking water.
    Observe silence while eating; sit in vajrasana for ten minutes after eating, and take a half hour rest after meals.
    Remember God and pray to him before and after taking food.

However, the ultimate goal is to become as independent as possible of all dietary constraints, and to train yourself to obtain the maximum benefits from the simplest and most readily available foods. The true sadhaka or sannyasin must be able to eat anywhere at any time without creating any disturbance of the mind or body. By practising pranayama, japa and meditation, 'the person of strong will, fixed determination, firm faith, who relies fully on the Indweller within, does not even care if he gets no food. He sustains himself through his own inner power.' The stage can be reached when the inner prana is awakened and the aspirant can derive sufficient energy from higher sources to sustain life.

The large-hearted approach

Whenever possible, Swami Sivananda believed in using the most natural and simplest means to stay in good health; he advised people to bask in the sun and the open air, take cold baths, exercise sufficiently and fast when necessary. This is in accordance with the viewpoint of naturopathy, which he described as the oldest system of health care. In naturopathy, the responsibility for healing is shifted away from the doctors and experts back into the hands of the patient, and ultimately into the lap of Mother Nature herself. The fundamental axiom of naturopathy is to allow and assist nature, but never to force it.

But Swami Sivananda was not adamant even about this gentle system of healing. He understood that many situations arise in which naturopathy is just not appropriate, for example, in emergencies where intense pain or injury requires immediate treatment or surgery. If the patient is not very patient, or not very strong, nature cure may not be suitable. Above all, common sense and clear thinking must be employed. 'Too much drugging is bad,' he states, 'but if a drug can bring a man back to life, when his life is trembling in the balance, there is no harm in taking it.' Towards the end of his own life, he was so busy with selfless service that he had to forego the luxury of the natural therapies himself and rely more and more on ayurveda and allopathy.

Swami Sivananda was not above utilizing any system which might be of benefit to the patient. 'The expressions of Brahman are infinite, and allopathy, homeopathy, naturopathy, ayurveda, etc., are all His expressions. All are essential for different temperaments and natures. These systems are all products of prakriti; only the names differ.' He explained the seeming disagreements between practitioners of the various systems by comparing them to the rest of nature: 'Even the molecules, atoms and corpuscles have their loves and hates, likes and dislikes, attractions and repulsions, affinities and non-affinities. The allopath, homeopath and naturopath have theirs as well, but a large-hearted doctor, with equal vision and tolerance and practical knowledge of Vedanta can find good in every system of treatment and can utilize every system to the best advantage, according to time and need.'

Because he was so attuned to the one divine source of all theories and techniques, Swami Sivananda could always find the good and the useful elements in any of them. This tolerant and catholic approach allowed him to discard what was not useful as well. He understood that no one system is perfect for all cases, and he cautioned against becoming rigid and refusing to listen to opposing viewpoints.

Nature cure

Swami Sivananda particularly favoured the natural therapies. He especially recommended the nature cure approach of dietary restraint and fasting, which he spoke of as 'nature's great curative agent'. He listed its benefits as follows: it cleans the blood, eliminates toxins and superfluous fat, makes the mind clear and peaceful, calms the passions, increases energy, makes the body light and checks acute disease. He offers many different fasting regimens, which may be undertaken at regular intervals or for extended periods.

However, fasting has its limitations. For one thing, food has an undeniably powerful effect on the mind and emotions, and some people find it difficult to cope with the negative emotions which arise during the course of a fast. Especially in the beginning, fasting requires a certain amount of willpower, discipline, control of the mind and patience. Another difficulty is that extended fasts on fruit and milk are likely to be costly. There is also a danger that the practitioner will turn into a food fanatic, and end up with a digestive system which is overly finicky and delicate. This is always a liability, especially so in sannyasa life, where a rugged digestive system is a most useful prerequisite.

Great care must always be taken in planning the menus of ailing and convalescent patients. They can be gently encouraged, but never forced to eat or drink when they don't want to. Many diseases come as a direct result of unwholesome diet, and in their treatment the complete reorganization of the patient's eating habits is necessary. For example, Swami Sivananda cites indulgent living, lack of self-control and a diet heavy in rich, spicy and fried foods as the basic causes of asthma. He prescribes fasting, followed by a light, pure diet high in green vegetables and juices. Other diseases which respond well to dietary regulation include anaemia, high blood pressure, constipation, consumption, diabetes, gout, piles, pneumonia, rheumatism and typhoid fever.

Hydropathy, chromopathy...

Two other types of natural healing which were practised in Rishikesh are hydropathy and chromopathy. Hydropathy is the science of bathing, specifically oriented towards the treatment of disease. The skin is a major excretory organ, as well as the sensory channel for touch, temperature and pressure. If the pores become clogged, perspiration is obstructed and diseases result. Therefore, daily bathing in cold water, followed by vigorous friction with brush or towel, is vital, especially during sickness, when the excretory system is likely to be under greater stress.

Chromopathy involves the use of light, and takes advantage of the cooling and heating properties of the different colours. The beneficial effects of sunlight have long been known, and have been partially traced to the germicidal effects of ultraviolet light, which stimulates the body's natural defences against infection. The sun is also the direct source of life energy and prana. Therefore, sunbathing is an important part of the nature cure technique. Each colour has its own specific effect on the body and mind as well; red is heating and stimulating; blue is cooling and sedative; and yellow is laxative. Geru, the colour worn by sannyasins, has a curative, harmonizing and energizing effect. In chromopathy, foods such as oil, sugar and water are 'colour-charged' by placing them under collared glass for a period of time, and then administered to the patient.

... and namopathy

Above all, Swami Sivananda unfailingly prescribed japa to all his patients. He had perfect faith in the name of the Lord as 'an infallible panacea and cure-all for all diseases, including Adivyadhi, the disease of birth and death'. He reminded everyone that there is a divine hand behind all cures and that the only real doctor is Lord Narayana. No matter what condition the patient was in, he prescribed this most powerful 'pathy', namopathy, for two hour periods, morning and night. It 'electrifies, regenerates, vivifies and energizes' all the cells, tissues, and nerves of the body.

'The patient is Lord Hari.'

Remembrance of the Lord is not only the task of the patient; it is also a necessity for the healer. Swami Sivananda encouraged doctors and nurses to treat the patient as Lord Hari, to love all and to serve the Lord in all. They should be regular in their own japa, kirtan, prayer, meditation and study. In this way, selfless service to patients can become the vehicle through which they can purify their own beings and realize God.

Swami Sivananda's general guidelines for doctors and nurses follow from one spiritual premise - the patient is God. They transcend any particular styles of treatment and penetrate right to the core of the therapeutic relationship. According to these rules, the most important things to keep in mind when caring for the sick are to be always considerate and cheerful and to never do or say anything to injure the person's self-respect. Humour, friendliness, honesty, discretion and the willingness to compromise are equally as important as technical efficiency. The healer must learn to be unaffected by insult, anger and negativity, but to give attention and encouragement even in the most adverse situations.

Most important of all is humility in the service of God. Whenever sick people came to him for help, Swami Sivananda never posed as a great healer or miracle man; he simply promised them he would pray to God for their recovery. Many healers, either consciously or unconsciously, become adversaries of the laws of karma, and attempt to override its dictates. Swami Sivananda used to explain that suffering cannot be avoided because it is part of the process of evolution. Even though we may not always be able to perceive it, there is a divine purpose behind everything that happens in the infinite play of nature. He thus cautioned against the injudicious use of healing powers: 'If anybody comes to you for help,' he said, 'teach him yoga. Advise him to change the quality of his diet, his social and emotional relationships and his habits and temperament. Reform people's bodies, minds and emotions and then you will be serving the cause of God.'

Discover the Atman

Disease and ill health belong to the lower realms of human existence. Each individual has not just one body, but many bodies, which function simultaneously on different planes of existence. The physical and mental bodies that we are most familiar with are subject to degeneration and decay. However on the higher planes of the spirit, there is no individual name and form; life is experienced as limitless and beyond the confines of birth and death. This is the level of the true Self, the Atman, which is the ultimate source of strength and healing power. Man's spiritual evolution is leading him out of his attachment to the finite mortal body and ego-shell, into union with the infinite cosmic consciousness.

However, at our current level of evolution, none of us is totally without sickness. We all approach the guru with the fervent hope that he will heal the inner sicknesses of the spirit which afflict us all. Therefore, we can all benefit from Swami Sivananda's universal message. If the sick person can disengage himself from the earthly plane and identify himself with 'the bodiless, disease-less, all-pervading immortal Soul,' declared this saintly physician, 'his disease will surely take to its heels.'