A Life of Giving and Serving

'Lead a life of truth, compassion, service and love. This is the secret of Life Divine.'

The most striking thing about Swami Sivananda was his immaculate purity and goodness. His whole life was spent in giving and serving: 'I give myself away to anyone who claims me.' On being asked when he first felt the desire to help mankind he simply replied, 'This is my very nature. From early boyhood I took an unaccountable delight in serving others.'

Piety and scholarship ran throughout his family. He was born as Kuppuswami on the 8th September 1887 in Pattamadai, Tamil Nadu. His father, Jenu Iyer was a devotee of Shiva and a descendant of the 16th century saint-scholar Appayya Dikshitar. Kuppu was called Mahan, or great soul, by his friends. He fetched bael leaves for his father's Shiva puja, listened to the Vedic recitations and scriptural readings, and joined his parents in their prayers and kirtan. He delighted in accompanying his mother daily to the temple, would bring beggars into the house to be fed, and had the habit of leaving home to wander for a few days with little or no food. At school he excelled in athletics and was liked by all for his humility, obedience, industriousness and helpfulness to slower fellow students. But he was also a joker and prank player, his favourite stunt being to dive into wells to astound his friends and frighten his family.


When he entered the medical school at Tanjore in 1905 he was already seeing spiritual visions and worked like one possessed, spending all free time and holidays in the hospital. In his first year he obtained permission to enter the operating theatre, a privilege normally granted only to senior students. He had to leave medical school on account of his father's death, but he refused to give up. In order to help meet expenses, he started a medical journal, 'Ambrosia', which ran for four years. It was during this period that he started practising yogasanas, pranayama, and meditation and adopted the type of diet prescribed by the yoga shastras.

In 1913 he went to Malaya where he was to be in charge of a hospital on a rubber estate for seven years, specializing in micro-scopical study and tropical medicine. At his farewell party before he left India, he said, 'Selfless service is the most potent weapon to thin out the ego. Every day I shall do some charitable act. Side by side I shall think of God with a yearning heart.'

In Malaya, when asked if he could manage a hospital all by himself he replied, 'Yes, I can manage even three hospitals.' He was appointed at once and from then on worked ceaselessly, always on duty, seeking out the poor and sick and even giving money from his own pocket to patients upon discharge to cover their immediate expenses. After conducting Friday prayers in the hospital he would distribute prasad, placing it in the mouths of those too sick to move. At his house he had a tulsi altar where he offered daily worship. To patients who came there he gave, along with medicine, a leaf of the holy basil and a few drops of consecrated water. He always bubbled with joy and spread himself and his possessions like the banyan tree. Thus his profuse kindness won the hearts of all. Station masters would detain trains for him and steamboats turn back to pick him up.

He sought the company of holy persons like hatha yogi Krishnajai and had great reverence for one tantrik who enabled him, through mantra, to see distant happenings. However, he quickly realized the uselessness of minor spiritual powers in relation to permanent spiritual gain.

Every day he was battling with pain and death. Malaria was rampant and on top of it came Spanish flu. He sought desperately for a solution to the riddle of pain and the mystery of death. Then one day a sannyasin came to the hospital. Sivananda nursed him back to health and in gratitude the sannyasin gave him 'Jiva-Brahma Aikya Vedanta Rahasyam' by Cuddapah Satchidananda Swami. Inspired by this he began practising anahata laya yoga and swara sadhana (an extension of pranayama), and the real aim of human life became apparent to him. One day in 1923 (he spiritual spark burst into flame. He could offer no lasting solution for disease and set out in search for Immortality!


Leaving Malaya and giving away his last money at Poona, he surrendered to the mercy of God, eating wild fruits, sleeping on the ground and acting as a servant to those who gave him shelter. He went to Rishikesh to do tapas and was initiated into sannyasa by Swami Viswananda on 1st June 1924 as Swami Sivananda Saraswati. The next day Viswananda left for his native Varanasi. From there he wrote to his new disciple, giving only the briefest of instructions. Living in a dilapidated hut in Lakshmanjhula, Sivananda walked four miles every morning for his alms of four rotis and a cup of lentil soup. He would go about the forest tracks singing and chanting Om in his ebullient way.

In 1925 he began a charitable dispensary for Sadhakas and mahatmas. Rigorously he maintained his daily routine of yogasanas and kriyas, supplementing it with sprinting and long walks. Regular pranayama gave him inexhaustible energy, a phenomenal memory and a powerful voice and helped him bring about rapid healing in his patients through the transmission of prana shakti to diseased parts.

At Swargashram, Sivananda went into seclusion for six years until 1931. When practising tapasya he would stand in the Ganga from morning to evening in the hot sun and from 6p.m. to 6a.m. in the coldest snow. He continued to doctor the mahatmas, believing 'you can purge out your bad samskaras only through selfless service; through selfless service alone can you have realization,' and would clean their cells when they were absent. All offerings he passed on to them and all money he converted into medicine and spiritual pamphlets. So famous did he become that the authorities directed visitors to him for darshan saying, 'He is the only great mahatma and yogi in Swargashram.'

When too many callers interrupted his spiritual routine he disappeared into the rocky ledges above the Ganges or the bush forests on the Manikoot hill slopes. He began to meditate for eight hours a day and, in winter, up to sixteen hours. For some time he gave up study and medical service and engaged in pure meditation alone.

On tour

In the 1930's he came out of seclusion to mix with the masses, touring extensively in U.P., Bihar, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and A.P. He wrote to a disciple in 1932, 'I have begun to roar like a lion of Vedanta. I visit the high schools and colleges and deliver fiery lectures. I pour forth all my energy.

People are devouring me from all corners.' Everywhere he went he demonstrated asanas and pranayama and conducted kirtan: lorry kirtan, boat kirtan, Jesus and Allah kirtan, kirtan on trains, kirtan even while riding an elephant! In Lahore he sang and danced on the railway platform in divine ecstasy. Later in his own ashram, in December 1943, he started an akhanda kirtan of the Maha mantra. It has never stopped. 'Music', he said, 'is yoga. Sankirtan yoga develops bhakti, sattwa and concentration... and brings the devotee face to face with God.'

During his 1950 tour he met with much pomp and ceremony. Often it was difficult to control the crowds waiting for his darshan. In Ceylon his reception was filmed and in Trivandrum and Mysore he stayed with the royal family. Yet one hour after arriving back in the ashram, he was in his office as if nothing had happened. On tour he cast a spell over the audience with his towering personality, power of oratory, striking gestures, authoritative knowledge and spiritual charisma. Once he began to speak he could not stop the flow: 'When I stand up to address a gathering I identify myself with all. I love every member of the audience, I feel I must give them all of my heart without reservation.'

Ashram life

On January 17th 1934 he moved to the right bank of the Ganga with four disciples and secured from the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal some land for building an ashram. Meanwhile they established Ananda Kutir in an old cow shed where they worked day and night preparing spiritual pamphlets. Devotees soon began to offer to build kutirs and the humble beginning quickly exploded into a world in miniature. Material and workers came streaming in and money flowed like water, but Sivananda never allowed a pause for consolidation of position. He kept pressing on for greater and greater service. Hence the ashram suffered from an almost perpetual financial crisis, which he encouraged so that the inmates would have to work harder. 'Work, work and work for the welfare of humanity' was his maxim.

His office was like a busy marketplace with people running here and there carrying papers, tea and fruit. Typewriters continually clacked and dogs and monkeys squabbled at the door. Calmly amongst it all sat the Master dealing with a thousand things at once. Office always opened with prayer and kirtan and in the midst of business affairs, he might call upon a devotee to give a lecture or sing a song. During a severe lumbago attack in the winter of 1952 when he could not ascend the flight of steps leading from his kutir to the road he literally climbed on all fours to reach the office.

His ashram life was an open book for all to see - serving, praying, singing, joking, bathing in the Ganga and prostrating to everyone - humble, simple, childlike and constantly cheerful. Six feet tall with broad shoulders and long arms, his complexion was a shining copper red. His walking made no sound. His every movement was graceful and poised. If anyone came to him in the hot sun he would fan them and give them some refreshing drink. Or he would run to hold an umbrella over the sick or aged and hurry to tie the shoelaces of the over-fat. Occasionally he himself would feed the ashramites, bowing low before each and saying, 'Roti, Bhagawan! Dal, Bhagawan!' No service was too menial. He fed ants with sugar, birds with rice, fish with bread and kept water pots for birds saying, 'This will develop mercy and cosmic love... No one can attain oneness without doing such services'

His was a rule of love. More like a mother than a master, he never compelled but inspired by his own action and magnetism. To one disciple who developed a misunderstanding with him he wrote: 'I am thy servant, well-wisher, friend, brother. Even if you leave me I cannot leave you.' He loved all religions. Bound by this love, all lived beneath the ashram roof, Hindu and Muslim, Parsi and Buddhist, Christian and Jew. On being asked if he had seen God, he replied, 'I see nothing but God. In the food I take, in the water I drink. In the people I greet, in the animals I meet.' He bowed mentally to tree, stone, ant, moon, table and chair alike and advised everyone to do this: 'Practise and see. Do it for some months and mark the change for yourself. You will be a different person, a God-person with God-vision.'

Training disciples

In all of India's history no other saint ever initiated so many sannyasins; he even gave sannyasa by post! To those who had worldly responsibilities he gave not the geru robe but mental sannyasa, asking them to colour their minds instead. His general sadhana was simple- japa, prayer, kirtan and charity - serve all, love all, be kind to all.

A divine sculptor, he shaped and chiselled his disciples in mysterious ways so that they could best serve humanity: 'Every yogic student, when he is purified and elevated, becomes a centre of spirituality. He will draw to himself, through his magnetic aura, thousands of baby souls for spiritual transformation and regeneration.' About the role of guru he said, 'A guru takes on the prarabdha (destiny) of his disciples in order to accelerate the process of their self-realization. He will take the suffering only of those who are brought into contact with him by the cosmic plan.'

Sivananda used several methods for this transformation: matchless love for the sadhaka filled with love for him, the uplifting power of grace for those making earnest effort, exposure and correction of faults through humour, or presentation of a pamphlet at the right psychological moment. For breaking the barrier of doubt and ego which shut out the blessedness he sought to confer, the method was extremely painful; he called it the negative aspect of grace. To eradicate ego he occasionally resorted to the kick method which was felt on a very subtle level. If a disciple erred seriously, indifference was the treatment. Sometimes he shocked a disciple into spiritual wakefulness. It was a bitter technique which whipped the mind, leaving it in a furnace until it emerged purified. When the disciple actually felt him working on the mental plane, manipulating his very thoughts step by step, then the most important stage in his evolution was taking place. This was the Master's subtlest method.

Not only saintly souls were transformed under his care but demented ones also - the sick, the aged, children, pilgrims and rogues: 'I want around me any number of people who will abuse me, vilify me and even injure me. I want to serve them and elevate them.'

Literary expression

Sivananda translated himself into books on a wide array of subjects, including bhakti yoga, karma yoga, raja yoga and Vedanta. Unearthing the vast spiritual treasures of India, he brought to light, popularized, and laid bare all that was formerly regarded as esoteric or impractical in spiritual life, interpreting all in the spirit of the scientific age. In the broad sweep of his treatment, he covered the spiritual needs of all ages and sections of society. He wrote with buoyant optimism and sparkling clarity on important social problems using various forms of literary expression- letter, essay, story, song, parable, poetry and even drama. He would tell his disciples, 'Claim thy birthright amidst typing, editing books, writing articles. This is better than a cave life. This is dynamic integral yoga.'

Reaching out to the west

Regarding the west, Sivananda wrote in 'The Voice of the Himalayas' that in the west, 'man is merely a physical creature endowed with a mind and possessing a soul. Whereas to the Hindu, man is essentially a soul expressing itself through mind which has the body as its counterpart to function upon the physical plane.' Although his health did not permit him to go to the west, the practical teachings of his books appealed to western minds around the globe. His ability to write and speak English, and his European manner, made westerners feel at home with him.

A jagatguru, he had dynamic disciples around the world. One such, Boris Sacharow, during World War II actually convinced the Nazi authorities who had forbidden all societies not emphasizing their policy, of the entirely scientific character of yoga. He delivered yoga lectures throughout the war and even had a yoga centre in his house in Berlin. Writing to a German devotee during the war, Sivananda said, 'The all merciful Lord is manifesting only his extreme kindness in whipping us through such gruesome periods of history. If we are made to weep it is to enable our animalism to melt away the easier and earlier.' In the same letter he wrote, 'A generation of Christs, Buddhas and Vivekanandas alone can materialize the dream world of perfection. And this kind of a perfect world led by supermen is possible; the present day agonizing cruelties are the great darkness before the storm.'

In 1959 television cameras invaded the ashram and Sivananda appeared on TV in France, Belgium and Switzerland. More and more westerners came, including travel writers and journalists. Dr Maryse Choisy, editor of 'Psyche', Paris, wrote, 'Swami Sivanandaji knows all things you can learn in a western university and more which you cannot. The most stubborn materialist must feel that aura, that magnetism, that serenity... Whether it be psychology, medicine, philosophy or religion he has always something to teach us.' Dr Frederick Spiegelberg, deputed by Stanford University, USA, to investigate India's spiritual culture, addressed him thus: 'Swamiji, I have seen many saints in India during this tour. But you have not the slightest trace of any complex from which the others suffer. You are so outspoken and so full of humour that you capture our hearts.'

Dr Frederick Spiegelberg sent Swami Sivananda the standard set of ten ink blots which comprise the psycho-diagnostic Rorschach test. He then made his observations on the personality of Swamiji. Among other things, he said, 'A man as remarkable and outstanding as Swami Sivananda can, of course, not truly be subjected to a standard analysis and be brought into a formula, created to be applied to average people. It was therefore to be expected that the test would bring unusual results and a great many answers that simply cannot be computed in an ordinary way. In fact, in reading the Swami's reactions one forgets all about his being subjected to a test and is forced to agree with his interpretations of the ink blots, which find more meaning in them than my other interpretations made ever before. His test thus becomes a sacrament, in which the usual meaning of the presented material is being transformed into the shadow of a higher light. His statements about the ink blots are of a highly symbolical importance, definite and ultimate, and therefore not to be put in line with the maya-ridden free associations of the ordinary tested person. He has done to them the same that he does every object that comes into his reach. The Rorschach test pictures have received the golden touch.'

Spiritual powers

Sivananda never exhibited any supernatural powers, saying, when visions and miracles were attributed to him, 'To a yogi who understands things in the light of yoga, a miracle is nothing.' Or again, 'Some saints do not consciously exercise the many psychic or spiritual powers they possess, but their devotees, by the power of their faith, work upon themselves miraculous phenomena. Moreover, the purified consciousness-force of saints rushes to the rescue of those devotees who pray in thought and spirit for their help.' In Bihar, a devotee going through a dacoit infested area one night related how the Master escorted him for three miles riding a bull on either side of his cart with a trident in his hands.

Such visions were reported from all over the world. Once in the ashram itself Swami Krishnananda had been lying for days with biliousness and fever. Fasting and medicine proved useless. Suddenly his head cleared, a gust of energy filled him and opening his eyes he saw his master everywhere - on the walls, on the chair, as the water pot, the door, the bed and the very cloth upon his body! Shortly after he was up taking a bath.

The daughter of a 76 year old woman in South Africa suffering from Parkinson's disease wrote to Sivananda for help. The very day he replied, she said her mother 'awakened with a crackling sensation in every finger, and both hands and her crippled fingers straightened out.' The closing lines of his 'Song for Developing Will' come to mind:

'I can heal millions from a long distance, This is due to will; Therefore develop Will.'


In April 1963 his mood became more serious and an economy drive was called for. On the 23rd of June he attended his office for the last time, due to high blood pressure and partial paralysis, July 14th brought shivering and fever and at 11.15 pm. he performed his last act - drinking half a glass of Ganga water. Swami Venkatesananda wrote from Mauritius '...that childlike giggling, with the big tummy quaking with convulsions of joy... can be heard no more.' Only that morning a horologist and astrologer had said that around midnight there would be such an unparalleled planetary conjunction that any yogi getting ready to depart would not wish to miss it. This was the moment he chose to merge with the Supreme.

Swami Sivananda Saraswati was buried on Tuesday the 16th of July on the Viswanath Mandir Hill. One of his own poems will serve us for his epitaph:

'I heard a voice from Within;
Siva, wake up
And fill the cup of your life with this nectar.
Share it with all.
I shall give you strength,
Energy, power, wisdom.
I obeyed this command.
He did fill the cup
And I shared it with all'