The Philosophy of a Sannyasin

Swami Sivananda was a pure Vedantin, one who perceives Brahman, the Absolute, as the essence which exists in all and which pervades the whole universe. Brahman is like a vast endless ocean and the individual soul is like a wave or ripple in that ocean; it may appear to be a separate entity but it always remains a part of a larger whole. 'Aham Brahmasmi. Tat Twam Asi. (I am Brahman. You are That.)' This was the keynote of Swami Sivananda's life and philosophy.

Swami Sivananda considered it to be the duty of all souls, whether sannyasins or householders, to discover the reality behind their existence. A sannyasin renounces all religions and creeds of life and society, but as a human being and a soul he cannot fail to ponder over the meaning of life. Swami Sivananda's words were: 'Sannyasa empties the individual of ego and the negative phenomena and Vedanta fills him with positive truth, the supreme reality. Sannyasa without Vedanta remains an empty void and does not serve its purpose. Vedanta cannot be grasped without emptying the ego through sannyasa and sannyasa becomes a waste without getting at the supreme ideal through Vedanta.'


Vedanta is the essential spiritual philosophy of the Vedas, man's oldest source of written knowledge. Vedanta, the moksha shastra or science of liberation and emancipation, claims that man in essence is identical with the supreme being. According to Swami Sivananda, Vedanta is the path of real renunciation: 'O little man, do not identify yourself with the perishable body. Give up 'I'-ness', identification with the ego. Identify yourself with this immortal, non-dual, self-existent, self-luminous essence. Behold the one Self in all. See the One in many. All miseries will come to an end.'

Swami Sivananda incorporated this idea into his Satsang and teaching whenever possible. Once a visitor, coming for his darshan, complained bitterly about being deceived by his wife. Swamiji said, 'Serve her.' The startled visitor asked, 'Serve her? Should I not be serving God?' Swamiji replied, 'See Mother Durga in her. Change your outlook. See God in everyone. God is not someone who jumps down from heaven onto the earth in order to give you darshan. You should see Him in all. He is present in all beings.'

Vedanta teaches us to discriminate between what is permanent and what is impermanent. Anything with form and name is illusory; therefore the Vedantin sublates all material objects into the universal experience of the Absolute.

Vedanta is not a doctrine nor a dogma; it entails no ceremonies or rituals of worship. It is merely the science of correct living, of purity of mind and body, and deep inquiry into the Self. It is for all, and becomes self-evident to anyone who has attained a certain level of spiritual evolution, no matter where he lives or what he does. Swami Sivananda made it clear that Vedanta is not only for renunciates or recluses; it can be practised by anyone who is ready to change his mental attitude and angle of vision. He exhorts us all to 'become Vedantins. Live in Satchidananda Atma, while discharging the multifarious activities of the world. Rejoice in the bliss of the Self within... The end and aim of human life is here.'


The Sanskrit word Brahman is derived from the root 'Brihm' which means to swell, to pervade all space, and become complete and perfect. Just as the ocean has one flavour, salt, in the same way all of creation is flavoured by Brahman, or Atman. But how can this be possible, we ask, for we see with our own eyes that the world is made up of separate objects. Scientifically speaking, the basis of matter is energy. Pure energy has a high vibrational level and the gross matter which can be perceived through the senses has a low vibrational level. When ice is heated, the molecules vibrate at a higher frequency and the ice melts into water. If more heat is applied, it then becomes vapour. The basic substance does not change but the increased frequency of vibration alters its gross physical appearance. In the same way, even though our physical forms may differ, essentially we are all one and the same.

This is the fundamental truth of Vedanta which is stated very precisely in one sloka of the Ishavasya Upanishad which Swami Sivananda translated as follows:

"Om Purnamadaha Purnamidam Purnat Purnamudachyate.
Purnasya Purnamadaya Purnarnevavasishyate."

"The Whole (Brahman) is all that which is invisible.
The Whole (Brahman) is all this that is visible.
The Whole (Hiranyagarbha) was born out of the Whole
When the Whole (Universe) is absorbed into the Whole (Brahman) the Whole (Brahman) alone remains."

In other words Brahman is the knower of all. Swami Sivananda describes how Brahman 'Sees without eyes, hears without ears, feels without skin, tastes without tongue, grasps without hands, walks without feet, smells without nose, knows without mind, because He is pure, all pervading Consciousness. He is formless, nirakara; gunaless, nirguna; without any special characteristics, nirvishesha; without parts, niravayava; and without action, nishkriya. He is self-luminous, swayamjyoti. He is the support for everything.'

The 'divine play' of Brahman through maya

'Ma' means not and 'ya' means that, so maya means not that. According to Vedanta whatever does not exist permanently, is changeable and has beginning and end, is maya. It is initiated out of prakriti, the illusory power of Brahman. Only that which exists beyond time and space is real; whatever can be transformed and is subject to relativity is maya. Swami Sivananda describes this illusion as the 'vibratory power of the Lord by which He creates wavy motions in His own substance.' Maya cannot be separated from Brahman, just as heat cannot be separated from fire. Through maya the soul, jiva, experiences the world. And it is only when the jiva identifies with the world of maya that the feeling of individuality occurs. Just as the waves of the ocean take shape and change according to the direction of the wind, so the jiva is blown about by the wind of maya.

Swami Sivananda saw the whole of creation as the 'divine play', the lila of Brahman. Some people believe that the Supreme is other than this world. They place their faith in a separate personal God. This is the concept of dwaita, or duality. Definitely God is greater and subtler than the gross man. He is infinite, while man is finite, and on that level they can be viewed as separate. But Swami Sivananda took this one step further. He realized that because every man has that higher quality within his own being, he is never really separate. This is adwaita, non-duality, through which Swami Sivananda teaches that the Absolute is contained within every manifestation of maya.

Individuality of jiva

In accordance with Vedanta, Swami Sivananda explains the relationship between the individual soul, jiva, and the supreme soul, Brahman. Jiva is said to be the reflection of Brahman and the ego is likened to a mirror. Naturally if the mirror is clean the reflection will be perfect; if the mirror is dirty the reflection will be distorted. In this way jiva and Atma are identical in essence but not in appearance.

Swami Sivananda explains that just as 'the reflection of the sun on water dilates when the surface of the water expands, contracts when the water shrinks, trembles when the water is agitated, divides itself when the water is divided, thus the reflection participates in all the attributes and conditions of the water, while the real sun remains the same. Similarly Brahman, although in reality uniform and never changing, participates in the attributes and states of the body and the other limiting adjuncts in which it abides. It grows with them, decreases with them, and so on.'

The consciousness of the jiva functions at three different levels: (1) jagrat - objective consciousness; (2) swapna - subjective consciousness; and (3) shushupti - the state beyond consciousness. In the objective state one thinks he is separate, but in the state beyond consciousness there is no difference. Corresponding to these three states, the jiva is endowed with appropriate bodies. The objective mind relates to the gross, physical body and realm, the subjective mind to the subtle or astral, and the mind which functions beyond consciousness to the causal. Just because man is only aware of the physical plane, he imagines that this is the extent of his capacity to experience. But this is not the case at all.

Avidya (ignorance) arises because the jiva identifies with information received through the senses. Therefore, in order to expand our comprehension, Swami Sivananda advises withdrawing the mind internally by disconnecting it from sense perception. In this way the pratyagatma (inner Self) can be realized: 'Just as you extract the pith from the munja-grass, so also you will have to take the essence (Atma) from the five sheaths through patience and sadhana. Brahma created the senses with out-going tendencies and so this little jiva or individual soul beholds the external universe and not the internal Self. But that aspirant who is desirous of attaining immortality realizes the Supreme Self by turning the gaze inwards and withdrawing from sense objects.' When there is only awareness of the physical world, desires for sensual gratification are endless. After one physical body has come to an end, the jiva will use another body to try to fulfil these desires, until it realizes its true identity. The jiva in this way incarnates again and again due to its state of ignorance and its past mental impressions, or samskaras. It continues to pass through the four stages of evolution which Swami Sivananda lists as the mineral, vegetable, animal and human. He concluded that, 'Humanity is the final class. If he gets success in this class by rigorous training, discipline and sadhana, he becomes a full-blown yogi or gyani. He attains eternal life and immortality.'


The final goal, aim or end of every jiva is re-absorption into the cosmic Self. To pull back maya's veil and be liberated from the bondage of the lower self is moksha. This is- not to be misunderstood as a state of annihilation, inertia or unconsciousness. It is a state devoid of vasanas (desires), sankalpas (resolutions) and vikalpas (imagination), where one becomes a jivanmukta (liberated soul). He becomes an Atma gyani - knower of the Self. This state was described by Swami Sivananda in a poem entitled 'Siva's Experience':

'I have seen God in my own Self.
I have negated name and form,
and what remains is Existence - Knowledge - Bliss Absolute
and nothing else.
I behold God everywhere. There is no veil.
I am One. There is no duality.
I rest in my own Self. My bliss is beyond description.
The world of dreams has gone. I alone exist.'

If Swami Sivananda gained this experience while living amidst worldly affairs, then obviously moksha is obtainable in conjunction with one's daily duties. Life continues in the usual manner, but the mind and pranas of the jivanmukta remain absorbed in pure consciousness. When this happens the world of maya seems like a dream. The jivanmukta is akarta (non-doer) and abokta (non-enjoyer); he is just a player in Brahman's lila until the final samadhi.

Sivananda explains that in this state one 'enjoys the objects offered to him like a child. They do not taint him, for his consciousness is rooted in Brahman.' He goes on to say that 'the jivanmukta is like a man sitting on a wall. On one side is conditioned existence and the awareness of the world. On the other side is the unconditioned awareness.'

The two-fold reality

How can that which is infinite possibly be comprehended by that which is finite and limited? In order to experience the infinite it is no use wrestling with the natural tendencies of the lower mind; this mind simply has to be jumped over. Nor will rigorous physical austerities induce consciousness of the infinite. Control of the senses definitely leads to a state of detachment from their alluring temptations, but it is not intended to conquer or kill them, only to rise above their influence.

Swami Sivananda was concerned with raising man's sensorial consciousness of the physical world up to the subtler realm of spirit while still participating in worldly affairs. Matter appears to be the only reality of those whose consciousness is absorbed in the physical world. Those who are conscious of the subtle realm know spirit to be the truer reality. Swami Sivananda adds, 'So, we postulate a two-fold reality. From the Absolute point of view, God, Self or Spirit alone is real; the world is but a fleeting, changing, finite appearance. But from the empirical viewpoint, the world exists and the less enlightened one is, the denser and more menacing is the reality of the world.'

Vedic sadhana

To take the jiva's consciousness from the gross physical realm to the higher, subtler realm, Swami Sivananda prescribed a systematic sadhana consisting of four points to be practised in daily life.

  1. Viveka - discrimination between real and unreal. This can be developed by practising 'neti neti', in which the identification with the external name and form of an object is negated by examining it and saying, 'Not this; not that'. The remainder, or shesha, after negation, is the Absolute essence.
  2. Vairagya - indifference to pain and pleasure.
  3. Shatsampat - development of the six virtues:
    • shama, tranquility of mind
    • dama, restraint of the senses
    • uparati, renunciation
    • titiksha, power of endurance
    • shraddha, faith in guru and scriptures
    • samadhana, one-pointedness of mind
  4. Mumukshutwa - keen longing and yearning for liberation from samsara.

In order to fix the mind in the Absolute, Swami Sivananda recommended the repetition of the mahavakyas, or key phrases, from the Upanishads. The first, 'Aham Brahmasmi', eradicates the created illusion (vikshepa) stemming from ignorance and the second, 'Tat Twam Asi', annihilates the ignorance itself. However, intellectual understanding alone does not bring instant revelation. Mere reading and analysis of the question 'Why?' is not sufficient. The fundamental teachings have to be put into practice before actual realization occurs. As it is written in Kathopanishad, 'This Atman cannot be attained by study of the Vedas, by intelligence nor by learning. He whom the Self chooses, by him the Self can be gained. To him the Atman reveals its true nature.'

According to Swami Sivananda even a humble attempt to live in the spirit of Vedanta can alleviate great fears and bring 'tremendous inner spiritual strength, unalloyed felicity, self-bliss, infinite, super sensual, intuitional knowledge and immortality.' Therefore he urged all aspirants to 'withdraw the senses, look within and search your heart. Dive deep into the hidden recesses of your heart through intense meditation on the innermost Self. You will realize your identity with Brahman and get to the heart of the infinite joy and bliss.'

Remember: 'You are That'

Many times Swami Sivananda quotes from Vedanta to illustrate his teachings. We are told: 'do not hate your neighbor or brother. Do not try to exploit him; he is your own self. There is a common self, a common consciousness in all. This is the same in a king, a peasant, an ant and a dog, in a man and a woman, a cobbler or a scavenger. This is the immortal entity.' He quotes from the Bible to 'love thy neighbour as thyself and to 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' These are not simply religious morals; they are practical principles openly laid before man which in his ignorance he has disregarded. All this knowledge has been given to man on a silver platter and if he has any wisdom he will strive to practise it so that it becomes his living experience. Swami Sivananda gave his whole being for the fulfilment of this truth.

'I have come here not to teach you but to stir or awaken you in the path of spirituality. You have forgotten your real swaroopa or purpose of life on account of the force of avidya (ignorance), maya (illusion), moha (infatuation) and raga (attraction). You are tossed hither and thither and caught up in the samsaric wheel of birth and death on account of your egoism, desires, cravings and passions of various kinds. I have come here to remind you that the real happiness is within and not without. I have come to remind you that in essence you are all pervading pure consciousness and you are not the perishable body composed of five elements. I have come to remind you of the great mahavakya of the Upanishads - Tat Twam Asi.'

'This world with all its variegated pleasures, pains, joys, sorrows, rivers, mountains, sky, sun, moon, exists only in order that the fragments of the one Self embodied in so many forms may regain their lost divine consciousness. There is no such thing as inanimate matter. There is life in everything, even a piece of stone. So smile with the flowers and the green grass. Play with the butterflies and the cobras. Talk to the rainbow, wind, stars and sun. Converse with the running brook and the turbulent waves of the sea. Develop friendship with all your neighbours, dogs, cats, cows, humans, trees, in fact, with all of nature's creation.'