Swami Sivananda was unique in more ways than one, which entitles him to the pride of place in modern India's spiritual horizon. Whether in physical appearance, intellectual status or spiritual excellence, he was second to none. But the hallmark of his life was the way he tangibly influenced innumerable individual lives in every corner of the world. This influence crossed man-made barriers of race, religion and colour, language, country, sex and even political system. Perhaps no saint in the twentieth century had personal contact with as many followers as Swami Sivananda.
Having witnessed modern life at first hand as an affluent doctor in Malaysia, Sivananda was fully conversant with the joys and sorrows of people and could identify himself with their problems and perplexities. This endeared him to everyone and made them respect his words.
However, when Swamiji left Malaysia in search of permanent truth underlying all earthly activities as well as heavenly experiences, he did not have any idea of his mission which God had intended him to achieve. Even when he took sannyasa and practised the most intense austerities, it was to realize God and to rest in Him. At no time during his sadhana period did Sivananda even dream of starting an ashram or founding a society.
But sometime around 1930, Swamiji was gripped with a burning desire to serve the suffering humanity. It was then that he came out of his seclusion and mingled with the masses. There was a divine attraction on his face which created a hypnotizing effect and he was able to win the hearts of many thousands of people. But when and where he had attained this enlightenment, no one ever discovered. It was a secret known only to Swamiji and God.
Although Swamiji was against the setting up of an ashram in order to achieve his mission, he founded the Swargashram Sadhu Sangh on August 24th 1933 for the upliftment and welfare of the Swargashram sadhus who had left their homes in a state of vairagya and were living in a most disorderly manner.
In 1934, Swamiji moved to the right bank of the Ganges with four disciples and found temporary shelter in a dilapidated shed in Ram Ashram. From the day he thus set foot on the right bank of the river as an independent sannyasin with disciples of his own, Sivananda's life of service took on an unparalleled dynamism. Within weeks he succeeded in securing some land for the construction of an ashram. At first only one staunch devotee of Swamiji's undertook to build some kutirs on the land, but others gradually followed. Encouraged by these developments, Swamiji became aware of the mission which had been entrusted to him by the Almighty.
Significantly, however, there was never any self-will involved. It was purely a reflection of His own will. It is to the eternal credit of Sivanandaji that when his own desire not to build an ashram or accept disciples was confronted with the divine will, which had it all otherwise, he never refused. Rather he calmly and humbly accepted each new situation.
Again it was divine will which prompted Swami Sivananda to organize an institution to cater to the spiritual needs of the people and to spiritualize the whole country. Swamiji wanted to have a registered trust set up for the purpose. This desire of his materialized almost immediately with the registration of the Divine Life Trust at the Ambala Cantonment Court in 1936.
Inspired by the useful work performed by the trust in the first few years of its inception, many people wanted to join. But the trust provided for a limited membership of eleven only. In order to enable all who were interested in the Divine Life cause to work under the same banner, Sivananda formed the Divine Life Society which was registered at Lahore on April 16, 1939.
So the ashram, under Swamiji's powerful leadership and guidance, developed simultaneously in three directions.
First, it was the world headquarters of the Divine Life Society, guiding its numerous branches, helping in publishing the various articles of Swamiji's, sending out spiritual emissaries to guide Sadhakas in various parts of the world and helping to organize spiritual conferences.
Second, the Sivananda Ashram served as a retreat for seekers and rendered social service to people in the neighbourhood.
Third, and most important, it was the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy which imparted training to spiritual seekers in Atma vidya or the science of the Self.
People watched with amazement, the phenomenal growth of the institution during such a short span of time. One Swami Vishnudevananda of the Kailash Ashram even remarked that 'Sivananda has converted a jungle into a mangal (auspicious place).' But Sivananda was humble and took no credit for what he had done. On the other hand, Swamiji asserted that 'everything happens in strict accordance with God's plan.'
Although the organization grew rapidly, Sivananda never became attached to it. On more than one occasion he declared that even if all the people left him, still he would take his bhiksha in the kshettar or in some houses there and remain in a kutir. On the contrary, if lakhs and crores of people came to him, he was prepared to expand his ashram and to work to any magnitude. And Sivananda actually was indifferent. In January 1947, when a fire consumed ashram property worth Rs. 3,000, Swamiji remained calm and peaceful - 'I have surrendered myself to the Lord. Let Him do what He likes.'
Another fact about the great saint is that while he himself lived an austere and simple life, he was at the same time thoughtful of others. He raised modern buildings for his guests. When devotees from far away lands came to visit him, Swamiji felt it his duty to make them feel at home. He even sent them bread, butter, cheese, etc. so that their health would not be affected by a sudden change in diet. Sometimes he arranged for the screening of yoga films or the performance of some musical program to offer them healthy diversion.
In short Sivananda was meticulous in the matter of receiving his guests, for to him, guests were God, and hospitality, religion. Further, he was punctual to the extreme for every interview, except when some serious illness kept him back for a short duration.
The evening Satsang at the ashram was even more colourful than any of the other gatherings. Songs and dramas, readings from scriptures, discourses by learned men, bhajans and kirtan; there was a great variety, and these formed the essence of the Satsang. Whatever the program, the presence of the master gave the most pleasure and joy, for it was he who mattered. The atmosphere would be surcharged with devotion as the devotees saw God in the Guru and the Guru saw God in the devotees.
On special occasions such as Guru Poornima or Janmashtami (Krishna's birthday) the Satsang would extend well past midnight. In the Satsang, Swamiji usually sang a traditional kirtan besides one of his philosophical songs such as: 'Start the day with God, End the day with God, Fill the day with God, Live the day with God.'
Some people criticized the master for introducing song and drama in the Satsang of a sannyasin's ashram. But Swamiji met the criticism by saying that 'Music is not entertainment. It is a great purifier. It develops bhakti, sattwa and concentration.' In fact, 'Music is bhakti yoga or sankirtan yoga.' Thus, while music, dance, drama, magic, mimicry, wrestling, might be considered out of place in any other spiritual gathering, for Swamiji, they were just harmless media to rouse lowered spirit, cheer up distressed hearts and soothe jaded nerves.
In this congenial atmosphere, surcharged with liberty, equality and fraternity, work went on silently and smoothly. There was the Ashram Mandir, the Bhajan Hall, the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy Press, the Ayurvedic Pharmacy, the Studio, the Construction Department, the Correspondence Section, the Accounts Office, the Annakshetra (communal kitchen), and many other departments, all of which provided avenues for selfless service for the many inmates. Sivananda put them all to work, each according to his capacity and talent.
Sivananda administered his ashram with a deep understanding of human nature. He showed great consideration to the ashram workers and kept them in good humour. He knew exactly how to please people of different temperaments and to bring out the best in them. He utilized the energy, intelligence and faculties of everyone who came in contact with him. Yet he never commanded, he only cajoled. The inmates obeyed him as if they were mesmerized.
Swamiji viewed his disciples, not as a guru would view his chelas, but as God-sent co-workers in his God-ordained mission of effecting a spiritual revival. In fact, not infrequently, Sivananda ended his letters to his disciples with the subscription, 'Thy humble sevak - Sivananda.' Swamiji put it this way: 'God has a master plan. We have our parts to play.' And he considered himself as an instrument of God and magnified even a little service that someone might render to the mission.
Thus, Sivananda went on doing his work, writing, meditating, serving, distributing divine literature, receiving guests, discoursing, singing and praising the name of the Lord and, lo, the Lord Himself bestowed upon him the men, money and materials required to run the ashram and to achieve the divine mission.
Although Swamiji himself said, 'The ashram is always in debt,' he never believed in undertaking tours for collecting money. For him, man was important, not money, except to the extent that it could serve man. The master had no use for the theories of financial experts. He knew only two things: knowledge must reach everybody and that he should share whatever he had with others, without thought of recompense.
Thus the ashram, under the leadership and guidance of a great leader, served in a modest way the various needs of the people, especially in the area of Muni Ki Reti, where it was located. For many years, the institution ran a government recognized primary school. The daily night Satsang was in itself a recreation for the local people. Further, local boys found employment in the ashram press and in its Ayurvedic Pharmacy. But the greatest need of the people, which the institution stepped in to satisfy, was in the area of medical services.
A modern Eye Hospital was started in the ashram. Besides, leprosy relief was another important field of medical service dear to Swamiji's heart. The ashram hospital always had a good stock of medicines for liberating lepers. And in the leper colony adopted by the ashram for its Mission of Mercy, there were trailed compounders, who were themselves lepers and drew their medical supplies from the ashram. Swamiji visited the colony once in a while to distribute fruits, sweets and blankets amongst the suffering inmates.
In spite of the various medical facilities provided by the ashram hospital, Sivananda remained dissatisfied and encouraged visiting specialists, including his own disciples, to conduct intensive medical relief camps, including Eye Relief Camps, Dental Camps, Medical Camps, etc. In fact, these became a common feature of the ashram's activities during Sivananda's time. Swamiji said, 'You should always seek newer and newer avenues of serving people. You should find out novel methods of serving the public. This is aggressive karma yoga. This is my method.'
The habit of giving was engraved in Sivananda. And Sivananda reasoned thus: 'If you give food to the hungry, after a while they will again be hungry. If you give money to the needy, after they have spent it, they will again be in want. But give knowledge to all, and they will have the wherewithal to provide for themselves.'
The gift of knowledge is indeed the greatest gift. And what can be greater than spiritual knowledge? Sivananda shared the wealth of his spiritual experience through conversation, lectures, letters, leaflets and articles in periodicals.
His intense desire to serve the suffering mankind was clearly revealed when he told a student, 'I cannot stop writing. I will write till I become blind. If I become blind, I will dictate and somebody will write for me. Thus, I will continue my mission of dissemination of knowledge till the end of my life.'
Sivananda continued to pursue his mission until the end of his days, and he was successful, for as a teacher, he enjoyed certain distinct advantages. Firstly, he knew his subject well. And secondly, he was moved by a sense of commitment to the task that God had entrusted him with.
This personal involvement made him take an almost paternal care of his disciples. He was extremely patient with them, helped them in choosing the right path, warned them if they were led astray and above all, prayed for their welfare and well-being. He advised but he never compelled, for he felt that, 'It is not through compulsion, rules or regulations that men can be transformed into divine beings. They must all have convincing experiences of their own.'
Sivananda's instructions were so universal that one would have thought there was no need to outline them. One could even say that his teachings were not only integral but also catholic. His famous four word sermon, 'Serve, Love, Meditate, Realize', summarized the teachings of the great prophets of all times. They were nothing new. What was new and unique about Swami Sivananda was his synthesis of these simple truths into a powerful spiritual message which inspired thousands of people to attain the experience of the divine life.
Strange as it may sound, people often approached the master for help in mundane matters. Swamiji did not spurn them but sympathized with them and suggested possible solutions to their problems. No matter in what direction his help was sought, Sivananda utilized the opportunity to impart some simple spiritual instructions besides rendering the services required. The moment a spiritually inclined person came into his contact, no matter how, Sivananda began his transforming work. It was the work dearest to his heart and he declared: 'The greatest service that I can do for humanity is the training and moulding of aspirants...'
Unlike most sannyasins and yogins, Sivananda had no esoteric circle, no inner coterie. He made no distinction between a disciple and a non-disciple. He trained all students quickly as for emergency service on the war-front. And it was only to be effective in his mission that he built up an ashram for his disciples so that they could engage themselves in uninterrupted sadhana, without having to worry all the time about their food, clothing and shelter.
In imparting his spiritual instructions, Swamiji would first watch the mood of his students, and slowly, imperceptibly, without in any way upsetting their balance, he would put the yogic point across. He tried to rouse their consciousness and never asked them to do anything which was yet beyond their understanding. In this way, Swamiji gradually led them to see the truth of things. He did not upset the faith of people but helped them to go onward, forward and Godward along lines most suited to them.
Neither were Swami Sivananda's training and guidance confined only to those who came to him in person. Over the years he corresponded with thousands of disciples, imparting both practical and spiritual advice. The Master's letters were usually brief and to the point, but during the earliest years of his spiritual ministry, he wrote long self-contained letters which reveal his eagerness to help the seekers as well as his masterly grasp of the problems posed.
For the generality of the people, the master prescribed a course of easy sadhana which they could pursue at home. In the case of old persons, Swamiji welcomed them and encouraged them in their sadhana. For those aspirants who had no control over their senses, the master advised that they remain in the ashram in the holy company of mahatmas. Thus, Sivananda had no standardized prescription. To some he recommended cave life, to others city life, to yet others, life in a spiritual institution.
The method adopted by Swamiji in conducting his mission was miraculous. 'Encourage the good in every one,' that was it. A large number of letters in appreciation of the Master's service and kindness were received almost every day at the ashram, for Swamiji drew out most skilfully the soul of goodness from the shell of evil.
There was no individual, however wicked in nature, whose bright side he would not instinctively unveil. He had a high energy and words of generous praise for everyone. There was no limit to the number of titles he awarded, the gifts he gave, the letters of encouragement he posted. He made everyone conscious of the vaguest of his possibilities, of his nascent powers, of goodness and greatness, of his talents and capabilities, and all were inspired to unfold and exercise them, to make them operative and dynamic.
The individuals who benefited thus, were glad and grateful to Swamiji to such an extent that one of them exclaimed that she was glad she had been a sinner, for otherwise she might never have gone to the Master.
'I am here upon this earth to reclaim the earth,
to turn it into a beautiful paradise,
a paradise most suitable for the denizens
of the earth to dwell therein,
peacefully, joyfully and blissfully.
I have come into this world with a sword
to cut off all your attachments,
to make you free.'