All the sannyasins and inmates of the ashram quickly trooped in and sat down in the cool, quiet atmosphere of the sadhana hall, illumined only by the jyoti in the front, symbolic of Gurudev's divine inspiration since the beginning of his mission. All eyes were riveted on Swami Niranjan as he settled himself and began to speak.

'Gurudev was born in a village of Almora district in the foothills of the Himalayas. In this picturesque atmosphere of rolling green hills, far away from modern civilisation, the boy grew up in perpetual Satsang, being surrounded not only by the invisible guiding spirits of sages of bygone days, but by living mahatmas and sannyasins. The soil was rich with the spiritual samskaras acquired in previous births through tapasya and renunciation, and the spiritual seed in this birth was sown quite early.'

'His parents aptly named him Dharmendra as if they intuitively realised that this boy would one day shine, not only as a resplendent being with the senses under full control (Indra), but as a sovereign whose very being would be filled with dharma. In fact, his mind was shaped and moulded even before he knew it by spiritual influences, so that the young boy's vision itself was different from the others, and he did not have to battle with wrong samskaras when he consciously stepped into the arena of life.'

'Swamiji's parents were both Hindus. His father belonged to the Arya Samaj which is a special movement opposed to traditional idol worship. Their daily practices included havan (fire ceremony) and chanting of Gayatri and other Sanskrit mantras. His father, Sri Krishna Singh, was a devotee of Shiva and the follower of a guru. His mother was a Gandhian in outlook, being a co-worker of Mahatma Gandhi. She wore only khadi which she would weave herself. This was a noted characteristic of the Sarvodaya movement in which she was active.'

'Swamiji's family were kshatriyas and landowners. They had several villages and large numbers of livestock including ponies, sheep, goats and cattle. His father, by profession, was a police inspector for the British administration while his mother, being a patriot, participated in the Satyagraha movement as a humble volunteer. Thus what happened usually was the father arrested the mother, sent her to jail, then released her after some time, and both lived together again at home with their opposing political views.'

'Even as a small boy, Swamiji was very responsible and hard working. He managed his family estates and properties from the age of eight as his father used to be on duty and his mother was either in jail or out working for the freedom movement, so she never had any time for household work. This made him practical, independent and gave him managerial skills, which he was later able to put into excellent use as a spiritual leader and founder of an international yoga movement.'

'It seems to me,' remarked one of the swamis 'that from both sides, the stern, disciplinarian father, and the patriotic, revolutionary mother, Swamiji received the qualities which would later take him so far in his life as a. spiritual leader and as an ascetic.'

'Yes, but what about his spiritual development?' asked another swami. 'Were there any particular events or experiences in his early life which led him to the path of renunciation and indicated his brilliant future?'

'From the stories which Gurudev has told himself,' replied Swami Niranjan, 'we can assume that from early childhood he was spiritually inclined. Regarding his mission and the founding of Ganga Darshan, I can remember him telling me that as a small boy of five, he used to draw and build a seven storey building saying that it was his. He used to dream of travelling in planes to far off places.

When he was six years old, he began to have spontaneous experiences during which he lost all consciousness of the body. When he was ten years old, the same thing happened. His father had no understanding of these strange lapses which his young son used to experience from time to time. These were unusual experiences which can be defined as disembodiment where the chetana or consciousness sees the body as something apart from itself, as a sakshi or witness. However, yogis passing through his village described them as a spiritual state which they called 'samadhi', but being a small boy, Swamiji had no control over this state. They advised that the young boy should undergo spiritual training, and so from that time onwards, his spiritual life began.'

'After this his father would take him to meet sannyasins or saints who were passing through the area. He also encouraged him to study all the spiritual texts such as Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bible, Koran, etc. Even at this early age, Swamiji's comprehension of such lofty topics was remarkable and being gifted with a photographic memory he was able to get many of the difficult Sanskrit literatures by heart.'

'Around this time, Anandamai Ma, an enlightened, lady saint, was touring in the area. Swamiji's father decided to take his young son to meet her in order to request her advice regarding his mysterious out-of-the-body experiences. She told his father that the boy was not suffering from any kind of possession or mental aberration, but due to his positive samskara, his spirit had begun to awaken spontaneously. She placed her hand on Swamiji's back and blessed him saying, 'Do kirtan, become a saint and a sannyasin.'

'After such experiences,' asked one of the swamis, 'what sort of education did Gurudev receive? Did he exhibit any special gifts during his student days?'

'About his formal education' Swami Niranjan replied, 'we know that he was sent to a convent school in Nainital and thereafter to the government Intermediate College in Almora. He was an extremely bright student with an innate talent for language and literature. He soon acquired such a mastery over Hindi, Sanskrit and English, that he could spontaneously compose beautiful and inspiring poems which floated to him as if from on high, and they were almost always mystical and highly spiritual.'

'Swamiji published his poems in several school journals and they always created an uproar. People could not believe that such beautiful and uplifting poems had been written by a mere school boy. Later Swamiji began editing his own journal which he called 'Bharat'. Once when the renowned poet, Sumitranandan Pant, came to Almora, Swamiji showed him his journals. He admired Swamiji's work and said of him, 'This boy will definitely make great contributions in the field of literature.'

'Swamiji wrote in Sanskrit as well as in Hindi, and at one time he was even thinking of publishing a journal in English as well. However, his mind was not on his other studies. During the periods of algebra and geometry, he used to sit on the last bench in the class and write poems or correct stories and articles for the journal. He showed that if he liked a subject he could master it in no time, acquiring greater brilliance than his masters, but what he did not like, no one could make him learn.'

'That was, however, only one of the many signs of inner awakening in the young man. His spiritually illumined soul refused to accept life as others do. The boy began to question life itself and discovered many idiosyncrasies. Hence, viveka or discrimination slowly gained strength and percolated deeper.'

At this point one of the sannyasins asked, 'Swami Satyananda was always regarded as one of the leading exponents in the field of tantra. Were there any particular incidents in his childhood which may have awakened his interest in this subject?'

'Yes,' Swami Niranjan replied, nodding his head, 'I can think of several important incidents. I can remember one story that he told us about an experiment he had made with smashan sadhana when he was about twelve years old. It seems that he had met a tantric yogi who advised him to bring the ashes of a dead body and chant a certain mantra over them, so he started doing it. In the night he would go to the burial ground and practise this sadhana along with some other things which he had learned from the tantric yogi.'

'One day, however, his father found out what he was doing. Being an Arya Samaji, he never believed in these things, nor did he approve of such rituals. He told Swamiji to stop these practices or else he would throw him out of the house. But Swamiji had been instructed that he must finish that round of practice. He had already practised for about 25 days and he had 15 more days to go in order to complete the round. So, he brought the ashes of the dead body from the burial ground in a clay pot and hid it on the terrace of his house.'

'At night, when everybody was asleep, he used to go up to the terrace and do all the mantra chanting and invocations. One night his father was awakened from sleep with the sound of chanting and pounding on the roof, as though someone were up there dancing. His father thought that it must be thieves, so he got out his rifle and went up to investigate. Not finding anyone on the roof, he went hack to bed, only to be disturbed again by the renewed sound of dancing on the roof.'

'He went up and inspected the roof a second time and again found nobody. By this time he began to think that some funny business was going on there, so he called Swamiji and asked him what was happening. Swamiji acted like an innocent fellow and said that he didn't know anything about it. However, in the morning, when his father went up to the terrace to inspect it again, he found the pot of ashes and put two and two together. He was terribly angry by this time and flung the pot as faraway as he could, scattering the ashes to the wind.'

'What a precocious boy,' said one of the swamis, 'I bet he was disappointed.'

'Yes,' Swami Niranjan replied, 'this turn of events disappointed Swamiji because he wanted to know how to handle this particular experience by himself. This began a new relationship between the father and son. At this point the idea of sannyasa came into his mind. He decided not to lead the usual type of life, but to dedicate himself totally to the discovery of that experience, and to informing people that this experience exists and can be realised by everyone.'

'Did Swamiji continue to explore the practices of tantra and yoga after that?' one of the swamis asked.

'I think it was an ongoing process for him,' replied Swami Niranjan. 'At the age of fifteen, while still at school, Swamiji started practising kundalini yoga which gave him some deeper understanding. Around this time, he had another experience. He was sitting quietly, when suddenly without any effort, his mind turned inwards. He immediately saw the whole earth with its oceans, continents, mountains and rivers, crack into pieces. He did not understand this vision until a few days later when the news of the second world war broke out. This experience really made him begin to wonder.'

'Did the coming and going of these visionary experiences worry Swamiji?' asked one of the swamis. 'After all, he was still a young boy.'

'He definitely wanted to know more about them and he read many books, from hypnotism to Vivekananda, searching for some answers. Then one day he happened to meet a swami passing by on his way to Mount Kailash. His name was Nityananda. He mentioned, his condition of uncontrollable lapses into unconsciousness to him. Swami Nityananda also told him that this wasn't an illness but an altered state of consciousness. He recommended that Swamiji should practise meditation and taught him how. The form of meditation he taught him was laya yoga or suspension of thought. But the state beyond this, he said, could only be achieved with the help of a guru.'

'Did Swami Nityananda become Swamiji's guru?' asked one of the sannyasins, 'No,' Swami Niranjan replied, 'but he showed him the path. Swamiji began his sadhana at home through Nityananda's inspiration between the years 1938 and 1940.'

'Were there any more yogis or renunciates who influenced Swamiji during the years before he left home?' asked a swami.

'Yes,' Swami Niranjan said, 'when Swamiji was 18 or 19, Sukhman Giri, a sannyasin from Nepal, came to stay on his estate. She was a renunciate, belonging to one of the tantric sects. Although totally illiterate, she was nevertheless deeply spiritual with complete mastery over the esoteric aspects of tantra. She taught Swamiji much about the secrets of tantra and gave him profound experiences. Under her guidance, he began to explore the dimensions of consciousness, and he had many inner illuminations. At the time of her departure she told him to search further for a master with greater control over the unconscious mind.'

'Swamiji certainly had some remarkable experiences as a young boy,' exclaimed one of the swamis. 'Yes,' said another, 'but how did the turning point come, when he actually left home in search of a guru?'

'Even as a young boy,' Swami Niranjan replied, 'Swamiji knew very well that family life was not for him. He always wanted to live alone and wander alone. He never wanted anyone to protect him, help him or sympathise with him. Neither did he care for money, property or friends. So really, the only way left for him was sannyasa. By the time he was seventeen, Swamiji was asking questions which nobody could answer. He wondered about things, like the difference between perception and experience. He talked about such topics with his maternal uncle and his sister, but this did not quench his thirst, and he knew that he would have to go out and discover the answers for himself.'

'You mentioned Swamiji's sister,' said one of the swamis, 'can you tell us anything about her? It seems she was one of the few people he was able to confide in.'

'Yes,' said Swami Niranjan, 'he had one sister of whom he was very fond, and four brothers. It seems that he had little in common with any of his brothers, but he and his sister had similar temperaments and natures. Whenever they were together, they thought about doing things which involved revolution, social service and spiritual transformation. But one thing bothered him greatly. His sister wanted to take sannyasa and the Hindu religion would not permit this. So she became a Christian nun. Then an unexpected event occurred which was a turning point in Swamiji's life. His sister suddenly died in 1942. Soon after her death the idea of leaving home became uppermost in Swamiji's mind.'

'Perhaps,' mused one of the female sannyasins in the group, 'that is why Gurudev was one of the first spiritual leaders to initiate female sannyasins and to encourage them to lead a life of total dedication and renunciation.'

'Yes, definitely,' Swami Niranjan said, 'it was not long after his sister's death that Swamiji left home and went in search of a guru. He was just 19 years old at that time. Before leaving home he informed his father of his intentions. His father replied, 'You have made the right choice. If I had not indulged in other activities, perhaps I would be on the same path. But do not tell your mother about your departure, because she may try to block your way.' His father gave him 90 rupees and saw him off at the bus stop. The last advice which he gave to his son was, 'Do not write letters, do not look back, and do not retrace your steps.'

'So, Swamiji never returned to his home again after that, not even for a visit?' asked a sannyasin.

'No never,' replied Swami Niranjan, 'and now, it is getting late, so we must end this session. But we will meet again tomorrow and I will tell you about Gurudev's life with Swami Sivananda.'