"Throughout the ages, the world has been guided by spiritually illumined people who come from time to time to raise man's consciousness and to remind us of the path we must traverse. Swami Sivananda was one great soul who was born to give the word of spiritual life to thousands and thousands of people all over the globe. He never came to the west and he never went to the east, but today he is everywhere.
He was the best of men whom I have seen in my life. I have never seen Christ but I have seen Swami Sivananda, and therefore, I believe Christ must have existed."
It was early in the evening of Tuesday 16th July 1963, as a small group of sannyasins refreshed their tired and aching bodies in the holy water of the Ganga at Rishikesh. An air of melancholy hung over them, as one by one they finished their baths. They sat together on the banks of the river, contemplating the setting sun lost in their thoughts. At last one of them spoke, a young man whose feelings showed clearly on his face. 'Oh Swamiji,' he cried, turning humbly to the eldest sannyasin in the group, 'What a hard day for us all!'
'Indeed,' agreed the elder, 'but we must not grieve, for although our Guru has gone, his mission still will remain and it is now for us to uphold the mission in Swamiji's name.'
Swami Chidananda, for this was the leader's name, was referring to the maha samadhi of Swami Sivananda, which had taken place in a miraculous fashion the night before. These disciples, gathered in companionship, had spent the night beside the body of their Guru, placed in the lotus position, softly chanting the maha mantra and guiding the many residents of the ashram who came to pay their last respects. As morning broke, they had lifted the bier as conches were blown and bells chimed, and borne it slowly towards the Ganga, where Swami Sivanandaji's holy form was ceremoniously bathed. Continuously reciting holy mantras, they carried Swamiji's body into the ashram on Vishwanath Mandir Hill, and placed it tenderly in the samadhi shrine, its final resting place.
Many of the younger disciples, encouraged by the words of Swami Chidananda, were now quietly speaking amongst themselves, commenting on these events. After a few minutes, one of them turned again to Swami Chidananda and said, 'Swamiji, many of us have only lived in the ashram for a short time and although we have seen the kindness and divinity in Swamiji with our own eyes, we know nothing of his earlier life, of his childhood, of the path he took to renunciation and the beginning of the ashram where we are now. Please, if you can, tell us something about our Master.'
Swami Chidananda smiled lovingly at the eager faces turned beseechingly towards him. 'With pleasure' he replied,' to speak of our Guru, is, for me, always the greatest of honours.' And settling himself more comfortably, he began to speak.
'Swamiji's birth and childhood were simply the preparation for the role he was to fulfil in later life. But he himself often spoke to me of those early days and so I can give you some idea of how his greatness gradually came to manifest itself. He was born on the 8th September 1887 in the early hours of the morning in a village called Pattamadai on the banks of the river Tamraparni in South India. His father, Vengu Iyer, was a devotee of Shiva and descended from an erudite saint-scholar, Appaya Dikshitar, and his mother was a village woman. Both were simple, devout and religious, and rejoiced greatly at the birth of their third son, naming him Kuppuswami. Having many good omens before his birth, they even believed he was a reincarnation of Appaya Dikshitar, who, as a Shaivaite, had entered a Vaishnava temple and changed the murti of Venkateswara into the form of a sivalinga and then back again. This prophecy was later to be fulfilled when Swami Sivananda, ignoring the differences between all creeds and sects, also proclaimed the oneness of God.
'Love for God was inborn in little Kuppu. He delighted in fetching leaves and flowers for his father's Shiva puja, in listening raptly to his chanting of vedic mantras and hymns, and in accompanying his mother daily to the temple. It was not long before he too was participating in prayers and kirtan with, I suspect, all the enthusiasm of an adult man.
'I have heard tell that even from these very early days, Kuppuswami rejoiced in giving. He used to pity the poor, distributing food generously to servants and beggars whenever he could. Animals showed no fear of him and would eat peacefully from his hands. On one particular festive occasion, Kuppuswami was wearing new clothes, but spotting a naked beggar outside, he immediately stripped and gave away his new dhoti, responding to his mother's protest with the words, 'But he is so happy with it, Amma. See how proudly he wears it, and he needs it far more than I do.'
'Indeed, Kuppuswami's mother was often to be found wringing her hands with worry over her small child. For Kuppuswami's love of adventure would often draw him into early morning expeditions. On one occasion, when he walked twelve miles away from home to the temple at Kazhugumalai, she waited anxiously for three days, longing for his return. But it was only on the evening of the fourth day that he reappeared, hungry and exhausted, but happy and shining with devotion.' Swami Chidananda paused, lost in memories of his master. 'Please,' prompted the young disciple, 'go on. Tell us about his studies - did his love of adventure also lead him to miss school?'
Chidananda, roused from his reverie, shook his head. 'Oh no,' he answered, 'at school Kuppuswami put the same energy and enthusiasm into his studies as he did into loving others. And, as you all know, for him studies included a sound training in gymnastics and sports. He used to rise from bed as early as 3.00 a.m. and slip off to the gymnasium where he would engage himself in vigorous exercises. But before leaving the house, he would place a pillow on his bed and cover it up with a blanket to give the appearance of his innocent self sleeping soundly!' The disciples laughed, recognising in this tale, the mischievous quality which they had known and loved in Swami Sivananda.
'While fellow students were dreaming of degree courses in the arts and sciences, hoping to make their mark on the world,' continued Chidananda, 'Kuppuswami rejected such dreams of moving the world, professing instead that it is our hearts which should be moved at the sight of the suffering in this world. He decided to do medicine and to try his best to reduce the sufferings of his fellow man. And so, despite some opposition from his parents, Kuppuswami joined the Tanjore Medical College and began his studies with intense interest and zeal. Throughout his time there, his imposing figure would often be seen in the corner of the operating theatre, or bent over his books during the recess, even in the holidays, when the other students went home to relax and enjoy themselves.
'I believe that it was during this period that he had an encounter which was to remove the veil of caste distinction from his life once and for all. He had started learning fencing from an untouchable teacher and during one lesson was rebuked by a Brahmin onlooker, 'Oh Kuppu, how can you, a caste Brahmin, become a student of an untouchable?' On returning home, Kuppuswami pondered deeply over what the Brahmin had said. As he was immersed in meditation, the image of Lord Shiva, which he used to worship in his father's puja room, appeared majestically before him, and entered into the heart of the untouchable. At once Kuppuswami went with some flowers, sweets and clothes, garlanded the untouchable, placed flowers at his feet and fell prostrate before him. Thus did God come into Kuppuswami's early life to demonstrate the inequities of caste distinction, and later allowing him, as a doctor, to treat the sick all alike, both the Brahmin and the untouchable.'
Again Chidananda paused, a little breathless as the effort of speaking for so long had overcome him. 'Please,' he said, turning to Swami Krishnananda, who sat to his right listening intently to his friend's words, 'you tell the story of Malaya. You know of his work there. Tell these young sannyasins of Swamiji's work and his selfless actions in those difficult circumstances.' Krishnananda nodded in acquiescence and willingly took over the story.