Swami Sivananda's life was dedicated to the service of others right from his very childhood. If his mother gave him a cake or a sweetmeat, he would at once rush to find a friend or two to share the delicacy. He rejoiced in giving, eatables especially. He distributed snacks to servants, whey to cats and dogs, crows and sparrows. Sometimes he took beggars into the house and fed them. Sadhus and sannyasins claimed his special attention. He took the greatest pleasure in serving them.
From an early age his heart was set on serving the sick and before he set out for Malaya where he was to take up his post as a doctor his friends gave him a farewell party. On this occasion he is reported to have said to one of his friends, "Book knowledge will not take us far I studied anatomy. I dissected the human body but I could not find the atma within", ''The atma can be seen only when the ego is destroyed", interjected the friend. To this he replied, "True, and selfless service is the most potent weapon to thin out the ego. Every day I will do some charitable act. Side by side I shall think of God with a yearning heart".
Doctors were many in Malaya but few were sympathetic to their patients and generally they ran after rich clients, but Kuppuswami as he was then called, sought out the poor sick who needed his service the most. While other doctors charged fees for a mere consultation, he gave pocket money to his patients to cover their immediate expenses on discharge from hospital. He helped whoever needed his service and extended not merely medical service but service of every sort. When he went out, Kuppuswami always carried small change in his pocket. He distributed them to the poor along the way and this gave him great joy and peace. No beggar could pass his house without receiving money or meals. The doctor would often take a beggar inside, feed him nicely as he would welcome a guest and when the hungry man had finished eating, he would stand by his side and pour water for him to wash his hands.
Service to humanity, the study of spiritual literature, association with saintly souls and devotional practices at home - all these brought about a gradual metamorphosis in the doctor's outlook on life in general. They purified his heart and turned his mind inward. All around him he found people distressed, physically and mentally. His heart bled for the poor, the sick and the suffering. Seeing so many die of malaria he began to search for the answer to the questions, "What is death? Who was it or what was it that really died?'' So service and sadhana began to go hand in hand with him as he began the practices of Anahat Laya Yoga and Swara Yoga.
Before long he decided to leave his worldly life and set out in search of the Truth. On arrival at Poona he gave away in charity the small change he was left with, thus laying himself completely at the mercy of higher forces. He resigned himself totally into His care and turned into a parivrajaka, a wandering mendicant. Everywhere he went he served people. Service was his nature and it was this ingrained spirit of service which enabled him to lead a smooth life of peace wherever he went.
After he became a sannyasin in Rishikesh he wanted to abstain from worldly activity of every sort, but soon found he was powerless to resist the temptation to go to the bedside of sick mahatmas in the neighbourhood. After initiation the spirit of service burned brighter than ever before. Once again he began busying himself with the service of the sick-massaging the legs of a lumbago patient, washing the clothes of a convalescent, fetching food from the almshouse for an ailing monk or bringing medicine from the dispensary for a sufferer.
Swami Sivananda eagerly sought opportunities for service although he was plunging deeper and deeper into his sadhana. He would wait for the time when the other sadhus in Swargashram were away from their cells, at toilet or bath, then he would enter, sweep and wipe the floor, dust the shoes, wash the water-pot and refill it with fresh water, and come away silently. His selflessness and sacrifice knew no limits.
Somewhere around 1930 he was gripped by a burning desire to serve the world. Driven by this desire he came out of his seclusion, entered the cities and mingled with the people. There was a sparkle in his eyes and a fire in his speech. When and where he had attained his illumination no one knew. After this he moved to the right bank of the Ganges with four disciples and there his life of service took on an unparalleled dynamism:
"I never dreamt that He would ordain matters thus. I left my all cutting off ties finally, with a hazy idea of spending all my life in a quiet spot, absorbed in repeating the sweet name of Rama. But now, look, God has given me a 'family' which so dotes on me that, whether I want it or not, it will have me for itself Who knows? Perhaps I am born for it. As long as anyone continues to derive one iota of benefit from this self I am happy to be entirely his''.