Encounters with Swami Sivananda

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

"Swami Sivananda lived life in all its completeness; at once a
great saint of the calibre of Christ; an administrator in the highest
position; a sannyasin with total detachment from life; a man
brimming over with compassion; a bhakta and devotee of God,
and side by side a philosopher of superior intellect; a man of
discipline and strictness, as well as loving kindness for every
sentient being and insentient being of God."

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Swami Sivananda entered my life very shortly after Sri Swamiji brought me to the old Sivananda Ashram in 1979. Sri Swamiji had told me to read the lives of the saints from the ashram library. In those days we only had about four to five thousand books which Sri Swamiji had been collecting since he left Rishikesh. It was not like the library we have today at Ganga Darshan, which presently houses thirty-five thousand volumes. Two books I remember had a deep influence on me. One was the life of Sai Baba of Shirdi whom I felt I had known from a past life, and the other was the biography of Swami Sivananda entitled From Man to Godman.

A living experience

This book had a very important impact on me. In fact, it continues to mould my life to this day. It is hard to believe that such a man as Swami Sivananda existed! After reading about his life of unparalleled service to mankind, and studying many pictures of Swami Sivananda, which were so joyful, all smiles and laughing eyes, I actually felt as if I had met him personally and directly. That I had found a dear friend and companion to help me along the spiritual path when the skies became overcast. I did not feel at all that I was reading about someone who was no longer with us, but that he was vibrantly alive within me, and all around me, that his spirit somehow jumped out of the written page and leapt into my heart, never to leave again. It was like falling in love on another dimension. If you want to meet him, and win a wonderful friend also, you should read the book From Man to Godman.

Since then, Swami Sivananda has been a living experience for me, weaving magically in and out of my life like a dream I can never quite recall. He suddenly appears and equally disappears like the flute-bearer of Vrindavan who suddenly hides himself in order that the gopis might thirst for him more eagerly. He comes rarely, and when he comes it seems that he is calling me, but I can't hear him with these physical ears. He is beckoning me to him, but I can't see him with these physical eyes. I don't know how to follow or in which direction to run, because I am not yet ready to follow. But one day, with his help I shall be ready!

The power of his words

While I was still living in Sivananda Ashram I read one of his books. What a power his words have! I had just come from the West and knew nothing whatsoever about Indian culture or philosophy, let alone Vedanta, so they hit me like thunderbolts packed with the power of truth as they were, waking me out of my ignorance like a punch in the jaw. Statements like, "An ounce of pleasure is equal to a ton of pain," "This world is of no more value than the faecal matter of a pig," shocked me out of my previous ways of thinking and seeing the world. Phrases such as, "I see the world as a ball of fire, a great furnace wherein man is being slowly roasted," and "Pain is a crucible into which Nature throws a man when she wants to make him into a divine superman," burnt themselves into my brain like red hot irons, and struck at my deluded mind like a whip.

The words which moved me most, however, and which captured Swami Sivananda firmly in my mind and heart were: "Even if I saw a worm struggling in faecal matter I would attempt to rescue it." That a man could have so much compassion even for the lowest of creatures amazed me. Even Christ did not make such a statement! So, it was no surprise for me to read what Sri Swamiji said about Swami Sivananda: "I have never met Christ but I have seen Swami Sivananda and therefore I believe that Christ must have existed."

As a westerner I had never come across the philosophy of Vedanta and to realize that the world was in fact no more than a dream frightened me. So, although I was compelled to believe every word Swami Sivananda wrote, I was not yet ready to have the imaginary support of my illusory world swept totally away at one fell swoop. So I put the book away for a later date, until I could digest it better. It was all too high and unattainable for me then.

Nevertheless, his words struck so deeply in my heart and mind that they vibrate there to this day. I now realize that without my conscious knowledge they have been slowly and steadily maturing inside me like a vintage wine, gradually transforming me from within over the years. Now, after many years I can digest them with ease, contemplate upon them with inspiration, and strive daily to make them a reality in my life. So many times I have tried to follow his teachings and so many times I fail, again and again, but I shall never give up trying to be that, and shall continue to hold Swami Sivananda constantly before me as the ideal I wish to attain in spiritual life.

Bliss divine

I would like to share a selection of my favourite teachings of Swami Sivananda's which have really inspired me and helped me to understand life better. They are from his book Bliss Divine*, which consists of a selection of short essays on a wide range of topics, such as anger, creation, dream, health, science, reincarnation, love, yoga, mind, etc.

Anger: "The fire (of anger) you kindle for your enemy burns yourself. Anger acts as a boomerang, because it injures the man who becomes angry. It comes back to the angry man and does harm to him. Anger is a sign of mental weakness, and ends in repentance or remorse. If you can control anger, you will have limitless energy in your reserve. Anger, when controlled, will be transmuted into a spiritual power which can move the whole world."

Charity: "In sharing there is peace and joy. Sharing generates cosmic love and destroys greed. Sharing removes selfishness and creates selflessness. Sharing purifies the heart and develops oneness. Share with others whatever you possess, physical, mental or spiritual. This is a real yajna. You will expand. You will experience oneness and the unity of life."

Death: "A man of discrimination and wisdom is not afraid of death. He knows that death is the gate of life. Death to him is no longer a skeleton bearing a sword to cut the thread of life, but an angel who has a golden key to unlock for him the door to a far wider, fuller and happier existence."

Fear: "Attachment to objects causes fear. Attachment to name and fame causes fear. Attachment to money and women causes fear. Any attachment is the womb of terrible fear. One who possesses fears."

Health: "There is an intimate connection between the mind and the body. Whatever you hold in your mind will be produced in the physical body. Any ill feeling or bitterness towards another person will at once affect the body and produce some kind of disease in the body. Intense passion, hatred, long-standing bitter jealousy, corroding anxiety, fits of hot temper actually destroy the cells of the body and induce diseases of the heart, liver, kidneys, spleen and stomach."

Life: "To live is to fight for an ideal. Life is a fight for fullness and perfection. Life is a battle for attaining supreme independence. Life is struggle and resistance. Life is a series of conquests. Man evolves, grows, expands and gains various experiences through struggle. Life and society cannot exist without struggle."

Karma: "Destiny is your own creation. You have created your destiny through your own thoughts and actions. You can undo the same by right thinking and right action."

Service: "Hold your life for the service of others. The more energy you spend in elevating and serving others, the more the divine energy will flow to you. Serve, you will rule. Serve humanity with divine bhava. The cancer of individuality will be dissolved."

"In the light of karma yoga all actions are sacred. That aspirant who always takes immense delight in doing works which are considered by the worldly person as menial services, and who always does willingly such acts, will become a dynamic yogi. He will be absolutely free from conceit and egoism. He will have no downfall. The canker of pride cannot touch him."

Thought: "Man is created by thought. What a man thinks, upon that he becomes. Think you are strong; strong you become. Think you are weak; weak you become. Think you are a fool; a fool you become. Think you are God; God you become. A man forms his own character, becoming that which he thinks. If you meditate on courage, you will work courage into your character. So it is with purity, patience, unselfishness and self-control. If you think nobly, you will gradually make for yourself a noble character, but if you think basely a base character will be formed. You can build your character as surely as a mason can build a wall, working through the law."

Sadhana: "Spiritual progress is slow as spiritual sadhana is difficult and laborious. It is like a spiral. In the beginning great striving is needed. Gradually the circle becomes smaller and the striving becomes less and less. The aspirant gains spiritual strength slowly. He marches faster and faster. Finally he does not go by furlong after furlong. He proceeds by mile after mile. He gallops and gallops. Therefore, be patient, be persevering, be steady."

First encounter

We moved up from Sivananda Ashram to Ganga Darshan in the early eighties. I used to look forward to doing my sadhana in the evening overlooking the Ganga, which Swami Sivananda loved so much. Sri Swamiji has said that to think of Swami Sivananda is yoga, and at that particular time I was thinking a lot about him. Evening was my favourite time of day and on that particular day I was anxious to be alone with his presence and start my chanting and japa, but just them someone came into my room who only wanted to gossip and chitchat idly.

The gossip was on the sordid side and I strongly wanted that presence to be removed from my room. Spontaneously, without thinking I found myself mentally calling out "Sivananda!" with full concentration. Instantaneously, my call was answered and I was encircled by a vortex of mysterious energy. A strange power I had not experienced before entered the room and the hairs of my body stood on end.

I don't know what the trespasser in my room saw, but they were visibly shocked and retreated silently from the room wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

They were driven from the room by that force. I didn't have to say anything at all. However, the fact that the protective power of one who had left the body so many years ago could appear with such lightning speed to protect me quite frightened me. I had not expected the call would be answered and I had not even been in any serious danger; I had just wanted a pure atmosphere in which to do my sadhana.

Later, my rational mind concluded that it must have been Sri Swamiji acting on his guru's behalf. But part of me felt sure that somewhere out there in the cosmos I had a very valuable friend who would always come to my aid when sincerely called upon. Besides, this was not the last encounter I was to have with Swami Sivananda.

Please help me, I'm falling

It is said that when God is angry with you, you don't have to worry because the guru will save you, but if the guru is angry with you then no one and nothing can help you. But I believed in those early days, when we lived with Sri Swamiji that even if Sri Swamiji became angry with me Swami Sivananda would always be there to help. At that time Sri Swamiji never became angry with me, but still I had the unique feeling of being saved by Swami Sivananda. It happened in this way.

One night after a hard day's mental and physical work I lay down to sleep as usual. It never took me very long to sleep in those days, but this time as soon as I became horizontal I had a very scary experience. Instead of feeling the firm support of the bed underneath me I had the sensation of falling down and down in endless space. It was so awful that I had to get up immediately. I walked and walked on the roof of Shakti Vihar to make myself even more tired, but every time I became horizontal again I found myself hurtling down through space. There was nothing else to do but remain perpendicular all night.

The next day, having had no sleep, I was exhausted, and by evening I felt sure that now I would sleep. But no, as soon as I lay down the same experience occurred again. Another perpendicularly sleepless night was passed. More pacing up and down the roof, more hurtling through space. On the third day I was so strung out that I could not work but I could not get sleep either, because I was too frightened to lie down for even a second.

After the third night of unsuccessful space travel I was on the point of despair and went to Sri Swamiji for help. He talked to me for some time and then laughed and tapped me on the head three times. Now, the problem must surely be solved, tonight I would sleep fearlessly, feeling the firmness of the bed beneath me. However, to my utter dismay, when I lay down the same thing happened all over again and I found myself endlessly falling and falling once more.

At that point I reached the point of despair because I was too exhausted to move, but at the same time I was also unable to face that experience. Then I called out in my mind, "Sivananda, have mercy on me!" and let go into his hands. As I surrendered and let myself fall, his vision appeared before my closed eyes. He was sitting cross-legged against a clear blue sky. His eyes were closed, he was singing kirtan with a full open heart and tears were streaming down his cheeks. I had surrendered to him in trust and he caught me as I fell. I slept peacefully that night, and I have done so ever since!

* Swami Sivananda, Bliss Divine, 1997, 5th edition, Divine Life Society, Rishikesh.