Swami Sivananda used to say that just as there is an education system from kindergarten to university, similarly there is a schooling system in spiritual life. God exists, so you have to think about Him. You have to meditate and pray. You have to purify your heart. I asked, "But how?" He said that the kindergarten of spiritual life is service. What comes next? Loving others. Then the next class is "Give, give and give." Don't say, "You give to me," say, "I give to you." This is primary spiritual schooling - serve, love and give. This elementary class of spiritual life will prove very useful.
After this, Swami Sivananda said that we should purify the self: purify the mind, heart, intentions and actions. Practise ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), brahmacharya (sensual restraint), aparigraha (non-possessiveness), tapas (austerity), asteya (honesty), shaucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment) and so on. Purification means that just as you clean your dirty clothes by putting them in detergent, so you put your heart in detergent. Soak it in detergent and clean it. How? Swami Sivananda said, "Suffering and pain is the crucible into which nature throws a man whenever she wants to make him a sublime superman." You have to accept pain and suffering. Don't be afraid of pain. Don't depend on the things of worldly life. Riches will not go with you! What did Jesus say? "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." I don't mean that you shouldn't become rich, but you should not depend on wealth as your security in life. Security in life is purification.
After purification, Swami Sivananda spoke of meditation. He said that meditation is like going to college, it is higher education. In meditation or prayer you enter a state of shanti, peace or tranquillity, where you become one with God. There is only God in front of you, whether in the form of Rama, Christ, Guru or Govinda. Finally comes realization.
So, serve, love and give are elementary education. Purify is intermediate education and meditation is college education. Realization is postgraduate education. This is the curriculum of spiritual schooling. Swami Sivananda gave me the mantra: serve, love, give, purify, meditate, realize, be good, do good, be kind, be compassionate, bear insult, bear injury. This is very difficult, but it is the highest sadhana!
Swami Sivananda's fundamental philosophy of life was social service, human service, seva. He used to place singing God's name at the top of the priority list. Meditation was at the end of his list, a long way off. Whereas you start your spiritual life with meditation, Swami Sivananda's spiritual life started with service and culminated in meditation. The beginning of spiritual life stems from service to humanity.
In Rishikesh, I had ample scope and opportunities for seva. Swami Sivananda used to call in the sweepers and scavengers, wash their feet and feed them. My response to that was negative. I found it useless and irrelevant for spiritual evolution. However, being his disciple I did render service. I cleaned, cooked and fed the scavengers, but my heart was not in it. There were many lepers in Rishikesh lined up along the roads and pathways. Once Swamiji thought of settling these lepers in proper housing. He was given some land by Tehri Maharaj on which he had some houses built for the lepers. He gave each one a goat. He also gave them bundles of bidis and told them not to go begging in the streets.
I was given the duty of going amidst the lepers and the sick to read and teach them the Ramacharitamanas and Ramayana, but my heart was not in the work. I used to accompany the doctors and distribute drugs and medicines among the lepers. I performed all the duties but not from my heart. However, when God inspires you to do seva, you take it as His blessing. The work and seva that are being carried out here now in Rikhia are not discharged as social service, but in compliance with God's will, in obedience to His command.
Swami Sivananda's life was an example of compassion, charity and generosity. He was simple, devout, kind and compassionate. His life was very different from most of the sannyasins I have come across. His heart was very large. He was happiest when he was feeding and giving to people. His philosophy in life was that God is real and everything else is unreal. He was a very generous and large-hearted man; his heart was completely open, without any doors or windows. He was not at all interested in accumulating wealth. He would say, "Spend more than you have. Feed the poor. Give them medicine. Give blankets to the pilgrims. Make arrangements for drinking water during the summer and extend all possible help to the sadhus and sannyasins."
Swami Sivananda always used to think about others. Whenever he met people, he did not give spiritual lessons. He would always say nice things and he would give them clothes, food and medicine for their sickness and disease. He could remember the names of each one of his acquaintances from thirty-five to forty years back. If a man had become old, he would then ask, "How is your grandson? He was in the eighth class. Where is he now? What is he doing? He had a mole here. Is the mole still there?" You should know about the man whom you love. If I love you, I should know everything about you, especially your difficulties, problems, ambitions and desires. If I know nothing about you, if I don't want to know anything about you, then I can't care for you.
Love is very difficult because you don't know how to love; you don't know the ABC of love. Love is not being emotional and passionate. There is a clear-cut distinction between love and emotion. Love is an expression of purity that manifests when you become very strong within your own heart. That is why the saints have always emphasized love. Love is the feeling of oneness with others, feeling for others as you feel for yourself, to be able to feel the difficulty of another person as you feel your own.
You prepare yourself for love by little acts of kindness. The elementary training in love, the ABC of love, is little acts of kindness. What are little acts of kindness? Swami Sivananda used to say that if you can bear insult and injury, you are a very strong person. Swami Sivananda was not a miserly man. Whenever anyone came to ask him for something he would say, "Go on, give it to him." Once he completely cleaned out the whole ashram. We had no blankets because he had given them all away. The first thing he used to say was, "Namo Narayana, are you all right? Do you like chocolate?" The reply would come, "Yes Swamiji, I do like it." So he would say, "Okay Swami Satyananda, give him some chocolate." Then to another he would say, "Oh Buddhiji, how are you? I have a shirt for you."
True love is the expression of your inner self in the language of purity and effulgence of heart. What Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Zoroaster and other saints and sages have said about love is not easy to practise. The most difficult thing is to love your neighbour. You may have experienced your neighbour as your worst enemy. However, the saints were such strong people. They did not say, "Love thy distant neighbour," they said, "Love thy neighbour," because they knew that he is the one who always creates problems for you in your neighbourhood, fighting with you and consulting a lawyer over every little matter.
Love requires a lot of sacrifices: your comforts, your idiosyncrasies, your ego, your money, your life, everything. In love there is just giving, not taking. Love is an act of giving and giving and giving. In love, duality is fused into unity, two become one. When mankind learns how to love and serve one another, to be kind and tolerant to one another, to help one another and to share the problems, worries and ideas of others, then your family, your society and the world will be a better place to live in.
In everything he did throughout his life, Swami Sivananda maintained only one attitude - do good to everybody. His every action, whatever he did, the way he lived, was in itself a commentary on the great truths of yoga, Vedanta and tantra. Of course, he was my guru so I cannot compare him with other great saints, but I felt that he was unique because, although he lived on the higher plane of consciousness, he operated very efficiently on the normal plane of consciousness at the same time. Swami Sivananda was the humblest of the humble, the kindest of the kind, the warmest of the warm, the greatest among the great, and today his effulgence permeates and kindles the hearts of millions around the world.