Swami Sivananda As He Was

Swami Chidananda Saraswati (The Divine Life Society, Rishikesh) Courtesy Divine Life, September 1976

The saints and seers are like ornaments adorning the divine. By their very lives, they glorify divinity. Eager throngs crowd round for a glimpse as they would for a display of precious jewels. They all behold the person. Yet, how many really see? To those who have little time but to look and pass on, I shall attempt to present a picture of Swami Sivanandaji as he was.

A gentle and serene figure moving about familiarly among the residents and visitors at the ashram in Rishikesh, Swami Sivanandaji was a dignified yet simple man, going about his work in a spirit of absolute detachment and selflessness. However, a longer stay and closer contact with him would bring to life certain traits that were like precious gems in his gold-like, pure personality.

A most beautiful trait of this great man was the astounding gentleness that characterized his thought and conduct. His mind was so completely free from the least trace of crookedness and worldly wisdom that he had become like a child, and the simplicity of his actions reflected this at every step. A spontaneous artlessness would become apparent even within a short time in his presence that contrasted with the philosophic depth of his mind, making at times a disconcerting blend of the sage and the child. This inherent simplicity had the effect of endowing Swamiji with the peculiar quality of working himself into the hearts of the persons with whom he moved.

I found that he was quite incapable of keeping anything to himself, both with regard to outward possessions as well as any thought, idea or information. A disarming frankness and open-heartedness was perceived in him, which the careless could have judged as a want of the conventional ‘genteel tact’, which is in reality nothing short of socially licensed humbug.

With all the serene confidence that he had, there was no trace of a superiority complex in him. He felt everyone to be just like him and behaved with all with freedom and equality. Within a few minutes of talking, he made them feel perfectly at home. He would readily take suggestions from anyone, be it even a child, for he considered none as trivial, less important or of meagre understanding.

Another thing that stood out prominently was the supreme calmness that pervaded his entire being, like the silver serenity of a moonlit night. He had found his centre and ever lived in it. No flurry of emotions could ruffle it under any circumstances, so that at all times he was serenity personified. Even when something very disturbing or improper was done in his presence, Swamiji’s way of correcting or showing disapproval was to merely become silent and look grave. Then, if need be, he would quietly leave the place. Never would he utter any word in a loud tone indicative of anger or even annoyance. If a situation required a hard word, then the utmost he was capable of was a reprimand followed at once by a pleasant joke, like the pinch of sugar administered close upon a dose of medicine.

I have never known him to refuse a request. As a matter of fact, his nature was to note a person’s need even before it was expressed. And once a request was made, Swamiji could not rest till it was fulfilled. Moreover, it had to be done then and there. His urge to oblige did not brook any delay.

On occasions he was invited by devotees to do sankirtan when he was unwell, running a temperature that would keep any other man in bed. Ignoring the fever, Swamiji would at once go to do kirtan. Even when having an attack of diarrhoea due to the overstrain of a train journey and irregular food, he could not say no to a request for kirtan. The burning desire to see others pleased and profited, animated all his actions. You may call this recklessness, but though very careful as a rule about his health, Swamiji, when occasion required, would maintain that sacrifice is essential. All his actions therefore expressed his firm belief in the doctrine of ‘living for others’.

He had cultivated to a most astonishing degree that rare quality of seeing only the good and the pleasant in all people and things. With deliberate diligence and perseverance, he reduced almost to zero the mind’s receptivity to defects and deficiencies in others. Thus it happened many times that people who stayed and worked for him were wanting in a dozen different ways and were positively incorrigible in certain respects. But the slightest trace of any virtue that they might happen to possess became sufficient for Swamiji to lay hold upon, and suffice to make him oblivious to the rest of the crookedness that might be there.

To understand what real tolerance and forbearance are, a person could not do better than observe the actual life of this saintly personality moving about in sublime serenity by the Ganga. Refusing to see even the faults of an extreme type, Swamiji would perceive magnified tenfold the least good in a being. A little talent, a little goodness, the least service done, was enough to send him into a transport of admiration. He would proclaim it enthusiastically to all, as though it were the most wonderful and admirable thing, the very acme of perfection. On a dozen different occasions, I have myself been the embarrassed victim of his bubbling admiration and commendation, feeling all too keenly how unworthy I was of it. I have simultaneously wondered at this truly great quality in him.

To those who moved about closely with him, observed him for some time, he revealed a beautiful trait that one might search far and wide, and yet fail to find. He instantly forgot wrong done to him, most serious offences even, yet cherished forever any trifling service rendered to him directly or indirectly. One can easily talk of ‘forgive and forget’. But how seldom it is that one happens across a personality that has made it a part of his very nature! I found this virtue in a state of highest development in this sage. There have been those who reviled, others who openly abused, some that tried their worst to undo the good work carried out by him. Yet, to every one of these persons, Swamiji’s reaction was one of sweet and gentle friendliness, even at the very moment of their misdeeds.

We hear of how while at Swargashram he made it his special objective to cultivate this attitude of ready forgiveness and instantaneous ‘forgetting’. He went out of his way to do service to certain of his neighbours who sought to harm him. He had singled out one malicious and violent ruffian in ochre robes for his special goodwill and attention with all his heart for a whole year. When a series of disturbances took place in the locality due to jealousy at Swamiji’s popularity, in spite of his influence, he chose to bear the persecutions without any attempt at retaliation. Later, during the illness of certain of his malefactors, he voluntarily nursed and attended upon them to their unbelieving surprise.