Living with Swami Sivananda

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Swami Sivananda was born in the district of Tirunavalli in South India on September 8, 1887. He was the descendent of a famous saint and scholar in India, Appaya Dixit, who was a siddha and bhakta as well. In 1923, Swami Sivananda resigned from his job in Malaysia, then known as the Federal States of Malaya where he was a practising doctor on a plantation. He came to Rishikesh in India and was initiated by Swami Vishwananda, a sannyasin who belonged to the tradition of Sringeri Math.

Thereafter, Swami Sivananda performed several austerities. He practised a synthesis of karma, bhakti, raja and jnana yoga. He tried all the great methods, but found that bhakti yoga, surrender, was the best for self-realization. By the repetition of name, mantra, by total surrender to God, by unflinching faith in the cosmic being, in the ishta devata, we can attain the deepest and highest experience, whatever we may call it: nirvana, moksha, samadhi or darshan.

In 1942, when I left my home, I went to Rajasthan in western India where I lived with the tantric guru of my adopted sister for some time. He was a master, but I understood that my guru was elsewhere. So I left his place and again wandered for some time. Eventually, I came to Rishikesh. I do not know how I came to Rishikesh. At a certain period of my wandering – I am not aware of it – I was led. In Rishikesh, Swami Vishnudevananada of Kailash Ashram directed me to Swami Sivananda.

This was in 1943. Swami Sivananda did not have a sprawling ashram of Divine Life Society then; there were a few kutiyas here and there, that was all. It was all wilderness, amid scorpions, serpents and much worse, the tormenting mosquitoes. But it was beautiful; the ashram was located on the banks of the Ganga and beyond, one could see the Himalayan mountain ranges.

Communion in silence

When I came to the ashram, I did not at first see Swami Sivananda. One of the swamis who was then the vice president of Divine Life Society, Swami Narain, met me and made me sit in a hall for some time. I felt nice. Then he took me to the temple, Vishwanath Mandir. Puja was going on and prasad, khichadi, was being distributed. I have never tasted anything so wonderful ever since. No pizza, spaghetti, puri-halwa or kheer can compare with the khichadi I had on that day. That was the first experience.

Then I was led to Swami Sivananda and he told me just one thing. I said to him, “I have been practising dhyana, meditation, for many years and I am able to forget myself. I am able to transcend my individual consciousness, but I am not able to experience anything inside. Nor do I know what to do, where to go and what to try. I go in, I sleep, and finish. I cannot get beyond that because my individual consciousness gets dissolved completely. Shoonya.” He replied, “You stay here in the ashram and do selfless service.” And that was a very comforting sentence. Swamiji did not ask me to do any japa or meditation, but his words gave me such peace of mind that on that beautiful day of 19 March, 1943, my intellect suspended. All the books that I had read, almost a library, had confused me. Apart from meditation, philosophically, I was totally confused. However, the moment I was with Swamiji, all my questions ceased.

There is a beautiful sloka that I often reiterate. “Under the shade of the banyan tree, the old guru and the young disciple are seated. The guru is not saying anything, but the questions and doubts of the disciple are getting cleared one by one.” That happened to me. The questions ceased. The intellect eased.

So, I started working with Swami Sivananda. He used to remain in his kutiya. He would not come to the ashram for anything except to give darshan. He would come for two hours in the morning, one hour in the afternoon and one hour in the evening. We could see him for only four hours. He would remain locked in his kutiya and only one swami stayed with him. Even if disciples had some work, they would not be able to go in. Even if someone burnt the ashram down, it was always two and one and one hour. There is an incident about how this rule came about.

Swamiji runs away

Swami Sivananda was primarily a seeker, a sincere aspirant. When he came to Rishikesh, he settled on the right bank of the Ganga. Some young boys lived with him and they became sannyasins. One of them, who was once manager of a circus, began performing a circus at the ashram too. He started making programs and buildings, registering the society, income tax and so on. One day Swamiji asked him, “What are you doing?” He said, “Swamiji, we are serving you.” Swamiji thought, “Okay, let these guys do all this.” However, things became a bit too much.

Every day they would say to him, “Swamiji, today this guest has come and you have to see him.” He would say, “I’m not going to see him.” They would insist, “No, no, he has come from Delhi and he is from the ICS.” Swamiji would say, “ICS or IPC, for me they are ice-cream sellers and potato choppers.” However, he would still give way when bothered much by the disciples.

One day, Swami Sivananda packed his bags and left the ashram. He just left the ashram. He got out of his kutiya, he had no money, he took only his dhoti and copies of the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana – he loved the Gita – and left. He went on foot to Rishikesh: two miles, to Haridwar: fifteen miles, to Jalpur: six miles. There, he spent the night in a cowshed. In the morning, the owner, a Punjabi gentleman, came to milk his cows and saw a brilliant swami there.

Swamiji had a very tall frame and his arms would reach below his knees. He was ajanubahu. In the Hindu tradition, Rama is known as ajanubahu. The milkman prostrated before him and brought him bajre ki roti, milk and ghee, and wanted to know who he was. Swami Sivananda did not reveal his identity. He said, “I am a sadhu, I am going on teertha, pilgrimage.” But it was so difficult for Swamiji to speak a lie. After some time he told him, “No, I am from Rishikesh.” You see, he was like a child who tells a phone caller, “My papa says that he is not at home.” That was the kind of man he was. If he told a lie, you could pick it up at once. If we tell lies you can never catch us, we are so sharp, and that is why we suffer. We are so complicated. So he said, “No, I am not a teertha yatri, pilgrim, I am from Rishikesh, my ashram is this.”

The man realized that the swami was running away from his ashram. He sent his son to inform the disciples that their Guruji was here. All the swamis came and prostrated at Swami Sivananda’s feet and requested him to come back. He said, “You give me one promise. You will not bother me except during the hours I give you, and during these hours if I say keep quiet, you will not bother me.” The swamis agreed. So Swamiji was brought back to the ashram and rules were framed that for two hours he would give darshan to aspirants, one hour would be for mantra or sannyasa diksha, and for one hour in the evening he would come and sign the books and have satsang. Throughout his life, he never missed the one-hour kirtan in the evening. He used to call it satsang. Sometimes even the swamis in the ashram did not come, sometimes there would be just four attendees, or three, two, sometimes one. I remember once only he and I were there, but he still attended.

Swamiji was very regular about these four hours, otherwise no one could go to his kutiya to tell him anything. If anyone ever said to him that this or that swami was bad or good, he would say, “Be above raga and dwesha, be above jealousy, hatred and love. Just be calm and quiet.”

Benevolence of Siva

Swamiji had sterling qualities, he was a great man, a good man. His attitude to people was selfless, honest, full of love, charity and compassion. He would never offend even a cat. Never in my twelve years with him did I hear him say, “Ay! No!” Calm, peaceful, loving, sweet, no sarcasm, no intellect, nothing – that’s how he was. He treated even his disciples with respect. He never called me ‘Satyananda’; he always addressed me as “Swami Satyananda Maharaj, Namo Narayana.” He would greet everybody, and once a year he would gather all the sweepers, the scavengers of society, call them to the ashram and wash their feet. You know how difficult it is for an arrogant Hindu, a self-deluded Hindu, to wash the feet of a sweeper? But Swamiji would do it and make the other swamis do the same. Then he would give the sweepers shawls, dhoti and blankets, halwa and puri, and do namaskara before sending them off.

Swamiji used to say that one has to renounce the ego first, only then can realization come. Meditation, yoga and bhakti are good, but what is their use after all? If you bring beautiful flowers and nice furniture to your house, but you do not have the eyes to see them, what is their use to you? You have to first get rid of your cataract. How can you realize the highest being unless the ego is eliminated? For this, one has to renounce abhimaan, pride. “I am a great swami,” that is abhimaan. “I am a holy man,” that is abhimaan. “I am the son of the prime minister,” that is abhimaan. Even a debauched person, a drunkard and gambler has abhimaan. That is the centre of his personality, that is from where he operates. Abhimaan has to go if one wants to make oneself infinite. For this purpose, Swamiji led all his disciples into karma yoga and guided them from time to time.

Egodectomy and grace

When I started living ashram life, I realized how difficult karma yoga is. Selfless service is worse than a donkey’s work. It was very painful, it brought many samskaras out. All the good opinions that I had about myself were completely thwarted. I thought I was a good man, but I realized that I was a very angry man. I thought I was a pure man, but I realized I was a hopeless man. I thought I was a strong man and I realized I was weak. I thought that I was not greedy, because I was brought up in a good family that had plenty to eat, but I realized how greedy I was when I saw someone drinking tea that I did not get. These karmas and samskaras came out within the range of my awareness.

I had many experiences with Swamiji on ego removal. I will give just one example. There was a servant boy in the ashram from Garhwal who was a very arrogant young man. The rule in the ashram was that every resident and guest had to take their plate to the Ganga to wash it. One day, an old swami put his plate down in the kitchen. I told him, “Just leave it, I will have it washed.” He was old and I knew it would be hard for him to go down to the Ganga.

The servant boy was washing other big utensils. He got angry, “No plate here. Throw it away.” He threw it away and I told him, “Get out, leave the ashram.” That’s my nature. I did not consider that he too was a human being, I just considered my own reaction. I was a strong man in the ashram and when I said ‘leave the ashram’, he had to leave the ashram. But somebody said to him, “Meet Bare Swamiji (Swami Sivananda) and request him to let you stay.”

So, in the evening when Swamiji came out, the boy touched his feet and said, “Swamiji I am going away.” Swamiji asked, “Why?” He said, “Swami Satyananda has ordered me to leave the ashram.” Swamiji did not call me to find out what had happened, he understood everything because Swamiji was a very shrewd man, very intelligent man. He instead took the boy to his personal kitchen and kept him there.

That felt like a big insult to me, a direct insult given to me by my guru. He was keeping this fellow for his personal service when I had chucked him out! And I had to go there every day and meet this fellow at the gate – Swamiji’s gate – it was so insulting. I became very disturbed. All the yoga that I had been talking about, that I go to the superconscious and the unconscious, etc., was destroyed. All the mental frames were in disarray, all the emotions were in confusion. All the philosophies I had been talking about, all the things I had maintained in my mind, were in confusion. I thought, ‘I’ll leave the ashram and go away.’

Look, just a little insult, and from the guru, and we want to leave the ashram and go away! If we cannot observe and understand even the insulting behaviour of our guru, then what are we there for? And why do we say he is our guru? We may as well tell him, “I am your worker, please behave better with me from today. Instead of money, you give me food. I would like to serve your institution, but I am not your disciple and you are not my guru.” On one hand we say, “You are my guru, you are my life, you are my prana, you are everything”, but once he gives an acid test, we fail. However, I didn’t remember all this, I made so many plans, I did not sleep the whole night. I was no less than joint secretary of the ashram, I had almost all the keys, the entire cash, and I thought that his insult meant my death.

The next morning, I had to come down. I hesitated to go to Swamiji’s kutir. It is psychological. I thought, ‘Here I threw him out and now he will stand there and mock me.’ It was going to be an unspoken war between him and me, and I couldn’t understand it. Now I understand because I am out of the picture. My disciples don’t understand because they are not out of the picture.

When I went towards Swamiji’s kutir, however, Swamiji was at the gate and not the servant. He opened the gate and said, “Namo Narayana.” I said, “Oh yes, you know what’s happening to my mind.” He took me inside and saw the papers, whatever I had to show. He did not say anything except, “You liked that I opened the door for you.” And I went into an ecstatic fit.

I said, “You have to open the door, otherwise who will do it?” I gave him a bit of my mind, that I did not want the servant to open the door, and after all, he was the guru. Guru has to open the door, the door that leads towards light. He meant more than what he said and I also meant more than what I said. That was all. Then we went in and everything was all right.

Coloured in geru

In 1946, I was tired physically. I had fallen sick several times and was reduced to a skeleton. I thought I would leave the ashram. After all, if I had to work hard, I could do it at my home, too. That was maya trapping me and giving me the best of arguments.

I wrote to one of my friends in Lahore who arranged my appointment as sub-editor at The Tribune. He sent me money and I got myself a coat, pants and tie. This foolish swami! When everything was prepared, I went to Swami Sivananda and said to him, “I am going.” He said, “What for?” I gave some reply, I don’t remember exactly what. He said, “Okay, on 8th September my diamond jubilee is being celebrated. Stay until then. After that you can go. Two more months.”

I did not know that he was trying to surround me from all sides, so I stayed on. Finally, his birthday was over. On the 9th and 10th all visitors left. On the 11th, he called me and said, “You are coming tomorrow morning to take sannyasa.” Bolt from the blue! I did not know what to say. He said, “Tomorrow morning at seven you are going to take sannyasa and throw away all your attachments, commitments and obligations to the lower realm of life.” He again arrested my mind, and I said, “All right.”

I forgot all about The Tribune. I forgot everything. My mind was blank. I did not sleep the whole night. I was repeating my mantra, which at that time was the Gayatri. I was very eager, waiting anxiously for the morning to come. It was a very long night for me. But as I was waiting and waiting, something shifted in my mind. At seven o’clock I went there, Swamiji called a barber and shaved my head. I was already shaved, but I had a little, you know, ego. He cut it off, gave me a kaupin and dhoti, and took away my janayu, the sacred thread.

He said, “In this life, beyond life, after life, whether you are in a toddy shop or among prostitutes, never give up geru.” That’s one sankalpa he gave to me, one order that he gave to me. He said, “It does not matter what you do. Geru is your skin now.” That is why I love geru so much. This is the only ashram where swamis wear real geru. At other places they wear synthetic colours: orange, red and so on. In this ashram, we stick to geru.

“Follow your destiny”

From 1953 to 1955, Swamiji allowed me to stop working in the ashram and study. He felt that the ashram was no longer the right place of expression for me. There I had to express within a framework so the expressions could not be original. He knew that I had originality of philosophy, way of working and living. In those three years I delved deeply in the shastras, from the Rig Veda to the books of Gandhi. I studied every religion in Sanskrit, Hindi and English. He sent me for one year to Gujarat and Saurashtra, and took me along with him on a three-month all-India tour so I could have an idea of people.

In 1956 I was not keeping well. One day, I was resting in my room and received a message from Swamiji to come down to him. When I went, he told me just one thing. “The ashram is small for you, and your destiny is an important thing.” He said, “There is something which people don’t know and we don’t really teach because people are not yet ready. They only want a little bit of asana and pranayama. Most people are afraid of yoga; therefore, I don’t teach much to them.” He taught me kriya yoga. It hardly took five minutes because I already knew it. He gave me a hundred and eight rupees and said, “Take whatever you like from the ashram, but it is better to go with minimum things.” So, on 19th March, the day I had arrived, I left the ashram.

I roamed all over the country. At that time I was completely averse to institutions. I did not want to have anything to do with ashrams, disciples or money. I just wandered, leading the life of a mendicant, a beggar. You see the beggars sitting on the railway station? Your father might have seen me sitting somewhere like that! I just wanted to be independent. If I wanted to smoke, nobody should say, “Why do sadhus smoke?” I mind my business, you mind yours. I lived like that for a few years.

Eventually I came to Munger and that, I think, was the beginning of an era. The place was very nice. On 13th July, 1963, I had an inner awakening. I got a message, and that’s how things started.

Ganga Darshan, October 16, 1982