The Ever-present Essence

Swami Nishchalananda Saraswati, Director, Mandala Yoga Ashram, Wales

Sri Swami Satyananda died as he had lived his extraordinary life – in style. Ever since his childhood he sought to go beyond all limitations and self-definitions. He was a sadhu, a spiritual practitioner, until his last breath and it doesn’t surprise me that he returned Home whilst sitting in padmasana and doing japa.

He had an enormous impact on my life, as he did on the lives of thousands of others worldwide. Until I met him I was full of ignorance: I had no idea of the higher aims of yoga or that each of us as humans have the innate capacity to realize our fullest potential.

I first met Sri Swamiji in early 1971, in Belfast, when he came to Northern Ireland. I had already become friends with Swami Niranjan (we played football together) and Swami Atmananda (who then ran the Yoga Centre and bossed me around as a mother would a badly behaved child!). Inspired by what Sri Sri Swamiji said and by the people I met in the centre, I made plans to go to India to study further with him.

I arrived in Munger in early December 1971. I was immediately involved in all types of work, such as mending toilets, cleaning drains and general repair jobs around the ashram. Having previously given a lot of emphasis to intense, formal yogic training in hatha and kriya yoga, at that time Sri Swamiji was emphasizing karma yoga, which suited me perfectly. After some time, he encouraged me to write, which occupied my mind twenty-four hours a day. He even gave me two rooms, one for my work and the other for sadhana! This was totally unfair as everyone else had to squash up like sardines in a tin can.

Sri Swamiji shocked me into waking up from my sleep, again as he did for many others. Through his living example he showed us that it is possible to live in the world of daily affairs, yet remain in constant inner contact and identification with Consciousness. He was totally fearless and I’ve seen him confront situations head-on that most of us would run a mile from. Living with him, one was forced to confront complexes, doubts, fears and all kinds of mental blockages. Moreover, our words and deeds had to be in accordance with our mind and emotions; otherwise he blasted you. He was a tantric guru – a fearsome figure, even though he was small in physical stature – who challenged us to shift out of stereotypical behaviour and habits. Either you moved out of conditioning or you moved on! He catalyzed energy through which one was transported to unexplored territory in one’s own being and experience. My years with Sri Swamiji were exhilarating and the most transformative of my life. He opened my eyes to the un seeable and my mind to the unthinkable.

At that time the ashram was located in a most strange place, sandwiched between a railway line (which took people on their life’s business) and a road (which seemed to be mainly used to take people on death’s business – to the burning ghats besides the Ganges!). So we were constantly reminded of the dichotomy between life and death and how fragile life is. Sri Swamiji gave daily satsangs in his small room and talked on all kinds of pertinent subjects, from modern science to the sacred texts of yoga, tantra and vedanta. I was fascinated by how he elegantly combined practical considerations with spiritual insight.

Sri Swamiji used to go on regular tours of India, often taking three cars in a convoy. These were exciting times and he would give lectures and satsangs all over – especially in central India where he was particularly well known at that time. He introduced us to people he had met during his parivrajaka or wandering life, after he left Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh. We met people from all strata of society, from crooks to saints. When we reached a town, programs were quickly organized and Sri Swamiji was thrust into meetings, lectures and giving satsangs. We often drove through the night, which may sound romantic but could also be dangerous. Eastern India in particular was rife with dacoits, armed robbers. One night we were passing near Bheem Bandh (the place where Buddha is reputed to have met Angulimala) and we stopped before a closed railway crossing. Immediately we were surrounded by about ten armed dacoits. Sri Swamiji merely said, “Take what you want.” They rifled (literally!) through the luggage in the boot, and then (and this can only happen in India) they decided to take nothing and instead asked for Sri Swamiji’s forgiveness and blessings!

He was unfazed by events and everyone he met. He would meet the governor of, say, the state of Orissa, and whilst paying due respect and formalities would be in the same state of mind as if he was talking to a local shopkeeper. No nervousness, no dithering. I have seen him give speeches in front of ten thousand people and be talking as though he was discussing with a close friend in the comfort of his room. Such was his equanimity.

Sri Swamiji was an extraordinary organizer in everything that he undertook, whether ashram affairs, seminars or whatever. We often joked, partly seriously, that he should become Prime Minister so that he could tackle the impossible job of governing India. We used to organize three or five-day yoga conventions all over India. He would start packing up everything – books, accounts – half-way through the proceedings without in any way diminishing the quality of the program.

He gave me a spiritual name: Nishchalananda (‘unmoving bliss’, an epithet of Shiva; which was a bit strange since I was constantly on the move!) whilst sitting around an initiatory fire at midnight in July 1972. It was a magical, timeless moment.

Then in the mid-eighties, for various reasons, there was a major change. He retired from active life passing on the baton to his able successor Swami Niranjan. (It was also time for me to return to Europe.) He became more reclusive and eventually moved to Rikhia where he started rigorous and mind-blowing sadhana. He also started to dedicate much of his time and energy to rural development: helping thousands of villagers in and around Rikhia. He adopted them – mainly tribal people called Santhals – like a grandfather and they benefited enormously on all levels by having him, and his institution, in their midst. He continued this work until his recent mahasamadhi.

Though Sri Swamiji has moved on, a part of his essence ever remains with me. I am not sad at his passing because we all have to move on from this temporary abode on planet earth. In fact, his essence is the essence of us all, call it Consciousness if you wish. And the good work that he started is being ably continued by Swami Niranjanananda and Swami Satsangi, aided by their successors. Sri Swamiji showed me how to have fun and be joyful, even in bizarre situations, and I feel he would have wanted us to celebrate his departure in the same way that he celebrated his life in everything that he did. After all, he returned Home from whence he came, from whence we all come and to where we will all go. Birth, life and death are merely small glitches in Eternity. Death, in itself, is not really an issue of much importance, because it is inevitable. More important is what lies behind the show that is life and existence and the opportunity that we all have as humans to realize this in our direct experience.

Sri Swamiji was an inspiration and a catalyst for spiritual awakening in countless people worldwide. The world seems somehow emptier without him.