The Immortal Satyam

Professor Upendra Baxi. Former Vice-Chancellor, University of Delhi; Professor Emeritus, University of Warwick and University of Delhi

There is no denying the fact that ordinary mortals may never again behold Paramahamsa Satyanandaji as many of us were blessed to.

No longer may we share his beatific smile, hear his soulful chanting of mantras and singing of bhajans, or see the spark of fun in his eyes. Nor any longer may we touch his lotus feet, talk with him, laugh with him or feel caressed in our soul by his beatific earthly presence.

The lack of his presence in the everyday world will be felt by all of us, but in many different ways. For his paramashishyas, supreme disciples – Swami Niranjan and Swami Satsangi – he lives on in their spiritual embodiment and manifestation. For other shishyas worldwide, the Paramahamsa lives on via these paramashishyas. For his bhaktas, devotees, who constantly sought his sanidhya, togetherness, he lives on in acts of worship, enhancing our deeds and dreams with the immortal power of blessings.

How about others like me who understood his spiritual call and the mission of yoga, but remained deprived of the privilege to be among his disciples or followers? How may they grasp the enduring message of his Mahasamadhi? There is no question that folks like me will continue to feel forever ‘orphaned’ as beings now rendered hollow by his absence in this world and who must now continue to somehow live on and with a sense of overwhelming, all-pervasive and tragic loss.

In testifying fully to my own inconsolable bereavement, and in bidding an adieu to Beloved Satyam, I have to address him thus rather than in impersonal terms as ‘Sri Swamiji’. I urge Swami Niranjan and Swami Satsangi to please allow me to salute him thus.

But how may one bid an adieu to Beloved Satyam: who and what has gone and from where to where, so that we may speak thus? True, the sakar (specifically framed mortal form) Satyam is no more, but his ways of being speak to us of larger contexts than suggested by the fact of mortality, not the succumbing to biological death but rather its transformation into the event of a future memory and history. His Mahasamadhi signifies an authentic choice and act of tyagga, renunciation, of the body – an accession into a universe of nirakar presence.

Satyam follows the great spiritual tradition of true renunciates in which gurus do not succumb to, but rather choose the time, manner, and circumstance of shedding their mortal body. But he further transforms this tradition as well: neither punar-janma, rebirth in an endless cycle of births and deaths, nor the Second Coming of a singular messiah constitutes the meaning and message of his Mahasamadhi.

To understand this otherwise simple fact and feat is to grasp the enormous difference between living for oneself, one’s kith and kin, and living for the sake of the redemption of the endlessly suffering humanity. This is what Vishwaprem, among the first of Satyam’s initiates, describes in a felicitous phrase evoking the sense of endless and enduring ‘spiritual journey’, a sublime itinerary of life amidst death as well as beyond death. Vishwaprem’s distinctive initiation by Sri Swamiji in 1958 via the letter narratives (published in Lessons on Yoga Part 1, 1962, and later in Steps to Yoga), already speak to us of Satyam’s innovation of a spiritual tradition in terms of the practices of mantra diksha, the practices that at once individualize the ways of yogic cosmic communication and constitute transcendence beyond the finite notions of time and space.

The very imagery of a spiritual journey helps us better grasp the meaning of a verse in the Bhagavad Gita (2:21):

Vaasaamsi jeernaani yathaa vihaaya, navaani grihnaati naroparaani;
Tathaa shareeraani vihaaya jeernaa, nyanyaani samyaati navaani dehee.

Just as a ‘man’ puts on fresh clothes after discarding worn-out ones, so does the embodied Self, discarding worn-out bodies, proceeds to take up new ones.

This sartorial metaphor remains rather inadequate, to say the least! If for all ordinary humans, death and dying are only the processes marking forever biological rebirthing (navani dehi), this is not the sense of the event of a Mahasamadhi. Mahasamadhi does not continue this Eternal Return of the Same, as it were, to which non-spiritual beings forever remain condemned. I know that Beloved Satyam recited with great purpose the verse of Shankara: Punarapi jananam, punarapi maranam . . . Satyam thus underscores the fact of human finitude; yet at the same moment he invites us all to translate this fact into a feat of transcendence.

Death and dying remain for ordinary mortals a cruel fact terminating forms of life that they otherwise fully cherish; true, many also cherish acts of suicide, and many others invite death by neglecting acts of ethically decent ways of sensible living – via vyasana, addiction, and vyabichrara, licentious ways of life, or duragraha, the practices of moral evil that hurt themselves and others. Such folks indeed choose death over life but in no way akin to acts and feats of Mahasamadhi. The true renunciate lives and dies to assist the vulnerable and suffering others in living the life of the Soul.

Indeed, we may only begin our labours of acknowledging our endless debt to Beloved Satyam. To strike a personal note, I had the privilege of communion with him from the very first days at Mumbai in December 1961 (and Vishwaprem still earlier in 1954 when Swamiji was in Sivananda Ashram), and later at Rajnandgaon in 1962 (with Satyabrat and Ma Dharmashakti in their house, where we were further privileged to even play with a prodigiously infant Niranjan). Satyam emerged for us as a more than an extraordinary yogic persona, but rather as a deeply caring soul who remained concerned with the amelioration of here-and-now suffering peoples.

For Satyam, and this needs a full reiteration indeed, the renunciate life was never any itinerary of individualistic spiritual journey for personal salvation, moksha, but rather a mode of accomplishing redemption from human and social suffering. This is what for Satyam constituted the signature tune of becoming and being a guru. For him guru-ness remained always a work in progress – points of departure rather the final points of arrival – that summoned a constant companionship towards the suffering and vulnerable others.

What always attracted me to Satyam was his infinite karuna, compassion and care, for the ‘living dead’ – millions of humans who in their lifetimes remain exposed to countless social and political death. His true message for all is just this: help the living dead to live a life of spiritual dignity.

The sakar Satyam reminds us that a guru thus always becomes so and remains worthy of this status only because she or he remains forever a shishya. Thus, the Rikhia Ashram also becomes a Sivananda centre, a tirthasthan, the site of spiritual journey or place of pilgrimage, reuniting forever the past gurus and their spiritual successors and also constituting the sites of a renaissance of yoga – an endless continuation of guru-shishya parampara, a tradition of continuity amidst change in which death and dying constitute the signature for the acts and feats of continuation and renewal of the life of the Spirit.

It is this profound bonding that singularly marks out the figuration that we name as Satyam. Satyam is thus both an individual name and a process of spiritual regeneration that remains uninterrupted by the forms of biological and social death. Satyam thus lives on within each one of the lives that he touched, nurtured, and spiritually caressed, as constantly provoking us all, and each our own way, to endeavour to continue on the path of our infinite ‘spiritual journey’.

He descended thus from the lofty heights of Sivananda Ashram to the ravaged plains of Bihar. For Satyam, helping suffering peoples everywhere constituted the signature and the event of that something that we commonly name as ‘spirituality’. He believed profoundly that swamis and sadhus should be there always amidst, and help the suffering and vulnerable peoples. He renovated the classical yoga traditions in terms of a Buddhist virtue of karuna – the compassion for the disadvantaged, dispossessed, and deprived humanity everywhere in the world. In this sense, Satyam, for me, then constitutes the energy of the principle of cosmic Bodhisattwa.

This marks the enormity of his achievement now further fully manifest at Rikhia on the Sita Kalyanam events. He gave a spiritual kiss of life to India’s eternally suffering humanity. No one may fail to return from these and related events such as the anna danam, gift of food, vastra danam, gift of clothing, vidya danam, not just akshara-pradanam, endowment of literacy especially to indigenous girls and women, but learning and education for life in various precious ways, and the gifts of swavalamban shakti, powers of self-reliance in the pursuit of life and livelihood, including for those living with disability.

To put plainly and rather poorly, without the least bit of an overstatement, Satyam constituted for the suffering and vulnerable peoples a single-person spiritual equivalent of the Planning Commission of India. He did not plan on paper, but in everyday deeds. This is the significance of his enormous achievement, one that now fully lives on further through Swami Niranjan and Swami Satsangi, enormously blest with the task and mission to keep this great heritage alive and not just for and in India, but worldwide.

This is why Satyam emerges as a much larger spiritual figuration than a swami or even as a paramahamsa. In so doing, he truly inaugurates a momentously welcome breach in customary Hindu/Indian traditions of spiritual leadership.

In this he was at one with the great Kabir for whom a ‘swami’ justified this status by remaining always a true servant of the suffering humanity. When Satyam soulfully sang Man lago mero Ram fakiri mein, I always wondered what ‘fakiri’ signified. Now I have solved this riddle, with the help of the great Kabir who said: Had tape so auliya, behad tape so pir, had-behad dono tape, uska naam fakir.

Translated rather poorly, this suggests that while important yet relatively ‘minor’ spiritual figurations like auliya overstep some worldly thresholds, and the more spiritually refined persona – pir may question the sense of these limits – it is only the transcendent figure of a fakir who may help us all to overcome the very idea of limits (had-behad dono tape).

Adieu, from Vishwaprem and me, Beloved Fakir Satyam!