Swami Sivananda was born in the district of Tirunelveli in South India on 8th September 1887. He was a descendent of a famous saint and scholar in India, Appaya Dikshitar, a siddha and a bhakta.
Once Appaya Dikshitar went to Tirupati Balaji temple to have darshan. At the time, the Vaishnavites in India did not have the right attitude to the Shaivites. Appaya Dikshitar was a Shaivite, a devotee of Shiva, and he was not allowed to have darshan of Tirupati Balaji. Through his mysterious powers, his bhakti and extreme devotion, in the morning the poojaris or priests in the temple found a shivalingam, side by side with Tirupati Balaji,. This changed the whole attitude of the Vaishnavites of that time.
In this line of great philosophers, saints and bhaktas, Swami Sivananda was born. In 1923 he resigned his job in Malaysia, where he was working as a practicing doctor on a plantation in Johara Bahru. He came to India and was initiated by Swami Vishwananda, a sannyasin who belonged to the Southern tradition.
Thereafter, Swami Sivananda performed austerities. He practiced a synthesis of karma, bhakti, raja and jnana yoga. He did not leave any stone unturned and tried all the great methods, but he found that bhakti yoga was the best form of self-realization. By repetition of name and mantra, by total surrender to God, by unflinching faith in the cosmic being, or ishta devata, one can attain the deepest and highest experience - nirvana, moksha, samadhi or darshan.
In 1943, I went to his ashram in which there were only a few kutirs here and there, in the wilderness, amidst scorpions, serpents and tormenting mosquitoes. But it was beautiful, on the banks of the Ganga, and one could see the Manipur mountain ranges of Badrinath and Kedarnath, the two important shrines for Hindus.
I said to Swami Sivananda, "I have been practicing dhyana, meditation, for many years. I am able to forget myself, transcend my individual consciousness, but I am not able to experience anything inside. I go in and sleep, that's it. I can't go beyond because my individual consciousness is completely dissolved in shoonya." He briefly replied, "Stay in the ashram and do selfless service." That was a very comforting sentence! No japa, no meditation, nothing! It gave me such peace of mind that on that auspicious day of 19th March 1943, my intellect became suspended. The moment I was with Swamiji all my questions ceased.
There is a beautiful sloka which I always reiterate. "Under the shade of the banyan tree, the age old guru and the young disciple are seated. Guru is not speaking anything, he is quiet, but the questions and doubts of the disciple are getting cleared one by one." That happened to me. Questions ceased, intellect eased.
In my home I had not even washed a handkerchief; I did not even have to clean my room. I had not seen even one mosquito. I did not know what a mosquito looked like, much less how it bites! I came from a strict non-vegetarian family and thrice a day, every day, I had been non-vegetarian. In the ashram I used to get hardly chappatis and dhal.
Swami Sivananda used to remain in his kutir. He did not come to the ashram for anything else but to give darshan. He used to come for two hours in the morning and one hour in the afternoon and one hour at night. We could only see him for four hours. He used to lock his kutir. There was only one swami who used to remain with him. If any disciple had some work, he would not be able to see him. Even if anyone burnt the ashram down or was gunned down, it was always: two hours, one hour and one hour.
This is how it happened. I will tell you the story. Swami Sivananda was primarily a seeker, a sincere aspirant. He did not talk much about himself. He came and settled on the right bank of the Ganga. Some young boys lived with him and they became sannyasins. One of them was Swami Paramananda who once upon a time was manager of the Great Raymond Circus. After coming to the ashram, he again began the same circus. He started preparing programs and buildings and registering the society and income tax and this and that. One day Swamiji asked him, "Hey, what are you doing?" He said, "Swamiji, we are serving you and doing this and that." Swamiji thought, "Okay, let these guys do all this." However, things became too much.
Every day swamis used to tell him, "Swamiji, today a guest has come and you have to see him." He used to say, "I'm not going to see him." They used to say, "No, no, he has come from Delhi, he is from the I.C.S." He said, "I.C.S or I.P.C. for me, they are all ice-cream sellers and potato choppers." However, he usually gave in as he was so bothered by the swamis.
One day, Swami Sivananda packed his bags and just left the ashram. He had no money, just took his dhoti, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana and left. He went on foot to Rishikesh, which was two miles, to Haridwar, fifteen miles more, to Jalpur, six more miles, and spent the night in the cowshed of a Punjabi farmer. In the morning, when the Punjabi came to milk his cows he saw this brilliant swami.
Swamiji had a very tall structure and his arms used to go below his knees. He was very tall with big feet and a big head. The farmer prostrated before him and brought him 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 tirtha yatra, a pilgrimage, I have come from Haridwar."
However, it was so difficult for Swami Sivananda to tell a lie. After some time he told him, "No, I am from Rishikesh." It is like when a child says on the phone, "My papa says that he is not at home." That was the type of man he was. If he told lies, at once you could pick him up. If we can tell lies so that we are never caught, it is because we are so sharp. That is why we are suffering, because we are so complicated. Swami Sivananda said, "I am from Rishikesh and my ashram is there."
The farmer sent his son to inform the swamis. They all came and touched his feet, pleading him to come back." He said, "Give me one promise. Do not bother me except during the hours I give you, and during these hours if I say to keep quiet you will not bother me."
He came back to the ashram and the rules were framed so that for two hours he would give darshan to aspirants, mantra diksha and sannyasa. For one hour in the evening, he would come to sign the books. For one hour again in the evening, he would come for kirtan. Throughout his life, until his death, he never missed the hour of kirtan. He used to call it satsang. Sometimes the swamis in the ashram did not come for kirtan; sometimes four came, sometimes three or two, sometimes only one. I remember once, only he and I were there, but he always attended.
In these four hours he was very regular. Otherwise no one could go to his kutir to tell him anything. If anyone ever told him that this swami or that swami was bad and this or that swami was good, he used to say, "Be above raga and dwesha, be above jealousy and hatred and love. Just be calm and quiet."
He had the sterling qualities of a great man, a good man. So far as his attitude to people was concerned, he was selfless, honest and full of love, charity and compassion. He would never offend even a cat. Never in my twelve years did I hear him say, "No!" He was always calm, peaceful, loving and sweet, no sarcasm, no intellect.
He respected his disciples, just as you respect me or you respect Rama or Krishna. He never used to call me just Satyananda, no! He would always call me Swami Satyananda Maharaj, Namo Narayan.
He used to greet everybody, and once a year he used to collect the sweepers and scavengers of society and call them to the ashram to wash their feet. You know how difficult it is for an ignorant, self-deluded Hindu to wash the feet of a sweeper? But he used to wash their feet and make the swamis wash their feet. He used to give them chadors and dhotis, blankets, halva and puris do namaskara to them.
One has to renounce the ego first, only then can realization come. Meditation is good, yoga is good, bhakti is good, everything is good. But what is the use? One can bring beautiful flowers to one's room, have nice furniture, but one has no eyes to see. What is the use of bringing the most beautiful objects to one's house without improving the quality of vision? How can one realize the highest being, through bhakti or other yogas, unless the ego is eliminated?
For the elimination of ego, one has to renounce abhimana, egoism. `I am a great swami, I am a holy man, I am the son or nephew of the sister of the brother-in-law of the prime minister' - that's abhimana. There are different forms of abhimana. A person who is a debauchee, drunkard and gambler has abhimana. It is the centre of his personality from where he operates. This abhimana has to go if one wants to become infinite. For this purpose Swami Sivananda led all his disciples into karma yoga and guided them from time to time.
I had many, many experiences with Swami Sivananda. I will give you just one example. There was a servant in the ashram, a very arrogant young man. The rule in the ashram was that after a meal, every inmate and every guest should take their plate to the Ganga and wash it. There was an old swami and, after he had taken his food, he would leave his plate in the kitchen to be washed. I had told him, "Just leave it, I will have it washed." I knew that he could not possibly go down to the Ganga.
Khushiram, the young servant, 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 was my nature. I did not consider that he too was a man - I just considered my own reaction. I was a strong man, so naturally when I said leave the ashram, he had to leave the ashram. However, somebody told him to meet with Swami Sivananda, and request leave of him, because that was the tradition.
In the evening when Swamiji came out, Khushiram touched his feet and said, "Swamiji, I am going. Swami Satyananda has ordered me to leave the ashram." Swamiji did not call me. He understood everything because Swamiji was a very shrewd and intelligent man. Instead he took Khushiram into his personal kitchen and kept him there.
That became an insult for me. It was a direct insult my guru was giving me. He was keeping this fellow for his personal service - where I had to go every day - after I had chucked him out. I had to meet him at Swamiji's gate. It was so insulting that I became very disturbed.
All the yoga that I had been talking about - the conscious, the unconscious, superconscious, everything was destroyed. All the mental frames were in disarray, all the emotions were in confusion. Everything that I was thinking about, all the philosophies I was talking about, all that I had maintained in my mind, all was in confusion. I said, "I'll leave the ashram and go away."
Just a little insult, and from your guru, and you want to leave the ashram and go away. If you cannot observe and understand even the insulting behaviour of your guru, then what are you here for? And why do you say that he is your guru? Tell him instead, "I am your true worker, so please behave better with me from today. You may not give me money, but you give me food. I want to serve your institution, but I'm not your disciple and you're not my guru." I may say he is my guru, my life, my prana, everything, but once he gives me one acid test I fail.
But I didn't remember. I was making so many plans and did not sleep the whole night. I was joint secretary of the ashram no less, not an ordinary member. I had almost all the keys, the entire cash, the banking and everything else, and I thought that this insult was like my death.
Next morning I hesitated to go to Swamiji's kutir because I was very upset. I had chucked the servant out and he was going to be there, and saying to me, "Ah! So you have chucked me out." It was going to be very, very secret, unspoken warfare between him and me. I could not understand. Now I understand, because I am out of the picture. My disciples don't understand because they are not clear. Today in my ashram I am afraid to test my disciples. I have tested them once; and I have been tested as well.
Next morning, Swamiji was at the gate, not the servant. He opened the gate and said, "Hari Om, Namo Narayana." I said, "Oh yes, you know what's happening to my mind." He took me inside and saw my papers, whatever I had to show him. He did not say anything. Then he said, "You liked my opening the door for you?" So I just went into an apoplectic fit.
I said, "You have to open the door, otherwise who will do it?" I gave him a piece of my mind. I didn't want the servant to open the door; that was the point. But the next point was that, after all, he was the guru, and the guru has to open the door, the door that leads to the light. So he said, "You liked it when I opened the door?" He said more and I replied, "After all you have to open the door."
In 1946 I was tired physically. I had an attack of jaundice, diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid or paratyphoid. I didn't even know what it was because I never consulted a doctor. There was no doctor, no medicine, nothing. I knew I was unwell. I still had energy, but physically I was reduced to a skeleton.
I thought, I can do this work at my home instead. On my land I had many buffaloes, cattle, ponies, so much land and property. That was Maya surrounding me from all sides and giving me the best of her arguments.
So I wrote a letter to one of my friends in Lahore; this was before Partition. He replied that he was arranging my appointment as a sub-editor to a magazine called Tribune. After a few days the letter of appointment came and then I wrote, saying, "I don't have any money." He sent me four hundred rupees. I had some clothes made, coat, pants, tie, everything. This foolish swami!
When everything was prepared, I went to Swamiji. I told him, "I am going. I think I want to go back." I gave some reply, I don't remember exactly what. He said, "Okay, on 8th September my Diamond Jubilee is being celebrated. You can work here till then; after that you can go." I said, "Okay, two months more."
I never knew that he was trying to surround me from all sides, so I stayed. 8th September was his birthday. On 9th and 10th visitors were going. On 11th he called me and said, "You are coming here tomorrow morning and you are going to take sannyasa." A 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, obligations to the lower realm of life." I said, "Alright", and again he arrested my mind.
I forgot all about the Tribune. I forgot everything. My mind was just blank. The whole night I did not sleep. I was repeating my mantra which at that time was Gayatri. I was very eager, waiting for the morning to come. It was a very long night for me.
I got up at two o'clock, three o'clock, six o'clock. I was waiting and waiting, and then suddenly a change came in my mind. At seven o'clock, I went to him and he called a barber who shaved me. I was already shaved, but I had a little ego - a tuft of hair at the bindu - and that was cut off. He gave me a little langoti, the little bandage cloth, and a dhoti and he took away my janeu, the sacred thread.
He said, "In this life, beyond life, after life - whether you are in a toddy shop, or you live with women, or you are among prostitutes - never give up the geru." That's one sankalpa, one order he gave me. "It does not matter what you do, I don't care. Geru is your skin now." That is why I love geru so much.
For three years, from 1953 to 1955, he allowed me to stop working in the ashram and just study. During that period I dwelt completely in the shastras, day and night - from Rig Veda up to the books of the Gandhi age - every religion, in Sanskrit, Hindi, English, whatever it might be. He sent me for one year to Gujarat and Samashtra and when he went on the All India Tour for three months, he took me with him so that I could have an idea of the people.
In 1956 I was not keeping well. One day, Swamiji called me. He used to feel that his ashram was not the right place of expression for me because I had to express myself within a particular framework where expression was not original. He knew that I had originality of philosophy, working and living. He told me, "The ashram is too small for you, and your destiny is important." He gave me a hundred and eight rupees. They are still with me in my bag, I have not spent them. I treasure them and they are under a seal. He said, "Take away whatever you like from the ashram, but it is better to go with the minimum of things."
He said, "There is something people do not know and we do not teach because people are not yet ready. They only want a little bit of asana and pranayama. Most people are afraid of yoga and therefore I don't teach them much yoga." So he taught me kriya yoga. It hardly took five minutes because I already knew the kriyas of kriya yoga.
I left the ashram on 19th March 1956, the same date I had arrived. I roamed all over the place. At the time I was completely averse to institutions - no ashrams, no disciples, no money. I led the life of a mendicant or beggar. I just wanted to be independent. If I wanted to smoke, nobody should say, "Why do sadhus smoke?" If I want to drink, nobody should say, "Why do you drink?" I mind my business, you mind yours.
Society is a well-knit organ that people have to follow, whether it is right or wrong. Nobody can say that whatever society has decided is right. The rules of society are made up automatically. Sometimes they are made up by people who are suffering from false vanity. So naturally one wants to live independently for some time. If I want to close my eyes for five hours, what business is it of my wife or mother to say, "What is happening to you? Are you going mad?" Yes, I'm going mad. If you don't like it, leave.
Even today, whenever I go out, I never live with families because there I have to say, "Yes, yes, very good." I like to live somewhere else. I can sleep when I like, I can snore as much as I like. I can take a bath, I can sing, I can cry, I can sleep on the floor. I lived like that for a few years.
Then I came to Munger, and when I came to Munger, it was the beginning of an era. The place was beautiful. On 13th July 1963, I had an inner awakening, I received a message, and that is how everything has started. I have told you a lot of experiences and I could go on and on . . .
—Sivanandashram, Munger, 16 October 1982