Swami Sivananda – Unique Visionary

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

We celebrate the 8th September as the birthday of our Paramguru Swami Sivananda Saraswati. Swami Sivananda represents a force of transformation in the chapter of humanity in the twentieth century. He was not only a sannyasin, a renunciate, a sadhu, not only a doctor, not only a good person. He was unique and outstanding in the pantheon of Indian sannyasins.

Sannyasin and rishi

Normally sannyasa is a vocation in life, and in order to live sannyasa one has to be clear that this path is to unite with the highest Self within one. That is the purpose of sannyasa, not the adoption of a particular vocation, not to fulfil a cherished desire, not to become part or a member of a group. Sannyasa represents a process of upliftment, of realizing the dormant divinity within. This is the reason why people come to sannyasa.

Over a period of time in human history, sannyasa has been defined in different ways. For some it is a process of jnana yoga, knowing the self through the intellect. For some it is realizing the source inside by channeling the emotions through bhakti. For some it is realizing the harmony that can exist within, in the individual's microscopic world and life, the manifest world and life, and the divine, transcendental world and life, the harmony that can be experienced and lived in all these dimensions by balancing one's karmas. However, regardless of the path chosen, the aim of sannyasa has been to uplift oneself and realize the divinity inside.

Swami Sivananda lived the life of a sannyasin and by doing so he became a light unto himself. He lived what he believed in, what he taught and preached. There was no difference between his actions and his innermost feelings. Maturity in spiritual life is like boiling a potato. In its natural form a potato is hard, but when you boil it in water, the natural, hard form is transformed into a soft form which can be eaten and enjoyed. In the same way, with spiritual illumination it is the breaking down and splitting open of the hard shell of the ego that brings out the pure self.

In order to bring out the pure self, one requirement is to be simple in needs, thoughts, attitudes and behaviour. When the thoughts are complex and intricate, they cause frustrations and difficulties in adjusting to life. Then all human effort is directed to finding some balance in this disharmony, whether it is divine or a search for security, happiness, contentment, satisfaction, peace and fulfillment. Inner harmony and purity are reflected when one becomes simple, and not crooked and devious. As you become simple, less selfish and egotistical, you become more and more humble. Humility is a quality seen in the lives of luminaries in the world. Swami Sivananda represents this ideal.

The outstanding quality, however, that identifies Swami Sivananda from other beings is that he was a visionary. A visionary is known as a rishi. In the course of spiritual development and growth, people go through different stages of becoming stable in the higher consciousness. Stability of higher consciousness is perceived as the manifestation of a character. This character identifies a person, whether one is a sadhu, a mahatma, a saint, a sannyasin, a siddha, a bhakta yogi, a jnana yogi, a hatha yogi, or whatever. A visionary, a rishi, is the highest form of illumination, because in that stage of higher consciousness, of having established an identity with the higher consciousness, one is able to foresee the events of the future. What one foresees indicates how humanity is going to develop, what track it is going to follow. Visionaries are able to ease the process, to smooth the path for future generations. Rishis have the qualities of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence, of Godhood.

Practical spirituality

Swami Sivananda was a rishi, a visionary who was able to foresee the need of human society, and who knew how to preserve the positive human qualities of humanity and how to maintain and develop human culture. Although the sannyasa tradition belongs to the vedantic tradition, where the individual effort is to dissolve duality and to establish oneself in unity with the higher Self, Swami Sivananda chose the process and system of yoga to fulfil the needs of future generations. He trained his disciples in the systems of yoga and made everyone a yoga master.

During the last century three names stand out in the world of yoga: Swami Vivekananda, Swami Sivananda and Swami Satyananda. Swami Vivekananda presented the theoretical idea of yoga to the public. Swami Sivananda made yoga a practical subject which could be applied in people's lives, whether to manage one's health, to manage one's confused mind, to manage one's emotional personality, to go into deeper meditative states, and to excel in applying the yogic principles in practical life through karma yoga and seva. Swami Sivananda brought yoga down to practical levels which could be accommodated by the human mind. Many people in the past had tried to do this, but they could not differentiate between the essence of yoga and the garb of spirituality coloured by religious overtones. Therefore, despite their efforts, nobody was able to bring yoga down to a level where it could be understood and practised by everyone. Swami Sivananda did that in all spheres of life. He sowed the seeds of the yoga that emerged as a potential, as a possibility and as a solution to fulfil the vacuum in a particular dimension of life.

This work was carried on by his disciples. Yoga was developed to its highest potential by Swami Satyananda, one of the bright disciples of Swami Sivananda. Swami Sivananda planted the seeds of yoga for use by human society and civilization, and Swami Satyananda defined and explained the process of yoga in scientific form. Swami Sivananda believed that it was the birthright of everyone to experience spirituality in a practical form, in action, in speech and in thought, in all of life's situations. Swami Satyananda further developed this philosophy into a system that is now being recognized as the holistic approach of Satyananda Yoga – Bihar Yoga.

Divine living

Swami Sivananda and Swami Satyananda were not concerned with the development of yoga as a practice which people only did for an hour every day in the morning. Rather they made yoga a part of the natural expression in life, to further develop and expand the horizon of the mind, to develop the human sensitivity to feel for others and to rise beyond petty egocentricity, arrogance and the inability to adjust and accommodate.

It is a human trait to overlook righteousness for selfish reasons. In the face of friction, strife and tension, two people will overlook righteousness because selfishness overlooks the sensitivity of the situation. This is the biggest human folly. It is one area which has to be worked upon by expanding the horizons of human sensitivity. People get affected by others because they expect others to be as they are. People always try to find fault with others, not themselves. Why? Are we so afraid of ourselves that we don't want to recognize our weaknesses and faults? Is that our strength, is that our willpower, is that our clarity of mind? This is one reason why, despite their wisdom, human beings have not been able to develop their minds and feelings. What is known as spirituality is only an effort to ensure that one is able to develop the mind and feelings by a process of sadhana which can lead to inner transformation. The sadhus and sannyasins throughout the ages, from the Prophet Mohammed to Jesus Christ, have advocated one basic component – live a righteous life.

Living life righteously has been classified in various scriptures as part of different religions, but how can living a righteous life be the subject of one particular religion and not of humanity as a whole? It is the subject of humanity, and yoga was made the medium to realize this by the rishis of this age.

It is the birthday of this rishi, Swami Sivananda, the visionary, that we are celebrating today. He was a towering spiritual personality, but he was not a religious zealot. For him the sutras of spiritual development were: i) regulation of the daily routine, ii) maintaining constant awareness of the need for transformation by means of a spiritual diary, and iii) bhakti, devotion to what you are involved in.

In his life we see these three components coming together and blending beautifully to make him into a perfect being. The example he has set before us is that we can also become that being. We can also live that divine life by bringing these components together and by forgetting our own egos, limitations, idiosyncrasies, ambitions and inability and inaptitude to adjust and accommodate. Adjustment and accommodation are considered to be the best virtues for a human being to have, either as a householder or as a sannyasin, because they lead to humility. Humility leads to natural learning, and it is natural learning which is the strength in life and the friend for life.

Today we celebrate in our memories and thoughts the birthday of this visionary Swami Sivananda. He inspired many to bring the best out of them. Let our sankalpa be to try to live that life.

—8 September 2002, Ganga Darshan, India, printed in YOGA, Year 2, No. 5 (September/October 2003)