The Inscrutable Gurudev Sri Swami Sivananda
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken during night Satsang on January 22, 1984)

Auṁ sa ha nāv avatu, saha nau bhunaktu, saha vīryam karavāvahai,
tejasvi nav adhītam astu: mā vidviṣāvahai; auṁ śāntih, śāntih, śāntih.

Inasmuch as spiritual life is a process of soul-making and not an academic education, it was necessary for the ancient masters to discipline their students in entirely novel ways. These techniques cannot be easily understood, much less appreciated by modern man with his matter-of-fact outlook of life because he has lost his soul. He lives like a skeleton, like a machine, a dead vehicle that moves without a motivating spirit. Hence, it is practically impossible to get into the spirit of the ancient Upanishadic discipline, for instance, when those few chosen disciples were trained from the very core of their being. That is what is meant by ‘soul-making’. The very root of ourselves has to be purified.

This process of purification is exactly what sadhana is. But we are mostly information gatherers or scientists these days—curiosity mongers, experimenters, observers. This unfortunate way of visualising life has landed us in this ostensible state of affairs where we seem to be reduced to the condition of a dried-up leaf, sustained by watering from external sources and maintained by factors entirely outside us. The materialist experiment which originated as a philosophy sometime in the eighteenth century has practically become the be-all and end-all of existence in modern times. Materialism is no more just a philosophy today; it is we ourselves. We have turned into matter, balls of earth and lifeless automatons.

Hence, it is difficult to understand the teachings of Christ, Mohammad Paigambar, Sri Krishna, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, or Swami Sivananda. We can understand as teachings only that which we gather in conferences, round-table sessions, through exchanges of ideas and a sort of easy manoeuvring of social adjustment, which need not necessarily mean the action of the spirit of man or the soul of the individual.

We would be startled out of our wits if we hear the various techniques adopted by a Tibetan master called Marpa who disciplined his would-be great disciple Milarepa. We cannot understand; we may even stoop down with our assumed importance to judge such great teachers as crude, primitive employers of methods of educational training, unacquainted with either the Montessori system or modern educational psychology of refined forms of teaching. But such an assumption of superiority on our part would be totally missing the point because while Christianity is well acquainted with the doctrine of sin—the evil nature into which human beings are automatically born as inheritors of Adam and Eve—there is much to say about the hard-boiled, inveterate irreconcilability of human nature in respect of the calls of spiritual discipline, because the extent to which spirit has entered into involvements in matter in the case of people like us is hard to comprehend. The depth of involvement in material vestures is something breath-taking indeed. So much is the involvement that we may practically say, as I mentioned, that we have become just shapes taken by matter. We are bodies, rather than minds and souls. We seem to be applying our mind as a sort of associate for the calls of the body, and how many can even find time to believe that there is a soul inside, what to speak of the reason and the mental processes?

But the saints and sages are not professors or teachers in kindergartens. They are not the promulgators of empirical arts and sciences—civics, political science, mathematics, and what not. A saint or a sage is a perfected soul, and therefore, the discipline he underwent to become what he was, and what he is, is also that which he would be eager to impart to the receptive student. Lives of saints are perhaps greater instructors to us than science textbooks and modern volumes on the usual stuff that is served to the brain of the student these days.

The spiritual seeker, called the sadhaka, is a soul in the making. He is not like a schoolboy or a student studying in a college or university. He is not after some qualification for getting on in this world of human society socially, materially or economically. The purpose of spiritual education is not to make one fit for getting on in this world of social arrangements and political manoeuvres. The purpose is altogether different.

To repeat once again, the percentage of our descent into materialistic ways of thinking, which includes the economic way of thinking, is such that when we are told that spiritual education is a Godward movement we may laugh in our sleeves, again with a little contempt for the ancient primitive methods, as we call them. What was the education that earnest seekers received from Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa? They were thrown out of gear completely when they came in contact with him. They were no more the same person; they were turned upside down, as it were, in their whole makeup, and this is what one can expect from great teachers.

The world has passed through various phases of history, and it is difficult to know what phase it is passing through at this moment because for all outward appearances, we do not seem to be placed in such blessed conditions and circumstances where we can come in contact with great masters. Perhaps the world today cannot contain such great souls and it has freed itself from them practically in a wholesale measure. It would not be far from truth if we say that today humanity is a large multitude of those inhabitants of Lilliput which Gulliver in his travels seems to have visited—little ant-like creatures with mountain-like egos wanting to use a ladder to climb the foot of Gulliver.

The pygmy-like stature of human understanding today has assumed such atrocious dimensions of self-complacency and forgetfulness of the ultimate values of life that the ancient system of education has not only been totally lost sight of in the curricula of modern systems of teaching, but these values are not even remembered.

The first disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, the apostles who rallied around Christ, and perhaps the early associates of prophets and Incarnations can alone stand witness to the glory of the spirit that manifests in a multifarious way in the different saints and sages. One saint does not necessarily behave in the same way as another. We have the Nayanars and the Alvars, the famous spiritual heroes born in southern India. Our hair would stand on end in rapture of unimaginable ecstasy and consternation if we read the lives of these Nayanars and Alvars, Vaishnava and Saiva saints. They were not merely believers in God; they were not merely devotees worshipping as any religious person worships. It is difficult to say what relationship they maintained with God. Words would not be adequate to explain the attitude of these Nayanars and Alvars towards God. We may satisfy ourselves by saying God had entered every cell of their body. Perhaps God was dancing through every particle of their nature. The power that they wielded was godlike, and they would treat God as they would treat anybody. They could summon Him as we would summon a servant. There was no difficulty at all. The inundation of God-being in respect of their own personalities can be considered as an apotheosis of saintly life. Gauranga Mahaprabhu, Krishna Chaitanya, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa are names we adore, no doubt. We adore Krishna, Christ and Rama, and we adore these masters, saints and sages, but we cannot, in our heart of hearts, enter into what they were, what they thought, what they felt, and how they lived.

A disciple is supposed to be one who not merely obeys the orders of the master but participates in his own nature. This is important. The obedience spoken of is not merely a ‘yes sir’ attitude for everything that the Guru says, though that also is implied; it is a submission of the soul, the very spirit of the disciple, to the magnitude of the spirit of the Guru. It is a ‘yes’ that is said by the soul of the disciple, not by the tongue. As saints participate in God, disciples participate in the Guru. This is one way we may understand how the disciple has to maintain his relationship with the Guru.

The other day I was mentioning how the great master Sivananda demonstrated to the world in his own unostentatious way the life divine which he embodied. In his own peculiar ways he was a replica of the ancient Upanishadic teachers such as Marpa or Yajnavalkya, to whom I made reference. The reason is that he was inscrutable in his behaviour. It was not a logical development that we could see in his life. We cannot deduce something from something. For our naked vision, his behaviour was unpredictable, and sometimes non-understandable. He was a thorough-going and out-and-out embodiment of the principle that the more we give ourselves, the more also does God enter into us. Giving ourselves is again to be understood in a purely spiritual way. Humorously people used to call him Givananda, not Sivananda. Give.

I remember even today a little incident which shocked me, and yet I endearingly remember it as a mark of his greatness. Those were hard days when there was not much financial strength in the Ashram. Nobody in the Ashram saw the colour of a fruit, or could have one. A few fruits used to be purchased for Sri Gurudev—only for him. He was a fairly aged person and everyone was eager that he should be taken care of. A few fruits used to be purchased every day and kept in the little kitchen in what is now called Gurudev’s Kutir on the bank of the Ganga. One day some visitors came and prostrated themselves before him, and Swamiji wanted to offer them one or two fruits. He asked the cook, “Have you some fruits?”

“No, Swamiji. There are no fruits here,” replied the cook, because from where could he give the fruits except those kept for Swamiji himself? And they were so few—maybe two or three apples, a few oranges. “There are no fruits, Swamiji.”

“Go and see,” Gurudev said. “There may be some.”

“No,” he said. “There are no fruits.”

The visitors did their namaskar and took leave, and afterwards Swamiji asked the cook, “There are no fruits?”

“No, Swamiji. There are no fruits.”

Gurudev went straight into the kitchen. It was not a large kitchen, just a corner in the kutir itself, and he found a small basket of fruits there—some apples, some oranges. “There are fruits here. Why did you say there are no fruits? I wanted to give them some fruits.”

“No, Swamiji. These fruits are for Swamiji only.”

“I see.” He took the basket and threw it out to the monkeys. The entire thing was thrown. What would you say for this behaviour? He threw out the entire basket. You would not know whether to cry, beat your breast, or try to understand.

I have always felt that no scripture, not even the Upanishads, can equal the lives of saints. We hear these thrilling, touching, heart-rending and stimulating incidents in the Maha Bhakta Vijaya, for instance, which records the lives of many of the Maharashtrian and Karnatakan saints, little nobodies that they appeared to be. Ekanath, Namdev, Purandaradas and Tukaram were not children of rich zamindars or millionaires. Poverty was their only wealth. They owned nothing but poverty—utter poverty. But they could handle God, and one of them handled God as a servant. It was Ekanath or Namdev who was actually being served by Bhagavan Sri Krishna in the form of a little servant boy called Sri Kandiya. He was washing his clothes, sweeping his floor and cleaning his vessels. The story goes that when another saint went to Pandharpur and had occasion to pay his obeisance, he was told in a vision that the Lord was in the house of Namdev. He ran to have darshan, wondering how the Lord has left Pandharpur and gone to the house of a poor man. And it is said that the boy then vanished. Nobody knew where he was. He did not want to be detected.

You will not be able to understand how the apparently painful hardships which early disciples of great masters underwent were also soothing in their nature. Some of us are able to keep in mind some direct information about the latest of saints, Swami Sivananda. Such a stature is hard to find, and that expandedness which you can see only in a Christ—the width of heart, the nature of giving away everything—could be seen only in such masters. Suddenly he would get an idea of indoctrinating his students, and announce it. His announcements were always on the spot. There was no previous intimation.

There was one young boy called Arun Kumar from Calcutta. He was a compounder who worked in the small room that was the dispensary. One day this young man was taken by surprise by Sri Gurudev. In the morning at about 9:00 or earlier, Gurudev suddenly came and locked the door from outside, and went back to his kutir. Nobody knew what the matter was. That boy had not taken his bath, and had no lunch, but nobody bothered. It was nearing sunset, but there was no sign of Gurudev opening the door. The boy had not eaten anything, and could not understand what was happening to him. He was peeping through the window when I happened to pass that way, and he told me what had happened. What could anybody say? We didn’t know anything. We were all startled. He had no water to wash and was miserable, misery incarnate. Still, nobody knew what the matter was. Like that he passed the whole day and night in utter grief, and he was weeping, “What is this?”

The next day Sri Gurudev came with an orange in his hand, and opened the door. “What were you thinking the whole day and night?” You can imagine what he was thinking. “Were you thinking of God throughout the day and night?”

“Anything but that,” said the boy.

“Anyway, you are a good boy. You have done a great tapas, and here is a present for you.” He gave him the orange, and went away.

None of us were exempt from such types of hard behaviour on his part, not even the best among the workers and associates in the Ashram. I remember that one day, for some reason, he told me to go into seclusion somewhere near Brahmapuri and stay in a cottage in the jungle which someone wanted to offer. I was very busy those days with some kind of work. He said, “Go and stay there. Do meditation.” As I mentioned, it was sudden. These announcements were all on the spot, without any previous notice. He would not tell us, “Tomorrow I would like you to go there.” He would tell us, “Go just now.”

I said, “There is some work.”

Gurudev was annoyed when I said there was work. “Work? Whose work?” he said. “And what for is the work? There is no world.” These are the words that he uttered. “There is no world before you, so where is work?” he said, and went away. He didn’t speak to me again on that subject. Anyway, that program did not work out, for some other reason.

He was a tremendous believer in the golden mean or the via media of approach. He would condemn a person who was intensely active throughout the day, and condemn a person who would do nothing. Either way, no one would escape Gurudev’s notice. There were people doing japa, rolling beads, who would not participate in any activity. They would read the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, Ramayana, and roll the beads. He would criticise them. “This kind of bhakti will not lead you anywhere. Work hard. Work, work!” he would say. He used to call it the Brindavan method of devotion. “This Brindavan method will not work,” he said. “It will not be adequate.” He would mimic their way of rolling the beads and tell them that the concealed movement of their hands under their upper cloth is a greater demonstration of hypocrisy than the open showing of it, and so on. But if a person was very hardworking, he would say, “You are attached to work. This attachment is very bad. Attachment to work is also very bad. Do japa, do some study. Take some rest.” But if a person did japa and did not take part in work, he would say, “You are an idler. You must do karma yoga. Work hard. You must sweat and work.”

That is, the path of God which the saints followed was the recognition of God in the world, which means to say they blended the experience of the transcendent presence with the world in which the human personality is involved, in whatever percentage it be. I previously told you the earlier part of this great sage’s life, which was, by today’s thinking, more a Purana or an epic, an Arabian Nights tale, and far from the conditions in which we are living today. Those were hard days in many respects, not only from the point of view of diet and clothing and the usual creature comforts, but even intellectual and emotional satisfactions. In the earlier days, Gurudev would never permit a person to read books. Nobody read anything. They would only work and serve, and do whatever he wanted them to do. One day, one swami secretly went to Kailash Ashram but Swamiji came to know that he had gone there. “Where did you go?” Gurudev asked.

“I went to Kailash Ashram,” said the swami.

“What for?” asked Gurudev.

“I was attending Vivekachudamani class,” replied the swami.

“Horns will grow on you,” Gurudev said, and went away. It means that pride will increase. “You started reading Vivekachudamani. Very learned man indeed.”

So Gurudev would not permit reading, not because he was averse to any attempt at intellectual purification, but he was cautious to guard these little ones from assuming any kind of position in their minds and would remove it immediately by some means or the other.

He would never give discourses or lectures, and often people complained that he would not instruct or teach. “Swamiji, we want instructions.” He would be annoyed when he heard such complaints.

“You want instructions? See what I do. That is my instruction.” The way in which he conducted himself he regarded as an instruction. He would not sit and harangue before audiences. But he had a systematic routine of studying scriptures—scriptures which he used to have people read in the satsanga that was conducted for several hours every evening, until 11:00 at night and sometimes even later. This satsanga used to be held on the veranda of his kutir in summer and in the Bhajan Hall in winter. At sunset it would start. Every evening he came up via the zigzag footpath because there was no road or steps that we have now. It was just a hill with a very rugged path.

I had a little taste of conducting satsangas and Sadhana Weeks in those days, which were quite different from the Sadhana Weeks we hold now. I was in charge of the satsangas for years and years, ever since he somehow felt that I should be involved in that kind of work, though I did also akhanda kirtana for one year continuously. The satsanga in those days was also of a different type. My duty was spreading the carpet, putting the seats, keeping the photograph of the different deities on different days, lighting a lamp, keeping the book suitable for reading on that particular day, and commencing the satsanga. After the initial recitation of the prayers and the mantras and the reading from a scripture—it may be the Yoga Vasishtha or the Srimad Bhagavata—there was a very novel policy adopted of seeing that everyone seated there would chant the name of God. Many people used to absent themselves because of the fear of chanting, and some people used to complain that they had a cold or a hoarse throat and that they were not able to chant the name. He would say, “Let the hoarse throat chant, and no exemption.” Everybody had to chant. It was not just one or two persons chanting and the others following, merely listening. Everyone had to recite the Hari Ram mantra or whatever it was.

A very peculiar feature of the human mind it is that even if a person is healthy and vociferous and capable of shouting at other times, when the time for chanting the Divine Name comes, his throat will not operate. No voice will come. He will be fumbling to find a word, and will not know what to say. He utterly fails in that particular hard predicament, whatever be his activity and importance at other times. But Gurudev used to drive that diffidence and discomfiture out of people.

We were all unacquainted with the art of speaking, especially public speaking. We would shiver to think of it. How could we speak before three people? But Swami Sivananda was a hard taskmaster. He would see that we had to speak. I was not at all acquainted with speaking. I could not speak even one sentence, and he knew this, so he wanted to see that this problem of mine was removed. Suddenly he would say, in the middle of satsanga and in the presence of all people, “Go and speak.”

“I cannot speak,” I would say.

“Then say, ‘I cannot speak’. Can you not say even this much? You are saying that you cannot speak. Go there and sit on the dais and say that you cannot speak.” Somehow we would sit there and blabber something. “Wonderful! Wonderful!” he would say. “Wonderful lecture.” And one banana would be given as a present.

He was an encourager of every potentiality in a person. That was his grandness, that was his insight, and that was his greatness. If a musician came, he would see that the potentiality of music is given the freest measure of expression. If a danseuse came, he would encourage that person. If a professor came, he would say, “Professor Sahib, today only your speech and no one else’s.” And he would give a series of lectures.

The goodness of Gurudev’s heart was actually a testimony to the greatness of God, and as days passed he became more and more attractive to the people around him. His little office was a darbar, as people used to call it. In Hindi a darbar means a colossal royal session that is being held. Devotees used to sing about the glories of the darbar or the session of Gurudev. This darbar, this session of Gurudev, was considered as a means of taking people across the ocean of samsara.

Charity was an unbounded expression of himself. There was no management then. He was himself everything. Even then there was some person called a secretary who was managing the whole Ashram with a tight corner pressing from all sides, and it was difficult to make ends meet. In those days Gurudev’s charities increased. Even to a snake charmer he would offer 75 rupees. That snake charmer was startled. He did not know whether he was seeing properly or he had become blind: 75 rupees! Nobody would give him 10 paise, but Gurudev gave 75 rupees to him. People could not understand this.

The economic principle that Gurudev maintained was a defeat to all modern economists. He had no arithmetic and no mathematics. Once he shockingly announced that he would not allow any remnant of finance for tomorrow. Every day has to be that day only, and tomorrow shall take care of itself. This cannot be the word of an expert manager or economist, but that is the word of a saint: Keep not for the morrow. No one can ever accept this philosophy that we should not keep for the morrow. We can accept anything, and any teacher can be respected, but this we cannot accept because our hearts, our spirits, our mortal frames revolt against the needs that are thus refuted by a mathematics of topsy-turvy calculations.

I began by saying that Godmen are inundated by the being of God. That we cannot accept this, that we have to keep a paise for the morrow, and we feel that it is absolutely essential—not merely essential, but absolutely essential—will show to what extent we are able to face the fire of the Almighty. Nobody will touch that. And Swami Sivananda was warning people of the possibility of sinking down into the complacencies and comforts we call needs, while there are no needs.

I am not recounting any chronological series of incidents, but ideas as they occur. “Will anybody come to Brahmaloka?” was his announcement one night after the satsanga. “Does anybody want to come to Brahmaloka?” It appeared that when the second announcement was made the drum was beaten at the time of the ascent of Sri Rama. People say it was also done at the time of the passing of Krishna. The Brahmaloka Gurudev was referring to, to which he invited everybody, was his direction at that moment. He wanted to take us, but nobody could understand.

Miraculous transformations and changes took place in the entire structure of the Ashram after his Mahasamadhi. I call it miraculous because when he left this world, this Ashram was in debt. You know what debt means—something worse than which nothing can be. In that condition the Ashram was. But sixteen days after Sri Gurudev’s passing we held one of the grandest of celebrations here, one of the largest feedings ever conducted in the Ashram and one of the most enthusiastic of functions, which must have cost us any amount of money. From where did we get it? You will be surprised. The people who were being pinched by the thorns of debt had not the least difficulty in conducting this wondrous and beautiful function on the sixteenth day and for a few days around after his passing. It was something like the touch which the divine hands of Sri Krishna gave to the poverty of Sudama, a story well known to you all. Invisibly he blessed us. And today we know how many people eat in this kitchen; we cannot count them. They may be visitors, guests, and persons whom we have not seen.

How Gurudev has spread himself throughout the world—there is no country where Swami Sivananda’s name is not known or heard. He never went out of India. He never went anywhere, except once around different parts of the country. He lived in a hovel rather than a room; minus ventilation, minus any facility, in that he stayed. It was a building which does not even belong to the Ashram; in that he stayed throughout his life. He never participated in the beautiful buildings of the Ashram.

Gurudev Sri Swami Sivanandaji became for us all an embodiment of tapasya, austerity. He lived a meagre life, wearing only a strip of cloth except in winter, but he is showering upon us this blessing that we are enjoying today. In what ways we are enjoying, let each one deeply contemplate.