The Philosophy and Teaching of Swami Sivananda
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on July 8, 1972)

The history of The Divine Life Society can be divided into several chapters. The first chapter is the conception of The Divine Life Society. ‘Conception’ means that it is like a baby which is still in the mother’s womb, not yet born. The period of conception of The Divine Life Society was from 1924 to 1936.

The years 1936 to 1948 may be regarded as the educational process of The Divine Life Society when the whole Society was being trained, disciplined, chastened and put to hard work. I was one of those who joined the Society during that period. We all had to work very hard, to labour and sweat without the facilities that we have today in the ashram. It was a period of intense Guru-seva, I may say, where whatever the Guru said was the gospel truth and the order from an irrevocable source of law and ordinance. That was the period until the year 1948.

We were very few in the ashram during that period, not even one-fourth the number of what we see today. But it was a period of intense moral and intellectual discipline for every inmate of the ashram. Sri Swamiji used to come and see us at least four times a day and give us various types of work, but it was work with great pleasure and satisfaction attached to it because it was a period of training specifically of the type of the Gurukula where the tutor, the head of the institution, was also a parent to the children who were under him for training and education. He was not merely a teacher, an instructor or an agent for training, but a well-wisher and a caretaker in every sense of the term.

Inasmuch as there was that deep affection underlying the discipline that Sri Gurudev imposed on people in the ashram, it should perhaps be regarded as the golden age of the Society when it was all work and at the same time all delight, joy and strength of an uncanny nature. Swami Sivananda himself was a hard worker, and he would also put others to the rack, and the training that he gave to people in those days was versatile. His motto was that every member of The Divine Life Society, at least at the headquarters, should be a versatile genius. He must be a good cook, a good sweeper, a good speaker, a good sadhaka, and he must be a man of ideal conduct and demeanour. He never tired of emphasising to his disciples this need for versatility of conduct and practice.

Swamiji always disliked lop-sidedness of approach in any walk of life or any chosen ideal or path of yoga. If a person took to japa alone, he would take that person to task: “This method I do not like, rolling the beads from morning till evening without any kind of work.” But if a person was very rajasic, only running about and working, he would say, “I do not like this kind of rajasic nature. You must have one or two hours every day for meditation and study.” If a person took only to study and reading, becoming a bookworm and never coming out of his room, Swamiji would say, “This is not going to take you anywhere. You go to the National Library of Calcutta. This is not the place for you.” And if a person said “I am a Vedantin”, he would say, “You go to Kailash Ashram. Don’t stay in this place. It is not meant for you. Go to Uttarkashi.” So anything taken exclusively was not to his liking or to his satisfaction.

Nor did Swamiji wish any member of the ashram to make any kind of complaint. We should bear everything. Bear insult and injury, bear hardship. There should be no lop-sidedness, no one-sidedness of approach in anything. Wherever you are, you must be an all-round person. He used to say, “This is my disciple who says, ‘Do you want a cook? I am ready to cook your food. Do you want me to clean the place? I shall clean it. Do you want me to give a discourse? Yes, I shall give one. Do you want me to conduct a yoga asana class? Yes, I shall do it. Do you want me to sing a kirtan? I can sing it. There is nothing I cannot do.’” In one of his poems he gave a definition of his disciple: “My disciple is an all-round person. My disciple does not make complaints. My disciple does not ask anything from people. My disciple is always happy and never morose or melancholy.” You can see how many disciples are there of Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj from the point of view of this definition.

I am giving you a very bare outline of what we had to undergo during the period from 1936 to 1948. I was not there from 1936; I came in 1944, towards the end of this period. This is what I heard and also what I saw to some extent during the later part of this period of discipline, training and education which the members of the ashram received from Swamiji directly till the year 1948 when, on the 3rd of July, a brainwave occurred to him. One fine evening he called a few of us—Swami Chidanandaji, myself, Swami Venkatesanandaji, and Harishanandaji Maharaj primarily—and said, “Tomorrow morning at 4:30 we shall have a special class, and I will sow the seed of what shall be called the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy.”

Then people said, “It cannot be an academy or a university. There are no students and no professors.” Swamiji said, “I don’t want professors, I don’t want students, I don’t want to call it a university, I don’t want even a place. We shall sit under a tree only. And students are plenty. I am the first student.” He called Swami Chidanandaji and myself, and said, “Chidanandaji, Krishnanandaji, you are the professors, and I shall be the first student.”

You see, when Sri Gurudev spoke like that it was difficult for a person to swallow these things, and we could not help being elated and overjoyed at the childlike affection which he showed towards us, together with the severe discipline. As he used to say, “I am Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra combined. I shall create work, create opportunity for progress and prosperity in every way like Brahma, and I shall take care of it like Vishnu, but I shall also be a very severe person like Rudra when the necessity for it arises.” And he was. Many of us found it very hard to live like that, and at least 75% or 80% of the people left the ashram because the discipline was too much, because, well, it does not matter if there was discipline, but there should be also some kind of facility and comfort. But that was not there. It was only hard work for no recompense, no visible effect whatsoever. One did not know where one stood. But God’s grace was there on some people, and a few had the blessing of being in his physical company for years and learning from his personal life and example rather than from teachings and books.

Gurudev was a great master, the like of which it is very difficult to see. As it is often said that the Bhagavadgita is the great gospel which Bhagavan Sri Krishna himself lived in his life, and that the life of Sri Krishna is a practical illustration and commentary on the gospel of the Bhagavadgita, so it may be very beautifully and aptly said that The Divine Life Society is the visible demonstration of the embodied personality of Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, and he himself was the practical commentary on the ideal of divine life.

Thus, in the early morning of the 3rd of July, 1948, a few of us gathered, and for years our classes were at 4:30 in the morning. True to his word, Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj used to get up first, before we got up, and he used to come and peep into my room and say, “Krishnanandaji, 4:30!” and I would shake my head and wake up. He would come and ring the bell first, and we would come afterwards. It was a shame upon all of us that he used to come and ring the bell; afterwards we made it a point to come earlier because it was painful to have him wake us up and then sit and wait for us. When we came, Swamiji was already there. We would all weep, really, that though he was not a young boy and we were all young at that time, he had to get us up.

Four swamis were requisitioned to give lessons on four subjects. I was to give lessons on philosophy or Jnana Yoga, Swami Chidanandaji Maharaj was to give lessons on the Raja Yoga of Patanjali, Swami Venkatesanandaji was to give lessons on Karma Yoga, and Swami Harishanandaji Maharaj, who is now in Barsana, was the professor of Bhakti Yoga. Gurudev really behaved like a student. Immediately after the lecture was over he would go to his room and jot down all the points, write four poems on the subject, and sometimes a few articles as well. It was a very educative period.

This went on from 1948 and, to digress, there was a new chapter of The Divine Life Society from 1948 till the year 1963. It was a period of expansion after this training that was given to inmates, expansion in every department of the Society. More and more people started coming, more disciples, more inmates, and more work was created. More departments were instituted, and the ashram grew economically, physically, socially, internationally, and also spiritually. In every respect, I should say, it went on improving until the chapter came to a close in 1963 when Swami Sivananda passed away. From 1963 onwards we can say there has been another chapter altogether.

The academy was called a university, but people said we should not call it a university because ‘university’ has a peculiar connotation and system of working which is impracticable here. Then Sri Gurudev changed the name to the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy. Some said ‘academy’ also is not good, but Swamiji said, “It doesn’t matter. Some name has to be there.” And occasionally he himself used to give his message. It was not that every day he spoke, but on special occasions he took the opportunity to give us a message of what he meant by the Yoga Vedanta which was the subject of teaching.

The yoga and the Vedanta that Swamiji taught and lived, and expected others to practise, was and is, as he was wont to say, ‘the yoga of synthesis’. The yoga of synthesis is what he meant by the term ‘Yoga Vedanta’. As we have the colophon of the Bhagavadgita, brahmavidyāyāṁ yogaśāstre, signifying the scientific foundation of knowledge and the methodology of practice—Brahmavidya and Yogashastra—we have the terms ‘yoga’ and ‘Vedanta’ indicating practice and the scientific foundation of it.

Thought precedes action. Idea is always precedent to the implementation of a principle or a law. We think first, and only afterwards try to do something. This thinking is Vedanta, and the doing of it is yoga. To do something, we have to think first as to what is to be done. Before the government of a nation starts working, it frames a constitution, the principles on which it has to work. The background of law, rule and regulation is first laid down theoretically as the principle and the theorem which is the grounding of the various ramifications in the form of departmental activity, administration, etc. So is the case with spiritual practice. We cannot suddenly jump into doing something unless we are something, we understand something and are educated in a particular manner.

This fundamental process of theoretical, scientific education in principle is Brahmavidya, the Vedanta philosophy, and when we start living this philosophy we are said to be practising yoga. Here, yoga does not mean the sutras of the Yoga System of Patanjali, nor does Vedanta mean the Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads or the system of Acharya Sankara. Yoga is a general term that was applied to give a comprehensive idea of the theory and the practice of spiritual life in its comprehensiveness.

Vedanta is not a textbook, nor is yoga a system of sutras. The Vedanta philosophy is a universal discipline of the human system, the process of comprehensive education of the human personality in its scientific spirit, and unless we are trained in this scientific manner to think correctly, we will not act correctly. One who cannot think rightly cannot act rightly. Most people are accustomed to the shibboleth, “Do, act, be very active in your daily life and be working out something or other” but the consequence of one’s action, deed or practice is entirely dependent on the extent of one’s understanding of the basis or the philosophy of this practice.

The relation between theory and practice is not the relation between the means and the end. It is something much more. Or we may say, if at all we wish to use this concept of the relation between theory and practice, it is the relation between the foundation and the building. The building alone is visible. The foundation is not visible, it is underground, but we know the importance of the foundation for the building. Everything rests upon it. Similarly, all practice is founded upon the philosophical discipline which one has to undergo.

The whole of the system which Sri Swamiji Maharaj introduced into the aims and objects of The Divine Life Society is nothing but this Vedanta and yoga worked out in practice. There was no such thing as a world for Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. In a small biographical note that he wrote, which was published as “What Life has Taught Me”, we have his fundamental concept of life given in a nutshell: “There is no world before me. I see the Virat before me.” That was his philosophy; that was his Vedanta. It was not the Brahma Sutras, it was not the Upanishads, it was not the Rigveda, it was not any textbook. It was a simple precept. “There is no world for me. I see the Virat in front of me.” There can be no greater philosophy than this. There can be no scientific foundation for practice other than this visualisation of the Virat before the human eye, and this philosophy was what Swamiji lived, what he demonstrated in practice, and what he expected of his disciples. While the yoga of synthesis was the implementation of his philosophy, the philosophy was having the visualisation of the Virat in all bodies. He was fond of the Purusha Sukta of the Rigveda: sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ (P.S. 1). And his practice was simple, not a complicated network of disciplines as seen in the Yoga Shastras such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, etc. He was not fond of books. As a matter of fact, in the early days he was averse to the study or reading of any book.

There was one swamiji in the ashram. I am talking of the very early days when there were only a dozen people in the ashram, perhaps even less. Sri Swamiji Maharaj never encouraged the study of books or reading of any kind. He said, “Do what I say. This is your study.” One morning a swami happened to go to the Kailash Ashram without the knowledge of Swamiji, and he was asking, “Where is this swamiji? Where has he gone?”

We said, “He has gone to Kailash Ashram.”

“What for?” Swamiji asked. Nobody knew. So when he came back, Swamiji inquired from him where he had gone.

“I went to Kailash Ashram to study Viveka Chudamani,” he replied.

“Oh, I see. So two horns have grown,” said Swamiji, gesturing to show two horns. “Now you have got two horns. That means ahamkara, egoism, has started. You want to be a learned man, a Viveka Chudamani professor.” He went on haranguing on this theme, and from the next day onwards the swamiji stopped going to Kailash Ashram. He said, “It is not appreciated.”

The point was not that he should not read, but unless we are properly trained for the purpose behind the study of scriptural texts, the study becomes another horn to the one that already exists, as Swamiji said. That is, there is every likelihood of a sadhaka slipping into the rut of self-consciousness, self-complacency, self-sufficiency and an untutored, inadequate and immature notion that one has reached the pedestal in spiritual life. Nothing can be worse than this for a spiritual seeker. We study the Panchadasi and the Chhandogya Upanishad, and then we think that the only thing left for us is to uplift the world: “Now I shall go around uplifting the world.” These ideas will suddenly come up in the mind of almost every seeker who originally comes with a genuine aspiration for spiritual practice and God-realisation. Spiritual pride is the worst of prides. The pride of the worldly man is nowhere near the pride of the spiritual seeker because he thinks the world is nothing before him; and because this was well known to Sri Gurudev by sheer practice and observation, he was averse to any chance being given to sadhakas to develop egoism of any kind.

Swami Sivanandaji hated what he called the lip Vedanta of the Mandaleswars or the scholars. Lip Vedanta was also called dry Vedanta in the sense that it has no connection with life. I am quoting his own words and the way in which he used to put things: “You have read the Panchadasi and the Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads wholly, and you can expound the Brahma Sutras in an oratorical fashion, but you will be angry with your cook because he put a little less salt in the dahl or there is a little less sugar in your tea. ‘What an idiot you are!’ you will say to the cook, and throw the cup. This is not philosophy, this is not Vedanta, this is not the scientific foundation of yoga.” This was the practical instruction which Sri Gurudev used to give untiringly not only to disciples who came from outside but to everyone who was in the ashram.

Swamiji lived and taught the Brahmavidya, the perennial, perpetual undercurrent of thought that God-realisation is the goal of life. Every discourse, every speech that he gave started with: “God-realisation is the goal of life” or “The goal of life is God-realisation”. Many of his earlier books would begin with this sentence: “The goal of life is God-realisation”; and he would not tire of saying this. One can repeat this truth any number of times and it would not be a redundancy or tautology or repetition. The goal of life is God-realisation. This is the philosophical foundation of yoga practice.

I will give you a little exposition of this pithy sentence: “The goal of life is God-realisation.” What is God-realisation and where is God? The Virat was God for Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. “That God which is in the temple is not my God. That Brahman which is in the Brahma Sutras is not my Brahman. That God who is in Satyaloka is not my God.” His God was sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ. The visibility of the cosmos was itself enough demonstration of the existence of a super-sensible reality.

Sri Gurudev used to give a description of his own sadhana to Swami Devanandaji and people like us who used to spend some time in his kutir in later days. “Devanandaji, do you know my sadhana? Call Krishnananda Swamiji. Where is he? I will tell you what my sadhana is. I don’t know much of sadhana. It is my attempt to be good and do good. These high meditations are not for me. Perhaps I will take another birth.” He would say this also, in a joking manner. “But I will tell you what my sadhana is. When I get up in the morning, what do I see? Bhajan Singh comes.” There was a boy called Bhajan Singh who used to serve him, and also Vittal Singh. “When they come, what do I think? It is not that servants have come, but two heads of the Virat Purusha have come.”

It is not merely a theory that Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj spoke. It was not a joke that he made. It was a fact of life that he expressed. There cannot be a greater fact of life than that there is nothing else than the heads of the Virat Purusha. Sarvataḥ pāṇipādaṃ tat sarvatokṣiśiromukham (Gita 13.13): Everywhere heads and everywhere eyes and everywhere feet. Two heads of the Virat Purusha came, and then the third head came: Sonlal came for cleaning the commode. These were the servants who used to see him first in the morning: a sweeper called Sonlal who is still here, and two others, one of whom has gone and the other is still here. “These are not servants. These are the heads of the Virat Purusha. I worship them mentally. And then I get down from my bed, put my foot on my stool, and lay my foot on the ground, I prostrate to Mother Earth: Pardon me, Mother Earth, I have to walk on your body, because for me there is no earth, no sky, no five elements. They are the Virat Purusha. So how can I walk on the earth without blasphemy, Mother Goddess? So pardon me for having kept my foot on your body, Mother Earth.” And if he had any flowers, he would throw the flowers on the heads of people, whether it was a sweeper or a servant or anyone.

There was a small boy who used to sweep his kutir. Swamiji’s bed was a little thick, half an inch thick at least. Every day that boy had to touch that bed, make it even, adjust his pillow, and sweep the ground under it. Somehow Swamiji felt that this boy had a desire to sit on that bed because he was a poor boy from the villages and had never seen such a bed; the question of this boy having such a bed never arose because he had never even seen one. How nice, how beautiful, how soft! Swamiji felt there was a desire in this boy to sleep on that bed. One day he lifted him and put him on the bed. “So jao, so jao,” [go to sleep] he said. The boy was flabbergasted. He got up and tried to run away, but Swamiji pressed him down. “Panch minute so jao, panch minute so jao,” [sleep for five minutes] because he did not want the boy to have that desire unfulfilled. When the boy got up, he didn’t know what was happening to him. “Accha hai,” [it is good] he said.

Nobody would do such things. Nobody would even have the time to think so minutely about such insignificant details of life. We are so busy about big things, and we consider these things as small, insignificant, and sometimes meaningless. To put that boy on the bed is a meaningless absurdity for big people, but Swamiji did not think he was too big to regard such things as absurdities. They are all wonderful opportunities for the recognition of a truth which usually eludes the grasp of human understanding.

So Swamiji said, “If there are flowers, I will throw the flowers on the head of Somlal, sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ, and prostrate to Mother Earth, asking her pardon for having set my foot on her. And then I go to the Ganga. I take three dips. One dip I take for the peace of all those who have left this world, another dip I take for the peace of all those who are now in this world, and the third dip I take for the salvation of this soul. This is my sadhana in a nutshell. How do you like it?” These are the jokes we used to have in his kutir. Those happy days have gone, and we feel like fatherless children now, having to stand on our own legs, bearing the weight of many responsibilities, with no person to cry before and nobody to complain to, with God alone before us. We feel it very badly, and we miss him very much.

Well, such was the great Master Swami Sivananandaji Maharaj, and he instituted this Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy to sow the seed, as he said. That was all he was wanting to do. “I am here only to sow the seed of divine life, to sow the seed of sannyasa, to sow the seed of vairagya, to sow the seed of renunciation, to sow the seed of spirituality, to sow the seed of that conviction and feeling that the goal of life is God-realisation.” He was satisfied in merely having sown the seed. “People will come after me to water it and manure it, and the tendrils and the plant will grow and become a huge tree one day.”

Sri Gurudev was a great believer in future prosperity. He used to give sannyasa to any Tom, Dick and Harry, and people used to say, “He’s a useless fellow. You should not have given him sannyasa.” And he would reply, “In the next birth he will be all right. In this birth he is a rogue, but in the next birth he will be a saint because this cloth that he is wearing every day, this cloth that he is daily seeing on his body will have some sort of an effect upon him, and in the next birth who knows where he will be born? Perhaps he will have a better opportunity for improving himself. That is my opinion. It doesn’t matter; let him be a sannyasin only in cloth, though he is a dacoit inside.” So charitable was his feeling and so vast was his conception. That was a wonderful philosophy, a practical philosophy, a living Vedanta, and that Vedanta was to be the yoga of daily life for his disciples and his students.

Well, this is the philosophy of Vedanta as Swamiji understood it. It was to be a living fountain of inspiration to people. Otherwise, it is not philosophy. A philosophy that cannot inspire your soul is not a philosophy. You do not study philosophy to get a degree or to become a professor in a college. You study philosophy to inspire your soul. If the soul has not grown even an inch by the study of philosophy, you have wasted your time in studying it.

The philosophy of Vedanta is a living, growing, prospering, all-encompassing fountain of inspiration for all humanity. When you take a bath in it, you come out refreshed as from the cool waters of the Ganga. Such is Vedanta, like nectar that you drink, so energising and enlivening and tasty. Once you taste it, you will not leave it, such is the Vedanta philosophy, which will fill you with immense satisfaction and delight. When that is lived, you spread an aura around you. You become an embodiment of peace and happiness, and there is joy in your face. You do not go with a melancholy look; you laugh and smile always. Why should you not smile when God is there? As a poet put it, “God is in heaven and all is well with the world.” If God is there, everything should be all right. To complain about the world is to complain about the discomfiture of God’s creation itself. We do not understand the mysteries of God and so we make complaints against the world, against creation, and sometimes curse even God Himself in our ignorance.

So the living of the Vedanta, the living of the philosophy which is yoga, is the spreading of an aura and lustre of spirituality wherever you are and wherever you go. To speak kindly, to speak sweetly, to speak moderately, to think rightly and to live wisely, this is yoga, this is Vedanta.

It is very difficult to understand the great purpose which Gurudev Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj had in his mind, and the more we think of him, the more we admire him and the more we wish that he was here in this world today, at this moment. We never tired of his presence, and the more we were with him the more we wished to be with him. The more we think of him today and recall the glorious past of our having lived with him, the more we feel small before that magnificent towering stature of his personality and that grand philosophy and the grand practice and technique of living which he instituted and taught to mankind.

Swami Sivananda’s name shall ever remain immortal like that of Vyasa and Bhagavan Sri Krishna, and to be worthy disciples of such a great man and master and adept, we should follow meticulously that definition of his disciple which he himself gave us: “My disciple never complains. My disciple never weeps or cries. My disciple never asks. My disciple is satisfied with everything. My disciple is happy. My disciple gives, and does not take. He remembers always that God-realisation is the goal of life.” May we all be such disciples. May God bless us.