Chapter 4: The Foundation of Hardship
The perception of pain and suffering is often the impulsion behind the sudden rise of a religious awareness, and it acts as such a powerful awakener that one begins to see a new world in front of oneself. The transitory character of things, which is the basic conditioning factor of all things, is exactly what misses the attention of people. It required a person like the Buddha—Gautama Siddhartha—to tell people that everything is transient.
Why should someone have to tell us that things pass away? Do we not see this phenomenon with our own eyes? We do see the coming and the going of all things; so why should Buddha have to tell us, as if we do not see it and know it? We see the birth and the death of people. Everything everywhere on Earth is insecure; one’s condition on the morrow is not guaranteed today. ‘Transitoriness’ is a poor word to describe this problem. It is as if we are carrying death on our heads or it is hung around our necks. Our only possession of worth, our only treasure, seems to be our subjection to death. Nothing else seems to be present, existing or stable anywhere in the world.
The stability of objects is an illusion. Nothing stands; everything moves. Neither the flame of a lamp nor the movement of a river is a phenomenon of staticity. It is a dynamic action. Velocity is mistaken for stability. The blades of fast-moving electric fans look like stable existences, as if they do not move at all. When the rapidity of movement passes beyond the ken of the capacity of the eye’s perception, it ceases to be an object to the eyes. Our eyes cannot catch the speed of things, and so we see what is not there. Hence, it requires an awakened spirit to come and tell us that things are not what they seem. “Even this shall pass away” is a line from Shakespeare. Everything passes away. Not merely shall it pass away—everything passes away at every moment. There is a continuity of the procession of events. The whole world is a procession, and not a stable entity. It is a rapidly moving series of cinematographic pictures, as it were. Even this is not a proper comparison because here at least the pictures are stable, even if just for a split second, but in this world nothing remains stable even for a split second.
The world is a process. When we say the world is a transition, we are likely to feel that something is moving from one condition to another condition. It is not something that is moving; it is only movement, and nothing but that. It is difficult to understand what force means. Force is not a substance. We cannot tangibly cognise it or perceive it or come in contact with it. There is no tangibility in a process or a movement. This is the way in which we can distinguish between objects and bits of energy or force.
Hence, there is a great similarity between the modern discovery of the whole world being a sea of energy and Buddha’s ancient proclamation that all is transition. They are only two different ways to describe the same occurrence. The world is not; it is just a movement. How is it that we seem to be caught up by the apparent stabilities of things in this world and we do not perceive the inherent destruction that is gnawing into the vitals of the apparent stabilities? Are we not from moment to moment heading towards death? Are we not preparing for this termination of the movement of our procedural activities through this anatomical body? Are we existing and are we moving, even if it is only movement and transition and dying? How is it that we do not perceive it?
The reason is a peculiar interaction between the perceptual faculties and the so-called structural pattern of objects, which really are not objects. A particular collocation of forces at a given point in space and time catches the attention of a particular structural pattern of the perceptual apparatus, and this peculiar momentary interaction between these two terminals of perception gives the impression of a stable object in front. This is a sort of scientific explanation of the erroneous perception of stability in actually moving forces. While science requires a laboratory to discover the momentary condition of things, an illumination of this kind struck the mind of Buddha. It is suddenly presented before the minds of great leaders of mankind—spiritual heroes—and they realise the anityata, the dukhamayata and the asasvatata of the whole world.
Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj was a medical man. The anatomy of the physical body may be said to be a real description of its beauty. Gurudev used to say that only doctors can know the truth of things because they can probe into the human system more accurately, more precisely than the naked eye of a relative, a friend, a father, a mother or a brother. The medical man that Sri Swami Sivanandaji was, he could very easily be turned into a physician of the soul. Though very little of his early life is known to us, it is said that this phenomenon of transition, transitoriness, sorrow, pain and suffering of people awakened his spirit. His actual career as a torchbearer of the spirit may be said to have commenced between the years 1922 to 1924.
In the year 1922 there was an astounding flood—water, water everywhere. The water level rose to such an extent that towns were flooded. In the cyclic movement of time, occasionally such floods do come. We had a little experience of it here in the year 1963, when five feet of water entered the kutir of Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, and inside his bedroom one could be drowned. After that, the Ganga never rose to such an extent; it never rose at all. Devotees with an eye to seeing the mysteries of things saw significance in the Ganga rising to such a level, which she never did at any other time. She came, as it were, to meet the great spirit that left. Otherwise how could we expect the Ganga to enter the room and rise to a height of five feet inside the room? In those days many of us might not have been in this world. Some of us might have been little children, and a few might have been adults. The years were 1922 to 1924. We need not go into the details of the manner of Swami Sivananda’s wind-like movement northwards; the point is that the wind touched the North.
What was Rishikesh like in those days? It is really worthwhile to contemplate those conditions. Only those who can stretch their imaginations, like an artist, can behold the beauty of such an atmosphere. When I was a little boy, I heard that monks used to carry fire on their heads when they travelled from Haridwar northwards to Badrinath. It must have been intensely cold that they carried fire on their heads. There were no roads from Haridwar onwards. It was a forest, a thick jungle inhabited by wild animals. Even some thirty or forty years ago people saw tigers in these forests. Nowadays the tigers must have left, or they died. There was nothing here which could be called a human environment. It was considered as an abode of anchorites, ascetics, renunciates who could somehow manage to survive—by what means, God alone knows.
Incidentally, I may mention the hardships of the lives of these great saints and sadhus in those days. There was no question of food, because sadhus had no means of purchasing food and there was no other way of obtaining it. There was a great saint called Swami Vishuddhanandaji Maharaj, usually referred to as Baba Kali Kamli Wale because of the black blanket that he used to wear. Evidently he was a master spirit in himself, which we can appreciate from the effect produced by his austerities, as can be seen today. Pilgrims used to walk on hard ground that was covered with pebbles and stones. There was no footpath even worth the name, and there was no accommodation whatsoever on the way. We should not compare those days with the present when we can travel quickly by car and reach Badrinath and perhaps even return the same evening. Such comparisons cannot be made. There were hardships galore, and unadulterated problems. Swami Vishuddhanandaji Maharaj—Baba Kali Kamli Wale—observed the sorrows of these pilgrims, that they had no water and no food. It appears that he stood in the middle of the shambles of the little town of Rishikesh and insisted that some arrangements be made for the poor pilgrims. He appealed to the well-to-do Seths, Marwadis, etc., that a chaultri (halting place) should be built in Rishikesh and food should be offered to the sadhus, and facilities should also be provided along the way at various places for them to rest.
This is the story behind the founding of what is today called the Baba Kali Kamli Wala Kshetra, where hundreds and hundreds of sadhus are given free food. Incidentally, as a branch, as it were, the Swargashram Annakshetra was opened a little later. This ashram known as the Swargashram existed in a seed form, functioning in miniature during those days. This may not have been exactly in 1922—maybe two or three years afterwards. It is not very clear to us. One of the disciples of Swami Vishuddhanandaji Maharaj, known as Atmaprakashanandaji Maharaj, settled down on the other side of the Ganga and named that location as Swargashram, and opened an Annakshetra for the resident sadhus there. That was where Gurudev Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj did his tapasya. There was no Sivananda Ashram. There was no Divine Life Society. There was nothing. There was just stone and thorn and jungle—no house, no human beings.
There was the Ram Ashram, built by Lala Bidyanath, a great lawyer and scholar who was a disciple of the late revered spiritual leader Swami Rama Tirtha. The Ram Ashram is said to be named after Swami Rama Tirtha, the great saint. We are told that by some mysterious occurrence—God only knows what was the reason behind it—the body of the great saint was found floating on the river Ganga. This is what we hear—that it was seen at this spot. As a mark of respect for the great saint whose body was discovered there, Lala Bidyanath had this ashram constructed—the Ram Ashram, which is mainly a library.
Swami Sivananda was initiated into the order of Sannyasa by most revered Swami Vishvananda Sarasvati. Magic-like was that initiation. Instantaneous was the conversation, and in a minute the whole process was over. We hear that he received Jnana Sannyasa—initiation into Sannyasa by the method of pure communication of wisdom, or knowledge. After this initiation, the ritualistic form of it was completed in the present Kailash Ashram, and at that time the pontiff was Swami Vishnudevanandaji Maharaj (not the one who is in Canada now). He was a very old Sanskrit scholar—a great genius in Sanskrit studies and Sanskrit wisdom whom Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj adored as his own Guru and beloved master—and he completed the rituals of the Sannyasa diksha. Then Swami Sivanandaji moved to the other side of the Ganga, and in a little hut, a little cottage, he found his abode.
What was his diet? There was no clarified butter, or ghee, no oil, no milk, no fruits. What else was there? Dry bread used to be distributed to the sadhus, with a little bit of pulse, or dal, with no oil or ghee in it. Try eating such a thing for several days—dry bread with no lubrication whatsoever—you will see what will happen to your stomach. The sadhusused to suffer very much with dysentery, and illnesses of various kinds due to inclement weather. No medical treatment was possible; there were no hospitals. I mentioned that there were not even human beings, let alone hospitals and such other facilities—no shops, nothing. There was just a little mini-township called Rishikesh.
Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj was a doctor, a medical specialist, and he was well read in the modern sense of the term. He was the only English-educated sadhu. They used to call him Doctor Swami. When I occasionally visited Kailash Ashram to pay my respects to the great Swami Vishnudevanandaji Maharaj, he used to ask me, “Doctor Swami kaise hain?” Swami Sivanandaji was a medical specialist and a Good Samaritan for all suffering souls.
Swami Sivanandaji had no money. Financially he was a pauper, and so were all the sadhus. They had nothing. But he was a reputed person. He was a stalwart in many ways, and he was recognised as a kind of spirit that leads, who could speak intelligently—not merely speak intelligently, but even contact government authorities because of his education and sympathetic nature. He was not an isolated individual, remaining only in his room. He noticed the problems of the sadhus in Swargashram. I should mention here a great little service—it can be called great and little at the same time—which is that Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj received one rupee per month from a schoolmaster in Nagpur called Hari Ganesh Ambekar, who later on took Sannyasa and became Swami Hariomananda Saraswati. He was a science teacher in a high school. He read a pamphlet or a book of Swami Sivananda, and he used to send a one rupee money order every month. In those days one rupee was a very great treasure. One could eat for a month on two rupees, so one rupee was a very great thing indeed. We hear that this one rupee which came from this schoolmaster was utilised in a most appropriate manner. How was it utilised? A little milk and a little yogurt were purchased by Swami Sivanandaji. What for? It was not for himself. He used to observe which sadhus were suffering with stomach trouble, with diarrhea, dysentery, fever. But those sadhus were of a peculiar type; they would not accept anything from anyone. One sadhu could not go and give a little yogurt to another sadhu; he would not accept it. He would say, “No, I am satisfied.” He would certainly reject any kind of offering, especially if he knew who gave it. So when the bell rang for bhiksha in Swargashram and the sadhus went for their alms, Swamiji would quietly go into the kutirs of the sadhus who were ill and put a mug full of milk or yogurt in the corner of the kutir, and leave without anyone knowing. The sadhu who returned from the kshetra would not know who gave it, so he would accept it. For months and months nobody knew what this phenomenon was, and it was not discovered. Later on Swamiji became a friend, philosopher and guardian.
But with the growth of reputation, Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj also became a cynosure of all eyes in a very unpleasant manner. We know very well that there is a trait in human nature which cannot appreciate the growth of another person. One does not like that another should prosper, especially if one is unable to prosper equally, in the same proportion. “When I am small, why should the other person be big?” This attitude is present practically in every person, and one day or the other it can manifest itself under given circumstances. “If I am poor, let all be poor. If I die, others also should die. Why should they live?” This subtle jealousy arose due to the reputation of the educated Swami and the adoration that was bestowed upon him by the other Mahatmas. This was not considered as a happy thing by those who had authority over the sadhus. It slowly brewed, like a simmering volcano, and it took twelve years to actually boil to the surface. This is a side issue.
Incidentally, to repeat again, this medical Swami was not merely satisfied with collecting medicine, curd and milk, etc., for sadhus. He found a location near the other side of Laxmanjula Bridge and opened a little dispensary called the Sathya Seva Ashram Dispensary, which is today a government hospital. That was the place where he started his medical work.
But Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj was not merely a medical man. He was a spiritual healer who came from the South to the North not only to do this kind of work; he was an austere and very fierce type of sadhaka. ‘Fierce’ is the only adjective I can use to describe the type of tapas that he is said to have performed. He used to be busy throughout the day in the service of pilgrims who passed by. There was no motorable road. Pilgrims had to cross over the bridge and follow the footpath. It is there that Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj had his little abode, the Sathya Seva Ashram Dispensary. It was a very convenient place for him to see all the pilgrims passing by and find out who required any kind of aid. It gave him great joy. “To serve is my duty. It is my gospel,” he said. But Swamiji was altogether different inside. This is something which was observed by many of us who lived with him for so many years. He was a very amiable, ultra-social type of person, over-enthusiastic in the service of people, going out of the way to be of assistance to others—initiating talk, even if they did not speak. Such an extreme type of social, serviceful humanitarian was totally different inside himself.
The one who was concerned with the welfare of everyone was really concerned with nothing. That great difference has to be reconciled. We have to find an explanation for the coming together of these apparent contraries in the personality of that single individual. A person who was an out-and-out humanitarian social welfare worker, as it were, wanting to be of help to people even if they were not wanting any assistance, running after pilgrims who were going to Badrinath in order to give them medicine, a cup of water, a little milk—running after them because he had missed these people and they had already walked a furlong or two or even a mile. “Oh. I didn’t see them. I was elsewhere”—so he ran with a cup of water, a little milk, some medicine and something they could carry with them. Such a person who could be considered as a super social worker wanted nothing for himself. That he wanted nothing for himself was something which was manifest in many of his actions in later days, which we ourselves observed. I am one of those persons who lived with Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj for several years, and I was close to him even physically, so that many of his peculiarities—they may be called idiosyncrasies, contraries, greatnesses and magnificences—could be observed. I am not going to recount all of them, but some interesting features are worth making objects of our contemplation.
Even though Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj was a super social welfare worker, he was a person who had no social relations. He was busy throughout the day with this kind of medical service, but what was he doing at night? If you can walk for about a mile or so northwards along the road you will find, at a particular bend towards the left, a governmental habitat of tin sheds, evidently a kind of base for the project of a dam that they are trying to construct across the Ganga. There you will find a sandbank on the other side which is said to be the place of his tapasya. That sandbank was the place of Swamiji’s tapasya, and the Ganga flowing in front touching the sandbank was the place where he stood up to his navel in the cold water of the Ganga. Later on he developed lumbago, and he used to say that lumbago was the consequence. The cold water struck his bones so hard that he could not bend properly. Anyway, his tapasya was standing in the Ganga, navel deep, and doing whatever he did. It was his inner secret and contemplation on the sandbank there. That sandbank can be seen even today. It is a very holy spot. Nobody goes there because nobody knows the significance of that place, but it is worth noticing.
I mentioned that a schoolmaster sent Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj a money order of one rupee every month. Swamiji had no fountain pen with which to write a book; he had no paper, no clerical assistance, and no printing facilities. After taking bhiksha in Swargashram he used to go to the Ram Ashram library and read book after book. Most of the books in the library of the Ram Ashram have many red marks that were made by Swami Sivanandaji. There is practically no book there which he has not read, especially the books in English; and all the red underlining is supposed to have been done by him.
Then he used to go to Rishikesh and collect a bundle of old newspapers and bring them back to his kutir. What did he do with the newspapers? Newspapers have a little bit of space in the margins, maybe half an inch. That was the paper on which he wrote, because he had no other paper. The margins of those newspapers were his writing pads, and I am told that one of the first, or perhaps the first, manuscripts that he wrote later became a book called Spiritual Lessons, in two volumes. It was a bundle, and not a well-trimmed manuscript. A heap of cuttings of the margins of newspapers, bundled up like a haystack, were his thoughts recorded as Spiritual Lessons.
Who would print it? There were two devotees in Madras. One was G. A. Natesan and another was P. K. Vinayakam. They had printing presses and they were publishers, but they were not job workers; they would not take up just any kind of work. Somehow, when the Swami from Rishikesh in the Himalayas, a stalwart saint, wrote a line asking about the possibility of releasing these writings in print, G. A. Natesan replied, “Great Swamiji, we do not undertake job works, but because this letter has come from a great saint, we shall do it.” This book, Spiritual Lessons, was the first of Gurudev’s writings. Some say it is Practice of Yoga, which was in two volumes, though today the same book is in one volume. Spiritual Lessons, Practice of Yoga and Sure Ways of Success in Life and God Realisation were the earliest of his writings, followed by The Practice of Vedanta, which is not available today, and Vedanta in Daily Life, which was published by M. Elley and Co., Amritsar and Lahore Printers. These great helpers should be remembered because in those days of hardship, helpers of this kind were rare. Those publishers who were associated with this great master in releasing his writings which came out of such hardship should also be considered as pillars of the great edifice of The Divine Life Society, which grew later on.