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The Tapas of Swami Sivananda
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken in the Samadhi Shrine during night satsang on January 22, 1984)

The life of a saint is a visible demonstration of what goes by the name of tapas, austerity. The word occurs perhaps for the first time in the Rigveda where tapas, sometimes translated as 'cosmic heat', is considered as the origin of this universe. This word also appears in the Upanishad in a different context when we are told that God performed tapas and created the world. Saints also performed tapas. In consonance with this universal tapas which is said to be the origin of all things, we are reminded here of the great tapas of the saint and sage, master, Swami Sivanandaji. He was well known in the locality here as a fire of austerity, and during the year of the flood, as people generally call that year, 1922, this pioneering spirit entered the jungle of Rishikesh, which was then a veritable forest, unpopulated, and a frightening spot to unacquainted persons. Rishikesh was not even connected by a road to the town of Haridwar.

When I was a little boy, I listened to stories saying that persons going to Badrinath from Haridwar carried fire on their head because it was so cold. Without carrying fire on their head, they could not go to Badrinath. It is possible that in those days the cold was more intense. We are told that long ago part of England was covered in ice, and now the ice is no more for various geographical and astronomical reasons. Such was the time when the great one who was to become the well-known Swami Sivananda came to the holiest of places, known as Brahmadesha, the land of the god that rules the destiny of the country. The very name Haridwar is indicative of that sacred place being the gateway to the place which is presided over by Hari, Narayana. That is why it is called Haridwar. It is not Hardwar, but Haridwar.

However, how Swami Sivananda came and what he did during those days cannot be adequately thought at the present moment of complete social and economic transformation of values, where the general outlook of people also seems to have changed markedly in several pronounced ways. One day when I happened to be at the Sri Ramakrishna Mission Seva Ashrama in Kankul to attend the Pearl Jubilee, or the 70th anniversary of the founding of that hospital of the Sri Ramakrishna Mission, the person in charge there said that a companion of the swami who founded it used to walk every day from Haridwar to Kailash Ashram here, which was perhaps the only ashram here at that time. The Kailash Ashram was founded by Dhanaraj Giri, another great saintly and venerable person. That swami who founded the Sri Ramakrishna Mission Seva Ashrama was perhaps medically oriented, and was intensely desirous of serving people by dispensing medicines and trying to treat their illnesses.

We can only imagine what kind of life people might have had living here under those conditions where civilisation did not appear to have reached at all. What we call civilisation today was far down below in the plains below Haridwar, and not above. It is said that there was not even a motorable road, and people had to walk from Haridwar. This swami, the good Samaritan of those days, was coming to Rishikesh every day to give medicines to poor people, the sadhus who were also in a very difficult condition for various reasons, medically unattended and starved of their creature comforts. There is another great name to be mentioned in this context, Swami Vishuddhananda Saraswati, but commonly the public knows him as Kali Kamli Wala because this great master-saint seems to have been wearing a black blanket. Kali means black and kambali means blanket.

There was no road even to Rishikesh from Haridwar, and what to speak of the way to Badrinath. Unthinkable hardship had to be undergone by the pedestrians. There was no transportation, only walking along a rugged, stony path. The weather was intensely cold, and there was no food to eat. Difficult was the journey to the sacred shrines in the Himalayas. It is not enough if we say it was difficult; it was worse than that.

This great Kali Kamli Wala felt, almost to the point of touching his heart, what a hardship these sadhus, sannyasins, mahatmas and pilgrims were passing through in their holy desire to visit the sacred shrines. It appears that he stood for days together in the little spot we today call Rishikesh, which was not a big town as it is now, and announced that he would not eat until arrangements were made by the well-to-do for the poor and the needy that were suffering a lot during their journey to Badrinath. He refused to eat. Many seths gathered around him and assured him that a daily meal would be doled out from a particular house called a kshetra in Rishikesh town, and then he was satisfied that these sadhus living in Rishikesh would not be put to the hardship of thinking of the morrow. That difficulty was averted by the tapas of this great Swami Vishuddhananda, who stood on bare feet, refusing to eat until arrangements were made for the poor and the sadhus, which was done. Now the Kali Kamli Wala organisation is so big that it serves food not only to the mahatmas in Rishikesh, but they have also made arrangements such as chattis, dharamshalas, choultries, inns in different places even up to the four great shrines in the Himalayas.

This is an outline of the the background of the times when Swami Sivananda came to Rishikesh, and we hear that he came with only a loincloth and none of the appurtenances for not only a comfortable but even a necessity for living even a reasonable life. He chose a spot in the Swargashram on the other side of the Ganga for his stay, where a little kshetra was opened by Atmananda Saraswati, a disciple of this great Swami Vishuddhananda. The Swargashram is not a branch of Kali Kamli Wala, but we may call it a branch in spirit inasmuch as it was founded by a great saintly disciple of this Kali Kamli Wala Mahatma who stood fasting until the kshetra opened in Rishikesh.

Swami Sivananda was the only literate sadhu in the modern sense of the term. Though there might have been Sanskrit-knowing sadhus learned in the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras in the ancient traditional manner, the modern educated sadhu was unknown here. Swami Sivananda was the cynosure of all eyes, and naturally he attracted attention not merely because of his knowledge of the modern way of thinking and living, but for another reason altogether, of which he was constituted.

As you all know, Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj was a medical man before he came to Rishikesh. His background was the medical profession, and that spirit of service under the banner of medicine seems to have come with him when he came to Rishikesh, and the pursuit of medical attendance and love for medical treatment did not leave him. He was known as Doctor Swami in these areas, not Swami Sivananda, and it was a great sign of respect that they showed to this Swamiji when they addressed him as Doctor Swami. Even the mahants and the pontiffs of the Kailash Ashram referred to Swami Sivananda as Doctor Swamiji Maharaj. The great Guru Swami Vishnudevanandaji Maharaj, who initiated Swami Sivananda into the order of sannyas in a ritualistic fashion, used to ask, “How is Doctor Swamiji?” So affectionately was he treated, and so reverently.

But Swami Sivananda was not merely a medical man. He was also a physician of the spirit of man. He did not come to Rishikesh to dispense tinctures and tablets. His mission was something else, and what exactly his mission was cannot be explained even today, in the same way as we cannot explain in words what actually the purpose for which Christ descended on Earth was. Was it to teach Christianity, to teach righteousness, to set an example before people by being crucified on the cross? Was this the purpose? It may be or may not be. There must have been a series of several other factors which naturally escape the attention of even an investigative mind, for which these missions of divinity come down to the Earth.

Well, I am not intending today to speak about the mission for which Swami Sivananda must have come to the Earth, but to touch upon certain aspects of what I began with by mentioning the austerity of the saints. For twelve years continuously this great individual lived a life of austerity. He had no money; he never brought anything. It appears that there was some little balance from his salary in Malaya then, which he assigned in some name, and it has a history of its own which has no relevance to our topic now.

There was a rigour which entered Swami Sivananda in the form of an intensification of spiritual purification, as we may say. We cannot call it an ordinary purificatory process of a little sadhaka or a novitiate. It was a terrific attempt at the subjugation of mortal longings and a simultaneous expression of a charitable feeling in respect of all those who were in a position to receive assistance from him. He had no money, as I told you, but he had a twofold aspiration; or, we may say, the initial forms which his mission took were double. Medical relief to the poor and the needy, and dissemination of spiritual knowledge were the two legs of his tremendous stalwart personality, upon which he laid emphasis even after the founding of The Divine Life Society, though he added many other feet and pillars to the edifice of his mission, such as making arrangements for feeding large numbers of people every day, and the like.

Swami Sivanandaji had no money, and the only money that he seems to have been receiving every month was one rupee from a schoolteacher in Nagpur, whom I have seen personally, and who stayed here, took sannyas and became an inmate, a resident of the ashram. He was a science teacher in a high school in Nagpur, which was the capital of what was then known as the Central Provinces and today is part of Maharashtra. That schoolteacher somehow heard of this austere someone in a distant, unknown forest area called Swargashram, which he had never visited. In those days one rupee had a great value, and a money order of one rupee was sent every month by this schoolteacher.

Swami Sivananda never used this money for his own personal comfort. We are told that he used it for the purchase of additional medicines and also a little bit of curds, yogurt, which he did not intend to eat for himself. Though the sadhus in Swargashram those days were not so very educated as Swami Sivananda was, they were also very genuinely sincere, austere sadhakas, and would not accept charity freely from people. They were also not made of ordinary stuff, and Swami Sivananda knew it. It was not easy for him to serve these people, as they would not accept any service. They were austere men, but the harshness of life, the roughness of the food in the kshetra which they received, took a toll upon their stomachs, and most of them had dysentery which could not be treated because there was no hospital here. Swami Sivananda was, as I mentioned, a Samaritan of Samaritans, and he utilised this one rupee for purchasing a little curds, but the sadhus would not accept it.  Sadhus would not accept charity because they felt it was not proper. Therefore, Swamiji purchased the curds in a mud vessel, called a khulla in Hindi, and silently left them at the doors of the sick sadhus while they had gone to the kshetra in Swargashram for their food. When the sadhus came back they found a little curd there, not knowing who had left it. Thus was Swami Sivananda's goodness. The one rupee was spent only for medicines and curds for the dysentery-ridden poor ones, which he dished out without even their knowledge as to who gave it. He strictly followed the dictum “Let not the left hand know what the right hand does when it does a good thing.”

We hear that Swamiji himself ate dry bread, oftentimes drenched only with Ganga water. There was no lubrication, no oil, no clarified butter, no ghee, because who would give such things? You may ask me, “Why dry bread? Was not the kshetra giving him fresh bread every day? Where comes the question of eating dry bread?” The difficulty was that Swami Sivananda did not want to waste time walking to the kshetra every day only to stand in line there for the sake of receiving these alms. He wanted to do something better with his time. So he used to collect old bread, it appears, and keep it in his kutir, and soak it in Ganga water. How his stomach would tolerate this, God only knew.

Anyway, it could not have been anything less than a terrific suffering, not for one month or two months, but for years together. Swami Sivananda was a great, austere man who stood up to his navel in the waters of the Ganga and prayed at a spot beyond the Lakshmanjhula bridge where there is a little sandy bank which can be seen even now. He was not staying there, but it is said that this is the spot on the other side of the Ganga where Swami Sivananda used to go, unknown and unseen, to stand navel deep in the Ganga water and pray, and then sit and meditate on the sand on the bank of the river, many a time throughout the night. And, as a sort of facility to pilgrims, he located his mini-dispensary in that very place, and designated it as the Satya Seva Ashram. That was the only allopathic dispensary at the time. Thus his austerity continued, and side by side he did not forget his other great call from within, the dissemination of knowledge.

How did Swami Sivanandaji do it? At that time he was not prepared to go about preaching because he must have decided it was a time for austerity, personal tapas, intense rigorous contemplation, and isolated living in God. That was evidently what his intention was, so how could he disseminate knowledge? He was thinking of writing, but where was the paper to write? There was no paper, and even if paper could be had from some distant shops, who would purchase it? Where was the money for it? The story goes that he collected old newspapers because every newspaper has a margin on four sides which is left blank, and we are told that he used to write his thoughts there. These original thoughts which were written on the margins of old newspapers were collected in a book known as Spiritual Lessons. It is out of print and out of stock now, but that was his initial writing – little sayings, but very interesting, absorbing and touching. He wrote in the margins of piles of old newspapers, and bundled them up into manuscripts. But who would publish them? Nobody would publish them because publishing means some financial difficulty on the part of the publisher or the printer.

Somehow, in some way which is not very clear to us these days, he knew one friendly person in Madras called Natesan who had a printing press and a publishing house called G. N. Natesan and Company. He sent these bundles to him and asked him, it seems, “Will you print this?” Though Swami Sivananda's name was not so very well known throughout the country as he is known now, somehow his name seems to have reached some of the corners of the country, and Natesan knew him well. We hear that Natesan wrote back saying, “We do not do job work and cannot undertake the printing of anybody's writings. But as you are a revered swami and your holy writings have come to us, we shall certainly abide by your wish.”

There was another friend called P. K. Vinayagam in Madras who was publishing a monthly journal called My Magazine, which was something like a film picture journal. It was not generally read by the classical-minded or scholarly type, much less by the religious and the spiritual. It was sought after only by youngsters, because of the attraction of romantic stories and pictures, etc., but Swami Sivananda used to contribute his messages to that magazine. It seems that several people wrote to Swamiji, “Why do you contribute such lofty messages and ideas to that kind of journal which is not at all in harmony with your thoughts?” Swami Sivananda's reply was, “I shall contribute my essays and writings only to such journals because these are the journals that people generally read, and in the interspaces of these interesting pictures, etc., my thoughts will inspire them, will transform them.”

Swami Sivananda often used to say, “I shall keep only rogues, and not saints, in the Ashram. Saints do not require guidance. They are able to stand on their own legs. Good people do not require protection. It is the bad ones and the rogues who require protection. I am the Guru of rogues.” These words I heard myself. He used to humorously say, “I have saved the world from one rogue by keeping him with me. Otherwise, he would have been a torment to other people.”

Anyway, Swami Sivananda's tapas and his love for dissemination of knowledge went together, but there were no books which he could consult, no library anywhere except the old Rama Ashram library which is now in an almost dilapidated and uncared-for condition. The great Swami Rama Tirtha, whose name you all must have heard, entered mahasamadhi under peculiar circumstances in the river Ganga somewhere near Tehri. We heard from certain devotees, evidently based on certain reports of those living at that time, that the body of Swami Rama Tirtha floating in the Ganga was seen here at this spot. As a mark of honour and respect for this great saint, a little ashram was constructed by a judicial expert, a judge called Lala Baijnath of Punjab, a very learned man, not merely a judicial man. He was the founder of this Rama Ashram, and it had a collection of very good spiritual and philosophical books. Swami Sivananda used to come to the library every day, it appears, and people say that there is no book in the Rama Ashram library which does not contain red underlines by Swami Sivananda. He read all those books.

He had no disciples. He was alone even then. Some such austere, unknown, untraced, hard life was his career for twelve years, till about the year 1936, when a few devotees gathered around him. Two or three swamis – they might have not been swamis when they actually came, but evidently they took sannyas. One was Swami Swarupananda, an old man from Bihar whom I have seen myself, another was a Gujarati called Swami Atmananda, who later on lived in Rishikesh, and one or two others. They were the originators of the spiritual movement of Swami Sivananda, similar to the first apostles, as it were, of Christ.

Swami Sivananda started touring around, mostly in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, and carried on what he called his sankirtan movement. Such a vigorous sankirtanist was he; powerful was his voice, stentorian was his tone, and what he spoke came from his heart. He was not merely a political orator or an academic speaker. It was a spiritual power that came from him, so people rallied around him, including a few from Lakhimpur Kheri. There was one Chand Narayan Herpuli, an advocate who joined with some advocates from Delhi, Agra and Aligarh, and together they became virtually the brick and mortar of the founding of this ashram, the Sivananda Ashram, later on officially called The Divine Life Society. This second phase of his life after the twelve years of tapas was also a solitary life only. It was not a social life that he was living. He had no disciples, and even those who collaborated with him could not be called disciples. They were only his admirers.

Then it was that in a particular place in the Punjab some admirers suggested to Swami Sivananda the advisability of registering a society, a body of work for assisting in the accelerating and accentuating of this great mission of the dissemination of knowledge, so he registered a body in the Punjab, and not in Uttar Pradesh, because he was mostly touring there at that time.

The swamis who assisted him were utterly submissive people, and they had their share of the difficulty of that hard life. In those days, the greatest troubles were medicine and food, because anyone can fall ill. Our bodies are not made of steel and iron, so a little wind, a little cold, and a little indigestion can bring about any kind of physical inconvenience, and there was no medical treatment. That was one great problem of everybody, and the other problem was the necessary diet. With these difficulties Swami Sivananda lived in Swargashram even after he returned from his tour.

It appears that because of the pressure of the sorrows that Swami Sivananda saw the sadhus undergoing there, he formed an organisation of sadhus called the Swargashram Sadhu Sangha. 'Organisation of sadhus' does not mean a political movement; it was only a protective measure to safeguard the interests and the minimum needs of the sadhus who were denied even that much. This was not appreciated by the powers that be, and he had a little tough time with them, due to which he felt that it was not the proper place for staying in the interests of his own personal sadhana and mission. Therefore, he shifted to this side, but there was no place to stay.

The little dugout portion that you see near the Ganga, a pit that was recently made by demolishing the existing old kitchen, was a cowshed in which there were some stray cattle. Nobody knew whose building it was. Somehow or other, Swami Sivananda planted himself in this little dirty stable containing dung, old grass and hay. That was his residence. It was a cowshed and a very unclean place, unclean because every blessed thing was there except cleanliness. He had no other place to stay, and he had to stay there.

The food had to come not from Swargashram, because Swami Sivananda had left that place, so one or two of his associates walked to the Kali Kamli Wala kshetra in Rishikesh every day and brought food for him. This food was to be heated because naturally it was cold after having been brought from a distance, but there was no kitchen, no hearth, no fire or anything. The first kitchen of this ashram was a little hearth opened by one old man called Swami Narayana, whom you have never seen. They used to call him Painter Swami because he used to paint all things. Narayana Swami – not the Narayana Swami you may have heard of, but some unknown man whom I have seen – who, they say started the first fire for heating the little dahl and chapatti which came cold from the Kali Kamli Wala kshetra. But the followers, his associates, had to go back to beg for their food. They had to beg for their food every day and receive their alms from Rishikesh, then return here.

Then one by one people began to know Swami Sivananda, see him and associate themselves with him. The original biographies of Swami Sivananda, written by some of the early entrants into the little Ashram, will give you what type of life people were living here at that time. Some of these biographies are not available these days. They are out of print, out of stock, not available even to see. Whatever was written about him was what was seen by people with their own eyes, but nobody knew much about him – who he was, what he was thinking, what he was intending to do, and what was his objective. Nothing was known about Swami Sivananda, but his behaviour, daily conduct and routine were seen, and about that people wrote much.

Sometime later on, perhaps towards the beginning of the year 1943, or even perhaps earlier, Swami Sivananda called a few people and told them, “I will tell you something. Write down whatever you can hear from me.” So he told us his autobiography orally, which formed the substance of the biographies that were written later on. Two or three biographies immediately came out in print. Of the three, I remember two very well. One was a biography of Swami Sivananda written by Swami Narayanananda, not the one to whom I made reference earlier but somebody else, whom many of you might also not have seen. He wrote a biography, a very beautiful and unsophisticated narration of the life of Swami Sivananda – unsophisticated is the word to be underlined – which is called Perfect Master. The other one was the book written by Swami Chidananda, and that is called Light Fountain.

Then there arose a surge in the way of intense activity born of a new type of entrant into the ashram, about which I shall tell you later.