The best way to understand the purpose and objectives of the Divine Life Society is to study the life and teachings of its founder, Swami Sivananda. Once one can clearly see the nature of his divinely inspired personality-the generosity, service, and loving-kindness - one can more easily understand the heart and soul of the organisation that would grow up around him - the Divine Life Society.
Dr. Kuppuswami, the young seeker who would in due course come to be known throughout the world as Swami Sivananda, left his medical work in Malaya in a burst of spiritual renunciation and came as a humble seeker to India. He would eventually find his way to Rishikesh, India in 1924, and there he encountered a wondering monk by the name of Swami Viswananda. They stayed together only a short while, but this swami could recognise the potential in the young doctor. Swami Viswananda offered to initiate Dr. Kuppuswami into the holy order of sannyasa, thereby beginning the life of renunciation and service of the one whose name would henceforth be "Swami Sivananda." Thus begin a period of some years of extreme austerities, meditation and service to others that would culminate in a spiritual awakening which transformed the already dynamic personality of Swami Sivananda into the a yet higher realm of enlightenment.
After finding simple quarters in Kolghat, and then Brahmananda Ashram near Rishikesh, Swami Sivananda shifted over to the eastern side of the Ganges River to a small place in Laxman Jhula. Swami Sivananda desire to continue his medical service led him to open a small clinic, which came to be known as the Satya Seva Ashram Dispensary. Swamiji performed this service two hours each morning and afternoon, and would continue that work for some years. In the same year of 1924 another small kutir (cottage) became available in Swarg Ashram, (across the Ganges from the present Sivananda Ashram site), and there Swami Sivananda would eventually come to reside for the next ten years. In this period he engaged in extensive meditation, spiritual practices and service to others that set him apart from even the most adept and dedicated monks in the area.
Swami Sivananda never spoke directly to his enlightenment experience, but one would assume that at some time during this period spent in Swarg Ashram (1924-1934) he had a direct experience of the divine which transformed the ardent seeker into the spiritual giant he would become. Word of his spiritual attainments spread, and devotees started coming to him, seeking his teachings and blessings. It became difficult for all the visitors to be accommodated in the limited space provided by Swarg Ashram authorities, and it became clear that some sort of change would be necessary. The decision was made to shift across the Ganges to the western side, and in January 1934 the decisive move was made.
Given the fact that there was no suitable place to stay and no available resources, Swami Sivananda and the people who followed him took up temporary residence in an abandoned cow shed. Later on, the Maharaja of Tehri would become aware of the struggling group of swamis, and he generously gave a parcel of land on which the Ashram would came to be located. Life was obviously very hard and conditions challenging, but surely the joy of being in the presence of a great master was reason enough for the disciples to stay on. In those very early days the early disciples included Swami Swarupananda, Swami Atmananda, and the man who would be one of the pillars of the Ashram in the early days, Swami Paramananda. This core group became the basis out of which grew a circle of devoted followers who would allow the Divine Life Society to develop and flourish.
Gurudev (as Swami Sivananda came to be known by his disciples) was occasionally being invited to come to Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh frequently to lead sankirtan (devotional singing) conferences. While returning from one of those conferences with some devotees, Gurudev received the advice that he should register his newly developing ashram in some official capacity. In the grand spirit of "do it now," Gurudev got off the train at the next station (which happened to be Ambala), and on January 13, 1936 The Divine Life Society Trust was established. The Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh became the headquarters of the Divine Life Society.
Spiritual Outreach through Books
The very first point in the Aims and Objects of the Divine Life Society is: "To Disseminate Spiritual Knowledge," and it indeed was the top priority of Gurudev, as he always wanted to share all that he had. After he attained the Supreme, his zeal to share this experience had no bounds; he was committed to the spiritual awakening of all of mankind. He wrote more than 300 books in a very simple and easy-to-understand style, addressing the reader directly as if he were giving personal guidance. He had the knack of bringing the highest knowledge within easy reach of the common man. He never tried to exhibit his scholarship or to impress anyone, but he came easily to the level of the reader. As a result, his inimitable spiritual writings could kindle spiritual awakening in millions of readers all over the world, and inspired them to tread the path of spirituality. In the early days, he had no money to buy a lantern. An empty inkbottle with a wick and kerosene served as a lamp. He had no money to buy paper. He used to collect used envelopes, and cut them on three sides and use the inner side for writing. No handicap was too big for him to overcome. His zeal to spread the spiritual knowledge was simply unstoppable.
Swami Sivananda published his first book in 1929, The Practice of Yoga, Part One, and many others would follow in due time. In order to better support the dissemination of knowledge, the decision was made in 1939 that a Sivananda Publication League be formed, which would facilitate the publication of Gurudev's many book. The SPL, as it came to be known, continued to expand over the years, and the titles being published came to also include books by Swami Chidananda, Swami Krishnananda, Swami Brahmananda, and other noted senior swamis of the Divine Life Society. The SPL maintains at present an on-going catalogue of 150 titles for sale in India and around the world, many of which are printed at the Sivananda Ashram itself. (A large number of books are available in e-format on this web site, in the "Reading Room"link.)
Given the fact that it was often difficult to get the books printed as quickly and cheaply as possible, the Society took steps to acquire a printing press of its own and organise the work of bringing out the books. As a result, the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy Press was established in 1951 and an old Chandler and Price printing press was installed. (It would be another two years before the Ashram had electricity, so in the early years the press was operated by foot treadle!) Swami Dayanandaji and Sri Narasimhuluji were the driving forces behind the press for over 35 years, and through their untiring service the publishing and printing of Gurudev's books continued at full strength. Along with the publication of books, the decision was made to make a monthly spiritual periodical available to the general public, and in 1938 the first copy of "The Divine Life" magazine was printed and sent to devotees. The magazine is now in its 66th year of publication. A Hindi-language version, "Divya Jivan," is also available. Both journals contain articles on Yoga philosophy, religion, spiritual practice as well as practical spiritual advice and guidance.
Swami Sivananda's heart was so large, and no human problem or requirement was neglected. Early on Gurudev had been interested in medical outreach and as the Divine Life Society and the Sivananda Ashram expanded, so did the service to those in need of health care. Following on the heels of the early dispensary, a hospital was set up in 1950 in the Sivananda Ashram itself for use by all, with no fees being charged for either the medical assistance or the medicines. The Hospital has grown to have a 30-bed ward, operation theatre, pharmacy, X-ray unit, laboratory, gynaecological services, and outpatient and in-patient care by three senior doctors, along with other attending physicians. At present, over 500 patients are treated on average each day. One could not refer to the hospital without also mentioning the name of revered Dr. Devaki Kutty, who served the Ashram for many years in numerous capacities, but she was primarily known for her work as a renowned gynaecologist and hospital administrator.
What is more, an Ayurvedic Pharmacy was opened in 1945 as well as an Eye Clinic in 1956. Later on the significant needs of the poorest of the poor in the local area were answered through the establishing of Sivananda Home—a hospital and treatment centre for destitute and abandoned persons, leprosy patients, along with persons needing treatment for TB and AIDS. Along with the out-patient treatment, the Sivananda Home houses about 50 patients who have not other place to turn. The Divine Life Society also has four centres exclusively for the treatment of leprosy, two of which have their expenses borne entirely by the Society, and two others that are funded independently. In addition, the Society provides funding for a Leprosy Centre in the state of Orissa, as well as medical treatment and food for outpatient leprosy victims through the Laxman Jhula Leprosy clinic.
The Divine Life Society has been active in all sorts of charitable service, certainly too many to mention in this short article; nevertheless one would have to take note of the tremendous devotion of service to humanity that has come in so many forms. There would be the scholarships for needy students given each year to worthy recipients; the disaster relief funds which are sent out to persons in dire need; the free distribution of food at each meal for anyone who asks; free tuition, room, board and instruction for two month academy courses offered at the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy at the DLS headquarters; for visitors who come from all over India and the world, and who can stay in the Ashram and be fed in the Ashram without charge; the literature—books, pamphlets, magazines, etc.—that are distributed to thousands at no cost, the outreach and service of all the branches throughout India and the world….All of these form only a bare outline of what actually takes place. Suffice it to say that even now the generous spirit of Swami Sivananda is being served.
Ashram Site and its Growth
The headquarters of the Divine Life Society are at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh in northern India, on the banks of the Ganges River. The Ashram started off in such a small way, with only a few buildings or departments. In the early days of the Ashram, there were only a few buildings right along the river, where Gurudev and the people who had come to take refuse with him took shelter. A rudimentary kitchen and some living quarters were constructed to begin with, and later as funds were donated by devotees, more buildings were constructed in a piecemeal fashion. In 1940, six rooms were thus constructed and given the name Yoga Sadhana Kutir. Ananda Kutir, the nucleus of all the activities in the Ashram, was then constructed with donations from devotees.
The decision was made to construct a place of worship, and soon contributions started pouring in; the Bhajan Hall was formally opened on 2nd April 1942. For a good many years, many of the major spiritual activities – the daily satang, spiritual retreats, special pujas and functions—were held in Bhajan Hall. On December 3, 1943 a 24 hours a day, seven days a week chanting of the ‘mahamantra' for world peace began in the Bhajan Hall, and this chanting has continued unbroken for 60 years up until the present day. In 1958, directly beside the Bhajan Hall, the Sivananda Pillar was constructed, on which the ‘Twenty Spiritual Instructions' as well as sayings from all the world religions are inscribed.
The area which is now Sivananda Ashram was originally all jungle which had many bael trees. No one really ventured into this area, and it was totally secluded, and as a result Gurudev chose a spot in the midst of these bael trees for his sadhana and meditation that he felt was especially holy. In time it was decided to construct the Ashram temple in that very place. Devotees in Calcutta raised the necessary funds, and the Viswanath Temple was formally consecrated on 31st December 1943. It is interesting to note that Sri Sridhar Rao (Swami Chidanandaji, later President of the Divine Life Society) was appointed as the first pujari of the temple. The temple was greatly expanded in a building project undertaken to coincide with Gurudev's Centennial Celebration in 1987.
Many more devotees started coming to the Ashram along with a big boost to the activities, and additional funds started flowing in. So, many more buildings came up – Silver Jubilee Kutir, Lakshmi Kutir, the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, Parvati Kutir, Vaikuntha Dham, Diamond Jubilee Hall, Ganga Kutir, Siva Kutir, and the Ganga Ghat and steps. Later on in 1976 a Library was constructed which currently contains 19,000 donated volumes. In 2001 an Audio-Visual Library was opened, which has videos, VCD's, CD's, audio cassettes and archived films on video for use by visitors. Affixed to the Audio-Video Library and opened in the same year is a photography restoration lab which is preserving and publishing old photographs of Swami Sivananda and the Sivananda Ashram. Just recently, a new Yoga Hall as well as a spacious bookstall for the Sivananda Publication Leauge were opened down on the Ganges bank beside the Post Office.
In the 1976 a large Dining Hall facility was built which can feed over 300 persons at a time. In that same period the present gathering place for satsang and most large festivals and celebrations, the Samadhi Mandir, was completed. It includes a large assembly hall as well as the Samadhi Shrine which contains the memorial to Swami Sivananda, which had been constructed shortly after his mahasamadhi (death of the body) in 1963. Extensive expansion was undertaken to accommodate the growing number of visitors. In the early 1980s the two blocks of Govardhan Dham were built on Dattatreya Hill above the main Ashram complex, and in the early 1990s the two blocks of Ishwar Bhavan were constructed on the Mt. Kailash Hill.
Divine Life Society Administration
Swami Sivananda seemed to be an unstoppable force of energy; he was writing 300 books, running a spiritual institution and directing the work of the sadhaks and seekers living there, as well as carrying on a constant correspondence with people all over the world and caring for the spiritual needs of all those who took refuge with him. His advent on this earth came to an end in 1963, and others came forward to carry on his legacy. First and foremost is Sri Swami Chidanandaji who was made President of the DLS in 1963 and who has remained in that post up until the present day. It would however not be fitting to mention him only in his capacity as administrative head. He is a saint of the highest attainment whose life and work have inspired thousands and thousands of people. Swamiji has worked tirelessly both in India and in many trips abroad to continue to propagate Gurudev's message.
Another of the brightest lights of the Divine Life Society has been Sri Swami Krishnanandaji who was General Secretary of the DLS from 1961 up until his mahasamadhi (passing away) in 2001. Once again, we should not just limit such a person to an administrative position. He was a saint and philosopher whose books indicate the depth of his intellectual knowledge and spiritual attainment. But there were other—too many to name really—but one deserves special mention: Swami Venkatesananda. He was sent by Gurudev to South Africa, Mauritius and Australia to teach and carry on the DLS mission. Swami Venkatesananda's books are simply a delight to read, filled as they are with wit, wisdom and exceptional insight. He was a true beacon in Gurudev's mission, who served for many years before his mahasamadhi in 1982.
The Ashram headquarters in Rishikesh has 37 departments rendering service in various ways. In addition to the hospital, SPL, and the press mentioned earlier, some of the more prominent departments would be the mandir department which is responsible for worships and pujas, the Annapurna Annakshetra (dining hall), pharmacy section for distribution of free medicines, the magazine section for organizing and posting of the DLS magazine, construction department, and the reception department which is in charge of accommodations for the thousands of guests who visit the Ashram/headquarters each year.
Gurudev felt that people should have a chance for satsang and service in their own communities; hence the idea came of opening branches that were affiliated with the DLS headquarters. The work of the DLS is then continued through the effort of numerous branches located throughout India and the world. There are presently over 300 branches in India, a large proportion of which are located in Orissa state, along with numerous branches abroad-in the U.K., the USA, France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Italy, Spain, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mauritius, and Australia to name a few.