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Swami Sivananda and The Divine Life Society

Swami Sivananda could almost be considered a revolutionary in his view of Hindu spirituality and the place of sannyasins in Hindu Dharma. Swami Sivananda was dedicated to the spiritual upliftment of all mankind and considered it the unique role and privilege of sannyasins to serve the world rather than be served. Traditionally, the deepest spiritual truths were not accessible to all as the scriptures were written in Sanskrit, usually known only by the Brahmin caste. In addition, if one left the secular world to dedicate one's life to God, one no longer had any concern or responsibility for the world. On the other hand, it was considered the duty of a householder to provide alms for the renunciate and support running costs of an ashram. Sannyasins were treated and served with great respect by the other classes of society. Even today this view is prevalent among many.

However, this was not the vision of Swami Sivananda or his spiritual successor Swami Chidananda. To Swami Sivananda, the only worship he knew was the awakening of all beings to the consciousness of their essential divine origin. What was at core of his mission?. Swami Chidananda observed the following: It was the popular view of the theorist that to think on strict Vedantic lines was to regard the external world as a purely self-created illusion, non-existent in fact; therefore, the outside world could well be ignored. However, Swami Sivananda had the opposite view. He ignored himself and recognised the whole world as the Eternal Living Reality, the grandest, most sublime Truth. His sadhana seemed to be one of effacing his own entity in an unreserved dedication before the altar of Divinity manifest as the visible cosmos. This made some of his more orthodox brethren to take Swami Sivananda for a busybody, giving unjustifiable precedence to karma, activity, to the detriment of jnana, Knowledge.

However, in the view of Swami Sivananda, real Vedanta could never make one narrow or self-centred for it is a process of infinite expansion of consciousness. He would assert that the test of real advaita bhava (non-dual realisation) was the destruction of the last vestige of selfishness and the development of cosmic love. To feel all creation as one's own and to destroy all barriers that separate man from man would result from a rational practice of Vedanta. No idea of differentiation, of superiority and inferiority could remain when the knowledge was that the whole cosmos is Brahman. To live along these lines would at once mean coming out of the murky darkness of the self-world into the resplendence of a divine life.

Though Swami Sivananda respected all the best of tradition, his life and teaching departed radically from custom and convention when necessary. One of Swami Sivananda's most revolutionary ideas was that striving for liberation could be done in the home. In speaking about Swami Sivananda's gospel of divine life, Swami Chidananda said: "The central theme of Swami Sivananda's gospel of divine life is that one need not leave home, family, profession in order to lead the divine life. Essentially what has to be left behind is ahamkara, the wrong idea that 'I am the body, I am so and so. I am such and such,' attachment to the body, selfishness etc. It requires an inner change of location, not an outer one. One shifts one's consciousness from being centred in the body and mind to a higher dimension where the consciousness is aware of its true divine nature. To express this in daily life constantly is divine life."

To propagate his message to all, Swami Sivananda wrote 300 books in English on every conceivable aspect of Yoga and Vedanta as well as Indian culture, ethics etc. He began his writing mission using whatever paper he could find to pen down his thoughts-sometimes using the blank side of used envelopes! His first pamphlet was published using a Rs 5 donation given to him for milk. Today in the heart of Sivananda Ashram is the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy Press with all modern facilities producing thousands of Swami Sivananda's books, sold not only all over India but reaching every continent on the globe. The prices are low and many books are given freely.

Dissemination of spiritual knowledge also took the form of the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy which Swami Sivananda inaugurated in 1948. Today there are three, 2-month courses offered annually. The Academy is situated in a quiet garden/forest setting. Participants are trained in both theoretical and practical aspects of Yoga, Vedanta, Eastern and Western Philosophy and Meditation. In addition, throughout the year, senior swamis are also available to share their knowledge with individual aspirants as well as offer classes in both Hindi and English. At times like-minded people will come together to study a scripture or text of a great teacher.

Another characteristic of Swami Sivananda was that although he wrote 300 books to spread his message of divine life, he, and his leading disciples, preached the unity of all religions and had great respect for all teachers. His main concern and was that people get their connection with God. As Swami Chidananda once said, "I don't care how you get your connection with God. Do it by any means. But, by any means, do it!"

This profound generosity of heart is reflected in the ashram's beautiful octagonal library and newly inaugurated audio-visual library where 17,000 books, audios, videos, are housed from all the religious traditions and great teachers worldwide. Furthermore, along with all the traditional Hindu worships conducted throughout the year, special worship is offered on Buddha Jayanti and Guru Nanak Jayanti. Christmas Eve is a major celebration every year, and is followed by a one-week retreat for devotees from abroad.

Swami Sivananda was a great doer; he was untiring in his mission to bring about a spiritual awakening. He said the goal of life is God-realisation. The four words in The Divine Life Society crest-Serve, Love, Meditate, Realise-represent the four main yogas, karma, bhakti, raja and jnana. Raja and bhakti yoga have taken the form of daily meditation and prayer early morning in the sacred Samadhi Hall and every evening in the company of the General Secretary. Both are followed by a short talk on spiritual life and meditation.

Swami Sivananda was an apostle of prayer. Swami Chidananda wrote that Swami Sivananda had the habit of silently and continuously willing good to all. Even an ant accidentally trodden upon did not miss his all-compassionate eye. As World War II war was raging in 1943, Swami Sivananda inaugurated the 24 hour chanting of maha mantra daily for world peace. To this day the chanting continues non-stop. Further, three daily worships in the temple and three worships in the Samadhi Hall are offered for the well being of all as well as for individual requests. Om namo Narayanaya is also chanted twice daily in the Samadhi Hall. All programs and functions are sanctified by offering them to the Divine through opening chants and closing prayer and aarti.

Perhaps one of the most revolutionary features of Swami Sivananda's personality and teachings was his passion for karma yoga or service. He did not consider his energy, talents and his body as belonging to himself. He belonged to any creature that was in distress and in need of him. To him turning from worldly pursuits on a higher quest did not mean suppression of sublime sentiments that were inherent in his nature. Rather they became more intensified and refined by the touch of a higher unselfishness and wider consciousness.

Swami Chidananda wrote that unlike popular opinion, Swami Sivananda held that a world-renouncer should be the most dynamic of workers because he or she had the advantage of being wholly free from the vexing activities and distractions that beset one in the worldly life; he had no patience for the misconception that the dignity of the orange robe implied an intellectual and physical hibernation from the rest of the world. Thus Swami Sivananda sought to make sannyasins dynamic servants and educators of humanity. He would ask them to develop their talents to be of maximum use to others. He did not consider the ideal of a cave life suitable for the modern era In addition, Swami Sivananda said that only selfless service could efface the rock- hard ego that separates man from God. His students were both free and encouraged to follow any path that suited them, and they were not expected to neglect their personal sadhana morning and evening. However, according to Swami Chidananda, Swami Sivananda would passionately appeal to them to root out all traces of self and personal considerations and give themselves totally to the noble ideas of service of the world.

Swamiji recalled that Swami Sivananda would thrillingly depict to them the glory of selfless service as the greatest and grandest of all yogas, the highest sacrifice and worship of the Almighty. He would say, "Never mind whether realisation comes or not. Put forth every effort at attaining ethical improvement to render yourselves perfect for the service of Man. See God in Man. If your conception of God includes the idea that he is all-pervading, then why can't you see Him in all creatures? What makes you hesitate in translating your belief into action? You will have to give up such notions that He is available only behind locked doors and closed eyes. First feel His presence in everyone, everything you see and serve, then see whether or not He shines of His own accord in the chambers of your heart. When the heart is not yet free of all impurity and the lower nature rid of its dross, how can spiritual experience come to you? Until you have rendered your nature perfect, is it possible to realise the truth of a Being who is the very essence of perfection? First root out egoism, anger, hatred, greed and duplicity by sincere selfless service."

As Swami Sivananda himself was a doctor, one of the most natural outcomes of his passion to serve was care for the sick and the poor. Swami Sivananda's original medical dispensary established in 1934 was upgraded to a general hospital in 1950, and later an eye hospital was established in 1953. Now it is a 30 bed charitable hospital running at full capacity. Up to 500 outpatients are given free consultation and medicine daily. Free surgery by visiting doctors is performed 6 days per week. Once a week, eye patients are treated while the house doctors visit a nearby village to treat villagers from various surrounding districts. Free eye camps are held from time to time where up to 200 patients will receive eye surgery. There is also a modern hospital in Patamadai, the birthplace of Swami Sivananda built in honour of his centenary in 1987.

The upliftment and care of lepers was a passion of Swami Chidananda. Swami Sivananda encouraged him in his efforts, so that now three leper colonies are provided with rations and one in Lasmanjula has a hospital called Sivananda Home. Not only are lepers lovingly cared for but also T.B. and Aids patients as well as destitutes taken in off the street. This hospital has become a home to most of these patients; once they are healed, they remain and serve each other.

Not only has the Headquarters of The Divine Life Society provided service in the above mentioned ways, but the numerous branches throughout India are dedicated to providing aid to the poor in their districts.

Though Swami Sivananda's only real purpose in life was the spiritual awakening of mankind, social service like the above mentioned medical care was a very important part of his ministry. He also spoke scathingly against untouchability, child-marriages, illiteracy and other social evils. Today, over 1000 students are given financial assistance for books and worthy students supported in higher studies. The poor can apply to the ashram for help in housing, marriage and food. Extra food and tea is prepared for the main meal and offered to beggars and sadhus daily. A disaster fund is also available that is readily put into use to help restore the life of villagers that have lost everything due to earthquakes such as in Uttarakashi and Gujarat or drought and hurricane in Orissa.

Swami Chidananda commented that there is a relationship between Swami Sivananda's desire to rid society of illiteracy, untouchability etc. and his work of spiritual awakening. Swamiji said that before there can be any real spiritual growth and progress certain conditions and the practice of certain cardinal virtues are primarily essential. A reasonable sense of security is necessary before people can take active interest in things spiritual. In addition, Swamiji said that spiritual development means the attainment of love, unity, tolerance and same-sightedness. Unless one breaks the petty, selfish barriers of caste, sub-caste, community etc and makes an attempt to prepare the ground, spiritual life will remain but a sham. Consequently the religious preacher and the spiritual awakener has to be something of a reformer also.

Swami Sivananda performed severe austerities during his sadhana days. Later on even when he was a respected guru he kept up certain practices of asceticism. The rational behind these later practices was Swami Sivananda's belief that austerity in some form or other keeps alive the spiritual fire. Swami Chidananda once wrote that it was the force of his tapasya that infused the power into Swami Sivananda's words that impelled others to listen, reflect and act upon them.

Though Swami Sivananda stressed the necessity of austerity as a means of maintaining the instruments of the body and mind in a state of keen alertness and balanced restraint, it was neither the end nor even a distinct method of realising the Truth. To him, it was secondary. Thus both during early ashram days as well as today, all physical necessities are provided for. Swami Sivananda urged that whatever talents one had, they must be given to the world or else life wasn't worth the name. To do this, the vehicle had to be preserved. He said, "Austerity is not the goal. Emancipation and Immortality is the goal." Annihilation of the ego and lower self is the process and not the immolation of the physical body. To silently bear abuse and insult, to calmly suffer ill-treatment and deliberate disrespect is no less tapasya than to bear heat and cold, hunger and thirst.

In this regard, though Swami Sivanadna had a very tender heart, he was a militant against his own ego. According to Swami Chidananda, Swami Sivananda was ever vigilant for the slightest assertion of ego in himself, which would immediately bring down a hammer blow upon it. So much so, that to be unaffected in any way by the honour and reverence given to him by hundreds, Swami Sivananda at one time used to beat himself with shoes and broom. To erase the subtle feeling of caste superiority, for years he deliberately allowed himself to be served by disciples not of the Brahman cast, and he constantly prostrated before sweepers and scavengers and treated them like equals.

This warfare against ego, the only barrier between the seeker and God, still seems to be carried on by the Impersonal Force of Swami Sivananda to this day. The egos of his spiritual family are constantly being challenged to the core, which sometimes can be disconcerting to the unwary seeker who may have temporally forgotten the purpose for which they came. However, when seen from the spiritual perspective the ashram is fulfilling the great purpose set out by the founder-to realise our true Divine nature and to express that divinity in our daily life!

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