Some Reflections Of An Encounter
The caterpillar weaves a cocoon and lives within it. It becomes a chrysalis, always changing, waiting until the proper time. Then the cocoon is broken and the butterfly escapes, and it is beautiful because it is free, and it flies away to no one knows where.
Bette Bao in “Spring Moon”
So could be said of the spirit of man. A person is remembered for some time by the memories he leaves behind and longer by the record of his works, kept alive by organisations to promote what he represented. It is difficult to imagine what shape Christianity might have taken without St. Paul, or if the modem history of India would have noticed Ramakrishna without Vivekananda. It is not so much what a person was concerning his human nature but what he meant to others, and the impact of his ideas serving as a catalyst to the thinking of people and resulting in the shaping of society, that determine his place in history.
It was on a wintry day, in 1945, as an inexperienced and spiritually callow youth that I had a rare tryst with destiny when I saw Swami Sivananda at his still-primitive ashram north of Rishikesh, at the foothills of the central Himalayas. He was then a youthful, vigorous 58-year old, tall and robust monk, bubbling with enthusiasm in what he did. Having the good fortune of staying with him for over 16 years, I saw the last of him in September; 1961, when he sent me to Europe and the Americas. By then he was fairly recognised as a distinguished representative of what could be termed modern spiritual culture of India.
The foremost impact of his qualities on me were his immense tolerance and understanding of the shortcomings of human nature, patience and tactfulness, absence of animus and pettiness, the practicality and universality of outlook, his freedom from religious and caste prejudice still distressingly present in many other ashrams of that time. Salient above all was his unique way of letting others find their own spiritual paths and shape their ideals.
It was this last quality that held me at his ashram so long, for never did he try to indoctrinate, never was he a doctrinaire, nor require of anyone a blind allegiance, philosophically or personally. Mahatma Gandhi used to say, “If you wish to know the nature of a person, give him power!” Swami Sivananda, as founder of his ashram, held absolute authority there, and he came out well in the exercise of it-with boundless tolerance and immense patience.
Many years later, after he passed away in July, 1963, returning to India on many occasions, I was told by two of his senior disciples that they had been to several other ashrams, before and after, more as well as less well known, but had never met anyone like him, as to the qualities I have just mentioned. Thus, I was happy to know that, without having shopped around, I happened to stumble upon the best teacher available then, suited to my temperament. Since then I have never regretted that tryst with destiny.
The truth of a person is in what he is, for truth is sat, that which is, as opposed to what is not. What is and what is not is, of course, in the eyes of the beholder, but truth being universal cannot be an isolated perception, unsupported by fact, for the face of truth is self-revealing, even if what it means to the beholder may vary, in some ways, from person to person. Reality is wrapped up in layers of illusion, and it is the business of religion to make myths convincing or of philosophy its ideation. The point of it is in its usefulness to inspire the search for the unknown and widen the dimensions of the known, and strengthen the human spirit.
“Truth is a dream, unless my dream is true,” said philosopher Santayana. So true it is about the truth of a person. It will, indeed, be too tall a claim to say that one knows a lot about oneself or of another. Some of the truth, surely, is expressed by words and deeds to match, but it is in the nature of things that some of it remains veiled. Mark Twain mused that a person’s “real life is led in his head and is known to none but himself.” Andre Malraux remarked caustically that “the truth about a man is first of all what he hides.”
Swami Sivananda was too uncomplicated a person, nor was he Hamlet-like heavy-laden with self-doubt, to have successfully done that. He spread himself all over the mainstream of his writings, like it or not, although four or five of his disciples, including me, wrote independent articles in his name, at different times, but these could be easily sorted out as not being his from their style and shape of ideas. Closest to his thinking was the late Swami Venkatesananda, his most favourite disciple, and the next most beloved was Swami Chidananda, his worthy successor.
Great philosophical problems did not gnaw at the fibre of Swami Sivananda’s conscience, nor was he weighed down by the excess baggage of the glory of other philosophers he drew from. He will surely be known as a prolific anthologist of the religious literature of India, which he presented in a simple form, without much ado of deductation. He was essentially a practical theist. He knew what he wanted to say, and do, and be known as, and went ahead and did his best to get what he wanted, without looking backwards.
No writer can hide his soul in what he writes about, even if be tries to. The personality and qualities of character, with concomitant deficiencies, come through and through: truthful or false, profound or shallow, restrained or blatant, sincere or hypocritical, painstaking or flippant, thoughtful or fatuous, conscientious or unprincipled, knowledgeable or inane, literate or merely literary, self-effacing or blissfully egolatrous. Unbeknownst to himself mostly, the writer is self-revealing.
The strengths and weaknesses of a culture are spun into the fabric of the society it spawns. How important then that one should not indulge in the visions of a glorious past when they are narcotised by fantasies to escape their painfully-evident contradictions in the present! Hypocrisy is an inevitable companion of an exaggerated sense of one’s traditional background, and a common fault of a backward society is to be pompous, if not ridiculous, about it, while not really trying to live up to what is relevant, useful, helpful and productive. Singing the paeans of praise may be moving at times, if no one laughed.
The role of Swami Sivananda in the future of India will be etched by what impact his teachings have on the minds of the people who have access to them, mainly on account of their interest, or in their failure of making an impact, but surely by the continued mission of the Divine Life Society to effectuate it, and of which it already has a good record.
The usefulness of a teaching is in its revitalising effect on the mind: releasing, soaring and guiding; inspiring, ennobling and delighting; not confining, twisting and benumbing; retrogressing, obfuscating and self-absorbing. A teaching is useful only when it helps to form substantial values to live by, and the result of which is self-evident. Reality, after all, is not amorphous, but which one can relate to, be inspired by and deal with tangibly. The backwardness of a society is guaranteed to perpetuate when the tangible is dismissed as an illusion and the incomprehensible extolled as the reality in thin air.
Swami Sivananda has left for posterity a well-established, umbrella institution, the Divine Life Society, of which he would have been proud were he alive today. Ambitious he was to have liked to make it a household word, known as widely as possible, but dispassionate enough in not being frustrated with the less-than-optimum talents available to him, such as we, his disciples.
He did not have a Madan Mohan Malaviya (the late founder and organiser of the Varanasi Hindu University, one of the best educational institutions of India) to establish a great Yoga-Vedanta university, although its relevancy in the poverty-stricken India of today is doubtful, except as an ethically-motivating and character-building institution, but no one could say that he spared himself in the effort. It did, indeed, take roots during his lifetime and, since many years, under the guidance of Swami Chidananda and Swami Krishnananda, the Yoga-Vedanta Academy at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh is providing regular courses on relevant subjects.
Swami Sivananda laid the ground work of what he called his mission and lived long enough to see it bear fruit, which it continues to do with even greater fertility than during his lifetime, thanks to the inspiring personality of his chief disciple, Swami Chidananda, and the administrative ability of Swami Krishnananda, himself a prolific writer. There cannot be a better epitaph than that it is so.
…in memory of Swami Sivananda’s 110th birth anniversary which fell on 8th September 1997
Sri Swami Shivapremananda