Biography of Sri Swami Sivananda
Sri Swami Sivananda, the well-known Master of the 20th century, was born on September 8, 1887, at Pattamadai, in the Tirunelveli district in Tamilnadu, South India. His boyhood name was Kuppuswami. His saintly father, Vengu Iyer, was a devotee of Lord Siva and a descendant of the 16th century saint and scholar, Appayya Dikshitar. His mother was Parvatiammal.
The spirit of giving freely, of sharing without any restraint, was ingrained in the Master from his very childhood. A boyhood friend of the Master, Swami Shuddhananda Bharati, recalled how Kuppuswami as a little lad one day ran out with his plate of food when he heard a beggar’s cry outside.
The intelligent lad had the gift of divine vision even at that age. If his father sent him to purchase fruit for his daily worship, the boy would often not hesitate to distribute the fruit to the poor and needy, returning home to inform his father that he had already worshipped God in the poor. What grand vision!
The Master said that he was very mischievous as a lad. But it was not the kind of mischief we see in children these days. For instance, to astound and frighten his family, he would daringly jump into a dry well!
During his student days the Master was brilliant in the classroom as well as on the sports field. He always stood first in his class. He was bold and cheerful. When Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was staged, he played the part of Helena.
Good health to him was just as important as learning. He used to practise gymnastics and fencing. He would get up as early as 3am to do his exercises. In innocent mischief, before leaving his room, he would playfully deceive his mother by arranging the blankets and pillows in such a manner as to make her believe that he was still in bed!
As the desire to serve others was in the Master’s nature, it was but natural that he should choose a medical career. Although his parents wanted him to follow another line, the Master was adamant in his desire to practise medicine. After completing his matriculation he joined the Tanjore Medical Institute.
The Master, remarkably intelligent as he was, was gifted with a phenomenal memory as well. He was extremely industrious and never went home during holidays. He used to spend the time in the hospital trying to acquire more knowledge. So prodigious was his memory that he would retain whatever he read. He revealed that even during his first year of medicine he could answer the fifth-year papers. After completing his studies, the Master served in India for some time and ran a medical journal called Ambrosia.
As a Doctor in Malaya
But the Master was not satisfied with his work in India and his ambitious spirit drove him to Malaya to seek employment there. He recalled his arrival in Malaya thus: “Immediately on disembarking, I went to Dr Iyengar, who introduced me to Dr. Harold Parsons, an acquaintance of his. I was highly optimistic about getting a job. Dr. Parsons himself did not need an assistant, but I was able to impress him in such a manner that he took me to Mr. A.G. Robins, the manager of a rubber estate, which had a hospital of its own.
“Fortunately, Mr. Robins was just then in need of an assistant to work in the hospital. He was a terrible man with a violent temper, a giant figure, tall and stout. He asked me, ‘Can you manage a hospital all by yourself?’
“I replied without hesitation, ‘Yes, I can manage even three hospitals!’ I was appointed at once!”
Soon the Master’s extremely kind and loving nature became well-known in Malaya. He was a loving friend of the indentured labourers as well as of the local citizens. Together with his work in the hospital the Master also had his private practice. He never demanded any fee from his patients. Often he would give them money from his own pocket for their special diet. In serious cases he would keep vigil at night at the patient’s bedside.
The Master loved sports. His favourite pastime was cycling. He read many books on Western games and attended scores of tournaments. For a certain period he even acted as a sports correspondent to the Malaya Tribune.
The Master led a luxurious life in Malaya. He had a great liking for high class dress, collection of curios and fancy articles of sandalwood, gold and silver. He would purchase various kinds of gold rings and necklaces and wear them all at the same time! He had many hats but seldom made use of them.
Renouncing the World
But the Master’s life-style did not prevent him from performing his daily spiritual practices and seeking the company of holy men. As discrimination began dawning in his mind, he began reflecting:
“Is there not a higher mission in life than the daily round of official duties, eating and drinking? Is there no higher form of eternal peace and happiness than all these transitory and illusory pleasures? How very insecure is existence on this earth-plane, with all kinds of fears, worries, anxieties, diseases and disappointments. The world of names and forms is ever changing. Time is fleeting. All hopes of peace and happiness in this world end in pain, despair and sorrow”.
Such were the thoughts constantly arising in his mind. The doctor’s profession provided him with ample evidence of sufferings in this world. He realised that true, lasting happiness cannot be had merely by acquiring wealth. With the purification of heart acquired through selfless service, he had a new vision. He was deeply convinced that there must be a place-a sweet home of divine splendour, purity and pristine glory-where absolute security, perfect peace and lasting happiness can be had. And that was by realising God.
So he abandoned the life of ease and comfort and reached India in search of an ideal centre for purposes of prayer, meditation, study and a higher form of service to the whole world.
When the Master reached home after many years, he was fondly received by his parents and other family members. We are told that while his goods were being taken off by the cartman, the Master was found missing. He had not even entered his home. The family thought that he had perhaps gone to visit friends. But in truth the Master had promptly bolted away! Such was his burning dispassion and desire to seek God that at a single stroke he renounced the whole world of wealth and family.
Initiation into the Holy Sannyas Order
The Master arrived at Rishikesh, in northern India, in 1924. One day, as he was sitting on the banks of the holy Ganges after being refused food at a local alms-house, a venerable saint, Swami Vishwananda, happened to cast a glance at him. Attracted by the young man’s unusual spiritual aura, the saint was prompted to initiate him into the Order of Sannyas then and there. The Master entered the Holy Order on June 1, 1924, as Swami Sivananda Saraswati, and settled at Swarg Ashram.
The Master’s approach to spiritual matters was unique and original. He imitated none. He just allowed his natural inborn tendencies to blossom forth and spread their sweet aroma to all those around him.
Service of Monks
In spite of his extremely severe austerities and prolonged periods of meditation, the Master would find time to serve the sick monks and passing pilgrims. He would clean the rooms of the sick monks and sometimes keep vigil the whole night if the case was serious. He once carried Lek, a European monk, to the hospital. Orthodox monks of the Rishikesh colony did not believe in any kind of selfless service. So the Master’s activities were ridiculed.
Many monks were run down through malnutrition and the extreme winter cold. Most of them suffered from frequent attacks of fever and dysentery. The Master could not bear to see the helpless plight of these holy monks. He wanted to serve them, but he needed drugs and medicines for which money had to be found. Remembering his savings in an insurance company in Malaya, he managed to salvage Rs5,000. He deposited the sum in the post office and utilised the interest to obtain medicine and essential food items for the suffering monks.
Within a few months the Master felt the urgent need to organise this relief programme better. So the Satya Sevashram Dispensary thus came into being to serve the monks and the passing pilgrims.
A touching incident is recorded of the manner in which he served the pilgrims. One morning the Master realised how absent-minded he was in not having given a certain very useful medicine to a passing pilgrim. The pilgrim had already begun his journey very early in the morning. When the Master started after him, he was already well on his way. Undeterred, the Master ran kilometer after kilometer, until he finally caught up with him at the tenth kilometer and handed him the precious medicine! It was such breathtaking sincerity of purpose and intense love of selfless service that became the crowning glory of the Divine Master’s mission in life.
While at Swarg Ashram, the Master kept a diary in which he recorded his thoughts. He used to meditate even up to sixteen hours a day. His method of developing a virtue was to take one at a time and practise it for a month. He admitted that he, too, used to kill scorpions in the beginning.
About his own realisation of God, the Master revealed to one of his students:
“I did not have any outstanding experiences during the period of my spiritual practice. There was no external or internal obstruction in the progress of my practice (Sadhana). That was the only outstanding feature. I made meditation-deep meditation-the keynote of my inner life. It gave me smooth and continuous progress and rapid arrival at the final spiritual experience.”
The Master founded the Divine Life Society in 1936, in premises that were once used as cowsheds. But it did not take long for seekers to be drawn to his magnetic personality and the Society grew rapidly.
The Master’s Personality
The Master was simple and childlike in his attitude, yet he had the bearing of an ancient sage. He prostrated to saints and scavengers and bowed to stones, bricks and donkeys. He addressed even little children with courtesy. He respected the rights of animals and showed them extreme love and compassion.
Divine wisdom flowed from the Master’s lips in a continuous stream. His powerful, inspiring thoughts influenced people all over the world. Such was his unparalleled literary charity that most of his books were given away free.
In his own lifetime, the Master received the homage of saints and holy men, of ministers and politicians, of philosophers and doctors, of film stars and cultural artists.
We relate an incident that brings home to us graphically the essence of the Master’s teachings and his inner vision of God. Once, the monks avoided a certain path that led to the alms-house. The Master discovered that en route was the cottage of a sick monk who suffered from the dreaded cholera. He at once went and nursed the ailing monk. And he chided the monks: “You all came here to seek God. God in the form of a sick monk is in a dying state, yet you have not the heart to see God in him and serve him”. Such was the Master’s vision!
The Master was an optimist. A negative attitude had no place in him. Every word he uttered, every sentence he wrote, was charged with a rare spiritual power, because he taught what he himself practised in his daily life. This was the outstanding feature of his personality.
The Divine Master radiated peace and serenity because he was himself filled with the peace and serenity of God. He radiated love because he was filled with the love of God. He shed the light of joy because his heart was filled with the light of God. His practical life taught us that we, too, can realise God in and through life, without having to resort to caves and jungles. His life was a perfect example of the teachings of the holy scriptures.
The gift of divine knowledge occupied a unique place in the Master’s heart. He reasoned thus: Give food to the hungry, and after a while they will be hungry again. Give clothes to the naked, and very soon they will be in need again. Give money to the needy, and when they have spent it, they will be in want again. But give divine knowledge to all, and you would have provided them the wherewithal to take care of themselves.
The all-merciful Divine Master, Sri Swami Sivananda merged in God on July 14, 1963, leaving behind numerous followers all over the world to spread his great gospel of love and service.
Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the world-renowned Self-Realisation Fellowship, and author of the famous spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, paid a glowing tribute to the Master during the Master’s own lifetime:
“The life of the great Rishi, Swami Sivananda, serves as a perfect example of selfless activity. He blesses India and the world by his presence”.