The Call of the Absolute
Teachings from Swami Krishnananda
This article is from What is Enlightenment? magazine (vol. 4, no.2, 1995).
Introduction by Swami Bill Eilers of the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, India
“The next time you come to Rishikesh you must stay here at Sivananda Ashram.” So exclaimed Swami Krishnananda, the long-time General Secretary of the Divine Life Society, to Andrew Cohen when Andrew visited him earlier this year. Deciding to accept the invitation sooner rather than later, Andrew changed his travel plans for the interval between his teachings in Bodhgaya and Kathmandu, and on January 24, accompanied by about a dozen of his students, returned to Rishikesh to spend five memorable days at the ashram.
Sivananda Ashram, the world headquarters of the Divine Life Society, is huddled on a bank of the Ganges River two miles north of the “City of Saints,” Rishikesh. This area, in the foothills of the Himalayas, with its many ashrams and temples, is considered to be one of the holiest parts of India. For thousands of years, seekers after God realization have come here to do penance, austerities and deep meditation, and the very atmosphere is charged with the power of the realizations of bygone seers.
The ashram was founded in 1932 by the great saint and sage Swami Sivananda, who passed away in 1963. Since then his ashram and the Divine Life Society have continued to grow. The society has about 10,000 members and over 200 branches in India and abroad. The ashram, with its large library, teaching academy and thirty-bed hospital, has around 300 residents including about 100 monks, and feeds over 500 people a day. It is a spiritual oasis for many sincere seekers from all over the world who feel at home in an atmosphere where English is spoken and where people of all faiths are welcomed.
Swami Krishnananda was born in South India in 1922. At the age of twenty-two he joined the budding Sivananda Ashram and two years later donned the ocher-colored monastic robes. Many years of study followed as his photographic memory absorbed not only the Indian scriptures but the entire range of Western philosophy. His semireclusive life ended in 1957, and he was named General Secretary of the Divine Life Society in 1959. Since then he has performed the difficult task of balancing numerous administrative duties with lectures, spiritual discussions and writing.
Although some of his writings are in difficult philosophical language, Swami Krishnananda has a genius for giving simple and highly original answers to questions from seekers. For example, he once defined Self-realization as “where thought expires into experience.” He recently revealed an aspect of his personal philosophy when he explained to a distinguished visitor, “Swami Chidananda [President of the Divine Life Society] and I are more interested in how we live our lives than we are in teaching.” As often as not, comments such as these are interspersed with signing official papers, answering administrative queries, making casual jovial remarks, and suddenly, brilliantly, expounding a profound Vedantic truth.
Vedanta is the crown jewel of Indian spiritual thought. The word Vedanta itself means “the end of the Vedas” or “the end of all knowledge.” The Vedas, among the most ancient scriptures known to humankind, are the roots of the entire Hindu tradition. Vedanta, based upon later but still ancient Hindu scriptures (the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras of Vyasa), boldly asserts that atman and Brahman, or the individual soul and the Absolute, are one–You are That! And at the end of the eighth century A.D., the great Shankara in his exposition of Advaita Vedanta, or absolute nonduality, declared, “I will tell you within half a verse the essence of all the scriptures: Brahman alone is real. The world is unreal. The individual self is not other than Brahman.” This does not mean that the world does not exist, but that it is unreal if it is understood to be different from the sole reality, Brahman, which is both immanent and transcendent, and finally beyond any categorization whatsoever.
While Andrew was in Bodhgaya, Swami Krishnananda was asked whether there was any reason in particular that he had given Andrew the special invitation to the ashram. In the humblest way he answered simply, “I just want to give him honor.” And when Andrew approached him the first morning of his return, Swami Krishnananda welcomed him and said, “We want to do everything for you. We want nothing from you.”
Having been asked if he could make himself available if people would like to meet him, Andrew inquired if it would be all right to hold some public meetings. “Of course, you don’t even need to ask,” was Swami Krishnananda’s quick response, “You will help bring sanity into the lives of your listeners.” Someone then asked if it would be possible for Swamiji to spare a little time each day for the visiting group. “Please come at 6 p.m. just after my group meditation and I’ll be glad to see you,” Swamiji replied. Thus was initiated a double series of fascinating meetings that were an inspiration to those who were privileged to attend. For the following three afternoons, Andrew held deeply meaningful dialogues usually preceded and followed by meditation, and in the evenings the visiting group met with Swami Krishnananda for a series of passionate and illuminating encounters.