Religious Freedom


Sri Swami Venkatesananda

This article is an excerpt from the book “Sivananda’s Integral Yoga”.

True Catholic

It is good to remind ourselves at this point that technically the Master (Swami Sivananda) was a non-dual Vedantin. He belonged to what is known as the advaita cult. Perhaps this doesn’t mean very much to you. Belief in a God is not an essential part of the advaitins’ doctrine. The non-dual doctrine implies the total absence of all duality. There is a distinction between monotheism and monism. The Master’s official cult was monism, not monotheism. Monotheism still has some sort of duality built into it. It implies the unity of Godhead-God is one, so that “we” are all still outside that. Monism says, “There is only ONE”, and it is only because you are standing in front of me that I say so, otherwise I shouldn’t even do that. So it is true to say, as did the monists, that God is not in an idol, or in a temple, in the sense that he is not confined to that form. BUT God, being omnipresent, is everywhere.

When this doctrine is heard, the obvious question that arises in the mind is, “Then why do you want to worship a God in a temple, in a church, in a synagogue, why don’t you worship God everywhere?” But when you look at this paper, you see it as paper, not as God! For the mind has been so conditioned and it is not able to drop this conditioning. You seem to be trapped. So that in practice Gurudev had a rather interesting and remarkable theory which was reflected in his own daily life. He didn’t ridicule the views of people belonging to other sects who were opposed to monism and who declare that “God and man are eternally separate, and it is ridiculous to say that man can ever become one with God”.

Paradoxically the Master was both a bhakta (devotee) and a jnani (sage). He did not say that he was a bhakta and would therefore not study Vedanta or meditate. No, he preferred the integral yoga approach not merely this, not merely that, for the simple reason again that the mind is capable of playing all these tricks. Both the bhakta and the monist, by each denying an aspect of yoga, are caught in the same ego illusion.

The Master never criticized either attitude. That was his genius. He tried to include all this, knowing that at a particular stage, to a person of that temperament, all this is essential. He knew that all these are steps that lead to the same goal. He knew that if once in that idol worship you recognize or touch the core, you are bound to realize that that which you worship there in that image is here in ‘you’ too. As it is said in the Upanihsad, “That which shines in the sun, is also that which shines in me.” The genius of the Master was in the blending of these, what superficially appear to be, conflicting doctrines.

In Rishikesh, when he first came there, there were these two completely opposite camps. One which said, “Forget all your Vedanta, your enquiry and meditation. To have a vision of God is the highest goal. For this you must worship an idol.” The other camp called them idolaters, men who were unfit for meditation and who did not understand the sublime philosophy of the Upanishads.

It was given to the Master to bring one group up and the others down a little, and this was done in a very beautiful and subtle way. I have seen the Master deal with all these people; never once did he challenge anyone. If someone said, “God is in this idol,” immediately he would agree and add “Come on, build a small shrine for your image. Worship there.” Then someone else came along and declared : “I don’t believe in all this, Swamiji. I can raise my consciousness to the seventh plane.” And the Master never argued with him, never. He was prepared to understand and did not condemn even the fanatic, because this person sees something and is just not mature enough to see that it is not the whole picture. He must be allowed to come to maturity in his own time. So, often Gurudev bowed down to satisfy even the fanatics.

In the ashram temple there used to be puja three times a day-morning, noon and evening. Swami Sivananda who lived on the Ganges bank at the foot of the hill would climb all the way up to be there three times a day. This was when his health was still good. But a younger swami who was living nearer the temple would not attend the worship. What was Gurudev’s attitude? As soon as the arati was over and the prasad (food offering which was also our breakfast in those days) was about to be distributed, he would call one of us, “Take some prasad to Swami So-and-so.” But that is not the end of the story. That swami is not in the ashram now, he has since set up an ashram of his own, and I believe that there, puja and chanting of mantras goes on 24 hours of the day and that he insists that his devotees worship some form of God or other in a small private shrine in their rooms. If that is not the miracle of the ‘prasad’, I don’t know what else it is. That maturity must happen within yourself. Gurudev did not even fight with fanatics. If you fight with a fanatic, you become another fanatic.

This was a marvellous aspect of the Master’s teachings. He was eager to listen to everyone; even to someone holding a diametrically opposite view. You pursue your own path, you have your own philosophy of life. You don’t have to abandon your religion, your method of worship and meditation, or your mode of life. The others may also have something interesting to say. Study others’ points of view and develop friendliness, affection and understanding. One of our Master’s most famous sayings was, “Break down the barriers that separate man from man.” He repeated this hundreds of times, whenever he spoke, and it is ringing in my ears even today. As long as there is a feeling that you are completely and totally different from me, either because I am a Hindu and you are a Christian, or because I am an Indian and you are a European, or for any other reason, the danger of hatred and destruction is also there. Swami Sivananda said, “Realize that you are a human being, What your religion is, is your personal affair.”

One scholarly and very devout orthodox Muslim used to come to the ashram. As an orthodox Muslim he would not do certain things, and certain other things he would do. Gurudev instructed his disciples thus, “He will be doing namaz (Muslim prayer) now, so please don’t disturb him. He doesn’t like this, don’t give it to him. He likes that, let him have it. Keep a prayer mat in his room.” He had great respect for the other person’s religious practices. This is an important point to remember, Gurudev had faith in all these, but he himself practiced what he wanted to practice. He adopted his own mode of life, undisturbed by what others said. It is not possible for one to practice many different faiths. All roads lead not to Rome, but to ‘roaming’.

Know that there are many roads, and if possible get acquainted with them, but continue to tread your own path to the centre.


In India, even amongst Hindus, there were in those days a few major cults, as there are in other religions. One day Gurudev received a visitor to the ashram, who was the head of the Siva cult, which meant that he should not adore Rama, Krishna or Vishnu, only Siva. This Swami had written to Gurudev explaining that he was going on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas and would like to stay at the ashram for a few days. Gurudev had replied, “Most welcome.” The day before this holy man arrived, Gurudev called us all and said, “As from tomorrow for three days, only Lord Siva’s picture must be kept on the altar, and don’t sing ‘Sri Ram Jaya Ram, Jaya Jaya Ram’, but only the names of Ganesha and Siva. And don’t read the Gita or the Vishnu Puranam, only scriptures relating to Siva, everything Siva”.

Does it sound hypocritical to you? The Master was not a hypocrite. He was the purest crystal that reflected “the other” without the least conflict. “This Swami is devoted to Siva, as I am to the truth that God dwells in all.” Gurudev’s attitude was not, “He is as devoted to Siva as I’m devoted to Krishna or Christ”. That might breed conflict. But it was, “I feel that all religions are one, all religions are equally valid, equally great, equally sharers of truth.” Whoever came to the ashram gave us an opportunity to serve him and an opportunity to hear him-however fanatical he might be. One type of fanatic cannot cure another. Why offend the other person, why even provoke him? The principle is to deal with people at their human level. It is possible that each religion represents a partial view-there is no perfect total view. If you look out of the window, you see the sky. It is not the total sky, it is only a small portion of sky. Nobody in the world has seen the total sky, the whole space, nor the whole truth, nor God. You can never have a vision of the whole-that is God. But, what you are seeing is the sky, let us not forget that. You are not seeing the total sky, but you are still seeing the “sky”.

Can you regard religion as your own extremely private encounter with God, your personal spiritual adventure, and in relation to others in society, remain a human being? Swami Sivananda’s extraordinary genius taught us what it was, not merely to tolerate, but to understand one another. What is understanding? Respect-“I respect your views even if you don’t respect mine”-that is the beauty. Gurudev also used to say, “Even he who denies God, affirms the existence of God, because the very self of the denier is God. That substratum for the intelligence that says, ‘God does not exist’, is God”. In the evolution of that person, maybe this is a necessary step.

The Master never challenged anyone, never forced anyone to go against his own conscience. Never. In the ashram his own disciples held widely divergent doctrines and views but they were all loved and respected by Gurudev. To me, this seems to be the essence, the cream of the realization that God is omnipresent. Not the word, not the concept, but the realization of the omnipresence of God. This realization lived as Swami Sivananda.

Another remarkable incident nearly shook everyone out of their wits. In 1953, Swami Sivananda organized what was known as the Parliament of Religions. A number of learned scholars belonging to different faiths had been invited, and there were other people who had come merely to participate in the function. Obviously this was an occasion when the congregation was not made up entirely of disciples and devotees of Swami Sivananda, and the mood of the audience was a bit difficult to gauge. Because it was a cosmopolitan crowd, the proceedings were conducted mostly in English except for one or two swamis who could not speak English (they spoke Hindi or Tamil or some other language).

On the second day, one swami who was sitting on the platform passed a note to one of the organizers, “I want time to speak.” The organizer said “No, there is no time.” Gurudev, who was also seated on the platform, watched this through the corner of his eye. The note was passed to him. Gurudev said, “Let him speak. I won’t speak today, let him speak.” What did this man do? He stood up and grabbed the microphone so that no one could snatch it from him and for ten minutes spewed forth nothing but criticism and abuse of Swami Sivananda. Nothing else. He went on, “He is living in North India, where the language is Hindi, yet he writes in English, speaks in English.” This was meant to be a parliament of religions, not a parliament of languages, but this man was totally unconcerned with all that. He had come merely with the intention of attacking the Master in public. You should have seen Gurudev’s radiant smile. He kept saying “Very good, very good”, (in Hindi of course). You could see the steam coming out of other people’s ears, their brains were boiling, but Gurudev was quite calm, as if to say, “That is your opinion, your view, your path-go on”. He did not even want to try to justify himself in this man’s eyes or convince this man that because there was a world-wide circulation of Gurudev’s books he had to write in English. That was our Master’s wonderful attitude and therefore again, it was extremely difficult to pierce through all these veils and come face to face with his real nature.

It does not make any sense at all to give up being a Christian, or a Hindu or a Muslim. What for? What are you going to be instead? Will you practice a new religion, a universalist religion? What is a universalist? The Universa ‘list’ has a list all of his own, in which there is condemnation of every other religion. This is a waste of time. Be what you are. Gurudev tells you, “Seek God wherever possible. See God in all.”

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