This article is a chapter from the book From Man to God-Man.
When the Master left his job in Malaya and sailed for India, it was to seek God and find Him. When he gave away the last cent in Poona and began to wander as a mendicant, it was to surrender to God and be saved by Him. When he took Sannyas and practised intense austerities, it was to realise God and rest in Him. At no time during his Sadhana period did the Master even dream of starting an Ashram or founding a society.
But somewhere around the year 1930, he was gripped by a burning desire to serve the world. Driven by this desire, he came out of his seclusion in Swarg Ashram and entered the cities, mingling with the masses. There was a sparkle in his eyes, a fire in his speech. The Master, who cast a spell on the vast audiences at Sitapur and Lakhimpur, the Sankirtan Samrat, who sang and danced his way into the hearts of tens of thousands at Rawalpindi and Lahore and threw them into high ecstasy, left no one in doubt about him being a realised soul. When and where he attained illumination no one knew. It was a secret known only to him and to God.
Even after his God-realisation, the Master did not want to build an Ashram of his own. To spiritual aspirants who sought his guidance at that time, he said, “I am only a common Sadhu. I may not be able to help you much. Further, I do not make disciples. I can be your sincere friend till the end of my life. I do not like to keep aspirants by my side for a long time. I give lessons for a couple of months and ask my students to meditate in some solitary place in Kashmir or Uttarkashi.”
The Master did not desire to get entangled, either in training seekers of God, or in tours for spiritual propagation. No doubt he was eager to serve humanity, but his method then was the “lightning method”. He would take some places by storm, do intense propagation for a few days and rush back to Rishikesh. This became his routine.
In Swarg Ashram itself the Master saw a field for service awaiting him. It was not physical privation alone which afflicted the Swarg Ashram Sadhu community. Many of its members had left their hearth and home in a fit of dispassion, and now lived in a disorderly manner in the absence of someone to give them proper spiritual guidance. Many tortured the body in the name of austerity. Some took intoxicating drinks, fondly hoping to be thrown into Samadhi. Others just whiled away their time playing with pups and monkeys.
The Master felt that once the physical and spiritual needs of these Sadhus were taken care of and their confidence won, their energies could be channelised for their own upliftment and for public good. Prompted by these thoughts, he founded the Swarg Ashram Sadhu Sangh on August 24, 1933, to promote the spiritual welfare of the Sadhus, and to disseminate spiritual knowledge widely. The Master now felt that as a first step towards reorganising the Sadhus into a community of useful citizens, he should train a batch of them on proper lines. The desire to serve the world thus forced him to accept disciples. But as their number increased, the Swarg Ashram management found it difficult to maintain them all. For the Master it now became necessary to choose between Swarg Ashram and training of his disciples. He opted for the latter.
On January 17, 1934, the Master moved to the right bank of the Ganges with four disciples. Before leaving Swarg Ashram he handed the management of Satya Sevashram Dispensary to one Swami Jnanananda, who also had been a doctor in his pre-Sannyas days.
From the day that he thus set foot on the right bank of the Ganges as an independent Sannyasin with disciples of his own, the Master’s life of service took on an unparalleled dynamism. He began to act in different directions with the air of a man who knew his mission in life. Within weeks he succeeded in securing from the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal some land for constructing an Ashram. In the meantime, the Master and his disciples found on the Ganges bank itself, what looked like an abandoned cowshed. To them it was more than a palace, for it had four rooms. The Master occupied one, another was set up as a dispensary, and the remaining two were occupied by the disciples. They called it “Ananda Kutir”, the “Abode of Bliss”. This was in March 1934.
Soon they found more cowsheds, vacant but uninhabitably filthy with hay and cow-dung. They cleaned them up and occupied them.
“It was all East Indian Company style!” quipped the Master years later. “We just got into those huts and they were ours!” In one room an old cowherd was living, but he, too, left after a year.
Now earnest seekers after Truth, who had taken the Master as their Guru, and who visited Rishikesh regularly for his Darshan, volunteered to build some Kutirs on the land granted by the Tehri ruler. The first to do so was Hari Ganesh Ambekar, a retired teacher from Nagpur. Then followed another devotee, Srimati R. Lall, wife of a high railway official. Others also arrived and the Master was encouraged. His mood was reflected in a letter he wrote on August 4, 1934:
“Brahmachari Siva Rao is welcome. Greetings to him. I shall serve him. This body is meant for the service of all aspirants. I will attend on him carefully and guide him for quick spiritual progress. You can send any number of sincere aspirants. Here I have created a big field. All can evolve.”
Some years later, one of the Master’s disciples, Het Ram Aggarwal, a doctor returned from London, observed, “In September 1937, we met Swamiji at Ananda Kutir and dined with him in the small kitchen. The room was ill-ventilated, full of smoke and very uncomfortable, yet Swamiji’s love was so overpowering that we completely forgot all those inconveniences.”
In those early days the Master himself kept the accounts. He joined his disciples in preparing packets of spiritual literature for despatch. Every day they worked far into the night tying the packets. If someone gave them Rs. 25, they used to sit up the whole night and get ready a pamphlet for printing. Three petromax lamps were burning in Ananda Kutir, when there was hardly enough food for all the inmates.
Slowly more people started joining the band. God opened up new avenues of service. He gave at the same time the instruments necessary to render that service. There was no self-will in the growth of the organisation at any time. It was all God’s Will. It is to the eternal credit of the Master that when the Sankalpa born out of his human will that no Ashram should be established and disciples accepted, was confronted by the Divine Will, which had it all otherwise, he did not rebel. On the other hand, he humbly accepted each new situation as it developed.
Said the Master later: “I never dreamt that God would ordain matters thus. Cutting off ties, I left my all, with a hazy idea of spending my life in a quiet, secluded spot, absorbed in repeating the sweet Name of Rama. But look now, the Lord has given me a ‘family’ which so dotes upon me that, whether I want it or not, it will have me for itself. Who knows, perhaps I am born for it. As long as anyone continues to derive one iota of benefit from this self, I am happy to be entirely his.”
In the first week of January 1936, the Master was on his way back to Rishikesh, after presiding over the Sankirtan Sammelan at Lahore. Bhagat Karam Chand, a well-known Punjabi devotee, also accompanied the Master’s party. As the train sped on, he requested the Master to break journey at Ambala. The Sankirtan-intoxicated Master laid down his condition: “Well, arrange for a week’s Akhanda Sankirtan immediately.”
Instantly came Bhagatji’s reply, “Please get down and we will have it started this very evening.” The Master detrained at Ambala Cantonment.
The people of Ambala cheered him lustily. The Master was well-known among the Punjabi devotees. Then began a week-long, non-stop chanting of Hari Nam, not just by a few but by thousands of men, women and children, most of them living on a restricted fruit diet during the period. The exemplary manner in which the non-stop mass Sankirtan was conducted for one full week attracted popular attention, not only in Ambala, but in the whole of Punjab.
It was in this atmosphere of sacred ecstasy that the Master all of a sudden remembered the Rs. 5000 whose interest he had been utilising on the Sadhus of Lakshmanjhula. He now wanted to utilise the capital itself to serve the world on a wider scale. Divine Will prompted him to start an institution to cater for the spiritual needs of his disciples, and to make an organised effort to spiritualise the whole country. He wanted to have a registered trust set up for the purpose. The same night, Ram Agarwal, a local lawyer, briefed him about the rules and regulations and a draft was made. The next morning, January 13, 1936, saw the birth of the Divine Life Trust at the Ambala Cantonment court.
The valuable work rendered by the Divine Life Trust in the first years of its inauguration made many people want to join it, but the Trust did not provide for a membership of more than eleven. So to enable all sympathisers of the divine life cause to work under one banner, the Master formed the Divine Life Society, and got it registered at Lahore on April 16, 1939.
It is significant that the world-wide spiritual organisation founded by the Master was christened by him in the most cosmopolitan, catholic and impersonal manner. He called it “Divine Life Society”, and not the “Sivananda Society”, or any other personalised name.
By 1940 the inmates of Ananda Kutir as well as the work had considerably increased. Ten years of intense activity, which had kept the Master on his toes all the time, and tossed him from one milling crowd to another while on tour, made him long for silence and seclusion. He therefore left the Ashram unnoticed on February 18, 1941.
Only ten days earlier the Master had almost forced two senior disciples to leave for Lahore on work which was not really urgent. After that there were only about ten inmates left in the Ashram, half of them being absolute newcomers. In a letter he left behind, the Master indicated that he wanted immediate rest. He also made appointments of the president and other office-bearers of the Divine Life Society. He wrote to the bank and the post office for transfer of accounts. He appealed to all the inmates to co-operate in implementing the new arrangements.
The grief-stricken disciples began to search for him along the banks of the Ganges and in the jungles. They advertised in the Ashram magazine, offering rewards to those who gave clues as to his whereabouts. They printed an appeal to the Master himself, beseeching him to return.
Later investigations revealed that the day the Master left the Ashram, he had gone to the post office in the morning and asked for Rs. 2. He had stood awhile, playing with the silver coins, tossing and spinning them, as any little boy would do. He had on his person a bare dhoti and an upper cloth. He was barefooted, too. In that condition, without taking even his spectacles and pen, he had left the place while the inmates were having their post-lunch siesta.
Some friends saw the Master at the Rishikesh toll-gate, but he remained silent and walked on. He spent a night in the Satyanarayan temple, midway between Rishikesh and Hariki-Pauri. The third day, after passing Jwalapur, he continued walking along the Ganges canal. Near Kankhal, at a place called Jagdishpur, while he was resting under a tree, he caught the attention of the villagers. One of them took him to his home. Nothing further is known about how he spent the next ten days. On the fourteenth day of his leaving the Ashram, the Master returned to Ananda Kutir in a car, escorted by his Jagdishpur host.
Soon afterwards, the Ashramites constructed an underground cave for the Master, who named it “Kaivalya Guha”, and used it for meditation. About the same time, he moved his residence from his own Ashram to a cottage on the Ganges bank belonging to Swarg Ashram.
As the work of the Divine Life Society slowly progressed, the Master began to realise the benefits that a good spiritual institution could confer on ailing humanity as well as on spiritual aspirants. He started to feel that such institutions were a boon to mankind. By 1947, his views about the mission of a Sadhu changed completely. In a letter that he wrote then to a disciple who approached him for advice the following lines were found:
“Have you a good library of spiritual books? Kindly have one. It will intensify and strengthen your work and centre. It will be a boon to the public. It will change the mind and turn it Godward. Gradually develop it. A good library is a centre of attraction. The work will grow ad infinitum. You are in need of good, able co-workers, selfless men who would dedicate themselves to this divine, exalted work. Many will come forward themselves and join you. Nature will arrange; the Lord will direct. This is the spiritual law. Let the work expand.
“A separate plot of land should be set apart for the construction of cottages by other persons, who will stay there permanently or occasionally. It would be a retreat for retired and retiring people, who will spend their time in meditation and service, either singly or with family. Provision should be made for this.
“A separate plot with cottages should be provided for Sannyasins. Good Sadhus or Sannyasins should ever dwell on the premises. They should conduct classes and Kathas. This is important. Boys must be trained in Gita recitation, prayer and Kirtan.”
In 1950, the Master was taken by his disciples on a tour of the country. A man of superlative realisation that he was, he drew huge crowds wherever he went. Innumerable new contacts were made between the God-man and spiritual aspirants thirsting for guidance. In the wake of this tour, correspondence grew and donations increased. The Master believed in spending money, not in hoarding it, and every pie that he received was almost immediately utilised by him on one constructive project or other.
Through personal experience the Master had discovered that three things were essential for a Sannyasin if he were to carry on his Sadhana uninterruptedly: food, medical care and library facilities. In the Ashram that he founded, he provided these three basic amenities so that his disciples might be spared the trials that he himself had undergone.
No day passed in the Ashram without the aspirants receiving something from the Master’s hands. The fruit and sweets placed before him by his devotees were immediately distributed amongst all. Not unusually, the Master himself carried them in a basket on his head to the rooms of the inmates. Occasionally, he also served meals himself to the Ashramites, bending low before each inmate seated cross-legged on the ground, and calling out, “Roti, Bhagavan, dhal, Bhagavan,” as he asked each person if he wanted more rotis or dhal soup.
One winter, a Nepali aristocrat coming down from the Ashram Bhajan Hall after the night Kirtan, found the kitchen fires burning brightly even at that late hour. He turned to the Master, “What! Swamiji, you seem to be mindful of everything. There is Akhand Kirtan upstairs and Akhand kitchen going on down here!”
“You have remarked rightly,” was the Master’s serious reply. “Indeed, I do believe in both Akhand kitchen as well as Akhand Kirtan, for the latter cannot go on without the former, as long as you have a physical body to deal with. It is the Akhand tea, Akhand milk and fruit, and the Akhand puris with which I nourish the sincere, industrious workers that has resulted in the wonderful work that the Divine Life Society is doing everywhere.”
The Master laid the greatest emphasis on care of one’s health. On this subject he spoke to his disciples one day in the late forties: “Money or no money, you must take care of your body. If you do not look after this instrument of the Lord, then you are not worshipping Durga properly. The best worship of Durga is to maintain this body in a proper condition to enable it to work out His Will in the best manner possible.”
Speaking thus, he sank into memory of his early Swarg Ashram days, and compared the austerities that he had then practised with the amenities that he was now enjoying in Ananda Kutir.
Said the Master to his disciples: “When I was at Swarg Ashram I never touched oil. Now I must keep several kinds of oils. All the cells are vibrating so fast that there is intense heat in the body. When I was at Swarg Ashram I slept on the floor, but now I have a comfortable bed. This is essential for the work that has to be turned out. I do roughen the body sometimes; and for the sake of keeping up the austerity I rub it against the walls. But often I do not have time even for that. There is work to do.
“Service has a greater and more pressing demand on our attention. All that your body needs you must give. You have practised enough of austerity. If you go on in the same fashion, your body will break down; you will become useless. You must take nutritious food. You are all gigantic brain-workers. You must have barrels of fruit juice. Now I have several bottles of various medicines—some for my diabetes, some for my stomach, etc. I have different things for cleaning the teeth—mouth gargle, tooth powder, etc.”
To keep up his humility the Master used to sometimes adopt a strange practice. Not infrequently, after disciples had worshipped him with flowers and high eulogies, he would retire to his cottage and beat himself with a shoe or a broom, asking himself if the shoe-beating had the same effect on the body and the mind as the garlanding and worshipping. He also treated himself like that when his body disobeyed to do his work, or did a wrong action, or expected honour, or desired soft things.
So the Ashram grew. It developed simultaneously in three directions. Firstly, it was the world headquarters of the Divine Life Society, guiding its numerous branches all over the world, bringing out the Master’s books and journals, sending out spiritual emissaries to guide aspirants in different parts of the world, and organising or helping to organise spiritual conferences.
Secondly, it was the Sivananda Ashram, which served as a spiritual retreat to seekers of Truth, extending its hospitality to passing pilgrims, and engaging itself in a modest way by rendering social service to people of the neighbourhood.
Thirdly—and this was perhaps its most vital function—it was the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, which imparted training to spiritual seekers in Atma Vidya or the Science of the Self.
People watched with amazement the phenomenal growth of the institution during a short span of time. Commented Swami Vishnudevananda of Kailas Ashram: “This place was all forest some years ago. Tigers were roaming about. Swami Sivananda has converted a jungle into a mangal (auspicious place).”
But the Master himself was humble. He took no credit for what he had done. “There is no accident in this world,” commented the Master. “Everything happens strictly in accordance with God’s plan.”
The Master had a rational explanation for the many selfless workers that the mission had attracted within the country and abroad. “Spiegelberg, Karina and others, who have seen the Ashram, are working vigorously for us. Others like Edith Enna, Louis Brinkfort and Harry Dikman are working for us even though they have never come here. We have all been probably carrying on spiritual propaganda in our previous births also. That is why we have been able to build up the organisation to such a great extent in so short a time. We are now continuing what was left over in the last birth.”
Some of the devotees confirmed the Master’s intuition. “Dear Swamiji, I have a feeling as if I had known you in a previous incarnation,” said Peter Earbest Koopman of the United States.
Said Sister Elsie Bennett, journalist from Toronto, while referring to the Master, “I felt that he was my own. I never had this feeling of relationship with anyone in the past.” There were others who expressed similar sentiments.
The organisation grew rapidly, but the Master never got attached to it. On more than one occasion he declared, “If all go away, I will take my alms in the alms-house or in some houses here and remain in my cottage. I will serve the few patients that come to me. If some devotee wishes to print, I will give him some of my writings. The rest of the time will be my own. If two or three hundred rupees come every month, I will keep a few aspirants and run the show on a small scale. If lakhs and crores come, I will expand the work to any magnitude. I am prepared for anything, so I am always peaceful. You should also be indifferent.”
And the Master was truly indifferent and amazingly so. Countess Mayo, a visitor from Scotland, once asked him, “What would you do if some people came to attack you? Would you draw a circle around yourself which would protect you from them?”
The Master replied, “I will keep quiet. I have surrendered myself to the Lord. Let Him do what He likes.” Countess Mayo appreciated the attitude.
“Three years ago a thief stole from the Ashram Viswanath Mandir silver vessels worth Rs. 4000. He was not found. Many Ashrams keep guards with rifles for protection. But I refuse to appoint any such guard. God has given me this Ashram to do some work, and He will take care of it if He wants to.”
In January, 1947, a fire consumed Ashram property worth Rs. 3000 in the shape of building, books and cattle fodder. But the Master was all smiles and hospitality to the Ashram visitors, while some inmates put on faces depicting great calamity.
On another occasion the Ganges flooded his cottage when he had gone to the Dak Bungalow at Rishikesh in response to an invitation from the Governor of Punjab, who was camping there. Most of the books and belongings were salvaged but some were washed away. When the Master returned, his cottage was partly in ruins, and he had to be lodged in a hastily fitted room in the Ashram hospital. All this did not perturb the Master in the least, and he continued to have the same air of joviality about him as always.
The damaged cottage was quickly repaired. The front portion of the building was somewhat renovated, especially with the visitors in view. But the inner living rooms, which had been undisturbed by the floods, were left alone. They continued to be as of old.
It was the beginning of winter in 1949. The Master led a visitor into his apartments. “It has a splendid view of the Ganges and the Himalayas,” commented the Master as they both entered his cottage. “If you sit here on the verandah, or even if you are within the rooms, you would constantly hear the Pranava Nada of Ganga.” The two then went into the inner room.
“You are living in this cottage, Swamiji?” asked the surprised visitor. “Why, it is as ill-ventilated as a prison cell. You cannot get any light in the rooms except at midday. They are not rooms, they are caves, and too small even for that. And you work in this room? It is not even sufficient to accommodate your manuscripts and books. You cannot move in it without treading on something, or tripping over something else. The bedroom is damp and one cannot even breathe in it. I wonder how you live in it.”
The visitor continued, “Though I get a positive feeling of spiritual elation while I am here, I think I will not be able to keep body and soul together for six months if I lived in this cottage. Why don’t you change into a better suite of rooms, Swamiji?”
“No, no, I am all right here,” assured the Master, and the visitor bowed in bewildered amazement and left.
But the Master was thoughtful of others. He raised modern buildings for the use of guests. When devotees took the trouble to come from far-away countries to see him, quite often spending their entire life savings, he felt it his duty to make them feel comfortable and at home. He sent them bread, butter and cheese, coffee, tea and biscuits, fruit, sweets and honey, instead of the austere Ashram food. He did not want their health to be affected by a sudden change in diet.
Likewise, knowing fully well that his guests from New York and Montevideo, from Paris, Geneva and London, would not be able to switch on overnight to the rigorous daily routine of the Ashram, he went on spiritual camps to nearby forest glades to offer them healthy diversion. Or he arranged for music performances, for screening of Yoga films, for special dinners, and for boat Kirtan on the Ganges.
The Master was meticulous in the matter of receiving and treating guests. To him the guest was God, and hospitality was religion. If someone had an appointment with him at 5pm, he would be in the receiving lobby even at 4.45pm. His principle was that the guest should not be made to wait. He never thought: “I am so big, let him wait. I will take my own time to go and see him. If he is not prepared to wait, let him go.” The Master never had that complex.
The Master was punctual in the extreme. For any function at which he was to be present, he was there on the dot. In this manner, the Master worked without rest or respite for three decades to a rigid daily schedule, except when some serious illness necessarily kept him back for a short duration.
Even during illness he often insisted on going through the mill of his routine. During a severe lumbago attack in the winter of 1952, brushing aside the doctor’s advice, the Master continued to attend office. When he could not ascend the flight of steps leading from his cottage to the road, he literally crawled on all fours—to the agony of his devotees.
Again, when he was bedridden with typhoid in 1954, not a day did he neglect his service to the world, but continued to give directions to his disciples to carry out the work that he himself would have done had he been all right.
There was no imperative need for the Master to strain himself thus, but his almost insatiable desire to serve people kept him busy all the time.
It was a common thing in the Ashram, on a cold winter morning with snow on the surrounding hilltops, or on a wet rainy day with clouds kissing the Ganges, for the Master to reach his office desk early in the morning at the appointed time (6am or 7am in the hot summer months), accompanied by one or two disciples, when not a single soul had turned up in the office, and some of the Ashram workers were still in bed. But within minutes, on hearing that he was on his way to the office or had reached it, the inmates and visitors would start trooping in, and the office would resound to the chant of the early morning invocatory prayers conducted by the Master himself and joined in chorus by all present.
“The scene gives me the idea of the working hours of high court premises in a big city, or the harbour in any active port,” wrote Prof R.R. Rieker of the Bavarian Alps, Germany. He gave the following graphic description of the activities on a typical morning during the one hour of his stay in the Ashram office:
“He is able to attend to a thousand things at a time. He starts his office with a prayer and Kirtan. Then he signs different papers and looks to the correspondence. The accountant brings the statement of the Ashram’s income and expenditure for the Swami’s perusal. The press manager wants money for purchasing paper and an automatic printing machine. An aged Swami in charge of the construction work in the Ashram comes to the Master with great joy to invite him to attend the opening ceremony of a huge guest house. The cashier with his bundle of cheques and postal orders is standing in a corner awaiting a chance to approach the Master for obtaining his signature. Several bundles of packets are kept on his table and around him. The Swami has to check the addresses on the packets before despatch.
“In the meantime he asks a devotee to sing a song, and a professor of the Madras University to give a short lecture. As in a busy market, people are running here and there with papers in their hands. Typewriters clatter nonstop in preparing articles for newspapers and journals. Young and energetic Brahmacharis move about with tea, milk, biscuits and fruit for distribution to those present. Soon the devotees from some distant places rush in to have the Swami’s Darshan, and struggle to find a way to approach him. Sadhus and Mahatmas of Rishikesh and Hardwar go to him for financial help for their pilgrimage to Amarnath in Kashmir and Mount Kailas in Tibet.
“When the Swami is a bit free, devotees ask for a rosary or a book. Somehow, no one gets disappointed.
“A devotee prays for initiation. A lady devotee from South Africa requests the Swami to grant her a boon for a son. To add to this, a large number of dogs, pups and monkeys at the entrance fight and make a terrible noise. The Swami devotes a few minutes to teaching Vedanta to a group of students from Delhi. He asks a Mahatma to go to Uttarkasi for intense meditation, and a young man to proceed to Malaya for dissemination of spiritual knowledge. They all receive necessary help and guidance.
“Then the Swami attends to a quarrel among aspirants of Hardwar and asks them to stay in the Ashram. Soon he turns to the station-master and enquires about a train accident in Bihar. The canal engineer speaks about the flood havoc of the Jumna. Then he writes a letter to a doctor in Gujarat to organise blind relief work, and another letter to a devotee in Calcutta to organise an All-India Conference of the Divine Life Society. He permits a lady graduate to sing a song, and an old man to perform Yoga exercises. People around him receive garlands and diplomas of merit. The Swami’s table is loaded with all sorts of things. We find small packets of books, flowers, fruit and biscuits amidst the papers. A press reporter from Switzerland, after waiting for an hour, requests the Master to give a message through a tape-recorder to the people of the West. Suddenly looking at his watch, the Swami conducts a short prayer and gets up to go back to his residence.
“As soon as the Swami comes out of the office, a batch of students from the Punjab University reach the Ashram. He welcomes them with great joy and conducts his favourite Kirtan: ‘Do not smoke, Govinda…’ The students are highly elated. They take several photographs. On the way, the Swami asks a disciple to carry milk to a sick person in Swarg Ashram, and to supply a blanket to a cancer patient at Rishikesh. Thus he spends a busy time until he returns to his cottage.”
That was a morning with the Master. The office hour was often followed by a Pada Puja (ceremonial worship of the Master’s feet). This formal worship enables the disciple to attune himself to the powerful radiations of the Guru. Occasionally, there were also community feasts at noon, in which the Master himself joyously participated.
The night Satsang in the Ashram was invariably a more colourful affair than the morning gathering in the office. Song and drama, readings from the scriptures, discourses by learned men, Bhajan and Kirtan—there was great variety. Whatever the programme was, whether it was a grand music concert, or an assortment of trivial items, the presence of the Master gave joy to everyone. It was really he who mattered.
The following account from an unpublished work, of a typical night Satsang in the Ashram illustrated how the Master moved in the midst of his devotees, inspiring them and educating them at every turn.
“Wednesday, May 23, 1962. The sun had set. The moon had not risen yet. The Master, the simplest among men, emerged from his cottage to proceed to the night Satsang. A loving smile lit his childlike face. A group of devotees gathered by the roadside, greeting the Master with folded palms. Some visitors from Tiruttani cried devotedly: ‘Muruga! Muruga!’ The Master also responded with an outburst of joyous praise, ‘Muruga! Muruga! Om Sarvanabhavaya Namah!’
“The devotees saw the Lord in the Guru. He, too, saw God in them. The entire atmosphere was surcharged with devotion.
“In the open terrace outside the Diamond Jubilee Hall, Kirtan with orchestral accompaniment was going on. The whole place was brightly illuminated. Visitors, inmates of the Ashram and the local people filled the place, men on one side and women on the other. A myriad stars lighted the dark sky.
“The placid waters of the Ganga flowed noiselessly, almost imperceptibly in the Rishikesh valley. The river resembled a lake. In the background was the Himalayas rising high, majestic, and looking dark in the night.
“The Master, the splendour of Ananda Kutir, the Muni of Muni-ki-Reti, the Rishi of Rishikesh, gently moved in, greeting the devotees as he passed them by. A word here, a smile there, a benediction elsewhere—the Master made many souls happy in the twinkling of an eye.
“The Master took his seat in an easy chair in a corner, from where he had a full view of the audience. Everyone in the audience could also see him. Diagonally opposite him was the picture of Lord Krishna mounted on a decorated altar.
“An Ashram monk began to recite the Sri Suktam. Devotees came, offered currency notes at the Master’s holy feet and went back to their seats. Money flowed like water. Mahalakshmi was feeding the divine mission.
“After the Sri Suktam recital, the Master called on Subha Rao, a blind Gita scholar, to give a talk. Then followed an interesting exposition of a few Gita verses.
“The Master then asked Pal, a radio artiste, to sing. Pal began to render a Tulsidas Bhajan in a melodious voice. As the Bhajan went on, a visitor came to the Master and hesitatingly sought his permission to touch his holy feet.
“‘Please do not hurt, touch lightly,’ said the Master, whose physical frame, wrecked by severe austerities in the days of his spiritual practices, felt pain at the slightest pressure.
“A foreigner arrived. ‘Om Namo Narayanaya!’ greeted the Master. ‘From where?’
“‘From Vienna,’ replied the gentleman. ‘My name is George. I wrote three letters to you.’ The Master asked for books and magazines to be handed to the visitor and thanked him for coming.
“Pal finished singing. Then followed Kirtan, arati and distribution of prasad. Devotees now flocked around the Master to receive the prasad from his hands. One of them was a philosophy professor. The Master asked him if there were any Western philosophers equal to Sankara.
“‘There is one Eckhart, isn’t it?’ asked the Master, and himself added, ‘Some saintly Christian philosophers are there, I think.’ He then teased his devotee, You ought to have been Head of Department. The little star Brihaspati was opposite to Saturn, or something like that.’
“It was not just teasing; it was teaching. The Master was emphasising the power of free will over fate, of self-effort over destiny. He was ridiculing those who sought shelter under horoscopes and palm lines for the fault of their own limitations.
“A visitor came. He said he had taken the Master’s blessings before going abroad at the outbreak of the Korean War, and was happy to be able to see him again.
“‘You are also a philosophy student?’ was the Master’s query.
“‘What kind of engineering—chemical, mechanical or Atmic engineering?’
“‘Something to do with machinery.’
“‘Very necessary these days. See, the electricity had failed.’
“The Master was referring to the frequent electricity failure earlier during the Satsang.
“A letter was handed over to the Master. It was from an inmate who had been served with a quit notice by the Ashram secretary. The letter was in the nature of an appeal: ‘Thou art my refuge. Where can I go?’
“The Master, usually compassionate and considerate, dismissed the petition with a caustic remark, ‘Lazy man!’ He had no sympathy for idlers. Idleness was sin to him.
“Next to get near the Master was a Sanskrit professor from Gwalior. He narrated how as a student he had gone through the Master’s book on Brahmacharya and had benefited immensely. He then referred to the Master’s Conquest of Mind, a recent release. The Master gave a copy to the professor, who remarked that it would help him greatly in guiding a research student who was doing his doctorate thesis.
“The Master then asked, Are you my professor or student?’
“‘You are my professor; I am your student.’
“‘Head of Department, sir!’
“‘There, not here!’
“As the Master got up from his seat and began to move slowly through the devotees lining his path, a visitor burst out with a few lines from Thayumanavar: ‘O Lord, give me that state where the mind melts, where acts cease, where all is quiet.’
“‘Yes, be still, be quiet,’ said the Master. But let the hands be working. Give the mind to God and the hands to work. Quiet within, active without. Be a witness of the world show.’
“Slowly the Master wended his way to his quarters, muttering prayers and Mantras. At the entrance to his cottage, he took leave of the devotees with folded palms and short prayers from the different religions. Even as he went in one could see from the expression on his face that his mind was now completely taken away from devotees, away from songs and lectures, away from worship and prasad, to be alone—alone with the Infinite.”
On special occasions such as Guru Purnima, Durga Puja, Janmashtami, Sivaratri or Christmas, when large numbers of visiting devotees thronged the Ashram Satsang, the Master ignored his daily routine and personal convenience completely. It made him immensely happy to know that there were many who cared for God, who loved God, who longed for God. Often the Satsang on such occasions extended well past midnight.
In the night Satsang, the Master usually sang a Kirtan Dwani or two, besides one of his philosophical songs of instruction such as:
Serve, love, give, purify, meditate, realise,
Be good, do good, be kind, be compassionate,
Enquire “Who am I?” know the Self and be free,
Adapt, adjust, accommodate,
Bear insult, bear injury, highest Sadhana.
Excel in service,
Expand in love,
Advance in knowledge,
This is Yoga of synthesis.
Start the day with God,
End the day with God,
Fill the day with God,
Live the day with God.
Sometimes the Master sang the Song of a Little, at times the Song of the Eighteen ‘Ities. On very rare occasions he himself got onto the stage.
In a dramatic performance during the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations at the Ashram, the Master played the part of a Divine Messenger, much to the amusement of the children, the inspiration of the aspirants, and the delight of the elders in the audience.
A similar incident happened on April 26, 1957. Subhadra Bai of Madurai had just concluded her Katha Kalakshepam. Quietly slipping out of his seat, the Master went over to the dias and began to narrate the story of Bhakta Nandanar in perfect Katha Vachak style. Kartal in hand, he sang Kirtan Dwanis. Songs which had long since gone out of vogue even among the professional Katha Vachaks, but which were very popular during the twenties and thirties, the Master sang faultlessly. In a short half hour, he had thus dealt with the inspiring story, blending humour, music, wisdom and information, keeping the audience spellbound throughout his performance.
Some people criticised the Master for introducing song and drama in the Satsang of a Sannyasin’s Ashram. He met their criticism by offering a completely rational explanation for his action.
“Music is not entertainment as worldly people may think,” he affirmed. “Music is Yoga. It is Bhakti Yoga or Sankirtan Yoga. Well-known saints like Thyagaraja realised God through music. In the Satsang the songs of Thyagaraja, Surdas, Mira and other saints are sung. Kirtan and the Name of the Lord are sung. The Name is a great purifier. Sankirtan Yoga is the best Yoga for the vast majority of people. It develops Bhakti, Sattwa and concentration. Music affords relaxation to the mind after hearing the Brahma Sutras and abstruse philosophy. Sankirtan inspires and elevates all, and brings them face to face with God. Many people after their day’s hard labour come to attend Satsang, and music has a salutary effect on their tired nerves. People who come to the Ashram with mental worries or disorders are greatly benefited by hearing music and Bhajan. They go back better in mind and spirit. People cannot listen to lectures for a long time at a stretch. They lose their concentration after some time, and thereafter lectures become boring and useless. To mitigate this, Kirtan or music in between the lectures is very useful. It refreshes the minds of the people and makes them fit to listen to further discourses. Music is a tonic for the mind and nerves, and food for the Spirit as well.”
Music, dance, drama, magic, mimicry, wrestling—all these might be considered out of place in any other spiritual gathering, but for the Master, they were just harmless media to rouse lowered spirits, to cheer up distressed hearts, to soothe jaded nerves.
The Master considered festive occasions as opportunities for intense Sadhana and service; and he tried to create more such occasions.
In April 1950, he proposed to his disciples that holy enterprises should be marked by frequent celebrations to rouse popular enthusiasm. At his instance, the Divine Life Society commemorated in the same year the completion of twelve and half years of its service to the public. The Master called it the “Pearl Jubilee”. It meant special Satsang programmes, and printing and distribution of spiritual literature, both at the Society headquarters and at its numerous branch centres throughout the world.
The Master found another excuse for goading workers on to greater spiritual effort. In his Ashram he celebrated the birthdays of several of his disciples. It meant functions wherein speakers recollected the spiritual qualities of the individual whose birthday they were celebrating. It meant collective Kirtan and prayers, sometimes an additional publication or two by way of birthday souvenirs. Likewise, the annual celebration of the Master’s own birthday was marked, not by revelry, but by intense spiritual activity at the various Divine Life centres.
An event of significance in the history of the Divine Life Society was the three-day Parliament of Religions held in the Ashram, and attended by more than two hundred delegates representing all the important religions. The Parliament was inaugurated by the late Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar, who stressed the essential unity behind the seeming diversities of different religions.
“It is our function to emphasise unity in diversity,” he said. “The world is not made to a single pattern, and variety is as important as unity. Those who would like to have dull uniformity are doing a great disservice to religion as those who emphasise meaningless differences.”
At the conference the Master recited verses from the Upanishads, and sang an English chant honouring the prophets and seers of all religions. He denied that religion was the opiate of the masses and declared, “Religion is not a disease born of fear but is our breath. It shows the way to peace, universal brotherhood and Self-realisation.”
The Master loved all religions. To him one religion was as sacred as another, one name of the Lord as authentic as another. Bound by his love, Hindu and Muslim, Christian and Jew, Parsi and Buddhist, lived like one family in his Ashram. In the early days of the institution the Master did find traces of separatism in some of the orthodox Hindu inmates, but by the power of his personal example he set matters straight in no time.
Way back in 1938, when a Christian friend was taken by the Master and left in the Ashram dining hall, the Hindus there stopped eating and walked away in the middle of their meal. On hearing of this, the Master took the Christian to the kitchen itself, spread a mat for him to sit on and served the meals himself. Seeing this the Ashramites raised no more objections.
On another occasion food had to be sent up the hill to the Muslim overseer supervising the construction of the temple at the Ashram. The disciple in charge of the kitchen sent the rice and rotis on a leaf, and the soup in a clay cup. The Master came to know of this. The very next day he was at the kitchen at mealtime, and saw to it that the overseer’s food was sent in a plate and bowls, and not on a leaf and in a clay cup. He told the disciple in the kitchen, “God asks one not his caste or creed but only if there is love in his heart.”
The Ashram was a world in miniature. All sorts of people came there. “I think this is more an asylum than an Ashram,” said the Master once half seriously. He was right. It was a rare characteristic of the Master that he welcomed with open arms and loving solicitude whoever sought refuge at his feet. They were not sifted into worthy and unworthy categories.
He did not even ask them from where they came. A person was free to remain in the Ashram as long as he liked. During his stay there, whatever be the reason for his coming, he was efficiently trained in service, Kirtan, Yoga Asanas, etc., and even if he departed from the Ashram later, he was a gainer all the same.
Literally all kinds of people lived in the Ashram. Aged Mahatmas spending their last years in contemplation and prayer; middle-aged Government officials and businessmen come for a spell of spiritual rejuvenation; an assortment of visitors from every conceivable country; individuals and families of men and women; students interested in Yoga; young Sannyasins in quest of the Ultimate; people of diverse education and talent, of profession and skill, some who had been through the thick of life, and some about to enter the threshold of life; urchins from neighbouring Pahadi villages attracted to the Ashram by the food and facilities; monks well versed in the rich Sanskrit lore of the eternal Hindu religion; yet others whose only introduction to God and religion was through the Master’s books in English—all these mingled with the dogs and monkeys, scorpions and snakes, peacocks and parrots of the surrounding forest in a natural communion, brought about by the extraordinary aura of the God-man. The Master united man, bird and beast, friend and foe, the familiar and the stranger, in a unique divine kinship. The result was that even a casual visitor who stepped into the Ashram precincts was at once enveloped in this mystic atmosphere of love and serenity, and his attitude changed for the better.
The late Dr Hafiz Sayed, once a professor in the Allahabad University, found the Ashram “surcharged with liberty, equality and fraternity.” Rev. Ralph Richard Keithan of Gandhi-Gram called the Ashram “a cell of the future society.”
Another distinguished visitor, Dr Judith Tyberg of the East-West Centre, Los Angeles, declared that in the Master’s Ashram she felt like “Alice in Wonderland”, for she was “in an absolutely different realm of consciousness, motive and life, where God was manifest and acted as the driving force to action.
In this favourable atmosphere, work went on silently and smoothly. There was the Ashram temple dedicated to Lord Siva, where ceremonial worship was offered thrice daily. A little below was the Bhajan Hall, where the chanting of the Maha Mantra, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare, Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare was kept up round the clock, with inmates and visitors taking turns in generating an all-powerful spiritual current, invisibly helping all aspirants in their spiritual endeavour.
Then there was the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy Press, which turned out spiritual literature in English and Hindi in an unending stream. An Ayurvedic Pharmacy on a neighbouring hillock manufactured various medicines and tonics to the prescription of the ancient system of Indian medicine. Then there were the studio, the construction department, the correspondence section, the Publication League, the accounts office, the Annakshetra (free kitchen), the guest house and other wings of the Ashram, all of which provided avenues for selfless service for the many inmates. The Master put them all to work, each according to his capacity and talent.