I was an arrogant boy on leave from the army. It meant that I had to travel a day and a night from my army base in Jullunder. I would have only a few hours at the Ashram–just to see the Master and then go right back.
As if by chance, I had found a piece of paper that intrigued me. One night when I was working late and was searching for a misplaced paper, I found a small pamphlet in the trash basket. It was called “Sadhana Tattva” and was by Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh. As soon as I read it, my body began to shake. It began with “An ounce of practice is worth tons of theory.” Here was a teacher who was down-to-earth and practical. There was nothing mysterious about his teachings; I felt that I had to meet him for myself. I got a few days leave from the army.
The first time I saw Swami Sivananda he was sitting with about 30 or 40 people around him. He looked like an ordinary man among them. The look on his face and manner of speech were simple and straightforward. Each word came from his heart. There was no kind of religious hypocrisy, no sitting on a tiger skin with ashes smeared all over his body. He had an extraordinary spiritual glow.
The second time, I saw him, Swami Sivananda was coming up the stairs in my direction. I didn’t want to bow my head to him. I was young and arrogant and never wanted to bow my head to anybody–Swami, God-realised soul or whoever, I didn’t care. But it is the tradition in India that you should bow your head to a holy man. To avoid the situation I just moved out of his path. The Master saw me and headed in my direction. He asked me who I was and where I was coming from. Then he bowed down and touched my feet!! My whole body began to shake violently. With all my heart, with all my life and love, I learned to bow without any type of reservation. He touched my heart not with miracles or shows of holiness, but with his perfect egoless nature. He didn’t consider that I was just a stupid boy standing there, though I was just that. He touched my heart and broke the ego. That was my first lesson, and if I could attain one millionth of the state of egolessness of the Master, it is His Grace.
Before leaving, I went down the Ganga where it was the custom of the Ashram to do Aarati (waving of lights) every evening. All the devotees and inmates of the Ashram assembled by the banks of the Ganga to watch Master perform this evening worship. I was sceptical. I was of a scientific temperament and knew that a river is only water, H2O–imagine worshipping H20!!
But as I stood there and watched Master waving the lights, I saw the river become a mass of flowing lights. At that instant the river assumed a divine flow, a manifestation of the Grace of the Lord. Master turned and looked at me and in my mind I heard his message, “God pervades everything; this too is His Special Form.” This entirely changed my outlook on life.
I returned to my army base and after discharge went home to South India and underwent teachers’ training. It was my mother’s wish that I should become a teacher. But even while living and working at home, I remained immersed in Sadhana. In my heart I knew that I must return to see my Master.
One fine morning in August 1947, the postman brought the Call from the Himalayas in the form of an invitation to the Diamond Jubilee Celebration of Sri Gurudev’s birthday. I knew that I had to go; it was the Divine Message for which I had been waiting. Though I planned to go for only a few days, as I took leave from my mother at the bus, I heard a voice saying that I would not be returning. I tried to still the voice, but could not.
Upon arriving at the Ashram, I was asked to assist with the Ashram chores. In India, it is necessary to wash lentils before cooking. They are then set out in the sun to dry, but often the monkeys come and steal them. I was given the Karma Yoga of protecting the lentils from the monkeys.
One day as I was doing this, Master passed by and said, “Stay here”. “Yes, Swamiji,” I replied without thinking. Then I realised what I had done. I had given my word to my Master and I could never go back on it.
So Sri Gurudev accepted me as a new disciple and welcomed me to the Ashram as a permanent staff member.
On Sivaratri, March, 1948 I took Sannyas and became Swami Vishnudevananda. When my parents learned of this they wrote a distraught letter. I showed it to Master, who coolly handed it back with the words “Maatha Naasti, Pitha Naasti” (There is neither mother nor father for you). My troubled heart found instantaneous peace.
It was the special capacity of Sri Gurudev to find out the capabilities and special talents of each of his disciples. He would encourage and nourish this. Under his expert guidance, imperfect and unripe aspirants matured and developed their latent talents. Master saw in me the tendency towards Hatha Yoga and that I was a good organiser. Thus Swamiji’s training was directed in developing these inherent qualities. He appointed me Professor of Hatha Yoga at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy.
Master touched me and opened my intuitive eye. All my knowledge of Asanas, Pranayama, Mudras, Bandha and Kriyas returned to me from past lives.
People from all over India and the entire world came to the Sivananda Ashram. Master would send them to me for instruction. To be the first Hatha Yoga Professor at the Forest Academy and the centre of so much attention proved a bit too much for me to handle. I soon developed a case of “Ego Fever”.
I was a 90-pound weakling and felt the need to give an appearance in keeping with my stature at the Ashram. I decided to grow a beard and long hair, the marks of a distinguished Yogi. Master watched all this happening.
When the ego became too inflated, he decided that it was time to stick a pin in it. One day he looked at me and said, “Yes, Vishnu Swami, the beard suits you. Yes, it is true we must all make a good appearance and impress people. Yes, yes, keep on with it.”
At that moment, my body contracted. I realised what I was doing. I immediately shaved and decided to never again put on airs or impress people.
It is wonderful to see how Master never said an unkind word, even when people made fools of themselves. He gently tried to make them realise what they were doing and they should go about correcting their faults.
At one point I felt the need to leave the Ashram for a few months of seclusion in the Himalayas to do intense Sadhana. Upon returning to the Ashram, I threw myself into the work with a new gusto. I had not only lots of creative ideas for improving things, but also the energy to carry them out. Once Master said to me, “Vishnu Swami, now I see your Kundalini rising. When this happens, the mind is flooded with inspiration.”
I became Master’s personal assistant. This gave me the opportunity to observe his actions firsthand. I learned that the way Master acted in public was exactly the way he acted in private. There was no pretense or showmanship about him, just an honest, straightforward and loving nature.
One day I was speaking with Master in the office when a carpenter, a Sikh, walked by. Master asked me to ask the carpenter to come in so that he could discuss some work that had to be done.
I immediately ran out and yelled, “carpenter, carpenter, come here.”
After the man had left the office, Master turned to me and asked, “When you called the carpenter, did you see God in him? You should have addressed him politely as Sardarji. You came here to see God, yet you cling to your arrogant ways.”
My heart sank. I had been brought up to treat some people as inferiors and to speak to them in a commanding way. I had done this action without thinking. With great love, Master had pointed out to me this flaw in my character.
One of my duties as personal assistant was to set out Master’s bed in the evenings. One night as I went lo the cupboard for a sheet, I found a nest of rat babies. I brought this to Master who was sitting on his verandah. It was dark and when asked to look, Master said, “What is it, Prasad?” Then he saw what it was, “Quickly put them back before the mother returns and is upset.”
But the mother never returned; maybe she was caught by the Ashram cat. The babies died because she did not return to care for them. I brought their bodies to Master, who without hesitation said “OM Trayambakam” for their departed souls. He didn’t see any difference between the soul of a rat and a human being.
One night I saw an assailant try to kill Master with an axe. I jumped up and in great fury threw the man to the ground. Master later said to me, “You must learn to control your emotions.”
This was a great learning experience for me. I saw that to a realised Master, God comes in many forms. To Sivananda, a person who tried to take his life was as much God as a man who would come to garland him. He had great love for both. Shortly after that I complained to Master, as I felt that there was too much gossip and idle chattering among people in the Ashram. I felt that only “Sattvic” (pure) people should be permitted to stay. Instead, we had many undesirable people whom Master allowed, even encouraged to stay. Master’s response was, “If you are so holy, you have no need of an Ashram. This is a place for people who need my help. It is better that they are here than out in the world where they can do great damage.”
Master Sivananda was a great man, not only in spirit, but in physical form as well. One time when we were constructing his Mahasamadhi Shrine, he came and lay down in the spot where his body was to be buried. It was too short and he ordered us to it larger to accommodate his massive body.
One day Master said to me, “Vishnu Swami, one day you must go to America. People are waiting there for you to teach them Yoga.”
At that time I laughed. The Master might as well have said, “Someday you will go to the Moon.” At that point America seemed as far off as the Moon. But it is interesting to note how his words proved true.
The last job I had before leaving the Ashram was to supervise the construction of Master’s Mahasamadhi Shrine. At the inauguration of the work, Master gave me 10 rupees. He told me that it would always pay for whatever work he asked of me.
With the energy of that 10 rupees I was able to construct the Mahasamadhi Shrine, come to the West, establish all the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres and Ashrams and teach Teachers’ Training Courses to thousands of people. Those 10 rupees has taken me around the world innumerable times. It is only through Master’s energy and his grace that I was able to do all the work I’ve done. Everything I’ve done has been in Master’s name.