Treatment of Visitors
Sri Swami Venkatesananda
This article is from the book Sivananda: Biography of a Modern Sage (Vol. 1).
People came to the well-known Ananda Kutir with the devout desire of having the ‘darshan’ and blessing of this mahatma, and to their surprise and confusion found themselves confronted by a stately, stalwart sadhu (monk) who behaved as if it was he who had come eager for their darshan. For instance, a certain lady from South India came to have Swami Sivananda’s darshan. At that time Swamiji was in the office and she was shown in. After some time she came out and asked some ashramites standing there “Where is Swami Sivananda?” When she was told that it was from him she was coming, in great astonishment she gasped: “Oh! I thought he was the manager. Is he the saint?” With tears in her eyes she ran again to the manager-monk, and fell at his feet.
To see him cutting jokes with everyone gave the impression that he was a worldly man, but one who was perceptive could not but be dazzled by the exquisite lustre of his eyes which ever revealed his spiritual greatness. Yet, not withstanding the unmistakable atmosphere of serenity and dignity that pervaded his presence, every movement, word and action appeared to say, “I am your servant.” Though he was a seer of great repute, a teacher and reformer of nation-wide renown and the founder and head of a great organisation, Swamiji seemed quite oblivious of these facts, and was aware of himself as the cosmic servant and worshipper. Even when a dozen willing students of his were ready to hasten to serve him at a single word, one would find at times that before a cup of milk could be ready for a tired guest, Swamiji himself would come up with the milk from his room, and some fruits as well in his little white bag. If he saw that a visitor had a naturally shy or reserved temperament and felt sensitive about making known his needs, Swamiji would anticipate every one of them and an ashramite would be directed to attend to all his wants even before he asked for anything.
When he went for his evening walk Swamiji was always in the habit of carrying with him some fruit, some little tit-bit or perhaps an interesting book which he would take to the room of anyone to whom he could give it. Whilst on his way to his room at midday, happening to see some sadhu being served with bhiksha by an ashramite, at times Swamiji would stop there to drive away the monkeys and pour water for the sadhu to wash his hands. On such occasions remonstrances were of no avail. If his devotees had presented fruits and sweets to him as an offering, Swamiji would at once start giving them to every soul in sight. If the servant boys, the barber, the postman, a passing beggar or scavenger happened to be on the spot, they all got their share.
On the eve of periodical functions in particular, when feeding on a large scale was to take place, before the hired cook had begun to prepare the special sweet dish Swamiji’s childlike impatience would overcome him. Quickly offering a little to the Ganges he would heap up all that was ready and hasten to distribute it. He did not give with one hand, but would scoop with both hands from the plate and pour it into everyone’s hands. At times he forgot to distinguish between adults and infants in his fervour to give. Several times one would witness the comic terror of a suddenly wide-eyed child confronted by the extended palms of Swamiji, heaped with a quantity of sweets such as would hardly be possible for it even to hold, let alone carry.
He amazed the orthodox type of sannyasins by his manner of service to his devotees. A guest would feel that he was monopolising the entire time and attention of Swamiji and that the latter was bestowing the most exceptional care upon his comforts. The visitor would find that no sooner was a room allotted to him than he was besieged by a dozen kind enquiries as to his needs. Water would be placed in his room, a lantern provided immediately, a mosquito net if it was summer or an extra blanket or two if the season was cold, an easy chair if he happened to be old or an invalid. Then Swamiji would finally ask the librarian to issue any book that he desired to study.
Observing this extreme and meticulous manner of Swamiji’s care and attendance proved a revelation to many visitors who said frankly, “We are really put to shame by Swamiji. He teaches us householders the true method of treating and serving guests. Swamiji has perfected the art of hospitality and we feel that we must learn many points from him. We thought that as householders there was little that we did not already know about entertainment; but here is one who is a model to be copied, even by us.”
The manner of treatment of visitors and guests at this remote ashram was truly an eye-opener. The ashramites as well as anyone connected with them could well be proud of it. Swamiji was like a watchdog in this respect. His instruction to his beloved workers was never to be overbearing to any visitors. He would constantly say: “If you try to view everything as Atman you must express it in all your actions. It’s no good to have your head in the clouds while you keep your palms clenched in your pockets. It does not matter whether they derive any extraordinary spiritual gain or not, but people staying here for some time must at least enjoy real peace. Later, whenever they remember the love and kindness they received here they will also be reminded of the peace of the Ganges, the kirtans and other spiritual ideas associated with the place. Serve them, therefore, with bhava (feeling). Ashrams and maths must serve as examples to show what selfless service and disinterested love mean.”
By this loving attention and kindness Swamiji achieved his object of awakening each one in a manner suited to his capacities. Together with hospitality and service he managed, within the short period of their stay, to transform the ideas, opinions and conduct of people. He did this in a manner peculiarly his own, making them pick up some kirtan, learn a few asanas, do simple pranayama and lecture a couple of times before a small audience. He acquainted them with the practice of likhit japa (mantra writing) and taught them the method of maintaining a spiritual diary and how to draw up a rational daily routine. Visitors also got to know how to conduct meditation, prayer and study classes. In brief, by the time they departed each one virtually constituted a potential nucleus for the further propagation of divine ideas and spiritual practices. Within a short period of a week or ten days the visiting aspirant or devotee managed to learn many a thing in a concise but clear manner.
Swamiji said: “One has to follow the policy of ‘short and sweet’ in the world of today. The traditional piety is conspicuous by its absence and the people have very little time to spare nowadays. Everything has to be made to suit the nature of the occasion. Life is short and days and years pass away. So when people are with me I quickly give them whatever I have to give, according to their need and particular temperament.”
Swamiji’s concern did not end with the ashram visitors but embraced some less welcome ‘guests’. He would not even allow others to harm any being on earth. Once an ashramite had taken out the cot in which Swamiji used to sleep, and discovered that it was an abode of bugs. ‘Guru-bhakti’ (devotion to the preceptor) surged in his heart and he wanted to exterminate the little creatures that disturbed Swamiji’s sleep. He prepared a big swab and dipped it in kerosene oil and began to apply it to all the hideouts of the bugs. The bugs were lucky (and why not, they had enjoyed Swamiji’s holy company every night!). Swamiji appeared on the scene. A look of intense pain on his face halted the disciple’s destructive process. “Ohji, please don’t do this,” he said. .
“But Swamiji, this cot is full of bugs and that is why Swamiji is unable to sleep,” replied the disciple.
“It does not matter. Take the cot and leave it in the jungle for a few days; and in the meantime give me another cot,” came Swamiji’s quick answer.
Similar was the protection that the rats that had taken refuge in Swamiji’s dwelling got from him. A few of them began to eat away the papers and to destroy the bedding and clothes. The disciples working there caught them and all that they could do was to give the rats a joy-ride in a cosy gunny-bag; but the rats invariably returned to the place that very evening. They even began to appeal to Swamiji’s mercy by nibbling his toes at night. For a diabetic this could be dangerous. An expert arrived at the ashram and he gave his expert advice on the elimination of the rat-nuisance. Of course, he had no solution simpler than poisoning the rats. Swamiji who always listened sympathetically to every kind of topic – pleasant or unpleasant, sacred or secular – for the first time refused to listen. “No, no.” He vigorously shook his head. “The rats should not be killed. On the contrary we should take care of the things that we wish the rats should not destroy. Manuscripts should remain in steel cabinets; bedding and clothes, too should be well protected against rats. They should never be killed!”
If the expert said anything more he would have earned regular food for the rats, as others had done who pleaded that the monkeys living in the ashram neighbourhood should be driven away. Swamiji quickly countered this suggestion by sanctioning a regular supply of gram for the monkeys!
In 1949 sometimes the evening satsang used to be held in Swamiji’s kutir. After the satsang was over Purushottamji used to spread Swamiji’s bedding. One day when he opened the almirah to take a bed sheet, he found one new and costly sheet completely torn into pieces by a rat, and inside it were its four new-born babies. They had hardly opened their eyes. Purushottamji took the sheet along with the little rats to show them to Swamiji. When Swamiji saw the tiny creatures his heart was filled with compassion and he felt greatly pained for having disturbed them from their place. He asked Purushottamji to put them back immediately in their original place in the same condition, lest their mother should miss them. In a day or two, however, the mother rat met her death at the hands of a cat. Soon afterwards the little rats also unfortunately died. When Swamiji saw the dead rats an expression of pain came into his eyes. He did maha mantra kirtan for the peace of the departed souls of the rats.
During the summer season scorpions are plentiful. On the verandah of Swamiji’s kutir, where the evening satsangs were previously held, a pair of tongs were kept for picking up the scorpions and throwing them away. One night a visitor saw a scorpion during kirtan time. He crushed it to death with his torch-light. Swamiji happened to see the incident, and immediately after the kirtan he called the visitor and asked him why he killed the scorpion. The man replied: “It is a cruel creature and stings people.” Swamiji retorted: “By killing one scorpion are you able to save people from the stings of scorpions of which there are millions in the country? To kill the creature it probably took you only a few seconds. But can you give its life back again? When you have no strength to give life back to the dead how could you take life?” The visitor was taken aback, prostrated before Swamiji and said that he was sorry for the incident and that he would never kill a creature in his life again.