Swami Chinmayananda’s Legacy

Setting the agenda for a better world

Having recently got myself the second edition (2005) of Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda’s biography by American author Nancy Patchen, The Journey of a Master, I took delight in going afresh over the book, an account of ‘The Man, the Path, the Teaching’. As the author writes in the preface to the second edition, ‘Swami Chinmayananda was human being who had the courage, independence and innate intelligence to realize his Divinity. He dedicated that same courage, independence and intelligence to point out to us that we too are Divine.

‘Had he not been a human being like us, his life’s journey to the Truth would have had little meaning for us. Because he was a man, his life and teaching offer us a model of what is ‘humanly possible’. …his journey would give us some hope, insight – and courage – to take our journey to the Self… There are very few things one can be sure of, but I am absolutely certain of one thing. I am the person I am today only because I met a master, Swami Chinmayananda. I remain forever grateful.’

So indeed are the millions whose lives have been touched by him, and I am fortunate to be among them. I still recall receiving the first edition (1988) of the biography as prasad from Swami Pranavananda, Spiritual Head of Chinmaya Mission Mauritius, for having participated in a spiritual camp for youth in 1997. I started to read it as soon as I came home, and it was ‘unputdownable’ – there were so many resonances between my own queries and those of Pujya Gurudev, and I was impatient to learn what answers he had found.

But of course I was nowhere near the dynamo that he was. He had boundless energy for intense activity, whirling at sixteen hours a day for 365 days of the year. He was restless to transmit what he possessed, the knowledge of the culture of Bharat, his experience and conviction of its universal applicability as a reference for transforming the world, for making people realise that beyond the satisfaction of their material wants there lay an infinitely richer dimension of existence which was accessible to everyone – provided one was willing to make the effort, to undergo the rigours of training and discipline.

Hence one of his fundamental credos: fulfillment of any possession is in sharing it with others. The more you share, the more you give of yourself without asking for anything in return – the Lord will take care of that – the more will come your way, in ways that you may not even know. And, to drive this point home, Swami Tejomayananda, current Head of Chinmaya Mission Worldwide had once given the example of people doing social work and expecting material gains. I am doing so much, but what have I gained from these people, the typical one would ask.

Swamiji’s comment was that such people should reverse the question: Have these people gained from what I have been doing? This is really the crux, come to think of it. This is the difference between involving oneself under spiritual guidance and pursuing short-term material gains. It is not that the latter are not important, but they should be of secondary concern.

The Universal Divine

Interestingly, Swami Chinmaya was a confirmed agnostic – an eternal doubter as to the existence and nature of the Divine — when he started on his trek to the Himalayas armed with his sharp mind and his biting pen. But he returned to teach the world about the Universal Divine!

What happened that transformed him, that overthrew his doubts, made him change his habits – literally: for he discarded his civilian clothes when he was conferred the saffron robe — and launched him on the journey that was to take him and his teachings round the world, completing 400 lecture series on the Vedanta and establishing 97 Chinmaya Mission centres, besides setting up several educational and service organisations to name but a few of his legacy.

He had seen for himself how vain a materially-centred life can be. He lived the rigours of the ascetic life, trekking to the sacred shrines in the snow-bound Himalayas for months, unmindful of the blisters and sores on his bare feet as his shoes gave way.

He lived on the barest minimum – dry rotis, salt, water, and fruits when he could get some – and he sat at the feet of his guru, Swami Tapovan, who so stretched his patience that many a time the temptation to give up was overwhelming. And yet he kept coming back until years later, he was initiated into the fold.

When, earlier, he had asked Swami Sivananda about the possibility of being initiated, the latter had replied: “There’s no hurry. You are still young. You go on with your newspaper work in Delhi, that’s the Lord’s work too. You must be sure you’ve tasted all of the worldly life. Let’s give you plenty of time to be sure that this is a true desire for the spiritual life, not just a temporary moment of disenchantment with the world.”

On an auspicious Shivaratri day, 25th February 1949, Balakrishnan Menon was initiated into the sanayasa ashram by Swami Sivananda through the performance of a religious rite that is a physical representation of the mental process that the initiate undergoes. Thus, the fire represents the burning of any dross that may remain from the previous associations with the world, just as all matter is consumed by fire. The initiate purifies his mind as he mentally surrenders any desire, emotion, or thought of his past into the sacrificial fire.

Further, the desires of a man’s mind being as numerous as the hairs on his head, the latter is shaved, leaving only a tuft on the crown to represent the only desired attachments: the guru and the scriptures – and finally even these attachments are severed by cutting the tuft as well. The saffron robe is a physical reminder of the vows that have been taken, its colour representing the mental flame in which all desires are extinguished.

He was given a new name: Chinmayananda Saraswati meaning “one who revels in the bliss (ananda) which is pure consciousness (chit)”; maya means “of the nature of or composed of”, and Saraswati (wisdom) is the name taken from the initiating swami, thus represents the lineage.

Cure for the ego-disease

And now, to deepen his knowledge of the scriptures and complete his training, the new swami was sent to Swami Tapovan. In May 1951, he descended on the plains and undertook an all-India pilgrimage on foot, living on begged food, sleeping anywhere, to go and see for himself how others were doing service. It was a humbling lesson, the “best cure for the ego-disease”, to use his own words.

The central idea behind this studying, initiating and rigorous training was that direct experience was the only path to true knowledge or, in the words of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, “neither the senses nor reason can give us sure knowledge: the senses distort the object in perceiving it, and reason is merely the sophist servant of desire”.

In other words, if we take science as the benchmark of expanding knowledge about the outside world without, where experimenting is important, it is experiencing that is paramount as far as the inner world of our being is concerned.

After all these years spent verifying for himself the truth contained in the scriptures, obtaining thus the authority of knowledge as well as personal experience, Swami Chinmayananda took on his first batch of skeptic urbanite Hindus at a Jnana Yagna session in Poona on 23 December 1951.

He started by observing that “it has become a new fashion with the educated Hindu to turn up his nose and sneer in contempt at the very mention of his religion in any discussion. Personally I too belong in my sympathies to these critics of our religion. But when this thoughtless team begins to declare that we would benefit ourselves socially and nationally by running away from our sacred religion, I pause to consider my own stand.”

True to his own self, he “invited the questioning mind to protest against tradition, to challenge ancient dogma, and to accept neither the words of the scriptures nor the interpretation of the sages on blind faith – the ideas were to be tested by individual contemplation, integration and experience.”

The Jnana Yagna has since become the method, and his invitation has found echoes in the hearts of millions. For a swami who started by converting himself, as it were, this is surely a most wonderful legacy, amongst the many others that he has left and that are detailed in this book, a real treasure trove into which one can dip over and over again so as to be continually inspired.

Hari Om.


* Published in print edition on 4 December 2015

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