Sivananda, Swami (1887–1963)
One of the most influential modern Hindu spiritual teachers,
whose most important contribution was the wedding of the
traditional concept of sannyas, the renounced life, with social
service directed toward people in need. Born Kuppuswami Iyer
on September 8, 1877, in Pattamadai, near Tirunelveli in
southern India, he was a son of Vengu Iyer, a revenue official
and devotee of the Hindu deity Siva. Kuppuswami was educated
in Ettayapuram, attending the Rajah’s High School, where
he was a good scholar and proficient in athletics. In 1903 he
matriculated and went on to the Society for the Propagation of
the Gospel College at Tiruchirappalli.
In 1905 he entered the Tanjore Medical Institute but was
obliged to leave when the death of his father made it financially
impossible to continue at the institute. He moved back to
Sisters of the Amber Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
Tiruchirappalli, where he started a medical journal, Ambrosia,
in 1909. Soon afterward, he supplemented his small income
from the journal by working at a pharmacy in Madras.
In 1913 Kuppuswami decided to take up medical work in
Malaya, where he eventually earned a reputation for combining
medical work, spiritual observance, and selfless service to
the poor. By 1920 he was working with three European doctors
and managing a hospital. He became a member of the Royal
Institute of Public Health, London, a member of the Royal Asiatic
Society, London, and an associate of the Royal Sanitary Institute,
London. In addition he published several books, including
Household Remedies, Fruits and Health, Diseases and their
Tamil Terms, Obstetric Ready Reckoner, and Fourteen Lectures on
Public Health.
During his spare time, he studied traditional yoga and Vedanta,
spending much time in meditation. In 1923 he became
increasingly preoccupied with the desire to realize spiritual
truth. He gave up his job and returned to India. He became a
religious mendicant, making pilgrimages to Varanasi (Benares),
Poona, Nasik, Pandharpur, and Hardwar, staying at ashrams.
In Rishikesh in northern India, a traditional holy place,
he was formally initiated as a sannyasi, or renunciate, by Swami
Viswananda, an elderly monk, and became Swami Sivananda
Saraswati on June 1, 1924.
For some time, he lived at Swargashram by the side of the
river Ganges, subjecting himself to intense spiritual discipline
and using his medical knowledge to help the sick. He also made
pilgrimages to Kedarnath and Badrinath, holy places high in
the Himalayan mountains. He excited great enthusiasm by his
popular lectures, inspiring chanting and singing of spiritual
verses. In 1933 he was invited to attend the birthday celebration
of Swami Ram Tirtha in Lucknow, and he subsequently
traveled through India inspiring a great spiritual revival.
Returning to Rishikesh, he established an ashram in abandoned
cowsheds on the banks of the Ganges in March 1934.
With the help of disciples and supporters, the humble premises,
named Ananda Kutir (hut of bliss), grew into a large selfcontained
community with a temple, hospitals, a pharmacy, a
printing press for literature, and even a post office. As the Divine
Life Society, the ashram sent its spiritual literature all
over the world.
The rapid and successful establishment of the ashram was
accelerated by the swami’s dynamic personality and an astonishingly
simple financial routine involving the spending of all
donations on the day of receipt. Hindu swamis traditionally renounce
the accumulation of wealth, so all contributions were
immediately applied to practical purposes—feeding the sadhus
of the district, maintaining hospital and medical treatment for
the poor, leper relief, building huts, and developing a printing
department for literature.
Integral yoga, Sivananda’s unique system, which combined
the practices of the various branches of traditional yoga, and
Vedanta were propagated in hundreds of books and pamphlets
and in the several magazines issued by the swami. They were
often printed on poor-quality paper in quaint English as well
as in the vernacular, yet they powerfully influenced thousands
of devotees all over the world.
The Sivananda Ashram or Divine Life Society became a kind
of Shangri-La in the foothills of the Himalayas, a half unreal
world poised between past and present, between materialism
and religion, between popular and advanced teaching. Part of
its strange power lay in its paradoxical contrasts as a world in
miniature, where high government officials and maharajahs
rubbed shoulders with wandering mendicants, saints, and
rogues. Each day, the swami would receive visitors and resident
monks, giving instructions with a few succinct words, a gift, or
a good-humored joke. In the evening, he would preside over
Satsang (association of the wise), a kind of religious meeting at
which visitors, Indian or Western, were encouraged to lecture,
sing, dance, or tell a joke. Many individuals underwent a sudden
uprush of spiritual awareness in this highly charged atmosphere.
Sivananda was credited with many miracles, and his teaching
was often manifested obliquely in the collective unconscious
of the ashram itself. The key to someone’s problem might come
from a casual remark from a stranger or the events of the day.
One of the quaint but practical mottoes of the swami was, ‘‘Do
it now!’’ In the same succinct manner, he condensed all religious
teachings of various creeds to the simple formula,
‘‘Serve—Love—Give—Purify—Meditate—Realise. Be Good—
Do Good—Be Kind—Be Compassionate. Inquire ‘Who am
I’—Know the Self, and Be Free!’’
Many swamis now well known in the Western world were disciples
of Swami Sivananda or were influenced by his teachings.
These include Swami Vishnudevananda (famous teacher of
hatha yoga), Swami Venkateshananda, Swami Hridayananda (a
woman, formerly an eye surgeon), Swami Satchidananda
(founder of Integral Yoga Institute), Swami Jyotir Maya Nanda,
Swami Nadabrahmananda (famous for his application of yoga
principles to music), and Swami Sivananda Radha (Western
founder of the Yasodhara Ashram).
After the death of Swami Sivananda on July 14, 1963, his
successor as president of the ashram was his leading disciple,
Swami Chidananda, the secretarial work continuing in the
hands of Swami Krishananda.
Sivananda wrote a great number of books, and several biographies
about him have been published. There are also two recordings
of life at the Sivananda Ashram The Sounds of YogaVedanta
Documentary of Life in an Indian Ashram (Folkways Records,
33 13 rpm, Album 8970) and Sounds of Sivananda
Ashram, volumes 1 and 2 (two C60 cassette tapes), issued by
Ashram Records, Box 9, Kootenay Bay, BC, Canada VOB 1XO.
Ananthanarayan, N. From Man to God-Man. New Delhi The
Author, 1970.
Krishnananda, Swami. Swami Sivananda and the Spiritual Renaissance.
Sivanandanagar, India Sivananda Literature Research
Institute, 1959.
Omkarananda, Swami. In Sivananda Literature. Rishikesh,
India Sivananda Literature Research Institute, 1960.
Sivananda, Swami. Practical Lessons in Yoga. Sivanandanagar,
India Divine Life Society, 1978.
———. Practice of Karma Yoga. Sivanandanagar Divine Life
Society, 1980.
———. Sadhana. Sivanandanagar Divine Life Society,
———. Science of Yoga. 18 vols. Durban, South Africa Sivananda
Press, 1977.

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