By Suma Varughese
Meet Swami Satchidananda, who is committed to wresting economic, social and spiritual freedom for this country and thereby achieve Mahatma Gandhi’s purna swaraj.
Like many spiritual personages, Swami Satchidananda is on the cusp of many polarities. He is a former Air Force pilot turned preacher of peace. A saffron-garbed sanyasi who is a follower of Christ. A spiritual teacher who is also an activist, with a mission to regenerate the country by helping it to win the spiritual, economic and social freedoms that constitute Mahatma Gandhi’s purna swaraj.
The swami’s spiritual transition was wrought dramatically through a plane crash in 1982. Recognizing that life was not in his hands, the former Marxist set upon the task of understanding the mystery of life. Successively through dreams, he was led to four gurus, Justice Vithyathil, a retired judge of the Kerala High Court, Bede Griffiths, the well-known Dominican monk, Swami Ranganathananda, then head of the Ramakrishna Mission, and finally, Mahatma Gandhi. Each honed his commitment to his ‘two loves’ Jesus Christ and Mother India. The swami is presently on the threshold of a one-year padayatra from New Delhi to Kanyakumari, a project that he calls Desh Vandana, with the mission of restoring values, particularly among schools and colleges.
At 60, the Swami exudes a calm radiance and his passion for India rings through his voice. Excerpts from an interview:
Tell me about your Desh Vandana project.
It is an effort whereby we are trying to reach out to young people with a message – regeneration of the nation. They have to take responsibility for it. Somehow in India, the subject mentality is more prevalent than the citizen mentality. The papers are so full of sensationalism. There is a lot of negativity in society. One should cultivate a positive mindset. Life Positive is doing a great job towards that end.
Desh Vandana is a step into public life for me. At the end of the one-year padayatra, I intend to start a community of men and women who can take this forward. We shall set up a center wherever we are gifted with land. Even if I find half-a-dozen men committed to national regeneration, it will be enough. A concrete project that will emerge out of this padayatra is to ensure that every child in India gets a meal a day.
That’s a huge project.
The idea is to plant a seed for it. It’s a dream that I have been nursing for many years. It began when I was giving a discourse to a village school in Ranchi. One little girl in a ragged uniform, stood up and asked me what I would do if I were prime minister of India. When she persisted in her question, I said that my first act as prime minister would be to see that the children of this land did not go hungry. That child came and hugged me. Later, I learnt that she was an orphan brought up by the nuns and that she felt intensely about some things.
What is the objective of Desh Vandana?
The primary objective is to inculcate the values of love and compassion, and an attitude of caring and sharing among the people of India. That is why the feeding of children will be financed entirely by all those who are willing to skip a meal a week and contribute that money to this project. There will be no reliance on governmental or foreign funds. It will be rooted in the sacrifice of people. That is where it will get its power. I am very confident that it will work, seeing the response of the children I have spoken to so far. Desh Vandana will be a monument to Mother India on her 60th birthday.
What was the turning point that moved you to spirituality?
I survived a plane crash, which should have almost definitely resulted in my death. The crash happened on July 8, 1982. About 18 of us were on that plane. I was a crew member. When it caught fire, I knew there was no way out. We took the crash position. I saw my whole life unspooling before my eyes, then I saw the vision of a rising sun and I got absorbed into it. However, the plane plunged into the Dharmapuri lake in Salem district, Tamil Nadu, and all of us survived.
This incident made me realize that life is not in our hands. Earlier, I was confident that I was master of my destiny. Now I recognized that there was a force operating from behind. I felt convinced that my life had been spared for a reason and thenceforth I decided to live for peace and not for war, as I had been doing earlier. Eventually, I left the Defense Forces.
Being a Marxist, I did not want to accept the existence of God immediately, so I decided to read and find a solution to this that would suit my rational mind. However, I soon understood that this was beyond the rational mind. I returned to religion, which meant Christianity for I had been born a Syrian Catholic in Kerala. While I was trying to understand more about Christianity, I was revealed my first guru, Justice Vithyathil, in a dream, where I was shown as a little boy sitting on his lap.
I went to him the next day and his very personality gave me the assurance that he could guide me. I often use concepts like ‘butterfly spirituality’ which I would credit to him. This term refers to the butterfly’s transition from the pupal stage. There is a lot of struggle it has to go through when emerging from the pupa, but if you help the struggling insect it will die. I find that this law holds good for us. One has to wait and allow nature’s processes to unfold.
Around then, I had a vision of Jesus Christ and realized that the spirit of Christ went beyond the Jesus of history. Jesus is not the only Christ. Gandhi was also Christ. Anyone who embodies light can be Christ. Jesus can be the standard.
You also had an association with Bede Griffiths, did you not?
He was my second guru. Incidentally, I encountered all my gurus through the identical dream of seeing myself sitting on their laps. Bede Griffiths was a well-known Dominican monk from Oxford who came to India in search of spirituality. He has written many books, including A New Vision of Reality, and he used to be passionate about bringing the West and East together: the meeting of the rational mind with the intuitive mind, he used to call it. He helped me to see beyond church organizations and relate to a Christ who was beyond religion. Through him, I learnt to accept church organizations with all their limitations and my hostility towards them melted. Bede Griffiths was a very scientific personality. He was close to Rupert Sheldrake, who popularized the concept of morphogenetic fields, Fritjof Capra, and David Bohm. That ability to integrate science and spirituality satisfied my rational mind.
Swami Ranganathananda, the former head of the Ramakrishna Mission, was my third guru. I remember feeling blissful while sitting in his lap during my dream. His book, Unbound Christ, influenced me powerfully. He gave me sanyas and that is how I got my name, Swami Satchidananda. When I left the Defense Forces, I was called Squadron Leader NV John.
Your last guru was Gandhi, right?
Yes. The dream that initiated him into my life was a powerful one. I dreamt that I had got a post card from Gandhiji telling me that he would come and see me on January 30, at 5.05 p.m. I learnt later that this was the exact time of his death. I was excited and told my wife Lalita about the honor bestowed upon us. Exactly at that time, the doorbell rang and there stood Gandhiji. He invited me to take a walk with him and he asked me, ‘Have your read the works of J.C. Kumarappa? He has the answers to what you are seeking.’ I had then been on a search for a socio-economic philosophy for the modern world.
On waking up, I started my search for J.C. Kumarappa, who was Gandhiji’s economic adviser, and finally found a Gandhian in Hyderabad who had his books. Two books particularly inspired me, Practice and Precepts of Jesus and Economy of Permanence.
That took me deeper into a study of Gandhi and I found that he answered a lot of my questions. I feel spirituality has to be practical and involved with our life and struggles. Gandhi found the deepest core in humanity and mobilized a mass awakening of a scale that has never before or since been attempted. My search has been to look for that core and revive it again. I went through the various religions, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism, with that in mind. I found that what is common to all of them is the grace of God and peace.
What is your mission?
In a letter Gandhiji wrote shortly before his death, he mentioned that India has won political freedom but she is yet to win economic, social and spiritual freedoms. Only then would we have the purna swaraj of his dreams. He said these were difficult to achieve and would take time.What did he mean by economic, political and spiritual freedom?
Economic freedom would mean the transcendence of poverty and hunger. Not a single child should go without a meal. Social freedom would mean the removal of the caste system, untouchability and discrimination against women. There is still so much of untouchability left. In Tamil Nadu, I have seen upper caste Christians walk away when a dalit priest administered the Holy Communion. And women may be talked about highly but nowhere else in the world is there so much of dowry deaths and harassment of women. Spiritual freedom would mean overcoming our imperfections. We are one of the most corrupt countries in the world. And the most hypocritical. We make promises we don’t keep; at least our politicians do. They also bend the law to suit themselves and so on. Moral freedom implies that justice must first be meted out and the law held supreme.
In your talk yesterday, you mentioned that we were moving towards an explosion point. Can you elaborate on that?
History goes through cycles. India is going through that. We are reaching its nadir. There is a cry that is emerging from the heart of people: of anger, frustration, helplessness. We cannot ignore it. My concern is how to respond to this.
What is the reason for this?
The economic crisis we face today. More and more people are coming under the poverty line.
What about the trickle-down effect that economists and capitalists talk about?
I don’t think that is what is needed. It is here that Gandhiji, Kumarappa and Schumacher become relevant. What is needed is a dignified existence for all. In India, this is embodied by a little plot of land. It is most important that land reforms be carried out and land distributed equitably to all.
How can this be done?
By forceful political action. I do not mean violent but through the force of the law.
Gandhi was against the machinery of courts and other governmental institutions.
At this evolutionary stage of mankind, the government and law are needed. They will have to play a part. At the same time, this is not the only way. An awakening has to happen. This can only be through education, conscientisation, and mobilization of people.
So what is your movement all about?
I have founded the Dharma Bharathi Mission and Dharma Bharathi Ashram to promote an Indian Christian sanyasa parampara. I am the initiator and acharya guru of the National Regeneration Movement (NRM), which is basically involved in peace and value education. My goal is to expand this towards national regeneration.
I have already started a project for the regeneration of Kerala, through promotion of values among schools and colleges. In the last three years, I have worked with 30-35 colleges.
What has been the response?
Some of them have been influenced. They are able to pause and think. That is a great achievement. We offer various programs like the Teacher’s Enrichment Program, Students’ Orientation Program, Family Ethics Program. I have many collaborators.
Do you mean followers?
I don’t think in that way. I am looking for people with a commitment to the nation. I am not too much into personality cult. I am attracted to the concept of servant leadership. In that respect, Jesus was my model. He said that the Son of Man had been born to serve and not to be served. I feel spiritual people have to look into what the spirit is guiding them towards.
You mentioned your wife earlier. Were you married?
Yes. I have two children as well, Deepti (24) and Deepak, who is studying business administration. My wife is a very senior bureaucrat. She works as Chief Income Tax Commissioner in Vizag.
She is neutral about my activities. She is a wonderful, courageous woman. She was in the news for her courage in the beginning of her career for raiding smugglers. That’s how we met and fell in love. She has had to take the brunt of my changing mindset. Like other men, I believed that my wife should follow my footsteps and I asked her to quit her job when I quit mine. There were a lot of conflicts and finally we went to Bede Griffiths. After hearing us out, my guru became angry with me for the first time. He told me that my wife was not my property and that I had to allow her the same freedom that I sought for myself.
I struggled with the issue and discovered that I was not strong enough to go ahead without her. I was too dependent on her for emotional support and companionship. It was this dependence that made me demand that she follow me.
Finally, in 1996, she gave me permission to leave home and we prepared an agreement whereby she would look after the kids and I would transfer all my property in her name. In July ’96, I left home. For five years I lived alone in a village in Andhra Pradesh, testing my survival ability. I experienced solitude and loneliness. In 2001, I decided to enter into the sanyasa stage, as the last step of the chathur ashrama evolutionary pattern that says that man must move from brahmacharya (student), grihastha (householder), vanaprastha (surrendering worldly duties and responsibilities) and finally sanyasa (complete renunciation) ashramas.
Could you not have continued your activities as a householder?
It was very difficult because she was in government service, living in a government house and I would be receiving a great number of visitors. I think it was necessary to take sanyas. It’s a call and you respond. It is not to be generalized. I was very much attached to my wife and children. There was so much pain in letting them go. First, I had to leave the job, which meant economic security, then family, which meant emotional security, then church, which meant spiritual security. Leaving behind all these securities, today I exist only by the grace of God. I own no property. My ashram in Kerala is owned by a trust. Today, I feel totally free. Joyful and light.
Are you enlightened?
I am free, not enlightened. Freedom is a precondition to enlightenment. The concept of grace gives you freedom. When you are sitting in the lap of God, you feel so free. Not afraid of anything. Saranagati gives you a lot of freedom; of being loved and cared for.
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Gandhi found the deepest core in humanity and mobilised a mass awakening