By Dr Kumari de Sachy
Swami Satchidananda, the internationally recognised founder of Integral Yoga, and the founder of the spiritual community, Yogaville, in Virginia USA, was among the pioneer spiritual teachers to spiritualize the West. Dr. Kumari de Sachy paints his life portrait on his upcoming 100th birth anniversary
It all began on December 22, 1914. It was then that Sri Swami Satchidanandaji –then named C K Ramaswamy or “Ramu” – was born in Chettipalayam, outside of Coimbatore. This future yoga master was born to a pious couple, descendants of a family that included illustrious spiritual leaders. Ramu’s father was Sri Kalyanasundaram Gounder, an acclaimed poet, Tamil scholar, and unofficial village chief. His mother, Srimati Velammai, was a wise, good-natured, and highly spiritual woman.
Ramu’s parents were known for their generous hospitality to the many sadhus and sannyasis who passed through the area, providing them with food and lodging. From his very childhood, Ramu treated everyone with respect. He ignored the customs that discriminated against others on the basis of their caste. Instead, his attitude and actions displayed an innate understanding of the principles and teachings of the ancient spiritual tradition of Vedanta that he was born into.
When he was seven years old, Ramu asked his father if he could accompany him to a conference held in Perur. A number of well-known lecturers and swamis were invited to address the conference’s participants, including Sri Kalyanasundaram. Surprisingly, Ramu wanted to give a short talk. Since there were no strict rules about who could speak, all that was necessary was that the conference leaders agree. His father reminded Ramu that there would be several thousand people attending the conference. Undaunted, Ramu asked his father to choose a subject and to give him a few points to discuss. Sri Kalyanasundaram chose the topic of ahimsa.
As it happened, Ramu was scheduled to speak on the day a well-known swami was supposed to preside the conference. At the appointed time, the chairman, Subbiah Swamigal, looked at his roster and announced, “Now, Ramaswamy will deliver a lecture on ahimsa.” In a loud, high voice, Ramu declared, “First of all, let me offer my humble salutations to the chairman of this session, Sennai Sri Jagathgurupidam Nayachandra Vedanta Bhashkara Srimath Mahamandaleshwara Veerasubbiah Jnana Desikendra Swamigal, and to you all.” Ramu’s perfect recitation of such a complex name drew a prolonged round of applause. And, never expecting such an eloquent delivery from a child, the swami affectionately lifted the boy onto his lap, inviting Ramu to give his talk from that lofty position.
Ramu was always interested in spiritual and practical pursuits. Eventually, his interests, aptitudes, and destiny led him to the study of agricultural engineering, cinematography, automotive fields, temple management; and after marriage a householder life, and after losing his wife, to the life of a renunciate.
The journey within
In 1945, after a year of seclusion, introspection, and meditation in a hut that he had built on his family’s land, he set out to experience the next stage of his spiritual journey, heading first to the sacred Palani Hill and the ashram of his family’s guru, Sri Sadhu Swamigal. To further his spiritual growth by learning to control his mind and senses, Ramu practised intense austerities.
In 1946, Ramu devised a spiritual experiment. He decided to wander throughout South India as a mendicant, keeping in mind this thought: “If there is a God, He will take care of me.” As part of this test, he took two vows: not to keep any money, and not to ask anyone for anything, including food. For four months, he wandered wherever his feet took him. During the first three days, he had nothing to eat. Eventually, a young man approached him, asking him whether he’d eaten, as he looked hungry. When Ramu replied that he hadn’t eaten in three days, the man quickly brought him a meal. Ramu never remained in one area for more than three days, and he often visited temples, where he was allowed to sleep on the big verandahs and bathe in the ponds.
Ramu had heard about the great Himalayan sage, Sri Swami Sivanandaji, and he felt a pull drawing him north. In the spring of 1949, he journeyed toward Rishikesh. Two months later, in July 1949, Gurudev Sivananda initiated Ramu into the holy order of sannyas, bestowing upon him a new spiritual name: Swami Satchidananda.
While living at Sivananda Ashram, Sri Swamiji often visited Vasishta Guha, several miles away. It was here, in September 1949, that he experienced the following:
“My highest experience, which was not connected with any particular form, was the experience of advaita or oneness. I had that in 1949, a few months after my sannyas initiation. It was in midwinter when I visited Vasishta Cave. I went into the cave, bending down, until after 25 feet, I reached a large room-like place with a seat. As I sat there and meditated, I had the experience of transcending my body and mind, realising myself as the Omnipresent. I forgot my individuality. It is impossible to explain exactly what this is.
“I must have spent several hours in that state. Then, I heard a humming sound, OM chanting, coming from a long distance away. Slowly, slowly, it became louder. As it neared, I became aware of my mind and body. Gently, I stood up and went out of the cave. For some time, I couldn’t see anything in the normal way. All over, I saw light, light, light. The whole world appeared to be a mass of light. There was only peace everywhere. The state persisted that whole day.
‘Of course, after that, I had this experience very often, mostly when I visited a holy place. I had it in Badrinath and almost every day when I went to Mount Kailash. I had it in Amarnath in Kashmir. Even in Sri Lanka, whenever I visited Adam’s Peak. I had it in Jerusalem and in St. Peter’s in Rome.”
East meets West
It wasn’t long before devotees from various Divine Life centres from around India and Sri Lanka began asking for Swami Satchidanandaji. Knowing that so many devotees were inspired by Satchidanandaji, Gurudev Sivananda felt that the time had come for his disciple to honour their requests. So it was that Swami Satchidanandaji left the ashram in February 1951. Gurudev’s parting words to him were: “Jai Satchidananda! Go and thrill the hearts of thousands. Inspire all, especially students, to take to the path of yoga and lead the divine life.”
Thus began a life of travel in service that continued for more than half a century. Swami Satchidanandaji’s destiny would take him all over the world many times over.
In 1966, Sri Swamiji’s destiny led him to the West. He was one of the first swamis to bring the classical yoga tradition to the West. The 1960s proved to be a period of great turmoil in America. Young people were rebelling against “The Establishment,” whose values they found to be hypocritical and meaningless. Some tried to escape the system by using drugs; others used violence to fight against the system; and some chose peaceful, non-violent means like marches and protests. In that atmosphere of confusion and unrest, many so-called ‘flower children’ or ‘hippies’ found their way to the peaceful swami from India. In 1969, the organisers of the Woodstock Music Festival – which had more than 500,000 hippies gathered in rural New York State – flew Sri Swamiji by helicopter to the Festival to open it with his peace-filled words and bhajans.
Sri Swamiji’s students came from diverse spiritual backgrounds. They recognised that the yoga teachings and practices didn’t diminish their faith in their own spiritual tradition but rather enhanced that faith by promoting a deeper understanding and connection to the inner dimensions of being. Furthermore, it wasn’t surprising that from his earliest days in America, Sri Swamiji would bond with like-minded clergy, interfaith pioneers who advocated peace through interfaith harmony and who served tirelessly to achieve that goal. Always innovative, Sri Swamiji created an interfaith worship service, an interfaith yantra, an interfaith ministry, and an interfaith kirtan.
Sri Swamiji had a vision of creating a model of ‘heaven on earth,’ a community whose lifestyle would be based on his yogic and interfaith teachings. In 1979, he found a beautiful property on the banks of the James River in Buckingham, Virginia. With the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop, it encompassed over 700 acres of pristine, wooded landscape. He created Satchidananda Ashram, Yogaville, and proclaimed: “Let us make a better world in our miniature world here. Let us give up selfishness. Let us learn to live clean, healthy, happy lives. Let us not allow anything that could disturb our physical health or mental peace. We believe in doing things that will bring us health and happiness. By keeping ourselves healthy and happy, we are preparing ourselves to offer our service to the larger community around us. Our goal is to make a beautiful yoga community. If we can’t make this little world of ours a happy and harmonious place to live, there is no point in talking about global harmony or global peace. Let us change ourselves and then change the whole world into a beautiful heaven.”
Today, the ashram stands as a unique yoga community. An oasis for spiritual unfolding, it benefits residents and guests alike. As its name implies, Satchidananda Ashram, Yogaville, combines an ashram that offers many types of programmes – including guest stays, workshops on yoga, spirituality and health, teacher training programmes, various types of personal and group retreats, and Karma Yoga residential programmes – with a traditional sannyas community and a surrounding householder community.
A focal point of the community is the Light Of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS), the realisation of Sri Swamiji’s vision of a temple dedicated to the world’s faiths, where people from all backgrounds and traditions could sit together in silent prayer and meditation. Opened in 1986, the LOTUS was the first shrine to include altars for all the world faiths. LOTUS embodies the principle expressed in the Rig Veda: “Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti,” or, as Sri Swamiji paraphrased it: “Truth is one, paths are many.” Since its opening, thousands of visitors have come to visit the LOTUS, awed by the beauty and sanctity of the shrine and its surroundings.
As Sri Swamiji explained, “All the religions coming together, respecting each other, is Yoga in religion. To bring the religions together is LOTUS. To bring the people together is Yogaville. That is why LOTUS is a part of Yogaville. We are trying our best to reach the people and to tell them that peace is the most important thing. Without peace, even if you have gained the whole world, it is of no use. Our religion in Yogaville could be called, ‘Undoism.’ Enough damage has been done to nature and humanity in the name of religion and God. It is time to undo that. We believe in a universal approach. It is not uniformity, but universality – unity in diversity. We are not trying to put everything into one religion. The time has come; the world has shrunk. We cannot separate ourselves and deny each other. It’s time to know, respect, love one another, and to live as one global family. Our humble aim in building the LOTUS is to spread that message.”
Sri Swamiji once prophesied that someday, there would be LOTUS shrines all over the world. How auspicious then that in December 2014, in honour of his 100th Jayanti, the second LOTUS will be inaugurated in Chettipalayam, on the land where Sri Swamiji was born. In a way, the two LOTUS shrines, one in the East and one in the West, remind us that no matter how diverse we may be in our religions and traditions, in our customs and habits, and in our physical appearances and languages, in essence we are all sparks of that Divine Light.
A light unto the world
Sri Swamiji’s teachings blend the physical discipline of yoga, the spiritual philosophy of yoga literature, and the interfaith ideals that he pioneered. These techniques and concepts influenced a generation and created a yoga culture that is flourishing in the West. Today, more than 20 million Americans practice yoga as a means for managing stress, promoting health, and realizing the Self.
For decades, Sri Swamiji travelled extensively, accepting countless invitations from all over the world to speak about yoga and spirituality and to participate in interfaith programmes, often as the keynote speaker. He also received many invitations to address medical conferences. In fact, Sri Swamiji’s teachings have inspired many healthcare professionals, and the medical sector’s interest in yoga is growing at an astonishing speed. He also founded the first holistic health clinic based on therapeutic yoga. Integral Yoga International is a leader in yoga teacher and therapist trainings and certifications. Integral Yoga is also the foundation for Dr. Dean Ornish’s landmark work in reversing heart disease, Dr. Michael Lerner’s noted Cancer Help programme, and Sonia Sumar’s Yoga for the Special Child, among many other therapeutic applications of yoga utilized in hospitals and medical centres. Moreover, there are many Integral Yoga centres and Integral Yoga teachers around the globe.
Swami Satchidananda left his body on August 2nd, 2002. His life is a testimony to the spiritual ideal of selfless service to humanity. Through his work he has not only brought countless human beings closer to their essential selves, but he has also brought together the human community, bringing closer the realization of his own dream of world peace.
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