By Roozbeh Gazdar
When journalist Balakrishnan Menon became Swami Chinmayananda, he sparked off a movement that swelled into a mighty river, revitalizing Vedanta and bringing spirituality to the mainstream of modern life. A salute to the Chinmaya mission.
After studying at the local English school, Balan joined the Lucknow University for an MA in English literature. At this point he has been remembered as an insufferable teenager, brashly confident, notorious for extravagant dressing and an accomplished tennis player who was especially outspoken in his criticism of the existence of God. Inflamed by the atrocities of the British rule in India, he heeded Gandhiji’s call to join the Quit India Movement, participating in subversive activities, till a warrant drawn for his arrest forced him to go into hiding. Wandering undercover around Kashmir and north India, he was finally arrested and spent some harrowing months in jail where he contracted typhus and was released. It was while convalescing under the care of a cousin that Balan first took to reading on spirituality and Eastern philosophy.
Acquiring an MA degree, he began on a promising journalism career, writing first for the Free Press Journal and later the National Herald. A prolific writer with a deep empathy for the poor, writings such as The View from the Footpath series under the pen name of Mr. Tramp, won him a fair amount of recognition. While it brought him financial rewards and opened doors to influential society circles, somewhere deep down he remained restless.
Balan had always been intrigued by the sadhus and rishis, the holy men living in the Himalayas. He often pondered about the usefulness of such a life of retirement in the remote sanctuary of the mountains when millions in the country wrestled with the multiple problems of poverty and the tyranny of foreign domination. Intending to research into their role with a view to writing about them, in 1947 Balan arrived at Ananda Kutir, the ashram of Swami Sivananda, near Rishikesh.
Swami Sivananda of the Divine Life Society was already known to Balan through his earlier readings. This former doctor, whose bustling ashram freely dispensed spiritual and medical succour to all who came to him, greatly impressed Balan. The article forgotten, he began to spend increasing amounts of time at the ashram. Barely two years later, Swami Sivananda initiated him into sanyas. Balan Menon was now Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati. Desiring to learn the scriptures, Swami Sivananda then sent him to his second teacher, Swami Tapovan. An inveterate recluse who was a demanding teacher, it was the rigorous training under him that was to shape this young spiritual aspirant into one of the most potent forces of Hindu resurgence in Independent India.
During a pilgrimage tour around India, Swami Chinmayananda observed the deep spiritual and social degradation that his country had sunk into. Suddenly he understood his life’s mission to replant the seed of Vedanta in the hearts of the millions of Indians from where it had gone missing – to convert Hindus to Hinduism. Seeking blessings from Swami Tapovan who, though initially reluctant finally gave his assent, Swami Chinmayananda left the Himalayas to sow the seeds of Vedanta in the plains below.
To transmit his message and draw sheep into the fold, Swami Chinmayananda evolved the ideal medium of gyana yajnas, public discourses lasting over a number of days that focussed on specific Upanishad texts. The dynamic swami with his handsome features and intensely glowing eyes was well received and everywhere he went, he mesmerised people with his passionate and powerful oratory. To a nation on the threshold of independence after years in foreign domination, the profound simplicity and directness of his message offered a new and exciting ray of hope.
Like Swami Vivekananda before him, he kindled in the average Indian, estranged from his cultural roots, a pride in his spiritual heritage with his words, ‘India has always been the guru of the world. This generation has been called upon to lead and guide the world. The time has come, not for killing, not for destroying, not for warfare, but for learning and understanding how to study the scriptures and learn to practise the teachings in our everyday lives.’ Chinmaya Mission, started in 1953 by his disciples, continues the work he began.
Swami Dayananda Saraswati
Swami Dayananda, through his deep understanding of Western culture, communicates a vision of non-duality to modern listeners, Indians and abroad. He has started numerous centres for Vedic teaching around the world including the Arsha Vidya Ashram in Rishikesh and the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Coimbatore.
Involved with the Chinmaya Mission since its inception, he describes it as, ‘a natural expression of people inspired by his teaching.’
Acknowledging his debt to Swami Chinmayananda, he says, ‘He was the first teacher to bring the scriptures to the urbane western educated man in English. He evolved his own style incorporating discussion and elaboration and used simple English to translate Sanskrit. It was a methodical approach and is the style I myself emulate today.’
Swami Sukhabodhananda is the founder chairman of Prasanna Trust in Bangalore that runs the LIFE (Living in Freedom – an Enquiry) programme.
While still in college in Bangalore, it was Swami Chinmayananda’s discourses on the Bhagavad Gita that inspired his spiritual journey. He studied the scriptures under Swami Chinmayananda and later under Swami Dayananda Saraswati before branching out to create his own unique programme.
The LIFE programme, started by him to incorporate dialogue into the traditional teaching process, blends traditional Vedanta with Zen, Buddhism, Sufism and other modern techniques such as NLP, gestalt, reiki and scientology; he is as much a modern management guru as a spiritual teacher.
Swami Parthasarathy is another exponent of Vedanta who widely applies its principles to practical life. With a multi-disciplinary academic background, he has authored Vedanta Treatise and The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals.
Earlier associated with Swami Chinmayananda, he later founded the Vedanta Cultural Foundation, which runs the Vedanta Academy at Malavli near Pune.
Swami Parthasarathy conducts seminars for business houses where the theme of Vedanta is applied to boardroom management techniques. Through his public discourses he raises awareness of the higher values of peace, harmony and prosperity.His Vedanta Academy holds a three-year residential course on the Vedas conducted by the alumni themselves.
It was in Bangalore during the summer of 1984 that Brahmacharini Vividisha first heard Swami Chinmayananda at a public discourse. Totally mesmerized by the guru ‘who looked like lightning and spoke like thunder,’ it was to have a lasting effect on her. A star-struck teenager, she wrote to him and was thrilled to receive his reply. Upon his urging she did a course in Vedanta conducted under him. Immediately thereafter she took diksha, becoming a renunciate, her life now pledged to her order and its mission of spreading the ancient message of Vedanta to the world.
Vividisha looks back at the transformation. ‘I was an ordinary teenager with a passion for writing and looking to a career in journalism. Spirituality and Vedanta didn’t really figure anywhere, though as a sensitive girl, appalled at the ways of the world, I used to find comfort in prayer. But when I first heard Gurudev explaining the concept of the unchanging Self, something hit home. He became my hero and I was totally immersed in his worship. It was some years before I enrolled for the Vedanta course, but immediately on completing it I realized where my calling lay and took the vows of renunciation.’
Vividisha is not alone. Scores of young impressionable boys and girls, their acquaintance with Vedanta as disparate as chalk from cheese, experienced a complete turn in their lives after a chance meeting with Swami Chinmayananda, or ‘Gurudev’ as he is reverentially referred to by his disciples today. Mesmerised by the magnetism of his towering personality and compelling oratory, they responded to his call for a revival of the Vedantic ethos.
Inspired by his vision for a better world, they pitched in to swell the ranks of the movement he started, so that it assumed the proportions of a mighty river that the Chinmaya Mission is today.
The Chinmaya Mission was started in 1953 at the instance of a handful of disciples, to give expression to Swami Chinmayananda’s vision and philosophy.
Its purpose, as stated in his own words, ‘To provide to individuals from any background the wisdom of Vedanta and the practical means for spiritual growth and happiness, enabling them to become positive contributors to society.’ Twelve years after his mahasamadhi, the Mission, under its current head Swami Tejomayananda, continues to live up to this lofty aim.
Pleasantly rotund with gentle twinkling eyes, Swami Tejomayananda, ‘Guruji’ to disciples, would seem to carry his burden lightly. But his patience and bubbly humor belie the fact that on the affable Swami’s shoulders rests the staggering responsibility of managing the spiritual and administrative duties of a mammoth organisation that straddles the globe, its 243 centers reaching out to people from diverse countries with its credo of universal brotherhood through Vedanta.
Speaking to him in his sparsely furnished kuti at the Chinmaya Mission center in Powai, Mumbai, we ask him what is so special about Vedanta? ‘Vedanta,’ Swami Tejomayananda explains, ‘is a spiritual science. Spirituality is not an activity, but a vision that pervades any activity. This vision then is the recognition of the fact of your oneness with the entire creation. With it, values such as love for others, non-violence and compassion automatically follow.’ He gives the analogy of one’s body. ‘It is composed of many parts, but you have equal concern for all. Similarly, once you realize the Oneness in the universe, all else are just expressions of it.’
Swami Tejomayananda pronounces the teachings of Vedanta, or Upanishads as the scriptures are also called, as ‘life transforming’ and open to anybody interested in knowing their truths, irrespective of their religious affiliation. ‘Awakening to the truths hidden in them, one becomes a better human and in turn positively impacts society,’ he explains, adding, ‘Gurudev often told us, ‘You have not to change the world, but to change yourself. Improvement of the world will happen only through individual transformation’.’
Vedanta is also the foundation of various religious practices and rituals of the Hindu dharma, he adds. They explain the reason or rationale behind these rituals that are now forgotten and therefore they need to be brought to people’s awareness.
Sowing the Seeds
Strolling through the sprawling leafy campus of the Chinmaya Mission in Powai is like stepping back in time. No cowdung huts and thatched roofs here, but one is reminded of the forest hermitages of the ancient sages as, far from the snarl of vehicular traffic outside, an air of tranquility and piety pervades within. The reverential hush inside Gurudev’s kuti as the relics bring the memory of the Master to life, the soothing sonority of Sanskrit shlokas chanted in unison, and the proximity of nature help one withdraw within and dwell on the mystery that is life.
Towering over the Mission grounds, built on a hillock, is the architecturally striking Jagdeeshwara Temple; its massive arch built to resemble a Buddhist stupa with an inscription from the Koran on it make for a refreshing assertion of the unity of faiths.
In the evenings it is the scene of the electrically charged satsangs held by Swami Tejomayananda or another of the acharyas, as crickets chirp outside and the city lights of Powai glimmer in the distance below.
One notices young boys and girls, their full white outfits distinct from the yellow and ochre worn by the renunciate swamis and acharyas, going about their routines. These are the future torchbearers of the movement, undergoing training at the gurukul that represents the very heart of the Chinmaya Mission. They are participating in the Vedanta Course, also known as the Brahmacharya Course, the 13th batch of its kind held since the establishment of this center.
Swami Tejomayananda explains, ‘The Vedanta course involves two years of intensive training and is aimed at candidates between 18 to 30 years, holding a college degree and relatively unencumbered by family responsibility. They are selected on merit without reservations of sex, caste, creed or religion, from applications from around the world.’
The students are provided free boarding and lodging facilities and medical care throughout the length of the course; older people who enroll are however required to pay their way through. Held at the Mission’s various Sandeepany Sadhanalayas located all over India, the medium of instruction is English and Hindi as well as some regional Indian languages. With a grueling schedule that begins well before the crack of dawn, a typical day for the students includes Vedic chanting, Vedanta and Sanskrit classes, shrama daan or community service, aarti and satsang – it’s a seven-day week, no Sundays here. But it’s not all work though, as we see the girls enjoying a dance rehearsal in preparation for the Navratri celebrations.
Mohan Hejamadi, chief executive of the TARA Cultural Trust invested with the running of the Sandeepany Sadhanalayas, explains that not only are the youth thoroughly grounded in the fundamentals of the scriptures, but that special emphasis is laid on giving them the opportunity to live in accordance with them. ‘It is quintessentially an ashram life with little time for TV or catching up with the news,’ he clarifies.
Parul Sheth is a past student of the course who today conducts her own classes in Vedanta. Meeting Gurudev at a young age, she saw in him ‘everything she was aspiring for’ and somewhere down the line opted to do the course. She describes it as a turning point for her. ‘My parents followed no conventional religion so I was totally ignorant about the ritual of worship, though I was always seeking answers to fundamental questions about life. On doing the course all my preconceived notions about spirituality just got washed away. The training in scriptures, texts and chanting is just a framework to help us understand ourselves. A lot of things happen during the course that lead to insights. Of course, the experiences are subjective as all of us have different vasanas, tendencies, but it does open one’s eyes to hard reality. I consider the Vedanta Course as amongst the greatest blessings of my life,’ she says.
Hejamadi explains that for people whose circumstances do not permit them to enrol for the full-time course there, Chinmaya Mission also holds regular scripture classes, residential camps and study groups to help them study the scriptures. The message of Vedanta is also spread through various publications, books and through electronic media such as audio and video tapes and DVDs.
Says Mahadevan Menon, an active volunteer who is on the executive committee that conducts the study groups, ‘The uniqueness of Chinmaya Mission lies in its study groups; through them the Mission itself comes to you. Anybody with just a couple of hours to spare every week can get the benefit of the scriptures.’
Swami Purushottamananda is one of the earliest disciples of Swami Chinmayananda and is regional head of the Mission for Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra. We ask him about the relevance of Vedas and Upanishads today. ‘Vedanta,’ he responds, ‘contains eternal truths that are meant for the entire humanity. Their knowledge is neither emotional nor intellectual, but represents the actual reality that is. It teaches us that preoccupation with the past and the future makes for an agitated present. And as our actions are the greatest expression of our thoughts, it is not surprising that the world we live in is as turbulent as it is.’
The increasing popularity of spiritual pursuit amongst youth, explains the Acharya, is a result of their discontentment. ‘Certainly, the youth today have adequate means for the easy satisfaction of all their wants and ambitions. But in spite of all apparent comforts and accomplishments, it is evident that they feel the lack of spiritual contentment and they come here seeking answers.’
Swami Brahmavidananda Saraswati, formerly Acharya Ram Mohan, is a Vedanta teacher from the lineage of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, an alumnus of the Mission. He says, ‘The Chinmaya Mission actually brought the scriptures to the marketplace. Educated Indians were, for the first time, exposed to a part of their spiritual heritage that was earlier exclusive to some of the traditional ashrams.’ The structured teaching here also conforms to the traditional way in which the Vedas were taught, he clarifies.
When Swami Chinmayananda first started his ‘gyana yagnas’, public discourses on the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, he faced scathing opposition from certain orthodox quarters. Many Brahmins, used to considering the Upanishads their exclusive domain, were indignant at his efforts to make this most venerated and valued text accessible to all, for mass consumption as it were. The Vedas, they held, were hallowed scriptures that contained hidden truths and could only be revealed to a student who was ready for them. That Swami Chinmayananda was a non-Brahmin who used English as his medium of instruction didn’t help make things any better. But his characteristic candor made light of such criticism. ‘If people are not ready for them, the scriptures will only put them to sleep,’ he would retort.
It was his success at integrating spirituality and science that won over his listeners. His approach resonated well with his audience, often urbane western-educated elite Indians who were philosophically inclined but couldn’t stomach the blind faith and dogmatic mores that prevailed. He exhorted them not to blindly go by what was told, but to inquire and examine for themselves. ‘I am not a mule-guru,’ he would thunder, urging disciples to develop their own faculties and map their own journey rather than piggybacking on the guru’s progress.
Extremely witty, even to the point of irreverence, he would crack jokes and tell funny stories to drive a point. His style divested a grave subject as Vedanta from its traditional pedestal of veneration and struck an instant chord amongst his listeners.
This simple down-to-earth approach that encourages the spirit of inquiry and individual verification before accepting remains an essential aspect of the Vedanta Course. Says Swami Tejomayananda, ‘We don’t impose restraints or pre-conditions on the students, but help them evolve their own discriminative faculties. After doing the Brahmacharya course, it is up to the student to take the vows of renunciation and stay on, or go back to the outside world. Also the structured approach is helpful in making the teachings comprehensive for students from different backgrounds.’
Vedanta in Every Home
Swami Chinmayananda loved children and the youth. While he could draw out the best from them, they responded by pouring their hearts out to him. ‘Children are not vessels to be filled but lamps to be lit,’ he used to say and his vision for a new India assumed a pivotal role for the younger generation. Programs for children and youth thus remain integral to the Chinmaya Mission.
To ensure that children grow up with the right spiritual values from an early age, the Mission holds Bal Vihar classes. Children are told stories from the epics, introduced to the essence of religious customs and rituals and taught Sanskrit shlokas and bhajans. The Bal Vihars also serve the important purpose of cultivating an interest in religion amongst children of the Indian diaspora. The Chinmaya Mission also has its own children’s magazine, Balvihar. Under its chief editor Brahmacharini Vividisha, its new all-color avatar is a delightful spread with stories, spiritual morals and interesting snippets of news and information that educate as well as entertain. For older children and the youth, Chinmaya Yuva Kendra offers an introduction to Vedanta to furnish them with a background so that they can join the study groups later as they grow up.
Chinmaya Vanaprashta Sanasthans help the elderly lead better lives and guide them in their spiritual aspirations while Devi groups provide women with an opportunity to address issues as well as participate in bhajan singing and spiritual discussions and community activity. Programs catering to members of different age groups within a family fulfil Gurudev’s vision of reaching Vedanta into every Hindu home.
According to Swami Brahmavidananda Saraswati, the inclusion of children’s programs is amongst the towering achievements of the Chinmaya Mission. ‘The Bal Vihars expose children to their spiritual and cultural roots. By cultivating these values in youngsters, the Chinmaya Mission is making a positive impact on the coming generations, ‘ he says.
Swami Chinmayananda’s vision for spiritual resurgence was an ll-embracing one. He truly believed that the role of spirituality was imminent in secular fields such as education and technology and could provide answers to the problems of the modern world. Towards this end he urged leaders, industrialists, educationists and scientists to embrace a spiritual outlook.
In his own words, ‘A community or nation is constituted of its members and its strength and happiness depend not only upon the material wealth and environmental circumstances, but pre-eminently upon the texture and composition of the individuals concerned… The secular plans and scientific achievements of the present age are certainly magnificent and acceptable but, when applied in a practical life, they seem to entomb our peace and happiness. The redemption lies in the happy marriage between the secular and the sacred, between science and religion.’
Like other spiritual pathfinders the world over, Swami Chinmayananda was an active social reformer who could galvanize people to work for social causes. Dr. Vijaya Venkat runs a health awareness center, educating people about healthy living that is in accordance with the well-being of society and the environment. She remembers how Swami Chinmayananda’s denouncement of modern development struck an instant rapport with her. ‘He was outspoken and critical about the trends of development in our country and a sentence of his still rings in my memory, ‘Once India had agriculture and culture and today we are going around with a begging bowl’. He taught us to think, to question the kind of progress that was being promoted. Social injustice remains an issue that is close to my heart and I realized that Vedanta also teaches equality.’
Swami Tejomayananda clarifies that along with propagation of Vedanta and Indian culture, social service is the third important aim of the mission. He explains that students, on completing the course, are given practical training in fields such as senior education, children and rural development, so that they have a practical field to carry out voluntary social service.
How does seva go along with Vedanta and realisation of the Self? ‘Seva is but a natural expression of the truth in the dictum ‘The Self in me is the Self in all beings’,’ says Swami Tejomayananda. Being involved in selfless seva also helps one’s transformation and effectively paves the way for improvement of the world, he concludes.
A Flowering of Hearts
Renunciates or householders, spiritual students or activists, teachers or sevaks, what is common to all those involved with the Chinmaya Mission is the deep sense of purpose that it has given them.Narain Bhatia gave up a lucrative corporate career to render service to the Mission as a sevak. As CEO of the Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, the apex body running the Chinmaya Mission worldwide, he says that his decision has stood him in good stead. ‘Reading the Gita has given me understanding and a wider vision and these have helped me to cultivate the inner strength to face the vagaries of life. It is my job to inspire the people who work for Chinmaya Mission and I look to constant guidance from Gurudev. In fact, he was an ideal CEO from whom I learnt many of my administrative knacks,’he says.
Mohan Hejamadi, Chief Executive of the TARA Cultural Trust has been an active sevak since the time he came in touch with Swami Chinmayananda. He says, ‘I consider my meeting with Gurudev to be a blessing that launched my spiritual journey. Life has really been fulfilling as a result of it. I enjoy my work here as each camp we hold is a unique learning experience. I was saved from what usually ends up becoming a drab routine of settling down, raising a family and chasing professional success to which there is no end.’
Almost echoing his words is Brahmacharini Vividisha who says, ‘While within the outside world there is wealth but no contentment, here we may not make any money but there is a deep contentment.’
Wanting to do the Brahmacharya Course many years back, family responsibilities prevented K. C. Patnaik from doing so. Busy with his corporate career, his heart however, remained with the Chinmaya Mission. When Swami Tejomayananda offered him an opening he jumped at the opportunity. As General Manager of the Books and Publications Division, he says he is guided by Gurudev’s outstanding work ethics.
Mahadevan Menon, a businessman, has been connected with the Chinmaya Mission since his childhood. An active volunteer, he is passionate about his involvement with the study groups. ‘My fulfillment is my sadhana which helps me in becoming firmer in my faith,’ he says.
Dr. Padma Ramkrishnan, a medical doctor, is a frequent visitor to the Mission. Donating her professional services whenever necessary she terms it, ‘a very small service to the great masters and the institution that’s producing other great masters.’
For Dr. Vijaya Venkat, her own life’s mission is a debt to Gurudev. ‘It is he who put in the seed and it has flourished. My involvement with the Chinmaya Mission has given my own work a spiritual outlook. It has given me the insights to carry on in the face of odds and to question without aggression but with assertiveness,’ she acknowledges.
Following in the footsteps of his guru to reach Vedanta to ever increasing numbers of people, Swami Tejomayananda is known for the refreshing lucidity as well as new insights that he brings to his discourses. An exceptional singer of bhajans, he has also brought about a renewed interest in other classic spiritual texts such as Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas and Bhagavatam.
He says about his beloved master, ‘He did not bring in a new religion. He did not start his own unique school of thought and there is no ‘Chinmaya Theory’, though he did write commentaries on the scriptures. But he preached love for mankind and millions of people today are inspired by him. Above all, he touched people’s hearts and transformed them. The rest is just statistics.’
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