By Ambica Gulati September 2000 Head of Rishikesh’s well-known ashram, Parmarth Niketan, Swami Chidanand Saraswati is not only a karma yogi devoted to providing myriad services to the needy but also the inspiration behind the multi-volume Encyclopaedia of Hinduism PARMARTH NIKETAN Service Above Self Jai Gange. Hail Mother Ganga.The sun’s setting rays fall on the waves and the flames of the diyas burn bright floating with the breeze. The crowd at the Parmarth Niketan ghat doubles. Today Swamiji will also be present at the evening aarti at the banks of the Ganga. The daily ritual starts with a havan (fire ritual). Then there is the famous Ganga aarti. Bal munis with their traditional dress of dhoti, kurta and gamcha come to attend this special event. Three big diyas are lit and passed around to the crowd at the end. Swami Shukdevanand (1901-1965) established Parmarth Niketan in 1942. To administer it, the Shukdevanand Trust was registered in 1962. The trust aims at spreading spiritual awareness, charitable services and youth education programmes. Mahamandaleshwar Swami Asanganand Saraswati, managing trustee of the trust since 1992, is an acharya in Vedantic and Sanskrit literature. He came to Parmarth Niketan in the 1960s and began his sadhana (practice) under the guidance of Swami Shukdevanand. While other ashrams are mere pilgrim spots, Parmarth operates for the good of the society also. On its premises are an allopathic charitable hospital, homoeopathic pharmacy, nature cure and yoga center, Sanskrit college, mother’s training institute, music school, sanskar vidya mandir and a gurukul. The ashram also holds many health camps all over the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. There are many statues of Hindu deities on the premises. Pilgrims come from many places here to do puja and perform havans. Bhagavad Gita discourses are held from early morning till late at night. There are around 1,000 rooms. The day begins with puja in the main temple. ‘Instead of prasad(offerings), we prefer to distribute tulsi (basil) and small peepal trees,’ says Pratibha Joshi, yoga teacher who also manages the gurukul and day-to-day running of the ashram. There are yoga and meditation classes every morning and evening. Simple, nutritious food is served in the canteen. The ashram is developing its backyard into a virtual Garden of Eden. Called Shangri-La, this holy sanctuary will consist of meditation gardens, healing pools, fountains, streams and walking paths. Two books about Swami Chidanand Saraswati are distributed free of cost. ‘We always ask Swamiji why he doesn’t charge for them. But like a true server, he says that it isn’t worth it,’ says Bhagwati or Phoebe Garfield. Earlier an actress in Hollywood, Phoebe came to Rishikesh quite some time ago. She acts as personal assistant to Swami Chidanand and has been formally initiated into the sect. Head of Rishikesh’s well-known ashram, Parmarth Niketan, Swami Chidanand Saraswati is not only a karma yogi devoted to providing myriad services to the needy but also the inspiration behind the multi-volume Encyclopaedia of Hinduism Parmarth in big bold letters, on pink colored walls. You simply can’t miss it. Or what may catch your attention is the beautifully carved chariot that Krishna is driving. Walking over the Ram Jhula to cross the Ganga, we tread past the mini market and the many ashrams to reach the gates of Parmarth Niketan. We refresh ourselves, gazing at the waves of the Ganga lapping on the steps and then go in to find the head of the ashram—Swami Chidanand Saraswati or Muniji, as he is popularly known. He is out of town but we are invited to stay on till Swamiji returns. Swamiji is the recipient of many awards, informs the brochure on Parmarth Niketan. Noteworthy ones are the Mahatma Gandhi Humanitarian Award in the USA, Hindu of the Year in 1991 by Hinduism Today magazine. He is one of the main trustees of the Swami Shukdevanand Trust, set up by his predecessor to run the ashram. He is also the founder, chairman and divine inspiration behind India Heritage Research Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Indian culture and spirituality. The foundation is expected to finish in the next year the Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, an ambitious project which has been many years in the making. When Swamiji returns two days later, we proceed to meet him. From the moment we step into his visiting room, a saintly orange surrounds us. There’s Swamijisitting on his peach gaddi (seat) clad in saffron, and his room is decorated in soothing hues of orange. There are paintings of different deities adorning the walls. According to the ashram etiquette, we sit on the floor. Excerpts from the interview: Swamiji, tell us something about your family, your childhood. Why did you opt for sanyas and celibacy? The entire world is my family. I think I was destined for brahmacharya (continence). Swamiji belongs to Delhi and was brought up with religious samskaras (traditions). His mother was a devotee of Swami Brahma Swaroop whom she invited to their house. As an eight year old, Chidanand was transformed by a single touch on his forehead by the swami. That was when he decided to become like Swami Brahma Swaroop. But the guru laughed at the idea and put the young aspiring muni (sage) under a rigorous routine for one year. What did you do during that period? Did you ever cheat on your training? I had to spend that entire year alone in a room, get up at 4 o’clock for my puja and then I could have a bare meal without salt, which I had to cook myself. My guru told me that a sadhu (holy man) is like an army man. I’d never dreamt that the life of a sadhu would be so tough. Once a day I was allowed to drink milk. Now my mother who couldn’t see me in this state would give me a large glass of milk. What we didn’t know was that Swamiji would be watching us. One day, he surprised us with a visit and stopped all this. Then I realized that only when I let go of all attachments, would I be successful on the spiritual path. In time, this bal (boy) muni went with his guru to the jungle. After many years of intense sadhana (practice) he came back to the world, a sanyasi (monk) who had vowed to save people and society. Did you go to meet your family later?I went to meet my family to explain that I no longer belonged to them. I took a vow to break all attachments with my family, including the psychological and emotional ones. How did you acquire the nickname, Muniji?Since childhood I would sit in a meditative posture and talk about God. I would also maintain maun (silence). So everybody, my friends and family started calling me Santji, Muniji. There is so much power in silence. It reveals and then heals. When did you come to Parmarth? The very name Parmarth means the ultimate meaning. What are we searching? And how do we find it? I came to Parmarth in 1972 and served under Swami Shukdevanand. But I became the official head in 1985. I don’t know how Guruji chose me. No one can question his ways. ‘Parmarth‘ for me means spending your life in serving others. We wear saffron because it is the color of the sun. Sun which gives light and life to all. It does not discriminate between any individual. True bliss comes to me in the service of humanity. If God would ask whether I wanted moksha, I would say no. I want to come back to serve those in pain. How do you help people? We run two schools in the ashram premises, absolutely free. There is also a gurukul (traditional Indian educational system) with 200 boys. Then we have the Ekal Vidyalaya scheme. In this we send people to the tribal areas and villages, who train teachers of that place to run schools. We also have a vocational institute for girls. We started a programme to clean the Ganga, established dustbins in and around the ashram area. We had a similar cleaning programme in Varanasi and now there are plans to clean all the pilgrimage places. We organize many yoga camps across the country in which we invite experts from all over the world. From where do you get the funds? When God wants to get something done, he creates the way. We have a lot of devotees who look after the ashram. You need material things to help others. For instance, we hold many free health camps. If we don’t get funds then how will we help those who are unable to afford things? So one needs all kinds of people and all material things. We shouldn’t shun them. Swamiji is proficient in Sanskrit, English, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu, Nepali, Bengali and Marathi. It is fascinating to watch him effortlessly switching to another language when he talks to a Gujarati visitor. He also holds a master’s degree in philosophy, Sanskrit and is an expert on the Vedas. Do you believe in any one God, any religion? Rituals bind religion but spirituality is beyond all this and that is what I follow. I like Krishna’s teachings. Bhagvad Gita is a universal holy book. It teaches you to live life in balance. Work is true religion. We even have a Hindu-cum-Jain temple in the USA to unite the community there. I feel equally hurt when somebody insults a mosque or a temple. Both are abodes of God and must be given due respect. He breaks into a song. Kaash apne mulk mein aisi fiza mane, Mandir yadi girein to dard musulman ko bhi ho (I wait for that time when even a Muslim shall feel hurt if a temple is demolished) It’s time for the Swamiji’s afternoon siesta. We meet him again in the evening after the Ganga aarti. How does one differentiate between a guru and a sadguru? Interesting. A guru is someone who teaches you. Your school teacher is also a guru. But a sadguru is someone who guides you, who tells you your purpose in life, who makes this world an easier plac
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