By Punya Srivatsava
Swami Chidananda Saraswati, spiritual head of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, is the embodiment of boundless love and infinite desire to serve the Almighty by serving all of his creation, says Punya Srivastava
I was a bit anxious about conducting this interview, never having had the fortune of meeting Swami Chidanand Saraswati in person. To make matters worse, my train was delayed by 20 minutes. However, my turbulent thoughts were put to rest as soon as I entered Swamiji’s chamber which was a bamboo hut.
Dressed in his usual ochre dhoti-kurta and a saffron chadar across his shoulder, a red dot of a tilak on his forehead, and a rudraksha string around his neck from which hung a silver Krishna pendant, Swamiji sat smiling on a mat spread on the mud floor. The beautiful interiors of the bamboo hut were a reflection of Swamiji’s refined aesthetic sense. Sitting amidst such beauty, his soft countenance radiated a certain glow. I sat opposite him, on a similar mat, feeling the coolness of the mud floor beneath. Behind him stood a statue of flute-playing Krishna, against the background of green creepers on the wall. I could feel the knot in my gut loosening, and anxieties ebbing away.
We got talking, and my remaining apprehensions were washed away by his melodious voice. His voice, though soft, conveyed immense passion for his work. In fact every pore of his being – his gait, words, actions – reflects the determination to serve creation. He was put on the path of sanyas at the age of eight by his first guru, Swami Brahma Swaroop. Muniji, as he is lovingly addressed by devotees at times, came to Parmarth Niketan in 1972. Swami Sukdevanand, the then head, handed over the reins of Parmarth to him in 1985, following which he started managing ashram activities as well as innumerable projects to serve humanity. His practical and pragmatic approach gets reflected in his quick stride which complements the compassionate softness of his personality.
At the end of the conversation, when he got to know that I had to return to Delhi the same night, he graciously offered to get me dropped safely in his car all the way to Delhi. Upon reaching home safely, I sent him a thank-you text, to which he replied “Super. Great. Always there. To me this is yoga. Blessings.”
To me, this is spirituality.
Excerpts from the interview with Swami Chidanand Saraswati:
Looking back, what would you say has been your unique contribution to spirituality and humankind?
We all are tools. I think of myself as a tool in the Divine’s hands. There is a divine design where everyone has been assigned a role to play, a dharma to fulfil – everyone’s role and dharma is to serve, share and care as much as we can. We need to see and then serve the Divine within ourselves, within everyone else, and everywhere we look. We should strive to see the Divine in everyone without barriers or boundaries of caste, creed and colour, region or religion, with neither an agenda nor a tag, nor even hoping to leave behind our signature. Service is my contribution to spirituality as well as to humankind. Humankind is the creation of the Creator. So to serve creation is to worship the Creator. Moreover, the Divine pervades all creation. Thus, it’s not only about serving human beings but also about serving all living beings. One has to serve, care for, protect and preserve all creation.
How would you define your philosophy?
Love for humanity, love for all of creation, pervaded by divinity, is my philosophy. Worshipping the Creator and loving and serving the creation is my philosophy. Seeing man commit the ‘Green Crime’ makes me sad. We are guilty of human rights violations in our treatment of our environment. The practice of spirituality enables individuals to change their own natures in order to save Mother Nature. Mahatma Gandhi used to say, “Live simply so that others may simply live.” Isha Upanishad says, “Ishavasyam idam sarvam/ Yat kincha jagatvam jagat / tena tyaktena bhunjitha / ma gridha kasya svid dhanam,” meaning, divinity pervades all creation, hence, one must only partake of that which is meant for him or her, and not grab or hoard any other living being’s share.
What is the vision that drives you?
Just like Mother Ganga flows without any discrimination, expectation, hesitation or vacation, so I strive to serve and give without any discrimination, expectation, hesitation or vacation. That is the message of Mother Ganga, the vision and mission She gives us.
You have introduced several humanitarian programmes through your Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, Divine Shakti Foundation, Ganga Action Parivar, India Heritage Research Foundation, and even more. What keeps you motivated to carry on with these programmes, adding newer initiatives to the list?
Does Ganga need any motivation to flow; does the sun need any motivation to shine? No. It is their dharma to do so, and so is my dharma to serve. I do not know any other way to live apart from being in service.
(Sadhvi Bhagawati supplies that whenever Swamiji goes on to any padyatra and comes across any underprivileged area lacking basic amenities, he adopts that area.)
One of your laudable initiatives is the setting up of youth session camps running across USA, Europe and throughout Asia to uplift and empower young minds. What do you think of today’s youth?
People say that youth is important because they are our future. I say that youth is the ‘now’ generation, not the ‘next’ generation. Youth is brimming with energy, brightness and verve. They have great vision, great missions and great inspiration! But youth is a time of so much confusion. Too much time and energy is spent in trying to overcome confusion. In our youth sessions, we guide them, uplift them, inspire them, and help them see the divinity in themselves. Youth face a multitude of problems, ranging from relationship struggles with parents, friends, relatives, identity crisis. Moreover, our sessions are quite customised depending upon the demography. Problems faced by young people in urban India can be quite different from those living in rural areas; or for that matter youth in the West face different obstacles from youth in India. Some issues, of course, overlap.
The Encyclopaedia on Hinduism has been one of your most laudable efforts. What made you embark on this huge project? And what exactly did you cover in it?
It covers everything related to Hinduism. This encyclopaedia has approximately 7,000 entries encased in 11 volumes and each volume is around 600 pages long. It is a compendium of culture and civilisation. This encyclopaedia is not only about mythology, theology and dogma. As Hinduism is linked inextricably with Indian culture, an encyclopaedia on it has to include history, sciences, maths, medicine, music, arts, and politics. I found the inspiration to start this initiative when I was in USA where I founded the Hindu-Jain Temple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The lack of any comprehensive, authoritative reference for Hinduism propelled me towards this. I wanted a comprehensive encyclopaedia on this topic for the reference of non-resident Indians, their children and, of course, all the non-Indian, non-Hindu seekers, students and scholars who are interested in Hindu culture. This encyclopaedia was created for all those who didn’t know or understand or have access to the truths and insights of our ancient yet timeless heritage.
You are one of the most popular faces at interfaith conclaves. What is the role of faith in community upliftment?
Inter-faith should work for inner faith, and that inner faith should work to bring about outer change and inner change. To bring about outer change, we started the Global inter-faith WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) Alliance. Sixty crore people in India still defecate in the open. To me, open defecation is open devastation. Sanitation and meditation should go together. In all the temples, churches, mosques and gurudwaras, all congregations must be given education about sanitation.
You are passionate about the Ganga Action Parivar. Do you think the new government will speed up the work to clean up the Ganges?
I am quite positive and enthusiastic about Modiji’s government. He is an extremely wonderful man. I am sure that not only will his government speed up the Ganga cleaning project, but also get the work done. However, cleaning Ganga, or for that matter, any other river, is not solely the government’s duty. Since we all are part of the problem, we all must become part of the solution too.
Rivers, in my opinion, must be revered and respected, and they should have rights just as a person has rights. They have life, and they give life to others.
What prompted you to come up with ashrams and medical clinics in Kailash-Mansarovar?
When we first went for the Kailash- Mansarovar yatra in 1998, we came across a group of people from England. Some of them had fallen sick, owing to the high altitude conditions. Unfortunately, one of their group members had even passed away since there was no medical facility or any indoor, warm facility of any kind available in the area. This prompted me to write to the Chinese government requesting for allowance of construction of ashrams for travellers on their land. The persuasion through letter correspondence took almost two years, from 1998 to 2000, by the end of which we got the required permissions. The first ashram opened in 2003, on the banks of Mansarovar Lake. Up to now we have built three ashrams and a medical clinic for the needs of the devotees and also the local people.
Which is that one teaching that you impart to thousands of devotees who come to Parmarth every year?
Go to God by any means, in any form, however you worship Him but just connect. Lack of connection with that Divine Powerhouse creates all the problems and stress we face in our lives. Instead of going for a stress-management programme, learn self-management! One can be self-managed by staying anchored in the Divine – within and without. This grounding is what makes life joyous and blissful, and that is most needed.
Please describe an average day in your life.
I wake up quite early to do my ‘seat-ed meditation’. When I am not travelling, I take a walk around the whole ashram, which I refer to as my ‘feet-ed’ meditation. From 10 pm to 10 am, I observe silence. After 10 am, I meet people and take stock of the tasks lined up. The maun then begins again from 2 pm to 5 pm. The evening is then spent in the Ganga arati, daily darshan, satsang, and discourse, after which I retire for the night.
You have been recognized and acknowledged, awarded and rewarded for your humanitarian work. What is next in line?
Whatever God decides, happens. I never plan. Whatever He wants me to do manifests through me. That is how all these initiatives and programmes happened. I believe in the line from the prayers we chant every morning here at Parmarth Niketan:“Mukh mein ho ramanaam, rama seva haath mein.” To chant His name and serve in His name throughout my life is my mantra.
What is the single biggest legacy you hope to leave behind?
To reduce and, if possible, remove the suffering from this world. I know that clearing the whole forest, strewn with thorns, is a daunting task. But I can, at least, remove the thorns from the path on which I am walking.
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