By Suma Varughese
Suma Varughese meets Swami Chidananda who balances his traditional training in Chinmaya Mission with his exploration into J. Krishnamurti’s teaching to create a teaching for our times
I first encountered Swami Chidananda as a disembodied voice on the phone more than 15 years ago. I used to call him up in his position as acharya of the Vedanta courses at the Mumbai branch of Chinmaya Mission for a quote or two to embellish my articles. Swami Chidananda always offered extremely sage and broad-based views which soothed as much as they inspired for they seemed to reconcile all standpoints. I made a mental note that I should like to meet him one day, but unfortunately, Swamiji left the Mission before I could fulfil my goal. The next time I heard from Swamiji was a couple of months back when I got a message from him on my Facebook inbox, telling me he was starting a website on the Upanishads and would like to meet me in that context. A small gathering of people had converged at a college in Bandra while Swamiji shared his vision and asked all of us for ideas and suggestions. Dressed in impeccable white, hair neatly brushed, he looked not so much a swami as a gentleman thinker. In his immaculate grooming I could sense the influence of Krishnamurti who apparently had been his mentor for the last 10 years. Intrigued by the plurality of influences and by his own grounded persona, I met him at the house of one of his devotees for a freewheeling interview.
Tell us a little about the Upanishad website that you have created.
|Swami Chidananda is a skilful orator and teacher of Vedantic values infused by Krishnamurti’s philosophy|
It is a collection of material inspired by the Upanishads. We have a good number of articles, audios and videos connected to the Upanishads. We are going about it with a broad angle of view. It is all about the science of living, of human values. I tell contributors you write something about human values and I will correlate it to the Upanishads. It actually represents the Perennial Philosophy that Aldous Huxley wrote about. The source is one, whether it is Hinduism, Sufism, Christian Mysticism or Buddhism.
What is the FOWAI Forum that you have founded?
It is a spiritual organization to promote human values. FOWAI is an acronym. It has a story behind it. I was connected with the Chinmaya Mission and I lived for 10 years at the Powai ashram, as a student and as a teacher. During my days in Powai, I used to joke in my lectures that Powai stands for Power of Who am I, because I was deeply inspired by Ramanna Maharshi. Later when I left the Mission, I thought, why not call it Flame of Who Am I? The word flame is inspired by J Krishnamurti.
He wrote a number of books, including Flame of Attention. I sometimes call J Krishnamurti the master of awareness, mindfulness, attention. No one has spoken so dismissively about tools and techniques, do this, do that. In the original Upanishadic tradition, it is extremely clear that the essential Upanishad teaching has nothing to do with any doing. It is purely about seeing. Adi Shankara especially makes a distinct demarcation between karma and jnana. Jnana is not knowledge. It does not belong to thought. It is right seeing. To see you and I as different is wrong seeing. To see you and I as one is right seeing.
But do you think we can get to the seeing without the doing?
Yes, I agree that karma, that is doing, is necessary for preparation. We call it chit shuddhi, the purification of the internal equipment. The Upanishad has said that through a sharp and purified mind one can gain this insight. How do you purify or sharpen the mind? Through karma.
But I must hasten to quote a line from Mirabbai. She has resolved this conundrum by saying ‘With great difficulty I crossed the river of maya and when I looked back there was no river at all. This argument that doing is necessary falls flat when seen from the frame of reference of right seeing. It loses validity.
What made you join the Chinmaya Mission?
At 23, I did a postgraduate course at IIT, Madras, and a classmate of mine called Ramakrishna took me to some classes at the Chinmaya Mission, where I attended a few classes of a brahmachari who is today called Swami Parmarth. It was very inspiring. He was super as a person and had great clarity of thought. After a few months, Swami Chinmayananda came to Chennai and I attended his lectures. They were very uplifting, and at the same time, very entertaining. After finishing my post graduation, I worked for a couple of years and then joined the Mission.
How did your family take it?
Initially they were disturbed …
But you were clear?
I was clear. It gave maximum joy to me. Besides, it was also benefitting others and serving a noble cause. There are lots of people in need of this.
You are a proper swamiji, right?
But you do not wear saffron.
No. After I went to J Krishnamurti, I decided not to wear saffron.
Is that okay?
Yes, today there is a lot of liberty.
What did you get from the Chinmaya Mission experience?
It was very good. In the first place, I got a thorough exposure to Upanishads, mythology and a little access to other schools of thought as well, though I must admit I am almost zero in Western philosophy.
What made you decide to leave the Chinmaya Mission?
Exposure to Ramanna (Maharishi) and Krishnamurti.
How did that happen?
To teach the works of Adi Shankara and others we drew heavily from Ramanna because he became a shining example of someone in flesh and blood who had that realization. I personally felt soaked in it. At some point I started understanding Krishnamurti. Ramanna was the bridge. To put it in the simplest terms, Ramanna talked of self-inquiry and Krishnamurti of self-observation. Ramanna asks ‘Who am I’? Krishnamurti says, ‘Do you know who this ‘I’ is? It is a bundle of memories, of conditioning…
Was it a natural progression to leave?
Yes. Over the years I slowly understood that one had to be true to one’s heart, onc’s conscience. So I spent a whole 10 years in the Krishnamurti place in Varanasi. In Rajghat. The one fallout with Krishnamurti is that you may let go of many traditional things.
Did you find that to be true of you? Chinmaya Mission is an upholder of the Vedantic tradition and you went to the other extreme…
I also withdrew from a lot of traditional things. If not stop going, you go much less to temples. If not stop rituals you do much less of rituals. Your meditation changes. Instead of using mantras, chants and visualization you do much less of those things. Meditation becomes about remaining silent, watching the flow of thoughts.
Did it create any kind of conflict for you?
There is definitely a conflict when you go to Krishnamurti. The conflict is that he tells you clearly not to give advice to anyone. Now suppose some young person looks up to you for advice, but you don’t give any instruction. That fellow makes more mistakes. You believe he will find out for himself but he does not find out. So if you do not guide young people very directly you wonder, am I doing my duty, but on the other hand, if you give them very specific instructions, do this and do that, you might be doing harm to them.
How did you resolve this?
I am on the path of resolving it. Instead of jumping into either extreme, do facilitation of inquiry. Krishnamurti himself suggested this. Engage him in dialogue. Another middle path could be, suggest certain dos and don’ts that are not so heavy or caught in an old-fashioned frame of reference. For example, telling people ‘Don’t smoke, don’t drink’ is very specific. But if you were to say ‘Don’t do something by which your health is spoilt’, or ‘Don’t do things that hurt others or that jeopardises your family’s well-being’, it is very broad-based.
So you had three main teachers: Chinmayananda, Ramanna and Krishnamurti.
I was also influenced by Eknath Easwaran, who I met three times
In 1994, I read a book by him called Meditation. Very modern setting. No old language or old example. In early November of that year, I landed in USA for the first time. His ashram was on the way to the Chinmaya Ashram in California in a place called Pearsay. You could reach it by making a detour at a town called Petoloma. Easwaran used to give a lecture in that town at a church, every Tuesday. We made a detour once and met him. On another occasion while returning from our own retreat, we went to meet him.
So what was he like?
Very lovely. A very simple person. Even if you went in a group to meet him and it was only for 20 minutes, he would say one word to everybody in the group. He would not get stuck to the leader of the group or to someone who was rich or famous or an authority. For him a child, an old person, all were important. He had great regard for Swami Chinmayananda.
What were your impressions of Swami Chinmayananda?
A great soul. So much love. He was able to balance so much of energy and outward work with a certain inner purity. When one gets into outer work there is always a chance of getting politicised or disliking someone else’s work, or other people. We never found anything like that. His jokes or his stories were not aimed at anyone. Of course he had a passion for upholding Vedanta but …..
Is it okay to teach Vedanta without being enlightened?
Whether it is okay or not, one ends up sharing one’s knowledge. As someone said, If you eat garlic, you can’t avoid having the smell come out of your mouth.
But what about some of the teachers’ tendency to bolster their students’ ego by making them feel that being Vedanta students make them a cut above the rest?
Well, that is true of almost every faith. Forget faith, it is true of every language. A Bengali will think his language is the sweetest one on earth. Ask him if he has heard any other language he will say, Not really, but I know. But how can you know?
It is human nature…
Human nature. My country, my language… it has corrupted religions too. It gives them a sense of identity. A psychologist once told me that a child springs to justify any mistake he may have made. More than the need to avoid punishment, the child’s own mind requires that solace. Now talking about preaching without enlightenment, 99.99 of teachers belong to that category. Enlightenment is a very rare commodity.
Teaching Vedanta is one thing, but what about becoming a guru without being enlightened?
Nobody decides to become a guru. Their tendencies make them a guru.
Swamiji, everyone wants to become a guru. It is a viable profession these days.
As I say, becoming a guru is a reflection of their inner tendencies. It could be a tendency to have popularity or a tendency to make money.
You said there was one more person who influenced you.
Vimla Thakkar. An amazing woman. Her journey began with Vinobha Bhave. Very active in the Bhoodan Movement. Walked the length and breadth of the country. Very close to Jayaprakash Narayan. From childhood she had this spiritual fervour. And somewhere she came in touch with J Krishnamurti. In her work we find a beautiful reconciliation between Gita and Upanishads and Krishnamurti.
Did you ever meet Krishnamurti?
No, as a student in IIT, I once heard a lecture of his, while standing from quite a distance. At that time, I did not understand him at all. It took another 10 years. By then he had gone physically. In Krishnamurti, it is not just spirituality or metaphysics. I found his observations on human nature and human psychology to be very powerful and helpful. For example, he questioned ambition. Whereas earlier we were taught, A is for Ambition. Krishnamurti said, ‘Ambition is against love’. In one of his books he says, “A man can’t love his wife and be ambitious”. Another is the light he threw on thought. Conditioned thought. If I look at an apple and say it is an apple that is not conditioned. But if I start to compare, the ‘I’ comes. I me and mine is the essential ingredients of conditioning. These are the trouble makers. Take for example that profound statement, Love is not made of thought. All of Bollywood and Hollywood, all the literatures have focussed on love based on thought, on gestures. Krishnamurti had the clarity to say that that does not constitute love.
Having exposed yourself to so many schools of thought, what is your understanding of spirituality?
For me spirituality is being free from egoism. Ego is nothing but conditioning. It is the opposite of right seeing. So spirituality is being free of the ego, of dying moment to moment.
Have you arrived at enlightenment?
Uh, not yet (laughs). But after studying Krishnaji and so on, the question loses its significance. Because the moment you convert it into a goal, you do injustice to it. Which is not to avoid the issue. In the Upanishadic literature it is also made very clear that our greatest impediment is this strife. When will I get liberated? How come I, who has written seven books, is not liberated and how come this lady who has written only two books is?
What made you leave Krishnamurti and go on your own path?
After 10 years in Varanasi, I felt that too much time was being taken in administration, looking after property, running a school, look after this and that guest. There was a college also of which I was the manager. Or the other hand, I clearly saw that writing, reading, teaching are where I am more comfortable. So I decided to play it lightly. I don’t want to become a missionary or anything. Therefore I moved to Solon, where I live on my own.
Do you have plans to set up an ashram?
Our ashram is in Kudal, along the road to Goa from Mumbai. We have a team who is going to look after it.
So how do see your future life?
I want to balance three things. First you have the public contact where you speak and meet people. Second is writing where your door is shut and you are writing. Third is just quietitude. Doing nothing. I want to balance these three.
Do you still define yourself as a sanyasi and what does it mean for you?
Yes I do, and while a formal orthodox sanyasi will literally avoid money and so on, for me, I won’t avoid money. I have a bank account now, but I won’t keep more than I need. Live a simple life devoted to spiritual studies and so on. So you may look at it as a liberal definition of sanyasi. An orthodox sanyasi may not eat in restaurants either, but I do.
So this is acceptable?
Yes, I am not under any organization.
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