Sivananda Saraswati (1887-1963) is one of the great yoga teachers of our time. Throughout his lifetime he founded the Divine Life Society, the Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy, and left a rich list of publications and teachings. He is most fondly remembered as one of those people who is innately drawn to service of others, as is evident in many parts of his life story…
A Roundabout Journey Into Yoga
The child Kuppuswamy was born in September 1887 in South India. He had religious parents, who noticed early on that he was sympathetic and kind-hearted, as well as being intelligent and mischievous. He went on to be a model student at school, coming top of his class every year, as well as taking part in activities like singing, gymnastics and drama.
After graduating he went to medical school, where he earned himself top marks in all his classes. One of Dr. Kuppuswamy’s first assignments as a doctor was to work in and manage a hospital on a rubber estate in Malaysia. He had become a very gifted doctor and was often willing to treat patients for free, or to pay for their treatments himself. This was the beginning of his life of service.
Among his patients were many of the local sadhus (holy men) and sannyasins (renunciates) who he treated for free. It was one of these sadhus who gave him a spiritual book which ignited his interest in spirituality.
Pilgrimage To Rishikesh
In his spare time he began to study all the spiritual texts he could find, as well as making time for his daily prayers and āsana practice. He was inspired by the writings of Swami Vivekananda and Adi Sankara, and drew inspiration from the Bhagavad Gītā and the Bible.
It’s easy to find accounts of how generous a person he was. He would give money and items away freely, and his top priority was constant service of those who required it. In time he had a lucrative medical practice, but he felt that to develop his spiritual practice he needed to make that his first priority. So in 1923 he renounced his life as he knew it, and made his way back to India where he would start his pilgrimage to find a guru.
It was his plan to travel the whole of India and visit spiritual teachers along the way. So at some point in his journey someone recommended that he visit an ashram in Rishikesh, part of a village in the Himalayas. It was here that he met Swami Visvananda Sarawati, who recognised the potential of the doctor. He was initiated and given the name Swami Sivananda Saraswati.
Sādhanā — A Life Of Service
The definition of sādhanā is “a discipline undertaken in the pursuit of a (usually spiritual) goal. A sādhaka, or practitioner, is one who skillfully applies mind and intelligence in practice towards a spiritual goal.”
It can be said that Swami Sivananda’s sādhanā was to serve humanity. He lived in a small hut with no luxuries, did intense tapas (austerities), observed silence, and fasted. He would spend more than twelve hours in daily meditation, as well as continue his service to the sick. After some time, he came into some money, with which he started a charitable dispensary in 1927.
Sivananda practiced all the various yogas, developed his own style, and studied the scriptures. He compiled handwritten notebooks with instructions for himself. Among the quotes were:
Forget like a child any injury done by somebody immediately. Never keep it in the heart. It kindles hatred. Cultivate friendship, compassion, mercy, love and forgiveness.
In another paragraph he wrote:
Develop good manners, extreme politeness, courtesy, etiquette, good demeanour, nobility, gentleness, mildness. Never be rude, harsh, or cruel. There is nothing to be hated in the world. Hatred is ignorance. All contempt for anything or being must be removed through love and enquiry.
Sivananda’s Legacy And The Divine Life Society
Swami Sivananda’s Yoga, which he has significantly called the Yoga of Synthesis, effects a harmonious development of the ‘hand’, ‘head’ and ‘heart’ through the practice of Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Among some great teachers influenced by him were Swami Satchidananda Saraswati, founder of the Integral Yoga Institute, and Satyananda Saraswati, founder of Bihar School of Yoga.
After his travels, he returned to Rishikesh in the early 1940’s and founded the Divine Life Society. From humble beginnings, it is now a worldwide organisation which focuses on spreading spiritual knowledge and service of humanity.
He later instituted the Sivananda Ayurvedic Pharmacy and the Sivananda Eye Hospital which are still in existence today. His projects continued to the end of his life, which included establishing a printing press, a research institute to transcribe the works of spiritual masters, and hosting the World Parliament of Religions in 1953. After a very full life, he passed away in India in July 1963.
You can get access to all of his teachings at one of the many Sivananda Yoga Centres which is exist in a number of locations all over the world, including in London. You can expect to find a programmes of āsana classes, meditation, self-development, study of scriptures, cooking workshops as well as Ayurvedic treatment and training.
The Divine Life Society website is a rich resource for information about the teachings of Swami Sivananda, as well as information about the yogic path, and literature relating to all the religions of the world.
This is article is part of a series on influential teachers and yogis throughout history. If you’re interested in more, check out our profile of Pattabhi Jois from last week, or let us know in the comments if there’s someone you’d like us to explore next!