Sivananda, Swami (1887-1963)

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Sivananda, Swami (1887-1963)

One of the most influential modern Hindu spiritual teachers, whose most important contribution was the wedding of the traditional concept of sannyas, the renounced life, with social service directed toward people in need. Born Kuppuswami Iyer on September 8, 1877, in Pattamadai, near Tirunelveli in southern India, he was a son of Vengu Iyer, a revenue official and devotee of the Hindu deity Siva. Kuppuswami was educated in Ettayapuram, attending the Rajah's High School, where he was a good scholar and proficient in athletics. In 1903 he matriculated and went on to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel College at Tiruchirappalli.

In 1905 he entered the Tanjore Medical Institute but was obliged to leave when the death of his father made it financially impossible to continue at the institute. He moved back to Tiruchirappalli, where he started a medical journal, Ambrosia, in 1909. Soon afterward, he supplemented his small income from the journal by working at a pharmacy in Madras.

In 1913 Kuppuswami decided to take up medical work in Malaya, where he eventually earned a reputation for combining medical work, spiritual observance, and selfless service to the poor. By 1920 he was working with three European doctors and managing a hospital. He became a member of the Royal Institute of Public Health, London, a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, London, and an associate of the Royal Sanitary Institute, London. In addition he published several books, including Household Remedies, Fruits and Health, Diseases and their Tamil Terms, Obstetric Ready Reckoner, and Fourteen Lectures on Public Health.

During his spare time, he studied traditional yoga and Vedanta, spending much time in meditation. In 1923 he became increasingly preoccupied with the desire to realize spiritual truth. He gave up his job and returned to India. He became a religious mendicant, making pilgrimages to Varanasi (Benares), Poona, Nasik, Pandharpur, and Hardwar, staying at ash-rams. In Rishikesh in northern India, a traditional holy place, he was formally initiated as a sannyasi, or renunciate, by Swami Viswananda, an elderly monk, and became Swami Sivananda Saraswati on June 1, 1924.

For some time, he lived at Swargashram by the side of the river Ganges, subjecting himself to intense spiritual discipline and using his medical knowledge to help the sick. He also made pilgrimages to Kedarnath and Badrinath, holy places high in the Himalayan mountains. He excited great enthusiasm by his popular lectures, inspiring chanting and singing of spiritual verses. In 1933 he was invited to attend the birthday celebration of Swami Ram Tirtha in Lucknow, and he subsequently traveled through India inspiring a great spiritual revival.

Returning to Rishikesh, he established an ashram in abandoned cowsheds on the banks of the Ganges in March 1934. With the help of disciples and supporters, the humble premises, named Ananda Kutir (hut of bliss), grew into a large self-contained community with a temple, hospitals, a pharmacy, a printing press for literature, and even a post office. As the Divine Life Society, the ashram sent its spiritual literature all over the world.

The rapid and successful establishment of the ashram was accelerated by the swami's dynamic personality and an astonishingly simple financial routine involving the spending of all donations on the day of receipt. Hindu swamis traditionally renounce the accumulation of wealth, so all contributions were immediately applied to practical purposesfeeding the sadhus of the district, maintaining hospital and medical treatment for the poor, leper relief, building huts, and developing a printing department for literature.

Integral yoga, Sivananda's unique system, which combined the practices of the various branches of traditional yoga, and Vedanta were propagated in hundreds of books and pamphlets and in the several magazines issued by the swami. They were often printed on poor-quality paper in quaint English as well as in the vernacular, yet they powerfully influenced thousands of devotees all over the world.

The Sivananda Ashram or Divine Life Society became a kind of Shangri-La in the foothills of the Himalayas, a half unreal world poised between past and present, between materialism and religion, between popular and advanced teaching. Part of its strange power lay in its paradoxical contrasts as a world in miniature, where high government officials and maharajahs rubbed shoulders with wandering mendicants, saints, and rogues. Each day, the swami would receive visitors and resident monks, giving instructions with a few succinct words, a gift, or a good-humored joke. In the evening, he would preside over Satsang (association of the wise), a kind of religious meeting at which visitors, Indian or Western, were encouraged to lecture, sing, dance, or tell a joke. Many individuals underwent a sudden uprush of spiritual awareness in this highly charged atmosphere.

Sivananda was credited with many miracles, and his teaching was often manifested obliquely in the collective unconscious of the ashram itself. The key to someone's problem might come from a casual remark from a stranger or the events of the day. One of the quaint but practical mottoes of the swami was, "Do it now!" In the same succinct manner, he condensed all religious teachings of various creeds to the simple formula, "ServeLoveGivePurifyMeditateRealise. Be Good Do GoodBe KindBe Compassionate. Inquire 'Who am I?'Know the Self, and Be Free!"

Many swamis now well known in the Western world were disciples of Swami Sivananda or were influenced by his teachings. These include Swami Vishnudevananda (famous teacher of hatha yoga ), Swami Venkateshananda, Swami Hridayananda (a woman, formerly an eye surgeon), Swami Satchidananda (founder of Integral Yoga Institute), Swami Jyotir Maya Nanda, Swami Nadabrahmananda (famous for his application of yoga principles to music), and Swami Sivananda Radha (Western founder of the Yasodhara Ashram ).

After the death of Swami Sivananda on July 14, 1963, his successor as president of the ashram was his leading disciple, Swami Chidananda, the secretarial work continuing in the hands of Swami Krishananda.

Sivananda wrote a great number of books, and several biographies about him have been published. There are also two recordings of life at the Sivananda Ashram: The Sounds of Yoga-Vedanta: Documentary of Life in an Indian Ashram (Folkways Records, 33 1/3 rpm, Album 8970) and Sounds of Sivananda Ashram, volumes 1 and 2 (two C60 cassette tapes), issued by Ashram Records, Box 9, Kootenay Bay, BC, Canada VOB 1XO.


Ananthanarayan, N. From Man to God-Man. New Delhi: The Author, 1970.

Krishnananda, Swami. Swami Sivananda and the Spiritual Renaissance. Sivanandanagar, India: Sivananda Literature Research Institute, 1959.

Omkarananda, Swami. In Sivananda Literature. Rishikesh, India: Sivananda Literature Research Institute, 1960.

Sivananda, Swami. Practical Lessons in Yoga. Sivanandanagar, India: Divine Life Society, 1978.

. Practice of Karma Yoga. Sivanandanagar: Divine Life Society, 1980.

. Sadhana. Sivanandanagar: Divine Life Society, 1967.

. Science of Yoga. 18 vols. Durban, South Africa: Siva-nanda Press, 1977.