The great master, Swami Chinmayananda (or Gurudev as we now call him) used to sometimes describe the indescribable Lord by using the analogy of electricity. He used to say that it’s difficult to describe electricity to somebody who hasn’t felt a shock. One has to experience it to really know it. I feel the same when people ask me to describe Gurudev.
The sheer majesty, magnetism, love and compassion of Gurudev was so overwhelming, that it profoundly touched, and changed, the lives of those who had contact with or darshan of him. And it continues to inspire and transform the lives of a multitude of people, especially the young, 22 years after he left his physical form and 100 years since his birth in Ernakulum, Kerala.
Swami Chinmayananda was born in a serene and religious household in 1916. There were many holy men who used to visit the family home. The most notable was the great yogi, Chattambi Swamigal, who had blessed Gurudev when he was just a few days old and named him Balakrishnan Menon, meaning the child Krishna.
The young Balakrishnan, or Balan, grew up in a loving atmosphere. But when he was just five, his mother passed away. This must have been a severe jolt for the young boy. But, thereafter, his aunts cared for all his needs and Balan adjusted to the new situation. Gurudev’s great sensitivity and love towards children and mothers reflected very much in his work later on under the umbrella of Chinmaya Mission. He started “Bal Vihars” for children to inculcate values and culture in them. And during Navratris, when people worship the Divine Mother, he introduced maatru pooja in the Bal Vihars, so that we may learn to appreciate the unqualified love of our own mothers as well.
Meanwhile, Balan grew up to be a mischievous teenager. He loved playing pranks on his friends and teachers. He also revolted against traditions, whose meanings he did not understand at the time. He started questioning the concept of God as well and wondered what the purpose of life was. Eventually, in 1940, Balan left Ernakulum to pursue a Master’s degree in English Literature at Lucknow University.
At university, Balan excelled in his studies and played competitive tennis as well. He lived as a normal, enthusiastic, questioning youngster. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Gurudev understood young people so well and gave maximum priority to youngsters. He often said that the youth were not useless, but used less. Gurudev started Yuva Kendras, where young people are made aware of their potential through the study of scriptures and their potential is then directed towards creative channels via cultural, social and spiritual programmes.
The love Gurudev showered on youngsters was truly touching. It reminds me of a personal experience. In 1980, I was a youngster and had just joined the Chinmaya Yuva Kendra. Gurudev was visiting our city. A group of youngsters, including me, attended a Q&A session with him. We were so enthralled and inspired by what we had heard that after the session, in our enthusiasm, and without telling our parents, we went to a quiet place in the city called The Peak to meditate. This continued till late into the night, leaving all the parents very anxious and worried. Needless to say, once we returned to our homes, we all got severe scoldings. We tried to explain that we had not gone out for some late night party, but to meditate at The Peak and had lost concept of time.
The next day, when we went to meet Gurudev, we were expecting another scolding. But before we got a chance to say anything, Gurudev hugged us and lovingly said: “Where were you last night?” And then he added: “You don’t have to go to the peak to meditate — in meditation reach the peak.”
Going back to the story of Balan, the young man, after his studies at Lucknow University, plunged into the freedom struggle in 1942. He was even thrown into jail by the British, where he fell severely ill and nearly died. Gurudev was a strong patriot throughout his life. He exhorted people to serve the motherland and restore its glory. The Chinmaya Mission pledge includes the following words: “We believe that the service of our country is the service of the Lord of lords. And devotion to the people is devotion to the Supreme Self.”
Balan, after his release from jail joined the National Herald, a prominent newspaper at the time. He wrote strong articles on social, economic and political issues. But then came the turning point in his life. He decided to write on religion and spiritual teachers. He was a sceptic, who was wary of what was going on in the name of religion. But, at the same time, he had an open mind. So he decided to investigate the holy men of the Himalayas. This led him to Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh. Here, he met the great yogi and saint, Swami Sivananda. One by one, Balan’s hitherto held ideas began to fall apart.
His teachings had compassion and his oratory was excellent. He wrote commentaries on the Bhagwad Gita and the major Upanishads. He spread what he called “the science of life” and “the art of man-making”.
The logic of Swami Sivananda’s teachings and his sheer love had a deep impact on Balan. He saw the goodness, kindness and charity of Swami Sivananda. Swami Sivananda patiently answered all the questions that had haunted him over the years, like what the purpose of life is, why we are here, and so on. A great transformation started taking place within the young man. Balan then found himself shuttling between the ashram and his journalistic work. But by 1948, he had virtually taken up residence in the ashram. On Sivaratri in 1949, Swami Sivananda initiated Balan into the holy order of sanyas. Balakrishnan Menon was reborn as Swami Chinmayananda.
Later, Gurudev too was very patient with all kinds of questions that people asked him. In fact, he encouraged and enjoyed questions. He wanted people to understand the logic of spirituality. And that can only happen when doubts are cleared. He used to point out that Hinduism encourages questions. This is why our most important scriptures, like the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita, are in a question-answer format between the student and the teacher.
Eventually, Swami Sivananda, who had given Gurudev a missionary zeal, sent him to the reclusive Vedantic master, Swami Tapovanam, in Uttarkashi for an intensive study of the scriptures. Gurudev spent very austere times at the feet of Swami Tapovanam, serving his guru, studying, contemplating and gaining the ultimate knowledge.
After gaining the knowledge, Gurudev felt a great urge to share it with others. He sought and received the permission and blessings of Swami Tapovanam and, on 31 December 1951, Gurudev started his first series of discourses, which he called Jnana Yagna, in Pune.
One Jnana Yagna led to another, in different parts of the country. But soon, the orthodox Brahmins got upset. They protested to the saint of Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt that Swami Chinmayananda was teaching the scriptures from public platforms with no regard to caste, status and profession, and that too in English. But the saint reportedly admonished the orthodox group by saying: “You don’t know what the Upanishads and Gita are all about. Here is a person who not only knows them, but has come to interpret them for the people.”
Over the next four decades, Swami Chinmayananda literally changed the face of modern Hinduism. He broke the orthodox hold of Hindu scriptures and spread the divine knowledge to the masses of the country and abroad, in a logical, scientific way. He conducted 773 Jnana Yagnas, many of them lasting for weeks, teaching the Upanishads, Bhagwad Gita and other scriptural texts to hundreds of thousands of people. His teachings had compassion and his oratory was par excellence. He wrote commentaries on the Bhagwad Gita (acknowledged as perhaps the finest ever written in English) and the major Upanishads. He went all out to spread what he called “the science of life” and “the art of man-making”.
I remember in 1987, I had met Swami Chidananda Maharaj, who had succeeded Swami Sivananda as head of the Divine Life Society and Sivananda Ashram. Swami Chidanandaji was a great saint and he said to me: “There is no seva as great as vidya daan. All other forms of seva can only give temporary relief. But this knowledge gives permanent, everlasting happiness and a means of living by which one is productive. There are some people and organisations, who have spread the knowledge to an extent. But no one, no one, has ever spread it to such a great number of people, with such dedication, as Swami Chinmayananda.” He then added: “Don’t ever think you are serving Him. Feel privileged that He has given you the opportunity to serve His mission.”
As we celebrate the birth centenary of our pujya Gurudev, we bow down in humble reverence and gratitude for the love, kindness, generosity and knowledge he gave us. And His work is continuing, indeed growing. Chinmaya Mission, under the guidance of Swami Tejomayananda, is disseminating the knowledge of Vedanta through over 300 centres in India and around the world. The mission is also running large rural development projects, women’s self-help groups, schools, colleges, hospitals, old age homes, forums for children, the youth and senior citizens, temples, ashrams and research centres. This is the compassion of Swami Chinmayananda.
Swami Swaroopananda is Director, Chinmaya International Residential School, Coimbatore, and is also in-charge of Chinmaya Mission activities in the Far East, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.