Swami Satyananda Saraswati was the greatest siddha of the twentieth century. A siddha, perfect one, is an individual who is capable of bringing to successful fruition any chosen undertaking. Having accompanied Sri Swamiji on his journey for forty-one years, both close at hand and far apart, in the West and in India, I will try to elucidate Sri Swamiji’s nature as revealed to me over what he once called our long friendship.
In 1958, a volume called ‘The Life and Works of Swami Satyananda’ was produced at the behest of his guru Swami Sivananda in which his gurubhais expressed above all his ability to undertake any task to a successful conclusion. His primary undertaking, also emphasized by all writers, was the perfection of sadhana. All stated that none at the ashram surpassed him concerning his own sadhana in spite of his numerous other duties, all performed with absolute devotion to guru.
After leaving the Rishikesh ashram to fulfil his guru’s wish to spread yoga throughout the world, he traveled far and wide in the Indian subcontinent until establishing the Bihar School of Yoga in Munger. A few years later he came to the West for the first time to begin the initial steps of his introduction and establishment of a classical, but also a scientific approach to yoga. It was at this point in time, 1968, that I met Sri Swamiji in Vienna, Austria.
My background in yoga and classical Indian philosophy was gained by years of study of the texts in translation. Lacking the availability in the West of a master of yoga of the caliber described in the shastras, I had memorized the yoga sutras of Patanjali as my guru for my personal practice. My day job was research scientist for IBM engaged in the mathematical definition of computation. So I was a yogi and scholar engaged in full time scientific work.
My main personal problem at the time as a yogi was the lack of a sadguru, one who could guide me spiritually as well as intellectually or philosophically. I had met many but none inspired me.
Sri Swamiji arrived and immediately we could converse at length about any aspect of yoga, Vedanta, tantra, etc. But most importantly, his practical instruction in yoga yielded almost instantaneous results, was ingeniously adapted to the needs and abilities of the practitioners, and passed on to these practitioners in such a way as to enable them to immediately teach others. All these attributes of his manner of teaching made clear to me at once that here was an extraordinary yogi solidly based on a vast knowledge of yoga tradition on the one hand, and on his unceasing personal experimenting with each and every yogic sadhana in order to verify the fruits or siddhis promised by the sadhana, on the other hand.
Why did his practical instructions yield almost immediate results? Because, as he always stressed, they were classical, that is, based on sound yogic tradition both written and oral along a living lineage of gurus. Furthermore, he only gave few practices which were careful versions of powerful practices from kriya and kundalini yoga, hence their immediate though limited results. Some of the other attributes of his teaching follow from such a choice. First, if we practiced the few easy to remember practices he taught one year he could just add the more advanced and potent practices when he returned the following year, thus ensuring steady progress and permanence of results. The students, following his example in teaching only that of which they had personal experience, could keep increasing the number of individuals receiving the instructions of Sri Swamiji indirectly, but uniformly. So when Sri Swamiji returned year after year he could steadily and incrementally build on the foundation.
This approach has proven extremely successful in the West, as is witnessed by the large number of publications, institutions, academies, etc. teaching Satyananda/Bihar Yoga today.
Two other attributes displayed by Sri Swamiji throughout was his devotion to freedom and his lack of distinction between aspirants. Thus, when told of conflicts between disciples he would say, “Work on your own if you cannot work together. You do not even have to be loyal to the Bihar School of Yoga, an institution, or even to me, just be loyal to true yoga.” Sri Swamiji never once forced anyone to do anything. He would always say: “This is what the tradition has said, this is what I have experienced and thought about my experiences, and now you make up your own mind about it.” Never was he dogmatic.
In the years between 1968 and 1985, Sri Swamiji came to Europe for longer periods, and extended and deepened his exposition of all forms of yoga. There were extensive lectures and multifaceted practical residential sessions in which he acquainted us westerners with higher levels of interaction with a master through diksha and seva, and other aspects of the classical guru-disciple relationship. In fact, at one time there were more sannyasins created by Sri Swamiji in the West than in India.
After 1985 Sri Swamiji did not return to the West and I did not physically meet him again until 1999. In this period, Rishi Arundhati and I were involved in transcribing all his European lectures and programs. We established yoga centres in various countries and taught hundreds of students. Thus, though physically separated, Sri Swamiji was guiding us throughout.
This was the period when Sri Swamiji began the great transition from exposing, systematizing and simplifying all aspects of yoga to his demonstration of the proper role of sannyasins and ashrams in society. He has said that sannyasins are caretakers. Resources flow to them due to devotees but these resources do not belong to them. Hence, sannyasins must take care to distribute the resources to those who need them in such a way that they are truly empowered. In order to gather the power and insight needed to demonstrate to us how this can be done he returned to the crucible of sadhana – panchagni sadhana.
On meeting Sri Swamiji in Rikhia after 15 years, he said to me: “Vasishtha, uplifting those who need is very difficult because it depends on many individuals. When I was spreading yoga throughout the world it was easy, it only required myself.”
For 12 years Sri Swamiji demonstrated in Rikhia how such elevation and empowerment of the most needy and numerous sections of society is implemented. Most of the lessons of what he has brought about in Rikhia will only be realized now after he has left us physically to fend for ourselves. But what he has established in Rikhia is not only a spiritual miracle in this world where miracles are few, but it has permanence because it is based on the people of Rikhia themselves, particularly on the thousands of children who have made the ashram of Sri Swamiji their favourite daily location. We swamis are in their eyes truly caretakers of the wealth originating from the Supreme Goddess. Finally, to ensure the vitality and permanence of the individual and societal benefits which have resulted from his vision and achievements, he has carefully chosen and nurtured throughout these final years, true and proven adhikaris destined to keep alive the love and spirit of Sri Swamiji and to further realize his vision and sankalpas in Munger and Rikhia, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati and Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati.
Words and space fail to do justice to the degree of accomplishment of siddhi displayed by Sri Swamiji throughout the years. I reiterate, he was the greatest siddha of the twentieth century and far beyond. It can only have been the grace of the goddess that brought about my encounter and relationship with Sri Swamiji for how could I have imagined to have found myself so close to the living heart of spirituality.