The Voice of Three Masters

From Karma Yoga Book 4: Action with a Purpose, From the teachings of two great luminaries of the 20th century, Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati, Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati

What is the role of grihastha ashrama?

Swami Sivananda: Householders deserve a lofty status, for they are the real yogis. They have great duties and responsibilities. Sannyasins keep themselves away from the stormy seas of life. Grihastha ashrama, the stage of the householder, is the crucible which burns the dross of past samskaras and tempers the steel, so that the personality may blossom in full fragrance. The householder's life is a long, continuous sadhana. He has to stand firm and hold on to his duties, his dharma, when the storms and tempests of life try to sweep him off his feet.

Can one who works in the world with the attitude of a karma yogi still be a sannyasin?

Swami Sivananda: A man does not become a sannyasin by merely giving up actions. The karma yogi, who hates neither pain nor the objects that give him pain, who has no desire for pleasure, and neither attachment nor aversion to any sense object should be known as a perpetual sannyasin. He is ever engaged in action and has risen above the pairs of opposites: heat and cold, joy and sorrow, success and failure, victory and defeat, gain and loss, praise and censure, honour and dishonour. A perpetual sannyasin has this mental attitude and does not have to take sannyasa formally. Mere ochre-coloured robes cannot make him a sannyasin.

What is wanted is a pure heart with true renunciation of egoism and desires. Physical renunciation is not renunciation at all. Renunciation of the fruits of all work is sannyasa. He who is equipped with a mind steadfast in the yoga of renunciation is sannyasa yoga yuktatma. The act of offering everything unto the Lord constitutes the yoga of renunciation.

What is the purpose of life?

Swami Sivananda: Human life is a process of seeking and self-expression. It is seeking freedom from bonds, from want and pain. It is a quest for harmony, repose and peace. It is a thirst and a search for happiness. By this very search everybody expresses their innermost need.

The true goal of life is to return to the source from which one came. Just as rivers flow restlessly till they join the ocean, the ultimate source of their supply of water, just as fire leaps and burns furiously till it merges in its own origin, so, too, everybody will be restless here until they obtain God's grace and become one with Him.

How did you come to understand the importance of the purification through karma yoga?

Swami Satyananda: In 1943, I came to my guru Swami Sivananda. I had a problem with meditation, as I could not go beyond a certain point where I used to face the great wall. Therefore, I asked Swami Sivananda only one question, "If one has a spiritual experience spontaneously, how can one become a master of that experience and have it at will?" He gave me one small key, "You must exhaust your karmas."

In order to succeed in meditation the weight and the grossness of karma has to be reduced. In one's awareness there are layers and layers of grossness, impressions, dirt, distractions, vasanas or hidden desires and much more. Those karmas must be exhausted. The exhaustion of karma is an important sadhana in the process of enlightenment. If the aspirant exhausts his karmas, it is possible that the experience in meditation will give positive rewards. But karma cannot be exhausted by action, as every action brings another impression. In order to exhaust one's karma, one will have to do karma yoga and not just karma, one must work hard and sincerely to purify the mind.

In 1956, Swami Sivananda called me and asked, "What sadhana are you doing?" For twelve years he had not asked me any question like this. Of course, I did practise asana, pranayama and mantra as a personal matter, but not at the command of the guru. Instead I practised karma yoga day and night like a bull or a donkey. Along with many of the other young sannyasins, I helped to build the ashram step by step. I lived with my guru in order to fulfil the promises of seva, chitta shuddhi or purification of the mind, elimination of karma and giving myself totally.

I never reconsidered or questioned this. I did not work for myself; I received no mundane objects in return. Each year the ashram gave me two dhotis and one old blanket. There was no protein in the diet, but I did not think of protein. For twelve years I forgot about it. When I came out of the ashram and people talked about protein, I thought, 'What is protein? Milk is protein, cheese is protein, meat is protein and fish is protein.' When I was sick, there was no medicine. The nearest hospital was twenty-six miles away and there was no car, no vehicle, so we walked. If I had done the same work in my family, I would have received a lot of money and respect.

Why did I work like this? It is called nishkama karma yoga, action without the expectation of personal reward. I am an analytical person, but I did not analyze my guru at all. I never thought he was exploiting me. This thought never came to my mind. Even to this day it has not come. I am sharp in my academic criticism, but I knew that when I was working, I was exhausting and throwing away my karma. Within the consciousness are the desires of many, many incarnations. Everyone, including myself, has a lot of impressions. Everyone has natural and social repressions, and they are idiotic repressions. That is why there is suffering. When I gave myself to my guru through service and work, I was actually throwing away my karma and my repressions.

How was Swami Satyananda introduced to karma yoga?

Swami Niranjanananda: There is a belief that one has to wilfully transcend the karmas and wilfully be free of them. However, the moment one frees oneself of karma, one won't remain in this creation any more. The nature of this creation is karmic, so how can one live in this creation without karma? That is what Swami Sivananda told Swami Satyananda.

Karma cannot be exhausted in the normal conditions or environment. Swami Sivananda said, "After sannyasa you will carry on with the normal karmas which you have been performing till today, working in the office, kitchen, publications department, tying up parcels, sweeping the floor, secretarial work and so on. Nothing is going to change." Swami Satyananda said, "Well, if nothing is going to change, instead of performing karmas here, I may as well go back home and work there. It will help the people in my home." Swami Sivananda told him, "You can do that, but when you perform karma at home, you are doing it for your pleasure, fulfilment and satisfaction; you are performing it with certain expectations and you will be affected by the outcome of that karma. Success will elate you and failure will frustrate you. When you perform karma in the ashram, you will not be doing it for your gratification nor will you have any expectation of it. What you do in the ashram you offer to the guru. The success of the karma is guru's and its failure is also guru's. You are free and think, 'I have been told to do this and therefore I am doing it. I am not interested in success or failure. It is the positive and creative expression that is required of me'."

The positive and creative action and expression is the focus in the ashram while engaged in karma. The karmas do not change; only the inner understanding and mental perception changes. With this understanding and perceptual change, eventually one can become aware of all the different ties and knots of karma, and release them one by one. Swami Satyananda asked Swami Sivananda, "How will I know when I have fulfilled my karmic duties?" Swami Sivananda told him, "When the karmas are over, you will know. When night comes you know the sun is not there any more. Similarly, when you are free from karma you will know that you are free. If I tie you up, you will know that you are bound and if I untie you, you will know that you are free. It is an experience." Swami Satyananda embarked upon the path of karma yoga with full determinations and devotion.

What was the training you received from Swami Satyananda?

Swami Niranjanananda: From 1963 to 1977, the ashram residents lived simply. The lifestyle changed in 1982 when we shifted from the old ashram to Ganga Darshan. These situations and conditions allowed us to watch ourselves. Every day was a realization of the power and grip of the ego. Every day was a realization of the hold that the lower buddhi, the lower mind, the lower memories, the lower ego had. It had to be faced, and because we were able to face it, we are sitting here today. Not because we have practised eight hours of meditation. My achievement is not a result of practising meditation. My achievement is because I was taught to confront and face the situations arising in the mind. That is the practical training which I have received, not the meditative training. This training given by the guru is karma yoga.