Talks with Swami Shivananda

Swami Shivananda, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, served as president of the Ramakrishna Order from 1922-1934. This article, translated from the original Bengali, first appeared in the March-April 1969 edition of Vedanta and the West.

Once Swami Shivananda was asked whether he had read an article concerning Sri Ramakrishna by Romain Rolland, the famous French author. “I have not read the whole of it,” he replied, “but his presentation seems to be excellent—though from the human aspect rather than that of an incarnation. Perhaps he was under the opinion that to think of Ramakrishna as a divine being introduced an idea of superhuman power, which would create a feeling of distance. But why should this happen? All powers and glories are harmonized in him. Is one afraid of one’s father, even if he is a millionaire?”

“In the relation that we had with the Master, there was not the slightest touch of awe. We did not look upon the Master as ‘superhuman,’ and he liked it that way. He would have been offended if any one called him an incarnation of God. For then the intimacy that one hopes to gain through love is undermined. A relation of love and faith is created by thinking of a person as one’s mother, father, brother, friend, and so forth.”

When a brahmachari asked Swami Shivananda for sannyasa [monastic initiation], the Swami replied: “The Master gave each of us a piece of ochre cloth to be worn at the time of meditation. This, in itself, is a good idea which anyone can adopt. Swamiji [Swami Vivekananda] obtained the mantras to be used in the formal vows of monasticism and made us all take our orders.”

“An ochre robe helps one in begging for food; otherwise, one has to introduce oneself to others as a monk at the time of begging. God is our inner ruler, the Soul of our soul. It is enough if one has love, devotion, and faith in Him. One must strive hard to earn these. Instead, we find some merely performing the homa [offering oblations into the fire], taking up the monastic life—and there it ends! This seems to have become the fashion, and I have no liking for such a farce. If one does not continue to strive for Truth after coming here, then all is in vain. Which is greater—the realization of God or all this external paraphernalia?”

“Celibacy is the chief constituent of monasticism, and the ochre robe puts the stamp on it. Devotees do not require such formal renunciation. For them, renunciation consists in believing in the incarnation of God and dedicating themselves heart and soul to Him.”

“The essence of it all is God-realization. Divine enlightenment is the chief thing—the core of the matter. Even though we are under the aegis of the Master, should we still move about like driven cattle? The primary thing is to be free of rajas [vain activity]. Does that come about by merely burning a few vilwa leaves in the sacrificial fire? You must finally come to realize that God is the Soul of your soul. . . .”

On one occasion, Swami Shivananda addressed another monk: “Activity is good. But those who would realize God must pass through the stages of withdrawal from sense objects, concentration, meditation, and samadhi [absorption]. A proper environment is also necessary in order to be properly inspired. These stages are merely experiences of gradually ascending states of spiritual refinement. Low thoughts will pass through the mind, but do not worry about them. Through the grace of the Lord, you will acquire great strength of mind by constant practice. One should fully engage in that practice which appeals to the mind at a particular moment—japa, meditation, worship, scriptural study, prayer, and so forth. The Master will take care of the rest.”

When asked whether an incarnation maintains an intimate, personal relationship with his devotees after giving up the gross body, the Swami responded: “Yes, of course, until the end of a cycle of creation. How else can the gross endure? It is the fine that we really need.” On the question of meditation, Swami Shivananda replied: “One has to concentrate the mind on the various centers of the sushumna nerve. In the heart is the seat of the Ishta [Chosen Ideal], and in the head is the seat of the guru. This kind of meditation helps japa, and that is why it should be pursued.”

It was the day of the worship of Kali, and as the talk turned to what things would be offered to the Mother, Swami Shivananda was asked what food the Master liked. “His eating was not of the ordinary sort. Like a child, he would ask for some little thing to eat. Sometimes he would prefer a little curry of eggplant with some chillies and other spices. He would taste a bit of it and then leave it. He relished jilibis*, and sometimes he would eat some sandesh, but only a bit. He would break the sweet and take only a morsel. He would call jilibis ‘the wheels of the viceroy’s carriage.’ One day he said, ‘I want to have some pudding made from chana [Indian cheese].’ In those days, it was not possible to procure chana unless one went to Calcutta. But such was the play of the Divine Mother that the mother of Swami Premananda suddenly arrived with some pudding she had made from chana. The Master ate it with great relish. All this is a part of the divine play. How much can be understood of all this?”

Once a boy who wanted to become a monk and give up his studies came to see Swami Shivananda. He had failed in his final examination. “It is good if you continue in your studies,” the Swami said, “or else, what will you do after becoming a monk—only collect handfuls of rice from door to door or subscriptions for the poor? There are greater works to be done for the Master than these. It will be better if you study further. The Master liked education. He said that those boys who completed their education would gain success easily [in spiritual life], and they would be able to fix their minds on God more quickly—because they had made earlier efforts to concentrate their minds on their studies. This will be to their advantage when they concentrate their minds on God.”

“Those boys who are already advanced in discrimination, renunciation, faith, and love belong to a class by themselves. Those who have these virtues do not roam about, but lose themselves in japa and other spiritual practices. You have received your mantra, now merge yourself in japa. . . .”

To some visiting devotees, Swami Shivananda gave some very practical advice: “Even if a thousand duties intervene in your lives, or you experience happiness or sorrow, or good or bad befalls you, you should lay yourselves at the feet of the Lord twice during each day—or at least once. One must pray. Everything will take a right course if only one prays to Him. Through his grace one will get knowledge, devotion, and everything else; good tendencies will develop in you, and the bad tendencies fall away. Then both good and bad will depart. It is like removing one thorn from the body with another.”

A monk asked Swami Shivananda: “When does one’s mind become one’s guru?” The Swami responded: “The mind itself will know, and so it will tell the aspirant—it is a conviction beyond all doubt.” With folded hands he added, “My God is within me.” And then he said, “This is the conviction which dawns on one. The Gita lays great stress on personal effort: ‘One should save oneself by oneself . . . for it is the self alone that is one’s own friend or foe.’ Save yourself by yourself. Never get dejected. The self is the friend of the Self and, again, the self is foe of the Self. By ‘self’ is meant the mind and intellect.

“ ‘Bliss is in the Infinite alone; there is no bliss in the finite.’ Know it to be a truth, my son, that happiness lies in the Infinite alone; the finite can never offer true happiness.”

When asked if renunciation resulted from practice, Swami Shivananda said: “No, it is the result of past tendencies; it comes when one is free from all desires. Renunciation comes as the result of experience reinforced by discrimination. But the sine qua non is God’s grace. This is why the Master would pray: ‘Compassion, compassion. Mother, be compassionate. Mother, I know neither practice nor prayer. O Mother, be kind.’ Unless she is gracious, no practice or prayer is possible. Nobody is quite free in activities; everything moves according to Mother’s will. She is the mechanic and all others are her machines. It is difficult to keep these facts in mind, but if one can fully realize them one can transcend good and evil. Everything can be obtained if she is merciful. Through the grace of mahamaya [the Mother of the universe] can come practice, prayer, renunciation, everything. She has both the powers of enlightenment and ignorance. All opportunities come to one when she removes ignorance and helps one with her power of enlightenment. Our duty is simply to go on praying, ‘Mother, be compassionate!’ Nothing will avail unless she is kind.” With this, he folded his hands and sat in meditation with eyes closed.

After a while he continued: “The Mother has granted refuge to me; nay, not only to me, but to my brother-disciples, and many others as well. She will grant it to many more yet. This illusion of a world will have an end; maya has an end, though this present existence cannot be denied. But life is only a momentary phenomenon. Existence—Knowledge—Bliss alone is true.

“People are crowding here for initiation from me because I have grown old and may soon depart. Even though the Master, Swamiji, Holy Mother, and Maharaj have left, has His work stopped? It will go on.”

Once, on the question of taking monastic orders, Swami Shivananda said: “These are all outward forms. The main thing is for the mind to lose itself at the feet of the Master, at the lotus feet of God, and to remain absorbed there. The real consummation lies in having firm devotion and knowledge.

“If you believe in me,” he continued, “then light the fire of knowledge that is Ramakrishna, and mentally pour your minds and hearts to the Master as an oblation. Nothing will avail unless you practice japa and meditation; this is my inmost conviction. Then you are free to act as you like. Do not forget the main ideal in the midst of your many duties. The primary object of life is to realize God; it will not do to waste your lives in seeking little comforts and following others blindly, like sheep. I tell you my firm belief: japa, mediation, love for God and faith in Him are absolutely necessary. And considering that the mind [in ignorance] is false and time unyielding, what else can man do?”

One of the swamis approached Swami Shivananda and saluted him. Shivananda asked him: “Would you tell me what kind of knowledge is that which is devoid of devotion?”

“There is no such knowledge,” the Swami replied. And then he added, “I have heard that Swamiji once told Holy Mother, ‘Mother, I am ruthlessly cutting off all my past tendencies with knowledge.’

“Holy Mother laughed at this and said, ‘I hope you are not cutting me off as well!’

“With folded hands, Swamiji replied, ‘Is that knowledge which would make one forget one’s guru’s lotus feet? Holy Mother simply laughed.”

Swami Shivananda said to this: “That is it. Without devotion, nothing avails, my son; no realization comes. Reasoning and discrimination are indeed valuable; they help to a certain extent. But devotion is the primary thing, and knowledge is implied devotion. Is devotion such a common thing? If one has devotion, one has attained everything. Unless one has that, the mind does not become malleable. Both Chaitanya and Swamiji had devotion as their mainstay. Thus, Chaitanya prayed:

O Lord and Soul of the Universe,
Mine is no prayer for wealth or retinue,
The playthings of lust or the toys of fame;
As many times as I may be reborn
Grant me, O Lord, a steadfast love for thee.

“The mind can reach up to God with form and attributes or God with attributes, but without form. Beyond that, however, he transcends both speech and thought. The Master used to say, ‘God is realizable only by the pure mind’”.

It was the birthday of Swami Yogananda

. Asked about him, Swami Shivananda said: “Whoever would have thought you would have asked about these things after such a long interval? Swami Yogananda used to meditate a great deal, and his eyes would become red as a result. The Master said that he had eyes like those of Arjuna. He was very pure, and at the same time full of humor. Balaram Bose liked him very much. When we left Varanasi [Benares], Yogananda continued there, living an austere life.

One day, after Swamiji returned from America, Yogananda exchanged some words with him regarding social work. Humorously, Swamiji said: ‘Who would have known of your Master if I had not preached about him?’ To this Swami Yogananda retorted: ‘If it were not for him, you would at most have been only a big lawyer.’ As Yogananda grew more serious, however, Swamiji suddenly burst into tears. ‘Yogin,’ he said, ‘how can you understand what thoughts I have of him?’

“I do not know how the Master regarded Yogananda’s spiritual moods,” Shivananda continued, “but I do know that he counted him among those who belonged to a divine order, and he considered him as having a great spiritual potential. Once, when Yogananda’s illness took a bad turn, Swamiji said: ‘Yogin, you recover; let me die instead.’ And Swami Niranjanananda would say: ‘Yogin, you are our crest-jewel.’ When his last moment was nearing, I asked him: ‘Yogin, you are remembering the Master, I hope?’

‘I remember him more vividly—more and more.’

“He loved solitude very much. He was not terribly fond of study, and remained satisfied with only a few books—the Gita, Upanishads, and others. For a while he lived in front of Sitaram’s chatra [a place for distributing food to monks]. He lived at Vrindavan with Holy Mother. He loved the moon and stars, and would say: ‘I think I belong to that world of the moon; I am not of this earth. I feel as if I am sitting in the moon with a garland of stars about my neck.’

“He was like Shukadeva, a saint of great detachment and purity. At Varanasi, he used to eat only dry bread soaked in water. He was kind-hearted by nature, and was continually practicing charity. When a family in his village became helpless after the father died in a railway accident, Yogananda was greatly moved and told the whole matter to Swamiji. I was then working in Calcutta and had some money. I offered it to Yogin, who took it to the family.

“None of his acquaintances had any inkling that Yogin was visiting the Master at Dakshineswar. I do not remember having seen him there during the daytime. He did not have to come from Calcutta like the rest of us, as Dakshineswar was his home village.

“When we were at Cossipore, we all lived together. There he devoted much time to meditation and other disciplines. The main duty in his life, however, was his service to Holy Mother; this was the most prominent aspect of his life. It was he who introduced Sarat Maharaj [Swami Saradananda—who later became her attendant] to her. Sarat once said to him; ‘Yogin, I cannot always follow what Swamiji says. He talks of so many things. And whenever he speaks on any subject, he is so emphatic about it that everything else recedes in importance.’ Yogin replied, ‘Let me tell you one thing, Sarat: Rely on Holy Mother and accept as truth anything she says. . . .’”

On one occasion, Swami Shivananda said: “When I lived with the Master and served him, quite a number of men instructed me in various ways. But I did not relish any of it. But whenever the Master opened his lips, however few the words might be, I listened with attention, and they appealed to me. I had no mind to listen to any others.”

Finding a person somewhat depressed in spirit, Swami Shivananda said to him: “This is no good. Never yield to despondency. You should always have the faith that you are indeed fortunate, for you have taken refuge in these sons of the Master. ‘He who has seen the son has seen the father.’ Make your mind strong with these thoughts. Should any bad thought cross your mind, simply ignore it. The tendencies acquired in past lives remain stored in our minds, and at times they will wake up and try to push themselves forward. Fortify your mind; you need have no fear. You will get everything, everything will be fulfilled. Mere japa for a long time is not sufficient, you must try to develop love for God as well. Will mere dry muttering of the mantra be enough? But even mechanical japa has its reward, for, after all, it is God’s name. But the main thing is love. There should be some relationship to God, such as father, mother, friend, master, inner Ruler, or Mother of the universe, and the feeling ‘I am yours.’ It is extremely important to have calmness of mind while sitting for japa.

Owing to the negligence of a monk, Swamiji’s room at the monastery had become drenched during a sudden storm the previous night. Swami Shivananda told the monk: “Be careful that this is never repeated again. Remember that this is Swamiji’s room, a room still vibrant with his presence. It is not just an ordinary room for here lived a veritable incarnation of Shiva. What deep meditations, moods and divine communion, and samadhi have been witnessed in this room! But how can you know all this? But I warn you, my boy, be very careful. Look after this room with the fullest attention, or else you will be in trouble. Never do such a thing again. I warn you, it is Swamiji’s room.”

A devotee from the West had written to Swami Shivananda. “Write to her,” he said, “that she may correspond with me if she likes. She is a very devoted soul. All I care is that one should be a devotee. It is of little consequence whether one is a man or a woman. When the inner vision opens, all is seen as Brahman. What difference can there be to one who realizes the One, the One without a second?”

*Jilibis are a kind of sweet, very popular in Bengal, and roughly shaped like a wheel. What Ramakrishna meant was that just as crowded traffic in a street clears away at the approach of the viceroy’s carriage, so will a full stomach find space for jilibis.

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Talks with Swami Shivananda