Remembering Swami Chinmayananda

Swami Chinmayananda’s 100th birthday is on 8th May. He was born in Ernakulam in Kerala in 1916. Those who had the good fortune to meet the Swami in person, surely treasure his memory. He was a towering personality, who stood up for the Hindu tradition once he had realised its worth. He was a man on a mission – the mission to acquaint his countrymen, especially the English educated class, with the profound insights of the ancient Rishis, which were in danger of being forgotten. He started a revival of Hindu Dharma in independent India by translating the ancient knowledge into a modern idiom and teaching it all over the country and even abroad.

Swami Chinmayananda was the ideal person to do this, as he knew from own experience the mindset of the ‘modern’, English educated Indian who wrongly believes that he has no use for his heritage, mainly because he does not know it.

Balakrishna Menon, as he was called, was born into a pious household, but he himself was not inclined towards religion or spirituality. Nobody guessed that he would become a Sanyasi. He was the proverbial left liberal youth, got involved in the freedom struggle and studied literature, law and journalism. His first job was with the National Herald newspaper. He wanted to make a story on the so called holy men in Rishikesh. In 1947, he reached Swami Shivananda’s ashram – not to learn from him, but to find out how these sadhus and swamis manage to bluff people. He planned to expose them.

However, things took a different turn. Obviously, Balakrishna Menon was greatly impressed by what transpired between Swami Shivananda and him, because two years later on Maha Shivaratri, he was back in Rishikesh and took Sanyas. He became Swami Chinmayananda.

From Rishikesh the new Sanyasi went to Tapovan Maharaj in Uttarkashi deep in the Himalaya, and studied Vedanta as his disciple.

Discipleship, however, was not always easy, Once he even packed his bags determined to leave. His guru had accused him of having torn his cloth while washing it. Chinmayananda had denied it. Yet from that time onwards, Tapovan Maharaj called him ‘liar’, often in front of others. Chinmayanda felt hurt and decided to leave, never to come back. An older ashramite saw him packing and explained to him that the accusation was just one of the guru’s ways to hit at his ego, which was in his best interest. Chinmayananda got the point and stayed on.

When he saw his guru the next time, the guru laughed, “Why are you so touchy when I call you a liar? Aren’t we all liars as long as we don’t know the truth? Do you know the truth already?”

After several years with his teacher, Swami Chinmayananda felt the urge to share his insights into Vedanta – by now convinced that the happiness that all look for cannot be found where it is generally sought. Everyone searches outside in the world among other persons and things, while it is hidden deep inside.

In the early 1950s, he left the Himalayas for the dusty, hot plains and started teaching his fellow countrymen mainly about the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads as even after Independence the education system inexplicably ignored those great Indian texts. The modern Indians had no idea that India once was the cradle of civilisation. Even the most popular of India’s sacred texts, the Bhagavad Gita, was hardly known anymore, nor the Upanishads which form the last part of the sacred Vedas and deal with profound philosophy.

Until his death in August 1993, Swami Chinmayananda hardly took off for a single day from his tight schedule. After reaching a town, that very same evening, he started his weeklong Jnana Yajna, as the camps were called. The Chinmaya Mission that he founded still exists, and trained Vedanta teachers still take classes all over the country.

I attended several of his camps, including a course in his retreat centre in Siddhabari and am grateful for that. Swami Chinmayanda was an exemplary teacher – clear, convincing and with a lot of humour. On one of his Jnana Yajnas (it was his 389th camp in 1984 in Trichy) I took notes and wrote a long article for a German magazine. Later I gave its English translation to him. Swami Chinmayananda read through it and acknowledged that I had conveyed the teaching well, “but”, he added gravely and then broke into a smile “your English is very German.”

Since my memory of that camp in Trichy is still fresh in my mind thanks to this article, I will give here a glimpse of it:

A big tent had been put up for the camp. Chants from the Bhagavad-Gita were played in the background from stalls where cassettes and books were sold. About thousand people gathered at dusk, sitting on rugs on the floor.

When Swami Chinmayananda entered the stage, people welcomed him with heartfelt clapping. He looked stately, was tall, had long hair and a long white beard, sparkling and a little mischievous eyes and a roaring laughter. He was completely at ease and made us truly enjoy the class with his great sense of humour.

“Do you know the essence of Vedanta?” he asked in a booming voice and himself gave the answer, “The essence is: Undress and embrace” he thundered. People were nonplussed. He chuckled and explained, “Undress body, mind and intellect. What remains is automatically in intimate embrace with OM, the pure awareness.”

All our suffering stems from identifying with our body, mind and intellect, or in other words, with our thoughts and feelings, he claimed and gave an illustration: “You go and watch a movie. The persons on the screen experience happiness and suffering. You also experience happiness and suffering. Why? Because you identify with those figures. You sit in the theatre and cry into your handkerchief. And you even pay for it!”

It was easy to stay attentive for the two hours. He kept asking us not to believe him but to use our reason and common sense well, and analyse the human situation intelligently. For example ask yourself:

“Man has body, mind and intellect. If he has body, mind and intellect, who is he? Certainly a good question! Usually a question that we have never asked ourselves. Amazing!

He gave the analogy of electricity: “If you believe only what you see, than each light bulb surely shines all by itself, since some shine brightly and others dimly and some red and some green. Does it not follow that each light bulb has its own, independent light?

Yet whoever inquires more deeply, will laugh at such ignorance. He knows that the one electricity is solely responsible for the light in all bulbs (and even for the sound from loudspeakers). The different colours and forms of the bulbs account for the variety in the lights, yet would there be any light without electricity? No!

Similarly, we should not take the sense perception that we all are ‘obviously’ separate at face value and enquire who we really are. What makes our body, mind and intelligence function? What mysterious power makes us feel alive as the subject, as “I”? Is it the same pure awareness which is responsible for the ‘light’ in all of us?” Yes, it is.

Swami Chinmayananda, too, like all sages, advised us to direct our attention inwards to that essence that alone is absolutely true. He advised to meditate on that mysterious OM and to develop love for it. He himself must have done it for innumerable hours in those long years in the Himalayan ashram of his guru. And he may have tapped into the source of all energy, love and joy which gave him the strength and enthusiasm to continue till the very end with his mission to make his countrymen see sense.

A bulb won’t be able to discover the electricity in itself, yet we humans can discover pure awareness, as we are already aware. We only need to drop the content of awareness to discover pure awareness which is our real and blissful nature.

The more we become aware of our real nature, the less we will be attached to the world. Desires will become less automatically. They simply drop off. The world does not bind anymore. Love and joy are not sought outside anymore. They are felt right here inside. Meditation and bhakti become natural.

Swami Chinmayananda gave again an example in his typical, humorous style, how a drastic change in attitude comes about naturally when the time is ripe:

“One day, the elder brother calls his younger brother, shows him all his toys and tells him, ‘it is all yours. If you don’t want it, throw it away.’ The younger one is convinced that unfortunately his elder brother has gone mad. Yet the elder one is not bothered. He has discovered a better toy, and knows that it is better. The little brother cannot see it as long as he is so small. One day he will understand…”

On the last evening, it became obvious that the Swami had done us a great service. Long queues formed, and slowly and silently moved in an almost sacred atmosphere to the carton boxes that had been put up near the dais for envelopes with donations. We were grateful for the many valuable insights that he had prompted us to have.

Now we only need to take them to heart. If we do, we can live life in a meaningful and fulfilling way – in tune with the eternal Dharma that flourished in India since ancient times. It is through people who live according to Dharma that it flourishes.

By Maria Wirth

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38 comments

  1. Sham Daswani · · Reply

    Hari Om
    I am Sham Daswani.
    I have sent you an email just now and please let me know if you receive it.
    Thank you.

  2. Chitra · · Reply

    Thank you for sharing your experiences in this lovely tribute. A true Guru is one who seeks not to attract followers, but to create thinkers. But even that outcome is not up to the teacher alone. It depends ultimately on the spiritual maturity and commitment of the casual listener and the disciple.

  3. Maria Lozano · · Reply

    So beautiful! As if I was there too. Thanks, Maria.

  4. Sunil sahijwani · · Reply

    When he saw his guru the next time, the guru laughed, “Why are you so touchy when I call you a liar? Aren’t we all liars as long as we don’t know the truth? Do you know the truth already?” This quote says it all. God bless and keep up the good work.

  5. Kalyanaswamy · · Reply

    ‘people living according to Dharma nourish Dharma’ correct. Since this is eternal & non-differentiating I have an intuition that throughout the world ( time & space) such Dharmatmas were /are present. Materialistic world fails to recognize them.
    kalyanaswamy

  6. Radhika Nagrath · · Reply

    i remember his unique way of scribbling om. i was a school goer when i met him in jalandhar. i have grown up reading balvihar magazine and tapovan prasad started by him. full of wisdom. vedanta explained with mathematical equations on board. ultimate

  7. A great orator who with simplicity explained Bhavad Gita. In crystal clear words and penetrating richness his was the first and best lectures on Gita I have heard. The ‘Yagna Prasadam’ which Swamiji gave – Gita – is still with me seeing which on everyday, I remember the great soul.

  8. Thank you for the details and description of the Trichy camp. Swami Chinmayanand’s life and message is brought out vividly for us. Thank again.

  9. good thoughts .Did you post anything on tantra .India became india because of tantra.Even today in india tantra is very much alive in Indian society ,thanks to the efforts of my Guru Narayan dutt shrimalji baSed at jodhpur .He is called Tantrik samraat,the unquestionable authority on tantra.

  10. Surya usa · · Reply

    Great memorial sum up on swami chinmayananda, Maria. Brings back memories and the nostalgia is humbling. I attended his two week ‘Gita Discourse’ in Adoni, Aandhra Pradesh in seventies. I was in middle school at that time. A very impressive orator he was . His Book on Gita clearly asserts that varna or caste is NOT by birth and instead it is an acquired status. He clarifies by drawing attention to the fact that only the first line of the verse is mentioned in support of the ‘by birth only’ argument whilst conveniently ignoring the rest of the same verse. He was annoyed and very critical (in his book) of this Gita Teaching getting a twisted makeover in recent times. I haven’t read anywhere else this clarification so unambiguously.

    Germans are very meticulous with their sentence construction; they leave no confusion for the readers when they write. Many native english speakers in contrast leave lot of ambiguity when they form a sentence. This is my observation from my life in Germany and England.

  11. Dr Himanshu Kumar · · Reply

    Great narration maria Ji;as if the whole the unwindede before my eyes.You are the incahrnation of some great yogic soul in the past;no doubt about it

  12. ThankYou Swami Chinmayananda & swamini vimaladevi for introducing me to strive to Know that by which e/thing is known not in syllabus

    @mariawirth1 u r dead right @smritiirani fears ,insecurities wud be less zest for life wud be much more if upanishads r taught in primaries

    @mariawirth1 @smritiirani ever wonder gurukuls of 8-10 years & humanity lived life . now 15 years 4 a degree but 0 life skills @PMOIndia

    1. Agree with you – most important is to “know That by which everything is known”. At least take it serious and find out whether it is possible.

      did you see my articles i wrote on education? In the 2nd i mentioned exactly that.
      the last one is a plea to replace English with matru bhasa as language of instruction

      https://mariawirthblog.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/proud-to-be-educated/
      https://mariawirthblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/education-in-india-part-2-how-to-improve-it/
      https://mariawirthblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/decolonising-indias-education/

  13. http://www.desicontrarian.com/?p=873

    THE US GOVERNMENT AND THE USCIRF

  14. Mine is a contrary view on saffron swamis per se.
    In the beginning of Srimad Bhagwadgita, Arjuna expresses his deep dismay at the prospect of having to fight very venerable people. He insisted that winning a kingdom had no allure for him and he would rather beg and make a living and also escape the soul-destroying crime of killing his revered kith and kin.
    Krishna was aghast and spent nearly two hours, in the midst of two armies on the battle field enlightening him on Dharma, Swadharma, Karma that binds, Nishkam Karma and Smatva Yog. His closing line was,’Sarv dharman parityajye mam ekam sharnam vraj.’ Paraphrased – Forgetting all dictates and doctrines repose your faith in Me – Braham – ALONE.
    The legend has it that Arjuna was not allowed the option of becoming a hermit by escaping the call of duty. To this end Krishna expounded the philosophy of the Gita.
    Is it not paradoxical that by successive generations of saffron swamies have systematically undermined Gita’s potential to inspire, inspire compellingly, to action it has been reduced to a book of mythology and metaphysics, and a play ground of semantics? Gita’s gift, now, is not a stirring in the soul of nishkam karma and compelling swadharma. In stead it has been become a tool of marketing of their wares of gurudom and captive disciples by ever mushrooming saffron brigades.
    Did not Krishna command Arjuna to repose faith in him ALONE? How did guru come in? Ask a rifle shooter if he brooks any object in his line of vision and the bull’s eye?
    India is a fledgling democracy and can ill afford the luxury of of its gifted citizens shying away from the nation’s cause and live off it as parasites. Our poor nation has better use for the gift of oratory at the hustings, God inspired rhetoric may be the right antidote to the curse of corruption.

    1. Jitendra, maybe this interests you. i wrote it in 2000. i haven’t put it up yet on my blog.

      http://lifepositive.com/search-for-a-genuine-guru/

  15. Maria, I am struck by your honesty of purpose and I just read your piece of 2002 where the above link took me . You have been fed countless lies by the people you met on the swami-circuit. As a class they are charlatans and scoundrels, undisguised parasites and living monuments to decline of Dharma.
    Hindus over the centuries have found enlightenment by ‘swaadhyaye’ and open discussion in the Upanishadic tradition. In the past there was a tradition of sanyasis and the word swamy is alien to Hindu thought.
    Watch how Gita lays bare ignorance of the swami class. In a sloka it delineates four stages of soul’s journey to its pristine glory.
    1. Indryani pranye ahu – human beings languish at the sensate level.
    2. Indriyebhyey param maneh – above the senses lies the mind.
    3. Manas astu pra budhi – beyond the mind lies reason ( vivek, budhi ).
    4. Budhir parat astu seh. the torch of pure reason illumines Paramatma.

    5. Evam budham pare budhwa – thus learning what lies beyond reason.
    6. Sanstabhye atmanam atmaneh – focus your mind in your inner self.
    7. Jahi shatrum kam rupam durasadam. vanquish the invincible foe masquerading as ‘kam’

    The swami class, as a rule, is stuck in the quagmire of senses. Your 35 years of first hand experience should enable to verify the veracity of this statement. How on earth can a mortal languishing in the first stage catapult a disciple to the fourth stage? Fraud of first order.

    Did any swami ever read out to you the following sloka from the Gita?
    A yogi, man of equanimity, is superior to a tapasavi, he is also considered greater than men of learning, he is superior to men of action and industrious people, Gita places equanimity above all else and terms it yoga.

    1. Jitendra, I agree that there are many among gurus who should not consider themselves as gurus. And that the attitude towards a guru from the devotee side is not how it was originally meant to be.
      However, the equanimity you speak of, doesn’t come easily and there are persons who, whether in this life or earlier have maybe purified themselves to a great degree and have reached a state where they ‘know’ the oneness not just by intellectual conclusion, but experience and who can give great impetus to the sadhana of those who meet them, and even have some miraculous powers.

      Recently I met a woman in her 50s in Haridwar. Her family was since long devotees of Anandamayi Ma. Her mother had a fast growing tumor above her breast near the shoulder and the doctor advised early surgery. She wanted to ask Ma first and went to her. The doctor asked her, to mention also his own problem to her, when she meets her. She did ask about him and forgot to ask about her own surgery. Her family (her daughter was a teenager) was very annoyed with her.
      As Devaraha Baba was in town, too, she suggested going to him. They went. They joined a number of people who stood below his balcony from where he threw some fruit to them. He took an apple and threw it with full force at her mother right at the place where the tumor was. It was painful and her family again was annoyed. There was no chance to talk to him. But when she went again for a check up before the operation, there was no tumor anymore. She never was operated.
      There is another interesting story mentioned in a comment on the article.

      Another thought: you say that Sri Krishna asked to surrender to him directly, no intermediary needed for us as well. True, but was Krishna not in some way an intermediary for Arjuna taking the form of his cousin? And did not Duryodhana even suspected some jugglery when Krishna showed part of his true form in the Sabha? It means it was not obvious to everyone that Krishna was the avatara.

      Since the one truth is conscious, I guess it will bring the experiences needed for a person to grow, if she is sincere, and it could happen even through an unenlightened guru.
      I feel it is worth the risk that there are imposters among sanyasis, to keep the ideal of a sanyasi and respect for him alive.
      As for me, I’m grateful for some 20 years in the India of ashrams, getting the necessary knowledge there to trust now ‘my’ own self, never mind some imposters.

  16. Maria, good luck and God speed. I have no hesitation in saying sorry if I struck a note too jarring for your ears.
    Just a small thing. Hindu thought describes Moksha as the goal of human endeavours. To that end every identity, every bond and attachment of every kind are chains to be severed by conscious effort. And that is symptomatic of a soul on the verge of rediscovering its pristine purity, fit enough to merge with Parmataman. A passing thought.

    1. surya · · Reply

      All the above is stated in the Upanishads and thank you for repeating the same here for the benefit of some readers. Without the introduction of Gita by swami chinmayanada during my early life (middle school) I would not have bothered about the hindu scripture, and I would have kept busy with my schooling (scary competition !!) and later during my busy professional life. Sadly most of my peers didn’t even to this day have touched a scripture.

      Also, if someone thrusts Gita or Upanishads into my hands I would not have understood them first time around, A GOOD guru thus is an invaluable godsend for potential seekers. But then you are right. No, not all of the seekers need to have a guru. However when maha vyakhyas like Aham Brhmasmi and Tat Tvam Asi are asserted one will have some difficulty in comprehending them, worse, one may even misinterpret and may get egoistic. Self study though is preferable is not always necessarily fruitful. Thanks to great volumes of reading material being made available in the public domain on line it is much easier to access the hindu scriptures and get a handle on the doctrines and theosophy. As a result of this latter development in recent years, the constant and close proximity of a good guru is less and less needed.

      Debates have been always encouraged by hindus for millennia. Entire Gita was structured as a question and answer session between seeker Arjuna and guru Krishna and so are other scriptures like the famous Katha Upanishad.

    2. Jitendra, no, there was nothing jarring. I wished I knew Sanskrit as you do. Maximum in my case is that I can check which term was translated as ‘God” – often it is Atman.

      I wrote this in my article on Ramana Maharshi:
      An incident illustrates the power of the inner guru:
      A devotee of Ramana Maharshi found himself once in a life-threatening situation. Anguished, he cried out for help to his guru. Ramana appeared to him and saved him.
      On his next visit to the ashram, the devotee asked his guru, “Did you know that you came to my rescue at that time?” Ramana replied, “The guru need not know. The one consciousneess takes that particular form that the devotee calls out for and that is dearest to him.”

      Do you know Ramesh Menon’s Mahabharata (2 Vol, 1500 pages)? It is based on Kamala Subramaniams Mahabharata and partly on Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s 12 Volume translation. Do you know how close it is to the Sanskrit original (apart from being abridged). It is called a “modern rendering’ and I wonder how much freedom the author took.
      I am stunned at the grandeur, complexity, the psychology, the speeches in the Sabha, for example by Vidura. Had earlier read only a short version.

      1. Yes, mahabharata easily makes the best epic, with its dharmic message entwined, ever to enthrall our human race. I rate Ramayana way below it.

        I dont subscribe to the notion of Gurus performing miracles or such. Gurus should bless the suffering humanity; they, with their innate abilities to inject optimism, offer profuse solace and embrace the afflicted which is desirable and admirable. However raising hopes and offering services beyond human capabilities is a disservice to the holy occupation of gurudom. They mustn’t encourage and nurture miracle culture at all.

      2. Am just reading Bheesma answers to Yudhishtira’s question regarding how a king should conduct himself… couldn’ be more relevant today.
        In Ganguli’s version there are 900 pages alone of Brahma’s neeti shastra.
        the last 100 pages of Menon’s version (altogether 1500) are 1000 pages in Ganguli

        Amazing dialogues, speeches. Incredible. what heritage!!

      3. Yes lying on the AMPASHAYYA made by Arjuna with his arrows, in his last moments, quenching his thirst from gangajal, Bhishma Pitamaha , the most knowledgeable of the times enlightens the noble Dharmaraja in kurukshetra.

        Towards the end of Kurukshetra war, one comes across the tantalyzing yaksha prasnas (yaksha’s questions) wherein the exchange between Yudhistara and Yaksha (yama in disguise) also makes another very interesting read.

  17. http://www.desicontrarian.com/?p=933

    EVERYONE HAS A RIGHT TO BE WRONG IN THEIR MYTHOLOGY. BUT NO ONE HAS A RIGHT TO BE WRONG IN THEIR FACTS!

    1. surya · · Reply

      interesting blog you run there Manny, keep the good work.

  18. Mariia, I had an occasion to go through Mahabharata in 6 volumes in Sanskrit with Hindi paraphrasing, published by Gita Press Gorakhpur. It is a publishing house dedicated to propagation to Hindu spiritual literature.
    Gita is written in folksy Sanskrit and anyone who understands AIR Hindi news bulletin can understand it after compounding of Sanskrit words is undone and individual words are given with their meaning. Get a copy of sandhi vichhed Gita of Gorakhpur Press. It will not cost you more than 20 odd rupees.
    The Gita has 700 couplets, 1400 lines in all and the total word count is plus minus 1400X10=14000.
    Its direct and simple text is converted into verbose and obscure text by commentators. Check how many pages Chinmayananda took to place it out of reach of all his devotees.
    Once you grasp the meaning of a sloka, spend a week or more memorising the Sanskrit text by repeatedly writing as children do.

    1. i have the Gita from Gitapress – Sanskrit, transliteration and Engl translation.
      Haven’t heard of sandhi vichhed gita..?
      Gitapress is great. have Ramcaritamanas from them, as well.

  19. Pranams.

    You have just carried me back to the Journey of being with Gurudev, as if We are still there. Most Enchanting and enlivening moments of my life. I will reproduce his often repeated quote ” don’t believe whatever I say, You better think; Longer my beard, greater should be your suspicion on me”
    He had his inimitable style and Great Guru, a Brahma Gnani. My Prostration unto his Holy Feet.

    Pranams to you Once again.

    Chinmayadasa.

  20. Dear Maria,
    I have been reading you blogs for some time. Presently I am located in Mumbai. Would love the opportunity to meet you. If you don’t mind, can you mail me your contact no. and/or email id please?
    Thanks.

    1. mariawirth12@gmail.com
      it’s also under “about”

  21. very useful information.

  22. Mahendra Thacker · · Reply

    Maria,
    You are presenting to all of us many good things that we cherish but do not end up doing more about them.
    Remembering all good people, things, events of India is a great service you are doing!
    Can you also put sometimes even a small postage stamp sized picture of them you are talking about so lovingly, touchingly?

    1. i am rather hopeless with computer. Actually i wondered whether i could put a picture, but never tried to find out how to do it…

  23. shashank trivedi · · Reply

    Hari OM, Very Insightful and mind boggling blog, Do you have some books too., kindly let me know.

    1. only in German so far

  24. Sridhar Ramanujam · · Reply

    Thanks for a wonderful piece

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