Swami Chinmayanada is considered unique among all the spiritual leaders for his exceptional intellectual
pursuits. To commemorate his centenary year, the Modi Government is releasing a coin on May 8, 2015
May 8, 2016 marks the birth centenary of Swami Chinmayananda, a remarkable 20th century spiritual giant who transformed from being an atheist to a Hindu monk and who believed that a nation’s transformation lies in an individual’s transformation. One of the finest exponents of Advaita Vedanta the world has ever seen, Swami Chinmayananda was born on May 8, 1916 in Ernakulum district of Kerala. Fittingly, to commemorate and honour this spiritual giant’s centenary year, the Government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi released commemorative coins on May 8, 2015.
After graduating from Lucknow University, Swami Chinmayananda earlier known as Balakrishna Menon began his journey as a freedom fighter by joining the Quit India Movement in 1942. He wrote and distributed writings and leaflets to stir up national pride. He gave fiery speeches to expose the Britishers’ inability to rule India. When the Britishers began searching for the ‘Madrasi’ as he was referred to then, Balakrishna went underground for a couple of years, which included a stint with British intelligence itself. While he continued his battle underground, it was not long before he was nabbed and arrested by the British in Punjab. Like many other young revolutionaries, Balakrishna became seriously ill owing to the prevalent prison conditions and the Britishers managed to throw Balan in the middle of nowhere to avoid the controversy of another young revolutionary’s death. It is recorded that a Christian lady picked him up from the streets and nurtured him back to strength.
As Balakrishna was recuperating, he began to take an eager interest in journalism and started writing extensively under the pseudonym ‘Mochi’, where he would express from the point of view of the neglected and the deprived sections of the society. In 1945, he started to write for The National Herald on subjects ranging from history, culture, social and political issues. From his teenage years, Balakrishna would use Hindu concepts to carefully rationalise his position as an atheist. This prompted several unanswered questions and set off Balakrishna Menon on a quest to know the truth.
In the summer of 1947, Balakrishna arrived in Rishikesh, by the banks of the Ganga, and hiked to the Divine Life Society to interview Swami Sivananda. Contrary to his assumptions, Balakrishna was astonished to observe Swami Sivananda’s clockwork routine without a moment of rest, every single day. Swami Sivananda exuded a dynamic peace through all his activities and Balakrishna found himself drawn to this enlightened saint. As days translated into weeks and months, agnosticism was gradually being replaced with faith and Balakrishna soon became a regular at the ashram. Although he continued with his journalistic career in Delhi, his writings now included reviews of spiritual books. A pilgrimage of the char dham yatra gave Balakrishna time to introspect, and he decided his next course of action – to become a sanyasi, a saint. On the auspicious day of Mahashivratri, February 25, 1949, Balakrishna Menon was initiated into the holy order of sanyas by Swami Sivananda; Swami Chinmayananda was born – Chinmaya meaning ‘one who revels in bliss which is full of pure co sciousnesses’.
It was Swami Sivananda (Deeksha Guru) who sent him then to Swami Tapovanam (Shiksha Guru) to learn the subtleties of the highest of philosophy found in our scriptures. Swami Tapovanam would spend summers in Gangotri and the chilly winters in the plains. After testing his patience and perseverance, Swami Tapovanam finally accepted him as his student. A period of rigorous and intense spiritual practice followed for 18 months under the auspices of Swami Tapovanam.
Inspired by Swami Chinmayananda (Swamiji), the organisation called Chinmaya Mission was founded in Chennai in 1953, which has centers in over 300 cities across the world. Currently it runs grassroots forums for all ages, manages schools and colleges, publishes books, organises social development programmes and establishes institutes of knowledge and research. Chinmaya Mission was formed with the vision, “To provide to individuals from any background, the wisdom of Vedanta and the practical means for spiritual growth and happiness, enabling them to become positive contributors to society.”
An incredible attribute of Swamiji and what in all probability inspires many till date, is that, he envisaged and devised practical methods for mass dissemination of our ancient wisdom of the past to all irrespective of caste, creed, color or gender. In many ways he broke orthodoxy at various levels. A case in point is, when he decided to come down to the plains and speak on the essence of the Bhagawad Gita and the Upanishads, he faced resistance for giving lectures in English. This was because back then for the first time a saint was giving lectures in English in what was breaking protocol of speaking on traditional Sanskrit texts. When he faced such resistance once in Chennai, several saints came out in support of Swamiji and stated that he was effortlessly speaking on the essence of our scriptures which remain rarely understood and often misunderstood. Such backing from enlightened and widely respected saints meant the acceptability which Swamiji gained was tremendous and as a result he started to attract huge numbers in many states and cities across India and abroad.
Swamiji’s mastery of Advaita Vedanta and his command over English was unmatched; strikingly those who came to attend his lectures and those who read his books were enamored by the lucidity with which Swamiji presented even the most difficult of topics. In the treatise, the Holy Geeta, which has Swamiji’s commentary on all 18 chapters of the Bhagawad Geeta, he gives the reader a general introduction to the Geeta, where he says, “In the Song of the Lord, the Geeta, the Poet-Seer Ved Vyasa has brought out the Vedic truths from the sequestered Himalayan caves into the active fields of political life and into the confusing tensions of an imminent fratricidal war. Under the stress of some psychological maladjustments, Arjuna got shattered in his mental equipoise and lost his capacity to act with true discrimination. Lord Krishna takes in hand that neurotic mind of Arjuna for a Hindu treatment with Vedic truths.”
Swamiji believed that from time to time ancient philosophy needs intelligent reinterpretation in the context of new times. Thus his definition for abstract topics such as religion appealed to young minds, when he said, “Religion is philosophy in action.”
One of Swamiji’s focus remained ‘youth led empowerment’ as a catalyst to steer India ahead. In his lecture, ‘Youth Alone Can’ in 1991, Swamiji firmly maintained that the vital people in the present are the youth and thus he gave the youth, two significant responsibilities, he said, “No.1, you have to wipe clean some of the weaknesses that have come in the past and No.2, you have to remold the present to a covetable future”. In this lecture one can find many instances where Swamiji has quoted examples of youth leading the way, be it during the times of the Chinese, American or the French revolution or for that matter even the Indian Independence movement.
Another noteworthy aspect of Swamiji was that he was a firm advocate of Democracy, in the same lecture, he said, “Democracy is a wonderful solution for the problem. Administration or government of the people, by the people, for the people— glorious—but in actual practice it becomes government of people, by people, for people and on the people! That makes a lot of difference—this is natural”
If one wants to bring about any change or reformation in the system, one has to feel first. In Swamiji’s case, he felt sincerely for Sanatana Dharma. This was evident from some of the onerous tasks he undertook while selflessly serving Sanatana Dharma. In 1962, Swamiji founded the Viswa Hindu Parishad, which was aimed at bringing Hindu saints together on one single platform. In order to support the legendary Shri Eknath Ranade’s tribute of building a Vivekananda Rock Memorial in Kanyakumari, Swamiji gave the first donation of Rs 10,000 towards the building of the memorial and Swamiji contacted 1 lakh people personally informing them of the visionary initiative taken up by Eknath Ranade whom he fondly called ‘Hanuman’. In 1988, Swamiji also came forward to support the renovation of the Badrinath temple and to provide facilities for the yatris, visiting Badrinath.
Knowledge provides a clear vision, sustain this vision, bring it into action and thus achieve perfection, echoes the 2nd chapter of the Bhagawad Geeta. True to this, Swamiji set up the Sandeepany Sadhanalaya in Powai inspired by Rishi Sandeepany which continues to train seekers to share the ancient wisdom of the past that is bestowed on them. This unique spiritual university has had illustrious students trained under Swamiji, like Swami Tejomayananda (Global Head of Chinmaya Mission, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan recently), late Swami Dayananda Saraswathi (Founder of Arshya Vidya Gurukulam who was also posthumously awarded the Padma Bhushan recently), are some leading examples who have led the way in advocating the cause of Advaita Vedanta both in India and abroad.
Whenever this pristine culture has faced decadence, it has thrown up stalwarts automatically who have brought the house to order and enabled this nation to be spiritually fit. Swami Chinmayananda’s name in all certainty would be etched in history with several stalwarts like Adi Sankaracharya, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi, Sage Aurobindo to name a few who haveimmensely and widely contributed in ensuring the core of India, i.e. Sanatana Dharma remains intact. This is precisely why Swamiji often repeated, “Focus on the ‘pointed’, not on the ‘pointer’.”
(The writer is a Research Associate at India Foundation, New Delhi)