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Gurudev’s Real Message

An edited extract from Chapter 20, “Swami Sivananda: Saint, Sage and Godman”,
by Sri Swami Chidananda

As we sit here in the sacred Samadhi Shrine of beloved Gurudev Sri Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, two great teachings of Gurudev appear before us in big writing as we enter: BE GOOD DO GOOD. Did Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj come into this world just to tell us to Be Good Do Good? Or did he come, live, attain illumination and begin to proclaim a message, a teaching, a gospel to modern mankind, asking us to do something more than Be Good, Do Good?

There are several ways of knowing this. First, if you read the books Gurudev has written, you will know what he wants. But you will find yourself in a very difficult position; you may be completely confused.

There is, however, a better way of knowing what Gurudev wanted us to do, what he wanted us to become, and what he taught us specifically. Let us begin by asking ourselves, “If being good and doing good was what Gurudev came to teach, why did he who was doing a lot of good in Malaysia as a doctor leave it all, lock, stock and barrel? He had a great field for continuously doing good and doing more and more good to a large number of people. If being good and doing good was what he wanted then he should have stayed there in Malaysia. Why did he leave it all and come to this God-forsaken little village? Occasionally a tonga plied between Haridwar and Rishikesh, but most of the people walked the distance through the dense jungle. Muni-ki-Reti was not yet developed. So he was attracted to the Swargashram side where some sadhus had settled. That was the secluded place he wanted. He liked to be alone, to be away from people. So he found a certain rock by the side of Ganga. It had a sloping shelf-like formation where one person could sit inside. Once he had dropped in there he was completely cut off. So Gurudev was sitting there alone in seclusion, facing Gangaji, without being disturbed.

I was saying that there is an easier way of knowing what Gurudev wanted us to do. During his early years of tappas, Gurudev jotted down certain instructions for himself. These instructions were later compiled as the Twenty Important Spiritual Instructions. They are his central teaching for the whole world. These instructions are very interesting for sadhakas because they are spiritual instructions. So it is very clear that Gurudev wanted us, first and foremost, to become spiritual, and not merely social do-gooders. A spiritual being is one who aspires to attain a spiritual goal. And a spiritual goal is always beyond this world; it cannot be part of this world. This world is a materialistic world, whereas the spiritual goal is an adhyatmic one: one that transcends the plane of human living. You go through these twenty instructions and find out how many of them contain the ingredients of Be good, Do good. Maybe one, maybe two.

He came in this modern age to powerfully draw people to the spiritual life and to goad people to strive for attainment of God-realisation; for the attainment of atmagnana, by which alone one attains liberation from the bondage of this physical, materialistic, earthly life. Therefore, Gurudev’s number one emphasis was on Goal of life is God-realisation. “O Man! Wake up! Goal of life is God-experience, Self-realisation. You are that eternal, imperishable Being. You are part of Universal Consciousness.” He did not say that the goal of life is doing maximum good before you die.

Whenever a disciple became obsessed with being good and doing good and got entangled in ceaseless activity, he would say,  “What a fool you are! The precious human life has been given to meditate, to develop devotion, to do japa and sadhana for the Realisation of God, but you are wasting your time in this pursuit. Many Shankaracharyas have come, many Buddhas have come, many Christs have come, but no-one has been able to change the world. The world is like a dog’s tail: it will always be crooked. If you put a dog’s tail in a pipe, as long as the pipe is there it will remain straight, but when you take the pipe away the tail will curl up again. The world is like a dog’s tail, it cannot be straightened, and you are a fool if you try to do so, and your life will be wasted.”

Why did Gurudev say “Be good, Do Good?” Why did he lay emphasis on Karma Yoga? Why did he praise selfless service? He praised it in one book only. Then why is it that Gurudev’s call to Karma Yoga and selfless service has become blown out of proportion and exaggerated? Because it is the only thing the normal individual can appreciate.

For seekers the contrary is true. They will make a bee-line to some sage who does not even speak, let alone act. How many thousands went, year after year, for darshan of Sri Aurobindo of Pondicherry! He did not engage in any social activity or preach any kind of being good and doing good. All his life he spoke about supramental Yoga. Sri Ramana Maharshi seldom spoke to anyone. In his presence devotees were supposed to meditate. He never asked anyone to go and serve, or serve the nation or society, or be good, do good. If anyone asked a question, he would say, “Who is it who is seeking this guidance. Find out that. There are so many things outside you. Why don’t you first enquire about yourself? First, know yourself. He never talked about the economic condition of the nation or poverty. But suppose someone had asked him, “Is it good to serve one’s neighbours?” He would not have said no. He would have said, “It is good to do things which are not bad. If you engage yourself in doing good, then it will at least keep you away from doing what is not good.”

One may ask, what was it that Gurudev came to teach? That is a question put to all sages. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa was asked, “Is it not necessary that we should feed the hungry and clothe the naked, do charity and look after orphans and widows?” Sri Ramakrishna said, “It is alright. There is nothing wrong in your engaging in such acts, but don’t forget that the most important thing for which God has sent you here is sadhana and attaining God-realisation.” This should be your top priority. Other things are only secondary. First do japa, sadhana, meditation. If you have got some time left over after all your sadhana, engage in charity. But never think that the very purpose  of life is to help others. Preoccupation with helping others is a kind of delusion, and egoistic delusion.

He gave an illustration: After a long and arduous journey a pilgrim reaches Kashi, to have darshan of the Lord. After bathing in holy Gangaji he proceeds upwards towards the mandir. On the way he encounters many beggars, and thinks to himself, “I must show kindness and do some charity.” So he goes about giving coins to the beggars. When at last he reaches the temple he finds that it has already closed for darshan that day. What a foolish fellow! He forgot the very purpose of his journey, namely, holy darshan of the Lord. So the crux of the problem is that we forget the purpose of life’s journey and go back without having darshan of the Lord. Gurudev says, “The goal of life is God-realisation. Never forget this. Aspire ceaselessly for His grace. Thirst for His darshan. God-realisation is the goal of life; that is the purpose for which you have come. All other things are secondary.” Yet why have people got the delusion that Gurudev came to emphasise Karma Yoga and wants people to serve society? Totally wrong. Totally wrong!

Why did Gurudev emphasise service? Gurudev found that the majority, when they came to him, were not fit for meditation because their minds were filled with impurities. So he said, “Engage in selfless service.”

Even after God-realisation we should be good and do good. But if you give all your time, energy and attention only to the service of society and humanity, then you are firmly caught by Maya. Then you will be committing a great mistake. You will miss the goal for which you have come.

Once upon a time I too was running about serving, serving, serving. Serving the sick, the distressed, the visitors; even dogs, cats and crows. Gurudev was displeased with me. He asked, “Is this what you have come for?”

Gurudev had the habit of following an ancient tradition. When sages recommend something they say, “This is the highest and the greatest.” This tradition is known as Arthavada: praising to the skies what you are trying to give to the people. When you go to the next subject, you praise that similarly. In this context we should understand our Master the right way. Suffice it to say, he came to proclaim the spiritual life, not a life of social service. To his disciples and near devotees Gurudev’s message is “Do real sadhana. Engage mainly in sadhana.”

Nishkama Karma Yoga is the foundation of sadhana. But if you think the foundation is the building itself and sit on that only, you will miss the superstructure like the man who came to Kashi for Lord Vishvanath’s darshan but got lost in charity, forgetting the purpose of his coming, so that when he came to the temple darshan was finished for that day.

In the beginning being good and doing good is a necessary preparation. Later, it is a necessary safeguard. And after you attain Realisation you continue to be good and do good because it is an outcome of your divinity, your nature. So in all stages being good and doing good has a certain place. In the beginning it is a preparation. During spiritual life and sadhana it is a protection. Ultimately it is merely a manifestation of your divinity.