Sunday, January 4, 2009

Swami Chinmaya

Swami Chinmayananda was the most energetic force in the propagation of the Vedanta India had in the second part of the twentieth century. While the Vedanta had great prestige and status before his advent, he was the one who made it a matter of common discourse amongst the educated. He removed the intimidating reputation that the philosophy had somehow acquired and made it accessible to all those who were willing to pay their dues to gain its knowledge. This was his singular contribution to the religious life of India. The swami realized that the average educated Indian, especially the English educated Indian, was slowly becoming ignorant of his culture, heritage and religion. Hence his famous definition of his mission in a humorous moment - "I do not want to convert others to Hinduism. I want to convert Hindus to Hinduism first."Chinmayananda was also responsible for launching an enduring phenomenon upon the Indian social scene - public discourses upon scriptures to which all were invited, not as in-house group discussion amongst experts. That last may be something of a mixed blessing if we go by the quality of these sessions that are prevalent today.

He was born on May 8, 1916 in Ernakulam, Kerela. His parents were Parakutti and Kuttan Menon and his first given name was Balakrishnan. The young boy was visited by the great Chattambi swami (the name means believe it or not Rascal Swami, and he was a much admired friend of Swami Vivekananda) who predicted a bright spiritual future for him. This is not exactly the best of news to give doting parents and it was thought that Chattambi swami was up to his old tricks. At the age of five, Balakrishnan lost his mother. His father remarried soon after. There was no overt trouble but increasingly, the young Balan was found more often amongst his uncles and aunts rather than at his parent's house. The Menon's are Nairs and they are a matriarchal community so this is was an acceptable state of being. Such early losses in life stimulate the sense of independence however and these people learn to take care of themselves very soon. Fortunately he was a bright student so one Indian bugaboo was taken care of. He also had an unusual ability to make people like him, a talent however that in later life he could switch off when angered.

Daily prayers with the family developed his powers of concentration and inner visualization until he could perfectly recreate in his mind's eye the image of god that was being worshipped. Many questions arose in his mind, but he was too young to even formulate them accurately. All he knew was that he as sure there was something more than just this where god was concerned. He ended up in Lucknow University in 1940 where he quickly became something of a dandy and sportsman. In 1942 he joined the Quit India Movement and was a local success as an agitator and pamphleteer. He was jailed for his patriotic pains and almost died because of the wretched conditions thoughtfully provided by the enlightened British. When typhus overtook him, the officer in charge did not want another death to occur on his watch. So the young man was taken out like garbage and dumped outside the city to die. Fortunately a lady living nearby was of a compassionate nature and she took him in and saved his life. Like Aurobindo before him, the jail experience was pivotal in his life. To his everlasting credit the swami never traded on the cachet being a freedom fighter usually conveys. This is strangely principled behavior in a nation where anybody who ever passed in front of a British Jail wants freedom fighter status, and where there is an organization at the moment dedicated to getting pensions from the government for the grandchildren of freedom fighters. (I am not making this up). Balan not only did not die he recovered his health. After graduating in Literature and Law he moved to Delhi in 1945 where he became a journalist. The fast life followed and he became very good at it, a chain-smoking spendthrift who was the despair of his family, as he took no care for the morrow. Instinctively however he went back to his childhood practices of Japa and meditation and entirely untutored he began to make a great deal of progress. He also devoured books on philosophy both Indian and Western, and developed a life long admiration for Vivekananda and Swami Sivananda though in general at the time he had a low opinion of all sadhus and felt they were one gigantic bluff! 

In 1947 he visited Sivananda's ashram for the first time, curious to know if the spiritual life has any application to the real world. If nothing else he would get an article out of it! He was deeply impressed by what he saw and a year later he came to Rishikesh to stay and learn though he continued to commute to Delhi for his work. In a scene reminiscent of Francis Xavier being confronted by Ignatius Loyola, Sivananda had asked the young man, " God gave you this great intelligence. Are you going to spend it on journalistic work all your life? Use it to do God's work." On February 25, 1949 he formally adopted sannyassa and received the name Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati - he who rejoices in the bliss of pure consciousness. There was only one problem there. Chinmaya was too much an intellectual for the ashram. His guru sent him to Uttarkashi to learn under the formidable Vedantic master, Swami Tapovan. For the next eight years he underwent a rigorous training in the main scriptures of the Vedanta. These were primarily the Bhagvad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Brahma Sutras. 

Chinmaya wanted now to broadcast his knowledge, to share it with as many people as he could, to help them find the answers to the same questions that used to torture him. Swami Tapovan was underwhelmed by this proposal and did his best to dissuade his too ardent disciple. Chinmaya stuck to his guns, as he was now fully in the grip of a vocation. He wandered around as a mendicant seeing the condition of India with his own eyes, and he was even more convinced of the need to spread spiritual knowledge. Finally the older swami was worn down by the entreaties of the younger one and gave his gloomy assent. When he heard the first choice of venue he was even moved to some comment. For the headstrong Chinmayananda had decided to hold his First Gita Gyana Yagna (Yagna of Gita knowledge) in the city of Poona, a stronghold of brahminical learning. They were apt to regard the Gita as their private preserve and would oppose or totally ignore him, but Chinmayananda was adamant. There were three listeners for his first discourse.

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1 comment: said...

Guru ji ko pranam
congratulation very educative & well design blog. i feel my heart is vibrating
sanjay pandey

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