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The Divine Life

An interview with Swami Chidananda
by Bill Eilers and Susan Eilers



Born in South India in 1916, the eldest son of an orthodox Brahmin family, Swami Chidananda was inspired at an early age by devotional songs and stories from the Hindu scriptures. During his college years, the lives and teachings of modern saints such as Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi and Swami Ramdas awakened in him a fiery aspiration for spiritual life. In 1943 he joined the ashram of the world-renowned saint and sage Swami Sivananda, the founder of the Divine Life Society, whose passionate spiritual writings had long attracted him. Sivananda ashram, which then consisted of only a few buildings, was located on the banks of the Ganges River in the foothills of the Himalayas near Rishikesh, India. During this period of his life, Swami Chidananda, among other activities, gave lectures, attended to ashram guests, and served the sick, expressing what would become a lifelong concern for the welfare of the lepers. Late in 1959 he was sent on a two-year world teaching tour by Swami Sivananda and eventually succeeded him as president of the Divine Life Society after Swami Sivananda passed away in 1963. Swami Chidananda's life since has been one of almost continuous travel, both in India and abroad, in the cause of the central objective of the Divine Life Society: the dissemination of spiritual knowledge.

When Andrew Cohen phoned from Australia and asked us if we could interview Swami Chidananda on the role of celibacy in the spiritual life, our first reaction was: "How will Swamiji ever find the time?" But our second reaction was that if there was anyone in the world who had a practical understanding of celibacy, it was Swamiji, and therefore we should make the request.

So when Swamiji returned to the ashram a few days later for the five days of the Navaratri worship, our written request was given to him. That night, after satsang [a gathering with a spiritual teacher], he turned to me and said that while it would not be possible to find time during the next few days, if we didn't mind a little inconvenience, we could join him in a couple of weeks near Delhi. The location was a new country home that he had been requested to officially open and bless, and where we would then spend a few days resting. We readily agreed, and so toward the end of October, over four full days, we not only had some informal time with him, but we also managed to record five hours of dialogue relating to the subject of this issue of What Is Enlightenment?

Our interview was supposed to start late morning of the first day, but Swamiji was exhausted, and so the first we saw of him was when he joined us for a walk at dusk. As we were slowly walking along the country road we came upon a watchman guarding a gate. Swamiji stopped and carried on a fifteen-minute conversation. We didn't understand most of the Hindi, but we knew he was inquiring about the man's family and where he lived. As we moved on, we saw that another life had been touched by one who still remains at heart a simple monk, whose aim in life is to do as much good as possible for as many people as possible.

When we returned from the walk and were climbing the steps, Swamiji turned to us and said, "The subject of brahmacharya, or celibacy or self-restraint, does not necessarily have, in Hindu society, any connection at all with the spiritual life, or sadhana [spiritual practice], or with Self-realization. It is not normally discussed or recommended only with a view to promote spiritual life." After we had climbed the stairs and joined him in his room, Swamiji continued, describing traditional Hindu social life and how it relates to the subject of brahmacharya and sexual life, so that we would understand the broader context in which brahmacharya is viewed in the Hindu tradition.

In ancient India, he explained, a person's life was reckoned as one hundred years, divided into four stages. The first stage was the student stage, or brahmacharya stage, where young people were expected to study hard, build a good physique, and in all ways prepare themselves for their adult lives to come. During this stage they were expected to observe strict celibacy.

The second stage was the householder stage, where the exercise of the sexual faculty was taken for granted and recognized as a legitimate part of human life; it was regarded as a fundamental duty of a family to offer progeny to form the next generation. Swamiji continued: "Of course, its exercise was not meant to be unrestrained; otherwise it would be degrading. But it was given the full sanction of society.

"The third stage of life was the retired stage, when the couple turned the burdens of earning a living over to the children and turned their minds to higher things," Swamiji explained. Here again they begin to practice brahmacharya as part of their sadhana.

"Then, during the fourth stage, one's entire life was to be devoted to God. One became a sannyasin, or monk, and then, of course, celibacy was automatic. So you see, the concept of brahmacharya was part and parcel of the Indian-Hindu social tradition. In its narrowest sense brahmacharya meant complete celibacy, but in its broader sense, as it could be applied to the life of a householder, it meant self-restraint, not abusing the sex function and strict fidelity to one's partner."

Our conversation then turned to the role of spiritual practices and how they help to lift the consciousness by fostering the higher tendencies within us. "The vast, vast majority of human beings are human animals only," Swamiji said. "They are totally rooted in body consciousness. They have no idea of being something else, something other. Even their mental function is instinctive. It's all a reaction to whatever happens to them, not a purposeful independent exercise of their mental faculty. They have no time for it. From the moment they get up, they are absorbed by their daily activities.

"And the whole of the spiritual life," he continued, "is a gradual elimination, eradication, of the animal within, and the refinement or purification and education of the entire human nature so that it loses its movement in all other directions and starts taking on an ascending vertical direction. Once the human nature is given an upward turn, one simultaneously starts awakening the sleeping Divinity with the help of all one's spiritual practices. If one knows that the spiritual process, the spiritual life, is the elimination of the animal, the refining and directing upward of the human, and the awakening and unfoldment of the Divine, then all spiritual practices, including the role that brahmacharya plays, fall into their right place."

Swamiji seemed to have enjoyed our first conversation. He smiled and said, "So we must thank Andrew Cohen for this, for ultimately he is at the back of it, the root of it. Tomorrow we will start discussing the questions one by one."

Our dialogues over the next few days revealed a side of Swamiji that is not often visible. Normally one sees in him what one would expect of a saint—holiness, sweetness, joy, constant consideration for others, beauty of movement, and a presence that makes itself subtly felt in the hearts of those who cross his path. The following interview shows the stuff a saint is really made of. It helps to complete the picture.

Canadian-born Bill Eilers and Susan Eilers (Swami Atmaswarupananda and Swami Amritarupananda) are both longtime residents of Sivananda Ashram and both have taken lifelong monastic vows. Among other activities, they work together as a team to prepare Swami Chidananda's teachings for publication.


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