A self-confessed agnostic and aimless drifter turning into a missionary and going about converting people – converting Hindus to Hinduism – that is the story of Swami Chinmayananda, founder of the Chinmaya Mission which has just completed 50 years.
Balakrishnan Menon, a journalist at the National Herald, Delhi, started for Rishikesh “to find out how those holy men are keeping up the bluff!” A chain-smoker with a postgraduate degree in English literature, he was by all description an unlikely candidate to don the orange robes and enter a life of contemplation.
His innate compassion for his fellowmen was evident in several pieces he had written for the paper. But he was essentially an extrovert, always talking and always on the move. His easygoing and spendthrift lifestyle had often moved his uncle and guardian to sermonise him on the virtue of hard work and the importance of earning one’s own bread.
As it happened, the intellectualism, the humility and dynamism of Swami Sivananda, the master at the centre he was visiting, attracted and held his attention. The man who came to scoff, stayed on. After a while Menon moved on to another teacher, Swami Tapovan of Uttarkasi, a stern disciplinarian from whom he learnt the Upanishads and obtained his diksha or ordination as a monk.
Many are of the view that Swami Chinmayananda’s biggest contribution lay in taking the Gita to the masses. In doing so he even went against the advice of his mentor Swami Tapovan, who maintained that “scriptures have no charm at all for ordinary folk”. He believed too that a swami should lead a life of seclusion and contemplation.
But the young mendicant was not to be dissuaded from his yagna of helping people attain eternal perfection in this very life. That, at a time when religion for the common Hindu has been reduced to performing rituals to obtain the favour of gods in the pursuit of mundane ends.
When Swami Chinmayananda was planning his Jnana Yagna at Pune, Swami Tapovan exploded: “Poona! There are so many Brahmin Sanskrit scholars in Poona! How will you tackle them; they will never countenance a swami talking on the scriptures which they consider their private domain!” However Swami Sivananda supported the young swami and told him: “Go, roar like a Vivekananda!”
Many experiences built in him the necessary motivation and resolve. The death of a long-time friend, Shroff, who fell victim to cancer after much suffering, moved him. As he was carrying the pot containing the friend’s ashes in train, he mused: “The man who is usually with me is now in that small basket – a few bones and ashes… Flesh and life are gone!” He became aware that life is empty and shallow without the inner expansion, the inner depth. This inner wealth alone can reinforce against “the sledgehammer stroke of destiny, the conspiracy woven by the circumstances of life”.
“Swamiji, why did you take to sanyasa?” his old associates, reporters from Delhi once asked him. “What would you have me do?” he shot back, “marry, breed, fight, and talk shop until, wrecked with age and sorrow, this body drops down dead?”
“Chinmaya was tired of living in the tomb, so he walked out into the open to breathe, to bask, to work and to live”, the swami continued. This realisation of the uselessness of worldly values and goals prodded him on. He was determined to present the highest philosophy of the scriptures which largely remained unknown to the public. He wanted to present it in an easily intelligible form that would also make it practicable in immediate circumstances and daily living. At this crucial time in history, he felt, with “the Brahmins and Kshatriyas putrefying themselves in the leprous warmth of luxury and power”, spiritual gurus should not “live in a cave and meditate” but need to be working among the people to spread the right values.
Once in a public address he had thundered: “If Hinduism can breed for us only heartless shopkeepers, corrupt babus, cowardly men, loveless masters and faithless servants; if Hinduism can give us only a state of social living in which each man is put against his brother; if Hinduism can give us only starvation, nakedness, and destitution; if Hinduism can encourage us only to plunder, loot, and to steal; if Hinduism can preach to us only intolerance, fanaticism, hard-heartedness and cruelty; then I too cry `Down, Down’ with that Hinduism”.
Has Chinmayananda, who preached and laboured inside and outside the country for several decades, made a difference to the situation as he saw it? He certainly tried.