A Pioneer in Interreligious Dialogue
The Dialogue-Meetings with Swami Abhishiktananda
The Initiation into Sannyasa of Swami Ajatananda
Back to the Infinite Source

“All is divine. See all as divine. Knowing that all is divine, make your life divine. Live divinely. Lead the Divine Life and be free!”
Swami Chidananda

Swami Chidananda Saraswati was one of the prominent and most revered sages of India and the President of the Divine Life Society whose headquarters are at the Shivananda Ashram, Rishikesh, India.

Born as Sridhar Rao (his pre-monastic name) in the southern State of Karnataka on 24 September 1916, he grew up in an atmosphere of discipline and spiritual devotion. In 1938 he graduated with distinction from the Christian and prestigious Loyola College of Madras. There he imbibed the virtues of Lord Jesus’ love, compassion and humility, and realised that the Bible was “the living word of God, just as living and real as the words of the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita”. He could easily see the similarities and common essence between the Christian ideals and the Hindu faith.

In 1943 he left his home and came to his master Swami Shivananda, the founder of the Shivananda Ashram and the Divine Life Society, at the bank of holy river Ganges in Rishikesh. In 1949, he was initiated by his guru into sannyasa diksha and was appointed General Secretary of the institution. Swami Shivananda soon recognized in him the natural and unusual qualities of “a jivanmukta [1], a great saint, an ideal yogi, a parabhakta [2] and a jnani [3].”

As per the wishes of Swami Shivananda, after his mahasamadhi [4] in 1963, Swami Chidananda was made the President of the Divine Life Society which he helped develop through his selfless service, untiring energy and extensive travels all over the country and abroad. He was the motto of the Society incarnate — “Serve, love, meditate, realize” — and remained all his life a simple monk despite being a world renown spiritual teacher. Swami Chidananda was known for being ever compassionate to the poor, the sick and the oppressed, especially the lepers for whom he established three colonies in Rishikesh. Hence, he was known fondly as the St. Francis of India, after the great saint Francis of Assisi, for whom he had himself immense admiration and whose ‘Simple Prayer’ (“O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace; Where there is hatred, let me bring love") became the perfect model of his life.

A Pioneer in Interreligious Dialogue

“Religions are apparently different outwardly, but they are essentially one, they all exist for one great spiritual purpose. And that purpose is to re-ligare, to re-connect with the Supreme Cosmic Source of man’s being…”
Swami Chidananda [5]

Merged in the spirit and the universal vision of his master Swami Shivananda, Swami Chidananda had a deep understanding of the essential unity that underlies all religions of the world while being himself deeply rooted in the ancient tradition of Adi Shankaracharya. For him, there was only but one true religion, – the “religion of the heart”. In his “Worshipful homage to the Supreme”, with which Swamiji began each morning talk, he would often refer to the one Absolute which is beyond all names and concepts of God venerated by different religious traditions: “Worshipful homage to that supreme all-transcending, absolute, non-dual, cosmic Divine Reality, which is the primal source of all concepts of God in all religions. Homage to that Being who is beyond all concepts of the Ultimate Reality, beyond all concepts of God as envisioned in the different living religions of the world today…” [6]

Profoundly rooted in this vision of oneness which he derived directly from the depth of his own spiritual experience, Swami Chidananda would meet with saints of all religions and recognize in them the Divine Life itself in all its different facets. His humble pilgrimages to holy sites associated with other religions are also particularly worth mentioning. They always left a deep impression on those who were privileged to travel with him.

Thus, his innate universal vision enabled him to commit himself tirelessly to interreligious dialogue and meetings in India and abroad. In recent years, Swami Chidananda took an active part in several interfaith forums such as the 1993 Centenary of the World Parliament of Religions (Chicago) during which he was elected as one of the three main representatives of Hinduism at the Presidents’ Assembly.

The Dialogue-Meetings with Swami Abhishiktananda

Swami Chidananda had extended talks with many religious personalities coming from non-Hindu traditions and the dialogue-meetings he had with Swami Abhishiktananda were perhaps the most notable ones. These talks which took place in Rishikesh right from the early sixties remind us of the memorable dialogues between the XIVth Dalai Lama and Fr Thomas Merton in McLeod Ganj (Dharamsala) in 1968. The two monks soon became intimate friends and used to laugh together frequently whenever they met, just because of the sheer joy of being united in the Spirit. It was indeed wonderful to watch the mutual loving relationship of these two holy men. As Swami Chidananda himself recalled: “I always felt very close to Swami Abhishiktananda because he was the embodiment of the true spirit of renunciation. We were like twin brothers”. For Swami Abhishiktananda also, Swami Chidananda was a “truly spiritual man” and a “seer of the Real” whose approach to other religions was one of total openness, recognition and humbleness.

Swami Abhishiktananda was always held in highest respect by Swami Chidananda and all the senior monks of Shivananda Ashram. His last essays on sannyasa were even published in several issues of their monthly Journal [7] at the special request of Swami Krishnananda, the then General Secretary. These essays are highly acclaimed to be among the best and deepest ones on the subject, written by a monk who “lived as a praiseworthy example of the strictest sannyasa way of life and contemplation ” [8].

At the time Swami Abhishiktananda suffered from a heart attack in Rishikesh (14 July 1973), Swami Chidananda took most loving care of him and arranged for him to stay in a quiet place where he would be able to recover most quickly.

The Initiation into Sannyasa of Swami Ajatananda

“...It is a tradition of centuries, of millennia — someone being prepared to do anything, give anything, pay any price for the attainment of the Highest.”
Swami Chidananda

Earlier in 1973, the dialogue between Swami Abhishiktananda and Swami Chidananda became even more intense as they considered the possibility of giving a “double monastic initiation” to Marc Chaduc, the principal disciple of Swami Abhishiktananda. It was the great desire of Marc to be initiated into sannyasa [9] in the direct tradition of the Upanishads, beyond the religious barriers of doctrines and dogmas. This ecumenical diksha [10] eventually took place in Rishikesh, at the bank of Holy Ganges, on 30 June 1973: Swami Chidananda, as diksha guru, initiated Marc into the Dashanami Sannyasa Order founded by Adi Shankaracharya and gave him the saffron robe along with Swami Abhishiktananda. In his spiritual diary, the newly initiated Swami Ajatananda wrote about his inspiring association with his diksha guru [11]: “Every time I sit at His feet, I am invaded by a peace that surpasses understanding. Light and peace divine emanate from His sole presence. His tall and slender body is all but austerity and beauty – the incomparable beauty of the saints whose bodies, full of poise, are permanently reflecting on the mystery of the Transfiguration. His is a discriminating and a knowledgeable mind, capable of transcending all barriers. His soul is none other than absolute love, love, love infinite! At one and the same time a fervent bhakta and an imperturbable advaitin [12], much beyond the dichotomies of thought, Swami Chidananda is the embodiment of pure simplicity... Besides, I have never seen any guru as humble as him, nor have I ever seen anyone who would serve all with the same degree of selflessness. If at all he speaks about himself, it is always in his capacity as a humble disciple of his Master, Swami Shivananda. Moreover, as far as he is concerned, all beings are his friends, his "brothers": all beings are murtis [13] of the very same and unique Atman [14] that he perceives in all.”[15]

Swami Chidananda was especially overjoyed with the diksha of Marc. The spiritual association and close friendship between him and Swami Ajatananda would deepen considerably over the years. In January 1975, through the help of his diksha guru, Swami Ajatananda settled in a hermitage located on the bank of Ganges, some 25 miles upstream from Rishikesh, at Kaudiyala. The young sannyasi remained there immersed in deep meditation and absorbed in God until he disappeared mysteriously in 1977. Swami Chidananda was the last one to have met Swami Ajatananda during the same year in his Himalayan solitude. Thereafter, he would always speak of him in very high terms as “a mystic and a God-experienced person whose experiences about himself reflect the Truth of the highest Upanishadic experience of the sages of the bygone times” [16].

Back to the Infinite Source

“Beyond space and time, I am forever here.”
Swami Chidananda

Swami Chidananda withdrew his physical darshan [17] from us in Dehradun (North India) on 28 August 2008 with utmost simplicity, in accordance with his entire life of complete selflessness. The funeral ceremony of Jal Samadhi [18] took place in Rishikesh in the early hours of 29 August and was conducted in strict compliance with the instructions given previously by him for his body to be immersed in the Ganges as quickly as possible and with minimal religious rites. Swami Chidananda had specifically instructed that Bhu Samadhi [19] should not be given but, instead, Jal Samadhi as for ordinary sannyasis. The reason behind this instruction is most likely that Swamiji didn’t want to have a Samadhi [20] in the ashram to be venerated after the departure of his body as he had often repeated that he was not a guru and that if he had given initiations, it was only in the name of his master, Swami Shivananda.

A great sage of modern times has thus withdrawn from our view to go back to the infinite Source, but his spiritual presence will now be everywhere and will continue to help, guide and inspire all.

Swami Chidananda Saraswati has authored dozens of books on yoga and spirituality. His most well known works are: A Call to Liberation; An Instrument of Thy Peace; Awake, Realise your Divinity; Path Beyond Sorrow; Philosophy, Psychology and Practice of Yoga; Ponder These Truths; Seek the Beyond; Verses Addressed to the Mind. A partial biography has been written by Sarat Chandra Behera: The Holy Stream. The Inspiring Life-Story of Swami Chidananda, Rishikesh, 1981, reprint 2002.

Read Authentic Religion, a Talk delivered to the Delegates of the Parliament of World Religions at Chicago in 1993.

Lire La vraie Religion,discours prononcé devant les délégués du Parlement des Religions du Monde, à Chicago, en 1993.

[1] A liberated and enlightened soul while still in the body.
[2] A great devotee or worshipper of God.
[3] Lit. a “knower” (of Truth); a sage.
[4] Physical death of a yogi or realised soul who is consciously leaving his body.
[5] See Swami Chidananda, The True Authentic Religion We Need Today, Rishikesh, 2006, p. 5. The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin root ‘re-ligare’: to join or link (up or together).
[6] See Swami Chidananda, Renunciation. A Life of Surrender and Trust, Rishikesh, 2002, p.2.
[7] See The Divine Life (Monthly Journal of the Divine Life Society): Vol. 35, No.9, September 1973; No.10, October 1973; No.11, November 1973; No.12, December 1973; Vol. 36, No.1, January 1974; No.2, February 1974; No.3, March 1974. These essays on sannyasa along with other essays on the Sannyasa Upanishads, were published later on in The Further Shore, Delhi, 1975.
[8] See “In Memoriam: Swami Abhishiktananda”, in The Divine Life (Monthly Journal of the Divine Life Society), vol. 36, No. 1, January 1974.
[9] Lit. “renunciation.” The stage of monk-hood, i.e. of renouncing all worldly possessions and ties. The formal entry into sannyasa is usually confirmed through an initiation ceremony (sannyasa diksha) by the guru. In the case of Marc, it was agreed that the diksha would be simply the solemn recognition of a spiritual realization and a freedom which was already possessed (vidvat-sannyasa).
[10] Initiation ceremony.
[11] The spiritual master who has initiated the disciple.
[12] A believer in non-duality or absolute unicity; a follower of the School of Advaita Vedanta.
[13] Murti: divine form, embodiment.
[14] The real Self; one’s innermost divine Reality, identical with Brahman.
[15] November 2, 1971, Years of Grace (Spiritual Diary), excerpt published in Setu, No.27, May 2007, p. 11.
[16] Preface to Years of Grace, June 28, 2006.
[17] Lit. “vision”; here, the sight of a sage.
[18] Immersion of a dead body in a holy river, or water burial.
[19] Burial of the dead body under the ground.
[20] Here the term ‘samadhi’ is used to denote the grave of an enlightened saint in which he is buried in the cross-legged position.

Note: A slightly modified version of this article appeared in the online Bulletin 81, July 2008 of the MID, Monastic Interreligious Dialogue.