Conversations with Gurudev

Prahaladan Mandelkorn (pictured next to Swami Satchidananda in South India, circa 1978) began listening to and learning from Sri Gurudev in 1970. Over the years he served as Satchidananda Ashram Director of Programs, Teachers’ Training, and Advanced Teachers’ Training. He served as Co-Director of the Richmond Integral Yoga Center and compiled and edited two of Sri Gurudev’s books, To Know Your Self: the Essential Teachings of Swami Satchidananda and The Living Gita: the Complete Bhagavad Gita with Commentary. Here he recalls insights from some of his Conversations with Gurudev.

After We Surrender
One evening in the early 1970s after a talk Sri Gurudev gave at the Downtown (West 13th Street)  Integral Yoga Center in New York City, some of us came near his chair. I asked him, “Gurudev, once we’ve given ourselves over to God, do we still try to steer or do we just let go and float like a leaf on the water?”

He put out his right hand between us, palm down and rocked it a little to the left and right. “Fifty-fifty,” he said.

That was my koan for several years, my meditation puzzle. In time I came to see: we aim and steer the best we can from where we’re looking now. And at the same time, every moment we’re ready to surrender to where we are called or directed.

*   *   *
The Focus is Health
A group of us were traveling with Sri Gurudev on a pilgrimage to holy places in India and Sri Lanka. During the arduous two months of travels, some fell ill for awhile. Even Gurudev had a cold, which was very unusual. One morning in Kandy (Sri Lanka) he was near and I said “Gurudev, how’s your cold?”

“Good as gold,” he immediately replied, and was gone.

Perhaps he was just being playful with words, which he often liked to do. But I also heard: Don’t focus so much on a person’s ill health. Instead, in your heart see them full of vitality and completely well.

*   *   *
Visions of a Goddess, 1978
Once I accompanied Sri Gurudev to a temple on tiny Serpent Island just north of Sri Lanka. The people there still worship the Lord as the “Goddess who Reclines on a Divine Serpent.” It was like being back in time thousands of years. During the puja, the devotional service when the priests wave lights in the dark cave of the ancient temple’s inner sanctuary—it seemed for a few moments like I was seeing the face of the Goddess.

Later that day on the boat back to Sri Lanka, I kept thinking about that experience. I asked Gurudev, “Who is the Goddess who reclines on a serpent?”

“It’s all God,” he said. “God, Goddess, the Serpent—it’s all God.”

Sometimes he doesn’t answer the question you asked; he answers the question you should have asked. (Gurudev, what am I seeing?)

Don’t get lost in the names and forms, he seemed to be telling me. They’re all power symbols, gateways of transcendence. The serpent is a powerful symbol. The Goddess is a powerful concept and image. God is a word we use to point to that which is beyond all names and forms. Go from form to non-form.

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The Light’s in You

My then-wife and I had only recently moved out of the Connecticut Ashram and had set up a house and Yoga Teaching Center in Richmond, Virginia. Income was still quite modest. We discovered we could borrow framed copies of great art works from the public library and keep them for a few months.

Gurudev came for a visit and looked around. Our walls were artfully enriched with copies of masterpieces. We explained how we’d gotten them. “How long will you continue to live on borrowed beauty?” he asked.

I don’t think he was criticizing the lovely prints on the walls. He seemed to be reminding us not to settle for just being good disciples, content to bask in the glow of his refinement and enlightenment, but to live from that same light within each of us.

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Bring it to Completion
I was working on The Living Gita, compiling and editing Gurudev’s commentaries and explanations of many of the verses or slokas in the sacred Bhagavad Gita (Song of God). He’d also encouraged me to reword the slokas in modern-day English, which I was doing, little by little. The whole project had already taken over two years. Gurudev called me on the phone: “How’s The Living Gita coming along?” he asked

“It seems to be going well, Gurudev,” I said.

“The operation will be a success, but the patient will be dead,” he replied.

Time to stop tip-toeing around and finish the job.  

*   *   *
Mysteries of the Guru
Before the Ashram moved to Virginia, we were in the northern Connecticut countryside, clearing land donated by Swami Tyaganandaji (then Tyagan Young) for a LOTUS Temple. Most of us Ashramites would go over to Tyagan’s each afternoon and clear brush and trees. One afternoon I was tugging hard on a tree root still half in the earth and half out. I heard a voice behind me say:  “Don’t use all your strength, and you’ll never run out of strength.” It was Gurudev watching right behind me.

Twelve years later during an evening Father’s Day program at the Virginia Ashram, I was on stage telling stories about Sri Gurudev, including the occasion when he had advised me not to use all my strength to pull the root out.

“I also told you,” said Gurudev comfortably seated nearby, “to pull on the root from an angle.”

A useful teaching, for sure, and one I’d totally missed when he said it—or forgotten. But what amazes me still is how he remembered a phrase from one moment 12 years before.

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