Sri Gurudev Swami Satchidananda came to the West in 1966. His presence was magnetic. He attracted people from all walks of life, from diverse backgrounds and faiths, with different temperaments, interests and capacities. The unifying factor amidst all the diversity was his love for everyone and everything. His love for us was reciprocated by our love for him, and this blossomed into love for one another. That is how the Integral Yoga sangha was born.
He placed before us a vision for a new way of living, devoted to spiritual practice and dedicated to the wellbeing of others. Sadhana and service supplanted old habits and patterns. Life took on new meaning, filled with greater purpose and commitment. With love as the catalyst, a divine alchemy occurred that transformed our hearts and changed our lives forever. We participated in his vision, became instruments of its manifestation, and saw with a new perspective.
Albert Einstein once said: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” With this new vision, so-called miracles became common occurrences. It was as if the veil between the physical and subtle planes became thinner, more permeable, allowing us to feel more the interconnectedness of all life and the embrace of divine grace.
Sri Gurudev loved animals and had an extraordinary connection to them. Many interesting creatures were drawn into the circle of his love. He had two dogs at the Connecticut Ashram, named Sita and Ram. When they got on in years, Gurudev sent them to live at his winter home near Santa Barbara, California. He felt the warmer weather would be better for their health. If you spent even a little time with them, it soon became clear that they were like an old married couple who had been together forever. A comfortable, warm place was set up for them in the laundry room that was next to the carport. Every once in a while, Ram would get restless and stay out till the wee hours of the morning. When he finally returned from his escapades, Sita would refuse to allow him to enter their room and he had to sleep on the proverbial couch; in this case, on a mat in the carport.
Ram could be a bit overbearing at times and Sita humbly accepted his behavior. But all this would change when we went for a walk along the beautiful meditation path that the members of the Santa Barbara ashram had created on the property. There were shrines to St. Francis, the Buddha, Lord Siva and others and as we approached them, Ram would always bound ahead in front of us. But this behavior always changed when we approached the shrine to the Divine Mother. Ram would respectfully fall behind, allowing Sita to slowly proceed first. I would fall back as well, as there was something profoundly holy as she approached the shrine. With some effort, she would carefully jump onto the meditation bench and sit there steadily gazing and clearly worshiping the image of Mother Mary. Ram and I would stand there silently and respectfully until she finished her devotions. And as soon as she stepped down from the bench, Ram would quickly run down the path ahead of us again.
Over time, Sita’s body grew frail and her spirit passed from that sweet form. Ram went into a period of profound mourning and completely stopped eating. Sri Gurudev was traveling at the time. I became concerned and called him. He told me he would rearrange his plans and come as soon as possible.
Shortly after arriving, he had a conversation with Ram. I was in the next room and peeked in to see what was happening. Sri Gurudev was in the chair and Ram was sitting at his feet. Gurudev spoke to him softly as if he were speaking to an elderly gentleman who was a very dear friend. He told Ram that he had been very blessed to have his sweetie, Sita, with him for so many years. She was with God now and it was time for him to renounce and become a sannyasin. By his gaze and demeanor, Ram seemed to understand Gurudev’s words. Sri Gurudev stroked and petted him lovingly. He asked me to bring Ram some food and we watched as he began to eat again. Ram’s heart had been comforted and the burden of grief lifted. Ram proceeded to live in a gentle manner, a renunciate in that precious little form.
At that time, when Gurudev was away, I was living and serving as a caretaker at his home. Every day, after tending to various chores, I would go to our ashram in Santa Barbara to serve. One day, I was halfway down the hill when I realized I had left behind some documents that needed to be filed at the bank by noon. So, I headed back. As I pulled into the carport, I felt a strange vibration. It was very peaceful and at the same time, wild, almost primordial. When I got out of the car and looked across the long expanse of lawn in front of the house, it didn’t look green; it was black and seemed to be moving. As I drew closer, it became apparent that it was covered with snakes everywhere. Black snakes, rattlesnakes, and others abounded in the area, but I had never seen anything like this before.
I felt that the snakes were no doubt drawn to the peaceful vibration that permeated the property and came out to enjoy it when I was not there. They respected my time. I was the intruder now; it was their time to enjoy Sri Gurudev’s holy vibration. So, I bowed to them, explained the situation, told them what I needed to do, and humbly requested safe passage. Then, I proceeded to walk through that carpet of snakes, retrieve the papers, and before getting back into the car, bowed again and thanked them.
Sri Gurudev once invited the Santa Barbara sangha on a whale-watch. We chartered a boat and eagerly gathered for the outing. Before we set out, the captain told us not to be disappointed if we didn’t see any whales, as they didn’t always show up. As soon as we entered deep waters, much to everyone’s surprise, mama and baby whales flanked us and joyfully accompanied us for the duration of the trip.
The ashram cat was named Sarasvati. She was a regular farm cat whose job was to serve as chief mouser. She did her job well, often leaving remains of her nighttime endeavors under my desk the next morning. When I came to work, she would eagerly stand by waiting for praise for having done a good job.
We got a glimpse of her higher nature one Navaratri, the Hindu festival of nine nights in honor of the Divine Mother. The first three nights are dedicated to the Goddess Durga, the next three nights to Goddess Lakshmi, and the final three nights to Goddess Sarasvati. On the first night of the worship to Sarasvati, our cat by that name entered the barn we had converted into a meditation hall and slowly, ceremoniously, walked up to the altar and gently touched and sniffed every item to be offered in the service. Then she slowly exited the room. It felt like the Goddess, herself, had come to receive our offering through her namesake.
At the Integral Yoga Institute (IYI) in San Francisco, we also had a mouse problem. So, Swami Divyanandaji wrote a “Help Wanted” ad for a cat and posted it on the swinging pet entrance on our back door. The ad read: “Good mouser needed, ideal work conditions, loving home.” Within twenty-four hours, a cat showed up and stayed with us for the duration of the problem.
Some of the mice had taken up residence upstairs in our temple. They particularly liked the puja closet and one chose to live under the altar. Late one night, I decided to go upstairs to meditate. My mind drew inward quickly and as the mantra began, I seemed to notice a small form scurry out from the altar and run under my blanket. I was so peaceful and inward that, somehow, I just ignored it. When I arose two hours later, I felt something fall out of my blanket and run back under the altar. Our little temple mouse had sat “quiet as a mouse” and meditated along with me.
At Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Virginia, one of the families had a cat called Bhuvaneshvari, which means “The Goddess of the World.” Every morning the cat showed up outside Guru Bhavan (the meditation hall) around 4:45 a.m., ready for our 5:00 a.m. meditation. When Sri Gurudev gave satsang on Saturday nights, she would sit outside the glass side door and watch him attentively, gently meowing, as he gave darshan.
On one occasion, I hosted a press interview for Sri Gurudev and a reporter inside the Display Hall at the Light Of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS). It was a little stuffy inside, so I left the door propped ajar. A few minutes into the interview, a large, bright green praying mantis hopped into the room. It stood there transfixed, its gaze focused on Sri Gurudev. After a few minutes, it advanced about a foot closer. Its gaze unwavering, every few minutes, it came closer still. Soon, it was at Gurudev’s feet, continuing to gaze upward at his face. All the while, both the reporter and Sri Gurudev appeared not to notice the determined little creature.
The next moment, the praying mantis jumped onto Gurudev’s leg. Continuing to look at Gurudev’s face, the little insect jumped onto his lap. It was difficult to miss the bright green praying mantis on Gurudev’s bright orange robe, yet the reporter and Sri Gurudev talked on as if nothing unusual was happening. At about now, I was beginning to wonder if I had slipped into a parallel universe.
Next, it hopped onto Gurudev’s arm. As it jumped onto his shoulder, it became clear that I was going to have to intervene soon. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the next move would be atop Gurudev’s face. So, I stood up and walked over to Sri Gurudev with my hands cupped, hoping to gently scoop up the mantis. I figured they were both pretending not to see the praying mantis, so hopefully, I could make my move unnoticed as well. As I leaned over, Gurudev quickly turned to me and said, “Leave it alone; it has come to hear my talk.” I withdrew and sat down. The praying mantis remained perched on his shoulder, watching and listening for a while longer, and then slowly made its way back down Sri Gurudev’s body and out the door.
Gurudev once commented that the dog you see on the road could have been a saint in its past birth and due to one mistake, came back in a dog’s body. At a satsang, he gazed around the room and remarked that we were not the only ones present. He said the room was filled with souls who had come for the satsang.
Such comments suggest that our normal way of seeing doesn’t always grasp the full picture. I believe that the divine presence peeks through in innumerable ways, through various forms, at important moments in our lives. If we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and hearts open to receive it, we experience that special guidance and support.
I would like to conclude with our spiritual beginning: a story concerning Sri Swami Sivananda (the Guru of Swami Satchidananda) and divine intervention. Swami Sivananda wrote over three hundred books on all aspects of Yoga—on health, religion, world peace and spiritual life. When visitors came to his ashram in Rishikesh, he would delight in giving away the books, never thinking of the cost. When the ashram was having financial difficulties, the disciples would sometimes try to encourage people to make their purchases before they saw Sivanandaji—because they knew that once they saw him, Swami Sivananda would simply give them everything they needed. The ashramites referred to him as “Swami Givananda.”
In the mid-1970’s, at the San Francisco IYI, we had an opportunity to experience this generosity directly. One day, an elderly woman showed up at the IYI with several cartons of books by Swami Sivananda. Many were rare, some were first editions, and there were even some that were autographed by him. Somehow, she was inspired to donate them to us. The only problem was the binding on many of the books was broken. We weren’t quite sure what to do with them, because if we put them on our shelves, they would soon fall apart.
A couple of days later, a salesman rang our doorbell. The IYI in San Francisco is set high off the street in a beautiful old Victorian home. You have to climb a long flight of stairs to reach the front door. No salesperson had ever come to the door before, nor did any come after. You’ll never guess what he was selling: a portable book-binding machine! He asked if we had any books that needed binding, and I told him, “As a matter of fact, we do.” He then gave us a demonstration of how the machine worked and asked if we’d be interested in purchasing it. I told him it was much too expensive for us to consider that, and other than the books in those cartons, we really had no need for it.
And then he offered to leave the machine with us for a week to try it out. I told him again that we wouldn’t be purchasing it. He said, “That’s okay; just bind the books that need it and I’ll pick it up in a week.” He proceeded to remove from his briefcase sheets of blue vinyl to use for the covers. When I offered to pay him for the materials, he even refused that. He just said, “Bind your books and I’ll be back.”
We made a schedule, rotated shifts and had someone binding books non-stop till he returned a week later. We finished just as he arrived. He simply asked if we had bound all the books. I said, “Yes.” He said, “Good.” And then he took the machine and left. We never heard from again. We never received any literature from his company in the mail. I’m not sure if a company even existed! Knowing how much Swami Sivanandaji loved to give, I believe that he wasn’t simply satisfied in giving us all those books. He made sure they were in top condition, too!
As we approach Guru Poornima, as well as the Mahasamadhi anniversaries of both our Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda, and our Paramguru, Sri Swami Sivananda, it is good to remember their blessed presence and teachings in our lives. If not for them, probably most of us would never have met. The Integral Yoga organization would not exist. Yogaville and LOTUS would never have been established. A particular pathway to spiritual realization and liberation would not have been opened before us. Our souls would not have been invited—beckoned—to embark on the journey and attain the highest.
At one of his final satsangs, Sri Gurudev gazed at us long and lovingly. He paused reflectively, and then said, “I have given you everything; I have held nothing back. There is nothing more for me to give. You have everything you need.”
Tender recollections are reminders of how much we have to be grateful for and how their spirit, teachings, and grace continue to illuminate our lives today.
About the Author:
Swami Karunananda is a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda. In 1975, she was ordained as a monk into the Holy Order of Sannyas. She has had almost 50 years experience teaching all aspects of Yoga and specializes now in workshops, retreats, and teacher training programs that focus on the science of meditation, the philosophy of Yoga, personal transformation, and Yoga breathing techniques for better health and well-being. She developed, and for 30 years has taught, the Integral Yoga Teacher Training programs in Raja Yoga and in Meditation.
Swami Karunananda served as president of Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville in Virginia and in California, as well as director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and in Santa Barbara. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees, and as the chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Virginia. Interested in fostering interfaith understanding and harmony, she is featured in the interfaith documentary entitled, “With One Voice.” She also compiled and edited the Lotus Prayer Book, a collection of prayers from various faith traditions, and Enlightening Tales as told by Sri Swami Satchidananda. She served as contributing editor for The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama, as well as a senior writer for the Integral Yoga Magazine. In her book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga, she describes the spiritual path and provides guidance for the journey.