Interview with Swami Satyananda
By Mahan Rishi Singh Khalsa
Meditation Pathways, 2000
Inspired by the intense devotional passion, experienced during a puja ceremony performed by Swamiji
In Philadelphia, in 1998, I called Swamiji to talk about his spiritual practice and personal journey. (1/14/99)
Meditation Pathways: What brought you to this particular path?
Swami Satyananda Saraswati: The Divine Mother. You know when you get the call, you have to go.
MP: What led you to India initially?
Swamiji: I knew that what I was doing in the west would not bring me fulfillment. Before I committed to a lifetime of working in corporations making more money for rich people, I thought it best to explore other alternatives. I went out to see the world. I came into contact with religious monks, and people of all religious backgrounds. I studied in a Catholic monastery, a Russian Orthodox monastery, in a Hebrew Yeshiva, a Buddhist Kompa. I spent time learning Zikr from the Muhammedans. I worked my way across the Middle East, across the A-1 highway, and found myself in India. That’s where I was at home.
I was in India for about a year and a half before I met my first Guru, Amritananda Saraswati. He was a Bengali gentleman, who taught me Sanskrit. We wandered the Himalayas together, and lived under the trees all year long. We walked the length and breadth of the Himalayas. In the wintertime, we’d come down to the lower foothills, and in the summertime and rainy seasons, we would go to the higher mountains. He was a magnificent gentleman. He introduced me to the Chandi. Chandi is the Divine Mother who tears apart thoughts. We would sit down in the morning, and take our bath in a river. Then we’d sit by a fire, meditate, chant, and read scriptures. Around midday we’d have some breakfast, and then we would get up and mosey on down the path. In the evening we might come to a little village, and sing in a temple. Very often, people came to the temple and brought us food. That was our life for many years.
I was with Swamiji for about seven or eight years. Then he left his body. He left his body by chanting the Chandi for a thousand days by a fire. We made a little temple outside of a village in West Bengal, in the plains. He chanted the Chandi Path all day long, for three years. The Chandi is the Goddess that tears apart all duality.
MP: Can you talk more about that?
Swamiji: Oh, yes. I devoted many years reciting it. Chandi is a wonderful story about a businessman who lost his business, and a King who lost his kingdom. The businessman’s name was Samadhi, pure intuitive vision. The King’s name is Good Thoughts. So, Good Thoughts lost the Kingdom of Good Thoughts, and Samadhi lost his pure intuitive vision. Both of them became homeless, penniless wanderers in the forest. They met in the ashram of the Intellect of Love. They went to the Intellect of Love and sat down in his ashram. They said, “What a beautiful ashram you have. The flowers are sweet, the water is sweet, and everything is delicious. There is no lack of anything. Why are our minds thinking about that which has gone away from us? Why can’t we be still enough to sit here and enjoy this present reality? How do we make the mind sit still?”
Now the Intellect of Love is a great rishi, and he was chanting the Chandi Path every day at the fire. He said, “It’s all because of the Maha Maya, the great illusion, the great limitation of consciousness. She comes in such a way as to captivate all of our minds and bind us in the whirlpool of attachments.”
He related the story of the Chandi to the King and the Businessman. The story has three basic episodes. The first episode is the story of the balance of Too Much and Too Little. We come to God and we say we want to meditate. We would like to be still and be quiet. The demon, Too Little, comes and says, “You can’t sit still. You don’t have enough. Get an education, get a job, get some money, get some things from the world.”
After we go out into the world and get all the things that we are required to, then Too Much comes and says, “You can’t sit still. You’ve got too much. Take out the garbage, clean your house, clean up after yourself.”
Too Much and Too Little keep us moving in the world of objects and relationships so that we can’t be still until we have the right amount. Now, the right amount is different for all of us, at every time. Sometimes, according to our goals and aspirations, we can figure out what the right amount is. Maha Kali is the great remover of darkness who is beyond all time. She takes away the darkness and illuminates us. She gives us an understanding of what the right amount is.
Now when we do sit still, we come into contact with two demons called Self-Conceit and Self-Deprecation. We begin to watch the movies of our lives. When we watch them, Self-Conceit and Self-Deprecation sit in judgment over every scene. Self-Deprecation is so diminutive and so humble. He is the voice within us that says, “Oh, did I make that mistake? If only I hadn’t.” Self-Conceit says, “Oh, what a great job you did!” He’s haughty and puffed up with pride.
Maha Saraswati takes her sword of wisdom and gives us the understanding on how to watch the movie. She teaches how to be free from judgment and how to put all the movies into harmony and balance. She reveals that all of life has its own movie and that this is all the dance of nature. That is the second episode.
When Saraswati cuts down Self-Conceit and Self-Deprecation, we come to Maha Lakshmi, who is the destroyer of the great ego. She causes the great ego, and all of his generals, to surrender at the feet of the infinite energy.
This is the story of Chandi. When the King and the Businessman heard this story, they went to a very isolated area and built a fire. They began reciting hymns from the Chandi. They chanted the hymns of praise to the Goddess and the story of the balance of Too Much and Too Little, along with the slaying of Self-Conceit and Self-Deprecation, and the armies of the great ego, and the surrender of the ego itself. After three years, the Goddess came to them and said, “I am very pleased with your offering. I am going to grant you a boon. What would you like?”
Good Thoughts said, “I would like my kingdom of Good Thoughts back.” The Goddess said, I grant you that boon. No evil thought will enter your kingdom.”
Samadhi said, “I just want you.” The Goddess said, “I grant you that boon. You will sing the Chandi wherever you go. You will travel around wherever devotees congregate. There you will construct an altar, light a fire, and share the love of the Divine Mother.” That was Chandi.
MP: Can you share, for a moment, how Maha Lakshmi teaches the ego and his generals to bow to the infinite energy?
Swamiji: Laksha is goal, and Lakshmi is she who manifests the ultimate goal of all existence, or the goal of all being. In that way, she is the wealth. She is not necessarily the Goddess who presides over the cash register in a store. Lakshmi is what you value as your wealth. She’s the Goddess who presides over your values, your goals, your objectives, and your aims in life. Lakshmi’s Puja is the clarification and the definition of all the goals and objectives of life. Maha Lakshmi clarifies our goals. She makes it so that our soul contemplation is the goal of her being. Being one with the Goddess. That way the ego has no choice but to surrender. The ego is accompanied by a number of generals who are commanders of the forces, the armies of the ego. The generals are named Devoid of Clear Understanding, Wandering To and Fro, with Fickleness, Haughtiness, Blindness, Irresistible Temptation, the Great Frustration, Foul-Mouthed. These are some of the generals in the army of the great ego. The Goddess does battle with them all.
MP: Do you think this is going on all the time?
Swamiji: Yes, except in a few illuminated souls, like ShreeMaa. She, I think, has won the battle! She is just here in order to demonstrate how we can fight our own battle, and how we can win ours, too. When she walks on the ground, the grass bows at her feet. She has a gait where the atmosphere of any environment in which she enters, remains undisturbed. She’s in harmony with every circumstance.
MP: When Amritananda Saraswati passed on, where did that leave you?
Swamiji: I wandered off to do sadhana. I went off and wandered around India, and locked myself into a temple, and read the Chandi day and night. One of the chapters in the Chandi says, “Whoever will read the Chandi in the day and in the night will become a God without a doubt.” So, I went off to do the sadhana, just as my Guru showed me. I was locked in a temple in a small village outside Calcutta. That is where I met Shree Maa. She came to that village with a group of devotees because she had heard there was a Sadhu performing the Chandi Path day and night.
I locked myself in a temple for 108 days, seeing no one. I would sit there, with the key by my side, knowing that no one could disturb me the entire day. I would literally chant 12 to 14 hours a day. In the evening, I would finish the last mantra and then pick up the key and throw it through the window. A Bramachari would unlock the door and bring me my evening meal. That was my life for 108 days in the temple. It was really divine.
MP: Shree Maa arrived while you were there?
Swamiji: I had been there 90 days and I had a 108 day vow. One day the young man walked into the temple and said, “There is one mother here. A Divine Mother, who is really wonderful and she wants to see the temple where you’re doing your sadhana.”
I said, “I don’t want to be late. If I don’t sit down quickly, I will have all kinds of problems. It gets dark and I have to light a kerosene lantern to read the rest of the mantras. It really is an inconvenience. So, let her come in and make it very quick.”
He said, “Okay.” So I went into my room so I wouldn’t to talk to any strange people. I looked through the crack of the door and not only did Shree Maa come in, but also a number of disciples came in with her. There were about 20 people meditating in this little room of a temple in Bakreshwar.
I called the young man over and said, “Pachu, you said that one mother is going to come and make namaste and do pranam, and then go away quickly. There are 20 people sitting and meditating in the temple. You’re making me late. This is a tremendous inconvenience. Pease find some way to get those people out of here. I’m late to worship.”
Pachu said, “They are meditating in the temple. I can’t get them out. When they are done, they will leave.” I said, “You’ve got to find some way.”
Finally, after about an hour, nobody left. So I went to the door of the temple and began to clear my throat and make as many noises as I possibly could. Finally, one man came out. He took one look at me and in Bengali he said, “Oh, you are a foreigner! Have you come to tour India? What have you seen in India? How long have you been here?”
He started to bombard me with all kinds of questions about my personal life in India. I said, “Oh, please, go out from here. I didn’t invite you here. I am late for my worship. You are an intrusion in my ashram. Please go. I’m sorry I don’t have any prasad. I haven’t done the puja. Just go. There are so many temples to visit. What are you doing here?”
Well, hearing the commotion, all the people came out of the temple. I apologized to all of them profusely. I said, “I have limited time. There are many other temples. Please go.”
They parted between them. I hadn’t seen Shree Maa up to this point. Shree Maa walked up through the lines of people. I looked into her eyes. She was the deity I had been worshiping. There was just no mistaking. I looked into her eyes and I was just mesmerized. My mouth fell open and I couldn’t take my eyes from her face. It was just a striking resemblance. The deity that I had created from clay had exactly the same features and color as Shree Maa. I was just amazed. She put a sweet in my mouth and a flower on my head. She looked me in the eye and then turned around and left. All the people with her left also.
Then, my helper, Pachu, turned around and left. He closed the gate, put a lock on it, and threw the key in through the window. There I was, all alone in my ashram, with a flower on my head and a sweet in my mouth, just realizing that I had yelled at the deity I had been worshiping, and I had chased her away. There was nothing I could do about it. I went into the ashram and started conducting worship. I finished late in the night. I had another 18 days before I could go outside. I stayed in and completed my worship.
I made a big fire ceremony and fed the village. I did all the rituals according to the system explained in the Chandi.
When I completed this, I was feeling really divine. I decided to go to Kamakhya, a very holy site, to perform this worship again. I felt a tremendous calling to go. I didn’t know that Shree Maa came from Kamakhya. There is nothing in the world like being locked in a room with God. Of all the different things I had performed – the study of the Vedas, the study of pujas, and wandering through the Himalayas – there was something about this new life that I had been leading for about three years, since the passing of my teacher. In order to go to Kamakhya, I had to go to Calcutta for the train.
When I got to Calcutta, the first place I went was Dakshineshswar, the temple where Sri Ramakrishna attained his realization. I sat in the most beautiful meditation for a couple of hours. Here I was filled with this spirit of triumph. I said in my heart, “Ramakrishna, I just completed 108 days of worship. I did the fire ceremony. I fed the village. I clothed the needy and I am going off to do it again.”
Somewhere in my brain, in my meditation, I heard a word. It said, “Belgachia.” I went outside and saw a man who was obviously Hindustani. I said to him in Hindi, “What does Belgachia mean?” He said, “Bel means fruit, and gachia means tree.” I didn’t understand when he was talking about. Fruit tree. I went down to the Ganga and jumped into the river and took my bath. I came out from the river and while on the stairs changing my cloth, there was a Bengali gentleman who was also changing his cloth. I said to him in Bengali, “What does Belgachia mean?” He said, “Bel means fruit, and gachia means tree.”
I said to him, “Is there any special fruit tree around here?” He said, “You know, there is a bus stop in Calcutta by the name of Belgachia.” I went immediately to the bus station and said to the ticket collector, “Where is the bus to Belgachia?” He said, “Which one? There is a Belgachia stop in Calcutta, which is on this bank of the river, and there’s a Belgachia stop in Halra, which is on that bank of the river. Which one do you want to go to?” I said to him, “I want to go to the one in Calcutta.” He said, “The bus station is over there, but the bus left ten minutes ago. The next bus will be here in an hour.” I said, “Where is the bus stand for Belgachia in Halra?” He said, “It’s over on the other side, and the bus is loading right now.” After loading, we rode across the river and down all through Halra. We rode around for about 45 minutes, and finally arrived in Belgachia. I got down from the bus and all the rickshawallas came and said, “Where do you want to go?” I said, “Where is Mother?”
The Guru of the rickshawallas said, “Mother is everywhere.” I said, “I want to go see Maa.” He said, “Sit down in this rickshaw.” He told the driver, “Take him on a tour of the whole city, and take him to the temple of Kali.”
We arrived in this little temple of Kali, on the outskirts of the suburb. The pujari came and gave me a tilak, and some holy water. He said, “Do you speak Bengali?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Can I ask you a question?” I said, “Of course.” He said, “You know, of all the foreigners that come to Calcutta, you’re the first white man that ever came to visit this temple. What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m looking for Maa.” He said, “Do you mean Shree Maa?” I said, “Of course I mean Shree Maa. What mother isn’t Shree Maa? Of course I am looking for Shree Maa. Not just any Maa – Shree Maa!” He said, “She is in that house across the street.” I said, “Wait. I don’t know.” He said, “Yes, go to that house.” I didn’t know what I was going to find there. I knocked on the door. This little old man with long white hair opened the door. He grabbed me and screamed, “She said you would come!” I walked into the house and it was filled with devotees. I sat down in the temple that they had in their house. In a few minutes, Shree Maa came down. I never left since.
MP: Since 1980 you’ve been traveling with her?
Swamiji: Yes, I have. We started out making pujas and yajna (yagya), the sacred fire ceremony. We started out in that house. We made puja, and by evening, the house was filled to the seams. For a couple of years I rarely knew the names of the towns. We traveled the length and breadth of India, performing festivals of worship. Sometimes we would take up a whole railway car, because we would have so many devotees with us. We traveled all of India together. We pitched a circus tent. We would sing kirtan and make fire ceremonies. We would have everybody dancing, singing, and chanting. It was really a lot of fun.
MP: The yajna is part of the whole ceremony?
Swamiji: Absolutely, but it is more than a ceremony. It is one of the greatest techniques of meditation available. Yajna comes from the root yuj, to unite. It is the union between the fire in the agni chakra, the light of meditation, and the fire in the hawan kunda, which is the sacrificial altar of fire.
MP: Where is that?
Swamiji: You build a fire outside. It’s the physical manifestation, the representation of how bright your light of meditation is burning. That is what the yajna is. Now in the yajna we recite various mantras and invoke the various deities, powers, and spirits of creation. Then we can recite our favorite text of Sanskrit mantras. If I do the Chandi yajna, I invite the fire, and then recite the entire Chandi Path. For every verse of recitation, I make an offering. We usually prepare a small mixture of grains of rice, barley, sesame, sugar, honey, milk, and ghee. We take a pinch of grain for each of the mantras. We offer it into the fire. This symbolizes two things: the Gods work with humanity in the same way as the plants work with all living beings. For example, all that moves breathes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide. The plants breathe in the carbon dioxide and breathe out the oxygen. In the same way, we offer all out negativities to the Gods. The Gods eat all of the negativities and return us blessings of positivity.
MP: Can you talk about the relationship between the fire and the chakras as you’re chanting?
Swamiji: Fire is agni. That is the light of meditation, the light of purification, the warmth of devotion. There is a fire in the stomach, there is a fire in the feet, there is a fire in the heart, and there is a fire in the agni chakra (relating to the third eye). When we raise our inner fire, we also raise our outer fire. Now the kundalini energy has a path by which to rise.
MP: Can you talk about the tapas?
Swamiji: Tapas, literally, means adding heat. Every movement creates friction. By the broadest definition, every action is tapas. Friction creates heat. We speak of tapas as the heat of purification, the heat that is a conscious effort to purify ourselves. Whatever austerity, whatever sacrifice, whatever spiritual offering we would like to make to come closer to God, or make ourselves more divine, more pure beings. It’s the tapas that purifies.
MP: Are the tapas an internal heat?
Swamiji: It is internal and external. It comes through karma, and it comes through your being. There’s a very important verse in the Rig Veda. It says from Tapaysa, all the Gods originally became divine. Within tapaysa resides the entire existence. Therefore, perform your tapas and realize the ultimate.
MP: When I watch you in the ceremony, your hands are doing so much, with flowers, mudras, and kriyas.
Swamiji: Each one of them tells a story. We are purifying all the elements as we tell the story. We become participants in the story that we tell.
MP: As you’re going through all the different mudras, are you transforming and purifying all these different aspects of yourself?
Swamiji: That is right, internally and externally. And communicating that inspiration and that vibration to the congregation.
MP: As you’re going through the kriyas, everyone is being affected by the energy of the fire and going through a similar purification. Do you use a mala (prayer beads) in your ceremonies as well?
Swamiji: I surely do. We have a minimum requirement to recite at least 108 mantras for each of the various deities. The mala is very special for keeping count. We don’t want to shortchange any of the Gods!
MP: What is your mala made out of?
Swamiji: The mala that I wear is made of rudraksha, the eyes of Rudra. Rudra is a name of Shiva. The rudraksha are the eyes of Shiva, in the form of he who takes away the tears. They are around my neck, watching all my activities. It reminds me of my divine nature and that God is with me.
MP: Can you talk about the aspect of surrender and devotion in the yajna ceremony?
Swamiji: The ultimate objective is to become one with God. As long as we maintain an individual ego identity, then we are separate from God. The ultimate objective is first to become a servant of God, and then one with God. That is performed through devotion and surrender. Devotion has two aspects. The first is that no matter what we want to commune with, we only pay attention to the extent of our devotion. Devotion is another word for meditation, another aspect of meditation. We cannot pay attention to anything unless we’re fully devoted to it.
Through devotion we create the attitude of surrender. We don’t forcibly extricate the smaller loves of our lives; we just devote ourselves to the greater loves. The smaller loves go away of their own accord. Devotion is intrinsic to meditation. It is intrinsic to surrender. That is ultimately what meditation brings. The perfect surrender is communion. It’s unity. I no longer exist as a separate entity. I am one with God.