His Early Journey – how it all began
On 8 May 1916, a child was born as so many other children were born. Born to ordinary parents – a lawyer father, a home maker mother, Balan went to school like all kids do; he would later acquire a degree in English Literature, plunge into the Freedom Movement of India against British rule, be imprisoned, fall frightfully ill, be thrown out of jail for that, be rescued by a strange lady, start writing for a newspaper, make fiery speeches and plan even more fiery exposes and then, all too suddenly abandon all that, for none of them explained to him the purpose of his birth.
Clearly, Swami Chinmayananda was an unusual young man.
Balan was not born holy, yet he took sannyasa at the age of thirty-three, as, in his words, “It was the only sensible thing to do.” Tracing back to the early 1900s, this son born to the Poothampalli House in Kerala’s Ernakulam, to Vadakke Kurupath Kuttan Menon of Trichur and his wife, the devout Parukutti Menon, Poothampalli Balakrishnan Menon was the third child after two daughters. This was a traditional home steeped in worship and service of the Lord, where worship and prayer lasted longer than a slow meal. It was a home known for its kindness and hospitality, where Kulagurus Chattambi Swamigal, Yogiraj Bhairavananda and all visiting saints were revered and respected. Little did this household imagine that the baby in the crib came with a severely questioning mind, unrelenting of illogical discipline and a bank of questions whose answers lay dispersed and far into time.
In Poothampalli House, the evening poojas that at first began as a trial for an indifferent Balan, would later be seen as a precursor of a fabulous life that would blaze the world with a clear idea of worship, be an idol of worship, and in later years, the ideal of worship.
It was this that gave Balan the momentum towards devotion something he would not know until his mid twenties. And like all discipline, which one instinctively follows, little Balan did too, but in the silence of his young mind he created fanciful games with the goings-on, the idols, the framed pictures, the processes and prescriptions of do’s and don’ts, as none of these added up logically in his mind.
Of the entire pantheon of gods and goddesses that lined the family prayer room, the one that held little Balan’s attention, without seeming forbidding or inhibiting, was Shiva as Gangadhara, although he did shudder to see Devi Bhagawati smothered under a mountain of flowers, a mountain that only increased with every naam of the sahasranaam…As the routine established into a daily affair, Balan had to devise a coping strategy. And it was this strategy that saw the birth of the future Swami Chinmayananda. It began with a game of hide-and-seek that he played with the Lord Chandrakaladhara. So the Lord hid as Balan shut his eyes and then little Balan sought Him in his mind’s screen. Soon, this became his preferred game which he played outside of the pooja room too: to find Lord Siva in his mind on demand… and as he sought, the Lord appeared even as a sweet smile of triumph lit up little Balan’s face.
In hindsight, looking back:
In Swami Chinmayananda’s words which he recalled in later years as he sat in Ananda Kutir, “It took more than 20 years to realise that in that strange game, little Balan had been initiated into Jnana Marga by Parameswara Himself.”
From Balan to Bliss via Jnana Marg
Done with schooling and graduation, Balan took to writing and writing took him to scripting fiery speeches that denounced the British rule. Balakrishnan’s nationalist activities led to his imprisonment – not surprising, and as he would realise soon, resistance was indeed a recipe for bondage! But resist he did and rightly so then, as he was resisting adharma. Like all young people, Balan too overtly fought the system, fought the establishment, fought irrationality, fought superstition and fought blind faith. This overt rebellion was the coming of age of his inner spiritual quest.
One day, while working for The National Herald, Balakrishnan decided to write an exposé, calling the bluff (as he then believed) of the swamis in the Himalayan regions. Thus, he travelled to Swami Sivananda’s ashram in Rishikesh.
How unusual is the hand of God! Unwittingly at the door of India’s finest spiritual teacher, Balakrishnan’s journey began to reveal to him his own inner spiritual revolution and evolution. Swami Sivananda’s divinity, love, and Vedanta teachings overwhelmed the young skeptic. A striking inner transformation unfolded within Balakrishnan and instead of questioning and confronting the world outside, he began to confront his inner world of thoughts and ideas. He began questioning and reflecting upon the purpose of life and the secret of permanent happiness. In the company of saints, and through the clarity of their teachings, the highly intellectual seeker soon chose to become a renunciate himself.
On the holy day of Mahashivaratri, February 25, 1949, Balakrishnan was initiated into the sannyasa order by Swami Sivananda, who blessed him with the name ‘Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati’. Chinmayananda means ‘filled with the bliss of pure Consciousness’. Swami Sivananda then guided Chinmayananda to the most renowned Vedanta master of the time, Swami Tapovanam, who lived in Uttarkashi, in the Himalayas. Swami Tapovanam who rarely took on disciples put forth strict conditions… but these were no deterrent for the young renunciate; he accepted each of his Guru’s terms, unconditionally.
Thus began a period of intensive study and austere living as Swami Tapovanam’s disciple.
Many of Swami Chinmayananda’s lectures were converted into books and recordings to enable the distance seeker. He personally authored over 95 books, including commentaries on the major Upanishads and an extremely well composed commentary on the Bhagavad-gita. Named simply The Holy Geeta, it has been acclaimed as one of the most refined, insightful, and practical commentaries ever written on the Gita. The collection of his video talks on the Gita is heralded today as one of Chinmaya Mission’s most illustrious publications and is the anchor for innumerable people, the world over.He is credited with bringing about a worldwide Vedantic renaissance in the late 20th century through his introduction of Adi Sankaracharya’s works and teachings to the masses. Whether in his writings or his orations, his dedication and endorsement of this great Seer’s works, is underscored. Swami Chinmayananda was famed for his depth, clarity, eloquence, wit, and humour, which shone in every book and essay he wrote and every lecture he delivered.
Teacher extraordinaire, gracious Guru and an anchor of wisdom, Swami Chinmayananda’s life was indeed a saga beyond definition!
Swami Chinmayananda conducted his first Jnana Yajna (a series of spiritual discourses) in December 1951, at a small temple in Pune, Maharashtra. Jnana Yajna, a term he coined from Lord Krishna’s teachings in the Shrimad Bhagavad-gita, refers to the student who through scriptural studies performs the ritual of worship (yajna) at the altar of wisdom (jnana).His teachings were based on the authority of the Vedas and his own direct experience. They were highly appreciated, and the number of devotees eager to learn from Swami Chinmayananda’s powerful, dynamic, yet logical, and witty discourses increased rapidly. An inspired band of devotees thus formed ‘Chinmaya Mission’ on August 8, 1953.
Understanding the needs of the people came naturally to Swami Chinmayananda. For each individual – young or old – the knowledge solutions he had were the same, but he packaged them differently for each segment. These then grew to becoming the core anchors for growth.
Study or Swadhyaya: Built both as self-study and group study, Swami Chinmayananda inculcated the discipline of study into his devotees. As he began travelling around the world, devotee-followers expressed the need to have something to study until he returned the following year. They made notes at his lectures but needed ratification. Thus came by Home-Study Courses beginning with Vedanta.
Having seen widespread spiritual and social degradation in India, Swami Chinmayananda felt the urge to share the knowledge that had brought fulfillment in his own life through Swami Tapovanam’s tutelage and grace.Having undergone the transformation from a rebel to a renunciate, which was in fact a transformation from an ignoramus to a knower, Swami Chinmayananda saw that the drivers of this knowledge lay buried in a language that was almost dead (Sanskrit) and its idiom was losing context as the essential Indian was now more anglicised in demeanour and disposition. Bringing him back to the teachings of the Upanishads could only be by rephrasing the lessons in English – the language of intellectual India. That was how Swami Chinmayananda took to teaching Vedanta in English, a big surprise in that era.
Gurudev, as Swami Chinmayananda came to be known, had a keen sense of perception and observation. He knew people by being among them, seeing them, talking to them. He also perceived the degeneration in values and family systems, and knew that the way to restoration and sustenance was communicating to the youth via culture, on the platform of modernity, using contemporary idiom and the English language. Likewise, he understood that the way forward lay in strengthening value-based education, and energising schools. That is what Swami Chinmayananda approached single-pointedly, at a social level. Today, the Chinmaya Vision Programme followed in more than 80 Chinmaya Education institutions, as well as other educational institutions throughout the country, is seen as a remarkable system for holistic education.
At another level, he envisioned that the reason for the dissonance among the people – around the world, was the absence of a manual for living. Everywhere he was beginning to see an artless rush for living. He decided that the Bhagavad-gita which was the crème de la crème of the Vedas and Upanishads was what begged to be sown back into society everywhere.