I came to know about the 2 months Yoga Vedanta Course when I visited Sivananda Ashrama last year. First of all, I liked the ambience at the Ashrama. It is located right next to the Ganges. When I checked the details about the course, I found it to be very interesting. Moreover, from the little that I read about His Holiness Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj, I had developed a liking for his teachings. He looked to me like condensed Swami Vivekananda. I also wanted to regularize some of my practices. So I thought I should attend this course.
Two months is quite a long time. But when you compare it with people who go out of the country for 2-3 years, it is not such a long time. And also the benefits that one derives from staying at a holy place is indispensable. I am staying here for about 2 months now. I can testify that there have been very few instances that I felt angry etc. I am more or less in perfect peace here. Yes! I was quite in drawn for about first one month but such is the reason why you would want to stay at a Holy place.
Just to give an idea. Swami Sivanandaji founded the Divine Life Society. Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy is a sub unit of the Divine Life Society. This was also started by His Holiness in the year 1948. Academy has its own premises inside the Ashrama Campus. All our classes are held here. Even Accommodation is provided within the Academy Campus. This course is a continuous activity of the Ashram and they conduct 3 batches every year. It is totally free of cost. You can get more details from Here.
I was to report on 29th of February for the course. I took a flight from Bengaluru to Dehradun on 25th and stayed in Dehradun for 2 days. Just visited Mussorie on the way. Mussorie is not as beautiful as it has been painted to our eyes. It is a good picnic spot. The fact is that the whole of Uttarakhand is just as beautiful as Mussorie. So you won’t find anything special. I reported 2 days earlier to the course. The same day I was joined by one roommate Vishuddha from Orissa. Other two guys joined on the next day.
Everyone reported by 29th evening. We busied ourselves in plucking out Mango Leaves and decorating the Hall for next day’s inaugural function. Early on the next day after a briefing in the Hall, we were all led to the nearby Dattatreya and Durga temples and Pooja was conducted there. Later we had the inaugural program where the President of Divine Life Society, Revered. Swami Vimalanandaji Maharaj, Revered Swami Yogavedantanadaji Maharaj, Registrar, Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, Swami Akhilanandaji, Swami Devabhaktanandaji, Prof. Subba Rao and many other monastics were present. We were briefed about the Program.
Our batch consisted of 44 students whose age group varied from 24 to 65 and professions ranging from that of Yoga Instructors to that of Retired Bank Managers – a batch of well educated participants.
Classes start daily at 4:00AM. First spiritual instruction given by Swami Sivanandaji is that we have to wake up at 4:00AM. The Swamiji in charge here usually made sure that everyone was up by 4:10AM. Morning Meditation class start at 5:00 AM and last till 6:00AM. Breakfast is taken at 7:00AM. The next session is from 7:35AM to 10:50AM and consisted of 4 classes. This was followed by lunch at 11:00AM. The afternoon session is from 3:15PM to 4:45PM. The Yoga and Pranayaama classes were held between 5:00 PM and 6:15 PM and dinner is taken at 7:00PM. We used to volunteer to serve food and help in other kitchen works as advised by Swamiji in charge. The food here is okay for South Indians too. Morning breakfast has Pongal, Idly, Upma, and Poha. Tea is served twice in the day. We also used to get a full glass of hot milk in the night. Lunch consists of Chapati and rice. Sometimes devotees sponsor a feast for the inmates. That will be a heavy lunch consisting of sweets, vada, paneer and other special items. Overall food is perfectly okay here.
Coming into the classes, we had the following subjects
1. Upanishads by Br. Gopi
2. Patanjali Yoga Sutras by Swami Padmanabhanandaji Maharaj
3. Srimad Bhavavadgita by Swami Yogaswarupanandaji Maharaj
4. Religious Consciousness by Swami Atmaswarupanandaji Maharaj
5. Philosophy of Swami Sivananda by Swami Yogavedantanandaji and Swami Akhilanandaji
6. Narada Bhakti Sutras by Swami Devabhaktanandaji Maharaj
7. Indian Philosophy by Prof. Choudhury
8. Western Philosophy by Swami Parampremanandaji and Dr. Kanchana Mataji
9. Yoga, Pranyaama and Meditation by Swami Devabhaktanandaji
10. Daily Karma Yoga service was handled by Swami Shivabhaktanandaji Maharaj
A brief note on each Class
Patanjali Yoga Sutras
This used to be our very first class almost every day. The class was handled by Revered Swami Padmanabhanandaji Maharaj who is also the General Secretary of the Divine Life Society. He is a great scholar with a very sharp intellect even at the age of 83. He has wonderful oratorical skills. Listening to him expounding the Patanjali Yoga Sutras is like listening to an ancient Rishi. He has excellent command over English and Sanskrit. He is also very well versed in Scriptures. It was a great experience listening to him. He taught us the important verses of the Yoga Sutras and their application in practical life. His very first class on Meditation was very insightful and informative.
But there was a feeling that the Swami could be more humble. His attitude towards the students and choice of words leave much to be desired. For a person of his knowledge, and position humility is a necessary ornament. These type of lecturers make a mistake when they judge their students. Who knows! Some students could be more informed on some subjects and they could have their own experience also. Even if they are not, a teacher still needs to respect his students. Unfortunately Padmanabhanandaji fails to commend respect in this regard. Swami Vivekananda used to say that we really can not teach anyone. It is necessary that the students are treated with respect. This is a general opinion most of us got about him. But make no mistake – The Swami has tremendous knowledge and gets complete command over the class by the sheer virtue of his knowledge and his communicative ability.
Upanishads class was handled by Br. Gopi ji. Gopi is 60+ years old and is a celibate. He handles Upanishad and Bhagavadita classes for the monastics also. His class of 45 minutes used to appear like that of 5 minutes many a times. He explained the Isavasya Upanishad in full and lightly touched upon the Kena and Katha Upanishads. He was successful in making the participants take serious interest in the study of the Upanishads. His classes were always looked forward to.
Swami Yogaswarupanandaji, the Vice President of the Divine Life Society handled the Bhagavad-Gita classes. Revered Swamiji is also an expert in Hath Yoga and was a close associate of His Holiness Swami Chidanandaji Maharaj. In the limited time he had, he did his best to give us the gist of the Bhagavad-Gita. The responsibility of chanting the Gita verses in his classes had fallen to my lot. I usually carry a pocket version of the Bhagavadgita in Kannada and that helped me a lot to chant. Maharaj was successful in making us realize the importance of Bhagavad-Gita and the great message and knowledge that it has for the mankind. He used to answer questions to everyone’s satisfaction and one meditation class that he took was highly appreciated.
Narada Bhakti Sutras
Narada Bhakti Sutras of Devarshi Narada was handled by Revered Swami Devabhaktananda. Devabhaktanandaji is a separate class by himself. We had the good fortune of seeing him from close angles for about 2 months. He is about 46years of age. He joined the Divine Life Society as a Brahmacharin when he was barely 22 years old. He used to put so much of effort to make us realize the impermanence of this world and to move towards God. Words can not explain the effort that he used to put in his classes. He is so much in love with God! He has tremendous respect for Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa whom he quoted quite regularly in his class. He referred to many incidents from the life his own Guru Revered Swami Chidanandaji Maharaj. He has a very melodious voice and you always want to listen to him more and more. In fact he sung for us 2 days for continuous 2 hours just before the course got over.
Studies in Religious Consciousness
This is another class in which everyone was interested in. This class was handled by His Holiness Swami Atmaswarupanandaji Maharaj. Maharaj is basically from Canada. He came in touch with Swami Chidananda when the latter was on his European Travel to spread Vedanta. Inspired by Him, Swami Atmaswarupanandaji joined the Divine Life Society and became a monk when he was 52 years old. Incidentally his daughter also became a nun later and she is known by the name Amritarupananda. She also runs an NGO by name Clean Himalaya. She accompanied the Swami on almost every class. She was his interpreter. By the way, Swami Atmaswarupanandaji is currently 92 years old. He is quite healthy and very sharp.
It appears as if Swami Atmaswarupanandaji goes into a deep mystical state when he speaks. He has written a small booklet entitled “Studies in Religious Consciousness”. It is a wonderful book and it also serves as his subject for the course. His class primarily deals with the necessity of Religion and the way out of the misery and intricacy of the World.
Life and Philosophy of Swami Sivananda
His Holiness Swami Sivananda is one of the bright luminaries of the modern Spiritual Era. He has written more than 300 very useful books. I heard that whenever he used to take food, he used to reflect on how can he repay this debt back to the world. So whenever he got some new insights after his meditation, he used immediately note them down and bring them out in the book form. I had the opportunity to read his masterly exposition of the Bhagavad-Gita and Principal Upanishads during this course. Wonderful insights. He has covered almost every topic under the Sun. He was a practicing Doctor before he took the life of Sanyas and his teachings are a guiding light to humanity.
Swamis, Yogavedantanandaji and Akhilanandaji discussed the Life and Philosophy of this great man and presented a wonderful ideal before us. Swami Yogavedantanandaji is 80+ and he is the Registrar of the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy. He is very sharp and healthy and meticulous in work. He is also very understanding and empathic. It was always a pleasure interacting with him. There is so much to learn from such people. Swami Akhilanandaji on his part is a very soft spoken Swami and talks without notes and he can talk for hours. He is also an adept in music.
It’s important for Indians to take interest in their own Philosophy, for it is the study of Philosophy itself. Prof. Choudhury ji, a veteran who was a professor in Benaras Hindu University handled this class. He is quite old. I think he is 85+. He is very much childlike. He has extraordinary intellectual skills and is also a great devotee. He handled this subject really well. He dwelt upon the Six systems of Indian Philosophy namely, the Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Uttara Meemamsa and Poorva Meemamsa. He also discussed Buddhism, Jainism and the Philosophy of Shankara and Ramanuja. He is a very charming person and his classes were informative. Everyone felt emotional in his last class.
This was handled by two people, one a Professor from Delhi, Dr. Kanchana Mataji and the other Swami Paramapremanandaji Maharaj. They both discussed Kant, Heggel, Saint Augustine, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This subject gave us some idea about the Western Philosophical thought.
Spirituality and Ethics
This was a series of Extension Lectures conducted by Prof. Subbarajo ji. He dwelt on the needs of Ethics and how Ethics has been dealt with in our Scriptures. Subbarao ji is very much like a child and teaches very smoothly. On a lighter note, he used to start his classes with prayers which he used to chant in a way that is very similar to lecturing. I had a tough time controlling my laugh when my neighbor used to imitate that perfectly. In fact I went 5 minute late to his classes on many occasions just to avoid the first five minutes of the class where I couldn’t control my laugh. His classes were very very informative. He has done extensive research on this subject and has compiled notes also. If any of you need those notes, I can share.
There is no Karma Yoga class as such but only certain works related to Academy maintenance. That included cleaning bathrooms and toilets, preparing the Yoga Hall, watering the plants, preparing manure etc. Students were divided into groups who undertook different works. This class was supervised by Swami Shivabhaktanandaji Maharaj. He is such a noble soul. He is a real Karma Yogi. He is in a way the mother of the Academy. He also looks after the administrative works related to the Academy. He used to go to every room and individually wake up the students at 4:00AM. He seldom rested. He used to take a broom and clean the Verandah at as early as 4:30AM. He kept the entire premises under utmost cleanliness and orderliness. If anybody fell sick, he would personally monitor their health conditions until the person became normal. One of my roommates got a fracture and how well the Swami looked after him till the final day! I myself had diarrhea for about 3 days and Swamiji cared for me a lot. He works, works and works.
Yoga and Pranaayama
This class was handled by Swami Devabhaktananda. It used to be in the evening at 5:00PM. The following Asanas and Mudras were taught in the Yoga classes.
1. Surya Namaskar
3. Ardha Matyendrasan
22. Mudras & Pranayama
We used to get a day off on Sundays. It was used for washing clothes and visiting nearby places. We visited Swami Purushottamananda Ashram also known as Vasisht Gufa on one Sunday. This is believed to be a place where the great saint Vasishta Maharshi meditated. Later Swami Purushottamananda of Ramakrishna Order came here and did intense Tapasya. A small monastery is also here. This is just besides the river Ganges and is a very beautiful place. Another Sunday we went for Rafting in the River Ganga. I actually ended up hurting my toe here. It was a marvelous experience to take part in river rafting. But later Swami Yogavedantanandaji expressed his displeasure about people going for rafting in a holy river like the Ganges. So I didn’t go again. But many students went repeatedly. We also went to Devaprayag on one Sunday, and to Mooji Baba’s (A great saint of Sri Ramana Maharshi order) satsang on the other. On some Sundays, we just took rest. We also attended Ganga Arati in Triveni Ghat on one Sunday.
Celebrating Shivaratri and Rama Navami
Our Course period coincided with the celebration of two of our major festivals, namely the Shivaratri and the Rama Navami.
On the Shivaratri day, our early morning meditation class was held in the Samadhi Shrine of the Ashrama. On other days, it used to be in the lecture class. After the morning meditation class, there was Nagar Sankirtan. The photo of Lord Shiva was taken in a procession in the major streets of Rishikesh accompanied by chanting of His Holy name. In the evening we had the program in Vishwanath Mandir. The program went on all night with Keertans. I also got a chance to sing one of my favourite Shiva Bhajans. We went across the Ganges at midnight. After the Night Jagaran, we were served a sumptuous meal early in the morning.
The same activities were repeated in Ramanavami except that the programs were held in the day time.
There was a group photo session in which the President, the Swamis and Professors associated with the Course were present. Even individual photos could be taken.
On one Sunday, some of us volunteered for Clean Himalaya project in which we cleared the plastic garbage in some sections of Himalayan mountains.
Sivananda Ashrama distributes free food to the poor people everyday. Many of these people used to take food in plastic covers. We collected about 2300 rupees from among ourselves and distributed about 30 lunch boxes to the needy.
On the last day of the course we visited Kunjrapuri Shaktipeeth with Swami Devabhaktanandaji and Swami Parampremanandaji. In the night, a 6 of us gave a 40 minute Bhajan program in the Samadhi Shrine during Satsang, That was effectively the last event of our two months stay in Sivananda Ashram.
On the last day there was a valedictory program. Some selected students were called onto give their impressions of the course. This is a short clip of my talk.
Swami Vimalanandaji, the president of Divine Life Society was present in the valedictory program and handed over the certificates to all the participants. We were also given ‘Jnan Prasad’ in the form of many selected books.
What did I learn?
Except for the Western Philosophy, I had a fair idea of the subjects that were taught here. If you read the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, you are likely to know quite a lot of things. Swami Vivekananda is like an Ocean. So when reading him it is quite possible that we may not get hold of the particulars because particular will appear very finite. But for most of us, particulars are very important. Particulars are our way. So though I had studied Swamiji’s commentaries on the Patanjali Yoga Sutras and the Narada Bhakti Sutras, I couldn’t fathom their depth. This course helped me a lot to get more insights into these two subjects especially because it is taught day after day for two months while I would finish reading these two books in 2 days. About the Upanishads, you won’t get many better commentaries than Swami Vivekananda’s lectures. He is like the final authority on the subject of Upanishads and its practical application. But listening to Br. Gopi talking from depth and experience would give you an expert companion on the subject of the Self. The classes on Bhagavadgita were very very useful in that Swami Yogaswarupanandaji was able to give us some very wonderful ideas from this great book. I just had heard of Indian Philosophy and didn’t have much idea of it. The classes here helped me a lot to understand that. I had given up the practice of Yogasana after the accident that I met with in 2006. It was nice to get back there too.
Another great gain has been getting up early at 4:00AM and practicing meditation at 5:00AM. It had a lot of impact on my mind. Taking regular bath in the Ganges was a bliss. The other important thing was living in the company of monks. Some of these monks are 80+. But their agility in work, their commitment, unselfishness, orderliness – it was something very memorable. I am very thankful for all these. If you ask me whether you should take this course, I would say Yes. Not that the classes are very intense but if you have an open mind, it will help you a lot. The other thing is that this course was initiated by His Holiness Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. Whatever such great souls undertake, it will be a blessing for the mankind. Don’t expect everything to be perfect but you shall be provided with the needful.
“Om Tat Sat”