THE DIVINE LIFE SOCIETY
According to its mission statement, the Divine Life Society, founded in in 1936 by Swami Sri Sivananda, caters to the cultural and spiritual needs of all people irrespective of class, credo, nationality, or gender (Chidananda et al 15). The monastic and lay movement of Sivanada’s teachings are known throughout India and in many parts of the world (Miller 342). Seeking to achieve the noble mission of its founder, the Society strives to generate a spiritual transformation in humankind, to eradicate the animalistic behaviours of the human race and unfold the Divinity within each atman (inner-soul, or self) to perfection (Chidananda et al 30). The objectives of the Divine Life Society are accomplished through the publication of books, pamphlets and magazines which convey Sivananda’s beliefs concerning yoga (physical, mental, and spiritual discipline originating in ancient India) and Vedanta (ancient religious philosophy, translated directly as ‘the goal of knowledge’), the concept of universal religion and spiritual philosophy, and ancient medicinal practices (Chidananda et al 30). The Society also develops training centres for the practice of yoga and the revival of spiritualism and true culture (Chidananda et al 30). The Divine Life Society maintains the central objective of the dissemination of spiritual knowledge to all people of the world (Eilers and Eilers).
Sivananda Ashram, the Headquarters of the Divine Life Society, is located in Shivanandanagar, on the right back of the river Ganga. The ashram is three kilometres outside of Rishikesh town, twenty-four kilometres from the great pilgrimage centre of Haridwar, and serves as the ideal retreat for spiritual rejuvenation, wherein one may renew and refresh his or her Self physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually. At the ashram, a group of renunciates (Sannyasins) and spiritual practitioners (Sadhakas) strive to work with dedication to the service of all humanity, learning to practice the Yoga of Synthesis and to actively operate as centres of ideal spirituality (Chidananda et al 30). Visitors to the ashram are received at any time, although those intending a prolonged visit are obliged to make a written request and receive permission from the General Secretary of the Divine Life Society (Chidananda et al 31).
Membership with the Divine Life Society is open to all people of the world. A devotee must uphold the ideals of truth, non-violence, purity of atman and spiritualism (Chidananda et al 32). The Society is non-sectarian and embodies principles of all world religions and ways of spiritual life. Within the Society, there is no distinction between or disruption of varying traditions and religious affiliations (Chidananda et al 32). Ideally, the Divine Life Society endeavours to impart the mystery of spiritual action within the knowledge of the true Self and the effacement and transcendence of human ego; the primary teaching of Sivananda is that each soul maintains the potential to be divine and that the goal of every human being is to strive for the manifestation of Divinity within by “being good and doing good” (Chidananda et al 32).
The Divine Life Society aims to popularize the values of health, culture, and physical fitness as taught and established by Sri Swami Sivananda, through the daily practices of yoga asanas (postures) and surya-namaskara (sun salutation). The focus on health-building has set the Divine Life Society apart from most institutions devoted to spiritualism. From its inception, the Society has focused on the world-wide yoga practice of founder Sivananda, one of the earliest movements in the modern direction of yogic practice embedded in the heart of achieving Divinity. The spiritual teachers of The Divine Life Society have been welcomed internationally as cultural and spiritual ambassadors, whose dedication to service and authenticity in the field of yoga has enticed followers throughout the world. (Chidananda et al 32). Sri Swami Sivananda composed several texts on yoga, which have been translated into various international languages and propagate the dissemination of one of the most precious aspects of Indian spiritual heritage (Chidananda et al 33) [Sri Swami Sivananda composed hundreds of books on the practice of yoga and its relation to spirituality, culture, and religion. The most popular among these books is a collection of volumes named The Science of Yoga].
According to Sri Swami Sivananda and the Divine Life Society, daily meditation sessions are vital to the reconstruction of human spirituality (Chidananda et al 25). They permit the mind and soul of an individual to work toward the ultimate goal of Divinity within the atman (Chidananda et al 37). In the story of his attainment of spirituality and the Divine Life, Sivananda denied himself all food, company, and talk, dove deeper into Samadhi (superconscious state), wherein he remained behind closed doors for several days without relaxation from his devotion to meditation (The Divine Life Society 8). He renounced all contact with the outside world and stripped away all elements of duality in severe meditation (Miller 360). This piety resulted in his merging with the Divine, freed from all limitations and chains of materialistic life (The Divine Life Society 8). Dedication to meditation is important to Sivananda, who throughout his life meditated for eight to sixteen hours per day with great commitment (The Divine Life Society 10). The ideal of meditation is to aid the human mind in concentrating its energy, turning it within itself, and focusing it upon the Divinity that resides within the atman. It is through deep and devoted meditation that the human mind may realize the truth of Divinity: that he is and always has been God Himself, in the reality of the world (Chidananda et al 18).
In his teachings, Sivananda maintains that meditation and yoga practice, and devotion to the Divine Life may lead an individual to the discovery of true religion. His stress is upon the unity of all religions (The Divine Life Society 12). According to Sivananda, religion is the practical aspect of philosophy while philosophy acts as the rational aspect present in religious practice (Sivananda 315). His Divine Life establishes that religion is not merely speaking or displaying the beliefs of the individual, but living by the truths expounded by those beliefs. The religious affiliation one follows, the prophet one adores, the language or nation of the individual, or age and gender are not considered a part of true religion. With devotion to tapas (any form of self-control), one may be considered religious (Chidananda et al 2). Since real religion is deemed to be the religion of one’s heart, purification of the heart is viewed as the primary goal of seekers of the Divine Life. To discover the basis of true religion, one should strive to live a life of truth, love, and purity; demonstrating control over dishonourable or immoral behaviours, conquering and controlling the mind, and serving all of humanity in goodwill and fellowship (Chidananda et al 3). The discovery of true religion occurs within the heart.
Sri Swami Sivananda teaches his students that living in spiritual attainment is the highest goal of human life. Spiritual living constitutes the continual eradication of the animalistic nature within the human mind and heart, refining and purifying the education of the human nature so that consciousness begins a vertical movement toward the Divine (Eilers and Eilers). Considering that spiritual life is the elimination of the animalistic tendencies and awakening of the Divine, all spiritual practices such as brahmacharya (celibacy) become natural aspects of the achievement of true Divine Life. If the human heart and mind are consumed with the realization of pleasure and sense satisfaction, it is difficult to attain true Divinity within (Eilers and Eilers). Sivananda declares that spiritual realization must be achieved with committed and genuine prayer (sadhana), a vital endeavour for all of humankind. Through sadhana, the human mind achieves a realm above the baser instincts of animals and maintains the power of understanding and reasoning, which aids in distinguishing between such dichotomies as good and bad, true and false, right and wrong (Chidananda et al 10). In the eyes of the Divine Life Society members, Swami Sri Sivananda is a guru who envisions all of humanity as one in the Vedantic sense of unity and spiritual attainment (Miller 354). Sivananda teaches that through prayer and the striving for this realization, one may achieve Divinity within the soul. Spirituality transcends the worship of deities within temples, ritual performances, codes of behaviour and conduct, and the practices of any regular cult, creed, or religion. It is, rather, the comprehension of true values by which unity may be recognized within the self, the atman (Chidananda et al 29)
The Divine Life Society advances these spiritual teachings of Sivananda among its students and members by conducting classes on yoga, Vedanta and the traditions of Indian Culture including lessons in the Sanskrit language, music, and physical culture (Chidananda et al 34). The Society has developed intense training camps for its devotees in which participants are educated on yoga asanas, pranayama (extension of the breath), and meditation (Chidananda et al 35). Courses in yoga are offered throughout India, outside the ashram, and in other institutions and organizations, and remain inspirational to students, members, officials, and the general population. The Society carries the principles of Sivananda’s yoga through its instructors as they travel across the nation to conduct courses and maintain the practice of yoga among the people. The Divine Life Conferences, held regularly in varying locations throughout India, have become effective means of summoning the moral and cultural forces of people and gathering them for the sole purpose of achieving both individual and social harmony through meditation and seeking after The Divine (Chidananda et al 36).
The Society endeavours to live by Sivananda’s perpetual philosophy that “goodness is the face of Godliness” (Chidananda et al 3), and therefore induces the unity of all religions and goodwill among communities, promoting harmony and peaceful relationships throughout Indian society (Chidananda et al 32). At the ashram, no being that arrives in distress is turned away without aid; no hungry person is refused a meal; no homeless individual is denied shelter for at least one night (Chidananda 34). To endorse charity and goodwill among humankind, The Divine Life Society has created several sects within the institution which strive to serve Indian society and aid the poor, the derelict, the sick, and those lacking in spiritual practice. The founding of the humanitarian Social Welfare Project has assisted in the development of charitable sections within The Society (Chidananda 33). The Society provides assistance to government programs and national funds, such as the Small Savings Fund, the National Savings Certificates, Defence Bonds, and other collection drives such as relief funds for natural disasters, famine, and health epidemics (Chidananda et al 34).
As taught by Sivananda, education is a vital part of personal development and a means of attaining Divinity within the individual. He propounds that education and culture are necessary elements to allow one to sufficiently grasp his or her position in the world, to allow the ideal and the real to live in close proximity within consciousness (Chidananda et al 4). Education of the jiva (empirical self) allows the human mind to recognize the notion of the self in reality and realize that although the self exists within the world, it is not actually of this world. It is this acknowledgement that allows the human mind to transcend consciousness and ultimately achieve unity with the Divine through devout prayer, meditation, and yoga practices (Chidananda 10). Education allows the individual to develop personality, knowledge of the physical world, an adjustment of the self within society, and a realization of true and permanent values (Chidananda et al 11).
Trained as a doctor prior to his induction into the Sankarachya order, Sri Swami Sivananda consistently extolled the benefits of providing medical assistance to the poor and sick of India. The Divine Life Society offers free medical services year-round through the hospital at the ashram, including Eye Camps for free surgical and medical treatment of the public, annual Women and Children’s Medical Treatment Camps, First Aid Training Courses, and Child and Maternity Welfare Camps (Chidananda et al 33). To provide further medical relief to the public, the Society also runs three specific sections within the ashram hospital: the Allopathic Section, the Ayurvedic Section, and the Leprosy Relief Section (Chidananda et al 35). The Allopathic Section is equipped with a clinical laboratory, x-ray machine, physiotherapy facilities, and twenty hospital beds. The hospital at the ashram treats more than 30,000 patients annually. The Ayurvedic Section offers care according to the science of Ayurveda (a medicinal practice native to India), in keeping with its injunctions. The medicines prepared in the Ayurvedic Section are manufactured from pure Himalayan herbs and distributed free of charge from the ashram dispensary to patients seeking treatment (Chidananda et al 35). The Leprosy Relief Section, through its work, is regarded as indicative of the love and charity extended by the Divine Life Society. Two hundred or more leprosy patients are rehabilitated and cared for at the ashram (Chidananda et al 37). Just as with membership within the Divine Life Society, all services of the ashram hospital are free to patients irrespective of caste, race, or wealth.
The Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy of The Divine Life Society trains those who seek greater knowledge of Indian culture and the practice of yoga as the discipline by which personal integration and human welfare may be maintained. The Forest Academy prints cultural and spiritual books, journals, and other literature of the Society, disseminating spiritual and cultural knowledge to the masses, which are then distributed by the Free Literature Section (Chidananda et al 36). The intentions of the printing and publication sections of the Divine Life Society are to carry out the educational programme of the Society and its teachings, and to propagate knowledge of Divinity and the importance of spirituality within each individual soul by contacting man through literary discourse on various topics: metaphysics, ethics, religion, mysticism, psychology, parables, stories, catechism, yoga, prayer, and ritual (Chidananda et al 13).
Within the ashram, there are several additional distinct sections that assist in the charitable efforts of the Divine Life Society. The Annapurna Annakshetra, the common kitchen of the ashram, feeds its 250 permanent residents, sannyasins and sadhakas, as well as visiting sadhakas and varying numbers of other guests and pilgrims to Rishikesh (Chidananda et al 36). The Guest House fulfils the needs of those who visit the ashram for spiritual guidance and training in the physical practice of yoga. Temples of Worship accommodate prayer services for world peace, conduct worship and the recitation of the Divine Name throughout the twenty-four hours of every day. The Library holds hundreds of volumes of the most precious and important books in yoga philosophy and practice, and Indian culture. The Correspondence Section of the ashram replies to the innumerable queries and requests from people throughout the world (Chidananda et al 36). The Social Service Wing of the ashram organizes the services of medical and financial aid to the poor and needy, relief works of India, and abundant gestures of charity by the Divine Life Society to ease the sufferings of all people from poverty, disease, and ignorance of spiritual realization (Chidananda et al 37).
The Divine Life Society continues to service the citizens of India and the world through the dissemination of its literature and propagation of the routes to achieving spiritual life and unity of the atman with Divinity. The Society maintains that the human is at once a physical embodiment, mental phenomenon, and spiritual entity which strives to attain Divinity and liberation from the material and animalistic world and achieve divine love based on proper understanding of the world (Chidananda et al 14). Divine Life is a system of religious life which is beneficial and suitable to all people, from all walks of life. It is practiced by the office-goer and the recluse alike, in all stages and phases of life (Chidananda et al 3). The mission of humankind is to realize that all people are the immortal Spirit, Divinity, in mortal form. The mind and intellect of the human being function in light of the Divine Spark dwelling within each individual (Chidananda 17). [For a listing of characteristics defining the Divine Life as taught by Sri Swami Sivananda, see Swami Sivananda and the Divine Life Society, pp. 16 – 19]. Since its inception, the Divine Life Society has endeavoured to maintain itself as a physical location for training of suitable devotees striving for the acquisition of higher knowledge of human life (Chidananda et al 30). The fundamental aims and objects of The Divine Life Society remain purely spiritual and cultural, non-sectarian, universally applicable, and flawlessly tolerant (Chidananda et al 37).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Chidananda, Krishnananda, Sivananda, Venkatesananda (2000) Swami Sivananda and The Divine Life Society. Shivanandanagar: The Divine Life Society. E-Book.
Eilers, Bill and Eilers, Susan (1998) “The Divine Life: An Interview with Swami Chidananda”. In Enlightenment Magazine. Cohen, Andrew (ed.). EnlightenNext, Inc.
Miller, David (1997) “The Spiritual Descent of the Divine: The Life Story of Swami Sivananda”. In Hindu Spirituality Volume II. Sundararajan and Mukerji (ed.). Delhi: The Crossroad Publishing Company. Print.
Sivananda, Swami (1981) Science of Yoga. Shivanandanagar: The Divine Life Society. Print.
The Divine Life Society (2000) Swami Sivananda: A Modern Sage. Shivanandanagar: The Divine Life Society. E-Book.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Sri Swami Sivananda
Yoga of Synthesis
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Article written by Krista Conrad (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.