Balakrishna Menon, the future Swami Chinmayananda, was born on May 8, 1916 as the son of Parakutti and Kuttan Menon in Ernakulam, Kerala in the noble aristocratic family that strictly followed the Kerala traditions. Saints and sages often visited the house. They all paid lots attention to Bala, predicting that he will have a great future. At an age of 5, Balan lost his mother; his father later remarried. Balan, as he was fondly called, spent his early childhood amidst a lot of love and attention amongst a large extended family of cousins, uncles and aunts. He grew up as a charming and mischievous boy adored by all. Being the brilliant and intelligent student that he was, he used to complete his lessons easily without any effort. He loved reading, swimming and badminton. Ever ready for mischief and play, full of brilliant ideas and jokes, and great at mimicking everyone with great wit and humor, he never missed an opportunity to tease his sisters. Since early childhood he was an excellent actor, ever full of dynamism, a never ending source of new ideas for family and friends. Balan attended English Modern school where he also learned Malyalam and Sanskrit. Even later on as a Swami, he often used to make comments and jokes in Malyalam.
It was the family tradition that the whole family gathered together for daily satsang and puja at sunset. Children also had to participate in it daily. Swamiji used to tell us: "As I was sitting there in the pooja room waiting for the Arathi, which meant the end of satsang, I used to gaze at the pictures of Gods right in front of me. The one I liked the most was Lord Siva. To pass time, I developed my own private game. I used to look at Lord Siva with Ganga flowing out from his matted hair, with the serpent for a headband and the crescent moon lighting his smiling compassionate eyes. Then I would shut my eyes to see whether I could see Him in my own mind, then open the eyes again and compare the picture. I would do that again and again, till I got it right to the smallest detail. With practice, I was able to picture Shankara with closed eyes, exactly as He was on the altar and later the picture would came readily as ordered. I used to look forward to the satsang for I enjoyed my game." This game gave him a job so sweet and pleasant that it became a habit to call upon Lord's form even later on in his life. "At the time thousands of questions used to come to my mind as to 'why' and 'whereof' of the whole 'show' - and I had no answers till years later," adds Swamiji.
Involvement in the independence movement
In 1940 young Balan joined the Lucknow University, where he studied English literature and law. He was very active in life on campus, appeared in several dramas in the theater, and became a member of the literary club, the debating club, and was on the university tennis team. Balakrishnan Menon was an attractive young man and in demand in social circles. But it wasn't all he did. Sensitive to the life around him, in 1942 Menon joined the Indian independence movement, for independence of his Country was an issue very dear to his heart. He was involved in writing and distributing leaflets, organizing public strikes and giving speeches. Menon's rare leadership qualities made him visible in the movement and soon a warrant was issued in his name. He had to go into hiding, but soon after returning he was caught and put in prison. He spent several months in the overcrowded prison in terrible conditions. Terror, near-starvation diet, lack of hygiene and lack of ventilation invited disease.
In prison he had plenty of time to reflect on his own life, as well as on life in general. He had seen lifeless bodies carried out daily - the reality of death could not be ignored. Questions such as: "What is the meaning of this life? Is there something more permanent and if so, what is it?" occupied his mind. Weakened by months in jail, he fell ill with typhus fever. There was little hope for his recovery. Consequently, he was carried out into the night and tossed on the side of the road on the outskirts of the city. Swamiji reports the event saying:
"The British officer threw me out when he realized I had contracted typhus in his prison. He did not want another body on his record! But luckily for me, a kindly Christian-Indian lady took me into her home and cared for me like a son. Later she told me that my nose reminded her of her son who was with the army. Suppose you can say I was......... 'saved by the nose'."
However, Swamiji was not predestined to die then, for his great mission in life had not yet started. After several difficult weeks and months he slowly regained strength and got well.
As soon as Menon regained health he was eager to get on with his life. He finished the university studies, graduated from law and English literature and chose the journalist's career. In 1945 he moved to Delhi, the center of political activities, where he joined the editorial staff of the national newspaper of the Indians, The National Herald. Menon's passion for self-expression, the need to participate in the nation's revival gained him reputation of an extremely dynamic and controversial reporter. He was loudly voicing his opinion on every aspect of Indian life history, culture and of course the current topics, such as inevitability of independence, and the social issues. His innate compassion for man was evident through all the writings. His sympathies were with the poor, but at the same time he actively participated in life of the privileged class.
His eloquence, brilliant intelligence, and the unique ability to come up with a joke on any occasion made him a popular member of a local Club where he was a loud voice in controversial discussions on social and political issues. But even though young and ambitious, Menon soon discovered for himself the emptiness of the so called "good life". Underneath the noisy parties, the expensive clothes and jewelry and empty talk he sensed dissatisfaction, agitation and often despair. The selfishness and insensitivity of the ruling class were striking.
This made him discover again the topic left behind some fifteen years back - the Hindu religion. The old memories of childhood; the joy of falling asleep with the mantra on his lips, the loving and reassuring picture of an old grandmother who dedicated her last years to chanting the name of Lord Krishna.
Japa came back to Menon. He took up the practice again, with the refreshing realization that perhaps there was more to life than political and social struggle, parties and intellectual discussions - though he still did not know what it was. "This feeling" as Swamiji recalls it later, was soon followed by an intense study of philosophy, both Indian and European. Secretly, before going to sleep he was doing the OM NAMAA SIVAYA mantra chanting.
It was at this crucial moment in his life that he came across books of Swami Sivananda, Vivekananda, Ram Tirtha, Aurobindo, Ramana Maharshi and others. He began studying philosophy, both Indian and European. The most profound influence made on Menon writings of Swami Sivananda, who stressed: "Be good. Do good." "Serve, Love, Purify, Meditate, Realize, and be free". Menon was impressed, but doubts still lingered in the mind of this self-acclaimed agnostic. He decided to explore it right where the action was - in the Himalayas - the center of spiritual life in India. Thus in the summer of 1947 the radical young journalist arrived at Swami Sivananda's ashram with the intention to find out "What is the true meaning of spirituality? Does it make any sense in life?" It would be a good subject for his new article, he thought.
However, already the first meeting with Swami Sivananda blew away Menon's preconceived ideas about spirituality. The master's dignity, his brilliant intelligence, the special aura of divinity captured him. Further more, the ashram was not at all what he expected. It was a dynamic place where numerous spiritual and social projects were continuously going on, and yet there was a very special peace and tranquillity felt in the mist of all the activity. It brought about the fascination in the doubting mind of the young journalist Swami Sivananda, who right away saw a great spiritual potential in Menon paid him special attention and used to tease him: "God gave you such an intelligence! Why don't you use it for Him?! You can join us and become a swami!"
A month later Menon returned to Delhi as a changed man and, a year later moved to Rishikesh, but for some time he was still going back and forth to Delhi continuing his career of a journalist.
Finally he permanently joined Sivananda ashram, and on the 25th of February 1949, the auspicious day of Sivaratri Swami Sivananda initiated Menon to the order of sanyas. His name become now SWAMI CHINMAYANANDA SARASWATI, the one who revels in the bliss of pure consciousness.
Swamiji studied and worked in the ashram for some time. But for him the only path was GNANA YOGA, therefore Swami Sivananda told him: "You need to master the scriptures! Go to Uttarkashi to study under the renown vedantic master, Swami Tapovan!"
Thus Swamiji spent 8 years studying the scriptures at the feet of Sri Swami Tapovan in the high Himalayas in Uttarkashi. It was not easy, for Swami Tapovan was a great disciplinarian and a very demanding teacher. He never repeated his lesson twice. Swamiji lived in the cowshed with the stone for a pillow. However, Chinmaya was the uttama adhikari (the best Student), his burning desire for Self-knowledge knew no obstacles. He was often seen sitting all night in meditation in a quiet forest or on the Ganges banks. Days he spent on studies and contemplation and guru seva (service to the guru).
After finishing studying the Bhagavad Geeta, Upanishads and Brahma Sutras Swamiji says to his guru: "I feel the immense urge to go down to the plains and share the wealth of the holy scriptures with my fellow countrymen. I want to run down like the a Ganga which nourishes and inspires with its refreshing waves."
Swami Tapovanam did not share the enthusiasm of his disciple. He told him: "People are not ready yet, they will not understand you!" The guru suggested instead: "Take a trip down to plains wandering around as a renunciate, living as a beggar among those you had once known." Swamiji traveled on foot some six months, living on bhiksha, sleeping in ashrams, temples, and under wayside trees.
In November of 1951, Swami Chinmayananda completed his tour of India and returned to Tapovan Kutir in Uttarkasi, but he came back even more convinced that his mission in life was to bring the rich and forgotten Vedantic philosophy to every corner of the world. He had witnessed the spiritual and economic degradation throughout his homeland and was resolved to do series of Geeta Gnana Yagnas in all of the big cities of India and abroad.
But Swamiji was not going to disobey his Guru, and would not leave without his guru's blessings. Again he asked Swami Tapovan for permission, and this time Swami Tapovan said, all right, go and start your gnana yagnas but on one condition - you must have at least four people in the audience including the speaker, and Guru's words were fulfilled. Truly enough the first gnana yagna in Poona started with four people.
Spiritual renaissance begins
Thus Swami Chinmayananda came down from the high Himalayan peaks to bring the knowledge of the rishis and with it the revival of moral and spiritual values in the whole nation. The need for such a direction in India's recently won independence was urgent for the nation was falling down from the philosophical level of the old principles of Vedanta. His primary aim was: " To convert Hindus to Hinduism".
This hasn't been an easy task. From the very beginning Swamiji had to face lots of opposition; it seemed that he had everyone against him. Never before was studying of the scriptures in India open to everyone. Up till then the sacred spiritual knowledge was kept secret, being a privilege of the learned priest class. So when Swami Chinmayananda came thundering down with the message of the scriptures, tradition bound India was shocked. The priest class, the guardians of the scriptures hearing that the young radical swami had invaded their closely guarded territory, were outraged and criticized him strongly. Not only was he taking the secret knowledge to the streets by holding public lectures, but he was teaching it in English, the language of the foreigners! The priests and preachers called him a rebel and swore that God himself would tear out Swamiji's tongue for such sacrilege."
Even the educated class would not support the renaissance of spiritual culture that Swamiji was initiating. The English educated intelligencia was not ready to receive his message. Trying to imitate the ways of the West, materialistic and skeptical, they were oblivious of the traditional Aryan spiritual culture of Hinduism.
But Swamiji did not give up. He used to tell us that Success is our birthright, and he has proven it with his life. He knew that given time he would win the hearts and minds of the nation. Undefeated, He traveled through the country urging that all national activities be should be organized around higher spiritual ideals, proving, that spirituality is not a hindrance to progress, but enriches life and gives it new meaning. Swamiji, the greatest missionary of our times, worked tirelessly for 42 years in spite of His ill health, traveling throughout India and the whole world with no holidays, no breaks. He used to say: "When I rest, I rust". His joyous presence brought inspiration and strength around. Easily approachable, He clarified doubts and anxieties, and offered guidance at the satsangs and discussions to men and women across the globe. Swamiji always found time for an honest seeker, regardless of whether he was a child or the distinguished scholar or politician. Ever punctual, never complaining, full of enthusiasm, ready to help and guide, never missed an appointment, even when sick. He taught the importance of spiritual knowledge in every day life. His style was new, somehow shocking but irresistible. He explained the philosophy of ancient scriptures with the logic of science and at the same time with dynamism and humor, the methods suitable to the modern youth. His charming smile cheered hearts, and the magnet of his clear strong voice soon started drawing hundreds then thousands to the lectures.
At the lectures Swamiji demanded that everyone have the Upanishad and Geeta text in hand, and that everyone participate in the chanting of the Sanskrit texts.
Apart from lecturing Swami Chinmayananda wrote commentaries to major Vedantic texts as well as many of His own books that dealt with different aspects of true religion, including books for children. His approach is unique. By the use of scientific logic and simplicity of style, He made the profound scriptural knowledge easy to understand and brought it closer to us by illustrating it with examples from our own life. Written in modern language, they perfectly serve the needs of the modern people.
Once a child asked Him, Swamiji where do you live? Swamiji answered: "at the airports and the train stations". And it is true; this great saint did not have a home of His own, as a matter of fact, He owned nothing. Until the end of His life, He never stayed in one place for more than a week. With "Hari Om" He used to arrive and part with "Hari Om". He would leave one place for another, taking with Him but the love and the satisfaction that more hearts were inspired to live a Vedantic way of life, the life of spiritual knowledge and noble values. He used to say: "Vedanta makes you a better Hindu, better Christian better Muslim as it makes you a better human being."
Already in the 60s the results of Swami Chinmayananda's work were striking. The Chinmaya movement touched every corner of India and it was the time for Swamiji to take the principles of Vedanta out into the world. He started lecturing abroad. Year by year Mission centers were growing in numbers everywhere around the world. The Mission's motto is: "Give maximum happiness to the maximum of people for the maximum of time.
But Swamiji knew that by simply attending the lectures and reading the books our lives would not be changed. That is why He introduced the weekly study groups and classes, where newly learned ideas could be reinforced and assimilated through mutual discussions.
Swamiji gave special attention and affection to children, for He saw them as the builders of the future. For them He organized the Bala Vihar and Yuva Kendra classes, which He called children's clubs. Those classes teach the principles of Hindu religion and culture, helping the youngsters to unfold their hidden potential in the light of dynamic spirituality. Many of them have grown up as the most successful and highly cultured members of society. To see them prosper, Swamiji remarked, was the best Gurudakshina he ever received.
Chinmaya Mission sponsors 62 schools in India where apart from the normal school curriculum children learn the Vedic heritage. There are also nursing and management schools to provide higher education. The spreading of the Vedantic knowledge is assured by continuous publishing and distributing Swamiji's books all over the world.
In order to have the Vedantic knowledge brought to every corner of the world and every avenue of life, Swamiji started ashrams in India and America where the new teachers, brahmacharis and Swamis of the Mission were trained according to the old guru-kula tradition. The main ashram in India is in Bombay, and in Himalayas in Siddhabari. In America ashrams are in Piercy, San Jose, Washington, Chicago, Flint, New York state, and Florida. In His great compassion, Swamiji wanted to help poor, sick and the old. That is why He started free clinics, hospitals, vocational Hari Har schools, orphanages and old peoples homes.
Life long Achievements
In 1992 Swami Chinmayananda gave an address in the United Nations titled "Planet in Crisis". Just before the Mahasamadhi, Swamiji was recognized as a world-renown teacher of Vedanta and Hindu religious leader. He was selected as a President of Hindu religion for the Centennial Conference of the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, where Swami Vivekananda gave His address a hundred years ago. He was also honored in Washington, DC, at "World Vision 2000", a conference of religious leaders sponsored by Hindu Vishwa Parishad on August 6-8, 1993. The award was to be presented to Swamiji for His selfless service to humanity and as his extraordinary achievement in creating a renaissance of spiritual and cultural values in the country of His birth, India.
Unfortunately, Swamiji was not able to appear for the last two functions as He attained Mahasamadhi on August 3rd.
Swami Chinmayananda, the greatest Missionary and the visionary of our times left His bodily form in San Diego on August 3rd but His mission will continue, carried out by all of us with the zeal and love that He taught us for years. His body was taken to India and buried in Siddhabari ashram, but His teachings and His achievements will live forever.