Swami Karunyananda came to Sri Sathya Sai Baba at age 60 and stayed with Him and served Sathya Sai Baba in Prashanti Nilayam for four decades. A common sight for the regular Puttaparthi visitor in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Swami Karunyananda happily gave up an entire service organisation to be with Sai Baba; he also directed his own devotees to become devotees of Sathya Sai Baba.
Birth and Childhood
There is a famous shrine town, Trivellore, near Madras. Near there is a smaller village, Kammavaripalayam. Living here was one man by name of Sri Venkatappa Naidu. He married one Subbalakshmi of Parlapalle Village in Gudur Taluk of Nellore District. A male child was born (10.10.1894) named Venkatasubbiah, taking both his parents names. When the child was three years old his father transferred to Pennalurpet. His mother taught him a valuable lesson arising from an argument that carried over from a heated exchange in school. The other boy grew angry to the extent of beating Venkatasubbiah.
Venkatasubbiah went home as asked his mother to tell the other boy’s mother to beat him. Subbalakshmi taught her son it was not right to take revengeful action. She took him to the other boy’s house. On the road, a dog was lying. She asked her son if he would bite the dog in retaliation if the dog bit him. He thought for a while and replied he will not bite the dog. He then understood the meaning of his mother’s words. When Venkatasubbiah was aged seven his mother developed a chronic illness and her husband took every step to allay her illness. After a time, all efforts made by him were futile; the wife and mother shed her mortal coil.
The boy was handed over to the care of the village mayor (kannam) Venkatarayadu. This couple saw to it the boy did all sundry works but did not see to it he was educated properly. Later, he was sent to other relatives where he gained a rudimentary primary education. Then his father, Venkatappa Naidu, died prematurely, and his relatives usurped all his property. Venkatasubbiah was orphaned.
During the time of his stay with the relatives of the Kannam, Venkatasubbiah started studying Amara Kosa, started visiting temples, singing devotional songs, particularly those of Bhadrachala Ramdas. He used to prostrate at the feet of sadhus and saints whenever they visited that temple and used to serve them, attending to their comforts. The elders of that temple were struck by this devotion and started calling him Balasubba Ramadas. He spent time waiting in a hermitage for the Mouna (silent) Swami to come out, dispense with silence and give teachings. In those days Ramana Maharshi was doing penance in the sacred shrine of Tiruvannamali and was well known and respected by all. Balasubbaramdas heard about this sage. The desire to meet this sage grew in him stronger and stronger. At age 20, Balasubbaramdas went to meet this holy personage.
In those days, Ramana Maharshi was staying in the Virupaksha cave in the Arunachala Hills. His path was the path of jnana (wisdom). He used to observe silence most of the time. Balasubbaramadas went straight into the cave in the Arunachala hill and prostrated himself at the feet of the sage Ramana Maharshi. He requested the sage with humility to teach him the spiritual truth. The sage urged him to know “Who am I”, and if he could get his, then atmabodha or spiritual wisdom was contained in this. The lad did not understand this and was dissatisfied. He remained in Tiruvannamalai because he considered it good to remain in a shrine town.
Becomes a Sanyasin
At that time, the British Government was enforcing conscription and compelling all able bodied men to join the Army. The Tiruvannamalai Police caught hold of Babasubbaramdas and told that he should join, and that they would compel him to go by force. He told them he would not be fit for that job as he considered non-violence as the righteous creed. He was so sincere in his belief the Police came to the conclusion he was no good for war and let him go.
In 1918 Balasubbaramadas came to Tirumalai and worshipped Sri Venkateswara who was hailed as the God granting boons to all in Kali Yuga. He then proceeded to Gogarbha to meet Sri Malayala Swami. On arrival he was told the Swami was in mouna (silence) and he would have to wait until he came out. At 12 noon, the Swami emerged from his cave and broke tapas (his austerities) and took water from his mudpot. Balasubbaramadas prostrated before the Swami, who cast an approving smile of grace upon him. He spoke some words in Tamil, which Balasubbaramadas did not know. The young man stayed for several days and developed the desire to stay longer. When the Swami left his abode to to establish another ashram called Vyasasrama (Ashram of the Sage Vyasa), Balasubbaramadas accompanied him, and along with others, began to busy themselves in lokaseva (service to humanity).
Shortly after, Balasubbaramadas developed a desire to visit Swami Sivananda in his ashram in Rishikesh on the Ganges River. He wrote a letter to Swami Sivananda about his intention to come and visit that ashram. Swami Sivananda gave permission to visit. With a companion, he took leave of Swami Malayala and departed.
His companion inexplicably disappeared. He met with another youngster and together went to Rishikesh. At Rishikesh, he developed the desire to join the order of renunciants.
He returned to Malayala Swami and asked him to grant initiation. Malayala Swami told his desire was good, but as he had not taken initiation, he could not grant it. He had to return to Rishikesh to recieve initiation from Swami Sivananda. Balasubbaramadas asked for a name to give to Sivananda as he always asked for a name taken when donning the saffron robe, and he would give that name. Malayala Swami told, “You have a lot of compassion to living beings, even from your childhood. So you can suggest the name “Karunyananda” as your preference. So it was that the young man, born Venkatasubbiah and named Balasubbaramadas for his service to monks in the temple, came to his name.
Visit of Mahatama Gandhi
In 1933, Mahatma Gandhi came to Rishikesh. His fame had spread far and wide. A public meeting was held to honour the Mahatma. Swami Karunyananda was among the crowd at the public meeting. Gandhi felicitated the sanyasins on his arrival, and added that their presence gave him joy. He asked what the sanyasins were doing. One stood and replied to the effect that they were doing penance (tapas). Gandhi asked, “What is tapas?” No-one answered him. He replied, “Embodiments of the Divine Atma, tapas (spiritual penance) does not mean leaving off all your duties and doing meditation. Thinking of oneself and not caring about others cannot be called penance. A life filled with non-violence is penance for the world. So you sadhus (monks) should work for the welfare of the world.”
Gandhi was to conclude with these words: “Dear Sadhus! Are you not the people who have dedicated your hearts to God? Service to man is service to God. Use your physical bodies which you have already dedicated to God to the service of God through the service of your fellow beings. If there is any man among you who would do such a seva, please raise your hand!”
At the conclusion of the Mahatama’s talk, there was silence. Gandhi told his followers that only one had raised his hand and to get his name. It was Karunyananda. He had joined the Sanyas order only in that year. Later, Karunyananda wrote to Gandhi seeking his blessings, sure that his effort to do service would be rewarded soon. Two months later, Gandhi wrote back and said,
“Mahatmaji, (my friend who is a great-souled one) you have written a letter to me seeking my blessings. My blessing is with me only; If you follow Truth without any lapse that itself will bless you. That is always with you. It will protect you throughout your life. Truth is the real form of God. If you have this with you, it is as good as having everything. So you must follow Truth. Worship it, put it into practice and offer it to the world. I am praying to God to bless your good efforts and thoughts”.
Establishment of Jeevi Karunya Sangha
(Compassion on the Living Association)
Swami Karunyananda got blessings of his guru, Swami Malayala, and received the name of Jeevi Karunya Sangha for his good works, to carry out “Service to Man is Service to God”. He took leave of his guru and stayed in East Godavari district, Samarlakota, Rajhamundry, and generally in the region of Godavari river in Andhra Pradesh, a state in Southern India. First, having no place to stay, he stayed in a small corner of a small temple on the banks of the canal in Samarlakota. He lived on temple offerings for food, for some time, until a merchant got arrangements made for his food.
Thereafter he had a vision wherein a figure clad in priestly clothes told him he would never want for food again and gave the blessing which bestows fearlessness. Shortly after, his meal arrangements improved significantly. One day he mentioned the task of service to man to friends and to form an association of pious souls for selfless service. Immediately many top people in the area came forward and agreement was made to start the service society. Again, Karunyananda returned to his guru to share the plans and to seek his guru’s blessings. Malayala Swami told Karunyananda “The All-Merciful Lord will help you in this venture. You need not have any doubt about it.”
The establishment of the East Godavari Jeeva Karunya Sangha proceeded with the following objects:
- Propagation of Non – Violence (Ahimsa)
- Uplift of Harijans (the outcasts in society)
- Free Medical Aid
- Refuge for the Physically Afflicted
- Supply of Milk for Undernourished Children
- Home for the Aged
- Doing cremation of unclaimed corpses
- Free Food for the Disabled
- Helping Children who have lost their way and unable to get back home
- Giving Aid to poor Children for Education
- Helping Families in Distress
- Service to Lepers
- To rush to the aid of peoples affected by Natural Calamities, such as cyclones, fires, accidents, etc.
- Health Education for the Masses
- Adult Education
- Imparting Spiritual Knowledge
The main purpose of the Association was to help those who had no support. Immediate needs could be satisfied through provision of food and clothing. But it is only temporary relief.
In accordance with the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, they wanted to impart skills in handicraft while offering help by way of food to the poor so that they may earn their own livelihood. Training was provided in rope making, weaving, carpentry, stitching, printing, etc, etc.
It was 1936. Immediately Swami Karunuyananda commenced propagation of non violence. He prevented animal sacrifice at temples – making entreaties not to kill dumb animals at temples. It created transformation in the minds of people who gave up that habit.
At Samakalot, there is a temple for the Goddess Nukalamma. People used to offer cocks, goats and buffalos in sacrifice to the goddess. They used to kill these in front of the temple. Karunyananda witnessed such cruel acts. He arranged public meetings in front of the same temple. He spoke to the people at great length and appealed to them to desist from this terrible act of violence. “All beings are children of Mother Earth; none will dare to eat his or her own children. How then will Goddess Nukalamma like to have her own children killed in front of her own shrine and offered in sacrifice?” In this manner Swami Karunyananda moved the hearts and minds of his hearers and they desisted from that day.
He arranged for propagation of non-injury by means of songs accompanied by bhajans and discourses. It had the desired effect. Also, in a nearby village of Yeleswaram, Swami Karunyananda’s disciples went to the Temple of Rupulamma and found animal sacrifice taking place. It was happening on a large scale. Swami Karunyananda addressed the people at a special meeting for propagation of non-violence. The sacrifices ceased.
Once Swami went to Guntur and stayed in a Shiva Temple. He heard a child crying in the night. He got up to investigate, and later found an orphan girl child in a drain. He got this child taken care of. He also created a cadre of service-volunteers to render all sorts of help for the public. They would reunite lost children with their parents at fairs, served old and sickly persons and quickly came under notice.
In 1940, Swami went to Rajahmundry and gave a discourse on the path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga). Many people surrounded him and sought the establishment of a pious association (sangha) in Rajahmundry also. Swami told that it was easy to make such talk but an association (sangha) would only be started once meat eating was given up and people took up a vegetarian diet.
Finally it was agreed to start the formation of a sangha in Rajahmundry on account of the enthusiasm of the youth in the area. They gave help to refugees from War in Burma through provision of food and medical services to the refugee trains. Many Keralites were on the trains. A nearby rice mill commenced donating bags of rice daily for this seva. Twice Swami assisted women to give birth on the railway platform, putting up a screen for privacy. He made arrangements for the women to stay for several days with full care before recommencing their journeys. There were corpses on the trains of those who had died in transit; Swami arranged cremations nearby the rail station.
The Sangha went on to render assistance to flood stricken people in Orissa, to provide famine relief in Rayalseema, to provide a leprosarium in Rajahmundry, to provide a home for the Aged, sanctuary for old and milk-less cows, and gifted a library to a local school. In 1952, Swami and his disciples went with courage into the cholera stricken district of Cuddapah and provided food, clothing, medical help, recovery of orphaned children, and the like. In 1955, Swami fell ill through overwork. He had moved to Rajahmundry, and was given quarters to rest and recover from his overwork; however, he did not stop his works.
In 1936, Swami Karunyananda had seen Sathyanarayana Raju (Sri Sathya Sai Baba) being taken in a procession with traditional accompaniments of Nadaswaram, music, etc, as a Divine Child, at Bhadachalam. It would be 40 years later that Swami Karunyananda would settle down in Puttaparthi.
Swami Karunyananda Speaks
I have the good fortune of being the first person to greet Bhagavan in the morning. I go upstairs, and open the door of Bhagavan’s room and have darshan and padnamaskar of Bhagavan. There is Divine Power in the feet of Swami. There is power in the glances of Swami. His body is not like ours, it is a Chinmaya Sareeram (divine energy form). Ours is a body made up of dust, which dissolves finally, into the primordial elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether.
He is not limited to one form. He is the form of all deities worshipped by religions. He is the very embodiment of Chaitanya (energy, force). He is the embodiment of all Gods. We cannot probe into Him. Have you not seen Him during the mornings? He has a special effulgence in Him; sometimes this effulgence is frightening. On the last day of Devi Navaratri (Dasara) when Poorna Ahuti is performed, His body temperature becomes hot. I have touched His feet at such times and found that they were very hot.
In 1958, Sathya Sai Baba visited Rajahmundry. Malayala Swamy and Karunyananda had the darshan of Sathya Sai Baba (Bhagavan). Bhagavan Baba called him by the name “Karunyananda,” and spoke to him as if he knew him very intimately. Karunyananda turned and bowed down to Bhagavan. It was night time, about 8:00 p.m. Bhagavan said, “Will you come to Kakinada? We will go together.” He replied, “As you please, Swami.”
Karunyananda went to Kakinada with Bhagavan Baba and during the car journey Bhagavan recounted his entire past history. He gave very intimate details of his conduct when he was young. Bhagavan was born in 1926. He was not even born yet when Kuranyananda was young, but all the same, He gave all the biographical details correctly.
Karunyananda became very devoted to Bhagavan Baba after hearing these words during the trip. The eagerness to meet Bhagavan Baba again was very strongly rooted in Karunyananda’s heart and he awaited the opportunity.
Baba visited Rajahmundry again after two years. Karunyananda spent the entire period of Baba’s stay in Rajahmundry in the Divine company only. His faith in Baba grew stronger. After this, Baba returned to Puttaparthi. Karunyananda started visiting Puttaparthi often, especially for the important celebrations.
Dassera is celebrated as a great event in Puttaparthi. Baba used to shower vibhuti from an empty pot on the idol of Shirdi Sai Baba in front of thousands of devotees in Poornachandra auditorium. The idol would be mounted on a pedestal. When Baba came, Karunyananda would hold an empty pitcher upside down. As soon as Baba put his hand into the pitcher, it would become heavy and on withdrawing his hand, it would again become lighter. It was the singular good fortune of Karunyananda to be with Baba and witness this event.
Once Karunyananda went to Chittoor on Sangham work. Due to exhaustion, he fell down in a swoon. The Government Hospital Doctor, Ramakrishna Rao, a Sai Devotee, attended on him. He informed Baba about this on the phone. Baba told him to send Karunyananda to Parthi immediately. They could not disturb Karunyananda at that stage as he was not in a fit state to travel. But on account of Baba’s advice, they took him to Puttaparthi by car. When the car got to Puttaparthi, Karunyanada got down, hurried to Baba’s abode and fell at his feet. “Have you come, Karunyananda. I have arranged a room in the ground floor as you cannot climb the stairs.” So Karunyananda had a room on the ground floor of the mandir during his illness.
Till 6th September Karunyananda used to visit Puttaparthi on and off, but from that date he settled for good at Puttapathi. In the beginning he used to stay in a room adjoining Baba’s room. Later on, he was allocated Room 24 in South Prashanthi.
Swami Karunyananda Speaks
We would be sitting with Bhagavan at times, and He would be found as if He was somewhere else. He would later say, “I have just returned from Madras. Papum (Alas)! Vijayalakshmi is suffering very much. I went to the hospital. I gave her prasad and there is no problem with her now. She will be all right.”
Thereafter confirmatory telegrams or letters would arrive adding that, “Bhagavan was here but He went away without taking [food or offering] anything.” Take the incident at Tirupati, which happened around 1989-90. It was 10:00 a.m. in the morning and Bhagavan was very much in Brindavan at Bangalore. Yet, He was simultaneously seen at Tirupati! He was given a chair; He was seated. All this happened. Should Bhagavan put on dramas like others? No, it is all the grace of Bhagavan.
Gold remains gold wherever it is thrown. One day Swami asked me, “Karunyananda, from the beginning I have always been simple, have I not?”
Swami was then wearing a torn dhoti that day. I did not like this. So, I asked Him, “Swami, why do you wear a torn dhoti when you have so many good dhotis?” I tried to prevail on Swami for removing the torn dhoti. Swami smiled and then pleaded, “Oh? Will you tear it up? Was it not my leela that day when I sought for a handful of atukulu (beaten rice) from Kuchela? [A story from Krishna’s life] Are you not seeing me for the last thirty six years like this?”
Once when I was returning from Kakinada in 1956 Bhagavan said, “Karunyananda, you are clapping in union seated before me now. A time will come when you can see me only from a distance.” He told me again in 1970, “You are able to sit and see Bhagavan now. A time will come when you have to see Swami from a hill only.”
On His 60th birthday in 1985, many devotees could only see Him from the distance of a hill.
Divine Discourse, Dassera, 08 October 1997
THE PASSING OF KARUNYANANDA
You may all know what happened today. Karunyananda had been with Swami for forty years. He was a centenarian. Today his body merged in the five elements. For the passing of any person the time, the place and the circumstances have to come together. Here in this hall the recitation of the Vedas is going on. The Jnana Yajna is being performed. He was listening to all these sacred things. He went to sleep at night and passed away in his sleep. He came to me a week ago. Swami asked him, “Karunyananda! What is it you want?” He replied: “I need nothing. I only want to merge in your Lotus Feet. There is no purpose in my continuing.” I asked him why he was speaking in this manner: “What more is there for me to enjoy in life? I have experienced everything. I have stayed and moved with Swami for forty years.” He came with me to Kashmir and Shimla, Gaya and Prayag. He came with me to all places, wherever I went. Staying with me, he passed away with a sense of fulfilment.
Samadhi of Swami Karunyananda
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