*Disclaimer* We firmly condemn Swami Satyananda Saraswati, alongside other leading figures in his ashram, and see them for the abusers that they are. We stand with the victims and hope that our articles can shed light on the truth.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati has been one of the leading voices in Tantra, Kundalini, and the yogic path in modern times.
“Yoga is not an ancient myth buried in oblivion. It is the most valuable inheritance of the present. It is the essential need of today and the culture of tomorrow”.– Swami Satyananda Saraswati
Before we get into his biography and teachings, it is also important to mention that there has been a great deal of controversy, wherein Swami Satyananda Saraswati has been accused by followers of child sex abuse.
The life of Swami Satyananda Saraswati traced a fascinating arc of spiritual prowess from a young age, culminating in a global legacy of yoga teaching. It is also claimed that he attained self-realization.
His guru Swami Sivananda noted that Satyananda was extremely established in the state of detachment:
“Few would exhibit such intense vairagya at such an early age. Swami Satyananda is full of Nachiketa vairagya.”
Vairagya roughly translates as dispassion, detachment, or renunciation.
In this article, we’ll take a look at:
- His Life and Background
- His Teachings
- Controversy & Allegations
Life And Background
Born in Almora, India in 1923, Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s family had a lineage of warriors, with many of them serving in the army, including his father.
During his youth, he received a classical education and delved deep into the study of Sanskrit, Vedic literature, and the Upanishads.
From an early age, it was clear that Satyananda had a spiritually inclined state of mind. At just six years old, he started having outer body experiences in which his awareness would see his own motionless body lying on the floor.
Many local sadhus reassured his parents that he had a highly acute spiritual awareness. Awareness of death, or motionlessness of the body, has a history in Eastern philosophy as a process that invokes enlightenment, or self-realization.
Sri Ramana Maharshi became enlightened through death-realization, and the Buddha preached in the Satipatthana Suttas the concept of death contemplation: maranasati.
Also the familiar savasana pose we see at the end of most yoga classes – the corpse pose – is meant to bring about death contemplation!
Leaving Home In Search Of Spirituality
This experience of disembodied awareness continued throughout his teenagehood. At 19, he met a tantric bhairavi, Sukhman Giri.
A “tantric bhairavi” is a title for a female adept in Kundalini and Tantra, wherein they have a mastery of redirecting sexual energy into divine energy, amongst other skills.
This tantric yogini gave him shaktipat and proceeded to initiate him in secret tantric rituals of the course of 6 months.
Shaktipat is a guru-to-disciple process in which the goal is to have the student’s kundalini energy awakened to promote awareness of the true self. We talk about it in more depth in our biographical article for Gurumayi Chidvilasananda.
At the end of his training, she directed him to find a guru in order to stabilize his spiritual experiences.
“One day I met a mahātma, a great saint, who was passing by my birthplace…So he told me I should find a guru.”– Swami Satyananda Saraswati in his early text ‘Yoga From Shore To Shore’
This led him to search across India, eventually reaching Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges. At that time, Rishikesh was a small settlement, which later gained international spiritual recognition after the Beatles visited and popularized a local ashram.
In Rishikesh, Swami Satyananda met and studied under the legendary Swami Sivananda. Sivananda initiated him into the Saraswati order: a subdivision of the Dashnami swamis as organized by Adi Shankaracharya.
Taking vows as a sannyasin, Satyananda Saraswati renounced worldly desires formally. He stayed with Sivananda for the next 12 years, practicing a custom of sannyasins to beg for alms to survive.
He learned from Sivananda the secrets of spiritual life and became an authority on Tantra, Vedanta, and Kundalini yoga.
Throughout this period, Satyananda accrued his titles, traditionally representing different stages and aspects of a yogic path in Hindu Shaivism:
A renunciate who is on the path to achieving divine union with the self (swa).
A Sanskrit title of honor meaning “supreme swan”. A swan is at home on land, as well as water, and so this title means one who is awakened (or at home) in all realms.
A new name ending with the suffix – ananda, meaning “supreme bliss”, attained through a divine quality.
This is a last name given in reference to the divine quality the swami attains in #3, expressed as wisdom of nature.
After this 12 year period, Satyananda undertook a second type of renunciation, in which he left the Rishikesh ashram and his guru to travel throughout India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka as a wandering sannyasin.
During his wandering, he founded the International Yoga Fellowship Movement in the early 60s – a global coming together of like-minded yoga practitioners from all over the world.
Bihar School Of Yoga
Establishing himself more permanently in one spot, Satyananda founded The Bihar School of Yoga in Munger in 1964. This ashram became an internationally recognized hub for the training of prospective yoga instructors and for conducting courses on yoga.
Satyananda also was adept at public speaking and went on to lecture and teach yogic philosophy and spiritual instruction for two decades in places such as Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, and the United States.
His lecturing held weight, and members of his global student body established yoga centers all over in their respective countries.
Embarking on his third renunciation in 1988, he handed over the leadership of his ashram in Munger to his disciple Niranjanananda Saraswati. After his departure, he soon settled in Rikhia, Jharkhand, living once again as a sannyasin performing Vedic sadhana.
Establishment Of Rikhiapeeth
After renouncing teaching, disciples, and his institution, he entered meditative seclusion, stating the below:
“I have nothing more to say to anyone and no further guidance to give. For over twenty years I have lived with the people answering their questions and helping them on their spiritual path. Now I withdraw my responsibility.
Those who are receptive, they will surely benefit from what I have told them, but those who are not, they will now have to find their own way.”– Swami Sityananda Saraswati
Performing years of long and arduous yogic sadhanas and rituals, Swami Satyananda Saraswati resided in Rikhia for 20 years, until his death in 2009.
Despite renouncing his life’s work and teaching up until his meditative seclusion, Satyananda ended up continuing to give spiritual instruction in his final years at Rikhia.
Satyananda claims he received a vision of a divine mandate: “Take care of your neighbors as I have taken care of you”.
Following the key tenets of his guru Sivananda: “serve, love, and give”, he established RIkhiapeeth as an ashram devoted to yoga training, spiritual awareness, and prosperity of the local population.
In 2009, Swami Satyananda Saraswati entered mahasamadhi, a state of deep meditation in which the yogi chooses to leave their body, ending in death.
A fascinating concept, mahasamadhi has been performed by many spiritual masters, including Yogananda, Sadhguru’s wife, Yukteswar, and Satyananda’s guru Sivananda.
Teachings And Impact
Satyananda System Of Yoga
Swami Satyananda Saraswati developed a form of yoga that emphasizes the holistic well-being of the individual. Compared to other popular styles of yoga such as Iyengar yoga, Satyananda yoga is less physically demanding and more gentle.
Practitioners of Satyananda yoga typically begin their practice slowly, incorporating the below:
- Asana sequences
- Tantric practices
- Cleansing practices
Satyananda essentially compiled ancient practices such as karma, bhakti and jnana yoga into a modern-day format, and Satyananda Yoga is now a very popular path both in India and around the world.
Yoga Nidra is Satyananda’s interpretation of the tantric system of nyasa. He formulated this ancient system into a modern-day practical utility and made it widely known across the world.
Yoga Nidra is a process of guided body relaxation that closely resembles sleep, but with acute awareness. Check out our guide on Yoga Nidra.
With more than 80 best-selling and classical texts on yoga and spiritual instruction, Satyananda is a highly celebrated author. He serves as a spiritual guide and had been a significant source of inspiration in numerous ashrams and yoga schools around the world.
Controversy & Abuse allegations
There have been multiple claims from previous ashram residents that Satyananda had perpetrated child sex abuse in the 70s and 80s. Furthermore, there have been claims of institutional silence under his leadership, whilst abuse has been allowed to continue.
These allegations were heard at The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, investigating the allegations that took place during the period of the 1970s and 1980s.
Sadly, the commission found that children were subjected to sexual abuse, starvation, and neglect.
Satyananda’s chief disciple in Australia, the ‘spiritual leader’ of the ashram, was also found to have perpetrated abuse and violence against the children in their care.
The full report from the commission, detailing the abuse from both Satyananda himself and other ashram leaders, is here. If you prefer a shorter read, you can find more about the allegations in this article.
These claims are deeply alarming, and unfortunately are not unfamiliar prospects in the world of yoga, where the often worshiping style hierarchy of student to guru leaves a lot of room for abuse of power.
Emphasizing the integration of physical, mental, and spiritual application of yoga, Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s philosophy continues to inspire yoga practitioners around the world.
If you’d like to know more about prominent yogis past and present, why not take a look at these other articles: