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Being Swami Sivananda

part one

July 6, 2010 by Swami Sivananda

Swami Sivananda was recently published by Alternatives Journal, for his story of transition from being one of Canada’s foremost environmental engineering consultants, to seemingly sudden retirement from his profession, moving to Yasodhara Ashram, and dedicating his life to selfless service as a sanyasin.

In the stuffy closeness of the elevator, we count off the floors one by one until the ping signals that we’re at the top. The doors slide open and I follow Tom Berger and Hugh Brody into the hushed busyness of the World Bank’s executive offices in Washington, DC. We are heading into a meeting to discuss the final draft of our investigation of their handling of the Sardar Sarovar Projects on India’s Narmada River. It’s 1992, an intense year since the Bank’s president asked for this independent review, the first of its kind for this powerful international financial organization.

Brad Morse, the fourth member and chair of our review team, has taken ill and is recuperating in New York. Tom, our deputy chair, is relaxed, obviously confident in the thoroughness and integrity of our 350-page report. Hugh seems calm, characteristically curious about what will happen next.

Woman bathing in the waters of the Narmada River

I’m tight, apprehensive. We’ve found widespread violations of the Bank’s own Operational Directives and uncovered problems they ought to have easily resolved themselves. We’ve heard rumblings that the Bank management found the draft report disturbing, perhaps threatening, given that Tom insisted from the start that our findings be made public.

Joe Wood, the Bank’s vice president for South Asia, is waiting to usher us into the boardroom. His senior managers on the Sardar Sarovar Projects file join us. After curt hellos, we take our “positions” on opposite sides of the long table. Tom gives it a try, but there’s a paucity of the friendly banter I’d expect among colleagues at the end of a project.

After a moment’s silence, the senior economist on the file says he’d like “clarification,” beginning with our chapter on hydrology. I’d heard that these findings had hit a nerve. The discrepancies we found indicate that the projects will not perform as planned. This calls into question the cost-benefit calculations for both the hydroelectric and irrigation components. I led the team of experts that untangled this issue and am eager to elaborate.

I begin, but the more I respond to his questions, the more I feel as if I’m talking to myself. Is anything being absorbed here? We dispute the trivial, re-arguing points already established in the Bank’s own files. Then it lands. He doesn’t want to understand; this is clever toying, a dismissive tactic. Injured passion is a well-known flash point for anger and I’m there before I can catch it. As I go ballistic, I ask, “Well, can we at least agree that the sun came up this morning?”

The Narmada River, India, below the Sardar Sarovar Dam

Next, I’m sucking air in the boardroom’s stunned silence. Tom shifts in his chair. Joe clears his throat. Then, in his measured way, Tom points out the facts in the hydrology chapter, and moves on to the environmental and social consequences. In due course, Hugh walks the Bank officials through the errors that have resulted in a substantial underestimation of the number of people who will be displaced by the projects. Responses from across the table are stiff and argumentative. Finally, the meeting comes to an end. As we ride down in the elevator, my emotions sink too.

Later that evening, the three of us go for a walk and stop for dinner. I’m gloomy, embarrassed that my outburst has undermined the integrity of our work. Tom orders a round of sake. Keeping the cup warm between his hands, he leans forward, his arms on the table, and says, “Well, Don, in law you learn one thing early. Never open high. You had nowhere to go.” With a soft chuckle, he nudges my arm and takes a sip from the tiny porcelain cup. We’ve worked together many times over the past 15 years and I appreciate his simple acknowledgment that I needn’t take this so hard. Later, Brad calls from New York. In good spirits, even strangely upbeat, he says, “One thing is for sure. That’s a meeting they’ll never forget.”

I have a restless night and wake up tired, my stomach and every joint aching. I call home to tell my wife Patricia that I’ll have to delay my flight until I feel better. Take care and get some rest, she says. Later that afternoon, I call Swami Radha in British Columbia. She listens. After a long pause, I fill the silence by telling her what bothers me the most: I fear that I am becoming more and more like the very thing I am trying to change in doing this work. I’m losing myself, undermining my own values. “Sometimes anger is necessary,” she says quietly. “Think about that.” “And perhaps,” she adds, “you should consider coming back to the Ashram.”

Swami Sivananda perched on the cliff before the Temple of Divine Light

The afternoon sun warms me as I nestle into my sheltered perch on the cliff below the temple and reflect on the past week. The crunch of shoes on the pebble beach far below catches my attention. It’s Marlene, quiet in thought. The glacier-cooled breeze pulls at her jacket and whips up small whitecaps on the lake. Clouds are building above the Kootenay Rockies to the south. From her corporate world in Calgary, Marlene is here for two days to renew herself and to offer legal advice as we plan construction of three new retreat cabins. She has been coming to the Ashram, near Nelson, BC, for a long time, one of many who give their time and expertise, and who have found a spiritual home here.

Patience is on my mind, a carry-over from my reflections all week. I understand how it can be developed through listening, and that it builds from acceptance. But in practice, what is patience really? In our managers’ meeting yesterday, we reviewed the course changes needed to best serve the people who will be coming this summer. We discussed how we’ll get the community to carbon neutrality by 2013, our 50th anniversary. We went through teaching schedules and more. The seven of us have been working and living together for well over a decade. We all knew Swami Radha. We all stepped away from “normal” family life and careers to be here, to offer what we have as selfless service.

I listened as we went around the table, each person speaking, questioning and being questioned, in an easy back and forth. What I heard inside the words was: “I want to help.” Even so, when the conversation drifts, when we have to go back over what I’m sure we’ve already dealt with many times, I felt my impatience. I know it shows. And I know I’m expected to work with it, to use this opportunity of being together to buff my sharp edges. This play of ideals at work – bringing out the best in each other, personally putting the practices into practice – is part of what our guests pick up. I know that this is why Marlene comes back, and why so many of the students from the three-month winter course want to stay on.

Swami Sivananda on East Kootenay Lake shores

A hawk soars past on an updraft and disappears over the forest. I hear a murmur of voices from the temple behind me as 17 women bring their five-day retreat to a close. These mountains seem to hold us all, making it easier to reconnect with an inner knowing. “Bring out the best in each other. Bring quality and awareness into everything you do.” It is as succinct a statement of Ashram life as any. It’s why people keep coming. It’s why I first came. Even so, as my week makes plain, this is a step-by-step process, a personal evolution – requiring patience.

During those long days at the World Bank’s offices in Washington and over the ensuing weeks back home, I realized that I was seeking heightened meaning in what I was doing, and had been for some time. The ideals that had motivated my life since the 1970s had evolved. My heart was telling me that much more was possible. My environmental work – reviewing projects, traveling up and down a valley halfway around the globe – and what I wanted most deeply were on divergent paths. Regardless of what anyone else thought, I expected more, and it wasn’t breakthrough science, new policies, additional funds, sophisticated arguments or tactics. I had to accept the inadequacy of my approach – one that I’d scarcely questioned in the past. Nothing that I was currently
doing was going to change minds or open hearts to more considerate relationships with others or with this planet. What I experienced at the Bank meeting returned. I felt trapped, at risk of dying inside.
It was time to take a next step.

For your own personal copy of this story, find Alternatives Journal on newstands today! Next week, Swami Sivananda’s journey from environmental engineer to sanyas will continue. Supplementary articles pertaining to the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, the Honorable Tom Berger, and Swami Sivananda’s first “real yoga” teacher, Swami Chinmayananda, are found on the links below:

The Narmada River, Sardar Sarovar Project – the valley of the tigers, arundhati roy

Tom Berger – yogi incognito, the life and work of tom berger

Swami Chinmayananda – yogi bhajan, chinmayananda and me


  1. Dear Swami Sivananda-

    I thoroughly enjoyed the first post. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this experience. Your description of “injured passion” really resonates –especially understanding the back story as well as the play-by-play of the turning point episode… and the “at-risk-of-dying” cliffhanger till next post leaves me really looking forward to the next part of the journey.

    Thanks so much!

    Comment by annette — July 6, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  2. Thank you Sivananda for your story about finding your passion and place.

    Comment by Sharon Haave — July 6, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

  3. Excellent, insightful and thought-provoking words. I first heard about this project in Arundhati Roy’s “Valley of the Tigers” and was struck by the passion and commitment to values shown by those profiled. I want to thank you for the work you did and the caring you demonstrated… Sometimes anger can be an appropriate response in a world with sadly twisted priorities. I look forward to the second essay.

    Comment by Elizabeth — July 7, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

  4. Love the immediacy of your writing. I like that is written in the present tense and how well you draw the reader in. I can’t wait for the next piece.

    Comment by Wilma Rubens — July 14, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

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