Volume 14 - Issue 07
July 2016
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Posted on: July 28, 2016


The story of how Swami Karunyananda
came to live with Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba

- Part 3


Part 1 || Part 02

Swami Karunyananda is perhaps the only person who came to Swami as a 60 year old and still managed to stay with Him and serve Him 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 he had started from scratch in order to find ultimate fulfilment of his life. From walking behind Bhagawan holding an umbrella to holding the empty pot from which Baba manifested vibhuti galore; from staying with Swami to travelling with Him to distant places - Karunyananda was blessed with it all. His is a story extraordinaire of a man’s passion for service and God’s appreciation of it.

Faith, miracles and doubt


In an enlightening discourse on the way one should lead one’s life, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba gave a simile on why the human mind doubts the Avatar (God in human form).

“When you hear the word, Rasalu mango, you conceive of a sweet juicy fruit; but, when you have the fruit actually in hand, you are pestered by doubts whether it is really Rasalu, whether it will taste sweet or sour.”

Where only the Name of the Lord is concerned, there is faith. However, when a form accompanies the name, there is doubt and a tendency to ‘check’ and ‘test’. It appears as though very few are immune to the doubts that arise from the form. Even Swami Karunyananda was no exception.

His arrival at the lotus feet of Bhagawan Baba had been the culmination of a lifetime of service which he rendered first in his individual capacity and later through the Gowthami Jeeva Karunya Sangham. Among the several activities taken up, the prominent ones were giving refuge to refugees from Burma during the 2nd World War, rehabilitation assistance to the flood-stricken people of Orissa (today called Odisha), famine relief in Rayalaseema, a leprosarium in Rajahmundry, an old-age home each for people and for cows and a local library for school children. Seeing God in society and nature had taken Karunyananda face-to-face with God on Earth.

Swami gave Karunyananda ample proof of His omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience. One day, when he was in Puttaparthi, Swami walked up to him and said,

“Look at your nurses! They were careless and neglected their duty. You must instruct them to be careful and see that patients are not neglected.”

  "This lady came and helped", said the grateful mother Kameshwaramma
pointing to this very picture of Swami!

Karunyananda’s face went blank. He had no idea of what Swami was saying. He immediately made enquiries from the Sangham and what he heard simply thrilled him.

Kameshwaramma was a pregnant widow at Rajahmundry and also had two young children to take care of. Karunyananda came to know of her situation. So, he had the trio taken under the care of the Sangham. He personally instructed the nurses to tend to Kameshwaramma. Weeks later, he had travelled to Puttaparthi. Though the nurses tended to the woman, they went out to watch a movie one night. That happened to be the fateful night when Kameshwaramma developed labour pains. She cried out in pain and fear but there was no nurse to attend on her. At that moment, a strange looking lady walked into the room. With great expertise and immense love, she delivered the baby, soothed Kameshwaramma and walked out. The nurses returned and hurried to Kameshwaramma’s bedside hearing the wailing of a baby.

“This lady came and helped in the delivery”, she said pointing to a photograph.

It was a picture of Bhagawan Baba!

Yet Karunyananda was plagued by doubts! For nearly nine years after that wonderful tour with Baba in 1956, Karunyananda kept getting doubts of Swami’s divinity. That is the power of Maya that accompanies any Advent.

‘Test’ing times

When he saw Swami materialise vibhuti effortlessly by the wave of a hand, Karunyananda thought that it was some sort of an optical illusion. On one occasion, Swami gave the vibhuti to him. Karunyananda quickly deposited the ash into a small metal, air-tight box and locked it with a key. He opened it several days later and saw that the vibhuti was still there. That convinced him that the ash was not just a magical hoax! He did not know then that Swami had planned a bigger proof for him along with a wonderful opportunity. That came during the Dasara festival.

Karunyananda accompanied Swami on to the dais where a silver idol of Shirdi Baba awaited them. All the devotees had assembled in the hall and were singing bhajans in full fervour. Swami asked him to pick up a small wooden pot and hold it upturned above the idol of Shirdi Baba. Karunyananda did as he was told. Swami pulled up the sleeves of His robe beyond His elbows. Stepping forward, He inserted His right hand into the empty pot. In an instant, Karunyananda felt it becoming very heavy. The next instant, Swami began rotating His hand and vibhuti began to pour out copiously from the pot on the silver idol. The vibhuti Abhishekam had just begun!

Previously, when Swami had done the vibhuti Abhishekam, Karunyananda had suspected that Swami must have closely packed the holy ash in the pot. But now, all his doubts melted away. Swami smiled and pulled out the hand from the pot. The vibhuti shower ceased! Swami then put in the other hand and began to twirl it. The vibhuti shower resumed. This alternating between the right and left hand went on till the whole idol was immersed in a mound of ash. Swami turned around and exited the dais. Karunyananda placed the empty wooden pot on the floor and walked down in a daze. He knew that he had just witnessed a unique miracle from the closest quarters possible. Swami blessed him with that magical opportunity to hold the wooden pot during Dasara for several years.

Swami Karunyananda holding aloft the pot during the Dasara Vibhuti Abhishekam
that Bhagawan would perform

With regards to doubting God, we learn another very critical insight from Karunyananda’s life - that doubt can take a very subtle form too. That happens when we question God’s wisdom consciously or unconsciously. There is this incident recorded in the book ‘Tapovanam - Sri Sathya Sai Sathcharithra’ by Santisri Jandhyala Venkateswara Sastry about which Swami Karunyananda also reportedly spoke during a World Conference at Prasanthi Nilayam. (In all probability, this episode took place in May 1974 before the 2nd World Conference in Puttaparthi in November 1975.)

Karunyananda had accompanied Swami to Mumbai. On Swami’s command, he was given a room situated on the ground floor right beneath the Divine Residence. Karunyananda bolted his room door from the inside and decided to take some rest. As he sat by the window, his eyes fell on the slum beyond the compound wall. (Even to this day, just across the high walls of Sathyadeep at Dharmakshetra, is an expansive slum.) Karunyananda was very disturbed by what he saw.

Just outside the compound wall, some children were vying with stray dogs to grab crumbs of food from discarded leaf-plates! This scene filled him with shock and distress.

“Is it so ironical that human beings are competing with dogs to eat the discarded food when God in human form is present in this very building”, he thought.

He had barely completed his thought when he felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. He turned around and found Swami smiling, looking into his eyes! Karunyananda was flustered,

“How did You enter my room Swami, when I had bolted the door from inside?”

“Karunyananda, if I want to come in, can mere bolts come in My way? I've come to take you for meals.”

It took a few moments for Karunyananda to digest the fact that Swami had simply dissolved through a closed door. It was not as if he doubted Swami’s divinity. He was simply struck in awe. It would still take him time to get used to living with God.

“I don’t feel like eating Swami...”


"Swami, I'm troubled by a small doubt. You are God incarnate and present here right now in this body. But just look there, behind that wall, where some children are fighting with stray dogs to pick up crumbs of food from the garbage. How can this be explained Swami?”

With utmost patience, Swami explained,

“Karunyananda, you think I do not see what you see. It is the other way round. You do not see what I see. The beings you see there had spent their earlier lives in ease and luxury. They disdainfully ate from tables heavily laden with every kind of rich food, pecking a little from this and a little from that plate. They threw away much more than they ever ate, discarding precious food. Hence in this birth they're picking up what they had earlier so recklessly wasted and consigned to the garbage dump.”

It was an important lesson for Karunyananda. He understood that when we question God’s wisdom, we have made the assumption that our ‘wisdom’ is better or our heart is more ‘compassionate’ than His.

Familiarity breeds...

Familiarity breeds neglect if not contempt. And that happens even with miracles. As observed in the later years (1990s), there would be applause whenever Swami materialised a ring or chain for someone in public view. The same applause would be missing is the materialised object happened to be vibhuti! Why this differential response? Is the creation of vibhuti any easier or less magical than materialising a metal object?



The fact is that Swami would materialise vibhuti several times during almost every darshan. We just got ‘used to’ the vibhuti materialisation. Materialisation of a ring or chain (or a bracelet or watch) was rare. This is clearly a case of familiarity breeding neglect.

However, there is another possibility. Familiarity can also breed faith. That is what happened with Karunyananda.

Over time, he stopped getting amazed by the miracles of Swami because he knew very well that they were no big deal for the Lord. His focus shifted from the magic of Swami’s acts to the magic of Swami’s message - and how He lived it. So inspired was he that, in 1972, Karunyananda ‘shut shop’ at the Jeeva Karunya Sangham and dedicated all his energies and attention towards Swami’s mission. It was a huge step - sacrificing what the world would have called as the culmination of 75 years of his life. Instead of lording over his own organization, he decided to be a servant at the Lotus Feet. Karunyananda did it gladly without regret because he was convinced that just as he had aligned individual interests (Vyashti) towards community and societal interests (Samashti and Srishti), he now had to align those towards Swami (Parameshti).

That is precisely what he did also. However, it is not as if he forsook the organization. He only gave up all attachment towards it. Though he dedicated himself to Swami completely and increasingly stayed at Prasanthi Nilayam, he settled in Puttaparthi only from the 6th of September, 1987.

But before that happened, he had many interesting experiences.

Living with God

Karunyananda became Swami’s companion wherever He travelled, however far or near the place may be. Once when he was with Swami at Sivam in Hyderabad, he had a deja vu of his Dharmakshetra experience.

  Holding an umbrella for ‘the Sun of our lives’ during festivals was a
special privilege Swami Karunyananda was blessed with

Once again, he was staying alone in a room below Swami’s room. Early in the morning, he heard a whisper,

“Karunyananda, get up.”

He was startled to see it was Swami!

“It is already 4 am, all devotees are awake and getting ready. You too wake up.”

Karunyananda quickly found his bearings and got out of bed. Swami then gently asked,

“Do you have an extra shaving blade which I can use?”

“Swami! I had bolted the door from inside... And You did not even tap the door!”

Nevertheless, he gave a shaving blade to Bhagawan, after which Swami opened the door that was bolted from inside and went out.

Karunyananda not only witnessed Swami travel through doors but also across miles. This though was an ‘indirect’ witnessing. Sitting next to Swami one day, he observed that Swami seemed to freeze rigid in a sort of trance. Minutes later, He opened His eyes, looked to Karunyananda and said,

“I have just returned from Madras. Papam (Alas!) Vijayalakshmi is suffering very much. I went to the hospital. I gave her prasadam and there is no problem with her now. She will be alright.”

Karunyananda just nodded and Swami continued on with the schedules of the day. Several days later a letter arrived which Swami told Karunyananda to read. It was from the devotee Vijayalakshmi’s family from Madras. It read that they were grateful to Swami for being their life support but they were disappointed that He had left without accepting any food or offerings!

In those days when even a wired telephone was a luxury, many such episodes of Swami’s travel would have been missed by the devotees because they would have no way to know where Swami actually was! Many times He would surprise devotees with His visit and therefore, there would be no way of knowing whether it is the ‘real’ Swami or the ‘trance-travel’ Swami. But does that matter? (Maybe a bit for the chronicler as many miracles go undocumented because they have not been identified.)

Karunyananda accompanied Swami even to Kashmir in 1980. The Indian Airlines flight which was ferrying the Lord and His entourage to Kashmir made a brief stopover at Chandigarh. Devotees had gathered at the airport - men, women and children, gaily dressed - and were chanting bhajans with great fervour. They were praying to their Bhagawan to alight and give His benediction. Swami was touched by this spontaneous flow of devotion and agreed. A ladder was arranged for, and as the sun rose up in the horizon that morning, Bhagawan descended from the plane and blessed the gathered hundreds. Needless to say, they were thrilled and shouted in exultation,

“Jai! Jai! Jai!”

Karunyananda possibly experienced the oneness of the individual, society, nature and God in that moment because there were tears streaming down his cheeks. The 84-year old turned to Mr. Kamal Sawhney who was seated beside him and remarked,

“Do you observe the childlike innocent devotion of these people? Who says this is Kali Yuga? I tell you, this is Sathya Yuga - the golden age.”

Continued service to society

As stated earlier, Karunyananda did not stop his service - he merely realigned it along with Swami’s word. Such was his thirst to serve and his faith in Swami’s words that the Lord chose to publicize him during the 60th Birthday discourse.

“For full eight days, hundreds of thousands of people are treated as guests and breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided in festival style. When ten persons are fed free, the host desires that it should appear with huge headlines in newspapers. But, who craves for publicity when one's dear relatives gather for meals at home. Though lakhs of people share in the hospitality, one finds no hurry and no parading.

When I entertained the idea of granting this boon to everyone drawn to the Birthday festival, Dr. Bhaskara Rao from West Godavari District and Karunyananda from East Godavari District arrived at Kodaikanal and prayed that they be blessed with the sacred responsibility. I warned them that the lakhs would be too big a burden, but they persisted, saying:

‘With Your blessings, we can take on even crores.’

And, promptly, without any fuss, 5000 bags of rice reached here from those two districts and from Krishna, Guntur and Nellore districts. Hundreds of bags of wheat, flour and suji arrived from Punjab, followed by the same number of sugar and jaggery bags from U.P. From Madras huge quantities of pulses were brought by members of the organisation. Did anyone demand or ask for these? Can you get them by asking for them or demanding that they be given? Try and see what happens. Everything was offered spontaneously, silently, sincerely, with so much love and humility. This is their homage of Thyaga, of service through sacrifice.”

Does anyone need to say anymore?

Swami also blessed Karunyananda to pay his Guru Dakshina to Malayala Swami by being instrumental for the Sadhus Meet at Prasanthi Nilayam from 2-4 January 1987. The Sadhu Parishad had been established by Malayala Swami (a realised soul, eager to save erring man­kind by spreading the illumination gai­ned by ascetics and mystics) in 1965. As a result, hundreds of monks and renunciants from the Sadhu Parishad assembled in Swami’s presence. As the Sanathana Sarathi reports,

“The Conference provided a unique experience to the hundreds of monks. They were thrilled by the impact with the Avatar and enthused to adopt the Message, He exemplifies. Everyone felt the urge to share with impoverished rural folk their knowledge of spiritual texts, their understanding of the myste­ries of God, Nature and Man their evaluation of different Sadhanas and their wealth of peace, joy and love. Swami Vidyaprakasananda encouraged this re­solve when he spoke on the need to pra­ctise and deepen faith thereby. Others like Swami Bhakthirasananda and Swami Aseshananda confessed like Swami Bhoo­mananda, the President of the Parishad, that Prasanthi Nilayam and Swami have been enshrined in their hearts and that the resurgence of Universal Love will be translated into the Sadhana of Seva.”

The journey complete - Vyashti to Parameshti via Samashti and Srishti


Swami Karunyananda was made to deliver hundreds of talks by Bhagawan during many occasions - Dasara, Birthday, Shivarathri - and to specific groups. Swami sent him to certain places to deliver talks and inject inspiration. In multiple discourses, Swami referred to the points that Karunyananda had made in his talks. Yet, Karunyananda remained firmly grounded - never allowing pride or ego to puff him up. In fact as Mr. Ameya Deshpande recollects,

“When I was studying in the Primary School, whenever Swami came, He always brought along Swami Karunyananda. His place in Swami’s car seemed permanently reserved. He was ‘Car-unyananda’. In spite of that, he never took any unfair advantage of his proximity. Swami would alight from the car and walk into the school but Karunyananda would remain standing at the car itself. He wouldn’t want to come in between us and Swami or even block our view of him. Swami would sit on the chair and notice that Karunyananda was missing. He would call out to him. Then, Karunyananda would come wading through us, humbly bending and walking, apologising for causing inconvenience to us. I simply marvelled at his humility... and that too when he was more than ninety years of age!”

Prasanthi Nilayam began to change rapidly but Karunyananda remained the same. His relationship with Swami remained the same. Though he stopped ‘assisting’ Swami after he turned 95, it is a tribute to the purity of his life that Karunyananda walked without a walking stick even on turning 100! Till the very end, he lived in his residence in South Prasanthi, walking to the mandir for darshan. Baba’s grace towards one who had dedicated his life for humanitarian service was evident from his agility and vigour even at 102!

The saint merged peacefully at the Lotus Feet of his Lord on the 8th of October, 1997. He was 103 then. Bhagawan Himself paid tribute to Swami Karunyananda during the course of His Dasara discourse that evening.

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.

Many years later, on the 22nd of August 2001, during His Ganesha Chaturthi discourse, Swami spoke of several devotees who led fulfilled lives and exhorted the youth to take them as role models.

Earlier, there was Seshagiri Rao in Prasanthi Nilayam. He was a great officer. He used to offer Arati. He lived for 100 years. Another person, named Kishtappa, came after Seshagiri Rao passed away. He used to come from a far off place on foot, sit through the Bhajans and offer Arati to Bhagawan. He too lived for 101 years. Surayya, a huge personality from Venkatagiri, with a height of 6 feet and 3 inches, was also here. He was a celibate. When I took rest at night, he used to come slowly and massage My feet. When I said,

"Surayya, My feet are not paining. You need not press My feet," He said,

"Swami, You do not have any pain, but if I do not press Your feet, I will feel pain. So let me massage Your feet."

He used to leave the room only after I closed My eyes and pretended to sleep. He did this service till his last day. He too lived for 100 years. Karunyananda Swami also lived for 100 years. Kasturi was supposed to have died very early. But after entering Prasanthi Nilayam, he lived for ninety years.

Whoever came here lived long. What is the reason? They were thinking of God all the time. This ensures long, healthy and divine life. There are many people who do physical exercise and take medicines to remain healthy. But these people never took any medicines. If they had any problem, they came to Me to take vibhuti Prasadam. They led their lives in this manner. There should be more and more such people. The youth should have them as their role models.

Part 1 || Part 02

Aravind Balasubramanya
Radio Sai Team

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