I had heard of civil servants doing extraordinary things, but becoming a full-time servant of God was exceptional. This, then, is the story of an IAS officer who became a monk! He is today the vice-president of the Divine Life Society with its headquarters at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh. I wondered how monk-hood could offer the same satisfaction as making and implementing policy at the national or State-level. How difficult was it to abandon the unquestioned authority he must have once enjoyed in exchange for continuous communication with God?
I had hazy recollections of a batchmate, Sunil Patnaik, when we were training at the National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. He was a tall, mid-complexioned Oriyaa very quiet person and generally seen in the company of serious thinkers. Although he played billiards, he remained aloof from the rest of us talkative, talented and fun loving probationers. Several years later I learnt that Patnaik had become a monk, but I did not give it another thought. After all, I had never exchanged a single word with him. But now I needed to talk to him. Would he be lofty and monosyllabic? Would he be cool and standoffish?
Once I was able to track down Swamiji, I started by asking him (on email) about his family background and factors that influenced him to join the IAS; also the emotions and apprehensions he experienced when he decided to leave prematurely. After all, Sunil had a full 14 years of meaningful service still ahead of him when he took the plunge. What inspired him to join the Sivananda order of monks? What were the requirements for work and prayer expected of him? Did he miss human relationships, physical comforts and the normal aspiration for recognition? Did severance from a meaningful and promising career leave him with doubts? Did he feel up to facing celibacy forever?
Unlike all the people I have interviewed, Swamiji read each question and answered it exactly to the point. But the flip side was that he did not offer a single extra word from his side. I, therefore, had to ask a variety of persons to fill in the blanks.
Sunil Patnaik was the second son of a head clerk employed in the Zilla Parishad in Ganjam district of Odisha, who retired as the District Inspector of schools. Sunils mother was a housewife with little schooling, but, even so, whatever young Sunil learnt of religion during his childhood was from her. He had six brothers and three sisters, but he alone pursued the spiritual path and took renunciation from worldly life.
After completing a Master’s from Allahabad University, his older brother had suggested that he should try for the IASuntil then no member of the family had taken the competitive exam. Around the same time, a friend invited him to attend a satsang at a devotees house and presented him with two books on Swami Sivananda’s teachings. One of the books stirred something inside Sunil which compelled him to re-read it many times.
The IAS exam was over but the interview was around the corner. Despite his humble background, Sunil cleared the examination and was allotted to his home state, Odisha. But, even as he readied himself for training at the National Academy, the teachings of Sivananda would resonate in his ears.
While lectures on the Constitution, the economy and law went on, his thoughts would keep going back to the meaning of life. One weekend, when the entire Academy made a beeline to enjoy city life, Sunil persuaded two friends to join him to visit the Sivananda Ashram at Rishikesh. This visit was a defining moment for him; but it still took 22 more years for Sunil to join the Ashram as a permanent inmate.
Back home, the prospect of marriage was being constantly suggested to him. But the wall he built around himself was too strong for anyone to penetrate. Eventually, people just gave up. After the initial training period was over, an early posting as the Zonal Administrator for the Dandakaranya project gave him in insights into the trials of resettling tens of thousands of poor families uprooted from former East Pakistan. Later, as Collector of Bolangir district (now part of the KBK region of Odisha), Patnaik had to confront conditions of extreme scarcity which still beset the region. Four decades later, local people remember him because he would never use the dak bungalow beds or fuss over clean sheets and pillows. He would carry his own chatai, spread it on the floor, lay his own coverlet on top and just go to sleep.
Sunil’s mother was a housewife with little schooling, but, even so, whatever young Sunil learnt of religion during his childhood was from her
About his own career this is what he told me:
“I never had a strong attachment to the service or to any particular job. I wanted first a little free time to myself, and ultimately to overcome all the limitations of the self to which we are all subject. I wanted to find permanent peace, eternal happiness, and moksha through self-realisation, or God realisation. This was the fundamental teaching of Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. I never discussed the idea of leaving the service with anyone and it was entirely my own decision.”
I wondered what was special about Swami Sivananda Maharaj and was surprised to find that he had practised medicine for 10 years in Malaysia. His inner voice kept reminding him: medicine provides healing at an external level; but what about the void that exists at a spiritual level? It was then that this practising doctor, who had studied medicine at Tanjore, returned to India and established the Sivananda Ashram on the bank of the Ganga, some three kilometres from Rishikesh. It became the headquarters of the Divine Life Society.
Continuing my interview with Sunil, now known as Swami Nirliptananda Saraswati, I asked him about the time he left the service
“I finally bid goodbye to government service and my colleagues after 23 years as an IAS officerwhen I still had 14 years of service left. My decision was not a sudden awakening, or a call from God. I had been thinking of making the break for several years and as every day passed, the teachings of Swami Sivananda were making a deeper and deeper impression on my mind.
“I arrived at Rishikesh and stepped into the Ashram as an ordinary sadhak. I was initiated into sanyas in 1990 when my name was changed to Nirliptananda.”
WHAT Swami Nirliptananda did not tell me, however, was that he was tutored over the years under Swami Krishnadandji Saraswati, himself the author of more than 50 books and eight score religious treatises and a scholar of both Western philosophy as well as the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. About his early assignments, he told me:
“Within a few months of my joining, Swami Chidananda Maharaj, the President of the Ashram, sent me a telegram from South Africa, asking me to meet him at Bombay. When I met him, he directed me to go down south and take charge of a 30-bedded hospital in a village in Pattamadai village, in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. This was the birthplace of Swami Sivananda Maharaj. I was taken by surprise, but I left immediately. I ran the hospital for the next six years before returning to Rishikesh in 1996.”
Today, Swami Nirliptanandaji is gfiles inside the government the vice-president of the Divine Life Society. When he was younger, he served the Ashram by supervising the Ashram hospital, the dining hall, temples, goshalas and leprosy relief work, and imparting instruction on the scriptures. Today, he delivers discourses to hundreds of devotees, attends conferences and edits two monthly magazines. Selflessness and a sense of duty dominate his thoughts and speech.
“Human beings cannot exist in a vacuum and necessarily depend on each other. That is why it is so important to perform ones duty. When people follow their own whims and fancies, the outcome is a clash of interest which leads to conflict. It is, therefore, important to realise the need to fulfil ones duties as a father, mother, son, daughter, husband and wife, but also as a part of society. At all times there is a responsibility to God, the Creator. It is only when an individual ceases to be obsessed with rewards and contributes for the sake of duty that he becomes detached from the material world. The only way to find happiness is through detachment because attachment brings suffering-attachment is the root cause of suffering.”
I asked him about the relevance of the IAS in today’s times and this is what he had to say:
“The IAS plays a central role in governing the country and can do a lot for people’s welfare. Nothing prevents an officer from doing good work until he ruffles some vested interest.”
As the interview continued, I became uncomfortable about asking some personal questions. But I persisted nevertheless.
“Do you watch television or read books, other than spiritual teachings? Do you play any games, visit relatives and friends or play a musical instrument? What is the food like? What kind of clothes do you own and how often can you replace them?“ were some of my questions. This is what I learnt:
“My life in the Ashram is like this. I usually get up around 4 am. After a wash, I sit in prayer doing jap and meditation until 6 oclock. Once I have bathed, I perform yogasanas and recite hymns. I have breakfast in my room at 8 o’clock, consisting of something light and tea. I go to the office until 11 am, meet visitors or undertake Ashram work. Lunch is between 11 and 12 noon and dinner at 8 pm. I eat both meals in my room and we get dal or sambar, a curry, chapati and buttermilk. Khichadi is served at night. In the evening I do some light exercise followed by prayer, jap and meditation. In the afternoons and after dinner I check emails and attend to correspondence. I read a spiritual book before going to bed at about 10 pm. Most of my free time goes in sadhna.”
And then he added, almost with child-like innocence:
“I already have two pairs of clothing and can have more if I need. I visit friends and family on special occasions. I generally do not watch television. On special occasions the devotees bring home-cooked paneer or halwa to the dining hall, which we all enjoy. We are allowed to keep small offerings and can use them for personal expenses. I travel to many countries as assigned because there are several Sivananda centres in the world.” I learnt purely by accident that Swamiji continues to be a pensioner under the All India Service Pension Rules. The sum is not insubstantial but true to character, it goes to the Ashram.
“What is your message for civil servants?” I asked. His response sounded harsh, but perhaps some of us need plain speaking.
‘God will punish civil servants who use their position for personal gain in violation of ethical norms. These people will have to reap the consequences of what they sow. It is not right to get attached to government position and privileges as attachment becomes the cause of sorrow. Like all things shortlived, these too are perishable. To find lasting peace and happiness one has to cultivate devotion to God and also work without expecting anything in return. Pride, lust, anger, greed, hatred and selfishness ruin life. Meditation quietens the mind and helps one to realise God. It is necessary, therefore, to always remember God which alone can bring lasting happiness.”
‘God will punish civil servants who use their position for personal gain in violation of ethical norms,’ says Swami Nirliptananda, when asked for his message to civil servants
SEVA Ram Sharma, a retired IAS batchmate who was instrumental in bringing me in contact with Swamiji, was the Home Secretary in the Delhi Government when he retired. For the last score of years he hosts Swamiji on his occasional visits to Delhi and prostrates before him like every other devotee. “Swami Nirliptananda is a true monk,” he says, his eyes shining with fidelity. Sharma’s wife, Sarita, herself an accomplished Hindi writer (she writes under the penname Saryu), added this:
“I am amazed at how devotees come with so many problems- nothing extraordinary but critical for the person seeking Swamiji’s advice. Whether it is about estrangement from children, relationship between husband and wife, or tussles in the office, Swamiji listens for as long as the devotee speaks and never interrupts. Only when the whole story is told, does he advise the disciple, speaking in a very personal, constructive and direct manner. What he says always has the desired effect. It is remarkable to watch this every time.”
Seva Ram told me that 45 years ago, when they were just probationers at the Academy, Sunil had taught him a shloka from the Bhagvad Gita which resonates in his ears even today:
“One who treats friends and
enemies equally, balanced in
honour and disgrace, heat and
cold, happiness and anguish, free
from attachment, unconcerned
about blame and praise,
controlled in speech, content,
without any fixed residence,
even-minded and engaged in
devotional service, such a person
is dear to Me.”