Sri Swami Sivananda, the well-known Master of the 20th century, was born on September 8, 1887, at Pattamadai, in the Tirunelveli district in Tamilnadu, South India. His boyhood name was Kuppuswami. His saintly father, Vengu Iyer, was a devotee of Lord Siva and a descendant of the 16th century saint and scholar, Appayya Dikshitar. His mother was Parvatiammal.
The spirit of giving freely, of sharing without any restraint, was ingrained in the Master from his very childhood. A boyhood friend of the Master, Swami Shuddhananda Bharati, recalled how Kuppuswami as a little lad one day ran out with his plate of food when he heard a beggar's cry outside.
The intelligent lad had the gift of divine vision even at that age. If his father sent him to purchase fruit for his daily worship, the boy would often not hesitate to distribute the fruit to the poor and needy, returning home to inform his father that he had already worshipped God in the poor. What grand vision!
The Master said that he was very mischievous as a lad. But it was not the kind of mischief we see in children these days. For instance, to astound and frighten his family, he would daringly jump into a dry well!
During his student days the Master was brilliant in the classroom as well as on the sports field. He always stood first in his class. He was bold and cheerful. When Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream was staged, he played the part of Helena.
Good health to him was just as important as learning. He used to practise gymnastics and fencing. He would get up as early as 3am to do his exercises. In innocent mischief, before leaving his room, he would playfully deceive his mother by arranging the blankets and pillows in such a manner as to make her believe that he was still in bed!
As the desire to serve others was in the Master's nature, it was but natural that he should choose a medical career. Although his parents wanted him to follow another line, the Master was adamant in his desire to practise medicine. After completing his matriculation he joined the Tanjore Medical Institute.
The Master, remarkably intelligent as he was, was gifted with a phenomenal memory as well. He was extremely industrious and never went home during holidays. He used to spend the time in the hospital trying to acquire more knowledge. So prodigious was his memory that he would retain whatever he read. He revealed that even during his first year of medicine he could answer the fifth-year papers. After completing his studies, the Master served in India for some time and ran a medical journal called Ambrosia.
As a Doctor in Malaya
But the Master was not satisfied with his work in India and his ambitious spirit drove him to Malaya to seek employment there. He recalled his arrival in Malaya thus: "Immediately on disembarking, I went to Dr Iyengar, who introduced me to Dr. Harold Parsons, an acquaintance of his. I was highly optimistic about getting a job. Dr. Parsons himself did not need an assistant, but I was able to impress him in such a manner that he took me to Mr. A.G. Robins, the manager of a rubber estate, which had a hospital of its own.
"Fortunately, Mr. Robins was just then in need of an assistant to work in the hospital. He was a terrible man with a violent temper, a giant figure, tall and stout. He asked me, 'Can you manage a hospital all by yourself?'
"I replied without hesitation, 'Yes, I can manage even three hospitals!' I was appointed at once!"
Soon the Master's extremely kind and loving nature became well-known in Malaya. He was a loving friend of the indentured labourers as well as of the local citizens. Together with his work in the hospital the Master also had his private practice. He never demanded any fee from his patients. Often he would give them money from his own pocket for their special diet. In serious cases he would keep vigil at night at the patient's bedside.
The Master loved sports. His favourite pastime was cycling. He read many books on Western games and attended scores of tournaments. For a certain period he even acted as a sports correspondent to the Malaya Tribune.
The Master led a luxurious life in Malaya. He had a great liking for high class dress, collection of curios and fancy articles of sandalwood, gold and silver. He would purchase various kinds of gold rings and necklaces and wear them all at the same time! He had many hats but seldom made use of them.