By Dana Gornall
When I was asked to review a book about Swami Radha, I had no idea who she was or what the book would be about.
I was intrigued by the picture of her—an older woman with white, soft curls framing her face, and a steady, kind gaze peering at me from behind the card stock front cover. Dressed in what appeared to be a cardigan and a white blouse buttoned up to the neck, she looked like any Caucasian elderly woman and I wondered how she became a Swami.
Cracking the book open, I quickly learned that Swami Radha (Sylvia Hellman) was born in 1911 and attended a boarding school for boys. She became the first woman to graduate from a school of advertising, design and photography. She married a man who helped Jews escape from the Nazis; he was later executed in a concentration camp. She re-married a composer and musician. Unfortunately, he also died.
A refugee in World War II, she moved to England and then Canada.
At 44 years of age she first met Swami Sivananda in a meditative experience and eventually followed his invitation to come to his Ashram in Rishikesh India. When she returned to Canada a year later as a swami, she faced even more challenge as the mid-1950s were not exactly the most open era when it came to alternative-against-the-norm spirituality.
Within the first two pages I was astounded by her drive, tenacity and ability to face opposition and curve balls again and again.
The following pages were a collection of essays written by Swami Radha that had been gathered by her personal editor. Stories, anecdotes and bits of wisdom are separated into chapters, and I took to underlining and highlighting parts that made me pause. In one section, Radha told a story of a visit she made to a monastery in Thailand. She was instructed to walk from one point to another and observe everything. Picking up one foot to take a step, he told her to go back. She thought for a moment and repeated the action, only to be told to again, go back.
“As I stood, I realized that when I was still, the weight of my body was evenly distributed and I was in a state of equilibrium. This state is symbolic of the equilibrium I sometimes felt in life, but I knew that no one can stay in that position forever. Life is motion and development. So before I started, I realized that in order to move, I must make the decision to upset the equilibrium and change my situation.”
She also addresses topics such as attachment to spiritual ideals—one of the biggest oxymorons that we all seem to face on any spiritual path.
“As long as we identify with any name or form, even a name like Krishna, Jesus or Buddha, we are still like children that identify with their parents. The little girl plays mommy and the little boy plays daddy, which is permissible for children. However, just as we expect children grow up, the spiritual child in us is expected to grow up too.”
When I read this it made me think how apropos this is to us still today—what with political and spiritual unrest that seems to run incessantly rampant; how we do tend to hold onto things or people—even good people with good views—as if they are the only answer.
“Enlightenment is a process of detachment. We have to detach ourselves as much as possible from our ideas and images in order to proceed with our own development.”
Swami Sivananda Radha Provides bit of yogic wisdom page after page in this thin collection of essays. A feminist in a time when being a female leader and guru was unheard of, she encompasses the true essence of what being a guru means. This is an amazing book to add to your library.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak