Srimati Selvanayagi was a young woman from a very wealthy Ceylonese family that owned many acres of land around Trincomalee. When Gurudev Sivanandaji traveled to Ceylon on his All-India/Ceylon Tour, she met him, became very interested in his teachings and eventually went to Rishikesh to study under him. Sannyas doesn’t discriminate between men and women. After a while Srimati Selvanayagi was initiated and given the name Swami Satchidananda. She came from a Tamil community in Ceylon and, because they spoke the same language, the two Satchidanandas often sat and talked. In 1952, she decided that a branch of the DLS must be started in her home country. She brought the idea to Gurudev Sivananda and asked that the other Swami Satchidananda accompany her to Ceylon to start the organization.

This was the last thing Satchidanandaji desired at the time. He wanted to continue his seclusion and meditation. The other Satchidananda knew of his reluctance, but she had decided upon him because he was an excellent teacher, and spoke Tamil as well. Swami Sivanandaji approached Satchidanandaji with her request. “Gurudev,” Satchidanandaji replied, “I am not fit to do such work. There may be other devotees who would like to go to Ceylon. I’ll be content to stay here and do my work.” He thought his refusal would end the matter. Swami Sivanandaji had other plans. “Go ahead. I will work through you. Don’t worry.”

Satchidanandaji tried another approach. “Gurudev, we are both called Swami Satchidananda. How will people differentiate between us? There will be confusion. What will happen when letters come?” The Master laughed. “From now on she will be known as Swami Satchidananda Mataji and you can use Yogiraj—the title I gave you. You will be known as Yogiraj Swami Satchidananda.” The matter was settled. At the close of 1952, Satchidanandaji and Mataji left their Master in Rishikesh, continued to South India and arrived in Trincomalee on February 1, 1953.

By 1955, Swamiji’s travels around the island of Ceylon had greatly increased. People were constantly asking for his services. A branch of the Divine Life Society was inaugurated at Colombo. Then a Jaffna branch was founded. Swamiji made regular visits to the tea plantations to hold discussions and prayer meetings with the workers. His main theme during these talks was an attempt to get the laborers to educate their children and turn them away from chronic drinking of alcohol, and squandering of their limited funds. He was called upon to help resolve conflicts between tea plantation owners and laborers. He was given regular columns in newspapers to share Yoga teachings and spiritual inspiration and he gave ongoing radio discourses. During his 13 years of service in Sri Lanka, traveled throughout the island teaching Yoga, giving talks, and helping expand social services in the region.

A group of devotees in the hill capital of Kandy decided to start a branch of the Divine Life Society, and they persuaded Swamiji that this was a more centrally located spot than Trincomalee. From Kandy he could easily drive all over Ceylon to answer the requests for his presence. He decided to make the move since Mataji would be in Trincomalee and could easily accommodate the needs of the devotees there. Beautiful Kandy is surrounded by green hills and lakes. Once its botanical gardens were the largest in the world. Its temperature usually remains in the seventy-degree range. The Temple of the Tooth, the biggest Buddhist temple, is located in Kandy. Its relic is a tooth from the Buddha. Until the reign of Ceylon’s last king, paradisiacal Kandy was the capital city. After the foreign invasion, materialism ruled over aesthetics, and the capital was moved to the port city of Colombo.

In October of 1955, Swamiji and the Kandy devotees discovered a lovely coconut garden that contained a huge building—an old choultry—and an adjoining temple situated on the banks of the Mahaveli Ganga. Soon, they inaugurated Satchidananda Thapovanam (ashram). Eventually fifteen ashramites lived there by the river, planning discussions, classes, and Yoga treatments for various physical illnesses. The Thapovanam also became a meeting place for government officials. People from many different political parties held offices as trustees in the ashram. At one meeting, five different party leaders, Tamils as well as Singhalese, sat down together to discuss the welfare of the center.

Interfaith meetings

While there, his interfaith vision of religion began to grow and take concrete shape. He invited various clergy members came to the ashram as well. They organized an All-Religions Group that met once a month, sometimes at the ashram, sometimes at a seminary, sometimes at the home of a Buddhist or at an Islamic mosque. Swamiji then declared that Guru Purnima (an annual holy day devoted to paying tribute to one’s personal Guru) should serve as “All Prophets Day,” teaching that “Truth is one, paths are many,” and that all the world’s major religions are equally valid means to the understanding the highest spiritual Truth.