The Flying Swami

 Kuttan Nair, Swami Vishnudevananda – a.k.a. the Parakkum Swami 

Some years ago, I wrote about GP Nair who took off from a British airport in 1937 and met an untimely demise, but what was unique was that he was one of the first licensed (licensed in 1931), perhaps the very first Malayali pilot.  Murkoth Ramunni, an eminent pilot who flew for the RAF was licensed in 1941. But continuing with the topic of aviation, there was another, a Malayali yogi, who in the 60’s and 70’s took to making peace flights all over the globe, earning himself the title “The Flying Swami” and who was instrumental in propagating the concepts of Yoga to the peoples of the West.

Kuttan Nair who hailed from Nemmara, just a few miles away from our little village Pallavur in Palghat, and one who later taught at the Kunisseri high school, was this bloke. I still recall somebody, perhaps a cousin or an uncle telling me, when we spied a single prop plane flying over our village many a year ago, that it was probably the Flying Swami doing his bit (that was nonsense of course). In those days the only planes that ever landed in Malabar were the ones at the Calicut airstrip delivering newspapers and mail. Sure, before all that we did have one which crashed in the neighborhood, a B24 liberator bomber and I had written about that too some months ago. How on earth did a fella from the neighboring village end up flying around in his own plane? Who would have imagined that Kuttan Nair, who was just a school teacher at a Pallavur school would one day be in the news, doing all kinds of hair-raising things such as being arrested in Egypt as a spy, or flying back and forth across the Berlin Wall, by himself?  That too in the cold war era? It is an absorbing tale and the story of an enterprising individual.

Sometimes I wonder if such stories are meant to tell you that borders exist only in your mind and you can always do what you want, if only you try! Perhaps! Would you believe it if I told you that the very same Kuttan Nair was instrumental in getting the Beatles interested in Yoga and India?

Many Yoga exponents propagated the teachings of the great Patanjali and some of them such as Shivananda Saraswati, BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois are all very well known to many readers. But the pioneer who propagated Shivananda’s Yoga concepts far and wide was this Kuttan Nair who went on to get renowned as the Vishudevananda Swami. Let me also add here that this is not an article on Yoga, Sivananda schools, or anything to do with the Vishnudevananda ashrams, but about the life journey of Kuttan Nair, their founder, from his simple origins at a village near mine, in Palghat.

The story of Kuttan Nair is a bit convoluted and takes you through his journey, experiments with yoga, propagating the Sivananda yoga system, fights with authorities, and finally his own fight with disease and death. Regrettably, after his death some allegations of misconduct at his ashram (still under investigation) have popped up, soiling what could have been a legacy to be proud of. But the journey of this man from an obscure village to limelight is a tale that needs to be retold sans all the hyperbole and flowery prose you can find in numerous yoga magazines.

Near Nemmara in Palghat, in Valia Peechankurichy Veedu, at a place called Kanimangalam, Chattu Panikkar and Devaki Amma were blessed with a child in 1927. Swamikuttan or Thankswamy as he was named at Palani, spent his younger years in his father’s farmhouse at Kumaranputhur near Pallavur where Panikkar apparently possessed some paddy fields as well as coconut plantations. Kuttan’s primary school days were spent first at the small school in Pallavur, then the Nemmara school system. A stubborn boy according to his mother, Kuttan’s youth was ordinary. It was after completing matriculation that he joined up in the Corps of Engineers of the Indian army in 1944, towards the tail end of the 2nd world war and was initially trained in Dehra Dun. Interestingly the recruitment systems in those days were pretty lax and he did try to join the Navy lying about his age, but did not get through as he was underweight and had too rapid a heartbeat.

The dejected boy was slinking away when another boy accosted him and suggested they go to Madras and appear at the army recruitment center there. As the story goes, he got selected into the engineering corps. While clerking for the army unit at Jalandhar later, he chanced on a brochure titled Sadhana Tattwa in the waste paper basket, featuring some teachings of one Swami Sivananda. Intrigued, he checked out the ashram at Rishikesh first in 1945 and a second time in 1946, just before leaving back for Palghat.

As days went by and the war dragged along, Kuttan Nair decided to become a Sanyasi, but his parents, aghast at the thought, would not agree and the tug of war continued till Nair left the army. Kuttan left the army in 1946, returning home to Nemmara, after which he became a school teacher at the Kunissery high school.

Kuttan Nair says - One fine morning in August 1947, the postman brought the call from the Himalayas in the form of an invitation to the Diamond Jubilee Celebration of Sri Gurudev's birthday. I knew that I had to go; it was the Divine Message for which I had been waiting. Though I planned to go for only a few days, as I took leave from my mother at the bus, I heard a voice saying that I would not be returning. I tried to still the voice, but could not. Realizing that sanyasa and being with Sivananda was his true calling, and after finally obtaining permission from his parents to go, Kuttan Nair traveled to Rishikesh and joined the Sivananda ashram.

A little bit about Sivananda - Swami Sivanada a.k.a Kuppuswami Iyer from Pattamadai, South India, was originally a doctor who practiced in Malaysia, also publishing Ambrosia, a medical journal. Kuppuswami's ascetic leaning took him to Rishikesh in 1924, where he was initiated into yoga and sanyasa by one Swami Viswananda Saraswati. In 1933 Sivananda founded his Swargashram Sadhu Sanga, and later in 1939 the Divine Life Society, which was where Kuttan Nair was headed to.

Nair would spend the next 10 years there, mastering the asanas and the spiritual side of his teacher’s style, himself becoming a teacher of Hatha yoga, at Sivananda’s Yoga Vedanata forest academy. It was during this period that he assumed the name Swami Vishnudevananda, ordained on him by his teacher Sivananda in 1948. Years later, his mother also joined up at the Ashram to become a sanyasini.

After his tenure at Rishikesh, Kuttan traveled around India with Sivananda, as his masters assistant, demonstrating asanas until 1953. As Yoga was becoming popular in the west and upon encouragement from his teacher, Nair decided to leave the Indian shores, armed with just a passport, Rs 10/- and a huge vision. Embarking on a teaching tour, sustaining himself with the tuition fees so received, and after traversing Ceylon, Singapore, Hongkong, Indonesia, Australia and Hawaii, he took the final jump to San Francisco, in Dec 1957.

In Ceylon he was hosted by one Swami Satchinananda, in Singapore, it was the divine life society. From there he went to Malaya and then to Hong Kong where Paula and Louis Modic arranged for his visit to the USA. It was the Indonesian police chief, after his team were given yoga instructions by Nair, and learning that the young boy was headed to the US, who got him a driver’s license, since as he narrated, everybody drove cars in America. From there Nair went to Australia, teaching at Melbourne and Perth, thence to Hawaii and later to San Francisco.

Arriving at San Francisco, staying with the Mc Rury’s, he earned some money first teaching yoga to some curious souls. Along the way, he learned driving after purchasing a jalopy and drove off to Los Angeles, where he earned $50 per day becoming a subject for various scientific tests. Hooked up to various instruments they had him do pranayama (a breathing regimen) and other asanas while his muscle strength and capacities were tested. His next acquisition was a 1952 Packard car.

In 1958, he decided to move to New York and set up his headquarters at Broadway. A $200 advance he received to write his illustrated book was according to him, the jumping board to creating all the Sivananda centers later.

But he soon realized that he would not be able to clear US immigration procedures and decided to switch to Canada. Aided perhaps by the daughter of the Canadian Governor-general who was his student, he became a landed immigrant and moved to Montreal, establishing his own ashram at Val Morin, some 50 miles North of Montreal, starting the concept of yoga camps, retreats and vacations for those interested. In 1960 he published his “Complete illustrated book of Yoga”. The book was one of the first three reference works on asanas (yoga postures) in the development of yoga as an exercise in the mid-20th century, the first illustrated work by an Indian in English.

A few years later, in 1963, his guru Sivananda passed away and soon after, Nair established ashrams in New York and later at Bahamas just as the cold war was biting in and the Beatles were taking off on their flight to fame. And well, our man Kuttan Nair was at the Bahamas as the Beatles went to Nassau in 1965 to make their second movie.

George Harrison, “the quiet Beatle”, was to celebrate his 22nd birthday at ‘The Balmoral’ where they stayed. The morning before his birthday party, while filming on Paradise Island, the Fab Four were approached by Swami Vishnu Devananda (riding a bicycle). He handed each band member a signed copy of his work, The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, the first definitive instruction book on Hatha Yoga published in the West. After setting the book aside for a couple of years, Harrison would pick it up again when he developed a genuine interest in Yoga and was astonished to find that Swami Vishnu Devananda was one of the preeminent Yoga instructors in the world.” (Quoted from Dawn of Indian music in the West – Lavazzoli). 

George Harrison, fascinated by the book began studying yoga and Eastern religion. A year later, Harrison journeyed to India to study sitar, a type of stringed instrument, under the master Ravi Shankar and later associate with Mahesh Yogi. And well, you can also read about the way he got them all to stand on their head years later at the LA airport after Ringo Starr quipped “I can’t even stand on my feet, how shall I get onto my head?”

Meanwhile, Nair had learned to pilot small airplanes. Those days were a little different and there was much freedom to do things in America and Nair decided to learn flying, realizing that it was far cheaper and faster traveling in your own plane. His later acquisition, the Piper Apache was to get featured all over as it flew across the Atlantic, through Europe and Asia when Nair decided to do his peace missions.

Nair was apparently perturbed by all the violence and sorrow around the world and decided to start various peace missions. It was in 1969 he met John Lennon again, with John's wife Yoko Ono, during their bed-in to campaign for peace in Montreal. In this meeting, Swami Vishnudevananda introduced them to his movement, T.W.O (True World Order), which aimed at promoting world peace and understanding, and some believe that all that ethos perhaps influenced the iconic Lennon - Yoko Ono number ‘Imagine’.

In 1970 he purchased the Piper Apache, his peace plane. The plan to fly peace missions on his Piper, painted with pastel stars flowers & spirals by Pete Max catapulted him to fame and soon he could be seen flying peace missions, bombing cities he flew past with flowers and peace leaflets. In 1970 Max, himself a Yogi, vegetarian and avid peace activist, painted a twin-engine Piper Apache (Called the ‘Peace Plane) for Swami Vishnudevananda. Belfast, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Cuba, Lahore, Bangladesh, Nair passed them all earning the name Flying Swami. Kanti Devi’s narration of a flight with him to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro is amusing, where she says he insisted on keeping the door open until the last moment before takeoff.

Quoting from the Independent newspaper article (Aug 14, 2014) - Sellers and Lennon both took spiritual guidance from the jet-setting Swami Vishnudevananda, and, in 1971, the actor and the mystic took off from Dublin to fly over Belfast. The Associated Press reported: "An Indian yogi from the Montreal area and movie actor Peter Sellers swooped down from the clouds in a multi-colored plane today to 'bomb' Belfast - with peace leaflets. The most unlikely pair to arrive on a peace mission to the battle-scarred Northern Ireland capital, they circled overhead in the yogi's two-seater aircraft before touching down. They then set off to sing peace chants in the riot-torn Roman Catholic Falls Road district.

He was an astute businessman by now, investing in St Patrick’s island near Ireland, establishing many ashrams all over the world, going on vows of silence and whatnot, getting featured for his high-profile friendship with Peter Sellers and the Beatles, before embarking on another flight over the Berlin wall during the late ’70s. Around this time, he organized the first of the yoga festivals (at a time when rock festivals were in vogue) where Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and S Balachander performed. Realizing the need for some show, he even had all the students of his teacher's training class, do a firewalk on burning coals.

An outspoken man, he can be seen decrying Rajneesh in a TV interview, and earlier called Mahesh Yogi a stupid boy in another interview, but seems to have been a very popular media figure all his life. At his Val Morin Ashram, he drove around in a Lincoln continental, kept a pet goat, loved ice cream, and lived in a plush home surrounded by electronics and a whiteboard where he was working out or tabulating the cash flow of his many ashrams around the world. I had to smile, reading the account of a visitor from Kerala to Montreal for the Olympics, who was greeted by Nair ( I am from Palghat) and provided a fresh plate of Idli Sambar, at Val Morin.

In Marci Macdonald’s 1974 Macleans interview, we hear of an amusing mention of a visitor from New York stating “If I had a Lincoln continental, a cabin cruiser, a plane, a house in every country, I’d renounce my worldly goods too”! By 1977 Kuttan Nair had opened more ashrams in Kerala; Woodbourne, New York; Grass Valley, California; and Nassau in the Bahamas, the birthplace of the yoga vacation.

The ’80s were turbulent, moving to India to popularize Yoga, he even attempted to negotiate between the Sikhs and the Indian government, moving on to meditate at Gangotri, only to suffer from frostbites and other complications from diabetes. As the story goes, in 1984, he outfitted a London double-decker and drove out (for details of the overlanders read my previous article) through Europe, Turkey, and Iran into Punjab, just as hell was breaking loose at Amritsar with Operation Blue Star.

By the early ’90s, his health started to fail and in 91, he suffered a stroke and partial paralysis, followed by kidney failure and dialysis treatments and a move back to Val Morin in Canada. In 1993, he was back in India, but wheelchair-bound and breathed his last at Manipal later in November.

An interesting man, Nair was the person responsible for opening the oldest continually operating yoga center (since 1959 at Val Morin) and creating a huge yoga organization across the world (30 centers, 10 ashrams), and training the most yoga teachers (over 43,000 to date). After his passing, allegations of Nair’s high handedness and alleged misconduct have surfaced and are under investigation. True or false, it is bound to have an impact on this gent’s legacy.

It was not my intention to glorify the deeds of a swami or write about his failings. All I intended to do was trace the path of a village boy from among the paddy fields in Palghat and trace his global travels culminating in becoming a well-known figure, a pioneer in many areas. Like Nair said, barriers lie only in your mind and if you wanted to, one could achieve a lot.

In conclusion, I found this bit from one of his many quotes interesting - Even if everything collapses tomorrow you will still have your clothes. If you have that, you are richer than a billionaire. With all the money they have, they cannot buy the peace you have, the freedom you have, the inner strength you have. You don't have to run for the tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and wake-up pills – or fight alcoholism. How free you are. Understand this freedom you have, which you cannot buy.

I have nothing, even so, with only this pair of clothes, I can go anywhere in the world.

I guess he did….


Meditation and Mantras - Vishnu Devananda

The Yogi – Gopala Krishna

The Flying Swami – E Ambujakshan (Illustrated weekly Jan 1972)

Swami Vishnu-Devananda is not like you and me – Marci Macdonald, Maclean's  Dec 74.

Sivanada Yoga life, commemorative issue – Spring 94

An interview