Sannyas

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Ganeshpuri 2009 Sannyas ceremony

I left my heart at my Guru’s feet. There is no taking it back once given. My fate sealed my destiny decided. I am his. This is the only truth I know. What is done cannot be undone. What is to be will be. How easy to love in the light of the sun. How difficult to love in the shade of darkness. My prayer is that we all flourish in the radiance of guru’s grace.

 

In 2009 Swamiji asked me if I wanted to take sannyas, to become a swami (monk), in our tradition. This initiation would formally acknowledge my dedication to yoga and meditation, and my commitment to ashram life and to serving others.

There have always been mendicants, seekers who devote their lives to spiritual practice and whose goal is Self-realisation. This tradition was formalised by the great Adi Shankara, who traveled around India teaching from 788CE to 820CE. Shankaracharya, as he became known, was the founder of Advaita Vedanta, a non-dual path of wisdom. He established four maths, or ashrams that still operate today; much later a fifth was established. His initiates were called sannyasis.

Sannyas was closed to women and also to foreigners until the last century. In the 70s Anandamayi Ma, Bhagawan Rajneesh (Osho), Swami Muktananda, the Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Satchidananda and a few others gave sannyas to Westerners. However the initiates were usually associated with, or taken care of by an ashram or their Guru.

The ceremony is likened to a funeral service. It is a ritual designed to dissolve worldly desires, unhealthy attachments to the body, to possessions and personal relationships. Metaphorically the initiate dies to their previous life and is reborn into a life of service, teaching and study. 

Brahmin priests trained in the ancient practice of chanting Sanskrit mantras perform the pre-sannyas rituals. These mantras carry a purifying energy that works on the subtle and physical body. There are mantras to purify the five sheaths; mantras to shed past karmas; mantras to become a Brahmin; and mantras to protect the mind. There are mantras to break attachment to family, friends and loved ones; mantras to cut away attachment to the body and sensual pleasures; mantras to prepare for the final initiation, which the sannyas Guru performs, in this case, Swamiji.

This was not the first time sannyas became a possibility for me. In 1982, just before his death, Baba Muktananda gave me the opportunity to become a swami. At that time I was struggling in my sadhana. Swamiji was in Australia, my husband had become a swami and I felt at loose ends and uncertain as to what I truly wanted. However, I was afraid of my will and desire, and my impulsive nature. I was not sure that I was finished with worldly life. I felt unready to commit to the renunciation that I imagined sannyas to be. And so I did not accept.

Now, becoming a Swami did not seem like I would be taking an uncomfortable step into the unknown. Whatever held me back in the 80s was no longer present. However, as the ceremony approached I was aware that I had some apprehension and uncertainty. I questioned myself. Was it suited to my temperament? Were the tendencies of my mind antithetical to sannyas?

I can be volatile, passionate and head strong, and need a certain amount of physical comfort. I have spent many years working on understanding my emotions and how they cause me suffering. I used to bristle at being told what to do, how to do something and when to do it. I was not sure these tendencies had been put to rest enough and would not again rise in my consciousness. I intuited that the ceremony might intensify the demand on me to be more disciplined both in my spiritual practice and my mental habits. There was no pressure on me except my own inner process. And so, in January when we went to India for five weeks with a number of people on a spiritual pilgrimage, sannyas was on my mind.

The ceremony would be held in Ganeshpuri, near the heart of my path which I hold so dearly. Going through an initiation there appealed to my romantic spiritual inclination. I love India, especially the little dusty village of Ganeshpuri, from which the great Siddha, Bhagavan Nityananda and his disciple, Baba Muktananda, gave Shaktipat, kundalini awakening, to thousands of seekers. It is also where Swamiji did his sadhana.

In 1978 when I first stepped through the gates of Gurudev Siddha Peeth, I felt swept back in time to a place where there was no ignorance or suffering. I remember the profound feeling of belonging. In the radiance of Baba’s Shakti I easily connected to my essence. There was something so sweetly tender and intensely powerful in the atmosphere. How those two arose simultaneously is still a mystery.

And so the night before the ceremony I was remembering my early days of sadhana. As I contemplated what was before me my attitude shifted. I meditated and realized that I wanted to become a swami; that I wanted to accept the yearning of my heart to reach for the Highest.

Four other disciples of Swamiji: Jani Baker of Classical Yoga, Kali Noelle, head of our Hatha Yoga department; Dylan Frusher, Bhaktananda (who took sannyas here a few years ago, but who asked to go through the ceremony with us) and Rama Berch, the head of Master Yoga Foundation (Svaroopa Yoga) in America and one of the founders of Yoga Alliance (America) would also take it.

Swamiji directed the ceremony, with eight Brahmin priests. His presence was a soothing balm to the fire of the mantras. As the Brahmins chanted the opening mantras I began to leak from every orifice—my nose was running, my eyes were watering, and I was perspiring in every part of my body. I also had an uncontrollable urge to run to the toilet. At an appropriate time I shyly asked the Brahmins to be excused.

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After taking our vows.

We were dressed in white clothes that we would throw in the river after the ceremony.  Our heads were shaved–apparently there is a lot of ego in hair. I was looking forward to this part, being ‘hair’ free appealed to me. Seeing myself bald for the first time was a shock. I hardly recognised myself.

During the ‘breaking of ties with ancestors’ part of the ceremony we were given three balls made of rice and herbs. One represented me, the other my maternal grandmother and the other my paternal grandmother. As the priests chanted we were told to pick each one up and lay it back down on the plate. I picked up the first, the one representing me, and as I lay it down it broke—an auspicious sign. I picked up the second, my maternal side of my family and it stayed stuck together as if bonded by strong glue. “Hmmmm”, I thought to myself, “not a good sign.” I picked up the paternal rice ball, set it down and it shattered beautifully. The Brahmin ceremony ended with more mantras and a puja to the Guru.

Afterwards I felt my deep filial connection to the maternal side of my family. Was this the reason the rice ball did not break? Also, my brother and sister were in Australia visiting. Maybe it had something to do with them. I wanted to share my spiritual path with my family and help them overcome their suffering. Was I too concerned? Was I too vulnerable? Was I too attached? What did I need to relinquish?

In the middle of the ceremony I was confronted by my mind and how it has tormented me my whole life. Past memories and grievances flashed before me, so too did concerns about the future. The tendencies of my mind were the same but I sensed the ‘I’ of watching becoming stronger. As I witnessed it all I lost interest in the mental dance and turned my attention to the mantras. As my mind shifted its focus I was aware that the Guru’s presence, the Brahmin priests, and the devotees were providing palpable support for a new understanding.

I felt the mysterious force of renunciation working. I sensed the presence of Bhagawan Nityananda, Baba and other Siddhas. I heard their encouraging voices in my mind. ‘Thoughts and feelings have always been there, will arise in the future and also in the present. This is the nature of Consciousness—to arise and subside. This is natural. Do not make what arises ‘real’. Embrace the uplifting thoughts and renounce the negative ones.’

Early the next morning Swamiji led us in a yagna, a fire ritual in preparation for the final ritual that would take place near the river. After chanting various Sanskrit mantras we walked toward the water that was too filthy to bathe in, and headed toward a safer place, the hot springs. We were told to take off all of our clothes, a traditional act of renunciation, and walk north toward the Himalayas. As we did this Swamiji called us back saying, ‘O swamis return for the sake of humanity and serve.’ At this point we returned, donned a simple piece of orange cloth and accepted the command of the sannyas Guru to serve. I was peaceful and content as we completed the final part of the ceremony: receiving the sannyas mantra, aham brahmasmi, ‘I am Brahman’, ‘I am the Absolute’ and I then heard my new name Swami Bhairavi Ananda.

When I returned home I told Premji how the rice for my maternal side of the family refused to crumble. She laughed saying , ‘it’s because your brother’s, your sister’s and your mother’s ashes are in urns under your puja in your bedroom!”

I laughed as I realised that I was clinging to family members who had passed away years ago, either by illness or sudden death. It was time to let them go. The next day Swamiji, me, friends who knew them, and my brother and sister, gathered and laid their ashes to rest under a beautiful, blooming crepe myrtle tree. And during this sweet ceremony, I felt the rice ball break.

After all was said and done—the intense ceremony, the shaved head, the haunting mantras of the priests, the orange clothes, the blessings of my Gurus, and the memorial ceremony to spread the ashes—I had been transformed. I sensed myself to be something I had always wanted to be—more myself.

 

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