By Devi Ma Saraswati
Co-director, The Mt Eliza Ashram
‘Meditate on your own Self, worship your own Self, love your own Self, honour your own Self, your God dwells within you as you,’ said an advertisement in a local morning newspaper.
It was September 1974, and I was living and working in Ann Arbor, counselling students at the University of Michigan. I wasn’t looking forward to the cold, dark, long winter. Frustrated and restless, I was considering returning home to Vancouver or back to Italy where I had spent two years studying Gestalt therapy and group work.
I was going through the motions, but I did not feel really alive. I often felt on the fringe of life looking down at myself as if I were an object under the scrutiny of an angry critic. I was constantly analysing, judging and demanding more from myself. Hence a life pattern had developed. I would stay somewhere for about two years and then move on. I had developed a skill of walking out and never looking back. I was searching for something, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
My Gestalt work with people was satisfying, but I was also aware of my limitations. I could do only so much to help others with their suffering. I had not solved the koan of my own being. I was not keen on the idea of the ‘wounded healer’, a sixties cliché that was often thrown around by therapists and psychologists. I had left Italy because I wanted to know whether God existed. I intuited that was the next step after my therapeutic work. Spirituality was calling me.
A few days after I saw the advertisement, a friend and I found ourselves in a living room with Baba Muktananda, the writer of the message. He was touring America with a small group of followers, teaching meditation and the philosophy of the inner Self. I was there as part of a psychology group that had been invited to hear him speak. As I entered the room Baba met my eyes and, though no words were spoken, I felt welcomed. I sat down and listened to the velvet tone of his soothing voice encouraging us to know the inner Self. I became drowsy.
The last thing I remember is that I felt an inward pull. I wanted to close my eyes and focus on it, but I wasn’t sure it was permissible to sink into this space. Then I heard a voice in my head say, ‘Let it happen.’ My head dropped to my chest and before I could resist, I was gone. I awoke startled by a poke from my friend. I had touched such a deep, intimate part of myself that I wasn’t sure where I was. I felt connected, integrated and complete within myself. I knew that the experience was connected to Baba. Reluctantly I stood up to leave. I said to my friend, ‘I don’t know what it is, but that man has something.’ That ‘something’ I later learned was Shakti, and Baba had it in abundance.
That November one of my clients asked me if I would be interested in running a group for a commune. I agreed to meet the directors and she arranged a meeting. When I arrived at the meeting place I was surprised to find that it was the same house where earlier I had met Baba Muktananda. I remembered the profound experience of meditation and I was intrigued as to why I was back there.
I learned that the commune was actually an ashram, or meditation centre. It was part of a phenomenon of the time. Hindu and Buddhist Gurus were attracting Western seekers to the Eastern teachings of meditation, Vedanta, the Self and Consciousness. Baba was part of this movement that he called a meditation revolution.
The directors of the ashram were two of Baba’s American disciples: a young married couple named Shankar and Girija. They had been doing intense spiritual practice under Baba’s guidance at his ashram in India for three years.
I liked Shankar and Girija immediately and after a short demonstration of my skills, which pleased them, we agreed that I would run a communication group for the residents. As payment they invited me to an upcoming meditation Intensive. I was eager to get a break from the negative chatter that rattled in my head and the chronic ache in my heart, and I looked forward to learning to meditate.
At this time Shankar was neither a swami nor a Guru, yet there was something extraordinary about him. I didn’t have the words for it then but, looking back, he shimmered with Shakti, the spiritual energy of his discipleship to Baba.
As I walked in on the first day of the Intensive, a dark-haired man with a big smile dabbed an exotic smelling perfume on my wrists and welcomed me. ‘Baba’s favourite scent,’ he said.
Shankar opened the day with an inspiring talk on the inner Self and meditation. His words conveyed a truth and peace that just felt right. I found myself relaxing and I again felt that same inward pull to close my eyes. We were told that during meditation Shankar would bless us on behalf of Baba with a wand of peacock feathers and touch us at the third eye, the point between the eyebrows. We were to close our eyes and repeat the mantra, Om Namah Shivaya, which would lead us into meditation.
I let my mind wander to the sound of the mantra, which we sang aloud, accompanied by a small accordion-like piano called a harmonium. I could feel myself becoming drowsy and my attention turning inward. I could hear the rustling of movement and the sweet smell of incense. I felt a gentle bop on the head and then Shankar pressed his finger into my third eye.
When he walked away I felt a tingling in my hands. The tingling intensified and then, after a few seconds, I felt as though my hands were plugged into a high voltage electrical current. It shot up my arms towards my head where my consciousness expanded and became vast. The energy whirled around and around and then plummeted to my toes. My whole body was charged with electricity and bright light. From my toes the current reversed its course and, like a rushing river, broke through the subtle walls of my heart where it exploded into the most ecstatic love I had ever felt.
I opened my eyes and looked out at the room. The walls, the floor, the furniture and every other object in the room were moving, flowing like waves. The world had been transformed into energy. When I looked at the photos on the wall they winked and smiled at me as though they were alive. My eyes were drawn to a picture of Baba at the front of the room. As I watched, it twinkled more. Then his face morphed into other faces. One minute it was Indian, the next Muslim, then a woman, then Chinese, then a beggar, and a king. Some were violent and some kindly, some looked wise and others looked terrified. The faces were changing so quickly I could hardly see each one. I sat very still in wonder as this mystery unfolded.
‘This can’t be real,’ I thought, and yet I knew that it was. My heart had never felt so open, vulnerable and strong. I watched in amazement as grace and love permeated my being and turned the world from something inert into something pulsating with life. That night I went home and danced around the house in ecstasy.
On the second day of the Intensive, Shankar explained that the Guru’s touch was an initiation of awakening called shaktipat. He said that Baba was a Guru whose energy could carry a person across the ocean of suffering, and the lineage of Siddhas (realised beings) was the source of this gift. The energy is also called Kundalini Shakti and is the dormant spiritual power within every person. It comes alive in the company of great beings. Shankar said that without this awakening, meditation is difficult or even dry.
Over the next few weeks my experiences continued. One night I had a dream in which Shankar and Girija were pouring a blue liquid over me. I woke up startled. Everything was blue: I was blue, the room was blue, and everything was shimmering in a blue light. Shankar threw a golden disc toward me and it landed on my shoulder. As I looked down to see what it was, I could read the words Siddha Guru embossed on it. I looked up. He was smiling. I was enveloped in blissful love and a feeling of surrender overwhelmed me. I knew that I had become Shankar’s in a spiritual sense.
I didn’t know quite what to make of these experiences, but one thing had become clear. Although Shankar always insisted that the Shakti came from Baba, I knew from the deepest most knowing place within me that Shankar was my Guru. And that he was a Guru just like Baba.
The profound sense of wholeness I had experienced with Baba at my first meeting with him was intensified in this relationship with my new Guru. I felt the same communion with myself, the same love, the same soothing voice, the same reassurance that everything was okay, the same call to realise my potential, the same goodness and compassion, and the same Shakti.
The Guru manifests God’s love with a tangible energy that calms an agitated mind, and fills a barren heart. Guru’s grace is not the property of a particular individual, it is held in the heart of a sincere disciple who has become one with the Guru. I was so grateful for what I had received that my only desire was to serve the Guru and do the Guru’s work.
After shaktipat my life radically changed. Before, the outer world had seemed cold and lifeless. Now it was sparkling with energy. People had appeared to be afraid, angry or depressed. Now they seemed full of love. I had felt separate from the world, now I felt connected. I had felt incomplete, powerless and weak, but now I felt confident, full of energy and joy. Everything had changed through the miracle of the awakening I had received.
Who was this person that had so affected my life? Shankar (later Swami Shankarananda or Guruji) had grown up in Brooklyn, New York, in an unconventional, artistic, and loving home. He was an outstanding student, the valedictorian of his high school class. He won a number of scholarships and attended Columbia University as a Pulitzer scholar.
He had many natural gifts: a sense of humour that cut through tension like butter, a playful disposition, a genuine love of people, a heart as generous as the ocean, and great intelligence. His mother once told me that he had an IQ of more than 170. However, it was, and still is, his devotion to Baba that truly enlivened him.
As a young man Guruji immersed himself in the sixties culture of New York City. As he writes, he read both the intellectual and counterculture publications of the time. Every possible diversion was available to him and he took advantage of their proximity. He loved sports, conversation, music, theatre and socialising with his hip New York friends. Despite such a full life, there was still something missing.
In this book, Guruji tells of his lifelong search for meaning. By twists and turns, he was led to look in the direction of India for a guide. Once there, he searched for a true teacher. He was not seduced by the miracles, dramas or pretentions of yogis who professed realisation where there was none. His intuition brought him into the presence of several outstanding yogis and great masters, and finally to the feet of Baba Muktananda, who had the power to lead a devoted disciple to Self-realisation.
Though he and Baba had little in common culturally, socially, academically and geographically, they shared a passion for the highest truth. The hungry student saw in the spiritual master a doorway to that truth. Through devotion Guruji became inextricably linked to Baba.
Guruji remarks on how improbable it is that a Jewish boy from Brooklyn could become a Hindu swami and spiritual teacher to hundreds of seekers. Nonetheless, over four decades I have watched Guruji evolve from a young disciple, just beginning to stretch his wings, to a mature master of the Shakti.
The process of such an evolution is fascinating. Baba said, as Guruji says, ‘The true Guru makes you a Guru like himself.’ But of the thousands who came to Baba, a mere handful achieved that and, of the Westerners, perhaps only two or three.
Baba once said that a worthy disciple is one who becomes absorbed in the Guru. A good disciple models him or herself entirely according to the Guru’s wishes. A disciple is one who is attentive to the commands of the Guru and does the Guru’s bidding. Baba also emphasised that the most important quality for a disciple is identification with the Guru, to always be immersed in the Guru’s Shakti. This was Baba’s path to Self-realisation and this was the path he offered to all of his disciples … And this was the path Guruji walked.
Genuine spiritual growth (sadhana) is a difficult enterprise that challenges a seeker in every possible way. Guruji writes about the undoing of his psyche with compelling honesty. The first three years of his time with Baba were particularly intense and transformative – all of his hidden, unconscious tendencies and patterns of destructive behaviour, fears and desires, judgements, wrong thinking, beliefs and opinions, were confronted. He persevered and committed himself to Baba, allowing the spiritual process to unfold. There was a mental, psychological and emotional rearrangement of his mind and being. He learned to take responsibility for whatever was arising within himself. He was convinced that enduring Baba’s fiery sadhana and facing his inner demons could eventually free him from suffering.
Guruji teaches that in working on oneself one has to do battle with three main groups of negative emotion. They are anger and frustration, fear and anxiety, and sadness and despair. Guruji faced all three of these during his time with Baba. He shares with us in great detail the early phase and struggle to please Baba and his striving to be a perfect disciple. Guruji’s devotion is apparent as he weathers the storms of inner turmoil. There were many life-transforming moments in his sadhana and two that have made an especially deep impression on me.
In Chapter 25, ‘Descent of Grace’, Guruji strikingly tells of his discovery of his own judgemental anger towards his fellow ashramites, and how genuine prayer and a change of heart led to an extraordinary experience of grace.
In Chapters 36 and 37, ‘Astrology!’ and ‘The Fire of Yoga’, Guruji tells of his extreme obsession with astrology and how that led to a nightmarish period that was full of fear. Here, his own yoga could not free him, and Baba gallantly came to the rescue.
After three years of sadhana in Baba’s Ganeshpuri ashram, Baba sent Guruji away and appointed him the head of the first Siddha Yoga ashram in the West. At the same time, Baba empowered him to hold Intensives and formally awaken people to the Shakti.
Baba wrote of Guruji in 1975, ‘He has the power to make people experience the divine presence.’ Although Guruji was unaware of it, it seems clear that, from early on, Baba intended him to become a Guru. Still, there were many tests that had to be passed. Founding the Ann Arbor ashram turned out to be an initiation on his path.
Baba’s only advice to Guruji at the time was, as Guruji tells us here, ‘Imitate me.’ Running the ashram, Guruji began to see the world from Baba’s point of view. He was no longer a suffering individual, striving to attain. He had become a part of Baba’s Guru function. He had been given his dharma, the divine work of awakening and empowering others. I believe that it was during this period that Guruji attained Self-realisation.
Around this time, Baba asked Guruji to create a small magazine that would represent the yoga. It was called The Siddha Path and reported on Baba’s travels and teachings. I was delighted when Guruji asked me to assist him on the production of the magazine.
Baba also asked Guruji to write a book on the Guru, which became Muktananda Siddha Guru, a study of the Guru–disciple relationship. He was also made a trustee of SYDA Foundation. At the same time, the Ann Arbor ashram was blossoming into a significant spiritual community.
In Chapter 58, ‘Loss and Renunciation’, Guruji tells of a deeper surrender. At a retreat in 1975, Baba surprisingly invited him to take sannyasa. This was a step into the unknown, but Guruji felt that Baba’s offer had to be accepted. There was fear but there was also adventure and mystery and, most of all, Shakti.
Guruji says that sannyasa is a mystical empowerment that continues to unfold. A few years later, some of the implications of his sannyasa became clear when Guruji was asked to renounce both his marriage and his ashram. At Baba’s command, Guruji was uprooted suddenly from the Ann Arbor ashram that he had built with so much loving attention and sent to Los Angeles. He grieved the loss but never considered disobeying Baba.
Guruji’s absence from Ann Arbor was a huge shock for me. I wrote Baba and told him that Guruji was my Guru, and that I loved him like a disciple. Baba did not discourage my attitude nor discredit it. He did not say, ‘No, he cannot be your Guru.’ Instead, he told me, ‘You should learn to love everyone.’ Then, out of great compassion, a few weeks later, Baba sent me to Los Angeles to help prepare for his visit and to continue my work with Guruji on The Siddha Path magazine.
In most of my encounters with Baba he encouraged me to love universally rather than specifically. However, it has been under Guruji’s guidance that I have more fully understood what he meant.
After two years in Los Angeles, Baba sent Guruji to Melbourne to run the ashram there. It was a perfect match. I believe that it was there that Guruji found his distinctive teaching voice.
Guruji’s book more or less ends with Baba’s death in 1982. To bring the story up to the present, Guruji worked within the SYDA organisation for a number of years after Baba’s death. A few years later he opened an independent centre in Los Angeles.
But then the Shakti called him back to Australia. In 1991 some of the Australian devotees invited him to found an ashram in Melbourne. I accompanied him in this work. After a few years in Elwood we found a permanent property south of the city, in Mount Eliza, on the beautiful Mornington Peninsula and established the present ashram.
It was during the early years in Australia that Guruji began to experiment with what is now called the Shiva Process Self-inquiry, a mindfulness technique. Here, all of his yogic study and practice came together in a simple and direct method to help people realise the Self.
We discover in this memoir that the roots of Guruji’s method go back to his Ganeshpuri days and to his own sadhana. In Chapter 44, ‘Doing Inquiry’, we see the beginning of his method as he learns, in meditation, to watch every nuance of contraction and expansion in his inner world. He watches the inner flow of Shakti and notices the subtle shifts of feeling, both positive and negative.
His work has been recognised in India by the Akhadas, the associations of senior swamis. In 2007 he was installed as a mahant of the Pancha Agni Akhada by MM Swami Rasananda, and in 2010 he received one of the highest titles in the Hindu tradition: he was invested as a mahamandaleshwar of the Maha Nirvani Akhada by MM Swami Vishveshvarananda. Through it all, Guruji has remained humble and completely himself, ascribing everything to Baba’s grace. He always emphasises self-acceptance and naturalness.
Although Guruji is a first-generation Western Guru in an Indian tradition, he honours his own culture as coming from God, and adds to Western culture the sublime methods and philosophy discovered in the East.
Guruji studied the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism under Baba. Today he is recognised as one of the world’s leading practitioners of the yoga of Kashmir Shaivism and has written a great book on the subject, Consciousness Is Everything.
As a practitioner of Kashmir Shaivism, Guruji takes a life-embracing Tantric approach. He believes that everything in the so-called ‘mundane’ world can be a doorway to the Divine. The atmosphere around him is alive with humour and divinity. He joins his love of life to his love of God and Guru. In his company, students learn how to engage their lives from the point of view of the Divine. The ashram is a highly charged environment in which students do sadhana as they work, play, start families, serve and live their lives.
One quality of Guruji’s that has always struck me is his endless patience with people. When people manifest bad behaviour and act out their worst tendencies with him, he is likely to tell them, ‘This is not who you really are.’ He steadfastly helps them return to their better selves. He does not hold grudges or resentments, and always works towards being in good relationship with everyone. He asks his students to do the same in the relationships in their lives.
Over the years I have seen countless seekers come into Guruji’s presence and be transformed. He has held numberless satsangs and Intensives and, in later years, written highly regarded books on meditation and Self-inquiry, as well as Shaivism.
The great Siddha Bhagavan Nityananda, the mysterious sage of Ganeshpuri, is the source of the Shakti of Guruji’s spiritual tradition in modern times. He emanated the awakening power and grace that guides seekers from darkness to light. Bhagavan’s great and powerful disciple, Baba Muktananda, spread the gift of shaktipat around the world. The blessings of these great Siddhas endure with Guruji. He tirelessly gives his time, energy and love to everyone who comes to him.
Over the many years of my spiritual life I have read so many spiritual biographies. Other than Baba’s own spiritual memoir, Play of Consciousness, there is no book that depicts the Guru–disciple relationship and the process of sadhana as intimately and authentically as this one. It is a veritable handbook of discipleship.
Guruji once told me that Baba had startled him during a question and answer session in Ganeshpuri by exclaiming, ‘Why would someone write a book if it doesn’t help anyone?’ Rather than writing a book out of ego or to forward a career, Guruji saw that Baba expected people of wisdom and attainment to write books to help others.
Ganeshpuri Days is such a book. A vivid picture emerges of the great Siddha Guru, Baba Muktananda, so full of love and Shakti. His passion was to awaken the world to God’s grace. Guruji was one of his closest and most illumined disciples. Over the years of his sadhana, this passion took hold of him also. Baba entrusted Guruji with the power of shaktipat, and gave him the command to run ashrams.
Guruji’s legacy is the ashram he founded in Mount Eliza, the teachings you will find in all of his books, and the many people whose lives he has transformed. If you were to visit the ashram you would find that the story of grace continues.
This book is a hymn in praise of Baba, and to the process of sadhana itself. Guruji shares what he considers his great good fortune. May reading his words transmit that good fortune to you.