The hospital was the last place I wanted to go. But the pain was so debilitating and overwhelming, I forced myself.
With so many people around the world dying, dealing with a kidney stone might not seem like much. And so, I ignored the symptoms too long for fear of COVID and spreading it to my fellow ashramites, especially Swamiji. I think I was foolish, albeit protective, but caused myself more suffering than necessary.
I am grateful it was not something more serious.
Melbourne is one of the hardest hit cities in Australia–doctors, nurses and other staff are under the gun 24/7. I was impressed and reassured by their care and concern in both hospitals I went to. They are on purpose in their protocols for saving lives.
It is strange that right now many friends and colleagues around me have been diagnosed, not with COVID, but with serious health issues: one with terminal cancer, one had a heart attack, another has breast cancer and others with minor but concerning health issues.
It must be something in the stars.
During my stay, when my mind was engrossed in pain, it was almost impossible to remember the Self. I grabbed the mantra and refused to let go of it as I was being probed and poked by tests and procedures that seemed like violations. The mantra took me beyond the body to a place where what was happening seemed like a dream.
Eventually, with strong medication the pain subsided and I was freed from the agony without ecstasy.
I can understand now why Baba encouraged young people to do sadhana. When health deteriorates, even for a long time yogi like myself, it is a challenge to remember the highest:
The great yogis say that this universe came into being through the word. However, we can attain the highest knowledge of reality by the use of words. When we wish to go beyond creation, beyond the mundane, then the word of mantra becomes the vehicle.
In 1977 Das and I joined a large group of devotees from America for our first trip to India. We were to spend three months in Baba Muktananda’s ashram, Gurudev Siddha Peeth. After a long drive through the rural landscape of small dusty villages and parched country, the bus from the airport pulled up outside the ashram.
I had seen pictures and videos of the ashram, but I was unprepared for its beauty—a small palace, it gleamed shakti from every corner. We walked through the gates to a small marble courtyard and it took my breath away. ‘Leave your ego with your shoes’ demanded the sign above the shoe rack. Amused I took that as my first Ganeshpuri command.
Immediately, I felt an acceptance, a familiar welcome that was Baba. He was sitting on his perch at the front of the courtyard waiting to greet us. The atmosphere was exotic and inviting. There were date palm, mango and banana trees planted throughout. We all sat down. After a short while he told us to take rest. We were shown to our rooms and I collapsed on the bed for almost twenty-four hours. The next morning I awoke to clanging bells and a loud chant blaring over the loudspeakers. Nityananda Mahan rang out as I made my way to the program. I was cold from the early morning damp and not used to walking on the marble floors, which sent shivers up my spine.
The Ann Arbor ashram was a small world compared to this one. Life was big here. Hundreds of Westerners and Indians worked together, meditated together, ate together, and lived together. More devotees came on the weekend often bringing delicious sweets and curries.
I became aware that I had been carrying a burden of some sort, and that I now felt much lighter. A subtle weight had been lifted. It was easy to settle into ashram life. There was little discomfort or friction.
We were asked to report for ashram seva, service to the Guru. I was given a mop and a bucket and told to scrub the floor of the outer courtyard where everyone entered. The ‘ego’ sign was visible as I washed and scrubbed.
Every morning for the next three days I went to the seva desk for my bucket and brush. I got down on my hands and knees and scrubbed each marble tile with great thoroughness and inner joy. My acceptance was so deep that when they told me to scrub the cracks with a toothbrush, I was still ecstatic, such was the exalted condition of my spirit.
The outer courtyard comprised the entrance to the large courtyard where Baba sat, and to the temple that held the murti of Bhagavan Nityananda. Bhagavan sat at the front of what used to be the meditation hall; he was life-size, dark brown, and beautiful. Baba went to see him each morning as the priests bathed him. I sometimes got up early to watch him garland Bhagavan and participate silently in his devotion. As Baba greeted him, a tangible sweet feeling permeated the atmosphere. It was intimate, affectionate and moving. Bhagavan seemed to light up as Baba silently moved around him while reverently chanting mantras.
After breakfast I raced back to the hall, where a small group chanted the Rudram, an ancient Vedic prayer to Shiva. The Sanskrit words were long and difficult to pronounce but I was soon able to follow along. The Shakti responded to this prayer with a mysterious power and vibrated throughout my whole being. The Rudram and the Shiva Mahimnah Stotram that we chanted in the evening both have a mysterious effect and uplift my soul every time I chant them.
In the mornings after seva I sat in the inner courtyard where Baba conducted ashram business. I watched him work as various managers and secretaries came to him with questions and reports. He was more approachable here than when he was traveling in the West. He sat out there sometimes for a few hours. Many brave ashramites asked him questions about spiritual and worldly life. Although I could not hear his answers, most walked away beaming. I wanted to approach him, but I didn’t have a question. I was in deep communion with him on the subtle plane where the Shakti was dancing and no words were necessary.
Baba was always at ease, in control and yet not in control, active and yet not active. He participated in life and yet was detached. There was an enigma in his presence. I treasured this time. He was beautiful to watch, his self-mastery apparent. There were few people and I was able to sit close and bask in the loving energy that flowed from him. My mind was quiet and I meditated even though I was watching everything. There was stillness at the centre of my being. For the first time I meditated with my eyes open. As my awareness moved around the courtyard, the Self was tangible. I watched, I listened, I saw, I observed and I remained connected to the Self. Sitting there is etched in my memory.
Some weeks after we arrived, Baba organized a four-day yatra, a pilgrimage to some of the local holy sites. I looked forward to Alandi, the samadhi shrine of Jnaneshwar, one of India’s greatest saints; to Dehu, the birthplace of another saint, the poet Tukaram (one of Swamiji’s favorites); to Shirdi, the village where the famous Sai Baba had lived and to Poona for a rest.
Baba warned us not to give money to the beggars. Wise advice, for at the first stop we were assaulted by a mob of children pleading for money. My heart went out to them but I heeded Baba’s warning. He was generous to a fault when it was appropriate. He built homes, hospitals and schools around Ganeshpuri. He fed and clothed the locals and gave them jobs. He did not, however, want us to give money to street beggars.
Once, when I walked the streets of Bombay alone, I made the mistake of ignoring Baba’s advice and gave some money to a child that had no hands. I was immediately assaulted by a crowd of children. They grabbed at my purse. Fortunately, a taxi driver intervened and chased them away with a big stick.
Alandi was the first stop. Jnaneshwar was a born siddha, who translated the Bhagavad Gita into Marathi at the age of fifteen, for the local people. When he was twenty-two he told his devotees that he was going to take live samadhi. He asked them to dig a hole in the ground. He told them that he would sit and enter meditation and then they were to cover him with dirt. And so they did. This is a kind of samadhi where the consciousness of the saint stays with the body and continues to give blessings to devotees.
Several hundred years after his burial another holy man, Eknath Maharaj, had a dream in which Jnaneshwar told him that he was being choked by the root of a tree. Eknath dug up the grave to find the body warm and alive, although in a trance state. He removed the root that was around his neck and again covered him over. It is believed that he is still alive. I considered this to be an unbelievable story. I cannot think of a worse death than being buried alive.
The temple was crowded with pilgrims from all over India. The line was long as we waited single file. The Brahmin priests ushered us one by one into a small room no bigger than a closet. The floor was dark grey stone polished to a shine from the millions of bare feet that had made their way there. It was hot and the only light came from a small window carved in the stone walls. Two priests chanted mantras as we passed by. In the centre of the floor in line with his head was a square with a black lingam, an esoteric symbol of Shiva, covered in flowers. I looked down and offered some flowers. As my hand came close to the top of it I could feel waves of energy and heat pouring out of it. In my mind I heard a rushing sound like the wind and I fell to my knees. I heard myself muttering, ‘Oh my God, he is alive; he is alive!’
I looked up into the face of the Brahmin priest across from me as he reached out to stop me from falling on top of Jnaneshwar’s head. He was smiling in amused agreement. I unsteadily rose to my feet with his help. I was completely intoxicated. I couldn’t believe it. There was no doubt that his presence was fully there. I consider that one of the most wonderful moments of my spiritual life. Now it is impossible to get that close to Jnaneshwar. I feel fortunate to have had his blessing and darshan.
The next stop was Shirdi, the home of the 20th-century mystic Sai Baba. No one really knows his personal history except that he arrived in Shirdi and took up residence in an abandoned mosque. It soon became obvious that he was a great siddha yogi and devotees gathered around him. Many were cured of illness and attained deep states of meditation. Since then Sai Baba has become a legend and his picture is found in almost every taxi and shop in India. He is renowned for miracles. Women pray to him for sons, fathers for dowries for their daughters, mothers for their sick children, and executives for wealth and power. No wish is too petty or worldly for Sai Baba. He once said, ‘I give them what they want, until they come to want what I have to give them.’
I was astounded by the unabashed voicing of wants and needs in the Indian culture. It used to be difficult for me to articulate what I want and then to ask for it. It somehow never felt quite right, as if my true needs are always being met. Worrying about myself caused an anxiety I avoided. I prefer to pray for others while and hope that if my prayer reaches others, it will touch me also.
We were to spend the night there and were settled in large open rooms with straw mattresses on the floor. The accommodation was rudimentary but the atmosphere wonderfully joyful. We went to evening Arati, prayer, which was held in a small hall that contains a life-size marble statue of Sai Baba. There was energy, enthusiasm and excitement as devotees sang out the Arati, and danced in ecstasy. They were uninhibited and unselfconscious in their expression of love. I watched in admiration at the ease with which they showered their praise and adoration.
After it was over I wandered out to find a toilet. Shirdi was not particularly clean and so I was uncomfortable. I walked into a smelly, damp mud hut with three stalls that had holes dug in the ground. I had become used to squatting and was even beginning to prefer it, but I was not prepared for the filth. I headed for the last stall thinking that maybe it would be the cleanest because it was the furthest away. I walked in and was horrified to discover a dog at the hole eating faeces. I was disgusted and repulsed. He looked up at me. His bright yellow eyes bored into me. Our eyes locked and I heard a voice in my mind, ‘I am ashamed, please don’t hurt me.’
Horrified, I turned and ran out to find another toilet. That night my sleep was restless. I could not free my mind from the image of the dog’s despair and suffering. The next day as we headed for Dehu I felt sick. I got worse as the day wore on and by the time we got there I was so sick I had to be driven back to the ashram. Once back in the ashram I quickly recovered but it was not over. Our first night back Das had a dream in which the dog came to him and attacked him. Das told me that he battled with him in his dream state for what seemed all night and, in the early hours of dawn, was finally able to fight him off.
Baba sometimes spoke about fallen yogis who can get trapped in the body of animals. The next day we agreed that the dog was probably a fallen yogi, trapped in the body of the dog. The dog was experiencing intolerable shame and suffering. To this day I remember the pain in his eyes. It was as if there was a person in there. I will never forget the degradation I felt in that soul. I had experienced the best and worst of India.
Even though Baba’s physical presence is gone, his shakti resonates everywhere. I once heard him say that when he leaves his body he would remain in the hearts of his devotees. I am grateful that he has taken residence in my heart. I have noticed that the disciples who hold to his feet and teachings are radiant with his blessings; their lives are fuller and richer for having him as their Guru.
One who loves his own Self loves the whole world.
At this time of year my thoughts turn toward Baba Muktananda as his solar and lunar birthday come around. Born May 16, 1908, he lived a yogi’s life; it was was full, rich, filled with Shakti and mystical. He served humanity until his last breath. I cherish my time with him and every encounter I had. Below is one of them.
In July or August of 1979 Baba sent Swamiji to Los Angeles, California to run the ashram there in preparation for his visit in 1981. Until then he had been head of the Ann Arbor ashram with Girija, his wife. It was a thriving spiritual community. Swamiji was a guru to many devotees and the ashram reflected their devotion.
This was a sudden and unexpected decision by Baba. I was devastated, as were many others. It was unfathomable that Swamiji would not return to Ann Arbor.
After a few weeks and much thinking, I got up the courage to write Baba a letter in the hope that he would give me permission to join him. I told him that I loved Swamiji, that he was my guru, and that I missed him.
Baba’s response was a short and decisive teaching, ‘you should learn to love everyone; love universally, not specifically.’
Unfortunately, I knew Baba was right and that I was too attached to Swamiji. But, the pain of separation was an agony that I did not want to live with. I accepted Baba’s directive but there was an uncomfortable angst in my heart.
My seva at the time was coordinating the Siddha Path magazine with Swamiji. It chronicled Baba’s travels around the world and helped devotees at home keep in touch with Baba. I supervised the production and made sure it met deadlines. It was a big seva and becoming bigger, as every day we had more and more subscribers. One morning in meditation I realized that it was impossible to run the magazine with Swamij, if he was in LA and I was in Ann Arbor.
I again wrote Baba and asked, ‘Baba how can I do my seva on the magazine while Swamiji is in LA?’
One day, about a week later, the ashram receptionist ran up to me, ‘Baba’s on the phone, he wants to speak to you!’
I was so excited. His attendant Noni was on the other end of the line, but I could hear Baba shouting in the background, ‘Baba says you should go immediately to Los Angeles.’ Within two days Das, my husband at the time, who also helped with the magazine, and I were on our way. We arrived before Baba had a chance to inform the devotees in LA and he was surprised when he found out we were there.
We had been in LA for some months when Baba’s tour arrived in Oakland, Northern California. The hard-working ashramites had transformed an old brothel into a beautiful urban refuge. Back then Oakland was a poor, mainly black suburb. There were homeless people, addicts and alcoholics wandering the streets. Cars were burgled regularly. This did not stop devotees from buying the neighbouring dilapidated houses. The community was buzzing with renovations.
One afternoon I was walking away from lunch when Swami Samatananda approached me. He told me Baba wanted to see me. I was excited and scared. At that moment Das appeared.
He took us to a darshan room where Baba conducted business across a small courtyard at the back of the ashram.
When we walked into the room I noticed Amma, Baba’s secretary, and some other staff who worked on ashram publications were there. We pranamed, (bowed) to Baba and when I looked up at him I went into ecstasy.
Bowing was a custom I had become used to during my time in India. While there, I had noticed that not only did the Indian devotees throw themselves at Baba’s feet with great ardour, often almost tripping him as he walked by, but also young adults bowed to their parents and grandparents as a sign of respect. There is a mysterious bliss in showing devotion by bowing.
Baba picked up a copy of the Siddha Path, which was sitting next to him and said, ‘Don’t put my picture on the cover anymore. People think we are a cult.’
We always put a picture of Baba on the cover of the magazine. Then he held up a copy of an Indian publication that Amma produced. It had a picture of the Ganeshpuri Ashram on the cover. ‘You can put a picture like this on it. No more of me’, he commanded.
‘Okay Baba’, I said. Amma giggled.
The Jim Jones murder-suicide in Guyana had just been reported. I thought that maybe he had been plagued by questions about this tragedy. He was often asked about cults, but in this climate no answer would satisfy a fearful parent. His reply to questions on cults was usually something like, ‘This is the religion of man. We worship the Self. I want you to learn to love and honour your own Self, not another person.’
‘Did you get a job? ’ Baba asked me.
‘No Baba’, I said. I was proud of my new suit that I thought seemed more ‘professional.’ I often met with people who worked on the magazine and thought my way of dressing was appropriate.
I sensed Baba’s disapproval but it wasn’t enough for him to bust me. My bliss increased.
‘I have had a lot of complaints about you’, said Baba. ‘People are writing me about you’, he added, holding up a sheaf of letters. Swamiji had told me that Baba hated hearing complaints about others, unless he wanted to know something. I was reassured by that thought.
‘You should welcome others with love’, said Baba.
I was uncertain how to reply. I understood that Baba was trying to teach me something. Even though his manner was gruff, I did not feel anger, only love. Baba was speaking directly to a chronic fear of strangers, my shyness, my inability to talk to people I did not know, and what I thought was a social ineptness.
‘Baba’, I said, ‘I don’t know how.’
He thought for a moment. And then he gave me a profound teaching.
‘You should be like me. Do what I do. Every night I greet people. I ask, “What is your name? Where do you come from? What do you do?” You should be just like me and do just what I do.’
I was overjoyed. ‘Okay Baba’, I said as I basked in his love and attention.
‘Here,’ he said, ‘they are just jealous, but you should welcome everyone’ and he threw the letters at me.
Ever since that moment I have used Baba’s welcome formula. Now I am comfortable in social situations when I meet new people. And, when we returned to LA I made an effort to welcome others, including the women who wrote the letters to Baba.
At the ashram I was a ‘busy ashramite’, and did not think of myself as part of the ‘welcome committee.’ It did not occur to me that others needed to be put at ease in Baba’s ashram. I always felt so comfortable, so natural in Baba’s ashrams, even though I shied away from people. His welcome formula was a spiritual and personal breakthrough. And, I also learned that a smile is the most welcoming greeting.
For the second time Baba encouraged me to ‘love everyone.’ This was becoming a theme in my spiritual growth. Baba’s adage, ‘See God in everyone’ epitomised the way he was. His gift of welcome was the capacity to greet each person he met as if they were the only one in a crowded hall of thousands.
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An old man lies rigid in the middle of the road. This country road only has one lane. Cars, trucks, motorcycles and bullock carts fight for space and swerve to avoid running over him. A group of bystanders watch from a distance. No one moves to help him. I wonder if he is drunk or sick or paralysed. We cannot stop the car and I pray someone helps him.
Welcome to India.
Here, every moment seems fraught with an unexpected happening. But the blessings of the Guru are already running like an electric current through my being.
Bhagawan’s Shakti is fierce and loving. He is unrelenting in his demand that we aspire to the highest state of Consciousness—to be detached, to be self-possessed, to be in the flow, to be free, to care more for God and less about our worldly desires and fears, to be loving and compassionate—this is the ultimate blessing of the Guru. If we get out of the way of his grace then the world is set right.
Gurudev Siddha Peeth is on the way to the village of Ganeshpuri. The walls stand like a fortress against alien entry. They remind me of a Tolkien book, Lord of the Rings. I reflect on my time there in the late 70s. ‘Leave your ego with your shoes!’ bellowed a sign over the shoe rack as I step through the lotus gates for the first time. The Shakti shuts down my mind and my heart fills with bliss. I was never the same.
In the mornings I scrub the outer courtyard to perfection. It is joyous to be on my knees polishing the marble. After three days I am moved into the publications department to type on an old Underwood. Not a particularly good typist I prefer the courtyard. I surrender to the Shakti’s will.
When I returned home to Ann Arbor after three months I felt as though I was being squeezed through a tiny tube. My personal karma weighed me down. I remember thinking, ‘this is what birth must feel like. Coming from pure Consciousness into the body, spirit to matter.’ The contraction was overwhelming. I could hardly breathe under its weight. It took a few months to return to normal.
Now, almost 40 years later, I feel grateful to have known and served Baba. I recall his great heart, his nectar love, his fiery nature, his overwhelming presence, power and magic. To be in Baba’s kingdom was to be transported to the Satya Yuga, a time of truth and peace and welcome. I do not long for the past and yet a part of me wishes the present was different.
I feel the Guru’s welcome as I pranam to Bhagawan. I go next door to the Shiva temple. As I walk down the stairs I am hit by a powerful force of Shakti and as I bow to the lingam I hear Baba’s voice, ‘I am here now.’
Gurubhakti, love of the guru, is palpable in Ganeshpuri. I take heart that the village is open to us even though we are in some way, interlopers. I can only glimpse the complexity of village life. There is a natural balance that is disturbed by our group’s presence. It is inevitable that when East meets West there is a clash. To be tentative here is to be wise. We bring prosperity, charity and caring and we receive love and Bhagawan’s grace. The villagers are not used to so much input from the West. Occasional Western visitors pass through but large groups of 90 to 100 like ours are rare. We are slowly becoming family.
To walk through the temple doors and glimpse Bhagawan as he presides over this domain is a joy. Even though his Shakti is powerful in Mt Eliza, here for me, he is more potent. To watch the devotees file in one by one gives me such pleasure. The newbies especially are looking at him in wonder. Their faces are radiant with light and awe. The mystical power emanating from Bhagawan can only be God’s grace. This place is magical.
Guruji has often said that his favorite service to Baba was to introduce new people to him. And now with humility and love he leads them to Bhagawan. I pray, ‘let these doors always be open.’
Guruji and I are ushered beyond the silver barriers into his samadhi. We are allowed to touch him, receive his blessings and bow. We perform the Arati and everyone chimes in. The priests are smiling and glad to see us. It is so good to be home.
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.
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.
‘There is suffering,’ said the Buddha when he attained enlightenment. As to whether he experienced any joy or relief in the moments after his realisation is unclear. There is no record of any obvious hallelujah, ecstatic uttering or celebration. However his next statement, thankfully, was, ‘It can be overcome.’
As a young boy the Buddha’s parents protected him from seeing life’s passages. The shock of confronting illness, old age and death created such despair in him that he left everything that was dear to him in order to understand the true meaning of life. Death was an enigma and he was unwilling to settle for platitudes.
Recently I had to undergo some medical procedures. And even though my doctors were positive that I would come out of them without dire consequences, which is the case, my mind turned toward death. As a young woman anxious about the future I used to wonder, ‘What will I be like at 30? Where will I be when I am 40? What will I be doing at 50? What does the future hold at 60? Where will I be when I am dead? I felt a definite shift in attitude when I realised I was much closer to death than birth. Death could be the next big event in my life.
Every year I try to go to India on retreat. There, death is present, visible on almost every street corner. Dogs, chickens, cows and people forage in the sewers and garbage piles, beggars plead verbally and subtly for their survival, young boys pander their wares at stoplights, and workers live openly in the streets, bathing, defecating, procreating, eating—everything happens on the street. No transition is hidden. Every creature and person lives on the brink and survival is a constant threat.
God too is everywhere. Shops announce their wares with signs in brightly coloured letters: Krishna Imports, Radha Saris, and Shiva Dosa. The names of the Lord are used to entice customers into shops. Small temples, home to various deities, are visible on every other street, and not just Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Moslem also. Priests pay homage and offer prayers every moment of the day. Perhaps their prayers mitigate the fight for survival. Yet, behind the struggle the atmosphere is alive with a subtle joy.
The Vedas teach that we are more than a body/mind complex and that when we shift our identification from the material, the body, to the eternal, the inner Self, we gain a truer sense of who we are. Death is considered a return to the Divine. When the body perishes, the inner Self, the Atman, which is eternal, is reabsorbed into Supreme Consciousness. It is similar to a deep meditation in which the consciousness of an individual merges into the inner Self and becomes one with it.
Self-realised yogis take what is called maha samadhi, the great absorption, at death. Generally their lives have been devoted to service, meditation and spiritual practice. They attained the highest states of Consciousness possible for a human being. Hence they are considered conduits for the grace of God.
While in India I seek out the company of two saints who passed away many years ago. Their passing, although a cause of grief for devotees at the time, is honoured by burial of their bodies in shrines. Saints, gurus, swamis and children are buried – everyone else is cremated.
India is full of Samadhi shrines of Gurus, saints and yogis, some who died centuries ago, some more recently. These Samadhi temples (places of burial) are a haven for pilgrims looking to overcome suffering and for spiritual upliftment. At death devotees continue to worship their Guru as the pure energy of the Self. It is believed that Gurus bestow blessings, teachings, grace and love, long after they have left their bodies.
My first experience of meeting a saint long buried whose Shakti, spiritual energy is still present was in 1978 when I went on pilgrimage in India with Baba Muktananda. I wasn’t convinced that it was possible for a person’s energy to be present after death, and such a long time. We visited one of the most famous Samadhi shrines in India at Alandi, a small village where the young yogi, Jnaneshwar took ‘live’ samadhi in the 11th century. He was a brilliant and much loved Guru who attained Self-realisation in his early teens.
When Jnaneshwar was twenty-two he told his devotees that he was going to take maha samadhi. He asked them to dig a hole in the ground. He told them that he was going to sit in the hole and enter meditation. They were to cover him with dirt and leave him, which they did. The story of his death continues when several hundred years after his burial another yogi, Eknath Maharaj, had a dream in which Jnaneshwar told him that he was being choked by the root of a neem tree that grew close to his body. Eknath dug up the grave to find the body warm and alive, although Jnaneshwar was still in a meditative trance. He removed the root that was around Jnaneshwar’s neck and again covered him over. I had heard that devotees believed Jnaneshwar to be still alive. I was skeptical. It seemed impossible and frightening. I cannot think of a more terrifying death than being buried alive.
On the day of our visit the temple was crowded with pilgrims from all over India. I could see the neem tree, in the middle of the courtyard just outside his shrine. The line was long as we waited single file. Brahmin priests ushered us one by one into a small room no bigger than a closet. The floor was dark grey stone polished to a shine from the millions of bare feet that had made their way there. It was hot and the only light came from a small window carved in the stone walls. Two priests chanted mantras as we passed by. In the centre of the floor above Jnaneshwar’s head was a square with a black lingam, an esoteric symbol of Shiva, covered in flowers. I looked down and offered some flowers. As my hand came close to the top of where Jnaneshwar’s head would be, I felt waves of energy and heat pouring out of it. In my mind I heard a rushing sound like the wind and I fell to my knees in devotional ecstasy. I heard myself muttering, ‘Oh my God, he is alive; he is alive!’
I looked up into the face of the Brahmin priest across from me as he reached out to stop me from falling on top of Jnaneshwar’s head. He was smiling in amused agreement. I unsteadily rose to my feet with his help. I was intoxicated. I couldn’t believe it. Jnaneshwar’s presence was still there. Disbelief vanished in the face of the powerful energy and love pulsating from the lingam.
In the dusty villages of India birth and death are family matters. There are few doctors in rural India and certainly no embalmer. And so it is left to tribal and village rituals to manage life’s transitions.
During my last visit to India in February this year my guru’s elderly drum teacher, Potya, unexpectedly passed away. He worked on the corner of Kailas, Bhagavan’s ashram, handing out water to thirsty pilgrims. I looked forward to seeing his smiling face when I walked past on my way to meditate or shop. He spoke no English and he waved, or folded his hands in a silent hello.
A few days before I was to return to Melbourne, I noticed that the door to his water stand was closed, and the next day also. I wondered where he was. One morning Percy, the owner of the hotel where I stay told me that Potya had had a massive heart attack. Apparently, he had not been feeling well during the days he was missing from his post and had gone to the local hospital, an hour away where he had died. Percy asked me if I wanted to go to the funeral and I said yes.
On the way to Potya’s house, where the ceremony was taking place, Percy bought some marigold garlands to offer him. When we arrived, there were about 200 people, mostly men, waiting solemnly in the front garden. Potya’s close female relations were in the house bathing, oiling and dressing his body. I could hear the wailing of their sorrow as we stood waiting for them to finish. A few women were outside—some weeping, some saying mantra, some praying. The men were eerily quiet.
They say you are gone yet you are lying peacefully. Bathed, perfumed, clothed, you lay sleeping—quiet now from the sorrow of your body. Garlanded, wrapped in white, your wailing daughters weep the tears of loss. I hear their anguish and yours too…. All may be forgiven with Nityananda’s blessing. From my notes.
After about 15 minutes some men went inside and came out carrying Potya’s body. There was a palanquin covered in straw and a long muslin cloth, on which they gently laid him down. Everyone lined up to say goodbye to him by touching him or speaking some final words.
There was no smell of death, only the freshness of the bath and the scented oil they had rubbed into him. He looked as though he was in a deep sleep and at any moment would awaken to the sounds of his loved one’s grief.
After the farewells more muslin cloth was pulled over to cover him while various dignitaries spoke. They then laid white shawls across him. One of the curious cultural contrasts is that white, not black, represents death. Widows wear white, not young brides embarking on a new life. Next we placed our garlands on him. As I offered my garland I was overcome by emotion as I remembered the tender moments between my guru and Potya when they met for the first time after many years. I said goodbye and wished him a peaceful journey.
Potya’s body was now hidden underneath a colourful mound of green leaves, marigolds, chrysanthemums, jasmine and roses. His sons and male relatives carefully picked him up to carry him to the cremation ground, an isolated spot near the river Tansa which winds through the valley. At a certain point as they walked toward the burial site, the women stopped walking and we stood watching as the men continued on their way. For some reason women do not attend the actual cremation.
This farewell was in sharp contrast to a funeral I attended shortly after I returned to Australia. The funeral parlor was tastefully sterile, impersonal and almost cold. Many of the family, slightly aloof held back from expressing their grief openly. I had made a garland of flowers to offer the deceased. The family looked at me nonplussed when I asked if I could lay it across the coffin. I was remembering the unselfconscious expression of grief and love by Potya’s howling daughters and relatives, who let their loss break through the walls of their hearts to moan and complain to God. The expression of sorrow could not be stilled. Death could not dam heartbreak, but here the unspoken choked the atmosphere. The intimacy of this ceremony paled in comparison to Potya’s.
Sudden death has perhaps the most heartache. I have been shaken to the core of my being when I was awoken in the middle of the night by police with the news that my brother had just been killed in a car accident. But worse than that, was that I then had to break the news to my mother.
In 1981 the SYDA Foundation President, Ron Friedland suddenly died. Everyone was shocked, especially Baba Muktananda, who was the spiritual head and Guru. At the time I was working on the Foundation magazine. I wanted to write an obituary and knew that I had to ask Baba if it was appropriate to do so. It was early in the morning when I found Baba sitting on a little perch in the courtyard of his ashram in India. I tentatively walked up to him and said, “Baba, may I write something about Ron?”
He looked at me stunned, and then burst into tears and sobbed, “No one will ever know how much I loved that man.”
I stood there feeling the sorrow of Baba’s loss, astonished that he permitted his grief to flow and that he allowed me to see his humanity. My empathy flowed toward him. In that moment I felt like his mother. My heart went out to him and I silently offered him comforting words. After a minute or so, Baba’s tears stopped and he said, “Yes, write something.”
Grief and sorrow are natural at certain tragic moments in life. We need to find ways to pass it through the heart as we learn to accept and live with what has happened. The heart must be allowed to breathe whatever feelings arise in it from loss. Anger, fear and grief are natural companions to loss. However we also have to be careful not to cling to them or the pain. If we brood too long we risk the heart freezing in time, shutting down and turning to debilitating despair. In time sorrow will become compassion, acceptance and forgiveness. And, we become more empathic to the suffering of others.
Even though Hindus grieve the loss of the person, they are also reassured and comforted by the understanding that there is rebirth. This doesn’t necessarily still the ache of loss, but it does offer some comfort. The idea of rebirth is both horrifying and exhilarating to me. I am not certain how many of us, given a choice, would want to live again. Yet, life is precious, and the seeking and finding of God, love and meaning is a great joy. In my youth I chased death as a possible answer to existential angst. But now knowing that there is true meaning and purpose, something eternal into which all sorrow can be sacrificed, then, yes, I choose to do it all again. For love of people, for love of Self, and for love of God, I would, if given the opportunity, willingly embark on another life. Would you?
‘Meditate on your own Self, worship your own Self, honour your own Self, love your own Self. God dwells within you as you,’ said an advertisement in the local morning paper. This was an unusually positive message for an American paper with ties to the racially conflicted city of Detroit, Michigan.
It was September 1974, a beautiful time of year in the Midwest. I was living in Ann Arbor with Danny, a young man who was to become my husband, and working at the University of Michigan Counselling Services. A few days later he came home from class and told me he had received an invitation from his psychology professor to meet a holy man from India, a Guru named Baba Muktananda, the writer of the benevolent message.
Baba’s message uplifted and puzzled me. I was stirred by the mysterious words ‘God dwells within you, as you’. They resonated with truth. But, to believe that God lived within me, as me, seemed an impossible attainment.
The vision inherent in that message was powerful and compassionate, two qualities I had not yet encountered. Later, as I became familiar with my inner world, I began to understand its significance. I would not know the true meaning of Baba’s words until I understood how I made life difficult for myself.
A few days later, intrigued and curious about the mystic East, Danny and I pulled up outside a grand old fraternity house. It was freshly painted white weatherboard with black shutters; something that would look more comfortable nestled at Cape Cod than in this small university town. It appeared normal except for the large black sign ‘Siddha Yoga Dham’ on the rooftop. As I entered, the smell of incense filled my nostrils. There was a subtle electricity in the atmosphere; everything was extraordinarily bright. My attention was drawn to a photograph of a naked man lying on his side, smiling mysteriously. He seemed odd, eccentric. I wondered who he was and what he represented but I was not dismayed. Even though the ambience was unfamiliar, I was completely at ease.
Baba was sitting on a small sofa, answering questions. The room was alive and still at the same time. His bright orange clothes blazed warmth in the fall chill. As I sat down I glanced up at him. Our eyes met and although no words were spoken, I felt welcomed. There was laughter as he told a story. He said that everyone had an inner Self and that happiness could be found within. As he spoke I felt a pull and my attention was drawn to my inner being. The room faded as I grew drowsy and the last thing I remember is my head falling forward. I came back to the room with a start to Danny poking me on the shoulder. Time had passed. I did not want to leave but we had to pick up a friend at the airport.
I felt a twinge of regret as I unsteadily stood to go. I wondered if I would see him again. I regretted that I was busy during the rest of the time he was visiting Ann Arbor. He was still answering questions, so without saying goodbye, we left. As we walked to the car I asked Danny how long we had been there. I was surprised to learn it was only half an hour. I felt like I had slept for eight hours, yet it was different. I was transported to a place deep within me, connected to the whole world, truly in touch with myself for the first time. As we drove away I said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but that man has something.’