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.
When I feel overwhelmed by work I often imagine myself sitting by a river with nothing to do but meditate, alone. The river Tansa is nearby and I realize I have been given a cherished wish.
I wake up early and meditate outside on the veranda. The mornings are cool and I rug up in shawls. Sounds of creatures waking are abuzz: Arati bells ringing, crows cawing, roosters crowing, hens clucking, kites screeching and woodpeckers pecking. Sudarshan the new cook at Kothavala, who lost his parents when he was young, has adopted Guruji and I as his spiritual mother and father. He chants mantras as he brings chai and biscuits. I breathe in the atmosphere. This is where I want to be.
At 7:00AM I head for Kailas and meditate in one of Bhagawan’s many bedrooms, which is only open in the morning. I take darshan of his funky chair and head for the temple. Shop owners are quiet, not yet hawking their wares. The chai stalls are opening but each has their own takers. The same faces are there every morning. The rest of the day my routine includes chatting with people, Arati, lunch, rest, writing, dinner, hot baths, arati at the temple and sleep. Many villagers are surprised I am here alone and wonder if I am okay. I find myself getting to know some more intimately. I like this inner movement of friendship. I relax into the tempo and find the days pass quickly.
Bhagavan’s Samadhi shrine is my favorite place to meditate during the day even though there are more comfortable and quiet spots. There is no logic to my preference. Devotees are chattering, children are running freely, bells are clanging, flower girls are shrieking, devotees are praying and priests are chanting. The outer world is busy, chaotic even, but inwardly I am blissful. Activity here arises from the highest Consciousness, undisturbed by disturbance. I imagine this is what it would have been like to be in his physical presence.
My sister is having some health problems and I decide to do a Guru Paduka puja (ceremony for the Guru’s sandals) for her in the Temple. I am concerned that I might be faced with a non-English speaking priest and decide to invite Indu, a village elder who spent much time with Bhagawan to join me. She speaks enough English to get me through the awkwardness of not understanding Hindi and the uneasiness of doing something wrong.
Indu, the priest and I will bathe Bhagawan’s sandals in milk and water from the natural hot springs, and then mark them with sandalwood paste, kum kum, tulsi leaves, ash, perfumed oil and flowers while mantras are chanted.
Indu’s company is calming. I find it humorous that my confidence wavers in the presence of the Brahmin priest Devidas. Guruji has nicknamed him Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, because he is tall, slim, and charismatic. His devotional style, when waving the lights during Arati to Bhagavan, is flamboyantly artful and full of devotion. But here now, the language barrier inhibits my ability to connect with him. I cannot ask questions or chat.
Devidas begins by telling me that this day is a most auspicious day, more so than any other day I could have chosen. It is moksha ekadashi, the 11 day of the month of the waxing moon. To do a ceremony today means auspicious blessings, spiritual liberation, for my family and me. The puja is beautiful even though I inadvertently pour the hot water meant for Bhagavan’s sandals all over his lap. ‘Slow, slow’ he says.
As Devidas chants the mantras I embrace Bhagawan’s Shakti and give myself up to the power of this incredible Siddha’s grace. I tune in and the Temple sounds become a distant aum as I open to the moment. The murti in front of me is shimmering with Chiti. I am awed by the power of Shiva’s light.
The other side of Shiva, the dark, is never far away in India. That night I awaken to a puppy shrieking in pain. I vow to pack them up and smuggle them back to Australia. Or, I am going to start feeding them. Neither is possible. I tell myself that next time I am bringing a vet. Most dogs are uncared for and live on sugar treats thrown to them by pilgrims leaving the temples or scraps from the chai shops. Diabetes is not just for humans. Of course they procreate continually. Neuter a dog—it is unthinkable even for the educated.
At night there is the howling of animals being born and dying. How is it that the pleas for food and shelter can be ignored day after day? I could not live here without doing something about it. Guruji often jokes that it is good karma to be born a dog in the West and a cow in India, and bad karma to be born a dog in India and a cow in the West.
One Westerner, an American woman, has been living here for over 20 years. She feeds and tends numerous dogs and cats every day even though her finances are stretched. She is quite elderly, fragile and worries about who will take care of them when she is gone.
Everyone needs something. From a young man in a wheelchair, whose home is unsuitable, to another with five children under the age of eight whose house was washed away in the monsoon and now lives in a leaking tin roof hut—no plumbing of course. There is also a young man needing sinus surgery and a young girl who recently lost her mother and stays with her older sister. There are lots of children and most in need of some sort of medical attention. I cannot forget the line of beggars, who are fed by the Temple every day, but whose desire for human attention calls out to every passer by.
Then there is the problem of alcohol. Made locally it destroys the eyesight of devotees who worship at the palm shrine. Alcoholism is on the rise and there is no AA here. So too is drug addiction and HIV. Garbage and sewage sprawl across roads and pathways. The stench is a constant. One person I meet suggests that India’s biggest mistake was to get rid of the British. By now, he says, they would have an infrastructure; sewage and garbage would be handled. And, there would not be a Pakistan.
My mind spins: I could do this; I could do that. I can get this; I can get that. But I know I can do little or nothing. I accept it all as it is, yet feel the anguish. I look away but I am not indifferent. I give myself permission to feel the pain of existential angst without despair. I have learned I can only help when God allows.
This is India. It can drive a weak mind mad. Heartless on the one hand with death barking at your heels every moment and yet full of the wonder of worship of God. My thoughts turn to home and contemplate how to hold onto this particular experience of the Shakti.
In the early morning I sit on the porch and watch the sun rise. The village is still in the early hours. Soft noises of awakening do not disturb my meditation. I wait for chai and biscuits in awe of the blessings that flow from Bhagawan Nityananda. I am in the mind of Shiva, dark and light emanating from his mystical heart. Mother India clasped me to her breast and fed me her soul. I don’t believe there is another place on the planet quite like this. This is 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.