All-American Sannyasini Discusses Modern Renunciation

The Phantastikos, Shri Gurudev Mahendranath wrote:

“Once you receive the initiation, it is yours throughout life. No one can take it from you, and you yourself can never renounce it. This is the most permanent thing in an impermanent life.”

The Sanskrit word for “guru” is translated as “grave.” That says it all. When you take the vow of a renunciate, whether formalized by a religion, or informal between you and God, you vow to abandon the world, breaking all ties to your past, including your old identity. In Hinduism, this is known as the path of the sadhu (translated “holy man”); the sage or ascetic. The sadhu is solely dedicated to achieving moksha (liberation), the fourth and final stage of life, through meditation and contemplation of God. Traditionally, this lifestyle was reserved for men, but today in Buddhism, Hindusim, and Jainism, women also wear the robes symbolizing their status as renunciates, and in Hinduism, they are popularly known as sannyasinis. “There are 4 to 5 million sadhus in India today and they are widely respected for their holiness. It is also thought that the austere practices of the sadhus help to burn off their karma and that of the community at large. Thus seen as benefiting society, sadhus are supported by donations from many people” (Wikipedia, 2017). Hindu sadhus employ a variety of religious practices; some practice extreme asceticism, while others focus on praying, chanting or meditating. Most take vows to refrain from violence, inebriation, sexual liberality, eating meat, and attachment to money. Most sadhus in Hinduism even take a new name, and may leave their families behind for a solitary and disciplined life, as Lord Buddha did. The processes and rituals of becoming a sadhu vary with sect; in almost all, a sadhu is initiated by a guru, who bestows upon the initiate a new name, as well as a mantra. But how does an all-American girl “take sadhu” if one has an established career? More importantly, should one?

When I converted to Hinduism from Buddhism, I didn’t start out thinking that I wanted to become a sandhu, although I admit, the idea of leaving it all behind was tempting. So I did what any spiritually conflicted modern American would do: I turned to the internet! I found a genuine guru from India who had a monastery in the US, and applied to take his online study course. I began my journey into sadhu territory tentatively and carefully, by first informing myself about Hinduism; including reading the ancient Hindu scriptures and educating myself in meditation, though I’d studied and practiced meditation and chant for 15 years as a Buddhist. I also took a class in Vedic chant, and spent 1 to 2 hours daily singing ancient mantras in the mysterious language of Sanskrit. The guru’s study course taught me how to perform Home Puja, a do-it-yourself worship service for Hindus, so I purchased a hand painted picture of Lord Krishna, a statue from India, and stumbled my way through performing it. The online course instructed me in Bhakti Yoga (meditation), the history of Indian ascetics, and the well-worn path of devotional Hinduism. So I had my start. But as I plunged headlong into Hinduism, I was curious to know about the lives of female sadhus. What were their thoughts, feelings, and daily lives like?

I read the book: “Women In Ochre Robes” (Khandelwal, 2004), describing the experiences of India’s female renunciates. I quickly learned that while there are modern female sanyasinis who are highly respected by their communities, and some who even have their own ashrams, Hinduism is decidedly paternalistic, which has made the road for women ascetics that much steeper. In India, when male Sadhus are asked about women taking sanyasi, some will say women cannot (traditionally) take the vows. Nevertheless, these determined devotees feel the internal call, and defy tradition as they don the saffron robes, agreeing to take on followers, and householder patrons. Others, the majority, live reclusive lives, wandering the countryside and observing austerities, or teaching in exchange for shelter and a meal, or living in communal ashrams with other sannyasinis. But when I searched online to find another American female Hindu renuciate, I found only American male gurus. Was I the only American woman interested in taking the initiation, and undergoing these drastic spiritual changes, shifts in consciousness so profound that I could only describe it as self-realization? And if I wasn’t the only one, where were they hiding?

I have never felt as solitary, because I don’t know anyone like me, a woman called to asceticism late in life, and I’ve never known any Hindus. Simultaneously, I’ve never felt so content and peaceful-so completely absorbed in meditation and Vedic chant. It is a dichotomy: wanting to know I am doing this correctly and wishing I had a local guru to guide my steps into this new world of renunciation, and yet feeling the undeniable pull to withdraw and develop my bond with God. There’s been a definite tension there. I considered visiting a community Hindu temple, but I’ve been practicing meditation and chant for 15 years (as a Buddhist), and therefore my Inner Guru is strong, muscling me down the path of the lone renunciate.

Other changes continued to happen organically (no pun intended). We both became vegetarians-because that was one sacrifice I’d been thinking about making for a long time for our health. I gave up a social life so I could spend my free time in meditation and chant, and put off returning to work until my honeymoon period with asceticism was over. But that was the thing-I didn’t know if my Inner Guru was going to ask me for a lifetime commitment or not. I didn’t know where the path of the sandhu would lead, but my soul had grabbed me by the hand and was pulling me along to find out. Before I even converted to Hinduism, I had sold most of my belongings and moved into a 23 foot travel trailer for retirement. Yes, it had a big screen TV… so I wasn’t exactly living in the forest, or in a cave in the Himalayan mountains like the Indian ascetics. It had a bathroom and running hot water, but during the Winter the water froze, and I was without water for several days to a week. On those days, I felt like a rugged minimalist. I had decided to try minimalist living because I have always been convinced there is more joy in owning less; less is more. It also allowed me to write and research full time, which are my passions in life. I’ve also given up entertaining myself with anything except that which will hasten my spiritual ascent. Of these lifestyle changes, the biggest was that I stopped eating cow, and this I take as a serious vow. In fact, one time we walked up to a fast food counter and as my friend was giving her lunch order, my eyes drifted to the hamburger on the billboard overhead. I thought, “That’s funny, I can’t remember what hamburger tastes like!” I had intended to order the vegie meal, but before I knew what was happening, my mind jumped up and ambushed me. “Get the hamburger!!” it screamed. Like a robot, I opened my mouth to say: “One hamburger,” but what came out instead was: “I’ll have the vegie meal, please.” Time after time, my vows placed a gag order on my mouth, almost as if there was an invisible electrical fence which kept me from straying. I came to understand the purpose of renunciation: It is a voluntary giving up of habitual ways in exchange for something higher, something immaterial-something better. It doesn’t look self-serving to the outsider, but it is, because the insight, contentment and peace you receive are more valuable than what you could offer in return. Another intriguing aspect is that I cannot lie anymore. I used to tell what I would call “white lies,” fibs that didn’t hurt anybody. I never felt bad about this, because I saw how some lies could actually help a situation (like saying I was a landlord so a needy friend could get housing). Or when it would spare someone’s feelings, I would tell a white lie to avoid conflict. The point is, we’ve all done it. But these days, I tell the truth like I can’t control it! Even when it would be better to fib a little, the truth comes flying out. And if I manage to suppress the truth even for a short period, it sneaks out from behind the corner where it was silently hiding. I am not sure I like this much transparency-it takes some getting used to, this new and improved version of me who has the ethics of a girl scout.

There has only been one serious down side to more concentrated time in meditation: it has made me exquisitely sensitive to other people’s energy. I dread going into a busy supermarket, or worse, a crowded mall, because it’s like dredging through a thick swamp of other people’s crap. This empathic intuition is an unwanted gift that came along with my new spiritual sensitivity; it seems you can’t have one without the other. So when I get away from the crowds or a particularly distasteful person, I clear the heavy energy that I’ve just bumped into. If I don’t, I can barely recover my footing, and for a few hours I’ll sink into a funk. I can’t shake it like I used to; now I absorb it into my auric field, so I must cleanse myself to stay emotionally afloat.

Of the many shifts I’ve had since my asceticism began, one change in perception stands out above the rest. I was reading Vedic scriptures called the Brahma Purana, and there is one aphorism which changed the way I view everything and everyone. In every verse, the writer of the scripture kept repeating: “This is That,” referring to the Supreme Being as “That,” for God is a spirit who defies human labels of male or female. I pondered the meaning of “This is That.” Suddenly it came to me: “This,” meaning me is “That,” meaning God. He was emphasizing our divinity. What if I applied this thought widely… how would I act if I was God? Well, I thought, God loves unconditionally. And God doesn’t desire material things, because He is spirit. I’d have no interest in being entertained, nor would I addict myself to substances, because God is above those trifling pleasures. I wouldn’t be worried about what others thought, because I wouldn’t be insecure; I would have full faith in my ability to create anything I wanted. I’d live in emotional equilibrium and self-sufficiency, not dependent upon those around me. I’d be impervious to barbs being thrown my way, and calm in the face of worry. That all sounded pretty good to me! So for the rest of the day I repeated to myself: “This (me) is That (God)” when I needed an attitude shift, and guess what-it worked! This simple-sounding philosophy is a strict heuristic which the sadhus live by. They believe that They are indeed That, so they endeavor to treat everyone the same. They extend God’s compassion equally, to everyone. This motto encourages us to to treat others as if we are them, which is an incredibly compassionate way to live. It is teaching that there is no difference in God’s eyes between any created thing and myself. I was raised in a conservative Christian home where I was taught at church to treat each others as my brothers and sisters. But saying we are all the same, that I am you, takes compassion a step farther. Brothers and sisters fight and have differences-but you would never oppose yourself, or lie to yourself. And you would care for yourself, but you wouldn’t feel lust for yourself! That’s what is absent from the sadhu: lust. I feel love, but not lustful desire. If they are me, it only makes sense that I will tend to their needs, minus the lust. Central to the Sadhus way of life is desire-lessness, for self-centered attachment only causes pain. The Brahma Purana also references duality, pointing out that as long as I view the world as “me and them,” I’m living in the false perception of duality. My favorite illustration of “This is That” happened while I was cooking breakfast. A tiny bug, so tiny it could barely be seen came marching across the plate that I was ladling eggs onto. Without thinking, I roughly shook it off. I’ve probably done that a hundred times; but this time was different. I heard a voice: “This is That,” and That was the bug. The tiny, helpless bug that I had flung across the room with no regard for its existence which could have been me. I froze in place. If I were that tiny helpless bug, not knowing I had landed on someone’s breakfast plate, what would I want? Certainly not to be flipped into oblivion. Why hadn’t I taken a moment of my time and opened the door, gently releasing it outside where it belonged? Even though it was just an insignificant bug, still, This is That. I felt so bad; I thought about my callousness all day.

And what of those ascetics who practice austerities, intentionally depriving the body of sense pleasures-do I believe in doing that? Austerities are not for the purpose of showing off. They are to remind the devotee that they are not the body. For example: fasting makes you deny the hunger instinct, proving that you have mastery over your senses. Why is this important? Because if you identify with the body and not with the soul, you can be driven like a slave here and there by the craving body. The false beliefs that you and I are separate, and that I am only my body keep me from attaining the ultimate goal, which is mukti (liberation). While I’m not a fan of fasting due to my hypoglycemia, I wanted to offer an austerity of some kind, so I decided upon observing silence from waking until noon. The first few days, I forgot to be silent more than I remembered it; speaking my mind was second nature and automatic. I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to keep my mouth shut! In my first month of renunciation, I learned many lessons about staying true to the path, mostly lessons about desire and release. I learned that I desire much more often and vehemently than I think I do, and that releasing desire frees the universe to give you unexpected gifts. Christ confirmed: “It is better to give than to receive.” When we let go, God has room to work.

One Hindu scripture referred to the narrow road of a renunciate as walking “the edge of a razor blade,” and I feel that daily. Anne Lenox has a song: “Walking On Broken Glass.” Some days I feel as if my knees are bleeding, for each day my ability to stay close to God and to the path is tested. It’s no wonder renunciates don’t encourage sanyasi-they understand the pain and difficulty of renouncing your old identity and ingrained patterns. The old conditioning sticks to your feet like tar, and tries to keep you in the place others have put you. It is not myself which is the threat, but others who threaten my resolve. This is why sadhus leave their spouses and families behind; I understand now. When your heart is pointing true north, you may have to go it alone, because they can’t hear the same piper that you are hearing.

Recently during meditation, I saw a visual of me walking through a veil, and as I stepped through, I looked down to see that I was dressed in a diaper. I giggled, because seeing myself at age 53 as a diapered toddler made me smile. But no matter your age, asceticism is a journey, and I have just begun to grow. I am still messing up (which explains why I had a diaper on), but I can’t expect to start at the top. In a way, taking sanyasi is like graduating from college only to find you were taken back to kindergarten. Because in kindergarten you learn the basics: how to read, how to get along with others, and how to use logic. This initiation has been like stepping through a door into the odd new world of Wonderland, and to find that I am a very small Alice. And yet, if you were to walk back through the door to enter the “real” world again, I’d be the tallest one there. The difference between the two worlds is that while Wonderland seems like a dream world, it is the actual state of things-even if it is wacky and fantastic. Like Alice, I cannot imagine where this journey will take me, or for how long I will be lost in this Wonderland. All I know is that I want to see things I never saw in the real world, which is why I took the path of the renunciate. Where barriers used to be now stand doors. I do not know where they will lead me, but I know one thing: they are the only way OUT.

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