I wrote this post almost a month ago, but in the haste and hurry of travel, couldn’t get round to finishing it. It’s about a deep topic so I didn’t want to post it hastily.
At the end of March, I did something that I have been contemplating for over a decade. People that know me well, know that even choosing a toothpaste can present a challenge – what to speak of big decisions. So when the opportunity came to make formal vows within the bhakti yoga tradition, even though I had been considering it for so long, I hesitated.
I did ultimately go ahead with it, and the morning after, flew to Australia as planned, for some kirtan programs. I landed first in Melbourne, where on my first morning I met a man at the Hare Krishna temple who said he had watched the ‘initiation’ ceremony on a livestream. Hesitating for a moment he then asked, ‘Well, some of us were talking and saying that we thought you would have already done this years ago…if you don’t mind me asking…what took you so long?’ I gave him a short answer. But here’s a longer one:
I have grown up in what’s popularly known as ‘the Hare Krishna Movement’. It’s been 30 years now, not to give away my age…but – well…that’s quite a long time. I started out life in the Hare Krishna bubble – it was all I knew – the beautiful music, the colourful clothes, being pushed in my pram on festive street processions in London. I loved my friends, I loved the family, the community of aunties and uncles and animals, like the temple cat, and the cows we petted and helped to milk after school. I never felt strange for being a white person with an Indian name – I didn’t even have to think about it – apart from at the doctor and dentist where I used my middle name, ‘Abigail’.
In my teens I thought a lot about a lot of things. As I grew taller, so too did my world – lengthways and longways – learning about other perspectives and cultures. My parents came from Jewish and Christian backgrounds respectively, and encouraged us to learn about other faiths and honour their holy days. But it wasn’t til I went to regular state school that I encountered people who didn’t believe in God at all, or who even ridiculed people of faith. It was the first time in my life I felt angst about my identity and my beliefs- fear and shame to show myself for who I was. I cringed when the teachers announced my name on the register, and avoided being noticed at all costs. I wanted to be as blank as a sheet of paper.
My inner world was teeming with life though, like a tropical forest. I delved into music more deeply than before, listening to jazz, African music, Western classical and Barry White (don’t ask…it was a phase). The world of sound was an escape to a place of beauty, depth and freedom. Contemplating my identity, I felt myself to be walking through a long, dark tunnel, with no end in sight. I considered whether there was a need to ‘rebel’. It didn’t seem necessary, yet I felt disengaged from what was expected of me – though I still went through the motions.
Around 16 years old I started to take an independent liking to kirtan, the call and response chanting I had always known. It’s not that I hadn’t liked it before, but I recognised a difference in my newfound appreciation. It was unprompted by anyone and anything. I just noticed one day that it felt good. It made me feel peaceful and happy. It made me feel something deep that I didn’t have words for.
At 18, by luck or good fortune, I met several special people in whose presence I felt the seed of faith within come to life. I started to pay more attention to the daily practises and teachings of bhakti – and examine and engage with them as objectively as possible.
At 19 years old I travelled for the first time without my parents to attend a Hare Krishna youth ‘bus tour’ in the USA and Canada – like a summer camp on wheels. The tour travelled for two months, putting on devotional dance and drama performances at festivals, and a huge amount of fun adventures in between. The experience of meeting 50 other young people who had grown up in the same way as I did, and laughing, serving, and learning together, completely transformed my confidence. I blossomed, finding a voice, and vitality that had been buried for so many years. I did it for another two summers, in between university studies.
Three years later, as I was about to graduate I got the opportunity to join a different kind of tour, again across North America – joining a sacred music/kirtan band called ‘As Kindred Spirits’ who as it happened, needed someone to play violin and sing in the chorus. Suddenly I found myself part of a group presenting kirtan, bhakti stories and philosophy to all different kinds of people – from secular music festival audiences, to city yoga studio groups. I saw how much joy it brought people, and my own faith in the depth of this practise and tradition grew. I was no longer shy about my name, my identity or my beliefs. I felt happy to share these things with others, and excitement in the journey of discovery taking place within myself.
Throughout all these years I had to come to terms with the many trips and falls of the religious institution. Every organisation- let alone spiritual organisation – has problems, and there were many, in the 70s and 80s especially (mostly before my time) that I found impossible to overlook. Most of these issues were due to immaturity and poor decision making, and did not affect me so much personally, but it was enough that people I knew had been deeply affected. In my struggle to find my sense of identity, I had to accept that being associated with the movement, meant accepting that these things had happened and that I was by association, indirectly connected. That took time, and there are still things I grapple with in that regard.
But I didn’t intend this to be a life history.
A couple weeks ago I decided to formally surrender myself before my whole community (and it seems, although I had no idea at the time, over 600 people watching online!) as a student of a great master (guru) and make vows regarding daily practise and principles of living.
This act is considered to be foundational and essential for a bhakti practitioner. Although it is called ‘initiation’ and is considered to be the beginning of the spiritual path, it often marks the end of a period of being non-commital. Like going from ‘I really like you,’ to ‘Let’s get married.’
So – why? Why now? Why at all?
I have asked myself these questions time and time again. Over the years I have asked countless friends about their experience of doing it, or their reasons for not doing it. I chewed on it, hemmed and hawed, and questioned and scrutinised. I also shed profuse tears every time I witnessed someone taking that step. I found it so beautiful, so moving. A commitment to being a servant of the Supreme, and therefore a servant of all. A commitment to being a humble student before a spiritual teacher, who in turn accepts the responsibility of training and guiding their dependent for life – or many lifetimes!
Over the years, when I would try to come closer to taking the step, a snake of doubt would rise within, time and time again. Every time I thought my faith was growing, for one reason or another, I would feel disillusioned, and would again feel I had to return to square one. It was humbling and bewildering too. I worried that I would be cheated. I worried that I would not be qualified. I doubted whether I would feel I had made the right decision. I searched my heart for a ‘glowing’ definitive ‘YES!’, but didn’t find it.
So a week before the ‘initiation’ ceremony, when the opportunity drew near, it seemed easy to pull out the ‘it’s not the right time’ card. I certainly tried it. But something different was taking place. Something had changed within. I remembered the stepping stones I used to cross a river when I was a child. At a very young age I could go as far as two steps. The next stone was just a little too far for my legs to stretch to, and anyway, being the extra-cautious type, the fast flowing (though shallow!) current was enough to deter me. But there came an age when my legs spanned the stones with ease. The wobble of the loose ones, and the current, didn’t scare me anymore.
With the good counsel of a few close friends and mentors, the step no longer felt so daunting or so great. Rather, I understood. It was the beginning of a new chapter.
The ceremony was lengthy. All the candidates filed into the temple room in ordered, alphabetical rows. We sat and waited as guests of each person settled themselves in. Fresh jasmine garlands were placed around each of our necks. Sweet kirtan was sung. I felt very composed and peaceful, yet as the kirtan swelled and rose, I remembered all of those people who have been nurturing and guiding me. Their faces filled my heart and mind and tears of gratitude began to fall. Some were personally present. By fateful arrangement it was Mother’s Day (in the UK) and many of the beloved aunties who have been mothers to me through thick and thin, were present. As the chanting went on, I remembered the three decades of life, spent returning to this very room, day after day. The school graduations, the quiet moments of prayer on rainy weekday afternoons, the festivals – layer upon layer of memory and experience.
Before the making of vows, beautiful, instructive speeches were given by my father and His Holiness Candramauli Swami. Next my guru spoke – telling the story of the great bhakti acharya Sripad Ramanuja, who journeyed hundreds of miles to ask his guru for shelter, only to find that he had just passed from this world, moments before his arrival. Despite the fact that they had not exchanged words in person, he knew his guru’s heart so deeply, and demonstrated it without doubt (it’s a longer story I won’t go into) that he was chosen above all others to be his successor. The point was that a true disciple aims to please the heart of their guru through their humble, conscientious service. Amongst the fifty candidates making vows that day, I believe the purport resonated deeply.
Much could be said about the experience of making vows, receiving a new name, and the rest of the day. Perhaps it is suffice to say it was a tsunami of love; a rare, purifying, incandescent moment, never to be forgotten. More than that I will not elaborate. There are some things that these days feel too personal to write about on the internet. I wanted to write this to give a flavour of the experience, for those curious, or in need of encouragement to take the step one day themselves.
What I ultimately felt the commitment was about, aside from the obvious – vows made, and a formal relationship established with a spiritual master, was surrendering to accept a new identity. We recited it in our vows, at our guru’s request – to be a ‘das-anu-das-anu-das’ – a ‘servant, of the servant, of the servant, of the servant…ad infinitum…of the Supreme Lord’. The smallest of the small – joyful to be a golden particle of the Supreme Whole. This feels revolutionary to me. How amazing, to promise — to vow— to live life in a mood of humble service. It feels so right. Surrendering to the truth of my deepest identity – beyond the name, the red hair, the talents, the flaws, the age, the gender, the state of mind. Das anu das. It is the most profound consciousness changer, transforming perception of every situation, and my responses and choices. That’s the goal at least.
Yet it’s not easy. Profoundly simple, yet the mountain of ego stands firm and tall!
It will be a rocky road I know. I feel reinvigorated, scared and excited at the same time. I feel curious – the vow making was the first day of the rest of my life’s exploration – what does it mean to be a true disciple, and a servant of God?
An adventure it will surely be. And in service, I will keep writing about it.
(thanks to Jagannath Sharan das for the images)