A Swami is said to be the Master over himself, a servant to others.
Beautiful statements like that abound, but as a German proverb states: “Words are patient”! What is behind it?
It seems to me that in “being a Swami” two different strands come together, and even these strands are so ancient we don’t know their beginnings.
A Swami is a sanyasin, meaning a “renounciate” ,but the word itself is not nearly as old as the tradition.
Way back, thousands of years ago in what is now India, the Vedic society was rooted in ritual practices that the Brahmins, the priests, performed. At that time, already, there were two kinds of people living to some extend outside this tradition, the Rishis (“Seers”) and the Praccekabuddhas, the Wise ones, Munis (those in silence), and Ascetics .
In mainstream society, the path to God and success in life was bound to and assisted by the Brahmins and their rituals.
This meant salvation, liberation, realization was based on, had to go through, the ritual and mediator-ship of the Brahmins. Not only that, but life was understood to be totally embedded in family, clan, group, in the entire society, and the Brahmanic ritual was the heart of society.
However times change.
As society grew, as villages turned into townships, i.e., with urbanization, the priest-class aligned themselves with those in power, the nobility. Gradually, the Priest-class became so powerful that achievement of material success and fulfillment of ones spiritual ambition was thought to be possible only through the Brahmins.
On a psychological level however, with urbanization, the village/family/clan structure softened. Just as in today’s world, being drawn to urban life split up families and clans, and awareness of individual existence crept in, and with it awareness of individual Soul-Self.
Thus, the awareness grew of one’s individual relationship with God.
This meant that the responsibility for the path to God shifted for some, away from priestly intervention. In today’s lingo we would say people became more independent. They started to think for themselves and the effect was that some started to renounce the priestly bond and ritual, and the associated symbolism that went with it. Like reformers, or even rebels throughout the world, they wanted to show that they have changed, so they cut off their Top-knots, refused to do the fire-rituals or changed the rituals, even burned their “fire-sticks”, and renounced the duties and habits then prevalent in society .
Their thoughts changed to something like, “I am empowered to work towards self-realization with out the help and symbolism of a society that has started to misuse their powers and ritual!”
“I can go and work on this, by myself, and with others that are like minded.”
Soon more and more people were opting out from underneath the oppression of the society and its doctrine and rituals .
A sub-culture of roaming spiritual seekers and wandering sages evolved, Praccebudha’s were joined by many who choose to walk a different path, a spiritual path!
This trend flourished under Buddhism.
The strange thing is, that at about the same time, in the far west of Europe a similar movement happened. Celtic men and women opted for seeking spiritual salvation by themselves, for themselves. So, in the East and the West, in the years around 500 BC, we find people we could call wandering monks, looking for peace, looking for God, and opting out of the pressures of the prevalent society and culture. Greece too was a hub of similar activity.
A side effect of such movements is that it spreads and affects others. The wanderers developed into a special branch of teachers that taught others what they had found and experienced.
There is a theory that “Buddha”, the title for the historical prince Siddharta Gautama, came from this movement, and was chosen much after his actual life in order to link him and show him as the most precious of these wandering teaching monks.
I use the word “monk” deliberately. We associate a Monk with a celibate, although the source of the meaning here might be surprising. In Vedic society, there were certain obligations, or duties, such as to have a son, to do sacrifice, and to be a student of a holy Teacher. By opting out of society, the wandering seekers opted out of these duties. Hence, no ritual and no children, which meant celibacy! But not celibacy as personal misery, nor even necessarily out of a notion of an ascetic practice but as a statement of freedom from the duties towards society.
(If you want to know more about this, read Patrick Olivellies: Sannyasa Upanishads.)
So we could say that these wandering Seekers, were Rebels, opting out of a society, that they thought was misbehaving, and indirectly contributing as reformers of that very same society. They opted for a simple life, without power-games and materialism, in exchange for a life of peace, focused on a search for God and ultimate Truth and the Self, not only for themselves, but also for others.
Different from most Christian Monks, these wanderers seldom stayed in one place for long; there were no monasteries. They were perhaps similar to the Desert Fathers, who searched out places of solitude and lived a simple life in hermitages sometimes, however not for long in one place, then moved on, as soon as too many people found them.
One of their motivations was freedom to choose their own path to God, and the second was to opt out, and to behave different from a life-style of a society they renounced.
Renouncing is a strong word. It’s more that they renounced the machinations of a society they believed had gone wrong. They renounced attachment to that which leads to what they saw as wrong conduct, such as attachment to body and conditioned mind, which in turn is influenced by and creates such society. In time ceremonies developed to mark this decision, one of these was to cut the sacred thread of a Brahmin, implying a sanyasin. A Swami has no Cast!
The new commitment was and is to walk the path towards God, towards ultimate Truth and honor the tradition, the teacher, the lineage which frees your mind from its shackles. To walk the Path to God, we have to be able to control our own little conditioned personality and go beyond the “me and mine!” The sanyasi path aims at having mastery over that tendency, which hopefully makes a Swami a master over his or her own Mind, putting aside “Me and Mine” and replacing it with “for the Good of all and the Glory of God”.
A Swami aims to reach, or has reached a state, where s/he can see through the conditionings of the mind and our slavery to our “persona” (Greek for mask), and see the Divinity lying beyond the persona that we share with ALL: My Self is your-Self. Hence: my Higher Self is the Same as your Higher Self.
When Swami Rama spoke, he often started with a greeting, “I greet the Divinity in YOU!”
Having Mastery over my mind, enables me to have total respect for you and serve you, as there is only One Self. This opens up a whole new alley.
So a Swami is not bound or linked to a specific tradition. S/he does not have a specific allegiance to a religion but to the indivisible TRUTH beyond all religions, to the fundamental Spirituality that has no boundaries of religion or culture. We are One in God and the Swamis allegiance is that Oneness.
Although there are apparent similarities to Christian Monks , or the “religious” of any tradition, a Swami is not a representative of a religion, or but s/he is certainly representative of “insight Seeing”, which is a Buddhist term.
Once one breaks out of the limitations of the mind, one sees the Truth behind all religions. Hence a Swami can come from Christian, Sufi, Sikh , Buddhist, Jain or even Jewish background and do so without leaving his/her own religious beliefs, free from all dogma, just seeing the similarities in All. Hence there are Swami’s which are both Christian and Hindu. Well, that’s not strictly correct, because a Swami is not a Hindu! “Hindu” is a word, a label the British gave for administrative reason. We just adopt it without thinking.
Truth is One, and has no barriers, no countries, no religion.
Hence a Swami serves all. We can see this once we have opened our mind, and discarded that which limits us. Hence fundamentally a Swami recognizes the Truth in all Traditions, in all religions.
However, the tradition of Swamis is deeply rooted in what we explored earlier, and honors the links towards those that have gone the path before, Sages and Saints that have led to this Wisdom, and especially the lineages which hand down this wisdom, because without them, s/he would have nothing.
So being a Swami, means being a special kind of sanyasin, one that is alert and awake, lives a life of mindfulness, and leads others to be mindful of the divinity within them, and s/he is dedicated to the path of Self-realization, in what ever form or tradition. Hence s/he keeps working at being a servant to others! Being a servant allows us to discover the divinity in All. It is a life of abhyasa, practice, and vairagya, detachment.
Swami Rama alluding to the fact that we are in evolution says a swami is one who aspires to “become a finished product soon, in this very life; this is the ultimate in human evolution. He has no specific name (except for others' convenience so they may refer to him), no birthplace, no caste, no social grouping, no religion, no countries. He is a citizen of all earth, everyone's closest relative to whom anyone may confide anything.”
It is the same as the Australian Aboriginal the phrase stems: “For the Good of All!”
It is the same as the words the Buddha sent his monks out with:
for the benefit of the many, bahu-jana-hitaya
for the comfort of the many, baha-jana-sukhaya,
So what do we get from looking at this, especially in the global society of the 21 st. century? What does it mean, “being a Swami”? There seems an amazing parallel between those ancient times and NOW: Society has gone astray, although this time on a massive global scale.
So Spiritual Seekers, and those we call Swami’s, are people who are alert and awake to the ill’s of the global society, and turn their back on materialism--even spiritual materialism--and choose a simple life dedicated to the Good of All, seeking the Divine Truth behind all calcified forms. They help others on the same path.
This is how I, a white, European , female Swami, see “Swami-hood”. From the outside there is little in common with traditional pictures we see, of stately male Indians, apart from the orange, the geru, cloth.
But that is significant in itself.
We live in a global world, a world of mass communication, not in Vedic times.
We too need to wake up to what needs healing, what needs reforming in our global world, in humanity at large.
And that healing, that wisdom, that knowledge needs to come from a different corner. We can’t proceed as a society on the way we have walked so far. A shift has to happen, We have to walk a different path. Which brings me to the issue of being a female Swami.
In the early times of these wandering Seekers, male and females were accepted.
Then as class-consciousness grew and the male dominated for what ever reason and in what ever way in individual societies. This “Maleness”, which was not so much a gender issue as a way of being and thinking, is still dominant today.
A niece of mine told me she talked to an old female Swami in front of a Temple in the Himalayas. The Swami was sitting on the steps, outside, not allowed to go inside, to worship God. The Temple was for “ men only!” And this old Swami, that had sat on the steps for decades said: “I have been waiting here for year. In the eyes of God we are all equal, I am not moving, until they let me in!”
I too have experienced this, even at lesser doors where my path has been barred by male Swamis, or I have been pushed back, ignored. But I am not as strong as that woman Swami at the Himalayan temple, and sometimes I wished, “if only I could grow a grey beard”!
But then there is a whole new angle coming into the awareness everywhere around the globe: The awareness that female wisdom is lacking. Again, not so much a gender issue, but a softness, caring, nurturing, preserving attitude, which can be shared by either gender.
“Female energy” has been so much pushed back, that male energy dominated the world into destruction. Where the awareness of the need for female energy is allowed to unfold, female Swami’s roles and place in society changes. It is happening right now, in our times!
They become important elders and teachers in societies hungry for balance, for healing. With that the female Swami grows into the role of
Mother for all
I have heard over and over, especially in some countries, the gratitude expressed to meet a female spiritual teacher, where there needs to be no fear of agendas, misuse, hypocrisy, arrogance, dogmatism etc.
More than ever, on gross and subtle levels, the world needs the healing touch of female elders! And that might be the only hope our world has in its present devastating situation, of massive injustice and self-destruction.
Just one example might suffice: One third of the world’s population lives on the suffering of the rest. How can such injustice be balanced?
It seems that the ancient tradition of “Opting out of Society,” and from there to heal and teach, is being reborn. This time not from wandering ascetics and munis (those in silence), but from the Feminine Power of the Mother-energy.
Yet we must not forget, that this too has a long tradition, as woman sanyasin or elders, or female Swami’s have the world over, always played as care takers of wisdom, played a role in meditation and prayer, in giving advise and counseling, and in helping the needy.
May the light of the Divine Mother, drive out all darkness.
Om Tat Sat (Om, That is Truth)