Ganeshpuri Days: Memoirs of a Western Yogi

Ganeshpuri Days: Memoirs of a Western Yogi

We are happy to announce the release of Swami Shankarananda’s memoirs. Below is his introduction to the book.

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A man may be born, but in order to be born he must first die,
and in order to die, he must first awaken.

In Search of the Miraculous

Sadhana is any self-effort that is directed at the inner spiritual goal.


On any given Saturday night in Mount Eliza, a suburb south of Melbourne, Australia, I walk into a hall full of people. I sit in a chair that is prominent in the front of the room. I’m dressed in orange and I’m wearing a skirt-like piece of clothing called a lungi. The audience bursts into group chanting of an Indian devotional kirtan, such as Hare Rama Hare KrishnaOm Namah Shivaya or Govinda Jaya Jaya.

After fifteen minutes the chanting ends and I give a talk expounding the teachings of one of the great yogis and mystics I admire. Then we meditate together for a few minutes. Afterwards, members of the audience come up one by one to greet me. They may ask a question or tell me some news. I am introduced to newcomers, some of whom request mantra initiation. I give them a card with the mantra Om Namah Shivaya and a picture of me with my Guru, Swami Muktananda (Baba), on it. I give each of them a hug and a piece of chocolate.

Similar scenes take place in many ashrams around India, but this is significantly different. Although pictures of Indian deities and yogis hang on the walls, incense perfumes the hall, and Indian instruments, such as the harmonium, mrdangam (an Indian drum) and tamboura accompany the chanting, the audience itself is ninety-nine per cent Westerners: Australians, European immigrants and a few visitors from overseas.

Saturday satsang

Every once in a while I stop and consider what my life has become. From an early age I thought that I would be defined by the career I chose. Would I be a scientist? A writer? An academic? What has actually happened is a matter of wonder. My present life was simply not visible from my former life. It is off the map, off the scale, in another universe, hidden by every conceivable horizon. Becoming a swami, a spiritual teacher in an Eastern tradition, was not an option, not even the most remote of remote possibilities. There is an old joke with the punchline, ‘You can’t get there from here.’ Indeed, this cannot be the way my life as I knew it before 1970 turned out. And yet this is it.

When somebody quotes the old saw, ‘Man proposes, God disposes,’ I can hold up my hand. There is a certain joy and relief in the assurance that what has happened to me is not a matter of self-will, but the will of God.

It is not as though there haven’t been ups and downs and painful dealings with difficult situations. There certainly have, sometimes in abundance. There are some things I might want to change, but if the choice were between this life as it is and some other life, I’d choose this one every time. This is a story of grace and the blessings of the Guru.

This memoir ranges over many years, but its heart and soul is the period 1970 to 1974, my residency at the feet of my Guru, Baba Muktananda, at his ashram near Bombay (I use the old spelling Bombay rather than the modern Mumbai throughout because that’s how we knew that great city then.) My beloved Devi Ma has, in her beautiful preface, included some details of my life before and after that period, and I have also written something on both of those periods. But my main focus is on sadhana.

Sadhana refers to the nitty-gritty of spiritual life, the process of inner change. The concept had come as a revelation to me in my earliest readings on spirituality. I had spent many years in the field of education: high school, college, graduate school and then teaching at the university level. I thought I knew something about education, but suddenly I saw the huge gap in Western education. It was laughable, like the emperor’s new clothes. How did we miss that?

Sadhana is a different kind of education – I call it second education; normal academic education being first education. In sadhana we don’t seek to increase our knowledge or even our intellectual understanding, as we do in first education, but we transform our being. The Greek-Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff made this felicitous distinction. He said that if our being is weak, then whatever intellectual knowledge we have is not operational. Being refers to the affective part of our nature. If our emotions are weak, making us vulnerable to anger, jealousy, fear, and despair and the like, then our spiritual understanding is vitiated and we lose our power.

In sadhana one works on being by improving philosophical understanding certainly, but also by strengthening the emotions and getting rid of tearing thoughts, those negative thoughts that tear into the thinker himself. The same intellectual idea means different things at different levels of being. A professor of Eastern studies may be familiar with the Vedic notion Aham Brahmasmi: ‘I am Brahman.’ He can trace the idea historically and tell you when it first appeared in the literature and what the different sages and schools say about it. If you ask him, he would tell you that he knows what it means. But to a Self-realised yogi, Aham Brahmasmi is something quite different. It is a description of his integrated state of consciousness and the awareness with which he lives. A scholar’s first education understanding is horizontal, tracing the movement of ideas in time, while a yogi’s second education understanding is vertical, describing his experience in the moment and his connection to the Divine.

While, as I have said, the process of sadhana is my central focus, in truth it can’t be completely separated from the rest of my life. Taken together my complete life story falls roughly into three periods, the middle one being the chronicle of my sadhana with my Guru in his Indian ashram. Classically, a seeker does a long term of sadhana with a Guru and at the end of that time receives shaktipat, the awakening of the kundalini energy. Baba Muktananda was no conventional teacher. He broke the mould and gave shaktipat universally to thousands of people, many of whom were not yet ready (on the face of it) for this great infusion of energy. Of course, Baba knew what he was doing, but my point is that for me, as well as for thousands of other devotees, shaktipat came before (or near the beginning of) the period of sadhana.

Thus, in our yoga, sadhana is the practice that yogis do after shaktipat. This practice has two aspects: a moving towards the Self and a moving away from ignorance. On the one hand, seekers nurture, cultivate, expand and increase their connection with the divine power using any and all means at their disposal. And, at the same time, they work at removing the blocks that separate them from the divine power: negative emotions, habitual patterns, mundane attitudes and desires.

It was always curious to me that while other paths seemed to stress Self-realisation, Baba’s focus was on shaktipat awakening. I concluded that, for Baba, the awakening implied realisation. As a child naturally grows to adulthood, and a lion cub becomes a lion, so shaktipat leads to enlightenment. It is just a matter of time.

Maybe this was Baba’s answer to the old Buddhist controversy about gradual and sudden enlightenment. From this perspective, shaktipat is sudden enlightenment. But it has to be consolidated through sadhana, which is gradual enlightenment. When sadhana is complete, the original shaktipat shines forth as the yogi’s permanent state. Now he lives with constant awareness of the Self, in the state of natural samadhi. Kabir says,

Natural samadhi is the best.
It is sublime.
Once it is awakened by the Guru’s grace, 
It continues to grow day by day.

For the sage living in the state of natural samadhi, every word he utters is a mantra. Whatever he does is puja (worship). His every action shows the presence of God to his devotees. In the Hasidic tradition, it is said that a disciple goes to visit the holy man, not to hear the teachings, but to watch him tie his shoelaces.

To attain this state nothing is to be done, besides letting go of every- thing that is unnatural. A Zen master introduces meditation by telling the student, ‘Just sit. Be yourself.’ It is easy and natural. But we are complex creatures, so it is also difficult and confusing. In my days with Baba, I truly felt that every gesture he made, every twitch of his facial muscles, showed me how to connect with the Divine. I was convinced that Baba lived in that state, and that he could insinuate me into it by mystical osmosis.

I received shaktipat awakening early in my stay in the Ganeshpuri ashram via eye-to-eye contact with Baba. Later, his presence catalysed further powerful spiritual experiences for me. Even before meeting him, I had preliminary awakenings: an encounter with a gunman; some experiments with LSD; meeting the American yogi Ram Dass. All of these were steps on the path that led me to Ganeshpuri.

After the awakening and after sadhana is done to establish one in the Self, there is still the question of finding one’s path through life, one’s life dharma. After Ganeshpuri, I thought I might return to university teaching. But Baba and destiny had other plans. The short third section of the book, which begins when I leave the ashram as part of Baba’s 1974 tour, deals with the beginning of my process of becoming a spiritual teacher. Perhaps one day I will write a fuller memoir of those years and later.

I was an excellent student in high school, and was even voted ‘most likely to succeed’ by my classmates. I’d guess that my old classmates would now wonder if I have. Well, whatever they might think, my own feeling is that I have received many blessings.

Among these blessings, by far the most important was to have met and become the disciple of a spiritual giant, who was also an excellent Guru. Swami Muktananda was not only a Self-realised being with an incomparable power of shaktipat, he was also a master at creating conditions favourable to sadhana. A good sadhana Guru creates a context in which an intense discipline increases psychic pressure, in turn forcing growth and change. In the same way that the medieval alchemist applies heat to his alchemical beaker, such a Guru creates a yogic pressure cooker.

Baba had the personal style of a great king or a general. People who experienced his ashram sometimes called him ‘Field Marshal Muktananda’. He admired the way the military did things and he wanted his students to achieve the maximum growth in the shortest possible time. The intensity of the ashram often drove people away and even the most dedicated yogis would seek occasional R&R in Bombay. But after a day or two of eating and relaxing, it would be back into the maelstrom.

From the instant I met Baba, he seemed to be a man apart. Sometimes I would just stare at him and ask inside, ‘Who are you?’ I am sure I was not alone in asking that question. Baba was different from anyone I had ever met. Once someone was brave enough to actually ask, ‘Baba, who are you?’ Baba would never address such a question directly. In this case, he said, ‘I am as you see me. If you see me as a saint, I am a saint. If you see me as a thief, I am a thief.’ A brilliant and evasive answer, but the questioner was not deterred. He asked, ‘How do you see yourself?’ Baba replied, ‘I see myself as I am.’

Yes, of course he does!

Baba was in a state of profound detachment and humour, completely anchored in his inner being. This was not something I figured out, but something I actually saw. Let me tell you frankly, seeing such perfection confused me. My culture was a highly critical one. I, myself, could poke holes even in my heroes. But, unaccountably, with Baba it was different. I simply couldn’t see anything wrong with him. Others may have been closer to Baba than I was. Others may have had greater devotion and more understanding than I had. But I don’t think that there were many who appreciated him more than I did. I take it now as a grace from the Divine. God gave me this viewpoint so I could enter the sadhana wholeheartedly and give myself to Baba without fear or hesitation.

Stories about Baba are legion. They document his wisdom, his love, his humour and above all, his extraordinary power of awakening. In the old days, we used to believe that Baba could walk down Fifth Avenue in New York City and touch everyone he met, causing them all to manifest the awakening of the kundalini energy. Of course, that could not have been true, not because he wasn’t that powerful, but because if it were true he would have done it. That’s how much he wanted people to awaken. Who knows, maybe he had that power. There are a lot of Baba stories in this book, but I’ll tell you one here because it’s my all-time favourite: it happened to me and it involved a naive subject.

A little while after Baba’s death I spent some time working directly for Gurumayi, one of his successors. Sometimes I had the opportunity to get a round of golf in at a local course at the break of dawn. One day I was out playing, enjoying the coolness of the early morning and the tracks that my putts left on the wet greens. The course was empty, except for one man who was playing ahead of me.

He was rather elderly and I caught up with him. He cordially invited me to join him and we played in silence for a few holes. He struck me as one of those taciturn New England types. Eventually he asked me, ‘You from around here?’ I said, ‘You know that big place over in South Fallsburg, the ashram?’ He did. I said I lived there. He told me that he and his wife sometimes ate there at the vegetarian restaurant.

I nodded and we played on silently. After a while he said, ‘You know, I met the Baba once.’ ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Yes, I’m a retired dentist. I had an office in Monticello. One time his regular dentist was unavailable so they brought him to me.’ I said, ‘What was it like to meet him?’

He paused for a few seconds and then said, ‘Funny thing. I picked up my instruments and walked towards him and it was as though I was hit by a force field and thrown backwards.’

Wow! This was someone who had no prior knowledge and no axe to grind. My inner joy took the form of one more question, which I had to ask. I wanted to appear calm, so I kept walking up the fairway for a while and then I turned to my companion and said, ‘That’s interesting. What did you make of that?’

He told me matter-of-factly, ‘Well, I figure that some people have complete understanding of life and the universe and I guess the Baba was one of them.’

Yes, I swear that is exactly what he said. We continued playing golf and didn’t speak about the Baba again. But I was full of wonder that here was a man who ‘got’ Baba on some level, and yet could not see that Baba represented a possibility for him. It must have seemed like too big a stretch for him to fit Baba into his ordinary life.

In my years with Baba, deep meditation pursued me spontaneously. The process of Self-inquiry revealed itself to me. I learned to serve God and mankind by serving the Guru and in so doing, I grew in awareness. Baba promised knowledge of the Self, a connection with the Divine and an embracing happiness and meaningfulness. My faith in him was rewarded. Because of his grace, his wisdom and his love, all of these things have come to me.

Baba’s great spiritual memoir, Play of Consciousness, is an account of his extraordinary meditative experiences. He visits other planes of consciousness – hell-worlds and heaven-worlds – and he has visions of deities. In India, the visionary experience of one’s chosen deity in meditation, sakshatkar, is highly valued. Though, as you will see, I’ve had a fair share of such experiences, the truth is, I’ve always prized more what I would call ‘understandings’. Understandings, or insights, emerge with a whoosh from an experience of Shakti. They are born, not of the mind, but from an encounter with the power of the Self, transcending the mind. Insight gives us a form by which we can interpret and sustain the experience.

I believe that Western yoga in general is the yoga of understanding. Our spiritual experiences are not always visions of deities and inner lights, but of new paradigms and new ways to understand ourselves, both personally and impersonally. In rereading some of these chapters, I noticed how many times I wrote ‘I saw’, ‘I understood’. Understandings are catnip for Western yogis.

The process of sadhana is a curious business. You imagine that you have a grip on where you are going, but it keeps shifting and changing and readjusting itself. You imagine that you can use the old maps that sages and former seekers have presented, but you find that those maps don’t always apply to you. And the Guru is a mysterious being who is training you, but you are sometimes not sure in what.

I would have loved it if Baba had sat me down and said, ‘My son, this is what I am doing with you. This is why this and that happened. This is what you needed to learn. This is what you still need to overcome. This is how you are going to do it. And it should take you this amount of time.’ While I was in Ganeshpuri, I read one of the Castaneda books in which Don Juan does exactly this for Carlos. He goes over every moment in Carlos’ sadhana with him, explaining what was going on. How I yearned for that! I wanted Baba to take off his mask, step out of the frame, and share with me intimately. Of course, he never did.

In the Zen tradition, too, the master maintains an inscrutable mask. He never explains the process to the disciple. Instead, he sets problems for him to solve. And he may not even tell him if he is successful. His face is a reflecting mirror. As warm-hearted as Baba was, he had something of this quality in his style of teaching.

I have looked at life from both sides now, as a disciple and also as a teacher. I was yearning for something that I couldn’t have. A real Guru does not intellectualise about his disciples’ sadhana, working out a game plan. Rather, he lives in the moment, meeting each thing as it arises. He trusts the Shakti and puts the disciple’s growth in the hands of the Divine. This does not mean the Guru does not have a sense of what is happening, or that he does not have an idea of what will happen. On the contrary.

And now, as I work on this memoir, I discover the presence of a new character, one that allows me to understand some very obscure moments in my spiritual education and also to glimpse the inside of Baba’s mind – an area that has been largely unknowable to me. His name is Hindsight. My reward for recording these memoirs is to gain a new understanding of a number of mysterious things that happened long ago at the feet of my Guru.

While talking about Hindsight I have to mention, and possibly apologise for, two other literary devices I have used. Since this is a memoir, it is mostly written in past tense. However, I sometimes use the present tense to convey a particularly vivid or impactful time. I usually (but not always) reserve this for generic rather than specific memories. An Indian saint that I otherwise admire greatly, Swami Ramdas, insists on speaking about himself in the third person in all his books. If he can do that, I suppose I can use the present tense this way. It may be a literary sin, but I don’t think it’s a mortal one.

The other device occurs under the heading ‘Conversations with Myself’. While I was working on the book, I would try to reread chapters with a naive eye. Occasionally, further questions occurred to me. These I might answer in the text, but sometimes I felt that they could be dealt with more directly by means of these ‘conversations’.

Some of the names have been changed in the book for one reason or another. Also, I recount a number of conversations that happened forty years ago and more. These are not word-for-word reports, but are true to the people and the context.

So, with the help of Hindsight, and simply by recounting the stories, this book chronicles a succession of events and understandings that, taken together, describe the arc of my spiritual life. It celebrates the greatness of my Guru and of his lineage, and also the great beings of all traditions who hold the key to the spiritual evolution of man. Finally, it celebrates the potential within everyone.

I am aware that our postmodern culture is extremely suspicious of Gurus. Some say that the age of the Guru is over, while others believe that all Gurus are charlatans. By holding these attitudes they make a terrible mistake. Even if ten-thousand cultural pundits proclaim these ideas, they would still be wrong. The Guru opens a completely new world to us. In following our cultural orthodoxy we deny ourselves a most precious possibility: discipleship.

I believe in the power of the Guru and the Shakti to elevate and point us towards our true nature. I believe in the power of the Self. I believe that there is an enormous potential hidden within every person and that this potential is realisable, if one attends to it. I believe in the process of sadhana.

I’m old school with regards to sadhana – I believe that it has to be done with integrity and intensity, under the guidance of a true Guru for a long time. Inevitably, we pass through many landscapes during this process, some lush and green, and others as dry as a desert and littered with skeletons. Every corner of the psyche has to be brought into awareness, to be irradiated by the light of the Self, so that real transformation can take place.

There is not one of us who does not have the potential to become a Buddha, a Muktananda, an Anandamayi Ma. May this little story of a Jewish boy from Brooklyn inspire some others to discover their true Self.

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