Swami Vidyatmananda: The Making of a Devotee
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Chapter Eight

The Devotee as Sadhu


I shall begin this chapter with a case history, a true clinical report.

When I joined the Vedanta Society of Southern California as a monastic probationer it never occurred to me that the essence of spiritual life is meditation. Remember, this was forty years ago, well before the quietist revolution of the1960's had broken out in America, which was to honor Zen, yoga, and other disciplines teaching the need for going within. Swami Prabhavananda had established it as a rule that his disciples should go to the chapel for meditation at least two times a day. And so I went, morning and evening.

But five years passed and I felt that I had gained very little spiritually. I was still a dabbler, was still the same rank amateur in relation to any kind of inner life which I had been the day I entered — a spiritual outsider.

It had been determined that I was soon to take brahmacharya. I began to fear that I should be entering upon this engagement under false pretenses if something didn't change. I told my guru so. "Can't you take some urgent measures?" I asked. "This is serious. Don't you have some intensive remedy to apply, to cure a bad case of spiritual backwardness?"

"All right," he replied. "Do a year's purascharana."

My heart contracted. I knew what this meant from having read The Eternal Companion. Great masses of japam, whose quantity was to increase or diminish by one thousand repetitions per day according to the phase of the moon, to reach a hefty fifteen thousand once a month, on full-moon day. A half hour or so of japam in dark phases, but four to six hours of it as the moon moved toward full zenith.

I was aware of Swami Brahmananda's confidence in the efficacy of japam. Swami Prabhavananda had often told us about something he had witnessed as a young novice at Belur Math around 1920. At that period several monastics were required to share the same dormitory room. One of the occupants of the room where the then young Prabhavananda lodged was an older man who had been given permission to enter, after some years of worldly life, much beyond the normal age limit. "What an intense struggle he had to make to gain purification," Swami would explain. "Maharaj's prescription for him was japam in large doses. I used to wake up in the night and see him there, seated on his bed with his mala in his hand, by the hour. And it did work. I tell you, my child, it did work; it does work."

Prabhavananda also used to tell us how, as a young probationer, he had visited a renowned holy man and had asked this saintly person how he had attained wisdom. The response was one Hindi word — "nama" — repetition of the name of the Lord.

Well, I did it. For twelve months my whole life centered on japam. I rejoiced in the moon's dark phases and struggled through its climaxes. I never failed to do the repetitions required for that particular day, although at times I did not get the final hundreds done until late in the evening, half asleep; and once the repeating went over into the early minutes of the following day.

I took brahmacharya in the summer of 1955. Prabhavananda had selected a full-moon day, which was also the birthday of Swami Niranjanananda, as an auspicious date for administering our vows. But what did that choice signal for me and my japam? I was living at Santa Barbara at that time, overseeing the construction of the new temple, lodged in a caravan on the temple site. The ceremony was to be performed at the Trabuco monastery, more than two hundred kilometers to the south. I felt that I could not be absent from the temple work for more than twenty-four hours. I would drive to the monastery the afternoon before the ceremony, prepare for and participate in the ceremony the following morning, and drive back that afternoon. Then how could I do fourteen or fifteen thousand repetitions of the mantram? On this red-letter day in my life surely I would be justified in putting aside my rosary and giving relief to the thumb and calloused middle finger of my right hand.

"No!" replied Swami, in reply to my eager suggestion. "Make some other adjustment. Don't baby the mind. The essence of puracharana is no exception. You've taken up the commitment; now fulfill it." Of course he was right, and I managed the required repetitions by rearranging the proposed schedule.

That purascharana produces an effect, for me there can be no doubt. Let me try to describe it in as clinical a fashion as possible.

First of all, you feel virtuous. There is an expression used in Christianity: state of grace. A state of grace enfolds you when you feel you are making an effort to do what you should be doing and to avoid doing what you should not be doing. Grace comes as one makes a positive response to His request: "If you love me, keep my commandments." It might be said that enjoying a state of grace is the same thing as attaining a clear conscience. Or is equivalent, I should think, to what Indian teachers refer to as gaining the grace of your own mind. You feel inwardly strong and right and enthusiastic. This is definitely what I felt during that year of purascharana.

Or you could say that this effect is simply a case of God rewarding one's effort to please him. Or that by one's sacrifice one gains his sympathetic attention. The rising smoke of our burning offering is pleasant in his nostrils. I don't believe such explanations; they are too anthropomorphic. I would rather call achieving a state of grace the lawful psychological consequence of sacrifice, of discipline. How often we have heard that the mind is like an unruly youngster. Doing purascharana tells that child with steady insistence: I mean business. So it responds. Instead of continuing to behave like a spoilt infant it becomes co-operative, helpful, charming.

Without doubt it would be preferable if one were naturally infused with longing, ardent longing. Passionate thirst for God is what characterizes the true mystic. But in the absence of longing, there remains effort.

As the mind finds itself brought to heel it begins its reform. Its whole attitude becomes refashioned, remodeled. The presence of the Holy Name, strenuously applied, as the Russian monk in The Way of the Pilgrim explains it, reorients the mind's way of looking at things. Or to use a homely simile, here is an inkwell fixed to a desk. To clean it, pour in water. Bit by bit the dirty, dried residue will be dislodged and will flow away. In religious terms we can say that japam causes some light to shine out from the paramatman. In psychological terms it may be supposed that the sheath of ananda is rendered a little less opaque through the vigorous rubbing it gets from the Word.

Another effect I noticed — my clinical report would not be complete without my mentioning this side-effect — was in increase in psychic energy. Or stated in layman's terms, intensive japam seems to have an aphrodisiac effect. (It is well known, of course, that yogic techniques can be used, or mis-used, by those who are sense-minded, to increase sensual powers. I could see how this could be.) For the continent this sensation transmutes itself into happiness and enthusiasm — "delight" is the word the Russian Pilgrim often uses. One may describe this euphoria as the emotional consequence of obtaining the grace of one's own mind.

The clinical technique of shock therapy is used as a treatment for mental disorders in extreme cases. No one knows exactly how this technique works, but it is sometimes explained figuratively that the passage of a charge of electricity through the body causes the molecules of the disturbed mind to be, as it were, thrown up in the air, to fall back in a different and healthier pattern. Or that the unconscious, fearing that it is going to be incapacitated by the treatment, defends itself by behaving in a more rational manner. A similar realignment of "molecules", or rather a better balance of the mind's chemistry, is now claimed as the result of so-called mind-bending drugs. Something similar happens in ordinary life in everyday circumstances also. A normal person, let it be noted, experiences a kind of shock therapy as a result of being involved in a road accident, a desperate illness, or upon hearing some fatal news. "From that day on," he will say, "I saw things differently." Or, "After that my outlook was no longer the same." One may guess that massive injections of japam may work in a manner analogue, to produce a like effet: shaking or shocking or bending the mind toward a new orientation.

This case history would not be complete if I failed to mention a permanent consequence of that year's purascharana. I find that I repeat the mantram, or rather that the mantram repeats itself, when the mind is "in neutral" — when I am walking alone, when doing manual tasks, when preparing to sleep, when lying drowsily half-conscious before fully waking. We speak of such an ingrained habit as something which has become second nature. One may quip that in the case of japam what has become second nature goes a long way toward prying open the sought-after first, or primary, nature.

But to conclude. I closed the year's purascharana with the assurance that I was on the inside track at last. When the molecules blown up by japam had settled down, I found that I had become committed, that I had become an insider — even, in potential, a devotee.


And diary keeping, as I have already said, has proved to be an exercise of immense usefulness. From my first painful day at Hollywood until now, recourse to my journal has seen me through many terrors and opened my eyes to much until then hidden. Perhaps not the most efficient of techniques — requiring up to now sixty-one volumes comprising some 8,000 pages on which are written more than 2,000,000 words; all this hardly constitutes a quick-cure approach — but it has served me well.

Many aids are available to the devotee or would-be devotee. Prayer is helpful, confession to a guru or confessor is helpful, asceticism is useful, meditation is essential, and japam, as just described, is of powerful assistance.

But the ever-available diary, like the neutral ear of a Freudian psychiatrist, may invite personal examination of real therapeutic value and so lead to self-knowledge. As therapist Marsha Sinetar says in her Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics, ". . . the individual must establish a bond with an unknown, invisible part of himself before he can become whole. This means that he must be willing to face what heretofore he was afraid of facing — his own shadowy, perhaps demonic self, his cowardly, loathed secret self which he himself has rejected and hidden, often successfully, from others." In his journal pages — so silent and so discreet — one can ask why, complain, vent one's anger, search for answers, yell.

Yes, it is bookstrap psychotherapy, but what is wrong with that if it works? How often do we have to be told that God is within, that — as Swamiji said — all help is within and comes from within — before we believe it? Diary-keeping is a means of extorting the inner answer, of talking with the hidden God.

"Who am I?" is a classic question which Ramana Maharshi thrust continually at those troubled persons who came to him in droves, asking: "Why does this happen to me? Why should I suffer? Why do I not succeed? Why am I not happy?" "But who is this I?" the Maharshi would demand. Diary keeping is one of the best means I have found for solving the Maharshi's riddle.

Who I am can, bit by bit, be discovered by the conscientious diarist. His entries, thoughtful, devoid of pretense, devoid of editing, can little by little evoke new understandings. Knowledge, the highest virtue in Buddhist terms, means the capacity to penetrate into the meaning of maya in such a way as to destroy maya's power over one; to invalidate through this continual examination of illusion, the power of illusion.

One obtains, thus, a quantity of do-it-yourself minor realizations whose cumulative effect is enlightening. That alteration of character which the devotee seeks comes through a series of small experiences or perceptions, from which he extracts knowledge of who in fact he is and what his behavior should be. I have found this to be a valid technique.

Swamiji quotes Shankara in his Inspired Talks (July 18): "An intense search after one's own reality is bhakti." Remarkable! I have found such to be perfectly true.


But a psychic shock even more effective than purascharana was in store for me, the event of January 6-7, 1964. Surely this is the most important date of my life. In fact, as I review all that has taken place since my birth — the bad times, the good times, and the preponderant number of insipid times — I realize that what occurred on this day nearly thirty years ago far overshadowed anything else that had ever happened to me before or since. On January 6-7, 1964, early in the morning in the main temple at Belur Math, I pronounced the vows of sannyas, and thus drew a dividing line between all that had gone before since my beginnings and all that would come till death. Call it an initiation into the mysteries, or a rebirth in spirit, or an ordination. Whatever it was, it marked the end of what had been John Yale and created a new being, Swami Vidyatmananda: "One who experiences intense bliss in the knowledge of God."

But I would be dishonest to claim that the change was neat and abrupt. As I have said before, I believe that instantaneous conversions occur but rarely. Rather, think of two wedges set one atop the other, the one tapering off and the other growing from a point thicker. That is how it has been with me. Sannyas means complete dependence upon God. An Indian scripture says that some take sannyas to confirm a state of God-centeredness which they have already reached, and some take sannyas with the intention of reaching that state. The latter was the case with me. From today's vantage point I can see that the wedge of world-centeredness has been nearly bypassed and that one is reaching the thicker part of the wedge of God-centeredness.

I believe that the state of sannyas is the most elevated that anyone can attain. It capsulates the highest, fantastically highest, spiritual ideal. I thought so before I took the vows, and I think so more now that I have tried to live as a sannyasin for a number of years. I feel a new awe every time I look at myself clad in gerrua.

In 1964 a swami was a rare and precious being, at least in the West. Almost the only swamis we knew were Indians, heads of centers and gurus, and generally disciples of original disciples of Sri Ramakrishna or Sri Sarada Devi. I was awe-struck by the idea that I might be permitted to join so august a company. In the intervening years there has come a change. Nowadays enrollment for a few months in a yoga school in India, or a brief apprenticeship to an independent sannyasin, may allow an American or a European to "graduate" with the "degree" of Swami. We of the Ramakrishna Order who are obliged to undergo a novitiate of nine or ten years (in my case it was fourteen) may regard these sannyasins — to use an expression current in World War II, describing officers turned out by the Army or Navy in three-months' courses — as the Ninety-Day-Wonders of monastic life. This is not to deny that some may be pious and useful. It's just that this compressed process of reaching sannyas is something different from what we knew.

I am the ninth westerner to take sannyas in the Ramakrishna Order of monks. Swami Vivekananda approved initiating western candidates into sannyas, as he reveals in his letters, and by himself initiating Leon Landsberg into sannyas as Swami Kripananda in 1895 and a yoga teacher named Dr. Street, who became Swami Yogananda, the following year. (Swamiji also gave sannyas to three, perhaps four, women. Madame Marie Louise became Swami Abhayananda in 1895. Mrs. Sara Bull and Miss Margaret Noble received sannyas in 1899, as documented by Marie Louise Burke in her Swami Vivekananda: His Second Visit to the West, pages 120-122. Miss Christina Greenstidel — Sister Christine — may have received sannyas from Swamiji, but the evidence on this is conflicting.)

According to information supplied by Swami Chidrupananda of the Vedanta Society of Northern California, a San Francisco resident named Pelican, known as Prashanta, preceded Gurudas Maharaj (see below) at Shanta Ashrama and also in India; he became Swami Yogeshananda and may be counted as the third westerner initiated into sannyas in the Order. The fourth was Swami Atulananda (Gurudas Maharaj), described in Chapter Twelve at the end of this book. As he himself says in his published conversations, Atman Alone Abides, he was given brahmacharya by Swami Abhedananda in New York in 1899; he took sannyas at Belur Math in 1923.

The fifth is Swami Chidrupananda of San Francisco, who joined in 1933, took brahmacharya in 1935, and sannyas in 1962. These facts were supplied by the Swami himself. The sixth is Swami Atmaghananda, formerly of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York. In a letter to me he states that he joined in 1939, took brahmacharya in 1949 and sannyas in 1959. He reassumed his former name of John Moffitt in 1963. The seventh is Swami Krishnananda of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Krishnananda informs me that he joined in 1940, took brahmacharya in 1947 and sannyas in 1957.

Then follow Swami Anamananda and myself. We took sannyas on the same day (as will be recounted in the pages which follow), but I should be listed in second place since Anamananda joined as a novice a few months before my joining on April 1, 1950, and thus is senior to me. He took brahmacharya one year before I did.

In recent years there have been a number of initiations of westerners into sannyas, so that the total at the present time may be something on the order of twenty. This represents about 5 per cent of the total membership, the remainder of the thousand or so members of the Ramakrishna Order being Indian. It does not seem to be likely that the proportion of westerners to Indians will modify much in the near future, but the number of nationalities represented will increase, as there are now novices of American, English, German, French, Dutch; Spanish, and Japanese nationalities training to be sannyasins. A Dutch brahmachari was given sannyas in 1984, and a brahmachari of German nationality in 1988.

As in Catholic orders, members of the Ramakrishna Order must pass through stages before taking final vows. One joins initially as a preprobationer, for a period of a year. This should occur before one has reached the age of twenty-five. In cases of college graduates the acceptance age limit can be extended to thirty. Other requirements for candidates: graduation from high school, and the possession of spiritual tendencies, as outlined in a simple set of precepts. After a year as preprobationer one may request probationary status, which lasts on principle for four years, two of which may be spent in the Training Center, the Order's theological seminary at Belur Math. At the end of five years from first joining, one is eligible for the first vows, called brahmacharya. At every stage, it should be noted, the recommendation of the head of the center where the candidate resides is required.

Trips to India being expensive, since 1947 brahmacharya has sometimes been given in the West. Permission of Headquarters is necessary, as well as the consent of swamis working in the West, who presumably know the candidate and will attest to his fitness and will perhaps attend the investiture ceremony.


I took brahmacharya on 3 August, 1955, at the Ramakrishna Monastery, Trabuco Canyon, California. There was one other candidate, Philip Griggs, who became on that day Brahmachari Buddha Chaitanya (later Swami Yogeshananda); I became Brahmachari Prema Chaitanya. Swami Prabhavananda performed the ceremony, and witnesses were Swami Vandanananda, Swami Krishnananda, and two brahmacharis who had taken the vows the previous year. One of these, Ananta Chaitanya, did not continue in the Order. The other, Arupa Chaitanya, took sannyas with me nine years later and became Swami Anamananda.

The ceremony was performed in the morning in the library before the fireplace. In the fireplace was placed the copper vessel in which was built a sacred fire, into which we thrust our sacrifices, symbolized by offerings of leaves and flowers.

I had already observed the difference between the manner of performing Catholic ritual and Hindu ritual. Catholic ritual unfolds with a finesse that leaves a profound impression on the observer. Perhaps it is largely theater, but it is good theater. But often Hindu ritual seems ill prepared, ill rehearsed, gauchely executed. The idea seems to be to get through it, reciting the correct mantras, making the correct mudras, presenting the correct offerings; but because of whispered consultations that occur, and frantic gestures to supply some ingredient forgotten, the impact for the westerner is less affecting than it might be. I recall seeing a woman performing a puja at Hardwar when I first visited India in 1952. As the worship proceeded she kept crying for this item or that, which helpers supplied with much scurrying. Phil and I had not been supplied with the text in advance, so we had no idea what we were engaging ourselves in. (When I took sannyas, the entire ceremony, except for those three especially sacred mantras mentioned in Chapter Four, was given to me for rehearsal in advance.)

Two blunders happened that day at Trabuco which I particularly remember. First, the dhotis which we wore had been received from India only a day or two before. They were perfectly new, as required, but they were also full of manufacturer's starch, which a hurried washing had failed to eliminate sufficiently, so that they stood out stiffly as if supported by stays — having the look of skirts worn by ladies going to a formal ball in the eighteenth century. This defect was especially disconcerting when we sat down or knelt. The other was Swami Prabhavananda's reading of the wrong line where the vows refer to celibacy. There are alternate lines, to be read depending on the circumstances, both for men and for women. Instead of his reading the line saying that we promised not to marry, but to live a celibate life, Swami Prabhavananda nearly had us promise, before stopping himself just before the "I do", to renounce our husbands. This caused titters and for me reduced the impact of what I had expected to be a moving experience.

Brahmacharya vows are provisional, are resolves to try. I could take these engagements fairly easily. But sannyas was a different matter. The normal wait between brahmacharya and sannyas is four years. In my case it was nearly nine, and even then up to the last months before taking sannyas I felt unsure.


My idea of the sannyasin was and is very high. He is the one authentic being who is as true inside as he appears outside. In this world of religious sham, self-indulgent cult leaders, false preachers, priests with concubines, the Ramakrishna Mission swami must be the one example of perfect integrity. I could not break this ideal by taking sannyas and then not being able to measure up. I ran over in my mind the list of defective religious persons I had met in my life. My story of the lady evangelist came back to me and the supposed infidelities of our pastor in North Lansing. I recalled a particularly self-indulgent priest I had known in Mason, Michigan. Horrors! To end up being like that!

As related in Chapter Five, the year 1963 was celebrated in our Order as the Centenary of the birth of Swami Vivekananda. There would be a Parliament of Religions at Calcutta and other celebrations in all our centers to mark the closing of this jubilee year on 6-7 January, 1964. Swami Prabhavananda was going to India for the occasion, and Christopher Isherwood had been invited to address the Parliament as honored lecturer. It was an auspicious moment for me to take the plunge.

I believe that if you are really sincere you will be aided at critical moments. This happened to me. The wild cross-purposes which I had always known began to settle down. An inner solidity replaced my characteristic uncertainty. There was a conviction that all that meditation and japam I had done over the years had after all recomposed the molecules of my mind as promised. The sensation was of an inner healing after an illness full of fever and delirium. Tangible evidence came from my dreams, which became less frustrated and brighter, pleasanter.

And curiously enough, there came to mind from long before Lyle Spencer's old advice: If you want to be sure of reaching San Francisco, take the chance that is offered you of getting as far as Kansas City.

The final evidence came from an experience which occurred after I had reached India, at Kamarpukur, on November 25, Swami Premananda's birthday. It seemed to me, as Plotinus phrased it, that He had let me into a new realm. The effect was conviction. All at once I felt that sannyas was what I wanted and that it would be right for me to take it. With that assurance I went to Belur Math and spent the days before, during, and after the ceremony in a state of childlike joy.


It was to be the last — or so I hopefully thought — of the many name changes which I have experienced. As a youngster I'd never had a nickname; I was too much of a little gentleman to invite such informality. When in 1937 I went to Follett Publishing Company and authored my first book, I decided to alter my pedestrian first name John to the more picturesque Jonathan. My mother had sometimes called me this. And there are numerous Jonathans in the Yale ancestry. Then for some reason I "shortened" Jonathan to Nathan. Nathan Yale was, I thought, a catchy name for a writer as it put one in mind of the notable early American hero Nathan Hale. I don't recall whether anything I wrote was published under this name. Fine, till a salesman who was clearly Jewish asked if I were Jewish. This brought me up short. And it is true that Nathan was at the time a popular first name in Jewish families. To me it was a good New England name, which reminded me of my grandfather's Nathaniel. Nathan was both Jonathan and Nathaniel. But the Jewish implication decided me, and I shifted back again to plain John.

But it didn't stop there. When I joined the Vedanta Society Swami Prabhavananda ventured to give me an Indian name. Not right out, but tentatively to see whether it would take; that is to say, whether I would accept it. As his secretary, I was, he announced, his Ganesha. I didn't rise to the offer and he didn't insist. But when I took brahmacharya the name assigned to me was Prem Chaitanya. That same morning Bert DePry asked: "What did you say your name is, Preem (rhymes with cream)?" Preem was a brand name of a powdered cream widely advertised for use in coffee. "Oh no," I thought, "this problem from now on." Knowing that it was really Prema — ecstatic love for God — that Prabhavananda wished to invoke in me, I went and asked him whether we could use Prema instead of Prem. He assented. And I have been Prema ever since — but with misgivings. For the word is feminine; I have met Indian women with Prema as a first name. So have I carried, do I carry, a name not quite suitable for a male? I know not and have never known.

Every one of us candidates in that early morning of January 7, 1964, awaited anxiously the name-giving part of the sannyas ceremony to see what one was to be called from then on. I perhaps more than the others, given all I had experienced on this score; I hoped that whatever it was that I should be called, it wouldn't be a Sanskrit jawbreaker which no one at home would ever be able to navigate. My turn came and I knelt before Swami Madhavananda, awaiting the word. He spoke so low and so unclearly that I couldn't catch what he said. Ritatmananda, or something like that is what I thought he said. "What?" I whispereed, feeling that I was demolishing a sacred moment. Again he uttered something and again I couldn't catch it. Twice seemed enough, so I pranamed and rose. "What was it?" I nervously asked candidates standing near me. "Vidyatmananda," one of them whispered. "Oh, Vidyatmananda," I repeated to myself, relieved. "Very, very nice."

But the name problem didn't stop there. When I returned to Hollywood Swami Prabhavananda began calling me Vidya. And so did Chris and a few others. One of the devotees got it wrong and began addressing me as Vidyat. I didn't like this as it seemed an unacceptable abbreviation of the Sanskrit word. But this did catch on in Gretz and I am now generally referred to at Gretz as Swami Vidyat. Putting the Swami before makes it more acceptable, I suppose. Swami Ritajananda is generally referred to as Swami Rita.

Plain Vidya never caught on in Hollywood; it seemed inappropriate and perhaps disrespectful. So I let it be known that I preferred Prema for those who wished to address me familiarly, and that is the way it has come to be. I am Prema to my intimates. Poor Chris never knew where he stood. After 1964 he inscribed a book to me as Vidya, and on the next book was back again to Prema.

Even still the name problem has not subsided. For as I explain in Chapter Ten, the name Swami Vidyatmananda in France is too complicated for most professional purposes. So in these contacts I have found it practical to give my name as Monsieur Swami. But Swami Ritajananda is also Monsieur Swami, or The Swami. Hence to avoid confusion I often identify myself as Monsieur Swami Americain. Or, when the airline ticket reservation clerk asks for my name and I reply Monsieur Swami, and he persists in asking; "And what is your first name or initial?", I reply "V." "Fine," he says, satisfied, "Your place is reserved in the name of Monsieur V. Swami."


I shall now tell what happened on those days of childlike joy. But rather than merely retelling the events leading up to and concluding with the taking of sannyas, I shall reproduce entries from my journal, as I find these accounts more vivid, more immediate, than any description I might compose.

Belur Math, January 2, 1964.
Now I am growing really tense — a spaceman who has been in training for years for the rocket shot. Today the twenty-one candidates have assembled. Tomorrow we meet with the seniors to consider the meaning of the ceremony. Saturday further meetings, and shaving. Sunday is shraddha. Monday fasting all day and the ceremony that night — 2:00 in the morning Tuesday, really.

I can say that I desire this grace with all my heart. At long last I feel no hesitancy; this is what I want above all else.

We are studying the mantras with Swami Gambhirananda [the then Assistant Secretary, later President, who had the bounty to write out the entire text in Sanskrit, with a translation in English, and drill us in the pronunciation].

Friday, January 3, 1964.
This morning as I got up and put on my trousers and sport shirt I thought, with relief, that this may be the last time I shall put on such clothes. Today our class of twenty-one meets with the seniors. Tomorrow we get shaved. Sunday we do the shraddha. But Monday is the day. Each morning when I wake up my first thought is to test myself. Am I feeling OK — am I still physically capable? [The vows are not given if a candidate is sick — a serious matter for one who has come ten thousand miles for the ceremony.] But every day I realize that yes, I am getting closer to the day in safety; like a bride at the end of a very long engagement!

January 4.
Today begins the ordeal and glorious outcome. Last night when Ramesh Maharaj brought in my beautiful gerua clothes neatly tied in a bundle and labeled with my brahmachari name, I was just thrilled. Again I test myself this early A.M. and find that I am still quite OK, still capable, it seems, of remaining alive and well for three more days — then, what matter? "Newsweek" has a long article on Lyle Spencer and Science Research Associates — how IBM has merged SRA with itself and how Lyle's stock will be worth $34,000,000. What would mine be worth today? Certainly several millions. Yet in the fifteen years since I left SRA so many changes have been worked in me, how can I even think of this? If I'd stayed I'd have been a suicide or drunkard or would have cracked up mentally. Lyle can't forgive me for getting out and for selling my stock. From a financial point of view this was the biggest mistake of my life. Of course it is foolish to think of what might have been. And especially now at thus very juncture, when Lyle has grown big and I have grown small. I now step out on the faith that the Lord is my security, my all.

So Lyle's fulfillment and mine occur at the same time. His good for him, mine good for me. We must respect each other.

January 6, 1964. Swamiji's Birthday. Early Morning.
The day has finally come. I am alive and well and although my hour of joy is still nearly twenty-four hours away, I believe I shall actually know that hour — something I long despaired of.

Just returned from the mangalarati [the first service of the day.] Crowds of people already here at 4:30 and the bandstand sending out music, the kitchen busy.

What kindness the Lord has shown me. I am here, Chris is here, Swami is here. The shraddha went off successfully — although messily — yesterday. My head is beautifully scalped. On the shelf sits my gerua dhoti, chadar, begging napkin, all tied up in the kaupinam [loin cloth].

The Sanskrit we have been studying sounds beautiful to the ear, if not easy to the tongue, and the meaning of the mantrams has certainly not — as in the case of the brahmacharya — disappointed me.

I see it is not a case of deserving sannyas so much as it is of wanting the state that sannyas aspires to. And I do want that: simplicity, purity, and a growing certainty that ] am none other than spirit.

The huge day [a public feast day with speeches, concerts, and fireworks] passing, but I have done little besides pranam seniors and fast. I am happy and contented. I want this thing. I know what it means and I intend to fulfill, as best I can, the significance.

I wonder about the nakedness part. Yes, I can and will do it, because I have perhaps nearly overcome shame. Oddly, the last time I came even close to group nudity was when I was trying to join the Navy in 1941. Could two situations be more different? Getting used to flapping about in flowing garments. A skirt, really, and a shawl. Surely it is a uniform which would be a strong impetus toward control and purity.

Night. 12:30 midnight.
The night wears on. In the temple Kali Puja is being performed. The most beautiful song issued from the closed building as I walked by. Too tired and shaky to go in. The fast is utterly complete except for a cup or two of tea and an orange this morning — some eighteen hours ago. These only to avoid the headache which came the day before when I had nothing at all. Some candidates perhaps are sleeping. I don't know. I took a slight nap in the afternoon but none tonight except some mosquito-beset noddings, trying to do japam.

January 7, 1964.
Through the Lord's grace all was nicely done and I am Swami Vidyatmananda.

January 17, 1964. Belur Math.
The period of a week beginning with head shaving and ending tomorrow at the end of three days of biksha [food begging] will never be forgotten.

There was that last startled feeling just before the first razor stroke: the gangplank is about to go up; this is your last chance to go ashore. And I told my mind: no, I'm in this thing for keeps, and all the way. Pull up the gangplank; I'm sailing.

It has been a tense, physically exhausting week. The night of no sleep, the half day and then the full day of fasting, the walking about for three days on bare, sore feet to gather food here and there, like the bee, and sitting down anywhere to eat it.

The sannyas, like the shraddha, took about three and a half hours. The shraddha seemed like a meaningless eternity. The sannyas went by like a flash. I shall never forget how we shucked off our clothes at the last moment before the full-length prostration [before the President, Swami Madhavananda] when we were given our name. How quickly these Indian garments drop off. Suddenly a great pile of white [dhotis and chadars], and small brown bodies excitedly lining up at that moment when we got our name and our staff. Then the breaking of the staff in the Ganges, now in gerua, some again stripping for a full plunge. The feeling of camaraderie is quite extraordinary, not only with the members of our group, but with all the personnel here. I think that stripping before everybody had that effect. The rooting out of shame.

When I put on the gerrua and knew I was wearing it, I guess that was the greatest thrill of my life.

Although I am ten years older than the oldest of the group and twenty years older than several, I've felt like a free child again. We laugh constantly, and I treasure the hour when, bringing in our begging napkins, we sit down to eat together — these awful messes that people [householders living in the region] have dumped in. Strangely the food tastes good and I've not had the revulsion I expected. And the devoted way in which they give it, with whole families prostrating, just makes one weep.

Yes, it is all I had hoped for and more. And the idea of sannyas is so great. It isn't taking a resolution; it is getting free.

Chris remained till the day of our glory and rushed up to prostrate when we issued from the temple resplendent in gerrua, about 6:00 in the morning. Bless his heart.

These lines from my journal convey the spirit of the experience, if not all the details.

The ceremony of shraddha is a funeral service for one's ancestors. Since the sannyasin is considered to be cut off from his lineage, he finalizes his obligations to his parents and other ancestors before taking sannyas, as — severed from family ties — he will not be able to do so in the future. And since he will have no offspring to perform these rites for him, he does a funeral service for himself at the same time — in advance as it were. Hence he is considered dead until the next day, when he is reborn as a sannyasin. This ceremony was performed by us together in a tent next to the monks' quarters at Belur Math. The idea interested me, but the actual rites, which consisted mostly in making little balls of rice mixed with honey, water, and butter, and offering them to one's forbears (how startled mine would have been) impressed me as a messy affair. As usual, the ceremony, administered by brahmin priests called in from outside for the occasion, had a strangely amateurish, extemporaneous, haphazard air about it that provoked at times jeering remarks and laughter from the participants.

The ceremony of sannyas was performed in the main temple around a great bronze brazier in which burned a blazing fire. Its light revealed dimly the audience of two hundred or more gerrua figures — swamis — our senior brothers come to witness the ceremony. My guru was in that formidable audience. We addressed our prayers to the fire which, according to the old ideas, bore them upwards to the heavenly spheres, and placed our sacrifices in the fire — leaves dipped in melted butter, the single lock of hair that had been left when our heads were shaved — symbolizing the renouncement of our virility — and our sacred cord (you become, if not one already, a brahmin at brahmacharya) to symbolize that having attained the highest caste, we now abandoned forever the entire concept of caste.

There is a whole folklore relating to the kaupinum or loincloth. The great Shankara wrote a celebrated ode to it; rather, to the concept of sannyas which it symbolizes. Two simple strips of torn cloth, one a band around the waist, the other, suspended from the front and tied in the rear, hold the private parts snugly. The kaupinum has the same significance for the sannyasin as the tonsure has for the Catholic monk — a public announcement and private reminder of his vow of celibacy. Shankara praised the kaupinum not as an inhibiting agent but as a liberating one, for the wearer can conduct his relations with all, devoid of restraints or potential flirtatiousness that incipient sensuality always produces. Here is an English rendering of Shankara's "Five Stanzas on the Kaupin", quoted from Swami Nikhilananda's translation of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna:

Roaming ever in the grove of Vedanta,
Ever pleased with the beggar's morsel,
Ever walking with heart free from sorrow,
Blest indeed is the wearer of the loin-cloth.

Sitting at the foot of a tree for shelter,
Using the palms of the hands for eating,
Wrapped in a garment fine or ugly,
Blest indeed is the wearer of the loin-cloth.

Satisfied fully by the Bliss within him,
Curbing wholly the cravings of his senses,
Contemplating day and night the Absolute Brahman,
Blest indeed is the wearer of the loin-cloth.

Witnessing the changes of mind and body,
Naught but the Self within him beholding,
Thinking not of outer, of inner, or of middle,
Blest indeed is the wearer of the loin-cloth.

Chanting "Brahman", the word of Redemption,
Meditating only on "I am Brahman",
Living on alms and wandering freely,
Blest indeed is the wearer of the loin-cloth.

One of the kindly jokes of the whole proceedings concerned the name given to my Hollywood confrère. His brahmachari name, Arupa, meant "formless" — an aspect of Brahman. The night before, when the President was choosing names for candidates, he conferred with Swami Prabhavananda concerning the names proposed for Arupa and me. For Arupa he suggested "Anam", a second aspect of Brahman, signifying "nameless". Hence, when during the name-giving ceremony the candidate already formless was now also rendered nameless — Anamananda — a few sounds of amusement broke out in our ranks.

So with all these preparations and ceremonies and name-givings, what does sannyas mean? I once asked Prabhavananda, and his reply was: "It means living, moving, and having all one's being in God." On another occasion he said it means living in a state of utter reliance on God. Once he stressed its relation to everyday living: "Whatever happens to you from now on, even if it's bad, no bad can ever come to you again. Even if it's bad, it won't be bad for you."

As I study the affirmations we made that night I see the meaning as this: One has made a mighty declaration that one is none other than Brahman. You have resigned your position as a mortal. You have bypassed the sheaths of body, breath, mind, intellect, and ego. Of course, most of the time, when life tugs at your sleeve with its little calls and annoyances, you wonder if this can be true. But then at other moments the immensity of the concept overwhelms you and you sense that such is undeniably the case. Your life is a little like the condition of drunkenness, in which you are in two states at once — bemused experiencer and analytic observer.


In Chapter Five I talked about Isherwood's book A Meeting by the River and how it came to be written. As I explained, this novel had its inception in the events having to do with our taking of sannyas.

I would like to close this chapter by reproducing the final pages from A Meeting by the River, a passage which I cannot even now, as was the case with my guru when he first read it long ago, contemplate without weeping. A Meeting by the River, the reader will remember, is a fable dealing with the "good" and "bad" sides of Everyman, represented by two brothers: Oliver, who takes sannyas; and Patrick, the sensualist, and until almost the end the unbeliever. The book describes the ultimate reconciliation of black and white, of the two parts of Everyman's nature, in God-centeredness. The beautiful gesture of Patrick prostrating before Oliver is a fictionalized account of the true fact, Chris's salutation of me in that memorable dawn.

Oliver is speaking:

Did Oliver die? No and Yes. I see now I was silly to expect some melodramatic transformation. Now I understand that the dying and being reborn are a gradual process. Nevertheless, since this morning, the process has truly begun and that's all that matters. I feel absolutely confident — sooner or later, through Swami's grace, Oliver will die.

Sannyas is far more than taking vows: it's entering into freedom. While I was out begging with the others this morning, I felt utterly free — as I hope to become increasingly — free from the burden of being Oliver. So, for the first time, there were no barriers between us, I wasn't an alien, and the others seemed to understand this, we kept smiling and laughing for no special reason.

I'm not saying this in self-pity but in amazement — up to today I'd lived a life without once knowing what it really meant, to be happy.

When he [Patrick] left for the airport we were quite formal with each other and shook hands and murmured some conventional leave-taking phrases. But that didn't matter because we'd already had this other wonderful moment together which I shall always remember.

It was when we all came trooping out of the Temple at the end of the sannyas ceremony. That was like returning from the dead — I felt a sort of dazed joyful strangeness. A small crowd was waiting for us to appear, and Patrick was among them. My heart jumped when I saw him, I was so pleased. I'd never dreamed he would trouble to get up that early.

Everybody was watching us, to see how we'd behave. And of course I couldn't help being just a little bit embarrassed and self-conscious, standing there confronting him in my brand-new gerrua. He came towards me smiling, with his camera-case slung around his neck. As he walked he took the camera out of it, and when he was within a few feet of me he stopped and quickly snapped off half a dozen pictures. I felt foolish, but I realized that he had to do this, to show the Family.

Then Patrick put his camera away and suddenly without any warning he dropped to his knees and took the dust of my feet and bowed down before me! He must have been rehearsing this, he did it so smoothly and neatly. In the midst of my astonishment, I was aware of a strong favorable reaction from the audience. Once again, Patrick's instinct had been absolutely correct, he had done the dramatically perfect thing! So then I hastily grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him to his feet and hugged him. I did this to cover an uncontrollable attack of the giggles — I was shaking with it, and as I held him I felt him beginning to laugh, too. His lips just touched my ear in a sort of kiss and he whispered, "Well Olly, you've really gone and torn it now!' And I whispered back, "Looks like I'm stuck with it, doesn't it?"

At that moment I seemed to stand outside myself and see the two of us, and Swami, and the onlookers, all involved in this tremendous joke. I felt Swami's presence with us so intensely that I was afraid I would begin sobbing with joy and tell Patrick everything. So I pushed him away from me and stepped back. The others took this as a sign that it was now all right for them to approach us. And everyone was smiling and murmuring, as much as to say how charming it was of Patrick to play the scene according to our local Hindu rules, and how very right and proper it was that we two brothers should love each other.

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