What is a Swami?
Often people ask questions like, "What is a swami?" or "Why did you become a swami?" In areas such as Rishikesh or Haridwar, India, along the Ganges, it is not a question that needs to arise. Many swamis are there, and all you have to do is say, "Behold, those are swamis!" However, in geographical areas where there are few swamis wandering around, these are more curious questions.
The word swami means master; it means striving for the mastery over one's smaller self and habit patterns, so that the eternal Self within may come shining through. The act of becoming a swami is not so much an acting of becoming, of adding on, of allegiance, as it is an act of setting aside, of renunciation. A swami is a monk, one who has set aside all of the limited, worldly pursuits, so as to devote full time effort to the direct experience of the highest spiritual realization, and to the service of others along those lines. Renunciation is not anti-world, in any sense of the world being a bad place. Rather, it is a matter of priorities about how one will spend his or her time, the twenty-four hours in a day, and the seven days in a week. Traditionally renunciation is the fourth of four stages of life, although one who feels the call might renounce and become a swami at any stage of life.
While there are many swami lineages, with a wide range of beliefs, perspectives, and loyalties, a swami of the Himalayan tradition will at some point no longer claim allegiance to any particular group or religion, seeing all as the outpouring of the one, indivisible reality, truth, or God, which goes by many names to different people of different cultures, including the word Brahman, the Absolute Reality. Though most would likely have self-identified as Hindu, other individual practitioners in the Himalayan tradition have personal roots in virtually all of the world's most known cultures and religions. I was personally never initiated into, nor have joined any particular religion in this life. During childhood the decisions about religion were left by parents for my own later choice. My renunciation as a swami has been one of setting aside any sense of exclusive identity so as to embrace the whole. (See also What is Sanatana Dharma?, Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism?, and About the Words Hindu and Hinduism)
The true samnyasi (renunciate or ascetic) does not identify with any form of division or multiplicity. The Sanskrit word samnyasi comes from samnyasyati, meaning he renounces. Sam means together, ni means down, and asyati means he throws. He or she throws down any personal identity whatsoever, including not only those related to physical objects, but also to nationality, religion, work or family identities. If there is the external appearance of any identities such as these, it is only in the perception of, and for the benefit of others whom the samnyasi may serve. Even the name used by the samnyasi or swami is primarily for the convenience of others.
The goal of the samnyasi or swami is "atmano mokshartham jagat hitaya cha" which means one who strives "for the realization and liberation of the Self and for the benefit of the world."
There are deeper, heartfelt aspects of these questions "What is a swami?" or "Why did you become a swami?". One of the most inspiring and validating writings I have encountered is a short paper written by Pandit Usharbudh Arya, entitled "What is Renunciation?" (Scroll down to see this paper) This remains in my heart the clearest written description of what it really means to be a swami. It captures not only an accurate definition, but also a description of the ideal aimed for, and the spirit of the inner longing for one drawn to this path. It well answers the questions, "What is a swami?" and "Why did you become a swami?" The entire text of the paper is below.
Swami Rama has also written a succinct and clear description of the path of renunciation in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Here, he describes seven important points about the path of the swamis. That text is also included below, and has been entitled "The Basis of Renunciation."
If you are not familiar with swamis or other monks, and are a sincere seeker, it is very important to know and keep in mind that the path of Self-Realization is not exclusive to the renunciates. The two paths of renunciation and action in the world are equally valid and fruitful for aspirants who are devoutly committed to the practices of contemplation and meditation.
- Swami Jnaneshvara
What is Renunciation?
By Pandit Usharbudh Arya
Renunciation is the final forgetting of "I" and "mine". It is that mode of thought and experience in which the entire creation becomes as oneself. One who has taken vows of renunciation, and thereby become a swami, considers himself a member of every family on earth, with their physical and spiritual welfare as his prime concern. He is as concerned for them as the novices in the practice of love, leading a limited worldly life, are concerned with their own families. A renunciate claims an intimate relationship with all, attached to none. "Attached to none" means that he claims nothing from them, desires and seeks nothing from anyone, needs no emotional support from anyone but gives the support and encouragement to all. Like the rising sun, wearing orange/saffron robes, he must dispense light to every nook and cranny of the world. Wherever the evening catches him is his home whether under someone's roof or under God's own sky. Free and ever moving like the breeze he gives life-breath to all. Ever-flowing like a river, he quenches, cleanses and irrigates all. Like a fire he purifies all. Like a light he illuminates all. Like the sky, he remains untouched, clear, calm, giving his space to everyone; he invites every being to find rest, solace, succor and consolation within his field of being that emanates from him.
A candidate for swamihood walks into the holy river Ganges, and doffs all clothing. S/he is given fresh robes by the guru for convention's sake. Mentally s/he must be as Adam or Eve before the fall, and totally genderless, for s/he is no longer a physical body in his personal self-identification. Yet s/he must continue to bestow the best of care on the physical vehicle so that s/he may serve others all the better. As s/he owns nothing one's own (svam), s/he is called a swami, the master of it all, for s/he has become a gentle master over his own will.
In taking the vows of swamihood one declares "a-bhyam" to all living beings: I am a threat to none, a danger to none; may no living being henceforth fear me. In a great fire-offering he names each and all his organs, sense-faculties, pranas, mental states and functions, and as he pours a libation of ghee (clarified butter) into the fire, as though offering his own faculties to the universal fire, he declares regarding each of them, "No more mine"; "free of all dust I had gathered heretofore, I am now sinless; I am light.
Thereafter, if he owns anything it is only formally in his name, as a convenience for his universal mission of service and love for which he grants and distributes of himself freely, unstintingly. He must avoid all honor and recognition, unless that too would enhance his service to the world. He must do, speak, think, wear, eat whatever would help those whom he serves.
One may renounce at any stage of life whenever his universal love crosses the boundaries of limitation. Renunciation is not, definitely not, an abandoning of any duties. Those who have any claims on him first renounce their claims on him and grant him their happy permission to let go. Theirs is no less an act of renunciation, more difficult, because they have yet to struggle with the world. He renounces because his karma with them has been fulfilled; all he leaves behind is their happy thoughts about him. There are cases in history where someone became a swami by speaking a lie that he had no relatives or that he had obtained their happy permission. After it was found out to be untrue, such people were expelled from the monastic order and told to fulfill their worldly duties.
In some cases a renunciate's guru may order that he continue to perform some residual duties to his erstwhile family, for example, continuing to finance a child's education. The great Shankara returned to his dying mother and performed her last rites. Why should not a renunciate do these duties which he would ordinarily perform for any member of his universal family, without claims or attachments and free of any weak emotions. He refers to his pre-renunciation family as purvashram: "relations from my previous ashram". [previous stage of life]
The act of renunciation is therefore not an escape, not a divorce. Just as someone taking the vows as a Catholic nun, and changing her name, is not denouncing her parents, only enhancing the scope of her love, so it is with someone becoming a swami from out of married life. The spouse of such a one considers him/herself wedded but claiming nothing from the swami, for his personage is now sacred, beyond flesh and beyond the reach of touch. The parents, spouse, children who have let go of their child, spouse and parent are to be admired for their renunciation so that someone may save the entire world freely.
In the Indian Law the act of sanyasa, or becoming a swami, is regarded as civil death. For example, any property acquired after becoming a swami passes to one's disciples following the swami's death, and not to the children of one's body in the previous ashram [stage of life].
H. H. Swami Rama says that human beings are in unfinished product. A swami is the finished product, ideally speaking; or aspiring 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. He is the kind shower when someone is suffering a drought of love.
In the life of a spiritual seeker or teacher there comes a moment when a decision can no longer be postponed. One passes through emotions like those of a bride: sadness at separation from past love, looking forward to a future of a different expansion of love, enhancing oneself. All weak emotion is to be watched and conquered--not by suppressing it but by merging the little love into the greater one. One simply knows, at a certain time in life, that the pressing details of one's business from the worldly life will never be finished--while billions are dying without light. He ties up as many loose ends as possible, and walks out carrying a torch into the night. At that moment of decision, no consideration is weighty enough to tie his feet. The call to walk (to become a pari-vrajaka) has come:
as the Buddha said when exhorted and sent out his first batch of monks. At that moment one's own physical discomforts, mental sadnesses, and such, becomes as unimportant as a mother's need to get a full night's sleep is ignored when her infant is suffering from a burning fever.
Such a moment is a moment of dying; dying to one's erstwhile limited self. The renunciate performs that ceremony to himself which is normally performed by relatives following the funeral of someone physically dead. H. H. Swami Rama tells the story of a man in a certain city in India. Every astrologer in the city predicted that he would die on a certain morning. The evening before the predicted date for this man's death Shri Swamiji arrived in the city and the man went to see him. This dialogue followed:
The gentleman went home, got his wife's permission, became a swami, and lived on.
On the day one is meant to become a swami, if one decides not to renounce but to continue to cling on, the physical death is bound to grab him by the hair, for his work for "the previous ashram" is already done.
Intense sadhana (undertaking concentrated spiritual observances); the realization of universal love; the satisfaction derived from seeing the others' ignorance and consequent suffering have been reduced; and the unbounded grace of one's guru; these help a novice renunciate to walk on firmly and not to falter.
As to the renunciate's well-being, besides the guru's grace, the whole world takes care of him ever so lovingly. Those above him bless him, those below him are ever so grateful. How wonderful is the life of a renunciate, the life of an all-embracing, incorruptible sky.
Reach for the sky,
The Basis of
By Swami Rama
The goal of the renunciate is to fathom one after another of the various stages of consciousness that lead to the innermost One. The following principles are the basis of the path of renunciation:
This path of the rare few is the highest of all. It is difficult but not impossible. Those who are fully prepared should walk this path of fire and light. They should not listen to the suggestions of those who are not capable of following the path of renunciation.
Those who are not prepared to become renunciates should not think they cannot realize the Self. That which is important to understand and attain is the state of non-attachment, without which treading either path--renunciation or action--is meaningless.