The Sanskrit word for “guru” is translated as “grave.” That says it all. When you take the vow of a renunciate, whether formalized by religion or informal between you and God, you vow to abandon the world, breaking all ties to your past, including your old identity. In Hinduism, this is known as the sadhu’s path (translated as “holy man”), the sage or ascetic. The sÄdhu is solely dedicated to achieving(liberation), the fourth and final stage of life, through meditation and contemplation of God. Traditionally, this lifestyle was reserved for men. Still, today in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, women also wear robes symbolizing their status as renunciates, and in Hinduism, they are popularly known as sannyasinis. “There are 4 to 5 million sadhus in India today, and they are widely respected for their holiness. It is also thought that the austere practices of the sadhus help burn off their karma and that of the community. Thus seen as benefiting society, donations from many people support sadhus“ (Wikipedia, 2017). Hindu sadhus employ various religious practices; some practice extreme asceticism, while others focus on praying, chanting, or meditating. Most take vows to refrain from violence, drunkenness, sexual liberality, eating meat, and attachment to money. As Lord Buddha did, most sadhus in Hinduism even take a new name and may leave their families behind for a solitary and disciplined life. The processes and rituals of becoming a sadhu vary with sect; in almost all, a sadhu is initiated by a guru, who bestows upon the create a new name and a mantra. But how does an all-American girl “take sadhu” if one is already married and has an established career? More importantly, should one?
When I converted to Hinduism from Buddhism, I didn’t start thinking that I wanted to become sand, although I admit that leaving it all behind was tempting. When I seriously began looking into the picture and had just married my partner of 5 years, I knew I wasn’t leaving her behind. And although we were retired, I felt called to continue my spiritual writing and Life Coaching from home. So I did what any spiritually conflicted modern American would do: I turned to the internet! I found a genuine guru from India who had a monastery in the US and applied to take his online study course. I began my journey into sadhu territory tentatively and carefully by informing myself about Hinduism, including reading the ancient Hindu scriptures and educating myself in meditation. However, I’d studied and practiced meditation and chant for 15 years as a Buddhist. I also took a Vedic chant class and spent 1 to 2 hours daily singing ancient mantras in the mysterious language of Sanskrit, my wife smiling and tapping her foot in the next room. The guru’s study course taught me how to perform Home Puja, a do-it-yourself worship service for Hindus, so I purchased a hand-painted picture of Lord Krishna, a statue from India, and stumbled my way through performing it for my wife. The online course instructed me in Bhakti Yoga (meditation), the history of Indian ascetics, and the well-worn path of devotional Hinduism. So I had my start. But as I plunged headlong into Hinduism, I was curious about female sadhus’ lives. What were their thoughts, feelings, and daily lives like?
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I read the book: “Women In Ochre Robes” (Khandelwal, 2004), describing the experiences of India’s female renunciates. I quickly learned that while their communities highly respect modern female sannyasins, and some even have their ashrams, Hinduism is decidedly paternalistic, making the road for women ascetics that steeper. In India, when male Sadhus are asked about women taking sanyasi, some will say women cannot (traditionally) take the vows. Nevertheless, these determined devotees feel the internal call and defy tradition as they don the saffron robes, agreeing to take on followers and householder patrons. Others, the majority, live reclusive lives, wandering the countryside and observing austerities, teaching in exchange for shelter and a meal, or living in communal ashrams with other sannyasins. But when I searched online for another American female Hindu renunciate, I found only American male gurus. Was I the only American woman interested in initiating and undergoing these drastic spiritual changes, shifts in consciousness so profound that I could only describe it as self-realization? And if I wasn’t the only one, where were they hiding?
I have never felt as solitary because I don’t know anyone like me, a woman called to asceticism late in life, and I’ve never known any Hindus. Simultaneously, I’ve never felt so content and peaceful, completely absorbed in meditation and Vedic chant. It is a dichotomy: I want to know I am doing this correctly and wish I had a local guru to guide my steps into this new world of renunciation, yet feeling the undeniable pull to withdraw and develop my bond with God. There’s been a definite tension there. I considered visiting a community Hindu temple, but I’ve been practicing meditation and chanting for 15 years (as a Buddhist). Therefore my Inner Guru is strong, muscling me down the path of the lone renunciate.
The tension between my wife and me was also genuine about my conversion; an awkwardness set in between us. While I have freely and liberally shared my spiritual journey with her, she witnessed my drastic changes. While she quietly accommodated our new lifestyle, she didn’t know how to interpret the changes or navigate marriage to an ascetic who had withdrawn, even at times, from sex. I mean, she didn’t sign up for this! She was feeling displaced, and rightly so. She had become moody, tearful, and anxious, so she finally approached me after the first few weeks to courageously clarify the subject. She wanted to know what to expect. She started by confessing, “I’m a complete mess.” Of course, she felt rejected-I’d been so absorbed and preoccupied with the intense internal changes that I had ignored her process. We spoke from our hearts, and I asked for her temporary patience and forbearance. Though I had no immediate desire for sexual or romantic contact, I hadn’t vowed celibacy. I assured her I wasn’t going anywhere. The relief was visible on her face, and we both breathed a sigh of relief. We agreed that our relationship was mature because we’re in our 50s, which means it didn’t have to be defined solely by sex anymore. In times like these of transition, we agreed it could be determined by how kind and patient we are towards one another. That seemed a less self-centered definition of marriage to both of us.
Other changes continued to happen organically (no pun intended). We both became vegetarians because that was one sacrifice I’d been thinking about making for a long time for our health. I gave up a social life to spend my free time in meditation and chanting and put off returning to work until my honeymoon with asceticism was over. But that was the thing I didn’t know if my Inner Guru would ask me for a lifetime commitment or not. I didn’t know where the sand path would lead, but my soul grabbed me by the hand and pulled me along to find out. Before I converted to Hinduism, I had sold most of my belongings and moved into a 23-foot travel trailer for retirement with my wife. Yes, it had a big screen TV… so I wasn’t exactly living in the forest or a cave in the Himalayan mountains like the Indian ascetics. It had a bathroom and running hot water, but the water froze during the winter, and we were without water for several days to a week. On those days, I felt like a rugged minimalist, lugging water in from my mother-in-law’s house next door. We had decided to try minimalist living because I have always been convinced there is more joy in owning less; less is more. It also allowed me to write and research full-time, which are my passions in life. I’ve also given up entertaining myself with anything except that which will hasten my spiritual ascent.
Of these lifestyle changes, the biggest was that I stopped eating meat, which I take as a serious vow. One time, we walked up to a fast-food counter, and as my wife was giving her lunch order, my eyes drifted to the chicken sandwich on the billboard overhead. I thought, “That’s funny; I can’t remember what chicken tastes like!” I had intended to order the veggie meal, but before I knew what was happening, my mind jumped up and ambushed me. “Get the chicken!!” it screamed. Like a robot, I opened my mouth to say: “One chicken burger,” but what came out instead was: “I’ll have the veggie meal, please.” Time after time, my vows placed a gag order on my mouth, almost as if there was an invisible electrical fence that kept me from straying. I understood the purpose of renunciation: It is a voluntary giving up of habitual ways to exchange something higher, something immaterial-something better. It doesn’t look self-serving to the outsider, but it is because the insight, contentment, and peace you receive are more valuable than what you could offer in return. Another intriguing aspect is that I cannot lie anymore.
I used to tell what I would call “white lies,” fibs that didn’t hurt anybody. I never felt bad about this because I saw how some lies could help a situation (like saying I was a landlord so a needy friend could get housing). Or when it would spare someone’s feelings, I would tell a white lie to avoid conflict. The point is, we’ve all done it. But these days, I tell the truth like I can’t control it! Even when it would be better to fib a little, the truth comes flying out. And if I manage to suppress the truth even for a short period, it sneaks out from behind the corner where it was silently hiding. I am not sure I like this much transparency-it takes some getting used to this new and improved version of me who has the ethics of a girl scout.
There has only been one serious downside to more concentrated time in meditation: it has made me exquisitely sensitive to other people’s energy. I dread going into a busy supermarket, or worse, a crowded mall, because it’s like dredging through a thick swamp of other people’s crap. This empathic intuition is an unwanted gift from my new spiritual sensitivity; you can’t have one without the other. So when I get away from the crowds or a particularly distasteful person, I clear the heavy energy I’ve just bumped into. If I don’t, I can barely recover my footing and sink into a funk for a few hours. I can’t shake it like I used to; now, I absorb it into my auric field, so I must cleanse myself to stay emotionally afloat.
Of the many shifts I’ve had since my asceticism began, one change in perception stands out above the rest. I was reading Vedic scriptures called the Brahma Purana, and one aphorism changed how I view everything and everyone. In every verse, the writer of the scripture kept repeating: “This is That,” referring to the Supreme Being as “That,” for God is a spirit who defies human labels of male or female. I pondered the meaning of “This Is That.” Suddenly it came to me: “This,” meaning me, “That,” meaning God. He was emphasizing our divinity. What if I applied this thought widely? How would I act if I were God? Well, I thought, God loves unconditionally. And God doesn’t desire material things because He is the Spirit. I’d have no interest in being entertained, nor would I addict myself to substances, because God is above those trifling pleasures. I wouldn’t be worried about what others thought because I wouldn’t be insecure; I would have full faith in my ability to create anything I wanted. I’d live in emotional equilibrium and self-sufficiency, not dependent upon those around me. I’d be impervious to barbs being thrown my way and calm in the face of worry. That all sounded pretty good to me! So for the rest of the day, I repeated to myself: “This (me) is That (God)” when I needed an attitude shift, and guess what? It worked!
This simple-sounding philosophy is a strict heuristic that the sadhus live by. They believe that They are indeed That, so they endeavor to treat everyone equally. They extend God’s compassion equally to everyone. This motto encourages us to treat others as if we are them, which is an incredibly compassionate way to live. It teaches that there is no difference in God’s eyes between any created thing and myself. I was raised in a conservative Christian home where I was introduced to treating each other as my brothers and sisters. But saying we are all the same, that I am you, takes compassion further. Brothers and sisters fight and have differences-but, you would never oppose yourself or lie to yourself. And you would care for yourself, but you wouldn’t feel lust for yourself! That’s what is absent from the sadhu: lust. I feel love but not lustful desire. If they are me, it only makes sense that I will tend to their needs, minus the passion. Central to Sadhu’s way of life is desire-lessness, for self-centered attachment only causes pain. The Brahma Purana also references duality, pointing out that as long as I view the world as “me and them,” I live in the false perception of duality. My favorite illustration of “This Is That” happened while cooking breakfast.
A tiny bug, so small it could barely be seen, came marching across the plate I was spooning eggs onto. Without thinking, I roughly shook it off. I’ve probably done that a hundred times, but this time was different. I heard a voice: “This is That,” and That was the bug. The tiny, helpless bug I had flung across the room without regard for its existence could have been me. I froze in place. What would I want if I were that tiny, helpless bug, not knowing I had landed on someone’s breakfast plate? Certainly not to be flipped into oblivion. Why hadn’t I taken a moment and opened the door, gently releasing it outside where it belonged? Even though it was just an insignificant bug, still, This is That. I felt so bad; I thought about my callousness all day.