Trying to put “swami” into a Western context is like trying to squeeze a tomato through a keyhole. Sometimes a swami is regarded as a monk. That seems easy at first, as many spiritual traditions have an established and accepted order of monks. But, hey, I’m not a monk, and I’m not a nun, either. I’m a sannyasin. Monistic, not monastic.
Taking Sannyas – Becoming a swami
In my tradition, you don’t volunteer yourself. It is the guru’s prerogative to decide who is ready and who to invite to take sannyas. Nominating yourself would be a disqualification – so much ego! That’s the thinking, anyway. When the invitation comes, it ought not to be declined. You take the leap into the furthest reaches of spiritual journeying. I suppose, using the monkish reference, you could call it “ordination”, but we think of it as being initiated into a level beyond the religious stage, rather than being ordained into a religious order. The formal Brahmin ritual entails many hours of sitting cross-legged (“And now stand up”… hmm, these joints really might not!) as the priests lovingly pour ancient mantras over you, chanting faultlessly for hours as they also perform certain ritual processes to purify the candidate. The sacrificial fire, in which the personal self is burnt, is lit in the prehistoric way of rubbing two sticks together till a spark ignites dry grass and tinder.
The ritual process is completed the following day, when, before dawn, the guru comes and requires some further vows (along with more chanting, more offerings of ghee into the fire), sends you off to a ritual bath in the nearest river, and then calls you out “to serve humanity”. As you emerge naked, with no clothing of your own, no possessions, no relationships, no social identity, and no name – all having been renounced – your guru gives you a piece of cloth to cover your nakedness. Soon, the guru whispers your mantra into your ear, and gives you a sannyas name. And there comparisons with monasticism really end. We commit to an absolute monism, which holds to nothing other than ultimate reality. It is like letting go of the handrail at the skating rink.
Monism means “only One”
Polytheists hold that there are many gods. Sometimes the yogic representations of Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna, Vishnu, not to mention Durga, Sarasvati, and a panoply of other male and female deities, might look like polytheism. That is only so in very primitive mindsets. All the various streams of devotion still refer to Only One, and the differing representations are for the convenience of the mind.
Monotheism says “there is only one God”. Monism takes a more challenging position: There is only ONE. If I wanted to give a religious equivalent, I might say, “there is ONLY God”. The reason that I won’t use that term is that in itself it conceptualises “god”and “not-god”, with just a suspicion that there might be God + something else. But monism says there is One + nothing other at all.
So how does a sannyasin, or swami, live out this life of monistic renunciation? Does it mean a callous disregard for family and loved ones? Does it mean celibacy? Does it mean slaving for the guru? Or doing weird cultic things every day? Nope, none of those things. What we renounce most of all is of the sense of neediness. We renounce the idea that one’s identity comes from the accident of birth or social situation. The people in a sannyasin’s life are there to love – not to relate to dependently or from social identity. Celibacy is the norm. Sannyasins are not slaves, they are hugely independent, precisely because the sense of neediness and self-identification with roles is relinquished. Often swamis stay with their guru and support the guru’s work. Just as traditionally, some wander off on their own. And since it is not an ordination, there are no Rules of the Order that would be the case in most religious communities.
A solitary state
The predominant aspect of sannyas is that it is a solitary state, even if the swami is busy with people from dawn to dusk or beyond. The word “swami” itself reflects that. The root meaning of the word is that the individual will put nothing whatsoever between self and the divine. Or rather, between self and reality – “the divine” is a separative conceptual term. And the fundamental course of learning is the swami’s own consciousness. It is a profound enquiry into truth and reality.
Monism rules, ok
Finally, the beauty of monism is that every person, every thing, every situation, is an experience of the One vast Self. When this suddenly catches you and blows away the edges of your grasping little self, you are indeed a swami, Brahmin ceremony or not.