What is a Swami?

As seen through the eyes of a Western Swami;  by Swami Nityamuktananda.

People often ask me “What is a swami?” For many people living in Europe (or America), the word has no meaning; the word swami means master. It means striving for the mastery over one’s conditioned mind, over one’s mental patterns and habits, over one’s fickle personality, all of which refer to one’s small self (i.e. personality)!

And why would one want to “lay it all down”( Sanskrit: saṃnyᾱsa)? Because a swami can see that these conditionings mask the underlying Divinity that is in all of us, as all of us; ‘in you as you’ as it says in many sacred scriptures. Realizing this fully – is Self-realisation.

Although most swamis are linked via their teacher and guru to ancient India and the sanatana dharma (ancient Vedic teachings) they would not claim allegiance to any particular group or religion because beyond all of these there is one indivisible reality, truth or God. HE/SHE is recognised by various names or simply as THAT in different cultures!

Consequently there are swamis from many religions. And here lies a very important point; a swami dedicates his/her life, one could say, to the Absolute Truth, beyond the different forms of religions.

This leads to another frequently asked question: ‘why did you become a swami, what for?’ And of course the first thing to point out is, that it’s not a question of becoming a swami in the sense of adding something or pledging allegiance, it is more a question of renouncing (saṃnyᾱsa) of setting aside those limitations and worldly interests that grab hold of us, distort our vision and hide That Original Nature.

It is setting aside what interferes, so that one can fully concentrate, fully devote one’s time and effort ‘on the direct experience of the highest spiritual realisations and to the service of others along those lines.There are two ways of taking saṃnyᾱsa (renunciation in the above sense).
Firstly: As a traditionally stage of life; one of the four stages (ashramas) i.e. student, householder, retired, and preparing for the transition.
Secondly: One can take saṃnyᾱsa whenever one feels the desire to dedicate one’s life to the ultimate wisdom. For this second way, one needs to have either studied or to have the guidance of a guru or preceptor; who feels one is ready for such a step.

The step being; putting aside worldly interest. This renunciation makes a swami in the European mind-set, akin to a monk, with self-discipline as a key to his life-style. However a swami is more of an anchorite or even hermit in the Irish tradition, than part of a monastic organisation (having authority and power). A swami must have total integrity, so as to live with the Absolute or God as his only authority; this is possible only through giving up the individual ‘I’ and the attitude that anything is ‘mine’. In this way one becomes free of Ego involvement and open to the underlying wisdom that governs all phenomena. When a wave subsides in the ocean is it giving up its individuality, or gaining the vastness of the unlimited existence of the ocean?

A swami renounces the individual ties; he is attached to none, meaning he is free claiming nothing from others – not loyalty, love or admiration. This is not for his own sake, but in order to be free to give support and encouragement to all. This process of dis-identifying with ‘me and mine’ rests on the dis-identification with the physical body and thus includes celibacy.

Not being identified with the physical body – but with the essence – ‘should’ mean a swami is genderless, neither male nor female and as such no longer has a history that gives personality. The past is left behind, along with the ‘I’ and ‘mine’ (traditionally, when becoming a swami, one conducts one’s funeral rites). The new life is simple, (often that of a mendicant) although care is always taken of the physical vehicle so that s/he may serve others all the better.

Serving others, supporting life in every way without expecting a reward, is akin to the sun shining selflessly on the world. Some say this is the reason for the customary orange/saffron clothes of a swami. Others say the orange clothes are a reminder of the fire, the fire of knowledge that burns away wrong knowledge, the fire of hardship (ascetics) that burns away desire and attachment. Traditionally it is also connected to the symbolism of giving up ritual fire offerings, as one has “taken the fire into oneself”; i.e. has become the fire…fire of knowledge.

The connection to the sun points to the ancient roots of the practice of saṃnyᾱsa (renunciation) which has existed since the dawn of time, however Shankara (Indian Philosopher/ 800AD) has given this path the present form. He established four centres where knowledge was/is cultivated and with ten different orders (loosely organised). Each order is recognisable by a different suffix to the name given on the day the swami commits him/herself by the grace of the Guru, to this path of life!

The most common suffix known in the West is that of ‘-ananda’; these are swamis associated with Saraswati and dedicated to the dissemination of wisdom/knowledge. When taking the vows of ‘swami-hood’ 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.’

The swami, like his Western counterpart, the ‘monk’, normally owns nothing. In India, for the most part, the society supports these revered men and women, with food, shelter and clothing. There are many variations of this ancient tradition, however all would agree that the swami should avoid all honour and recognition; he is a servant to the world; he/she must do, speak, think, wear, eat whatever would help those whom he/she serves’ – not him/herself.

Physical evolution has reached a peak in the human being, however few men and women have developed their mental capacity to its full potential. This is what Swami Rama from the Himalayan Institute of Yoga indicates in his comment that a swami is one who aspires 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.’
The Australian Aboriginals have an apt phrase here:  For the Good of All!
Buddha sent his monks out with the words: for the benefit of the many, bahu-jana-hitaya for the comfort of the many, baha-jana-sukhaya.

Very well, so there is this ancient tradition of searchers of ultimate wisdom, they dedicate their lives to it – but what does a swami actually do?  This is a question especially attractive to us today, as we ‘need to do and need to know what others do’.It does not need a genius to see that the present world is in a crisis; moral and ethical values have rapidly deteriorated, as the religions have gone either into the background, or for what ever reason have been polarized into extremism. With it many people find themselves ‘not knowing what to do’ in the many complex issues of life. Complexity has always been there, but if we look through a narrow funnel onto individual aspects of that complexity, it becomes so confusing that we ‘can’t know what to do’; how to behave; we lost awareness of what is good, what is right. Why? Because we look at life through a tunnel vision, of manipulated truth!

We see only the individual brushstrokes (not necessarily pretty); similarly we get lost in the details of individualism – and lose sight of the greater picture of life.

Now swamis, inspired by a tradition of holistic thinking, step back; look for the wider view, for the better of the whole. They aim to see the whole reality, eventually even the Absolute. To gain that wider vision, they practice intense sadhana (undertaking concentrated spiritual observances); they cultivate detachment (stepping back).

All, even swamis, have their individual weaknesses, areas where we need more focus, more dedication, more practice. Hence Patanjali declares in the Yoga Sutras (First Chapter), that even the most highly advanced Yogis still need to practice, if only the practice of viveka khyati (discrimination) and abhyasa (practice of detachment)! We could talk about self-awarenes; which needs self-inquiry and has to culminate in self-purification. Swamis first and foremost need to work on themselves.

By doing so, a swami (having no agenda/interest/gain for him/herself) sees the interconnectedness of all life  and from such a holistic perception, sees the need for a-hymsa (non-violence) and those values and ethical maxims that support – rather than destroy; people and society.  With this a swami’s life and work, (timeless and independent of all religion) becomes a life of compassion, a life of service to people that is beneficial in any society. All manner of wisdom teachings of the world become the reference frame; therefore one studies the scriptures (swadhya), lives a life of self-discipline (tapasya) and surrenders oneself to (knows oneself embedded in) the Divine ; what in Yoga is called “Ishvara pranidhana”. But these terminologies can be exchanged with terms from all sorts of wisdom traditions. There is no monopoly on TRUTH.

With seeing this, comes humility, universal love and devotion and never taking things for granted! If this is his/her inner practice, it expresses in the outside world as a guiding light to others.

In practical terms a swami asks questions nobody else asks; teaches one to look beyond the apparent; encourages self-inquiry and reflection; supports those that endeavour to look for a higher purpose in life; builds bridges between people, dogmas and religions and rekindles respect and love. In that there is no differentiation between East and West; North or South; one race or another; one religion or another!

This means living with total integrity, for the good of All, (no matter where one’s spiritual home is). Hence a swami strives to be master over his own conditioning, strives to go beyond the differences of the phenomenal world and strives to become an instrument and servant of the Divine, so that ultimately, he merges with the Highest; the Absolute, the Great Spirit – whatever name the individual might give it.

Hence gratitude and atonement to that power which guides from the darkness of ignorance to the light of knowing (Gu-ru) is adamant.

I bow to my Guru’s feet, with great love and respect, Swami Nityamuktananda.

©Atha Yoga 2019