Settling in to the Temple of Peace 113

In document Shanti Mandir: Authenticity, Economy and Emotion in a Yoga Ashram (Page 149-193)

3.1 — Introduction

In the preceeding chapter I broadly explored the contested and heterogenous nature of the transglobal yoga industry and other related phenomena such as neo-Hinduism and Hindu nationalism. As the chosen case study to explore legitimacy and symbolic power I also placed Shanti Mandir within this context. The aim of this chapter is to provide a historical overview of the Shanti Mandir community. This chapter begins with outlining the general aims of the organisation, which is followed by explaining the underlying philosophies that guide the ideology and spiritual practices.

Next, the spiritual lineage that the organisation is aligned with is introduced. Tracing back the monastic affiliation to its earliest origins and introducing the more recent individuals, present and past, who are worshipped as part of the guru lineage (paramparā) within this community. The next section touches briefly on the controversial ‘split’ of Siddha Yoga. This caused the abdication of Nityananda from his position as co-guru with his older sister, Chidvilasananda. These events were the catalyst for Nityananda starting Shanti Mandir. They also serve as a potent marker of identity for the devotees. The following section moves into a description of the ashrams location, the surrounding area, and description of the ashram property. The next section discusses the daily schedule and religious practice. This moves into a discussion introducing the devotees.

3.2 — Aims of Shanti Mandir

Shanti Mandir describes itself on its Facebook page as ‘a worldwide community of people that was established in 1987 by Mahamandaleshwar Swami Nityananda. The organization continues the spiritual work of his uru, Baba Muktananda, whom he succeeded in 1982’ (Mandir 2015b). This spiritual work incorporates social work and

the ecumenical goal of promoting peace, compassion, love, knowledge of the self, and selfless service to humanity. The prayer ‘May all beings be content’57 and the

statement ‘the world is one family’ guide Shanti Mandir.58 It is a private non-profit organisation established as ‘a worldwide community of people from all walks of life who have the common aspiration of experiencing divinity, knowing the Self and recognising the sacred in all’ (Mandir 2015~: 2). Shanti Mandir’s aims are to:

Provide access to the teachings and practices of the great sages of India, in particular those of the lineage represented by Swami Nityananda; Baba Muktananda; and his Guru, Bhagavan Nityananda. Guide seekers to the direct experience of divinity through Sanskrit chanting, silent meditation, study of sacred texts, the offering of service, and participation in sacred Rituals. Continue the Vedic tradition through teaching the Vedic way of life and the philosophy of Vedanta, performing the ancient sacred rituals of the tradition, and receiving other saints of the tradition. (Mandir 2015b)

The Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda is a renowned national figure whose life and teachings are often celebrated in the ashram. Vivekananda provides insight into how the ‘Vedic way of life’ is conceptualised: ‘The Hindu thinks religiously, talks religiously, eats religiously, walks religiously, worships religiously, marries religiously, learns religiously, and even procreates religiously’ (Vishwanathan 2004: 506). This is elaborated by the concept of living one’s life in balance (sattva), with purpose (dharma), with knowledge of the self (ātmā), with a higher connection to god (paramātmā), and with love (bhakti) (Swami 2014). The majority of devotees share in the belief that an idealised, romanticised and re-imagined representation of a glorified Vedic past is a necessary counterpoint to modernity. According to the website:

Shanti Mandir regularly carries out activities and events to serve needy communities, especially those near its ashrams in India. These activities include feeding large numbers of people; preventive and curative health; literacy and scriptural education; and teaching


57Lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino bhavantu.

58 Compare MU 6.72 — aya bandhuraya neti gaanā laghucetasām udāracaritānāṁ tu vasudhaiva

and fostering income-generating activities, such as handicraft work, to break the endemic unemployment and underemployment that exist in rural India. (Mandir 2015g)

This social work and community development is achieved through the three charitable organisations established by Shanti Mandir on their website:

• Shri Muktananda Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya — a free Sanskrit school that provides a rounded and authentic exposure to Vedic teachings.

• Shanti Hastkala — a woman-empowerment program that helps the rural poor learn handicraft skills and provides them with work opportunities.

• Shanti Arogya Mandir — a mobile clinic that services the medical needs of the villages around the ashram in Magod free of charge. This includes camps that provide implants for (intra-ocular lenses). (Mandir 2015g)

Feeding is a culturally specific act of philanthropy in Hinduism that is part of the religious giving estimated domestically at USD92 million per year (Bornstein 2012). As Bornstein shows, due to the colonial practice of ‘noninterference’, donations to religious charitable organisations by donors are generally not calculated nor taxed, as this may ‘constitute a strategic political stance defying intervention from the state’ that is part of India’s colonial legacy (2012: 141). Building upon the previous discussion of how donating dāna is meant to help accrue puṇya (spiritual benefit), we can appreciate how the donations given today are an extension of earlier late colonial Sanatani reformative efforts to ‘revitalise religion and society to meet the challenges of a furiously changing world’ and, how socio-religious charitable gifting has informed and helped to define a ‘new, modern, but orthodox pan-Indian Hinduism’ (Kasturi 2010: 108-10). This neo-Hindu concern that emphasises social equality, particularly the empowerment of rural populations through ‘income generating activities’ is, according to (Creel 1975), in sharp contrast to a traditional dharmic understanding of the structure of the social world, where the ‘traditional connotation of dharma is being supplanted by a view of ethics based on the presence of Brahman in everybody, repudiating the theory as well as the details of dharma’ (Jain 2011: 111-12). Jain

continues explaining how the traditional caste system based on an orthodox idea of dharma is in opposition to the spiritual equality inherent in the monist Vedānta

philosophy. This raises interesting questions about Shanti Mandir’s identity as a socially active yet Brahminically orthodox Vedāntic community.

3.3 — Philosophies of Shanti Mandir

Nityananda aims to make spirituality a practical part of an individual’s daily life through offering a systematic approach based on two schools of philosophy. These are

Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta and the Siddha tradition that has evolved out of Kashmir

Shaivism. According to Nityananda, Vedānta allows the practitioner to understand

what causes pain in an individual. By identifying the cause of suffering the seeker is able to move towards an experience of ‘Truth and divinity within oneself’ (Mandir 2013h). Nityananda explained that the seeker comes to recognise (pratyabhījñā) this direct and unmediated experience for him or herself without anyone else telling them how it ought to be experienced. Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta expresses the thought that

the phenomenal world is a projected illusion (māyā) and that the only reality is the inactive (niṣkriya) principle known as Brahman (Shankarananda 2003).

Shaivism approaches the world noting that everything is a manifestation of an underlying consciousness and is represented as Śiva. According to Shaivism,

everything in the phenomenal world is considered real due to it being an expression of Consciousness (cit) (Dyczkowski 2000). Founded upon Tantric principles, Shaivism promotes the expansion of the ‘small mind’ to an enlarged state of consciousness. ‘Salvation lies in transcending personal consciousness and merging into the infinite impersonal consciousness, thereby escaping the cycle of birth and death’ (Mangalwadi and Enroth 2005: 45). The following quote elaborates on the cosmological structure of this worldview.

The tantric universe is a pulsating, vibratory universe, in which matter, souls, and sound are the stuff of the outpourings of godhead into manifestation, with godhead generally identified with Siva and his self-manifestation or self-reflection taking the form of the Goddess. […]. And, ultimately, the tantric universe is an emancipating universe, a universe that is primordially and virtually free: born of the boundless playing out of divine consciousness, its every constituent part, including the human body and spirit, as well as brute matter are intrinsically free. Tantrism therefore places a high premium on experience — bodily, practical, concrete experience — which, in conjunction with knowledge, is liberating. (White 1996: 143-144)

The Siddha Yoga tradition has developed out of Kashmir Shaivism.59 A Siddha is a

‘perfected one’ who has ‘transcended the illusion of duality and achieved permanent direct knowledge of his identification with God’ (Jain 2013: 204).60 The basis of the

Siddha tradition is found in the Tantric principle of kṛpā (grace) and the dispensing of

śaktipāta (Jain 2013: 201, Muller-Ortega 1997: 426-428).

3.4 — The Origins of the Tradition

Today in India, a renunciant (saṁnyāsin) is affiliated with a particular group based on a system related to the Hindu spiritual compass and sacred geography of the subcontinent. Various monastic orders became affiliated with one of four maṭhas (cardinal institutions). These centres are located in the traditional seats of religious practice associated with Hinduism. Shanti Mandir identifies with and honours the famous 8-9th century CE saint Ādi Śaṅkarācārya who championed the philosophy of


59 The main texts of the Siddha Yoga tradition are listed as the Śiva Sūtras, Pratyabhījñahṛdayam, Spanda Kārikās, Vijñāna Bhairava, and the Kulārṇava Tāntra (Siddha Yoga 2015).

60 The SvU (2.12) presupposes a Siddha body that is free of disease, aging and death. Pthivyaptejo’

anilakhe samutthite, pañcātmake yogaguṇe pravṛitte, na tasya rogo na jarā na mṛtyuḥ, prāptasya yogāgnimayaṁ śarīram (Tyagisananda 1949: 51-52). SvU 1.3 explained that a Siddha possesses supernatural powers — te dyānayogānugatā apaśyan, devātmaśaktiṁ svaguṇairnigūḍhām, yaḥ kāraṇāni nikhilāni tāni, kālātmayuktānyadhitiṣhṭhatyekaḥ(Tyagisananda 1949: 17).

non-dualistic Advaita Vedānta. Śaṅkarācārya is credited with unifying the disparate

orders of renunciates under the Dasnāmi sampradāya (group of ten sects).61

Built from the verbal root √smṛ — to remember — the adjective smarta refers

to the sect’s adherence to Smṛti texts. These texts are of human authorship as

compared to the Vedic literature that is believed to be of divine origin (Encyclopædia- Britannica 2014). The Smarta sect restricts access to the initiated ‘twice-born’ upper castes; however, the Siddha tradition of Muktananda’s heritage is free of such restrictions as it aims to move beyond the limitations of orthodoxy. This demonstrates an underlying tension between conservative traditional values and the more liberal values that Muktananda promoted. However, from various standpoints, in the Shanti Mandir community today questions of legitimacy and authenticity are often raised based on someone’s gender, lower caste status or complete lack of caste affiliation.

Shanti Mandir is affiliated with the Śringeri Maṭha and identifies with the non-

sectarian Smarta tradition. The syncretic tradition that Shanti Mandir has evolved out of generally prefers to worship Śiva. However, it promotes a philosophical and

meditative path that emphasises the oneness of humanity through a unifying principle. Other gods such as Viṣṇu, Śakti, Ganeśa and Sūrya are worshipped with various

deities being honoured on their respective days of the week through the main recitation of the specific text to each deity.

Due to the affiliation with the Śringeri Maṭha Shanti Mandir shares the

responsibility of the cultural reproduction and intergenerational transmission of the Yajurveda. This body of knowledge contains the governing rules for the successful performance of Vedic rituals and is dated to ca. 1200-1000 BCE (Visvesvaran, Witzel et al. 2009, Witzel 2001, 2003, 2010, 2015). Discussed below, one of the charitable


61 Van der Veer (1994) asserts that Vadayarana established the cār dhām (four abodes) and not Śaṅkarācārya in the 14th century.

acts Shanti Mandir is involved with that is central to its Vedic identity is the Sanskrit college that operates from within the ashram.

3.5 — The Spiritual Lineage

The spiritual lineage from which Shanti Mandir draws its inspiration and legitimacy begins with Bhagavan Nityananda (1897 - 1961). Bhagavan Nityananda (Figure 3.1) is considered by many to have been an extraordinary individual who was known as an avadhūta, one who is free of worldly desire and obligation (Sabharathnam, Brooks et al. 1997). After years of wandering across India, attracted by the areas thermal springs and seclusion, Bhagavan Nityananda eventually settled in the village of Ganeshpuri. The village of Ganeshpuri62 is located 80 kilometres north of Mumbai. It is approximately halfway between Shanti Mandir’s ashram (near the city of Valsad, Gujarat), and Mumbai, the capital of Maharasthra. Several hagiographies exist, perhaps obfuscating a fuller telling of this interesting individual’s story. However, the village of Ganeshpuri expanded around this man who showed little interest even in dressing himself, such was the apparent level of his spiritual magnitude. As word of his fame spread even government ministers came to visit him in the hope of receiving his grace (Muktananda 1972, 1996, Verma 2009).


Figure 3.1: Bhagavan Nityananda (Source: Shanti Mandir 2015e)

Baba Muktananda (1908 - 1982) also became quite a famous guru in his own right (Figure 3.2). In the 1970s, the charismatic and controversial yogi was sent by Bhagavan Nityananda to America to conduct a ‘meditation revolution’ in the West. His message, which is adopted by Shanti Mandir today, is ‘Meditate on Yourself. Worship Yourself. God Dwells Within You as You’ (Jain 2013: 200). After Bhagavan Nityananda gave him some land to develop into an ashram in Ganeshpuri, Muktananda built the first of many ashrams later creating the Siddha Yoga empire (Healy 2010a, b, Madsen 2013, Mahoney 1997, Michaels 2004, Sabharathnam, Brooks et al. 1997).

(Source: Shanti Mandir 2015r)

For the devotees of Shanti Mandir, Muktananda is a potent and palpable source of inspiration, guidance and refuge. The anniversaries of his birth, death, and various aspects related to his spiritual attainments are celebrated with great devotion. The following excerpt is an example of a typical invitation distributed by Shanti Mandir to attend, remind and celebrate the occasion of Muktananda’s birth at the Walden ashram in upper state New York. This occasion shows how central Muktananda continues to be to the community, influencing the religious practice and soteriological pursuits of thousands of people across the world.

Happy Birthday, Baba! The sacred texts declare that the earth feels blessed when a great being walks on her surface. Such a great being was our beloved Baba Muktananda, whose grace continues to initiate and guide thousands around the world. We invite you to come and join us at Shanti Mandir, Walden, as we celebrate Baba’s birthday by chanting to invoke the Guru’s eternal presence. (Mandir 2014c)

The ritual calendar of Shanti Mandir celebrates several auspicious days throughout the year associated with the lives of the saints in the tradition. Figure 3.3 shows the relationship between a young Muktananda and his guru Bhagavan Nityananda. This picture, and others like it, is used to celebrate the broader guru-disciple tradition while also instilling the attitudes of respect and devotion that are both central to the legitimate disposition of Shanti Mandir. In the picture Muktananda stands by the side of Bhagavan Nityananda’s bed seeking the grace of his guru.

Figure 3.3: Invitation to Celebrate (Source: Shanti Mandir 2014c)

This poster is a typical example of an invitation distributed to Shanti Mandir’s global network of devotees via its mailing list.63 This particular occasion celebrates the

‘significant and auspicious day’ when Muktananda received śaktipāta from Nityananda. Śaktipāta is said to involve the transference of energy (realised as the guru’s grace) from the guru to the disciple and is said to be accomplished by a look or touch (Antonella 2009, Saraswati 1984a).64 However, in the personal account of

Muktananda, Bhagavan Nityananda forced his hand down Muktananda’s throat (Jain 2013: 205). This story is recycled amongst the devotees in a way that helps to establish Muktananda’s firm position as the favourite (or even only) descendent of Bhagavan Nityananda. Muktananda established Siddha Yoga as a global movement that espoused an egalitarian, democratic and non-sectarian approach that was in opposition


63 Approximately five thousand people are registered on the mailing list. 64 Antonella (2009: 07 min 28 secs) a devotee explained how śaktipāta works.

to traditional or ‘orthodox’ yoga systems that restricted access to knowledge based on gender or caste (Jain 2013: 208).

Ganeshpuri has a special place in the sacred geography of Shanti Mandir because this is where Bhagavan Nityananda settled; Muktananda built his Siddha Yoga empire; where both Bhagavan Nityananda and Muktananda are buried; and where Swami Nityananda abdicated from his leadership position at Siddha Yoga before starting Shanti Mandir. When devotees travel to the Shanti Mandir ashram they will quite often also pay a visit or stay for a couple of days at Ganeshpuri. Some may even return to Ganeshpuri to say goodbye to their deceased gurus before leaving India from Mumbai. For devotees in this tradition, it is an important step to visit these resting places. Ganeshpuri, in some ways, is at the very epicentre of the Shanti Mandir cosmology. Bhagavan Nityananda has several spiritual successors, but one in particular is central to the Shanti Mandir tradition.

Swami Nityananda (1962-) is the founder and spiritual head of Shanti Mandir. In 1981, at the age of eighteen, Nityananda (Figure 3.4) was ordained as a śāstradhāri (scripture holder) saṁnyāsin in the Sarasvatī order of renunciates. Shanti Mandir assert that around the same time:

In July 1981, as Baba was concluding a celebration at the Shree Nityananda Ashram (later Shree Muktananda Ashram) in South Fallsburg, New York, he called the then newly appointed Swami Nityananda forward. He placed a garland around his neck and announced to the hundreds of people present, ‘This man will be my successor’. Some time later, he announced that Swami Nityananda’s sister, Swami Chidvilasananda, would be a co-successor. In May 1982, Baba formally established Swami Nityananda and Swami Chidvilasananda so they could carry on his work. (Mandir 2015c)

This reason for the siblings becoming co-successors was based on the premise that the size of this international organisation warranted having two gurus (Harris 1994, Healy 2010a). In 1982, Siddha Yoga reportedly had 300 centres in 52 countries and 300,000

disciples (Altglas 2007). However, not long after the installation of the siblings the relations between them became strained. Shanti Mandir explained how after:

Baba’s passing in October 1982 precipitated a period of progressive upheaval and evolution. It led three years later to the creation by Swami Nityananda of a new organization, Shanti Mandir, through which he pursues the legacy of Baba’s teachings,

In document Shanti Mandir: Authenticity, Economy and Emotion in a Yoga Ashram (Page 149-193)