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Putting on the Saffron
When I became a ‘disciple’ of my guru Muktinath, I began to wear the saffron robe with some ritual, but not following the traditional one. No one knows what are the actual traditional rituals for a sannyasi, as each order has its own tradition. Above all putting on saffron cloth was more central to having an ‘identity’ more than declaring that I had become a sannyasi.
Of course I could have lived a single secular man. But Indian society doesn’t accept a single person, whereas it easily accepts a ‘sannyasi’. If I continued to remain as a single person with civilian clothes, the opportunity and openings to serve others would be restricted in many ways.
Above all, the saffron dress forced me to never change my mind about becoming a family man. Knowing my temperament, I thought I needed some kind of check on myself that would never allow me to keep changing my life as I pleased. Once I put on that dress, there was no question of going back.
This could be illustrated by one incident. Kannan, my very close friend even in my late forties was pestering me to get married. Then I asked him to go and get permission from Prasad, one of my most obedient shishyas. For this Prasad said, “How could Swamiji ever get married? Even my own family members and relatives would joke and mock me if he even thinks in that direction.” So, this identity as a ‘sannyasi’ serves as a permanent vow not to turn back.
I am very emotional and value human love, concern, care, and affection through relationship. Those who know me well can endorse this. When I was serving through an organization in North, if anyone became sick, they would send him to me, as they knew that I take care of such people with real concern and love.
I like two things in my life: reading (thereby writing, though I am not a writer by nature) and serving others. Let me elaborate on the second part. My mother comes and stays with me several months. Among all her five children (one has passed on), she prefers to stay with me, as I not only adjust myself to serve her needs, but she also can have own authority. Observing her nature, some of my shishyas often ask openly to her, “Why do you fight with Swamiji even on small matters? We see how much he loves you and serves you.” For this my mother, who is very argumentative, used to say by joking, “He does not have a wife, so I can have my authority here. Above all, he never fights back but obeys me.”
My mother is a very loving person, who also likes to serve others. But like every other mother, she is more concerned about me. Not because I am a sannyasi without any one to take care of me, but the way I spend my resources to serve others. For example, as I like cooking a lot, I often make pickle in mango season to give to my shishyas. When the pickle season comes, she rebukes me. “How much you are going to make this year? It’s better if you start a pickle manufacturing unit and market it. Be a sannyasi and never do such things. If they want pickle, they can buy it from the market. Why do you strain so much this way?” But she also knows that some of my shishyas (and particularly their kids) like ‘Swamiji’s pickle’. Since I like children very much, I find joy in giving something that they like from me.
As a side note, though my mother rebukes me in pickle season, she is very particular to keep a few bottles of pickles for her and for my brother, even though my brother has his wife and she too can make it. For this, she used to tell my shishyas, who joked with her for taking the pickle to her other son, “She (her daughter-in-law) is a hopeless woman. She doesn’t even know how to cook properly. She can never make a good pickle like Swamiji makes.” So when she leaves, she not only takes pickles, but other food that I make for her in a special way. She tells my shishyas, “Children usually take many things after they visit their mother’s house, but here I am taking all things from my son’s ashram!”
My shishyas also like my mother and say, “At least there is one woman in Swamiji’s life to control and dominate him.”
Another point that my mother teases me about is that “He is only a sannyasi by name, but see how many vessels and things he has? Even I don’t have all these things with me.” For this I tell her, “These things I keep so that I can serve others at my best. But I am not bound by these things.”
Though she jokes with me for keeping many things with me, she is concerned that I don’t keep anything with me till the end. “Don’t give away things like this. As long as you have money in your hand and health, others will welcome you and enjoy your seva. Once you become weak and live without any source, then let me see which of your shishays is going to take care of you.” Of course in this, one should see the concern of a typical mother more than her opposition to the service itself. At the same time she also acknowledges with others that, “Swamiji has more shiyas to take care of him than my other son. All he has is money, but not people (my brother has no children). On the other hand I see how Swamjij’s shishyas love him and also serve him.”
As I like art very much, I buy beautiful handcrafts on my tours, but I never keep them with me and give them to others. Likewise I make cross-stitch works a lot, which I never keep with me but give to others. My mother does not like this. She expects me to at least keep the things I do with a lot of hard work (like cross-stitch). But I find satisfaction when I give the best of my things to others to enjoy.
In the same way, when I go and stay with my shishyas, if they permit, I cook and prepare my best food. One of my shishyas, who invited his friend for dinner (in Nepal) said, “All this (South) Indian food is prepared by Swamiji. He loves cooking. We too would like to have a guest like him, who can cook for himself and also provide some of the best food.” Even one time while I was staying in one of my shishya’s house, when the cook suddenly left, I took care of cooking for more than four days.
The reason I share all these things is not to show how humble and philanthropic I am, but to point out how much I respect human relationship and enjoy the feelings and emotions of relationship as a fellow human beings with others. At the same time, since I am a sannyasi, I never cross my boundary. That’s why I tell my shishyas, “However we love and serve each other, I am not part of your family. And I never expect you to treat me like your other family members. On any issue if you have to choose between your relationship with me and your family, I would encourage you to keep away from me. I value family and expect each one to uphold his/her dharma in his own family first.” That’s why, after staying with Kannan for more than five years, respecting their need for privacy as family, I moved to Hosur from Erode. Although we love and serve each other, I never crossed my ‘lakshman reka’.
I have more respect for family people than for the vocation of a ‘single’ person (by choice). I often say, “Single people are selfish people, since they don’t want to share their life with others.” (There are few, who still remain single not by their own choice but due to various other things. This comment never applies to them.) Then as a joke I used to say, “If you want to become holy, then remain single. But if you want to become more holy, get married. All the important values of life like love, care, concern, humility, and service one can learn from the context of family and not by living single.
A sannyasi cannot say that he is very humble and never gets angry. With whom he is going to show his anger or humility? Without having any personal responsibility based on relationship, he can easily walk away from people without any commitment or guilty conscience. But a family person cannot do that.
God First, Family Second?
Once I had a fund called ‘Fund for Friends’ that I used to help the educational needs of my friends and shishyas, particularly for those who were involved in social service. The motto of the fund was, ‘Your children are not called to suffer because of your commitment to serve the society. Though you have to pay the cost for your commitment to serve others, you have to see that your children do not suffer for that.’ To their surprise even I said, “Family first and god next.”
Though our life should be centered on God, when it comes to regular life, He should never be counted as one among other priorities. We live, move, and have our being in Him. So there never comes the question of “God first, rest next.” In everyday life, family is first and rest of your responsibilities come next. As the famous saying goes, “Charity begins at home.”