|AHYMSIN newsletter, Issue - September 2011|
Svaha: On Giving Up my Father
by Saumya Arya Haas
I am not this, consumed by flame;
My father is dead. I watched it happen, as he performed his own funeral service on the banks of the Ganges. I have heard that Sanskrit (Hindu) phrase, svaha, idam na mama: I make this sincere offering: it is no more mine, over and over again, my entire life. It is said with every offering given on the altar, into a consecrated fire or sacred river. In my family, it is said with humor and resignation, over opportunities or items lost. Svaha: our mental shrug: Oh, well, it's gone. I may as well let it go.
That ceremony transformed my father, my Tata (daddy), into something else: a Swami, beyond definitions of family, gender, religion. He began a journey away from me and mine, and sought a life of service. Swamis were not a mystery to me; I grew up with Baba, a guru who initiated me into our tradition when I was six years old. I felt lucky, even as a kid, to know him. He made a family of everyone who needed one. He made the world magical.
When I was nineteen, my dad, struggling with diabetes and a heart condition, was given a last chance by the doctors: a triple by-pass. This was back in the days when heart surgery was a thing of fear and miracles. In the voice that lulled me to sleep as a child with countless guided relaxations (oh, how I relished being able to make him yell when I was a teenager!) he told me that his life was coming to an end, one way or another. He wished to survive, but if he did, it would not be as it was. It was time. He would begin the process of transition towards Swamihood. My mother would care for him after surgery. They would live together as brother and sister for a time. They would part eventually, husband and wife no longer. Not divorce, he stressed, as though I didn’t know. He would renounce his former life, his family.
Our father was leaving us for God.
It seemed natural that this was happening. When he said that he would need his children’s formal blessing, I was startled, as if he was asking our permission to stay out late. I must have talked about it with my siblings, my friends, but I have no recollection. I don’t remember feeling rejected or abandoned. It was actually kind of exciting, as if he had won The Nobel Prize or something. Tata was ours, but never only ours. We always shared him with so much, his books, his disciples and his mission. Much was shared with us in return.
Watching him chant his own funeral prayers was another thing. His familiar voice rising and falling, rising and falling as he sang the ancient hymns. I remember sitting in the mild mountain sun, catching my brother’s eye, and thinking, our father is dying.
I am grateful for the Swami who rose from that pyre, although it took awhile to sort things out. What do I call him? (settled on “Tata Swami”) How do I introduce myself? I can’t say “I’m his daughter” anymore, can I? Or can I? There were a few awkward years where no-one was sure how to behave, what was acceptable. This was new territory for all of us. I avoided him.
My relationship with Swami Veda Bharati is very different now, but that’s to be expected, I’m not a teenager anymore. I got over my joy of being able to make him raise his voice. Instead I have found pride, solace and inspiration in watching him become. My father had always been a teacher, but a Swami is something more. And he has become more to me than a father. I look forward to the few times a year that I see him, long nights when we sit up and talk. We have an ongoing debate: Are things as they always have been, or does the world really change? We argue but also laugh a lot. He still loves to tell jokes, most of them based on awful and elaborate multi-lingual puns. Through Swami Veda, I have finally gotten to know my dad.
No matter what paths I walk, they are extensions of an ancient tradition. I believe the teachings of the mountain sages, teachings repeated in many traditions. Teachings spoken by priests and shamans and druids, wisdom based on experience of living: Know thyself. Let go of what limits you. Respect others. Swami Veda has brought that to countless people. He has acquired the weighty title of Mahamandaleshwara, a Swami among Swamis, and has been involved in global interfaith and reconciliation work that proves, as he puts it, the human urge towards peace. I may only see him a few times a year, but when I am really in trouble, it’s his phone that rings in the night, where ever he is. When I sit down to meditate, it is his voice in my head…relaaax your shoulders…breathe deeply, slooowly, smoooothly. The echo of the father I let go.
I don’t think it will be so easy to let Swami Veda go, which is ironic. Not today or tomorrow, not in the next six months, but, holy or not, he is going to die, to make that final life change. I have seen it, under the mountain sun. This time, I am afraid. When Baba died, I knew there was no-one who could replace him; but we had Swami Veda. I had Swami Veda. When he is gone, who is left? Who will be there for me? And I find when I ask that question, I have trouble meeting my own eyes; for who is left is looking back at me. You skirt around it in your own way; for me it comes down, bluntly, to selfishness. I want mine, my life, my choices, my freedom. I wanted my father. I want the illusion of owning my life…even if I know it’s an illusion. But I am a child of our tradition; I am my father’s daughter.
The voice in my head has become my own. There is no “one” who will take over, who will be Our Father. Who will be mine. It is exhausting to fight your own truth; I imagine it must be a great relief to finally, totally, just be yourself. I understand why traditions of self-knowledge are not so popular. Revelation can be very disruptive. Compassion is extremely hard work. Surrender takes pain and practice. But our voices are useless if we don’t share them. I grow tired of the bondage of mine.
I know I am not this that walks, breathes, which someday will be washed and burned. I hope that I will have the strength to look at this life I have hoarded so selfishly and be able to someday say, with relief, svaha, it is no more mine. And then live it.
This article first appeared on the State of Formation website and is published with the kind courtesy of the author Saumya Arya Haas. The link to this article at the State of Formation website is http://www.stateofformation.org/2011/06/svaha-on-giving-up-my-father/
Saumya Arya Haas, Executive Director of Headwaters/Delta Interfaith, advises local, national and international interfaith and social equity organizations including The New Orleans Healing Center. She is a Manbo Asogwe (Priestess of Vodou) and hereditary Hindu Pujarin, writes and lectures about religion, and is a part-time ALB (undergraduate) candidate in Religious Studies at Harvard University School of Extension Studies.
The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, Hebrew College, Andover Newton Theological School and The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions joined forces to create State of Formation http://www.stateofformation.org/, a forum for up-and-coming religious thinkers to draw upon the learning that is occurring in their academic and community work, reflect on the pressing questions of a religiously pluralistic society, and challenge existing religious definitions. State of Formation is a community conversation between leaders in formation. Together, a cohort of seminarians, rabbinical students, graduate students, activists and the like – the future religious and moral leaders of tomorrow – are working to redefine the ethical discourse today.