Diksha: Doorway to the Divine

Swami Muktananda Saraswati

He died quietly enough, but seeing the familiar face so empty, just a mask, a dummy, a carcass - with that something new began in me. It was as though I had stepped from the shelter of a bright garden dozing in the sunshine, and now a long and winding road stretched infinitely before me, I felt the gate clang shut and sensed I would not pass that way again.

After the pain, so intense it was no pain, with my newborn son on my breast, then came the peace - I floated on a still, clear lake of deep blue peace. And like the velvet, silent night descending gently all around, there came an understanding of the pain and the purpose, and I knew why it is we are born. My life has seemed blessed ever since.

When some natural event coincides with the ripeness of our awareness ness and we are opened to new dimensions of experience, then we have been gifted with one of nature's spontaneous initiations. These initiations, these new beginnings, are the basis of our maturity and wisdom. In most cultures such valuable insights are not left to chance alone, but are revealed in formal ceremonies specially designed to bringing about a change in our awareness.

As Ancient as Man Himself

After a dramatic 'kidnapping' of youths from their mothers, Australian tribesmen hold a bora (initiation ceremony) deep in the bush. There are sacred songs, symbolic dances and displays of magic by the witch doctors. Suddenly, the chief medicine man disguised as the god Daramulun dances forward, seizes a novice and knocks out his tooth. The novice must not spit the blood. Symbolically swallowed up by the dreadful deity, he is now disgorged, reborn into manhood wearing the gap in his teeth as the proud insignia of his initiation. Among other tribes the tooth ceremony is replaced with circumcision or ritual tattoo. Sometimes the initiate receives a cord of possum fur - his 'man's belt' - and in most tribes a new, sacred name is given. For the Australian aborigines time stopped at the birth of the human race. Yet even for such archaic people initiation is a rite so heavy with age and significance that we cannot doubt it as fundamental to human culture, the cornerstone of spiritual experience, To complete this initiation, novices undergo a period of isolation is in the bush for Several months to a year. They are also forbid to go near the pain camp or to look at women. They must observe many food taboos and keep late night vigils 'until the Milky Way is straight across the sky'. In some tribes the new initiates must also keep silence; in others he walks with head down, or blindfolded These austerities - fasting, silence, darkness, suppression or restriction of sight, celibacy - heighten the novice's perceptions of the outer world and the inner. As he learns how to deal with all the hardships of physical life, the new initiate is also opened to the life of the spirit. His nadis purified calmed and concentrated and the spontaneous outcome is meditation and expansion of awareness. Initiation transforms boy into man precisely because it awakens him to a spiritualised view of the world.

This particular kind of initiation is held throughout Australia, by the natives of Tierra del Fuego and among the Indians of California. Various but equally dramatic puberty rites for girls and boys are documented among the natives of New Guinea, Polynesia, Melanesia New Zealand, Africa, Siberia, Scandinavia and the two Americas. Ancient as they are, these ceremonies are still celebrated with fervour today.

Religious Sacraments

Puberty rites coincide with, and consecrate, physical maturity. They smooth the potentially difficult tradition from childhood to full social responsibility, and resolve ambiguities by giving the young adult a definite social status. Yet it is universally acknowledged that no one attains adulthood unless he has some 'experience' in life-and this experience is in the realm of the spirit. It is in order to awaken the life of the soul, to give a sanctified perspective to mundane happenings of life that all the world's living religions confer initiation.

In India, Brahmin boys between eight and thirteen are initiated into their priestly caste during the pranayama, the sacred thread ceremony. Firstly the boy's head is shaved, except for a small patch at the back where the hair grows in a whorl. A lock of hair, called the 'Brahmin tuft', is left here to mark the site of bindu, an important psychic energy centre linking man to the cosmos. The novice then takes a full bath, puts on new cloth never worn before, and joins the priest around the sacred fire. The priest, or the family guru, presents the youth with a long white cord, looped over the shoulder and across the chest. This cord has three strands, reminding the young Brahmin that all three aspects of existence -physical, emotional and spiritual - must be integrated for a virtuous and happy life. Next, the novice is taught nadi shodhana pranayama, and then the famous Gayatri mantra, which guru and novice recite together. As a full member of the Brahmin caste, the new initiate is required to practice meditation on Gayatri at sunrise, noon and sunset. The parallel initiation for girls is kurnaripuja, celebrated at the time of first menstruation. On the first day, having attained woman-hood, she is worshipped by family and friends as the incarnation of the maidenly aspect of Shakti - Kumari, symbol of purity and promise. Kumari later grows into Parvati, who becomes the wife of Shiva, uniting cosmic power and cosmic consciousness in supreme bliss. The kumari is showered with gifts and flowers, and is presented with her first sari. Sometimes there is a festival procession and celebration feast. On the fourth day, she goes to the temple to perform puja, and from then on takes part in fasting and other religious observances practiced by devout Hindu women.

The Jewish counterparts to these Hindu ceremonies are the bar mitzvah for boys and the bat mitzvah for girls. At around the age of thirteen, young people attend 'Saturday school' at the synagogue and are instructed by the rabbi in the significance of certain ritual garments and gestures. The aspirants also learn to chant key passages from the scriptures and are encouraged to uncover their deeper meanings. When this preparation is complete, the initiation ceremony is held in the synagogue. The rite is simple, and its core is the chanting from the sacred books. Relatives and friends are invited to witness the declaration of faith, and to offer good wishes and encouragement.

For Christians the primary rite of initiation is baptism. Baptism first of all signifies cleansing from original sin (ignorance), but where the Hindu is purified by fire, the Christian is purified by water. Jesus told his followers, "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God." (John, 3-5) Full immersion is a clear sign, and Christ himself was baptized by John the Baptist by full immersion in the river Jordan. Immersion is still practiced by some sects today, but it is more common to pour water over the aspirant's head. Protestants are baptized when they are old enough to appreciate the full implications of pledging the faith, but Catholics are baptized in infancy. In the Catholic ceremony, the natural parents deputize two 'god parents' who accept responsibility for the child's upbringing should any mishap befall his natural parents. During the baptismal ceremony the godparents also recite the creed on behalf of the child. The infant is elaborately dressed in white and taken to the church, where he is handed to the godparents at the font. The water used is 'holy water' especially consecrated for the purpose during the Easter vigil. After some preliminaries, the creed is recited and the priest pours water over the infant's head, reciting the words of power: Ergo te baptizo in nomine patris et filii et Spiritu Sanctus, 'I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost'. This is recited three times and simultaneously the sign of the cross is made over the child.

Whether Protestant or Catholic, baptism is the first rebirth when Christians become 'Children of God' and, even more forcefully partakers of the divine nature'. During this initiation, the Holy Spirit, the life-giver, takes possession of the natural man and transforms him in the image of the divine.

There is a moment when the Christian faces the responsibilities of virtuous living in an adult world, and it is felt that a grace over and above being 'Children of God' is required. At this stage one receives the sacrament of confirmation, or the laying on of hands. The word itself means 'strengthening' and this initiation, for Protestants and Catholics alike, provides an increase of grace which makes one a 'Soldier of Christ'. Confirmation is primarily a transmission of the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit, bearing fruit in the progresses love, knowledge and service of God in the world. In the Catholic rite, the Bishop extends his hands over the candidates with the prayer that God may send his spirit into their souls. He then proceeds to lay his hands on each in turn, anointing the forehead with oil of chrism and saying, 'I sign thee with the sign of the Cross, and I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost'.

The first confirmation was the descent of the Paraclete on the apostles, manifesting in the form of tongues of fire over the head of each, and in the speaking of tongues. The speaking of tongues and other outstanding manifestations is also a hallmark of the coming of the spirit in certain revivalist sects now very popular with young people in the west. In the more orthodox denominations, however, this is rarely the case and is not encouraged.

Parsis, followers of the Persian prophet Zarathustra, are to be found throughout the Middle East and into India. Their primary initiation is thenavzote ceremony, which combines elements of both baptism and confirmation. The navzote is a formal embracing of their religion, made by boys and girls between seven and fifteen. The first part of the ceremony is preparatory - prayers, bath, taking the sacramental drink - to fit them to receive celestial blessings. Fire is burning in a censer when the novice comes to the priests, and coconut, some rice or water is waved around his head to remove evil magnetic influences and purify the etheric aura.

After the novice makes an open declaration of his free choice of religion, he it presented with two emblems of his faith. The first is a spotless white shirt, called sudreh, made of cotton. It has a small breast pocket called giroban or kisshe-i-kerjah, meaning bag of faith or righteous deeds. When a Parsi wishes to reassure another of his sincerity, he puts his hand on this symbolic pocket near the heart.

After further prayers the new initiate receives the sacred girdle, kusti, woven with seventy-two threads of wool. Like the Christian, the Zoroastrian becomes a soldier of the faith, as symbolized by this belt worn over the 'armor' of his shirt. The girdle is tied around the waist wilte three rounds and four knots which symbolize the four resolutions of the faithful - daily sacrifice to the Lord, choice of Zarathustra as the leader, fight against Satan, and fullest trust in God. Marking the boundary between the lower gross aura and the more refined upper part, this sacred girdle is also associated with other initiatory thernes. It is a cord signifying voluntary surrender to God and a reminder of one's dally duties as God's servant. It is also a rope ensiling the initiate 'to descend into the vault of his higher nature to rediscover God's mysteries'. The retreat into a cave is a very old and widespread motif of initiation and recalls the fact that Zarathustra spent ten years in solitary contemplation. The last part of the ritual is that of the benediction. The priest throws rice, raisins and so on over the novice, symbolically showering him with divine blessings. From then on the boy or girl is a Parsi (by birth) and a Zoroastrian (by choice). In Iran, the ceremony is known as nozad, which means 'new birth', for the soul is now born into a new life of spiritual activity.

Pilgrim's Progress

Initiation sets us on the path to the supreme, and we begin our long pilgrimage back to the source of bliss within. Moslems tend to minimize the ritual aspects of religion, but pilgrimage is so significant for the Moslem that it is one of the 'five pillars' of Islam. It is one of the major tenets of this religion that everyone should strive to his utmost to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. While not a formal sacrament rite, this sacred pilgrimage is nonetheless a form of initiation that affirms the faith and has the potential to elevate the sincere pilgrim to that higher consciousness which is the goal of all religions.

Annually, during the sacred month of Dhul-Hijja, thousands of pilgrims gather from all directions, from various countries, castes and occupations to imbibe the atmosphere of brotherhood and holiness that surrounds Mecca. On approaching the holy city, the pilgrim removes his usual clothes and puts on a seamless white robe. In so doing he puts aside distinctions of colour, nationality, caste and privilege and becomes simply one of the faithful. Some also shave their heads; and all undertake to fast between sunrise and sunset, and to refrain from harming any living creature. There are also three major public ceremonies in which everyone joint according to his capacity.

The first ceremony centres on the kaaba, a primeval rock that has been the religious focus of Mecca since time: immemorial and which Mohammed rededicated to Allah. This rite consists in running three times, then walking four times, around the kaaba, stopping each time to kiss the black stone at its southeast corner.

The second ceremony, the 'lesser pilgrimage' involves running seven times between hills.

The third, the 'great pilgrimage' finds the multitude on the plain of Arafat, about a day's foot journey from Mecca. It was from Mt. Arafat, above the plain, that Mohammed preached his farewell sermon. From noon to sunset the people practice a walking meditation, attuning themselves with the vibration of this place of power. This disciplined pilgrimage had is climaxed at sunset. Shouting as loudly as possible, or using noise makers, the pilgrims walk through the night towards Mecca, until they reach the hill of Muna. At sunrise they throw seven pebbles down this hill, crying with each throw: "In the name of God! Allah is almighty!" A 'great festival' follows with the sacrifice of sheep and camels, and a communal feast. After three-days of festivities, everyone returns to Mecca and a final circuit of the kaaba terminates the ceremonies.

Another form of initiatory journey was conducted during the Eleusinian mysteries of classical Greece. Attempted reconstructions of these rites suggest that the novice was led, naked, at midnight, through a series of underground passages and caves where all the horrors of hades (hell) were dramatically re-enacted. The novice was also required to explain the esoteric meaning of various symbols and tableaux depicted in the labyrinth, (Some occult schools believe this to be the origin of the Tarot.) If successful in the underworld, he was given the skin of an animal (instinctive nature) and was allowed to begin his torturous journey back to the upper world. He emerged into a large and brilliantly lit room containing a statue of theft great goddess where he exchanged the animal skin for a consecrated robe, signifying graduation from instinctive man to fully conscious to super-conscious - humanity.

Climax of Apprenticeship

In some cases, earnest and sincere aspirants receive major initiations without any apparent ceremony at all. However, when we look more carefully, we find that the climactic moment of insight has actually, been preceded by a long period of rigorous training or single minded striving.

This is true among the shamans of Siberia, who receive initiation during illness, dream or trance. Going into retreat, the would be shaman lies or sits unmoving for up to seven days, during which time he witnesses his own 'death'. Demons carry him to hell where they hack the body to bits, scrape the bones, drain the bodily fluids and distribute the remains among the spirits of disease in return for healing powers. Later his bones are covered with new flesh and he is transfused with fresh blood. Alternately the aspirant might go mto a trance while beating his drum and his soul flies to heaven in order to obtain the blessing of the gods. When the shaman returns to the tribe, he must prove himself by demonstrating his various magical powers, for there is no other external sign of his transformed consciousness.

This conscious witnessing of his own death was also experienced spontaneously by Sri Ramana Maharshi, and is a powerful technique used in tantra and yoga. We recall also that there were no particular outward signs of the Buddha's initiation while he was struggling with the demon Mara under the Bo tree. Yet his victory over illusion came only after years of extreme austerity and devoted searching for the self.

Initiations in the Space Age

These days we don't hear much about initiation apart from the religious sacraments. Yet more and more people are abandoning orthodox religion as unsatisfactory, and even for the devout, the inner meaning of the sacraments is veiled or altogether hidden.

Modern man leads a profane existence in a strictly secular world, isolated from the cosmos, cut off from the well-springs of his nature, and he suffers because of it.

It is not that initiations are not held at all. The rites and formalities of the Freemasons and Rosicrucian's are quite famous, but the 'secret society' overtones cause many outsiders to think of initiations as childish nonsense. Various occult groups also stress initiation, but this has given the word overtones of witchcraft and superstition. On the other hand, the infamous debaucheries that pass for rituals among many modern cults have led the majority to regard initiation as degrading and perverted.

The search for that vital change of consciousness goes on nonetheless, as we can see from the enormous consumption of alcohol and other mind-altering drugs from sleeping pills to LSD. We have not outgrown the need for doorways to the divine, it's just that the motifs and symbols of initiation have gone underground, deep into our unconscious. The fabulous stuff of our dreams and fantasies is saturated with symbols, characters and themes of the old wisdom, the figures and forms of the ancient Initiations.

Transmuted or disguised, the tales and rites of initiation still-influence us through popular culture. This is more obvious in countries where the old traditions are still part of daily life. To listen to a troubadour singing the tales of the Ramayana is an entertainment that will draw hundreds in India, while in Indonesia crowds gather to watch elaborate dances based on the same epic.

Yet the archaic sagas are just as much the basis for adventurous television and cinema heroes. They take amazing journeys into outer space - the cosmic void - or fight fantastic battles against the forces of evil in the form of invading spacemen or local demons of crime. They blaze their way to success with a magical array of weapons and improbable talents that would make any witchdoctor envious. Batman and Robin, of comic strip fame, were ordinary millionaires who trained themselves in extraordinary skills to control animal nature as represented by Cat woman. They move at lightening speeds and fly like shamans, while Superman has x-ray vision that sees through walls and doors, just as the vision of the enlightened seer pierces mundane illusion to reveal the reality beyond.

In novels, films, comics, fairy tales, the plot is forever the same. Yet, despite infinite repetition, people still find these tales entertaining. Although emptied of their original meaning, we are still reliving the same rites of initiation, indicating that they serve a need deeply embedded in the very humanness of our being. Each one of us is subjected to trials and terrors in our efforts to gain deeper insight and creative wisdom; each of us dies a little with the loss of loved ones; each of us passes through the hells of grief depression and despair. We would all like to be heroes, but there are times when we can only see ourselves as petty and ordinary There are times -when life is meaningless or when, even though we have the 'good life', our hearts ache for something that is missing. How often have we wished that we could just wipe the slate clean and start again? How often have we wished for a new life, for total rebirth?

Yoga Diksha

This urge to regeneration has led many people to turn philosophies of the cast, particularly yoga. Yoga engages the western mind because it is a 'new' presentation of the universal truths behind all religions and cultures, because it is a scientific and practical system available to seekers of every caste, colour, nation and creed. In turn, this foreign interest has stimulated India to rediscover her own spiritual culture in this time of need.

Initiation - diksha - is an important element in yoga practice, d the kinds and degrees of diksha are as numerous as the situations for which they are given. Mantra is the basis of tantra yogas and is regarded as the most effective form of sadhana for today's needs. So in most cases it is mantra diksha that forges the lint between guru and disciple and sets the seeker more firmly on the spiritual path. In the simplest and most common form of this ceremony, the seeker presents the spiritual master with a gift symbolizing his desire to receive spiritual knowledge, and his surrender. The guru chooses a mantra to strengthen and balance the occult personality of the aspirant and then whispers the mantra in his ear. A mala is given together with instructions for sadhana, and often a new spiritual name. Both mantra and sadhana are kept strictly secret to protect their potency.

In other cases, depending on the background and personality of the seeker, slightly different rituals are employed. An altar may be constructed upon which a sacred fire is kindled, burning purifying herbs and the disciple's samskaras, (houtri diksha), or the guru may sprinkle the aspirant with consecrated (pranically charged) water (abhishechika diksha). In mantric diksha the guru performs nyasa by repeating the mantra while touching various parts of his body. In this way he becomes the very 'embodiment' of the mantra whieh he then transfers to the disciple. The guru using vadhiki diksha thinks first of his own guru, transforms himself into the mouthpiece of his guru. He then performs nyasa by and recites the mantra to the seeker. Sparshiki diksha is initiation by touch. In this ritual, the guru draws a mandala on his right hand with the appropriate perfumed liquid. He then does Shiva puja- pays homage to cosmic consciousness - and his hand becomes the hand of Shiva the primal guru. Using the mantra sivo ham, 'I am Shiva', he places his hand on the disciple's head and gives him his personal mantra.

No matter which form of initiation is used, the essential elements are the transmission of the mantra, the word of power, and the establishment of the guru-disciple relationship. Mantra diksha marks a pact in which the guru accepts responsibility for the disciple's spiritual well-being, and the disciple agrees to follow the guidance of the master who is now his guru. A relationship is established that will protect and guide the disciple for the rest of his life, even if he should never see his guru again.

For those who wish to put aside other goals and make spiritual Perfection their only aim in life there is sanyasa diksha. In the traditional form of this ritual the disciple, with his guru's help, conducts his own funeral service, symbolically dying to worldly life so that he can be reborn into supreme consciousness. The guru first shaves the disciple's head completely, in eluding the brahman tuft, symbolizing the removal of attachment to beauty and the body. The disciple then, takes a ritual bath, and thus purified by water, as in baptism, he returns naked to his guru. They sit together around a sacrificial fire into which the disciple throws the shavings of his hair and any insignia of caste, or status such as the brahman cord, amulets, family rings and so on. The guru chants mantras pouring ghee, sweets and other offerings into the fire while the disciple offers up the corpse of his old personality. The fire ceremony completed, the guru chants madras and calls down the cosmic energies, which pass through him to the disciple. The disciple ‘surrenders’ to the guru, opening himself to the almighty energy so that it may pervade and renew his whole being. He exists for himself no more, but to serve the universal power personified in his guru by attaining cosmic consciousness. The disciple is then given the geru cloth of a sannyasin, a rudraksha mala symbolizing his link with the guru and a spiritual name that acts as a constant reminder of his goal. Sannyasa means ‘renunciation’, but in sannyasa diksha no vows are taken, nothing is renounced. To 'take sannyasa' is to make a promise to yourself that you will always put your spiritual goals first and foremost, so that you will not be distracted into betrayal of the best that is in you.

Of course, yoga diksha does not follow the traditional form. What is more important is that the initiation be tailored to suit the specific abilities and needs of the individual seeker. It is for this reason that Tibetan yogis distinguish between initiations 'with activity' and those ‘without activity'. Those with activity involve certain ritual object dramas and dialogues and are generally used to impart direct instruction to the novice. Those without activity are more subtle. For instance, some Tibetan and Zen masters throw hints to the novice through slight and silent gestures or by unobtrusively arranging objects in certain patterns to rearrange the disciple's consciousness.

Most refined of all are those totally telepathic initiations where on the physical plane nothing is said and nothing is done. Master and disciple sit opposite each other in deep meditation, communing directly through, ajna chakra. One very famous variant of this initiation is the Tibetan ceremony of the vajra crown, the 'black hat' initiation.

Tantra yoga also recognizes other forms of subtle initiation Diksha may be transmitted in a letter called the dikshapatra or simply by eye contact (chakshushi diksha). Initiation may even be given at a distance if the disciple is sufficiently in tune with the guru (manasi diksha) while smarti diksha is the transmission of spiritual knowledge or power between guru and disciple who live in totally different parts of the world.

Inner Transformation

The ancient Greeks called their initiates epotes, meaning ‘one who has seen directly’, which is also meaning of English seer and Sanskrit rishi. These titles accent a common thread running through the many and varied forms of initiation – the attainment of esoteric knowledge and spiritual power through direct personal experience. The yogic term diksha means both ‘to give’ and ‘to receive’, and it is personal experience that gives the power to transmit spiritual insights and to receive them. The exterior rite is a means, not and end. It generates a charged atmosphere and prescribes powerful practices that give the novice the chance to see for himself the truth behind the symbols. Nothing is revealed – the novices discovers for himself.

Despite the spectacular celebrations of sacraments, initiation is an inner experience rather than an outer one. The external pomp and ceremony are simply a device to heighten awareness, to structure perception and to act as a catalyst for the spiritual reaction. Initiation opens our eyes to the divinity all around us and within us, and when we see things differently we act differently too. It is the change of consciousness that is crucial. A baptized Christian, for instance, is 'in Christ (higher consciousness) a new creature' (11 Cor. 5-7). Theologians emphasize that a mark or 'character' is impressed upon his soul. That is, there is a marked change in the nature of his consciousness. Without inner transformation, initiation ritual is a farce.

Diksha is a spiritual communication that is not restricted by the laws of the physical. Though a single event, it is not limited to the time or spice of the ritual, but is an ongoing process that engages our whole existence. It is a transfer of power - the ability to perform some particular act or to practice special sadhana, the power to awaken all our dormant potentials. So we see that diksha is not just for those well advanced on the spiritual path. Diksha is for us all, for the spiritually dumb, deaf and lame, to make us whole and active in spiritual life. Diksha initiates - it begins. First comes the formal ceremony, then in time comes the ultimate expansion of awareness. It begins a more intense inner life* and sets in motion a whole series of subtle events that will completely reorient our sacred being. Diksha expands our consciousness to embrace what was unconscious before, until, like Shakti and Shiva, we melt into the embrace of cosmic consciousness.