Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others.
Today, we’re going to be discussing a spiritual journey from Hollywood to the Himalayas, and I’m going to be chatting to a pre-eminent leader in the world of spirituality, and that’s Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji. Or Sadhvi ji, as she’s called. She was born in the US. She moved to India in 1996. She’s a graduate of Stanford University. She was ordained by Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji or Muniji, who’s president of one of the largest inter-faith institutions in India. She was ordained into the tradition of Sanyas and lives at the Parmarth Ashram in Rishikesh, where she leads a number of humanitarian projects, gives discourses, teaches meditation, and counsels people. She’s a really, really special soul and we’re very lucky to have her here talking to us today. I read your book and I loved it. The one thing that actually really stuck with me was how you came to be by the Ganges Or the Ganga at the Parmarth Ashram, and it seemed like that the Ganga actually chose you. So, what would you advise people who haven’t found their calling? How should they go about connecting to the universe and helping find why they’re here?
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji: Beautiful. Well, first of all, it’s important to remember that we don’t all have one calling. I know that my particular story of being picked up from a world in California and transported to a world on the banks of Ganga is really an extraordinary story, one for which I don’t take any credit at all, it’s all divine grace. But it’s important to realize that for the vast, overwhelming majority of people, our purpose, our calling, is going to unfold day by day. And that’s true for me as well. Just because I knew that I was meant to physically move from Hollywood to the Himalayas, it wasn’t clear what the calling was, other than just to be here. And what I do, the way I’m able to serve what you would call my calling or purpose actually keeps unfolding and keeps changing even, from month to month, year to year, and even from minute to minute and moment to moment of the day. I think that’s really important because a lot of people have this illusion that somehow, I’ve got one calling, one purpose, one Dharma, and I need to figure out what it is and, “oh, my God, what’s the equation?” and “”where’s my magic wand? And I think it’s a really tragic myth in a way because it leads a lot of us to go completely crazy looking for something that doesn’t exist in the form that we’re looking for. Each of us in every moment, our calling is just to keep our heart open. And when our heart is open, the moment is able to unfold. And maybe it will unfold in a beautiful moment of love between you and a flower that’s blooming or you and a random person you pass on the street but you drop something or they drop something and one of you helps the other to pick it up. And for a split moment, your eyes meet and you smile on a busy street in the middle of your busy day. And for just a moment you’ve dropped into why you’re here, which isn’t to get from point A to point B on the street, I promise. And so, I think really our calling for all of us is just to be as open as we can in every moment to the heart, to how can I be in this moment with as much open-heartedness as I possibly can and of course, that open-heartedness translates into actual love, into actual service, giving, and compassion. It also translates into courage and how I live my life, because when my heart’s open I’m not cowering in fear of “oh my God, what are you going to think about me?”. So, that calling is really the open heart and to just allow the rest to happen and it will happen and it’s already happening, but because we’re looking for it to happen in a totally different box, we miss it. So, just stop. Wherever you are, this exact moment, your calling is just to be here and then in the next moment your calling is to be there with as open of a heart as you possibly can. And then in that open heart, where you’re supposed to move, what direction it’ll unfold. it’ll come to be known.
AB: That actually takes me really nicely to something else I wanted to broach with you. And that was you’ve talked about these incredible meditative experiences and experiences of love and connection and the consciousness expanding, but you said something which was, it doesn’t mean we stop working on ourselves, on our everyday, transactional lives. You know, in the context of what’s going on in the world, we’re just coming out of a pandemic. People have lost loved ones. In the context of so much pain and so much trouble, how do you advise people to focus on their everyday lives and their everyday expansion?
SBS: This is the place where spirituality and psychology overlap for the overwhelming vast majority of us. We’ve got a pattern, whether we call it sanskaras, whether we call it neural patterns or networks, however we want to refer to it. We’ve got impressions upon our psyche that have been made typically in early childhood, typically by loved ones, families of origin, and cultures of origin. We’ve taken them in very deeply, and they have impacted us. The only way that that wouldn’t have happened in a way that would create difficulty for you, later on, would be if you literally were the child of two enlightened beings who were so clear of their own stuff that they didn’t pass any of it on to you, that they never, ever treated you as anything other than being of light, a being of consciousness. That you never were called a good boy or a bad boy, that you never were labeled, that you never were praised or criticized based on how you scored on a math exam or how you pitched a baseball game. And that’s just not the case that most of us were born and raised in.
Our parents all did the very best they could. Of course, they raised us with as much love as they could in most cases. Nonetheless, they’re human, and in most cases, they’re young humans, right? I mean, most of us were born to parents in their 20s, like they’re kids. And so what ends up happening is we develop these patterns, these impressions on our psyche of how we think about ourselves, how we think about the world, what we think is required of us to be lovable, to be worthy on this planet. And then as we move through our lives, these tend to lead into varying degrees of neuroses because we’re constantly trying to gain love, gain pleasure, gain self-esteem, gain a sense of who I am based on how people around me look at me and treat me or based on what I achieve and what I’m doing. We’re constantly trying to push away situations that create stress in the psyche. And when we’re doing that, when we’re engaged in that tug of war, what we call raag and dwesh and avidya and agyan and ignorance and all of this, we’re not able to really merge into the fullness of who we are. And unfortunately, again, in most of our cases, meditation isn’t the 100 percent cure all. Meditation gives us a taste, a touch, an experience of the truth, but we then still have to keep peeling that which prevents us from living in that meditative state the rest of the time. And so, this is where psychology plays such a great role. It really helps us understand “oh, all right, so that’s where I’ve learned this. This is how I’ve learned that here’s how I can get free of this habit”. And that’s why I always recommend that it’s not either-or. Yes, we should all meditate, we should meditate every day. We should pray, we should chant, we should serve. And if we find that there are habits within us, whether habits of action or habits of thought, habits of relating to others, habits of relating to ourselves that are keeping us from living in a state of this constant awareness, it may be a really beautiful idea to do some psychological work. So, that’s where they overlap. And the other aspect of work that I speak about is that service, that action, karma, and having had deeply powerful spiritual experiences do not exempt us from fulfilling our karmic duties here on Earth. If you look at the Bhagavad Gita well, when Bhagwan Krishna finally shows Arjun his vishal roop, that form of him as the universe, and Arjun has that experience, he still has to fight the war, right? It’s not like, oh, now you’ve had Darshan of the Divine, now you’re done. Now you can go off to that cave. Krishna gives him the experience to show him the veracity of what Krishna is saying, to prove to him, “hey, I’m not just your pal giving you some advice that you may or may not think is valuable” but then, after giving him that experience, Arjun still has to get out into the middle of that battlefield and fight. And in the same way, no matter what experiences we’ve had of the divine in meditation, in prayer, we still have a karmic package. We still have this karmic journey we are on to bring us into a state of constant oneness with the divine. So, yeah, we keep acting, but now we act not as those who are stuck, but as those who are more free. And we become more and more free. The deeper that awareness from our meditation goes, the deeper we can bring it into our minute-to-minute, moment-to-moment awareness.
AB: Okay, again, so you had said in your book something relating to this. You described grace actually beautifully. You said, grace requires only that there be space in us in which it can flow. So, for the layman who are running around doing their karmic duties, running their life, you know, leading their lives from morning to night, how do you suggest they create that space for grace to flow?
SBS: I think about it the way that we have blood vessels in our physical body through which the blood flows. Now, when you have a physical heart attack, that heart attack happens because the blood vessel has become full of plaque. Talk about cholesterol, the plaque has filled up the blood vessel. So first your blood pressure rises, there’s less space for the blood to flow, so the pressure rises. And eventually, when it gets completely jam-packed full of junk, the blood can’t flow at all, and you have a heart attack. Now, spiritually, it’s actually the same thing. Just like there is blood, even if you’ve had a heart attack, the problem is not the production of blood. In the same way, there is grace. Grace is there, but if our internal channel is plugged up with ego, anger, grudges, false identification, expectations, and attachments, that grace isn’t going to have room to flow. And so, the way to be free is to identify what is it that’s blocking me, what’s it that’s holding me back? And if you’re attentive, you’ll notice it because as beautiful moments start to flow, you’ll hear different voices in your head that’ll say different things and inspire different reactions. And so, you’ll know, what is it that’s pulling me out of this? What kind of stress, tension, ego, desire, fear, or story do I tell myself about myself that’s pulling me out of the divine experience of this moment? We look at it, we acknowledge it, and then we offer it, really quite literally. I love ritual. I’m all about ritual, I think it’s really powerful. It takes us into a different state of consciousness, almost. When you’re performing a yagna, you’re really in a different state of consciousness. And there’s been some scientific research around brain waves and how the brain waves in which we are most able to be changed, whether we’re meditating, whether we’re hypnotized, whether we’re very young, those brain waves in which things that come in really deeply transform us, either for the good or for the negative, that we enter that same brainwave state engaged in ritual.
SBS: And so, rituals are a really powerful way. Yeah, I love that, I love all kinds of neurology research. So, it’s a really powerful way to enter into a state of different brain waves. And so, I would perform a fire ceremony or if your spiritual tradition has other rituals, to them, there’s nothing that’s right or wrong. It doesn’t have to be a Hindu ritual if you’re not a Hindu. Whatever rituals work in your spiritual lineage, perform a ritual in which you are literally letting go of all of that which is holding you back. And I love fire. And I think probably in most of our spiritual traditions, there’s something around fire. And as you offer the offerings, which in our case is usually a mix of seeds and ghee into the fire, it’s this symbol of offering into the fire that is holding us back. Grudges, pain, egos, jealousies, expectations, avidya, agyaan, ignorance, whatever it may be. Water is another really powerful way. If you happen to be blessed enough to be on the banks of Ganga, lucky you. If not, if there’s another body of water where you are, a river, a stream, a lake, an ocean, offer into the water and watch the water carry it away. Bury it into the ground and then plant a tree over it. Allow the roots of that tree to transform that which you have offered into life.
SBS: There are a lot of different aspects of ritual, but I think rituals are a really powerful way to let go and to start fresh.
AB: So, Sadhvi ji, why the Ganga? Why do you feel that the Ganga is so special?
SBS: Well, there are two elements. The first element is it would be like if you’re in love with someone else, everyone thinks their husband or wife or their mother or father or their children are the best, right? We’ve got this sense of those we love on a deeply personal level; we feel like they are qualitatively and quantitatively better than those whom others love. Part of human nature, right? I mean, I think my mom’s the best and you think your mom’s the best, and everybody thinks their mom is the best, or their children are the best. In the same way, on a deeply personal level, I love Ganga, and so for me, she’s the river of my heart. So, she’s special to me, because I love her. In the same way, my mom is special to me. In the same way, my guru is special to me. In the same way, my friends are special to me and my family is special to me. So that’s one way, one aspect. But then, of course, there’s the aspect where it’s not just me, it’s all of the tradition from thousands of years. I mean, again, going back to the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagwan Krishna says of rivers, I am Ganga. So, I mean, you don’t even have to go any further than that. When Krishna says of the rivers, I am Ganga, of the mountains, I am Himalayas, of the rivers I am Ganga. So clearly, it’s not just my personal affinity. Bhagwan Krishna has said this. And then of course, we’ve got the sages and the saints and the rishis from thousands of years who have come. So, Ganga means Ganga is the Goddess stotras, the stutis, the prayers, everything written to us. There’s something and you can’t explain it in words.
AB: That’s so true, there’s a certain thing you just can’t explain. But I also wanted to ask you about how you grew up as a child, you were abused, and you had a very hard childhood in certain ways. And then from there, you’ve come to be this person who’s healed at a deeply, deeply cellular level, almost. You’re very present, you’re not constantly worried about what’s happened in the past. How can you advise people to get there?
SBS: There are a few aspects to that. The first is we have to be aware of what it is that’s holding us back to the extent that we repress and suppress and deny and ignore that which is hurting us on the inside, we’re never going to be able to heal from it. So, the first step is actually being able to look at it. What is it that’s happened to us, and how is it that’s impacted us?
The second step is allowing because a lot of us have this sense of, well, I shouldn’t feel like that. In my case, fortunately, it was so bad on an objective level, in many ways, on many, many levels, my childhood was extraordinarily blessed and I had two incredible parents who just adored me to no end and gave me so much love. And then of course, I had this trauma and the abuse and that was so bad that objectively, I couldn’t really say to myself, oh, well, I shouldn’t be impacted by it. But for people whose struggles have not necessarily been that objectively horrible, we tend to tell ourselves, “oh, you shouldn’t feel like that”, “don’t be angry”, “don’t be hurt”, “it means you’re weak. Be a man, be strong, be this, be that”. We tell ourselves that and it doesn’t allow us to feel the truth. And as long as we’re hiding from anything, we’re not going to be able to heal. It’s like if you’ve got a wound, simply wearing a long sleeve shirt over a wound on your arm isn’t going to make it heal. You’ve got to actually look at it, acknowledge it, understand it to some level. Is it a burn? Is it a cut? Is it a bacterial infection? I mean, what is it?
And then becomes the aspect of healing. And the healing is going to take different ways and different people. But the core of healing really is that it’s not your fault, it’s not about you. Whatever someone did to you, abuse, betrayal, lying, cheating, harming in any way, abandoning, abandonment. Meaning knowingly abandoned you. Or we also have abandonment issues when a parent dies at a young age, right? I mean, clearly, the parent didn’t do it on purpose. But children whose parents have in some cases gotten divorced and moved away or died. They’ve got that trauma, and it’s important to recognize whatever it is that’s happened to you, it isn’t your fault and it isn’t about you. Meaning it wasn’t done to you by that person to harm you, even if they came at you with a knife. Still, nonetheless, it was all about them. It was their anger, their ignorance, their ego, their delusion. You were just kind of in the wrong place at the wrong time. And when we can take that element out of it to really realize this is about them, they were suffering. People who are at peace make others feel peaceful around them. People who are happy and full of love make others feel happy and loved in their presence. People who share misery share it because they are miserable. So, to recognize that whatever it was that someone did knowingly, unknowingly, on purpose, by accident, was done because of something in them, it’s not a defect of you. You didn’t deserve it. You’re not wrong or bad or tainted or less than. The vast majority of people who have experienced some kind of trauma and move through the world feeling like there is something lacking in me, something wrong about me. So, that was the next big component. But then the last major component is letting go. Because once we’ve done all of the other stuff, we’re able to be what I call, we’re able to manage our pain. So, it doesn’t ruin our lives the way it was before. It doesn’t derail us all over the place, but it’s still there. It’s still kind of hanging over our head, and it becomes that which triggers us. So, when we’re stressed, when something happens that pushes your buttons, that’s our default reaction. And this is where we have to really let go, as the final step is to let go of what happened with the awareness that I am not the person to whom it happened. If it happened more than eight or nine years ago, there’s not one cell in my body to which it happened. Every single cell of my body has been regenerated. Yes. So, if you say, okay, who was abused? I mean, you say to me, I was abused. Well, who? I mean, there isn’t a cell in my body.
SBS: It’s just the identification that I’ve carried that says, oh, I was abused, and this is where we let go. We let go of this attachment to an identification. We say that what happened should not have happened. We have compassion for the being to whom it happened, but we let go of our identification as that being, and that’s what brings us the ultimate freedom.
AB: So, just taking you one step back when people hold someone else responsible, will you talk about that forgiveness before we get to the stage of being able to let go, being able to forgive the person who you hold responsible for something?
SBS: We forgive, I always say, not because what they did is okay, but simply because we deserve to be free, and not forgiving keeps us stuck. So, whatever someone has done to you, it doesn’t deprive you of your birthright to be free, to be joyful, to be peaceful, because that’s the nature of who you are, and no one can take that from you. But when I hold a grudge, then I literally offer up my joy, my peace, my freedom on the altar of someone else’s ignorant, malicious, ego filled action. And why would we want to do that? They’ve already hurt me. Why would I give them the rest of my life?
AB: That was absolutely one of the most incredible things I’ve heard in a long time. Thank you for that. The other thing I wanted to ask you is now, for people trying to raise their vibrations and get to a higher level of consciousness, can you give some guidance on how to do that?
SBS: Meditation is absolutely the best way, but also to recognize that our source, our divine source, is constantly moving us closer and closer to the Divine. Water comes down from wherever you drop it. Its source is the Earth, the ocean. Fire goes up from wherever you light it. Its source is the sun. Our source is divinity. We’re constantly moving toward that. The problem is we keep pulling ourselves down. And so, if you can stop pulling yourself down, stop giving into those thought patterns, emotions, tendencies that pull you down, and you’ll find that you automatically keep rising. And of course, meditation is the key. Meditation allows you to connect with that true self within that is divine.
AB: Are there any key learnings that you would like to share to help empower people?
SBS: Number one, you are your greatest obstacle. Your mind. (It) doesn’t mean you’re bad, doesn’t mean you’re wrong, doesn’t mean you now need another excuse to feel badly about yourself, but just to really clearly recognize that our mind, not you, as in the core of who you are, but just your mind, is your biggest obstacle. Your vision, your way of thinking, your way of interpreting the sensory feedback that you’re getting, your way of perception is your biggest obstacle. And so rather than constantly blaming others outside and looking for external fixes to spend some extra time looking for internal fixes. To free yourself, another would be the awareness that who you are, that core of who you are, is whole, is full, is complete. You’re not lacking in any way, but your mind keeps telling you what you are. So, again, the mind is the obstacle. But it’s not that you need to become more, achieve more, do more, own more. Who you are in this exact moment is exactly whole and whole and divine and exactly how God intends you to be. So, stop looking for things outside to make you full and whole. Just again, work with the mind that keeps telling you that you are not and leading you down pathways of feeling very small and limited and sick and weak and troubled and needy. Allow yourself to really experience the truth of who you are. And the third, I guess, and I’ll end here, is in alignment with that which is grace doesn’t discriminate. And whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever has happened, grace is there for you. Open your heart to it. And actually, rather than end there, I’ll end with the awareness that we’re here on Earth to be instruments, instruments in the hands of the divine. It’s what we call namittamathramba, that feeling of being. Where there is darkness, let me bring light. Where there is despair, there is hope. Right? It’s this beautiful prayer. Yeah, that’s why we’re here. So, stop thinking about “what I can get? What can I have? What can I pull toward me” And start thinking about how I can serve? My guru, Swami Chidanandasaraswatiji, always says, stop asking what is for me and start asking what is through me? And that’s really a beautiful key to life.
AB: That’s amazing. That’s absolutely amazing. Can we leave people with a simple tool on how to meditate?
SBS: What I would say is it’s not really about a tool. The misconception is that meditation is all about this tool, that tool, this technique, that technique. Meditation is just about anchoring yourself. And whether we anchor in the breath, whether we anchor a mentor, whether we anchor eyes open with a candle flame or the flowing ganga in front of us.
AB: That’s so wonderful. Thank you so much. (Music plays). Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you, leading your best life. (Music plays and ends).