The Virtue of Karma Yoga

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, Ph.D, believes that karma yoga is action through which we experience oneness and unity. Find out how she’s empowering disenfranchised lives through karma yoga.

The ancient temple town of Rishikesh is nestled in India’s majestic Himalayas and is home to the iconic Parmarth Niketan Ashram. If you’ve travelled to India seeking yoga, spirituality, and deliverance from suffering, you’ve probably found all three at Rishikesh. The area is known for the rishis who meditated and attained moksha there and that energy is still contained in the mountains. When Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, Ph.D, came to Rishikesh for the first time in 1996, she didn’t know it would change her life forever. The Stanford graduate has been living at Parmarth Niketan for 24 years and as the President of the Divine Shakti Foundation and the Secretary-General of the Global InterFaith WASH Alliance, she has dedicated her life to karma yoga and study of the self. It’s our honour and good karma to feature this interview with Sadhviji in SanātanaYoga.

Sophia: When did you first visit Rishikesh? What inspired you to leave behind your life in the US and move to India?

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati: My first trip to Rishikesh was in 1996. I had graduated from Stanford and was doing my PhD in psychology with only my dissertation pending. I was an academic and a hippie. I was not religious and didn’t consider myself spiritual. I was not consciously seeking or yearning for God’s grace, and yet, I found myself sitting on the banks of Mother Ganga in Rishikesh, with tears of ecstasy streaming down my face.

The transformation happened suddenly. “I’m going to put my feet in the river,” I said, after we dropped off our bags at the hotel in Rishikesh. I wasn’t expecting spiritual awakening but it happened even before my toes touched the water. They were not sad tears of course, but they weren’t happy tears either. They were tears of the Truth. Tears of coming home. I spent the next several days in Rishikesh in meditative bliss. I thought, “OK, this is where I belong, but where? How? Doing what?”

Soon after, I was walking through Parmarth Niketan, the ashram where I now live, and I heard a voice say, “You must stay here.” I looked around to see who had spoken. There was no one. I did what any self-respecting scientist would do: I ignored the voice. About thirty seconds later, I heard it again: “You must stay here.” So, I went to the office and asked if I could stay. Several days later, I met His Holiness Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, one of the most revered spiritual leaders of India and the Head of the ashram. “You are welcome to stay,” Swamiji told me. That was what you could call the beginning. I’ve spent the last twenty-four years in Rishikesh, engaged in study of the self and in service to others.

Sophia: Tell us about your Guru, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji. How has he influenced your work and your life?

Sadhviji: Pujya Swamiji is the one who has brought the light of vision, clarity and grace into my life. It is through him that I have been blessed to have all the experiences that I have had. Pujya Swamiji has blessed me with the awareness that life is not about “what for me” but rather “what through me,” and how when we start asking, “What through me?” rather than, “What for me?” is really when we are able to experience union with the Divine.

Pujya Swamiji has given me the awareness, as well as the opportunity to grow and expand through service. He has really shown me, not just in his teachings, but in the energetic transmission that comes through being with him, the way in which service of others and connection to God meet and overlap. He has taught me that it is not about service of others as the other, but rather, service is an opportunity to connect with the Divine within yourself and in others. Pujya Swamiji’s life is not about seva (selfless service) and sadhana (spiritual practice), it is about seva as sadhana. Being of service in this way allows us to realise that we are just a tool in the hands of God and helps us work on how we can be the best tool. It also enables us to connect with others, not as giver and receiver or humanitarian and beneficiary, but as Self and Self, just in different physical forms.

Sophia: What does yoga mean to you?

Sadhviji: Yoga is union – this is actually what the word means in Sanskrit. Not a union of our nose to our knees or of our fingertips to our toes, but ultimately a union of the self to the Divine. Prior to coming to India, I had studied Iyengar yoga with Manouso Manos, one of the most renowned Iyengar yoga teachers in the world. I was very, very blessed to be able to study under him. But for me at that time, yoga was just what I did with my body. Of course, it had a great impact on my mind too, but it was really limited to just my body and my mind.

When I came here and met Pujya Swamiji and was blessed by his darshan, his grace and his teachings, I was made aware that yoga is not just what we do on the mat but yoga is how we live. The union that is yoga is something that impacts, influences and informs every breath we take, literally. Are we living in separation or are we living in union? The myth of separation is something that causes pretty much all of the problems that we face today, ranging from depression and frustration, addiction and divorce, to wars, violence and crime, to environmental destruction. Yoga is really the answer to that because when we experience true union between ourselves and God, then we are no longer alone. The restlessness, anxiety and depression all disappear, but we also realise our inherent connection with the entire planet and the whole universe. Through living a life of yoga, not only do we heal but we become agents of healing for the world. Ultimately, that is really what yoga is about, it’s not just for us but it is for our entire planet.

Sophia: What does the Holy Ganges and her divine femininity mean to you? How has she inspired you?

Sadhviji: Mother Ganga is actually that incredibly divine energy that grabbed me, held me and transformed me when I first arrived in India. It was the darshan of the Mother Goddess Ganga that actually transformed my life. To me, she does not just symbolise but she really is the Divine Mother. When I see her, when I feel her, when I think about her, I really feel like I’m in her lap.

For example, when we took a sacred pilgrimage up to her source at Gomukh. Even though it is literally glacial water, it is freezing cold and you are there at the crack of dawn, nonetheless, the experience of bathing was something that was so extraordinary, inexplicable and absolutely beyond words. It was such a deep ecstatic, expansive spiritual experience of literally being in the lap of the Mother. Her mere presence is an inspiration, not just on a mental level of being inspired, but on a level of every aspect of my being, my heart and my soul being so interconnected and interwoven with her that I feel like I am literally in the lap of the Divine Mother.

On another level, as Pujya Swamiji says, “Mother Ganga gives and gives with no vacation, no hesitation, no discrimination and no expectation”. That she gives without any of these is such great inspiration for how to live life, how to serve and how to just keep flowing regardless of what comes in our way, what twists, turns, depth, breadth or boulders there might be. She shows us how to just keep flowing, giving and serving all, and how not to get stuck, not to stop and not to let any of the obstacles make you stop flowing.

Sophia: It used to be unusual to see women in positions of authority in Indian ashrams, but do you think this is changing as more women are finding their voice?

Sadhviji: It is important to say that it isn’t about women finding their voice. I don’t think women have ever lost their voice. Now, however, space is being created for women to speak their voice, their power, their wisdom. Slowly, a lot of the silos that are traditionally only for men are opening, as more and more women are dedicating themselves to a life of spirituality. People and communities are realising the power, wisdom, touch and transformation that comes from women leaders. It is still rare, but things are changing.

The change has to happen in two ways. Firstly, with women knowing that God also speaks to and through them, not only to and through men, and having the open-hearted courage to be used as vehicles and vessels for the voice and the flow of the Divine. Secondly, it also requires high-level male leaders to create that space because it is not about aggression, it is about opening. Pujya Swamiji is very unique in that and he is a forerunner of having both women disciples and leaders. He has dedicated so much work to women’s empowerment and upliftment. Fortunately, more and more leaders are also breaking out of the traditional model of religious leaders being only male.

“Slowly a lot of the silos that are traditionally only for men are opening, as more and more women are dedicating themselves to a life of spirituality. People and communities are realising the power, wisdom, touch and transformation that comes from women leaders. It is still rare, but things are changing.”

Sophia: Tell us about the Divine Shakti Foundation, the Interfaith Humanitarian Network, the Ganga Action Parivar and all the other seva initiatives that you’re a part of?

Sadhviji: There are several different charitable organisations that we run at Parmarth Niketan. One is the Divine Shakti Foundation (DSF), there is also the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA), the Interfaith Humanitarian Network, Ganga Action Parivar, and more. They are all dedicated to service, but as I said in the first question, it is a service of the Self, a service of whatever is ailing our global family and our own self. DSF is dedicated primarily to women and children, both in terms of education as well as upliftment, empowerment, and medical care. GIWA is dedicated to water, sanitation and hygiene, environmental protection and climate change. The Interfaith Humanitarian Network is dedicated to disaster relief; we have done so much disaster relief over the years, really coming together to serve populations in crisis. All of this work stems from the very deep teaching that seva (selfless service) and sadhana (spiritual practice) go hand in hand, feed each other and in many ways are one and the same.

Sophia: Have you ever faced prejudice for being a woman in a vocation/path of life that is dominated by men? How did you overcome this prejudice?

Sadhviji: Absolutely, yes. However, what I have found on a deep personal level is that the overcoming of this is not about shoving change down people’s throats or even trying to change anyone else. I see myself as a vessel for the Divine flow, a transmitter of love, peace and Divine teachings that flow through me but are not of me. So instead, the only thing to overcome is the internal sense of feeling hurt because, of course, the minute there is prejudice and you are discriminated against, the first reaction is hurt. When people lash out in anger, the anger is just an external projection of the internal hurt. So for me, I don’t feel the need to convince others that they should not be prejudiced against me, but rather to create enough space within myself to remain grounded, rooted and anchored in my presence, power and connection to the Divine.

This means many things, firstly a sense of my absolute unquestionable worthiness of occupying my place on planet earth, my place in an institution or on a stage. Also, there is a need to simultaneously have respect for people who may be making decisions and rules that are not those that I would prefer. I choose not to take it personally and also not to over-identify with myself as a woman so that I don’t lose my deeper awareness of my Self as Divinity. I focus on how I can embody who I really am, whether on or off the stage, whether in the place of honour and respect or not. I realise that all of that is about external systems and show, not actually about the internal presence of the Divine.

The work is about not reacting, about simply knowing that the Truth is a magnet and staying anchored, grounded and rooted in my Truth as who I really am. Yes, I am temporarily and currently in the body of a female, but nonetheless a being of the genderless, gender-full consciousness. Wherever I’m supposed to be, I’ll be there and whoever I’m supposed to teach, I’ll teach and touch them.

Sophia: How can the ancient principles of Vedanta be applied to the modern world and benefit society?

Sadhviji: The ancient teachings of Vedanta are core tenets of what we call Sanātana Dharma, “eternal way of life,” they are just as applicable to people today as they were to people thousands of years ago when the Vedas were penned. The teachings are about the nature of the universe, the nature of our existence in the universe, about the truth of who we are, and the nature of life and death – truths that have not and will not change. Vedanta is not about culture, society things that keep changing, and therefore they are still relevant today.

The basic tenet of Sanātana Dharma is Oneness and Divinity, not only of the creator but also of the creation, and how all of the separation we feel is in fact an illusion. This is actually the greatest truth and wisdom we need in our world today. All of that which ails us, from depression and addiction to skyrocketing divorce rates to violence, crime, corruption, war, environmental destruction and climate change, all of it comes from the same myth of separation, that we think we are separate from God, that we are separate from others, that we are each a separate being. As people, this leads to depression and anxiety, as countries it leads to “us” versus “them,” we feel separate from each other. This belief in separation is what enables us to allow people to go to sleep hungry while we are making food choices that are very directly pulling the food out of their mouths. It enables us to make choices that lead to the destruction of our rainforests because we feel separate from the earth. It enables us to gobble up all the world’s resources today leaving nothing for the future because we feel separate from future generations. So, if we took even that one truth of Vedanta, the Oneness and Divinity of creation, that in and of itself would be an extraordinary tool for benefitting society and allowing transformation today.

Sophia: Why is karma yoga important? 

Sadhviji: Karma yoga is important for many reasons. Karma means action and yoga is union. Karma yoga is, therefore, both action rooted in an awareness of oneness and unity, and action through which we experience oneness and unity. First of all, as Lord Krishna explained in the Bhagavad Gita, we are always acting and it is impossible for us not to act. Whatever we are doing is action, and we are constantly accruing the karmic fruits of action. If we cannot avoid acting, we might as well act in union, truth and oneness, rather than act out of myths of separation and ignorance, out of our desires, ego and jealousies. Our choice is, do we act in ways that are taking us more and more into ignorance, darkness and separation, or do we act in ways that take us to the light, truth and oneness? Karma yoga is action that takes us into that union with the Divine, the truth of who we are.

Karma yoga is also very important because our world is in a very difficult situation right now. Our world needs people to be engaged in action to address that which is ailing our world today, whether it is world hunger, water resources diminishing rapidly, climate change, environmental destruction or inequality, we need people to stand up and act. This is not the time for spiritual people to say. “I’m going to sit this one out.” Spiritual people these days are absolutely called upon to take the meditation off the cushion and take the meditation off the mat and into the world.

Sophia: What is your message to people who come to Rishikesh seeking spirituality? How does one achieve a spiritual awakening?

Sadhviji: Realise that what you are seeking is within you, and that the grace of Mother Ganga and the energies of the Himalayas can give you the power to experience it. Go and sit on the banks of Mother Ganga, breathe in the sacred energies of the sages, rishis and saints who have been coming here for thousands of years to meditate and attain enlightenment, and really allow yourself to deeply feel that energy, that grace and those blessings. Not only will you be transformed but you will then be able to carry that back to the people of your city and your country.

A spiritual awakening isn’t something to achieve, it is something that just happens. It is an unfolding of the truth of who we are. It is waking up from darkness into light, from falsehood into truth, from identification as the body, which dies, to identification as the soul, which is immortal. It happens by Grace and it happens by being open to Grace. That Grace is here. It is everywhere of course, but it is especially powerful here in Rishikesh. By surrendering all of that which is not true, by surrendering the ego, the attachments and the ignorance, we open ourselves to the presence of Grace to experience the truth of who we are.

For more information on Sadhviji’s teachings and to offer seva at the ashram, visit Parmarth Niketan.

March 5, 2020
Photos Parmarth Niketan

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