Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Names

August Celebrations that year (1983) was to be a watershed for me. By the fortnight's end, Guru would introduce me to a new circle of friends -- friends who served Guru directly and many of whom were closer to my own age.

All I knew when I arrived in Queens, however, was that I was excited to be there. Thanks to Jigisha, I was welcomed again to stay with the same local disciple with whom we had stayed the previous April, as was my French friend Francois.

He was lounging in his sleeping bag on the floor when Jigisha and I arrived. Before I could even say hello, Francois told me that he'd brought something for me and reached into one of his bags. Unexpectedly, he pulled out one of the Song-Waves' "Vive la France" t-shirts and gave it to me.

I was shocked. The previous April I had mentioned in an off-hand way that I'd admired the French choir's red, white and blue shirts, but I'd forgotten all about it. The shirt itself wasn't that big a deal, but the fact that Francois had taken note of my comment four months earlier and made a point to get me a shirt, really struck me. I've never forgotten it.

That's why I was so happy just a few days later when Guru gave Francois his spiritual name: Phanindra. In the Center, getting one's name was everything (at least so it seemed to me at the time).

In the Center, status was a function of one's perceived spiritual achievement, and since spiritual achievement was not visible to the naked eye, physical proximity to Guru became a proxy. If a disciple was physically close to Guru, then that disciple's spiritual bona fides were established. Other "evidence" factored in, too. For example, in roughly descending order of status:
  • personal service to Guru;
  • membership in a prominent singing group (in my day, the N.Y. and S.F. girls' and boys' singing groups, respectively, had some prestige);
  • having talents that coincided with Center activities (like being a good runner); or
  • the reflected glory of having friends that were close to Guru.

That's not an exhaustive list and, frankly, the benefits of such status -- if any -- weren't that apparent. But it was something I was conscious of from the very beginning of my discipleship: a kind of unspoken esteem with which some disciples were held. And it all started by getting one's name.

Guru meant the names he gave to disciples to be indicative of each disciple's individual psychic persona. Guru would say "soul," as in getting "your soul's name," but I never cared much for that term and its Christian connotation (to my ear anyway). I acknowledge, of course, that the term "psychic" being or persona carries a lot of new age baggage. Nevertheless, for my purposes the word psychic -- as in psyche -- is marginally more precise.

Though Guru never said so, getting one's name struck me as one's true initiation. Some disciples went more than a decade without getting their names, while others -- particularly celebrity disciples -- got their names in short order. If there was a typical case for a full-time, active disciple, I'd guess the wait was about five years or so. Having a strong Center leader to advocate for you could shave a couple years off that.

Francois had such an advocate in Haridas.

Arriving back at our room after the evening function, I found Francois meditating at his makeshift shrine. In front of Guru's picture was what looked to be a three inch by three inch piece of paper on which Guru had written Francois' new name: Phanindra.

I asked him what it meant and he said something like, "The universal creative snake consciousness to please his Lord Supreme in His own way." Wild. Snake consciousness. I'd always thought negatively about snakes. I wasn't sure how I'd react to such a name, but Phanindra was beaming.

I was so happy for him.

I highly recommend browsing the photos of another former Paris Center member here.

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