I remember once, about a year or so ago, Gurumayi told me that she is a logophile, a lover of words. I smiled when she said that, there being something at once incredibly profound and impossibly endearing in my Guru’s being a logophile. It seemed to me a most natural extension of a truth that Gurumayi has long taught: that the words we use, and how we use them, have a deep and far-reaching impact for ourselves and those around us. Our words reflect who we are. They shape the worlds we create. Because of words, people go to war. Because of words, people forge peace.
It was Gurumayi who first brought my attention to how quietly extraordinary the word mother is. Having used this word throughout my life, or some variation of it—Mom, Aai in the Marathi language, or whatever temporary moniker my brother and I would choose in the moment as we were growing up—I had some small inkling of its power. Certainly, as a child, I had an instinctive sense of its utility. “Mom,” “Aai,” “Mā,” “Mamma” were sure-fire ways of getting her attention, and all the more so when the voice calling out these names was rather sweet and cherubic. As I got older, I learned more about this word from Gurumayi—from her talks and her poems, and from the wisdom she has imparted to me over the years—and I began to comprehend how there were entire worlds of meaning and significance to it that I had yet to explore.
One thing, in particular, that Gurumayi has shared with me is how the word mother is used to describe that which is best, that which is grand, that which is eminently worthy of praise and exaltation. It’s the ultimate superlative, guaranteeing that people understand the value of whatever it is used to describe. Earth, the bright blue planet floating in space, or else the damp dirt underfoot, becomes Mother Earth—wise and all-knowing, always giving, growing, regenerating. Nature, which could refer to any place with plants and animals, becomes Mother Nature, she who is vast and varied, endlessly compassionate and deserving of our attention, respect, and protection. Anything of primacy or that denotes our origins—who we are and where we come from—may also bear her venerable name. Mother tongue. Motherland.
The unique power of the word mother is due in part to its being inherently relational. There are many nouns and adjectives that could be used to describe someone or something that is powerful, wise, or nurturing. What sets mother apart, however, is apparent from its definition. A mother is one who mothers. She is defined by her connection to her children. As soon as we call someone or something a “mother,” we identify as her children. We signal that in some way, we belong to her; that we are a reflection of and a result of her; that she is invested in us, and we in her, and on some primordial level we have forged a bond that cannot be broken.
Viewed from this angle, it makes sense that we would reserve use of this word for only those who are most deserving of it—those who have given us life, and identity, in one form or another. We also might be judicious about whom we call “Mother” because of how complex and multifaceted the mother-child relationship can be. There are only certain people and things that we’d willingly enter into such a relationship with, and in whom we’d place the requisite trust. Recently, Gurumayi shared with me how she had noticed the word smother sounds like mother. Etymologically and semantically, the two words are unrelated, but the fact that the English word smother actually contains the word mother—and that these words are sometimes used in conjunction with one another—invites further investigation. In general, the impression that we’re being smothered, that our freedom is somehow being impinged on by our mother, stems from a lack of understanding. When we are not in a mother’s shoes, it can be hard to see how her actions, even the ones we may not agree with, are an expression of her caring for us, of her solicitousness and love.
In India, there is a long history of using the word mother as a designation of the highest honor. Many saints, for example, have addressed their Guru as “Mother.” Namdev and Eknath Maharaj—who were themselves esteemed poet-saints from Maharashtra—would call Jnaneshvar Maharaj by the name Mauli, a term of deep affection in Marathi that means “loving mother.” To this day, people in Maharashtra speak of Jnaneshvar Mauli, and devotees of the Maharashtrian poet-saints can be heard singing “Jnaneshvar mauli, jnāna-rāja mauli ” on their annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur.
Even the gods and deities of the Indian scriptural tradition have been accorded the name “Mother,” or else are described with language that evokes motherhood. Jnaneshvar Maharaj composed abhangas in which he himself refers to the Lord as Aai, or “Mother.” In one, he sings, Vithāī kithāī, mājhe Krishnāī Kānhāī, attaching aai to different names for Lord Vishnu (that is, to Vitthal, Krishna, and Kanha, which is another name for Lord Krishna).
There is also the garbha griha, a key feature of all temples constructed in honor of the deities of the Indian tradition. Garbha in garbha griha has the same root as the word for “womb” in the Sanskrit language (garbhāshaya), and as an architectural feature of temples, it is the alcove-like area in which the deity is housed and before which the devotee comes for darshan. The linguistic link is important, suggesting that just as a mother’s womb is the space from which life arises, so too is the deity the source of something—in this case, the manifest world. In the West, the corresponding term for garbha griha is the Latin sanctum sanctorum, and it almost seems to underscore the point. Sanctum sanctorum, which is a translation of a Hebrew phrase referring to the most sacrosanct place in the Jewish tabernacle, means “the holiest of holy places.”
The reverence toward mothers, as illustrated by the attachment of this appellation to those whose impact and influence on our lives is greatest, relates to a broader tradition—in India, especially—of honoring the feminine shakti, or energy.
This is reflected, perhaps first and foremost, in language. Words in several of the Indian languages tend to come in either a masculine or feminine form, depending on what they are. By and large, the words for those things that are considered beautiful, powerful, strong, or virtuous are grammatically feminine. In Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, this includes words such as āshā, or hope; shraddhā, or faith; bhakti, or devotion; kshamā, forgiveness; karunā, compassion; dridhatā, determination; sundaratā, beauty; roshnī, light; hansī, laughter; muskurāhat, smile; chāndanī, moonlight; shānti, peace; and khushī, happiness. Many people in India use words like these as names for their beloved daughters.
The feminine shakti, or energy, is consistently given a prominent seat in places of worship and in religious and spiritual artwork as well. There are many temples that are dedicated specifically to forms of the Goddess—towering marvels of architecture such as the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, which honors a form of Parvati; renowned sites of pilgrimage such as the vibrant red Durga Mandir in Varanasi; or even the temple for Goddess Vajreshwari in the village of Vajreshwari, Maharashtra, near Gurudev Siddha Peeth.
Meanwhile, a temple that is dedicated to a male deity will always include a shrine to that deity’s consort. Sometimes the consort will be situated in the same shrine as the main deity, standing beside him. Where there is worship of Lord Vishnu, there will be worship of Mahalakshmi. Where homage is given to Lord Shiva, respect must also be paid to Goddess Parvati. Lord Vitthal is always depicted with Rakhumai. It is said, in India, that without Shakti there is no Shiva; without their feminine counterpart, the devas, the male gods, are not complete. The feminine energy, embodied in their consort, is essential for them to carry out their ongoing creation, sustenance, and dissolution of this world. Without this energy, they quite simply lack the shakti, the strength and the power, to do this job.
The overall impression that we might get when considering how feminine energy is described in traditions such as those of India, as well as from our own perspectives on what is feminine, is that this energy is what makes things run in the world—while at the same time endowing the world with a lushness and beauty that make it worth living in. Gurumayi has shared with me, for example, how she is often captivated by the curving movement of a flower and its petals, and that what makes it so captivating is how it’s an expression of the feminine shakti.
The mother, or one who embodies the qualities of a mother, is in many ways the paragon of this shakti. She is the picture of strength for her children. Her beauty is the first they’ll ever know, and its qualities and contours remain etched in their consciousness throughout their lives. (Mahatma Gandhi once said, “It may be possible to gild pure gold, but who can make his mother more beautiful?”) She is pure of character, with a purity born of the selflessness of her intentions, of her unstinting generosity toward those in her care. She is synonymous with safety, belonging, unconditional acceptance, and trust; she is, unto herself, a home.
I have learned from Gurumayi to develop an awareness for how people of different cultures describe a given concept or idea—what words they use, how these words relate to and differ from one another, what nuances of meaning they each provide, and how all these varied connotations help us come to a more thorough understanding of the concept at hand. Gurumayi has often highlighted the words that people use to refer to their mother. What I’ve found to be notable is how similar the word for mother is across languages. In Hindi, people say “Mā” or “Mātā.” In English, it’s “Mother,” “Mom,” “Mum.” In Spanish, “Madre” or “Mamá.” In German, “Mutter,” “Mama,” “Mami.” There is a universal aspect to this word as it appears in different languages that seems, implicitly, to reflect the universality of a mother’s role in a child’s life. No matter who she is or where she is from, a mother is a mother is a mother.
On the Siddha Yoga path, we too use the word mother to describe that which is most beloved to us. Recently, I was speaking with Swami Vasudevananda, a Siddha Yoga monk and meditation teacher who has been serving Gurumayi for nearly 40 years, and he shared with me the story of how Gurumayi came to be known as “Gurumayi.”
It was the autumn of 1983, and Gurumayi was in residence in Gurudev Siddha Peeth. At the time, everyone was addressing Gurumayi as “Swami Chidvilasananda” or “Swami ji.” Swami Vasudevananda, who was frequently a host or speaker during satsangs with Gurumayi, was finding it increasingly uncomfortable to address the Guru in the same manner that he would a Swami—and the people listening found it disconcerting, too. So Swami Vasudevananda, along with a few others, began to brainstorm other possibilities for names to suggest to Gurumayi so that her title would be distinctive and carry appropriate weight. They were also looking for a name that would be concise and memorable enough to roll off the tongue. After all, they were bhaktas, ardent devotees who prayed to the Guru often; the shorter the name, the sooner the fruits of their prayers would be answered. 😃
One afternoon, Swami Vasudevananda was participating in a music practice session in one of the satsang halls. That day, he and his fellow musicians were learning an abhanga by a contemporary Maharashtrian poet-saint named Tukadyadas, whom Baba Muktananda had met during his travels across India as a sādhaka. The abhanga was called Āvadalī Gurumayi.
“Gurumayi” means “Guru-mother” in the Marathi language (as well as in other languages of India, such as Hindi). It is also closely related to another word that means “one who is the embodiment of the Guru principle.”
Just as Swami Vasudevananda was reading this word and its translation on his chanting sheet, the door to the satsang hall opened. There was Gurumayi! She looked in for a moment at the practice session and smiled at Swami ji before closing the door again.
The next morning, Gurumayi was seated in the courtyard, and Swami Vasudevananda came forward for darshan. In his hands he was carrying the list of names that he was going to suggest to Gurumayi.
After offering pranam, Swami Vasudevananda moved a bit closer to Gurumayi. There were a lot of people sitting nearby and coming forward for darshan, and he didn’t want anyone to overhear. He spoke quietly and with great humility. “I want to share something with you,” he said. “And this is that we can’t keep addressing you as Swami ji.”
Gurumayi looked at Swami Vasudevananda inquisitively.
“Yes?” she said to him.
“I have come prepared to show you some names that would be appropriate to use when addressing you,” Swami Vasudevananda said.
“Go on,” said Gurumayi.
Swami Vasudevananda looked down at the paper he’d brought with the names. He paused. For some reason, he wasn’t able to read all the options that were listed; he could not bring himself to say them. All he could manage to say was, “Can we please call you Gurumayi?”
Swami Chidvilasananda closed her eyes. Ever so slightly, she swayed from side to side. After a few moments, she turned to look at Swami Vasudevananda. Her expression was tender, an endless depth in her eyes. Softly, she said: “Yes. You can call me Gurumayi. Tell everyone.”
Gurumayi departed from the courtyard shortly thereafter. As the crowd dispersed, Swami Vasudevananda set off to act on the direction Gurumayi had given him. The first person he spoke to was Dada Yande, a longtime devotee of the Siddha Yoga Gurus who had for decades lived and offered seva in Gurudev Siddha Peeth. As soon as Dada Yande heard the name, he started dancing and singing right there in the courtyard: “Gurumayi! Gurumayi! Gurumayi!”
In no time at all, as people excitedly picked up their landline phones, calling any and all Siddha Yoga devotees that they knew, the word spread. Like an ever-expanding constellation of light, illuminating house after house, town after town, city after city, the name traveled across the world.
From then on, Swami Chidvilasananda would be called Gurumayi.