Guru's Grace

Guru's Grace: A Spiritual Name, or No Name?

The spiritual name Umananda was given to me by Swami Sadchidananda, the seniormost sannyasin disciple of Sri Maa Anandamayee, when I was visiting her Kankhal Ashram, in 1985. He was a very traditional Dandi Swami, and mostly kept silence except for giving occasional discourses on the Srimad Bhagavatam to the Brahmacharis at the ashram. He took a bath in the Ganga every day, and was one of the most respected Swamis in that ashram. He had the honor of living in a kutir built on top of the new house constructed for Sri Maa Anandamayee in 1982 at the Kankhal Ashram.

Before coming to live at the Kankhal Ashram, Swamiji was a personal disciple of the Maha Siddha Hari Baba, a very highly regarded, even legendary teacher who lived in various parts of the Himalayas. After the mahasamadhi of Hari Baba, he moved to Sri Maa's Kankhal Ashram. Since this venerable Swami gave me the name Umananda, everybody at that ashram, including all of the Swamis, Brahmacharis, and householder devotees, have called me Umananda, and nobody there ever objected that there is the suffix "-ananda" in my name. There was not a soul who knew this Swami who ever questioned his spiritual authority to give me the name Umananda, or whatever other name he was inspired by Sri Maa to give to me.

The name Umananda does not imply that I am a Swami or a Brahmachari. Names were given by Sri Maa and her senior disciples according to the samskaras of the person named, and not necessarily because they took formal monastic vows. Other young American devotees of Sri Maa were given the names like Shuddhananda, Ramananda, and Jayananda. None of them took the formal vows of renunciation as a Hindu sannyasin.

I believe that renunciation is more of an inner experience than a change of clothes and a haircut. There are many spiritually advanced souls who have not taken external, formal vows of renunciation, and there are also those who have taken external, formal vows of renuciation who are not so spiritually advanced. So now you cannot tell the players by the clothes they wear! You must look closer--examine the state of mind, the quality of life, the consistency of their actions. When asked by his disciples about how to discern false teachers from real spiritual teachers, Jesus replied: "By their fruits shall ye know them."

I was going to ask Sri Maa Anandamayee for a spiritual name on my birthday in 1982, but she was not feeling well that day, and I was told that she was not available for private interviews. Suddenly, without any announcement, she came out into the courtyard of the ashram for an impromptu darshan, and I had the chance to offer her a flower garland.

The Brahmachari standing by her told her that it was my birthday that day, as well as being the birthday of Adi Shankaracharya. Sri Maa accepted my flower garland, and then gave it back to me to wear. Then Sri Maa just smiled at me for a few seconds, and I felt so blessed by her darshan that I did not feel a need to ask her for anything else, not even for a spiritual name.   I felt perfectly content.  The gift of her darshan and personal blessing on my birthday was more than anything I could ever ask for.

A few minutes after my personal darshan in the couryard, Sri Maa went across the street into the main satsang hall for another spontaneous group darshan. Because this darshan was not announced, there were only a few people present, and I was able to sit relatively close to her, in the second row, next to the sadhus. Instead of looking at other people in the room, Sri Maa held me in her gaze for several minutes, nonstop, and soon I felt that I was getting a very special blessing--another personal darshan (within a group darshan) on my birthday. I felt so much spiritual bliss from this darshan that I had no more desire for anything else, let alone think about asking for spiritual name.

It is difficult to describe the supernatural sensation of receiving the full attention of such a spiritually exalted being as Sri Maa Anandamayee. The Divine Energy, or Shakti, emanating from her during this darshan was so powerful that I could hardly look at her face. There was so much Divine Radiance coming from her face that it was like trying to look at the noonday sun--you can only look at it fleetingly, or risk damage to your eyes from the intensity of the light!

She flooded me with Divine Light, until I became super-saturated with her Light. I was becoming filled to overflowing with spiritual bliss--becoming totally permeated with spiritual bliss, or in the state of  anandamaya--which was one of her distinguishing characteristics. Her name, Anandamayee Maa, literally means, "the bliss-permeated Mother".

With this double darshan experience on my birthday, I felt one with Maa, merged with Maa, and lost any idea of wanting or needing anything else. I had no doubt in my mind that she knew who I was in a very personal way, and that she would continue to bless me for all eternity.

I felt in my heart that she was keeping track of my spiritual progress, and would personally take care of any spiritual needs that I had, all the way up until the point of my own Self-realization. That is the promise, and the goal, of the Guru-disciple relationship.

Sometime after the mahasamadhi of Sri Maa in August 1982, I asked the senior Swamis at her Kankhal ashram for a Sanskrit name, because many people at the ashram had difficulty pronouncing and hence remembering my American name, Stephen. Otherwise, I was content to be called Stephen Quong. I have no negative associations with my American name.

The senior Swamis told me that they would ask the seniormost Swami, Swami Sadchidananda, to give me a name (as described above), and that is how I got the name Umananda. (Age and experience are still respected in India.)

Family names are given to us by our parents or grandparents, nicknames by our parents, friends and schoolmates, and spiritual names by our spiritual teachers. I do not believe in the practice of changing one's own name frequently, or giving oneself a new spiritual name, or giving oneself an exalted spiritual title. We were born with no name, and when we die, will we still identify with any name given to us in this earthly life? The Soul, or Divine Self, has no name. It is one with the Nameless, Unknowable, Untouchable, Undefinable, Indescribable, Infinite God.

Honorary titles are given by kings, heads of state, and senior officials in government, religion, business, education, sports, and the fine arts. Spiritual titles given as acknowledgment of a person's spiritual status should also be awarded by those persons who have earned the respect of their peers, and who themselves have a high level of status in the spiritual hierarchy of a religion or spiritual organization. If a person is presumptious enough to award himelf (or herself) an honorific spiritual title, we should wonder, why have they been overlooked by their own teacher, and by their own spiritual lineage, and even by their contemporary spiritual peers?

Is someone not getting the respect which they deserve? The answer to this question is, No. If we have some level of spiritual attainment, we will spontaneously, automatically, and certainly gain the respect and recognition of those who have the ability to recognize it. If we have some measure of spiritual awakening, we will neither want titles, nor seek titles, nor utilize titles. It is enough to realize the Self. Nothing else matters.

The Tao Te Ching says: "Those who know, don't say; those who say, don't know."

Any names which we have now are only temporary identities which we use while on this part of the pilgrimage. These earthly names are not the names of the Soul. There may be more, and different, earthly names for us along the way, but they will come and go like everything else. Perhaps the name that will be the most important and best remembered name, is the name which we have in our final incarnation of earthly life. Then that name will become the final link between our earthbound identity, and the eternal life which lies beyond.

In the ensuing years since I was given the name Umananda, many prominent Swamis and spiritual teachers have affirmed that it is alright for me to use the name Umananda. If you happen to follow a different tradition of giving and receiving spiritual names, I wish you well. May your own Guru's grace always be with you. And may your own spiritual name always resound with the vibrations of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful--Satyam, Sivam, Sundaram!

Jaya Maa!
Om Tat Sat Om


Guru Purnima, 16 July 2000