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Founding Member Feature: Shankar

Shankar, part of the Centre family

Was there a spiritual side to your life before meeting Babaji?

I was raised in England in an Irish Catholic family, and in my early teens began to immerse myself in various devotional practices of that tradition. However, after three years at a Christian Brothers school, I rejected formal Catholicism, and with it organized religion in general. Looking back at that period I see that the spiritual seeking took other forms such as non-Christian prayers and even the creation and use of a mantra, though I knew nothing of such things at that time. After emigrating to Canada in 1965, I went through the existential phase that was fashionable at the time, though it was always more agnostic than atheistic. In 1967 a friend asked if I was interested in taking up zen practice and took me to a series of early morning meditation sessions with Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Japanese zen master, in one of the many unused warehouse buildings in Vancouver’s derelict Gastown. (Joshu Roshi, now 105 years old, is still the abbot of the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California.)

This seemed to have been the catalyst for an inner shift to a more positive outlook, and over the next few years I explored other spiritual paths and sat with various teachers such as Kirpal Singh, and also took a three-month intensive Sufi training in San Francisco. Shortly after that I met Girija (then Gwen) who shared my interest in natural foods, alternative medicine and spirituality. We spent time with a variety of spiritually-minded natural healers, including Dr. Christopher from Utah, Dr. Bernard Jensen from California, Norma Myers, a first nations herbalist and Ella Birzneck of the Dominion Herbal College. After many travels and adventures we arrived in 1973 at Swami Vishnudevananda’s ashram in Val Morin, Quebec, where we stayed for six months. We worked in the kitchen and also were very fortunate to be able to take the teacher training program with Swami Vishnu. There we met Janaki and Ragunnath who were also to come under Babaji’s influence in the following years.

Shankar and Girija, summer 1974

We returned to BC and the following summer, 1974, Girija heard that Babaji was coming to Vancouver to visit Anand Dass and Ravi Dass, and we were fortunate enough to spend several weeks just hanging out with him. RD asked Babaji for names for us and that’s how we both got our Sanskrit names. We also attended our first New Year’s retreat at Camp Swig in California in 1974.

How did meeting Babaji change your life?

There were no dramatic experiences, rather a kind of love, respect and trust developed. That early group formed the core of what is now Dharma Sara. Most people have heard how DS evolved from there. Babaji told us that if we held a retreat the following summer (1975) he would come. We formed a loose group and tasks got distributed. With our experience cooking for large numbers at Dr. Jensen’s Health Center and at the Sivananda Ashram, Girija and I took on the task of overseeing all the kitchen activities. We were extraordinarily naïve. For example, this was a ten-day retreat with no pre-registration, people simply showed up – about 200 of them! Amazingly, everyone was well fed though our understanding of the sattvic diet was very basic (note from Babaji to Shankar: “Cut back on the onions!”). Despite the mud caused by nine days of rain, somehow everything worked out fine.

After that we opened a Centre on West Fourth Avenue in Vancouver and those of us who had completed teacher training taught the basic principles of ashtanga yoga. We continued to run the annual retreats and also opened Jai, a natural clothing store. Babaji then suggested that we buy land for a centre and the search was begun. We looked at land from Vancouver Island to the Okanagan, but had not found anything that everyone could agree on. After Girija and I went our separate ways, I had moved to Salt Spring Island in 1978 and in 1980 long-time friends Matthew and Phyllis Coleman mentioned a piece of land on Blackburn Road. Everyone including Babaji liked it so, with Jai helping make the payments, the land was purchased in 1981, and the work was begun.

Poster for yoga classes, about 1976

Around that time I moved back to the lower mainland to complete a PhD in Kinesiology at SFU and subsequently pursued an academic career, which took me to several western Canadian universities. During this period I kept in touch with Babaji and occasionally returned for the annual retreats. My last faculty position was at UBC and I took early retirement, bought a house on Salt Spring and moved there with my partner Vivian in 2001. Immediately Babaji told me to get more involved with the Centre and put me back on the DS Board. “We like to squeeze the oil out of retired people” he told me, somewhat ominously. Vivian had also retired from her accounting career and was soon working long hours at the Centre.

What was your impression of the Centre at that time, and how did you fit in?

It was a very busy place and like most charitable organisations, there always seemed to be a shortage of staff. Anuradha was the de facto Director and kept a close eye on most things. Abha was also a strong influence, albeit in subtle fashion. At that time, Babaji told me: “Abha is a power at the Centre.” Over time I became familiar with most areas of operation, with a particular interest in farming, building and maintenance. Under Kalpana’s guidance the Yoga Teacher Training Program began in 2002; I taught anatomy and physiology for the first five years and then moved more into yoga philosophy. Vivian continued her deep commitment to the Centre contributing her exceptional financial and organisational skills, her problem solving ability and her strong work ethic.

Due to complex circumstances that to this day are difficult to fully understand, Anuradha’s last year at the Centre, 2008, was a time of major change. In the middle of this Babaji asked me to serve as Director: “Look out for the Centre’s interest over self-interest,” was his main instruction. It proved very difficult and when I mentioned to Babaji how hard it was he simply said: “It is selfless service. I never told you it would be easy.”

Because of the long hours each day it proved difficult to maintain a private home as well, so moving to the Centre was the only feasible option. It quickly became clear that living at the Centre was very different from commuting there to work; indeed it is not possible to understand life at the Centre without spending some time living there.

How has your relationship with Babaji changed over the years?

The early years were definitely different. It was an extraordinary privilege to be able to spend time with Babaji then. He combined an unwavering commitment to yoga with a surprising playfulness, and so we learned easily from him. In those days he answered every letter that was written to him, even by strangers, and since he lived in California, this was the only way we had to communicate. Though he directed my sadhana, I did not write to him frequently and even after becoming Director I only occasionally felt it necessary to ask his advice. He invariably treated me graciously and was very supportive in difficult times.

Shankar with Babaji, 1975

I was attracted to the study of the Yoga Sutras because of my scientific training, but after some time Babaji directed me to study the Bhagavad Gita. Looking back, some of the best memories are those times spent reading the chalk board at Gita class. Again, Babaji was very gracious, overlooking my errors and poor Sanskrit pronunciation; it seemed that just sitting beside him was enough to deepen spiritual understanding. It could be disconcerting too, as Babaji had demonstrated on a few occasions his ability to read thoughts, so around him one had to be quite conscious of the content of the mind.

In spiritual matters Babaji was usually simple and clear. In the very early days he had said to me: “Your path is jnana yoga.” It seemed exotic and special, which appealed to the ego, but the truth was that I had no idea what this meant. Only much later did I begin to understand the different paths of yoga. Once someone asked him: “What is the difference in the relationship between a guru and two of his devotees, one on the path of jnana, the other on the path of bhakti?” He replied: “The bhakta surrenders, the jnani understands.” This was very helpful, and as part of this understanding Babaji helped me discard many complicated ideas to reveal the utter simplicity of spiritual truth. Some may see Babaji’s main teaching as karma yoga, while others may point to his devotional side, but Babaji is equally at home with the path of knowledge, and teaches that the other paths lead to jnana.

As you now step down from the role of Centre Director, what are your thoughts about the last few years, and how will your life change?

Looking back, the aspect of Centre life for which I am most grateful has been the opportunity to share life with so many wonderful selfless young people. Many thanks to all of them but also to those longer term karma yogis whose contributions have been considerable but perhaps less easy to see. Noteworthy among these is Vivian whose contribution to these changes is difficult to overstate.

In recent years I have sacrificed time with family and friends because of the all-consuming nature of the task at the Centre; I hope to make amends for that. It has been a year of great change, of letting go of major parts of my life. This has left a peacefulness of the mind and a deep sense of contentment. There are no concrete plans for the future and I am enjoying the spaciousness of life. But, there is still some oil left to be squeezed out, so probably some work will present itself, and I am curious to see how it all unfolds.

Shankar competes in the 2011 Hanuman Olympics