The Library

Diksha or Initiation

Guru and Shishya


Changing a name is a common practice.  Women by tradition change their family name at marriage.  Kings have done it: even the Pope adopts a new name when he assumes the post. In Christianity a child, or adult, is given a Christian name at their baptism: the start of their new life in the family of the church.  For yogis, sadhaks and other spiritual seekers it is also a part of the transition into a new life, into a new family and lineage.

At moments such as these the initiate symbolically leaves their past behind and takes on a new role.  In extreme cases the `old` person is regarded as dead and will not accept any previous family connections or history.  They will literally walk away. 

In the history of India the tradition of the guru (spiritual teacher) and shishya or chela (disciple, student or follower) goes back for possibly thousands of years.  In former times a son would be placed with his guru for a period of twelve years to learn the Vedas and other scriptures before returning home to begin the next stage of life, that of the married householder whose duty was to establish a family. For some of these shishyas the twelve yeas became a lifetime leading to the adoption of sannyas (usually the final stage of life, renunciation of the world) from an early age.

To go beyond the normal pattern of life and to enter the spiritual life  systems of initiation were created known as `diksha`.  Forms of diksha vary widely between groups and sects.  In some there are complex rituals to be undergone following long preparation.  In others there may be a very simple ritual, or none at all.  The guru may be a spiritual teacher working alone or within a lineage or `parampara`.  A special gift the guru can give is that of `shaktipat`, the bestowing of the Divine grace, often completed by placing the guru`s hand on the head of the shishya transmitting the power.  Other important features are commonly found.  Mantra diksha (vag-diksha) is where the guru will give the shishya his or her own mantra which usually they are required to keep secret.  Sparsa-diksha is by touch – shaktipat.  Mano-diksha takes place through the minds of the guru and shisya, and drik-diksha by look.  Samaya-diksha uses rituals which may be simple or very complex. 

Examples of ritual practices include the shisya having all hair removed from the body, so they become as a child.  Sometimes a tuft is left at the point of the brahmanrandra which is finally cut during the ritual.  After initiation the shisya may be required to remain hairless (seen in the extreme in Jainism) or to never cut their hair again, growing a full length jata.  Bathing is a common practice, preferably in the Ganges or another sacred river or kund (temple bathing pond).  During the ritual the shishya is often stripped of their old clothes and given a new cloth or similar to wear.  For men where nudity is an accepted practice of their spiritual life they may be required to wear a langoti/langouti or loincloth in the presence of women and during meditation on the form of a female goddess.  The cloth,  lungi or dhoti, varying in colour according to the sect and chosen divinity which in the case of shaivites, the followers of Shiva, is a shade of red or saffron, is unhemmed, preferably kardi, handspun cotton with organic dye, and is fastened by wrapping around the waist like a sarong.  The symbolic exchange of gifts may take place where the initiate gives to the guru items such a fruit, leaves etc.  The guru may place a mala, string or other symbol of the sect around the disciple`s neck.  In mantra diksha the guru will whisper the secret mantra into the ear of the shishya; this may even be under a canopy to ensure privacy.  And always the shishya is given a new name which will include a personal name and usually the name of the order of monks or parampara, the lineage of the guru.

The ultimate form of diksha is `sannyas-diksha`.  Here the shishya is required to renounce every attachment in the world, material and emotional.  These are the sadhus, naga babas, aghoris, naths and avadhuts still numbering  millions in India although seldom seen as they withdraw from public life.  In fairly recent times a new form of sannyasin has emerged in the tradition, that of the householder sannyasin, directed by their guru to remain in the world for a purpose which will benefit humankind or the planet.  The naked nath, avadhut, or tantric may now travel incognito, fitting into society anonymously to do their work.

One of the benefits of diksha is that it gives the shishya a parentage and sense of continuity in the parampara.  Sometimes this is very loose as each initiate goes their own way, linked simply by the rules of conduct they are expected to adhere to.  In other cases the order may be very tight and strict, such as the Juna Akhara – the largest such group in India which organises the initiation of thousands of shisyas culminating in a vast diksha which takes place at every Kumbh Mela.

Whatever the group, organisation or sect there remain thousands of Indian men and women, and increasing numbers of non-Indians, who see diksha as a confirmation of their spiritual aspirations.