The opportunity to live with other spiritual seekers is a profound blessing. Through serving each other, we are transformed, especially at times of transition—illness, birth and death.
These powerful times can have a deep impact on us if we are open. Such was the case with all of us who were touched by the passing of our friend, Vairagi Escobar.
A shining gem
In many respects, Vairagi was a simple soul. She loved God. She loved her guru, Paramhansa Yogananda and Swami Kriyananda, her spiritual teacher. For most of her life, she lived as a renunciate, a nun, quietly serving Yogananda’s mission through Ananda.
These were the bare facts – not remarkable in the eyes of the world, yet each one of them a shining gem from the soul’s perspective.
Why was I so moved by Vairagi? Perhaps because we had much in common. We had similar challenges—struggles for self-confidence and inner security; battles against hurt feelings. Like Vairagi, I had had cancer, so I could readily identify with her healing journey. As her condition worsened, the thought would sometimes come, “That could be me!”
We shared positive aspirations also, such as an intense loyalty to our spiritual path and a deep desire to serve. We admired these qualities in each other and sought each other’s counsel.
Accepting “what is”
It was the differences between us that were to become my teachers. For instance, Vairagi had the wisdom to accept what came to her as coming from God, and the faith to know it was for her highest good. Since I struggle to “accept what is,” her faith was and is a beacon of light for me.
Also, Vairagi (whose name means “non-attachment” or “austerity”) had chosen to be a renunciate in the formal sense of the word. Many years ago, one of her female friends came to her and confided that she desired a relationship. Vairagi’s cryptic reply was, “Why do you need marriage when you have five gurus?”
It’s not as if she was never tempted to leave her single state. She was, but as soon as she realized it wasn’t God’s will, she was able to let it go. For her, the spiritual path was all-sufficient and she was able to find solace inside. I found her independence quite inspiring.
A different form of sadhana
Yet as her disease progressed, this independence and strong meditation practice gave way to a different form of sadhana—a sadhana of gratitude and receptivity.
“Be grateful for everything, be receptive, and above all, be positive.” These were Swami Kriyananda’s words to Vairagi during her visit to India in May, 2005.
His words would be good advice for anyone, but for Vairagi, living in a body ravaged by cancer, they became a sacred command—indeed they became her sadhana. Several times, as she was experiencing physical pain, I would hear her whisper to herself, “Thank you, Master. Thank you, Divine Mother.”
As her physical condition worsened, it became harder for her to meditate and she invited friends to come over and meditate with her and for her. Various practical tasks were divided up among friends and other caregivers, who took turns helping her.
This loss of independence turned out to be a profound blessing for Vairagi. Having felt a sense of unworthiness as a child, the love and nurturing she received from her family, and especially from the Ananda Village community, during the last months of her life were literally life-transforming.
As she practiced the “sadhana of receptivity” I saw her moved to tears by the sweetness she felt coming to her. “God is so good,” she would say.
She never stopped giving
Yet, even while her receptivity was increasing, it’s not as if she stopped giving. Vairagi, who had spent her life serving others, continued to give until the end.
For example, when her health appeared to be better, Vairagi made a commitment to teach classes on healing prayers at the Expanding Light Guest Retreat at Ananda Village. At the Ananda community near Italy, where she had lived since 1989, she had taught many classes on that subject; it was one of her favorites.
But before she could teach more than one or two classes, her condition took a turn for the worse. One day she suddenly asked me if I would enjoy teaching the classes. “Yes,” I said, “as long as you train me!”
So she did. I’ll never forget the smile on her face when I told her I had finally been asked to teach the healing prayer class. Although we never spoke of it, it felt as if, through me, she were fulfilling her promise to teach the classes.
Healing prayers had been such a prominent feature of Vairagi’s life that even in the midst of her own challenges, she had the ability to remember others and express compassion for them. Occasionally, she forced herself to sit up in bed so that she could more effectively send prayers to those in need. At other times, she served us just by being herself.
A struggle with fear
I remember one evening in particular, perhaps a week before the end, when Vairagi shared with me her struggle with fear. At this time it was not so much a fear of death as a fear that in some way she had been egotistical or displeasing to God. Many devotees, whether dying or not, have these self-doubts.
Moved to the core by the obvious purity of her heart and soul, I said emphatically, “Oh no, Vairagi. Master and Swami love you. You have pleased them very much. It must be Satan who is tempting you to feel this way.”
Apparently my words touched a chord of truth in Vairagi, for she replied, in a whisper, but with surprising strength, “Nalini, listen carefully. I know you have the same test. It is Satan! He’s trying to make me doubt God’s love for me, and he almost succeeded. Don’t let him do that to you. Remember this, Nalini. It’s so important.”
I hold Vairagi’s precious words in my heart, but felt to share them for the benefit of other self-doubting souls.
The final leap of faith
As for the fear of death (the basis of all fears, according to Yogananda), even long-time devotees still experience it. Though Vairagi’s trust in God was strong, she too needed support near the end in making that final leap of faith to “the other side.” This is one of the most profound ways that we can serve each other as friends in God.
In preparing for the final transition, she asked friends to pray and chant with her, sometimes around the clock. A few she asked to bless her for a long time at the spiritual eye, as a reminder to keep her attention there.
At other times she enjoyed hearing Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi being read aloud to her. When her friends needed to sleep or attend to other duties, she listened for hours to the tape of Swamiji chanting AUM.
Even when Vairagi was in a semi-coma, barely able to talk, she managed to communicate, “Help me.” We knew that meant she wanted us to pray for her transition. Although her whole life had been dedicated to God, she didn’t want her concentration to lapse at the very end due to illness
“Thank you, Divine Mother”
When the end finally came, those of us who were with Vairagi, or who came moments later, could feel her deep peace and joy. Although we meditated in the room where she left her body, some felt her spirit more outside the house, as if she were celebrating her victory and new sense of freedom from all limitations.
Indeed, Divine Mother Nature celebrated too by painting an unusually beautiful sunset in the sky for all to enjoy. All of Vairagi’s months and years of effort and austerity had culminated in a blissful reward.
“Thank you, Divine Mother,” one could almost hear her say, “Thank you.”
***** ***** *****
Vairagi’s “Pilgrimage” to India
by Nalini Graeber
In retrospect, Vairagi’s visit to Swami Kriyananda in India seems even more remarkable than it did at the time. Many of us collapse into bed at the slightest cold or indisposition, but here was Vairagi, terminally ill, undergoing what would be a very rigorous trip, even for a healthy person.
For months she had been struggling with low energy and digestive problems, but that didn’t hold her back. As soon as she heard that the doctors could do no more for her, she set her sights on going to India, completely open to the possibility that she might die there.
That she succeeded is a testimony to the strength of her determination, and an example of the universal principle that when we fix our minds on something, the universe cooperates in helping us to achieve our goal.
I suspect that the desire to see Kriyananda had been in her mind all along, but that she had been waiting until she felt better. Now the hope of recovery was ripped away from her. As she grew steadily weaker, there was no time to lose.
A little over two weeks later (the minimum time required for reservations, visas, etc.) she was on a plane to London, and then from there to New Delhi, with Kent White, her travel companion. Despite his busy work schedule, Kent felt guided to help his friend, Vairagi, at this crucial time. Without his much needed service and support, this demanding trip would have been impossible.
During the two weeks before she left, Vairagi had several group healing prayer sessions with friends and also spent time with Jyotish and Devi Novak, Ananda’s spiritual directors, Mary Kretzmann, who heads the Healing Prayer Ministry at the Village, and other Ananda ministers. We all prayed that she would have the strength and energy to make this important journey.
On a spiritual level, the trip to India exceeded Vairagi’s expectations. Kriyananda saw Vairagi daily and blessed her many times. He urged her to dwell, not on death, but on the love and beauty of God.