Saturday, October 25, 2008

What's in a Name

There has been much talk about names, particularly the changing of names, among my friends this past week. I have personally changed names just enough times that people from my past look at my name and say, "Who"? I don't look enough like I did when I was a child for people to make the connection. I consider this a blessing.

Recently one of my blog postings about my profession was picked up by another library blog. I was a bit amused to see myself referred to as "Ms. Nischala", as I use the name "Brigid Nischala" on this blog. Similarly, when I co-wrote an article for Weird NJ with editor Mark Sceurman, he billed me as "Brigid Nischala Burke."

Only my Hindu friends ever call me "Nischala", as it is the Sanskrit name given to me by Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi. It's not part of my legal name, but I use it after all the trouble she took to give it to me. Like most things in my life, there is a story attached to the name. Since I've had a number of friends ask me about the story, I'll relay it for you here.

I met Mata Amritanandamayi (or Amma, as she is often called) in New York City in 2002. My friend and former colleague Sulekha had been pressuring me to see Amma when she arrived on her summer tour. As a religion postgrad who spent a lot of time studying new religious movements, I'm pretty skeptical of claims to holiness or guru status. However, some of my own personal experiences made me curious enough about Amma to at least see what she was about. She had the marks of a genuine guru, particularly humility and charity. She usually brushes off any claims to greatness, and in spite of what news reports say, she does not own a single thing except the clothes on her back. By all appearances at least, she had potential.

So, with this and other things in mind, I went to meet her, and was more than impressed. I'm not going to delve into my experiences with her here, but it should suffice to say that I have no doubts about her credibility. I received a mantra from her that November in Michigan, and during her tour the following July, I asked her for a name.

The naming process is something that Westerners usually go through, as most Indian devotees already go through their own traditional naming process. The name is supposed to reflect the greatest potential divine quality seen in the person by the guru. It doesn't mean the person always acts according to the quality of the name, but they will have the most success if they develop that quality.

Amma never seems to handle the naming process the same way with each person. For some devotees, she just looks at them and a name immediately comes to her lips; for others, a book is consulted. After asking her for a name, I went to talk to the person in charge of the "naming" line--if you've ever been to one of these programs, you know it can be utter chaos with lines everywhere. Whether or not there is a naming line depends on whether or not Amma intends to give names that day. As it turned out, I was one of 5 people allowed to be on the naming line.

I waited almost 3 hours before Amma started giving names. There was one woman in front of me. Two brahmacharis behind Amma opened a book of Sanskrit names to a particular page, and held the book out to her. Amma was still receiving those who came for her darshan. She glanced over her shoulder, looked at the woman, and pointed to a name in the book. The brahmacharis then wrote the name on a slip of paper. A few minutes later, Amma took the slip of paper and held it to her ajna chakra ("third eye"), and handed it back without looking at the woman. One of the brahmacharis then gave the woman the slip of paper, told her what the name was, and what it meant. Then it was my turn.

Once again, the brahmacharis opened the book, and held it to Amma. She glanced at the book, and then at me. "No, no, no!" she exclaimed, pushing the book away. She then turned to the brahmacharis and started talking very fast in Malayalam, counting something off on her fingers, and pointing at me. She then smiled at me, and went back to giving her darshan. The two men were now frantically turning the pages of the book, and wrote down at least 5 different names on slips of paper. They held the slips out to Amma, who waited a good 20 minutes before she would look at them. In between "darshans", she would look at me, smile, and stroke my face.

Finally she glanced at the papers, and said, more softly this time, "No, no"--and then began to explain something to them again. Towards the end of her explanation, she started to say "Nischala, Nischala, Nischala", and pointing at me very directly. She saw me looking at her, smiled broadly, put her hands on my face, and said, "Nischala!" So, the brahmacharis wrote down the name. One of them said, "Nischala--it means--not moving."

So, I left with this name, not before I spoke to Upasana, the devotee who was running the naming line. "What was THAT about?" she asked me. She then explained that Amma was not satisfied with the names presented to her--the name had to have certain qualities, and she came up with Nischala on her own.

After talking to other Hindu friends much better versed in Sanskrit names than myself, I found out that Nischala means "stillness" (literally not moving--the opposite of chanchala, which is restlessness). It's one of the 1,000 names of the goddess Kali. It appears to be a good fit for a name, as I function best when I remain still and not get caught up in the pressures of life. That doesn't mean that I avoid life, but rather than getting dizzy on the wheel of ups and downs, I prefer to watch movement from the center. When I don't do this, I have trouble.

I've been restless all day today, so perhaps I should take a page from my own book here...

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