One day 22 years ago, a former hippie threw her shorn hair into the Ganges, said her final monastic vows, and never looked back. Swami Mangalananda describes herself as "a WASP from Wisconsin," but she's also a Hindu nun and the secretary of Badarikashrama (15602 Maubert Ave., San Leandro).
"My interest in non-Western philosophies began in high school and continued through the Sixties," she said. "I became a vegetarian. I listened to Indian music. By dressing in Madras clothes and Indian jewelry and living communally, a lot of us in those days were imitating the people of Eastern cultures without completely realizing it. I went through a very strong Christian phase, then an agnostic phase. I was disenchanted with religion, yet I had spiritual longings and altered states of consciousness and a lot of spiritual experiences — not just from drugs."
A devoted peace activist and civil-rights campaigner, "I developed a very strong attachment for Mahatma Gandhi, and that attachment stayed with me," Mangalananda said. "I didn't become a yuppie. Sometimes I actually chose poverty."
While living in San Leandro and studying health education at San Francisco State University, she wandered into Badarikashrama one day. It was the first Hindu temple she'd ever visited. Immediately inspired by its founder, Swami Omkarananda, she began working at the ashram, taking classes, and becoming first a student monk, then a full nun. Omkarananda "tested me for so long," Mangalandanda said, "because a lot of white people join these things and don't stick with them."
She stuck with it. In 1997, Omkarananda transferred her to Badarikashrama's fifty-acre sister ashram in Madihalli, India. Over four hundred local children attend the ashram's school.
"When I come back to the US, I feel homesick for India," said Mangalananda, who will host Badarikashrama's 20th-annual free Christmas Day concert and dinner on Saturday, December 25. This year's concert will be performed by father-and-son veena players Srikanth Chary and Hrishikesh Chary, accompanied by N. Narayan on the mridangam, a Karnatic drum. International vegan and vegetarian dishes are served buffet style — "and we have no intention of converting anyone. Hindus are not that way. Yes, there are guru cults out there, but we are a liberal family-oriented organization. That's part of the reason I embraced Hinduism after being so involved with Christianity: their different conversion mentalities," Mangalananda said.
The nativity scene she created for the event includes figurines of the Holy Family, Buddha, and Ganesha.
"I still say I'm a Christian. I just don't believe that Jesus was the only way. He was an avatar. I accept many forms of worshiping."
Mangalananda misses the sense of community that pervades Indian life but which she has experienced far too rarely in her home country — even at Woodstock, which she attended in 1969. "I found it decadent," she said. "It didn't have the force it could have had, because it was lost in sensuality. American culture is lost in sensuality and materialism. It's our sickness. Every culture has its sicknesses, you see."