She is not your quintessential guru in a saffron robe leading an austere lifestyle. On the contrary, Guru Shakti Durga is every bit the ‘modern’ guru with a zest for life. Catch a glimpse of her Shanti Mission centre at Abbotsford – the place is alive with music through the satsangs, the sweet smell of incense sticks wafting in the air, and the women in colourful salwar kurtas bonding over a cup of tea. “We love a bit of bling too,” says Shakti Durga, pointing to the crystals in the room.
But that is not what makes Shakti Durga’s brand of Hinduism popular or unique. “Our wisdom is just about helping people live in peace, how to treat each situation that arises in our life as a potential classroom that the divine has given us to find a way to come to peace with and to make it better than it was before. We are basically a Shakti school so we love the divine mother. But you can’t love the divine mother unless you love the divine father as well. So it is oneness anyway.” More on her philosophy and teachings later.
So how did a white woman become Australia’s first Hindu female guru? The story goes back to about 20 years ago. Known as Kim Fraser then, this successful lawyer and mother of two was leading a busy life when a devastating divorce hit her. Distressed with life she sought solace at a meditation class and immediately felt secure with the group that ran the classes. It would also be her stepping stone into the world of spirituality. But it was a bout of bronchitis that sealed her to this world. She realised that in order to be looking after her family, financially and otherwise, and in order to get into her new practise she had to be healthy. But when modern medicines did not help she went to an energy healer out of sheer desperation. Much to her surprise, she was well in a few days.
The experience fascinated her so much that she started studying various strands of spirituality and healing modalities. She left her practice as a lawyer responding to a greater calling in life and becoming a guru in 2006. “It was a spontaneous epiphany where my name also arrived in a spontaneous epiphany.” Having been studying with a guru in Bali called Shri Jaya Nara, a follower of Shiva, she had begun learning about the divine names in the Hindu tradition. “At the time when I received the name Shakti Durga, I was still a bit hazy about what it was all about. But it comes through my being when I am teaching, so Durga is very much present. All kind of things happen at the satsang. It is obvious when Durga is using my vehicle because the energy is huge – people go into bliss, the discourses come and I am listening really. That’s how I learnt a lot about the Indian scriptures because it was given to me in discourse by Durga,” she says.
Interestingly, Shakti Durga had always felt an inexplicable connection with India. “I am sure my soul is Indian. I just love the colour, the culture, the people, the spirituality of India,” she says. She likes going back to Rishikesh and Haridwar and feels very connected to some of the temples. But her first visit was in 2000 when a teacher she had in Australia told her that she was going to visit the Sai Baba ashram at Puttaparthi. The next thing she knew was that she was on the plane as well. It was her first introduction to an Indian style of ashram and guru. Despite all the culture shock, the grace and strength of the divine energy was life changing and inspiring, says Shakti Durga. “I thought if one man in India can create schools, hospitals, universities, water treatment plants etc. and totally change the life of a whole lot of people, why can’t we do that in Australia. You know there are a lot of problems here too.”
Thus was born the Shanti Mission, a not-for-profit charity that operates a wide-variety of projects and programs with the sole aim of creating an age of peace on earth: inner peace and peace between people. Its main base at Cooranbong in New South Wales houses an ashram with some accommodation apart from the number of hubs or communities around the place where there is no building but lots of groups of people that get together to study and are taught. There are two more centres – one in the southern highlands and the other in Melbourne. The mission also operates in three different locations in the US with plans to work in Canada and UK. It has several thousand followers. But we are an institution that is still at its infancy, she says.
At Shanti Mission, transcendental practices, healing, alignment of chakras are some of the things taught. People need to be strengthened spiritually and that’s where the guru comes in, she says. “That is where Shakti path comes in and diksha (preparation and consecration) which we give to help strengthen the soul and bring the Kundalini Shakti more to life in the individual. So we use the power of the word a lot,” she explains, adding, “India has such a smorgasbord of holy names (starting with the Om). We are about to spend six month studying Om with a group. Sometimes one of the holy names is just so prominent that we bestow the name through our Shakti Path. It gives a bit of a pathway to the receiver, almost like an aspirational name where we seek to embody the characteristics of that particular facet of the divine. That’s how we look at it here.”
Shakti Durga has developed a unique approach and philosophy to spirituality based on years of studying with many teachers as well as the various faiths, traditions and religions. This has included study of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and the Muslim faith as well as numerous esoteric or ‘mystical’ paths. Fundamental to all of Shakti Durga’s teachings is a belief that all paths are valid paths to the divine. She believes in a multi faith practice despite being predominantly Hindu. “I don’t see any problems with meditating and studying deeply on kabbalah and I think that I can mediate and study the Vedas and the Puranas and these amazing things here. It is about insights and inspirations.” Currently, her guru now is Shri Sakthi Amma or Narayani Amma from South India providing her invaluable learning.
But what of cynicism among people towards faiths in general? “With anything that is new to a culture, you usually have 10 per cent who are super keen, 30 per cent who will see it and want to adapt to it but another 30 per cent will tolerate it and are not so interested. The rest are just negative,” she feels. “But that is the kind of population all over the world and it is a case of who we call forth. So we are calling the people Durga calls and so the guru calls the students and we teach those students .They are filled with love and light and they might go into the world and have the energy to transform their part of the world.“
Asked if religion is one of the biggest businesses today, Shakti Durga is quick to correct that hers is a charitable business. “We are a spiritual charity so we wouldn’t know the answer. But any organisation that wants to do anything in the world has to have a financial base, an element of financial acumen and skill if it has to last.”
Shakti Durga is not worried but driven by the conviction that the divine has caused ‘us’ to be here. “We are not trying to convince people,” she sums up.
By Indira Liasram