Kripananda was tall and thin and in about her sixties. Her hair was grey and she wore it in a tight old-lady-slash-hippy bun, utterly unadorned. She was a swami -- a monk -- and so she always wore the red or the orange, or sometimes it was a pale salmon color. Usually a sari, or sometimes a punjabi with the long tunic top. She had a high voice. Whenever you passed her she'd at least smile. If she knew you she'd say something teasing. She was a bit like an old -- though youthful -- schoolmarm. Utterly respectable, appropriate, playful but never out of order. And everyone looked up to her.
After all, she'd been the one who'd hung out with Gurumayi when Gurumayi was still a teenager. Kripananda had been Gurumayi's official English teacher, designated as such by Baba. I couldn't imagine being that close to the gurus -- first to Baba that he would ask you to teach English to the future guru, and then to Gurumayi, knowing her when she was just a kid, long before she became the one up in the elevated chair being bowed down to.
Kripananda had also published books. She was considered a scholarly expert on the Kundalini. She'd translated Jnaneshwari, a thick piece of scripture, a thick paperback that I tried to absorb by reading a few lines every night as if it were cod liver oil. I actually liked the book. There were moments of warmth and inspiration there, but it still wasn't the kind of thing you just sat down and read on your day off.
I admired Kirpananda also because it was known that, no matter what, she got up every morning at 3 a.m. to meditate. Now, I did that too. But I was a low-life, a regular member of the ashram. I wasn't one of those people who rushed around with pagers and bulging day books, who had so muich extra seva that they couldn't go to bed til after midnight and therefore were not expected to get up for meditation or for the Guru Gita chant at 5:30. You didn't see the big-wigs at early morning meditation or at the Guru Gita. You saw the ordinary people. The ones who slept three to a room and showed up for their dish-washing shifts.
I figured there was a special dispensation for these people/ I figured once you got to be like them other rules applied. It wasn't that you never saw swamis or other important figures at the early morning practices, it's just that, to me, they were noticeably absent most of the time, except at big celebrations or events when they all sat, and were encouraged to sit, up front, near the guru's chair where she could often speak with them directly.
But Kripananda, it was known, refused any seva that kept her up past 9 p.m. I didn't see anyone else doing that though it seemed like it should be normal.
Gurumayi once said in a talk that she sometimes walked past Kripa's room at 3 or 4 in the morinng and that there was a glow emanating from it.
When Kripananda gave a talk in a program -- when she stood at the lectern and spoke into the microphone, usually during one of the weekend Intensives, attended by hundreds of people, I found her talks dull. They were dry renditions of traditional information about meditation and breath, stuff I'd heard a hundred times. But I took it to be her loyalty to Baba's words, that she passed things on just as they'd been taught to her, without adornment. Her qualifications and talents as a teacher were never questioned.
Once in my first or second year at the ashram I was asked to speak in a small program and someone brought me over to Swami Kripananda's room to go over what I would say. I felt awed and respectful as I stepped into her carpeted, orderly room. She turned from where she was sitting at her desk with a smile and offered me a candy from a closed jar. When lifted the lid a cloth-covered toy snake sprang out, and Kripananda doubled over with giggles. Her room was filled with toy snakes, snakes made of stone and wood, all gifts she said. The snake is the emblem of the Kundalini. Kripananda was said to be the most popular swami across the world. Years later, when I sat next to her at her computer in the same room I'd first enetered, I saw the many emails she received every day from people all over the world.
One day suddenly she appeared in public with a new haircut. The tight bun was gone. Instead it was a more glamorous, shapely cut. We took it to mean that Gurumayi wanted her to appear more worldly, less old-fashioned. It seemed part of the ashram's overall development to never get stuck in any one place.
In India I was once in her room and she said how it was impossible to keep up one's normal standards of cleanliness because of all the dust. It surprised me. That you could have an excuse for not being absolutely dust-free.
At the very end, in my final week or two in the ashram, after we had been working together closely for a few months, I heard Kripananda wasn't feeling well and would be missing some important chant or something. I called her, just to say hello, to see if she needed anything. The kind of call you make. It felt strange to treat her as a normal person who might need something. Naive even. But I called her anyway. She was surprised to hear from me. And touched, I think. As if people didn't usually do that. Not all the fancy people who were almost always around her.