27 September 2006

First teacher...

He who teaches this primal
secret to those who love me
has acted with the greatest love
and will come to me, beyond doubt.

No one can do me a service
that is more devoted than
this, and no one on earth is more
precious to me than he is.

Bhagavad Gita 18.68-18.69

Swami Sarvadevananda told me to ask for him at the bookstore. I was nervous opening the glass-paned wooden door and stepping up into the small store. The raw wood shelves were jammed with books on Hinduism as well as on every faith imaginable. There was other stuff, too: incense, incense burners, some photos, and small figures for sale. I looked around for someone to talk to and then realized that, down behind the boxy checkout counter, a gray-haired woman was bent over, peering at an old computer.

“I’m here to see Swami--,” I realized I’d only seen his name on the website and had no idea how to pronounce it. I stumbled through some approximation of it.

The woman looked confused so I did my best with all those syllables a second time and then said, “I have an appointment.”

She dialed the phone. The voice on the other end did not belong to the swami I’d met. When she hung up she said, “Oh! You don’t mean Swami Swahananda! You mean Swami Sarvadevananda!” but she pronounced his name “SHARva-day-veh-nan-duh” The other swami was Swami Sarvadevanada’s boss, the head of the Hollywood Vedanta Society temple. I confess I was still completely confused, their names still indistinguishable to me.

A few minutes later Swami Sarvadevananda came walking down the brick path. He pulled his keys out from somewhere inside his orange robes and opened the door to his tiny office. In his hand was my proposal. He’d read it overnight.

The swami began as if we were in the middle of a conversation, not the beginning. “I think this should be the question: Why religion? What’s the need of religion? Religion must help one to rise from animalistic instincts to human, and human to divine, and from divine to godly, from godly to an infinitely compassionate personality like Christ and Buddha’s. So, this is a great question and many people don’t understand: what is religion? Thousands and thousands of fanatics and followers and they don’t know what is religion!” Swami Sarvadevanada’s hands were flying. His lilting, accented voice made the already new words and thoughts even harder to follow sometimes. “They don’t know that the transformation of life is religion. Transformation means fighting with my evil tendencies inside, which is meanness, ugliness, which creates pain and suffering for others. That which brings even a little pain for others is not religion, it cannot be religion! ‘Blessed are the peace-makers.’ So, who remembers that word in the scripture? Eh? You should be peaceful, you should radiate peace!”

It was hot in that room even though the windows were open but the swami was untouched by it, his hands kept dancing farther and farther away from him as he talked. It was exciting to see him grab on to this crazy idea of mine instead of what I’d feared would happen. I’d come up with all sorts of ways imaginary spiritual teachers might reject me and my crazy project but I don’t think I had even one scenario that came close to this – complete acceptance.

He was really on a roll. “The transformation of life is religion and anything that causes even a little bit of pain for others isn’t. Sri Ramakrishna, who was born 1836, did not know the complexity of life and other religions. He was a seeker and lover of God.That is called religion. ‘I am religious’ does not mean that I go to any temple and bow down my head twenty times and come to my room and beat my wife, eh? Or I’m a religious person so I can go and straighten you by telling you are on the wrong path, and I can go to heaven, by killing you, if need be, forcing you to believe in my way. That’s a nasty concept of spirituality that has nothing to do with spiritual life. Have you read The Life of Sri Ramakrishna?”

Ramakrishna was the guy on the top shelf of the altar, the main guru of the Vedanta branch of Hinduism. I’d picked up a few books that morning. “I just bought The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.”

Christopher Isherwood also wrote a book about his life. What Ramakrishna did was simple, he didn’t go for any philosophy. From the early days he wanted to know the secret of the universe. From the early days he felt the pull for seeing God and, after going through rigorous spiritual practice, he declared, ‘As many faiths, so many paths.’ He was born into a very spiritual family. His father (was apart from his wife when) he had a dream in which a deity said, ‘I shall be born in your home.’ About the same time, his wife also had a vision of a beam of light from Lord Shiva entering her womb and felt she had conceived a child!” And Ramakrishna was born, his given name was Gadahar.”

Okay, it must be said: I get nervous around immaculate conception stories. I always wonder if they were trying to compete or maybe the devout think us regular folk won’t pay attention, might not value the message, unless they hype their leader’s story. This was one thing the former biology major in me might never ever get over. I can accept the notion of divinity in people, of certain people, perhaps, being more in tune with that Something More than the rest of us. But beams of light causing a pregnancy in a person? A metaphor, a “true” story I can handle, but insist that it is True, that actually happened and that my faith depends on acceptance of that “actual” fact, well, I don’t know what to do with the big “no way” in my head.

Swami Saradevanada decided to give me the highlights of Ramakrishna’s life, a kind of book-flap synopsis. He said Ramakrishna began his spiritual journey by worshiping God, the Mother, in the form of Kali, a black female Hindu goddess. He went to the Kali temple in Dakshineswar on Ganges River near Bengal every day, demanding that she appear before him. “He’s like a mad guy, daytime and nighttime he is meditating on Mother. When the excruciating pains set in he used to cry, ‘Oh, Mother, another day is gone in my life and you have not come. What is the meaning of this life?’ And he’d cry and weep and rubbing his face on the sandy bed of the Ganges, so much is his urge to see the face of the Divine Mother who is the cause of this universe – that is called religion.” He cocked his head to one side and smiled. Swami Sarvadevananda really liked that story.

I sat politely on the other side of the desk. All I could think was: now why did he have to go and tell me a story like that? If that is religion, I haven’t got a prayer.

Of course the story ended with him seeing the Divine as a beam of light coming from the image of Kali. But – and this was what got my attention – it was through that vision that Ramakrishna came to realize that God had no form. “He reconciled all religions as true: ‘he’ and ‘she’ – gone. Now, you can understand what Hindu philosophy is. It is like a gateway. And after that what happened? Mother is gone, the form is gone. He’s lost into infinite waves of light, an ocean of light and joy.” Swami Sarvadevananda’s “joy” is so much more than a bland single syllable. It’s an explosive word that starts out like the word “jaw” and ends with a curlicue of sound as his mouth wraps around the sound of the “o” and “y.” Jahw-oy! …and he was remained in that ocean of jahw-oy for twenty-four hours!” The swami said Ramakrishna soon came to realize that there was nothing but God.

“He was going to Calcutta afterward. He was so humble that he will run, run towards anyone calling God. So one day a public (carriage) took him by mistake through a red letter – what you call it?” he asked, “A red zone? What is the word? You know, with prostitutes?”

“A red-light district?”

Swami Sarvadenanda nodded, “Yes, a red-light district. And the car he was in was moving and the ladies were looking and Ramakrishna was looking at them and saluting them, ‘Oh, Mother! You are here in this form?’ So if you see the end result is, what? The end result is you see the one Mother - call it whatever name you wish – the oneness in every being. That’s spirituality.”
He sat back, waiting for me to speak. I guess everything my written manuscript provoked in him had been said. I started to ask him about 9/11 but he didn’t want to talk about events like that, at least not right away. “We are trying to understand what is religion first.”


“We must understand our weak point. We must diagnose the disease and then put the medicine there. So if any religion does not allow anyone to think freely, if any religion contradicts normal rational and reason-based thinking, even like this Vedanta, this philosophy, we should discard it as poison! Say ‘I have no need of that religion.’”

Did he really say that? Throw away even his religion if anything he said sounded false or contradicted my own sense of truth? He was saying I had a choice to reject some or all of what he believed. I was surprised, surprised and relieved. That meant he was giving me permission to have my doubts about Ramakrishna’s immaculate conception, for example, which, therefore, gave me room to consider what of his wisdom, his practice, his ideas might have meaning for me. It wasn’t all or nothing.

Okay, so I didn’t have to run out of the room. At least not right away.

The swami continued, “And nowhere is that so strongly said except in this Hindu religion. (Other religions) say my book is the only book, you cannot deviate one letter from there, no? But Hinduism says you need not believe a single word we say, you (can) discard the whole Vedas, the foundation on which the whole spiritual tradition of India is based, unless you find it verifiable. Verified and verifiable. If you can’t, forget it.”

In the briefest of pauses, I tried another question. “Were you born into this part of Hinduism? Was your family also of your same tradition?”

“What if one is born or not, what does it matter?” With that one statement, the swami tossed away my personal question, returning to what he considered the more pressing topic at hand: the necessity of different paths for different seekers. “It’s like you want to eat fish? Fried fish? You want to eat McDonalds? Go. You want curry? Someone makes curry. But the question is: are you eating fish or not?” He laughed. ”Why fight? That my fish is better than your fish?”
The swami lifted a fold of his orange clothing with two fingers and said, “I wish to dress this way, you that; you should have your freedom, I should have my freedom. So, in our dress we don’t fight with each other. In our food, we go to restaurant and we choose one out of so many types food. So, why in the world would we have to have only one religion that survives and others will have to go?” He seemed very pleased with his analogy.

But I was trying to get to specifics. “So, if I came to you and said this is the path I want to follow, what would happen next?”

“Spirituality would unfold in your heart. What we’d do is give you some guidance.”

“Like, things to do and read?”

“Suppose I will put to you the very first question. You are asking me: what is religion? I would put that question to you back. I would say: who are you talking?”

Silence. I had no idea what he was asking me.

He tried again. “Are you a man, are you a woman?”

“Uhm, I’m a, ah, woman?”

“Yes. Are you the woman talking?” Meaning was the person sitting across from him. Is this everything that I am, the sum total of my existence?


“Who’s talking?”

“I, well, there is a drive to know this that (comes) before the issue of ‘woman’ or ‘man’.”

My answer wasn’t good enough for him. “My question is a specific, intellectual question: who is that “I”? You say, ‘I drove here.’ Who is that ‘I?’ Is it the physical flesh and bone only? Is it the eyeballs?”

“No. That, I’m clear about. It is not just what I can touch, taste, hear, see. I know that.”

“That is what the rational mind wants to explore. In Vedanta, we say explore more. Go in.” He began to demonstrate what beginners like me should do, the questions we should ask ourselves. “Who sees? I see. What is the ‘I’ that sees? First comes: The eyes are seeing? No. No, eyes cannot see. My mind is seeing? Go one step more. Mind cannot see. Mind is also matter. Because when you sit for meditation, what do you see? Your mind is rambling here and there and there. So, your mind can be seen by somebody. You say: ‘My mind is not very happy today, I’m not happy, my mind is upset today.’ You say:‘My shirt.’ ‘My spectacles.’ And ‘my mind.’ So you are using the word ‘My mind.’ So the question really is: who or what is beyond the mind, the thing that claims possession of it?”

So, I am not my body. That makes sense to me, it makes sense that there’s more to life than this specific collection of skin and bones, dark hair and hazel eyes. But, until Swami Sarvadevananda pointed it out, I’d never really thought about the phrase “my mind” that we all use with its implication that there was something to which my mind “belonged”, something that can observe my thought process.

But rolling ideas around like this is comfortable. I think I’m looking for what might make me uncomfortable, what might challenge my assumptions, what I think I ”know.” I said, “I would like you to tell me things I can do or read. I want to take direction.”

“You have this wonderful basic understanding of spiritual life, about life, about who we are.”

I wasn’t at all sure what he meant but I said, “That’s good to hear.”

“We say, in Indian psychology, that we are the product of all our past thoughts and deeds. And Hindus believe and Buddhists believe that we are not in one life. Eh? One life theory is Christianity, a Judeo-Christian idea: one-life theory. There comes more responsibility, you know? If you have the one chance only, you have to do the best you can do and, if you don’t, then you are going to hell, they say. But Indian hell, Hindu hell is a little less disruptive,” he chuckled, “because you do some bad karma, you go to hell, and then come out and, then again, start your journey. You are not forever lost. Also, to go to heaven is not our goal because that is also temporary, the result of good actions. The goal is to realize God. So this is the many life times theory has a little hope and a little relaxation, also. ‘I could not do this much?’” he continued with a happy shrug of his shoulders underneath his orange robes, “‘Okay, I’ll do it the next time.’”

The swami’s smile was so broad it jostled his eyeglasses. I told him how much I appreciated all the time he was spending with me.

“This talk,” meaning the talk we were having right then, “is not talk, merely. For me, for my spiritual journey, I am worshipping God through serving you. I am talking to you, actually I’m serving God in you. We serve God through all of our actions.”

“And following what I’m driven to do is--"

“Exactly. All our duties are nothing but a chance to serve God. God has given you the life. God has given you the strength – it is to be utilized with proper understanding. God has given you the quest to know the truth and the skills to do it. It is like the waves – God is the infinite ocean and I am only one ripple and you are another ripple and we are dancing in God, we are crying in God, we are serving in God, there is nothing but God. So, to bring this awareness, read the Upanishads. It is the ancient wisdom of our spiritual practice.”

I felt like I’d gotten a seal of approval. “I’m almost through the Bhagavad Gita.” The central text of Hinduism, it seemed like the right place to start.

“When you have a question, make a point, and when you come we can discuss one of these points. How long it takes you to come here?”

“You won’t believe this but I have been all over, temples all over. My office? I can almost walk here.”

“Is it?”

“I couldn’t be closer. It takes five minutes, unless there is a Hollywood Bowl event. Then it can take half an hour.”

The swami told me the times of the classes he taught and then said, “Above all, if you have any questions you can come talk.”

I gave the personal questions another shot. “Now, did you always know you wanted to be---what do you call yourself? Are you a sadhu?”

“We are sadhus. ‘Sadhus’ means we are celibates from our childhood and they call me assistant head, so-called assistant minister.’

“You always knew that you wanted this life?”

“Because I was born in that culture, as you asked me. When I was a very young boy, the sadhus, the monks, the renounced people used to come and their life is so attracting, so much alluring, their faces beaming with joy (jahw-oy!) as it were. That attacted me very much. As I grew, fifth grade, sixth grade boy, the sadhus were very kind. They said: ‘What you are doing? Come here.’ So our home was not that far from the headquarters of the Ramakrishna organization which is near Calcutta. So on vacation I used to go and stay there on the banks of the Ganges. The sadhus meditative life and unselfish love filled with purity, peace, and no outward pretense attracted me most.”

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

He looked pained at the question, like I’d gone one step too far. “I have brothers and sisters but that has nothing to do with what actually God calls you.”

I was nothing if not nosy and persistent. “Have your other brothers and sisters—"

He interrupted, “They are also very spiritual. Nowadays western materialistic ideals are creeping in through the television and other media otherwise in each Hindu Indian family but every morning and every evening, they start with God, they end with God, they pray in between, and before food they pray because the culture is there. All that intense practice goes only for a few very sincere people but, even our father, grandma, mom, our aunti, won’t eat before they take a bath, repeat the holy name, pray and meditate some time. Before that they will not eat at all. So, that is the tradition there. But these sadhus are more profound in their practices. From the early days I never thought of becoming anything but a monk. Seeing them, their joy, their freeness, their openness, their relentless service to others and how they are so princely even though they have no possessions!”

The swami said the Ramakrishna Mission was a huge organization in India. “We have 150 or 160 (temples) in India and activities are multifarious for the poor, for the downtrodden, for flood relief, for tsunami relief. For anything, these monks just jump and go to be the first to help with whatever they can: with material help, with medicinal help, with building up their homes and houses, and with establishing schools and community halls and everything. So that dedication also inspired me.” He tried to explain his thinking at the time. “What is this life, you think for yourself? Only eating, sleeping and dying? Do something for others. At least if you don’t see God, at least you don’t hurt anyone, don’t harm anyone and be a better person, be a loving, caring person.The world is full of misery. You can give a little peace to others.”

“And how did you end up in the United States?”

Swami Sarvadevananda smiled and raised his eyebrows. I’d hit a sore point. “Thaaaat is not my choice. Our organization has a central control in Calcutta and we have all over the world centers. We are not big like the Catholic church - about fourteen hundred, fifteen hundred monks, nuns and novitiates. According to the need of the work, the senior sadhus think who will be fit for what work and send us. I was in one village center, I was the head of a center actively working with the poor people, the needy people, building their homes, giving them education and self-employment skills to the women. Education gives them the strength to become self-reliant.”

“What village was it?”

“Sikra, a village near the border of Bangladesh. So, this was the way I was working very happily in the center and suddenly I was called here!”

“And you weren’t happy about it.”

“In the beginning, I was not at all! Because I had no idea to come and I never imagined in my life to come over here. It is not my choice. I was saying: ‘Please don’t send me, don’t send me. Send some other person.’ I was quite happy with the poor people, being with them, building up their hearts, giving them some shelter, giving them some education and the center was not very affluent but there was a great joy to serve these people. But, anyhow this is also a service to God, what I’m doing.” He laughed. “I didn’t plan. God plans! If you accept, it’s joy. If you resist, suffering.”

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you were open to this and how much I’m looking forward to working with you.”

“Please come to the class and give me a call, ask me any questions. It is a lifelong journey. Many people in this country, they want instant effect. Ah, so many impressions, good, bad, have accumulated in our mind and now our mind has to be cleansed. Cleansed how? By loving others, caring for others without keeping any selfish motive.”

“I know this project will be, at best, only a beginning. What happens after—”

“--will be your own journey. In your writing, you referred to Huston Smith. Huston Smith was closely connected with our Vedanta ideas.”

“He was?”

“There was a senior swami who passed away in St Louis, Swami Satprakashananda. And Huston Smith used to go there and he learned Vedanta and this universal idea of oneness. He’s very close to us. Our nuns know him. I also met him. A very humble and spiritual person!”

“See, there’s no accident that I’m here.”

“I tell you one thing: we do not publicize this Vedanta in the newspaper. We are a very silent group but at one time Vedanta created a great impact in this country. Alcoholics Anonymous which is so popular everywhere? Who is the founder? A Vedanta student.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“He employed all the Vedanta principles. Read their books, ideals, goals – all Vedanta. Vedanta has had an impact in subtle ways but it’s not that popular a religion.”

The swami told me Ramakrishna himself had actually spent time practicing other religions. “He one day prayed to Mother: ‘Mother, you are also worshiped by people in the churches. How do they worship? Why not make me like that?’ He had one Christian devotee and he used to go and ask him what is in the Bible. And one day he saw the image of the Christ, the baby, with the Madonna and that vision became tangible and that ray of light came.” Ramakrishna then spent “day and night, not a second thinking of any aspect of god or goddesses; only Christ and Christ and Christ. Then he practiced Islam. No one in the world ever appeared before who in one lifetime has ever practiced all those disciplines that you find in Huston Smith’s book. That’s why Ramakrishna finds truth in every religion. There is truth in every religion.” But, the swami said, there is only one important question. “Are you sincere? Are you following that? Are you living that life? Or are you only fighting for the purpose of fighting in the name of religion. So this is to be understood and this message should go to everyone. Swami Vivekananda (the first Hindu representative to come to the United States) said, ‘I did not come here to convert Christian into Hindu or a Hindu into Muslim or Muslim into Buddhist. We want to make a Hindu a better Hindu, a Christian a better Christian, a Muslim a better Muslim.’ So, we are not to convert. If you are following a path called Christianity, why not love God and see God? ‘Knock and it shall be opened unto you. Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.’ Where have these principles gone? You’re are talking about other things, abortion, gay marriage, this, that --- these are social issues. Why are you bringing them into religion? Why not make your life spiritual? God sees gay? No, God sees the heart of your love. Eh?”

I felt heavy when I stood up, a thanksgiving meal’s worth of new ideas in my head, but then I remembered a question I’d wanted to ask Hemu but hadn’t gotten the chance. “Now, I watched them last night, the other students. They touched your feet.”

“In the Indian tradition, they do.”

“Is that what the greeting is?”

Swami Sarvadevananda stood up, too. “Anyone senior to us, we touch our head to their feet – it’s our deepest respect. It means I am bowing down my head to you - not you, the person - but the God in you, manifested better, because you’re senior. Our mom, our dad, our elder brother, our elder sister, anyone in the society that is a teacher, a school teacher, because their wisdom is higher. So, we go and touch their feet, but in this country we follow our own way. Okay?”

He was letting me off the hook, giving me an alternative I might be able to handle. He put the palms of his hands together in front of his chest and said, “Namaste. This means: ‘Salutation to you, the Lord in you.’ So, when you do, you remember the God in me is bowing to the God in you. This is the Indian custom.”

I tried it out. “Namaste.” Not too weird.

He said it back., “Namaste.”

And, with that, I dropped my notebook and pen on the floor.

(27 September 2006)

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