26 September 2006

Swami Sarvadevenanda

Atman cannot be attained by speech, by the mind,
or the eye. How can It be realized in any other way
than by the affirmation of him who says: “He is”?

Katha Upanishad, II.iii.12
I wanted to get a closer look at Swami Sarvadevananda, to find out if he really was The Guy - but I wanted to be invisible while I did it. I felt like a skittish animal peering out at someone from the edge of forest: Is it safe? Does he have food? Will he hurt me? The website of his temple, The Vedanta Society, said he was scheduled to teach an evening class and that seemed like cover enough. It turned out that, after searching in temples all over southern California, I was headed to a temple I could almost walk to from my office. The Vedanta Temple is right near the 101 freeway but you can’t see it because it’s on a small hill surrounded by trees.

The white temple with leaded glass windows sits next to a dark house that serves as office and bookstore. Inside, the chapel is spare with cream-colored carpets, walls and nave. Oak pews with cushions stop at about the middle, leaving room to sit on the floor in front of the steps up to the altar which is deep in the back. The display is much more subdued than the other temples I’d seen; instead of many large life-sized deities, there’s just a wooden stand with three photos on it – one higher than the rest - and a lot of flowers.

A silent meditation was just ending when I walked in – I really should say burst in. I could only see that the room was dim but nothing more through the rippled glass door. I made more noise than I wanted to finding a seat but, as soon as I settled, a white man of about sixty with a grey beard came in, much more quietly than I had, wearing his office clothes. He must have known the drill. He put down his black briefcase by the back door and walked straight up the aisle until he was standing before the carpeted steps leading up to the altar. Once there, he got on his knees and then bowed down long and deep. Sitting up, he then bowed again. And, with that, he stood up, walked back down the aisle, scooped up something small from the tiny covered brass dish on the table by the back door, picked up his briefcase, and walked out. He seemed like he was stopping by from work on his way home just to say hello, to acknowledge a revered elder as if the photographs were real people. The visit seemed to make him happy, content, a peaceful end to a long day.

The worship of people who lived recently enough to be photographed makes me nervous – not that devotion to mythic deities is much easier. Maybe I’ve just covered too many conmen in my old job as an investigative reporter but I’m always on the look out for someone playing a role to get something from others, to get something from me. Not the best attitude when you’re trying to wrestle with matters of faith, I think…or maybe it is. I dunno. But it is a fact that my first reaction, my first action, my first thought is to try to figure out if someone I’m talking to is a fake and this obsessive focus on the veracity of others often gets in the way of my even getting a clue about what I think and feel. But, sitting in the quiet, the photographs suddenly struck me as no different than the photographs on my mantelpiece of the people in my life whom I loved and revered. From looking at my father-in-law’s broad open Irish face, a face almost precisely mirrored in my son, Matt’s, I get a sense of compassion and service, of humility and deep love. From the photograph of my difficult but vibrant mother-in-law, I feel a sense of fire and perseverance while, from the hurt eyes of my grandmother at five, comes a call for unconditional love.

Okay, so the photographs on the altar in temples are draped with garlands of fresh flowers and candles and people were bowing down before them but it doesn’t seem like they’re being worshipped like deities so much as way-showers, people who, by example, truly lived the spiritual practice in a way that still motivates some. So why should these photographs or icons give me so much trouble? I think it’s much easier to accept a representation of Jesus or Buddha because no one really knows what they actually looked like so they’ve become an idea bigger than a single human being. I mean, I find it much easier to see the divinity in every person (well, most of the time) but I get hinky when one actual person is literally put up on a pedestal.

Moments before the class was to begin, I ran to get something from my car. In the quick dash out and back, Swami Sarvadevananda, draped in light orange fabric, had come in. He was sitting on the floor of the carpeted stage, his legs under a small table that held a book, a lamp, and a microphone. I slipped into the second pew, behind a handful of others, and discovered that I’d run back in with my shoes on. A glaring whoops. I pushed my shoes forward under the pew in front of me, hoping no one noticed.

Swami Sarvadevananda was cheerful. “Well, it’s 7:30. I guess everyone’s late but let’s start, shall we?”

From twenty feet away, Swami Sarvadevanada could be mid-fifties, perhaps early sixties. He's thin, with a dark, somewhat random head of hair and an open, playful face announced by almost absurdly large glasses. He seems perpetually on the verge of smiling.

I hadn’t bothered to look at what tonight’s topic was supposed to be. It was Raja Yoga, one of the four basic paths to enlightenment in Hinduism. For us in the west, although we’re unlikely to have heard the term “raja yoga”, it’s probably the most familiar path as it’s the path that includes what’s known here as yoga, meditation, and the exercises that lead to the ability to control one’s body for the purpose of coming to experience the presence of God – the part of Hinduism I’d been hoping to avoid - not the meditation part but the body-control stuff. I don’t know what religion or the practice of faith has to do with theories of how bodies work.

“When we’re talking about prana, about taking in prana.” The swami inhaled deeply. “Most people think we are talking about the breath, about controlling the breath. No. It’s energy, it’s really energy. By controlling the breath, we are controlling the muscles that contract the lungs and that means you are controlling your energy. If we control our energy, we control our body. If we control our body, we believe, we can control the whole system.”

His hands were the most elegant thing about him: when he spoke, one of them usually traced graceful serpentine figures in the air, his long fingers close together, his palms turned over as if offering something from a pocket – if he had any. “Let me explain. Most people think they can’t move their ears. But we know some people who can. We can’t simply because it’s a skill we haven’t developed because we don’t practice it. But we have the power to do anything inside of us. It’s all potential power, power that we can realize by practicing control.”

The swami pointed out that when we held our breath to move a heavy object that was an example of an unconscious use of raja yoga, of controlling our energy.

As he went on to give examples of healing and healers, I found myself veering off into judgmentland. I mean, what he was talking about, these particular Hindu beliefs, were the root of much of what people consider nutty about California: energy healers and crystals and alternative medicine, etc. My doctor’s-daughter mind balked. I mean, I get why meditation and the practice we know here as yoga could be considered antidotes to the frantic stress of our lives. I meditate but I don’t make a big deal of it. I feel better when I do it; simpler, less jangled. And, like many people, after learning that middle-aged bodies need stretching along with running and lifting weights, I go to an occasional yoga class. Not only do these practices no longer seem strange to me, even western medicine acknowledged their usefulness. But it’s difficult for me to go much further than that.

“Energy can be transferred from one person to another. When we are near a powerful person, we feel the power. Similarly, have you ever been with someone who just took all the energy out of you, dragged you down? When we hear a speaker who touches us, who speaks with enthusiasm, with passion for what they are saying, we are touched. We really learn something. We say: ‘they really talked from the heart.’ It’s just the language that we use but what we’re talking about is pranic energy. All we’re talking about is that they were a conduit for the energy that is all around us all the time to flow through them to us.

“The whole world is nothing but energy. You are energy, I am energy, words are energy… I mean, all I’m saying is energy and nothing else but that. And there is only one energy, one prana and we are but individual expressions of it. It’s like a vast lake; if you throw a stone into it on one side, the ripples will be felt on the other shore so long as you’ve got instruments sensitive enough to measure it. So, if we heal ourselves, we can affect the people around us. The great healers – Jesus, Buddha - all knew this. What did Jesus do? He said, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’ Buddha knew this and he healed people.

“Now it’s not so easy to be such a healer. There are some people who take advantage of the innocence of normal people and pretend that they are healers!”

Now he was talking my language. It wasn’t until Swami Sarvadevananda acknowledged the existence of fakers, of people who misuse others’ faith or desperation, that I began to relax.
“Why is it that Sri Ramakrishna,” the swami said with a gesture towards the top picture on the altar, “that Christ, that Buddha have had so much influence on people all over the world? It’s because they raised their pranic energy to a level that they can awaken the cosmic pranic energy. If you are ready, you can feel this uplifting energy when you come close to this vibration. You have the power, the potential, inside of you but it must be awakened.”

So, that was the name of the man in the photo: Ramakrishna. But there were two others down lower. None were easy to see in detail from where I sat.

Swami Sarvadevananda ended the class with some chanting.

I ducked down behind the first pew to pick up my shoes when it was over and, when I came up, I found the swami standing right in front of me. Me. He began talking as if I’d already asked him a question when I hadn’t said a word. “Yes?” he said. “How can I help you?”

Did I have a sign on my head? On my face?

“I’m a writer working on a project and I’d like to come talk to you.”


“As soon as it’s convenient for you.”

“Why don’t you stay for dinner? Follow those people, they’ll show you where to go.”

“Okay.” With that, I dropped the books in my arms and some of the contents of my purse at his feet because I was trying to hide my shoes underneath the books in my arms. He said nothing, nor did he embarrass me by bending down to help me pick any of it up. He turned and walked to the back of the chapel to greet people. One after another, almost all of them bent down to touch his feet, even the American ones. So it wasn’t just Hemu’s temple then. I headed out the back door and into the cold night, following a couple of people around the back of the building.

The sun was gone. I walked down a dimly-lit brick pathway and up a few steps into what looked like another, newer house.

I was beginning to get it: eating was clearly a very big thing in Hinduism. Everything ended with a meal – even the rituals in the temples ended with eating things. By leaving the mandir in Whittier without taking food, I was, in some sense, being quite rude. Well, maybe not rude but I was rejecting part of the practice. I never think about food as ritual, as part of a spiritual practice; for me, it’s an afterthought, something dispensable. I even think I’m being nicer by not staying, not imposing, not requiring work on my behalf. And I’m always in a hurry to get home as any “extra” time spent away from my family feels wrong.

That night, I accepted the invitation but I had my internal meter running.

On the long wooden side board, were bowls filled with rice and various simple dishes – including fish. I got my plate and Swami Sarvadevananda said, “Sit there,” motioning to a seat near his place at the end of the long table, capable of seating perhaps two dozen people, too large for intimacy but too small for anonymity.

It took me a moment to notice I actually knew the woman sitting between the Swami and me, an acquaintance I’d met through a friend years ago. When the Swami came to the table to sit down, ready to hear me out, everyone stopped talking to listen to what I had to say - not exactly the scene I’d imagined or wanted.

Describing this project isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, let alone in front of a table full of strangers. I stumbled through it and heard myself stress that my parents thought religions were “the root of all evil, the cause of strife and dissension.” I know I must have said more but those were the words still clanging in my ears days later. I had no idea how the other people at the table were reacting, I couldn’t look at them.

When I was done, the swami said, “Okay, when do you want to come?”

“As soon as possible.”

“Tomorrow at five?”


And then the swami turned from me to the thin Indian man with salt-and-pepper hair beside me and said, “Are you staying with us?”

My acquaintance, a pale, freckled woman named Leslie said quietly, looking at her plate. “That sounds like an awesome idea. A really, really great idea.”

With relief, I answered, “Thanks.”

I’d finished eating the small amount of rice and vegetables I’d taken while the table full of people who didn’t know each other managed to patch together a kind but somewhat awkward conversation. It felt a bit pushy to ask any more questions so I’d decided to just sit and listen when the swami, again, turned directly to me without my saying a word and said, “You can leave if you want to go. It’s all right.”

Before I left, I handed him my proposal for this project in which I described my background and what I was planning to do; I wanted to make sure he knew exactly what he was getting himself into with me. The swami said, “Oh! I’m not sure I’ll have time to read this but, if not, you can just tell me tomorrow.” He turned to the people who were just starting to clear their places and said, “Now, if anyone wants to work on their karma, the kitchen could use some help cleaning up!”

And he was gone.

I’d found my teacher.

(26 September 2006)

1 comment:

  1. I reached L A on 3rd Feb 09 to meet my son from Jhmritelaiya;Jharkhand(India). I am active member of Akhil Bharat Vivkananda Yuva Mahamandal and devotee of Sri Ramakrisna,I am planing to visit Hollywood vedanta socety on 27thFeb on the occasion of “Thakur Puja”.After reading your nice posting I have decided to touch the feet of Rev.Swami Sarvadevanandaji Maharaj on that very date.


I'm interested in any and all comments although it may take me a while to post them.